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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 46/January 1895/School Ethics


THE savage instincts which men, even in the most advanced societies, still retain, are ever prompting them to pursue courses of conduct which their civilized intellects condemn—thus causing them to be at war with themselves. "Do this," suggests the nearsighted savage instinct; "Nay, this," opposes the farseeing civilized intellect; and though much ensuing conduct is in the nature of a compromise, yet the commands of instinct are oftener obeyed than those of reason. Hence the saddest and strangest of all anomalies: men who know what is good and do what is evil. When all savage instincts shall have been supplanted by social ones, will it not seem marvelous to men that their ancestors of the nineteenth century should have persisted in courses of conduct whose evil consequences were well known to them? Even to many of us, who still feel the driving force of savage instincts, it is a matter of wonder that some of the knowledge we possess should affect in so slight a degree our habitual conduct. Daily, science makes some discovery which might be expected to alter our conduct, but we go on acting in much the same way as we did before we had gained the new knowledge. Though to-morrow it should be satisfactorily shown that the effects of use and disuse were not inheritable, tow little would such knowledge immediately affect the enacting of laws, the making of marriages, the teaching of morality, the giving of alms! Between old ideas and action the connection is strong; between new ideas and action the connection is weak.

There are two truths, forming part of the inoperative knowledge of the educational world, to which I would here call attention. The first is, that the children of civilized persons possess in a marked degree the characteristics of savages; the second, that as human beings grow old they lose mental, moral, and physical plasticity. And when we consider the facts that children possess much of the nature of savages, that savage natures prompt savage acts, that the frequent performance of savage acts tends to produce savage habits, and that age tends to fix habits by producing rigidity, the difficulty and the need of forming social characters in those of plastic age become apparent. How to supplant savage instincts by social instincts—how to produce moral natures—is the problem which educators of all kinds are called upon to solve. I do not mean to imply that educators can produce moral natures in the sense of manufacturing them, but that they can assist their growth. By imparting ethical knowledge to the young we may realize moral minds, but unfortunately moral minds do not necessitate moral natures. Civilized minds may coexist with savage natures. As the value of any knowledge is in proportion to its beneficial effect on conduct, the knowledge of what constitutes good conduct is certainly of much value, and ethics deserves a more prominent place in our schools than it now occupies. But the doing of what is good does not necessarily follow the knowing of what is good. Good deeds depend much more on the possession of social natures than on the possession of minds stored with ethical knowledge.

The obligation which children are under of obeying parents lapses when they become self-supporting. The obligation to conform to certain social laws never lapses. These laws are binding on adults and children alike. The obligation which pupils are under of observing the rules of the schools which they attend also lapses when school days are over. Obedience to parents and teachers is temporary; obedience to social laws is permanent. Yet disobedience to parents and teachers as such often meets with much severer punishment than infraction of a social law! Nay, even worse than this is true; infractions of social law are countenanced where needless college rules are strictly enforced.

When on a crowded sidewalk two pedestrians accidentally jostle each other, there usually follow mutual apologies. "The right of personal integrity," which Spencer deduces as a corollary of his "law of equal freedom," finds recognition in civilized societies—a violation of it being with ns considered a criminal offense. But in the management of schools and colleges, where one expects to meet with complete recognition of the fundamental laws governing societies, there is but little recognition of that which forbids violation of person. Happily, in America, the system of "fagging" does not exist, at least not in that gross form which disgraces the schools of Great Britain and Ireland, where, contrary to their wishes and without remuneration, small boys are compelled to perform menial work for big bullies, who beat them brutally when the work is not satisfactorily accomplished, or sometimes for amusement, as I have myself witnessed—where the analogy between a "fag" and a slave is almost perfect, each doing under compulsion unremunerated labor and being liable to the lash. Happily, I repeat, "fagging" in this form finds little favor in American schools; but, unhappily, hazing does find favor. And nearly every form of "practical joke" practiced in schools and colleges necessitates a violation either of person or property. Newcomers are expected to bear with good humor at the hands of strangers assaults upon their persons and destruction of their property—to smile blandly upon young criminals.

Nor are the crimes of schoolboys which pass as practical jokes confined to crimes against schoolfellows; there are statesmen who, over the walnuts and the wine, tell tales of their "orchard-robbing days."

A significant example of school ethics is the method of settling "difficulties" spontaneously adopted by most schoolboys—namely, the method of physical encounter. He who declines to submit his case to the pugilistic test is branded a coward. The man who covers a crime is regarded as a criminal by society, but the schoolboy who discloses a crime is regarded as a criminal, if not by society at large, at least by his fellows.

Turning from schoolboys to schoolmasters, we find that, even if they do not openly countenance the conduct here condemned, they certainly do not sufficiently oppose it. Moreover, in many schools it is customary to punish the whole school, or a whole class, for offenses presumably committed by one or more of their number whenever the offender or offenders escape detection by the faculty. It is difficult to say which is the more barbarous, the boys' method of deciding questions of justice, or the masters' method of securing the punishment of undetected offenders.

One more example, of school ethics may be given. I am informed that in a few boys' schools and in many girls' schools the head masters or mistresses are authorized, or take it upon themselves, to open letters belonging to their pupils. This is done, as I am further informed, to preserve the honor of the pupils; but to me it has always seemed like an object lesson in crime.

Both by precept and example must justice be taught in our schools, and its observance strictly enforced, before we may expect to see fair play in the game of life.