Popular Science Monthly/Volume 73/July 1908/The High School Course

1578609Popular Science Monthly Volume 73 July 1908 — The High School Course1908David Starr Jordan




IT has been lately said by an honored teacher that the weakest part in our educational system is the high school. It has less unity in theory and less definiteness in practise than any other, and those who have charge of its administration are less sure that they are doing the right thing, than is the case with other types of schools. "As a forcing house between grammar school and college," says a recent writer, "the high school hasn't time to do anything very well." Hence it may be well to try to do fewer things, thus saving time to do some things better.

If we were to start at the beginning of education we should change a good many things. Especially should we distinguish between the college and the university in making the former the stepping-stone to the latter. But accepting our colleges and universities as they are, at the same time discarding the results of tradition and of half-hearted experiment, what should the high school do? By high school we mean the instruction in the public school for four years of school life from the age of 13 or 14 to that of 17 or 18, resting on the primary and grammar school on the one hand and presumably leading to the college on the other—in most cases the last of the years in which a student lives at home and goes to school.

The high school as thus defined has these duties clearly indicated: to give a rounded development of physical and mental powers, so that no line of talent shall perish by default; it should indicate and emphasize that form of ability which will count for most in the conduct of life and it should do its foundation work with such thoroughness that the higher education may be built upon it with the certainty that the attainments shall be solid so far as they go. This is all that the colleges and universities have the right to ask, and for them to specify certain classes of subjects regardless of the real interest of the secondary schools and their pupils is a species of impertinence which only tradition justifies. To demand thoroughness of secondary instruction and to enforce this demand in any practicable way is the duty of the college, but the question of what the high schools shall teach is a question for these schools to decide for themselves. In general, the high-school graduate who has a training worth while in the conduct of life is also well fitted to enter college for further training. In general, too, the high school must consider its individual students. A well-rounded training for one is a very lop-sided discipline for another, and the development of special interests must not be overlooked. For these reasons a considerable range of choice is necessary in a good high school. This does not, however, imply an elective system such as the colleges have found necessary. In an ideal high school system the election should be mainly in the hands of the teachers. But at the same time the wise teacher makes sure that the student maintains a continuous interest in something. The lack of such sustained interest is the main reason why most of the boys drop out of the high school to get where they will be doing something dealing with things, not words.

It is clear that even yet with all the advances or encroachments the sciences have made, the study of words still fills too large a part in our secondary schools. The traditional college education was a training in words. It is easier and cheaper to teach language than anything else. The average child learns words by rote, while other subjects demand a more complex method, and the tendency is to fill the child with words regardless of the dyspepsia and disgust the abnormal diet may produce.

In my judgment, with the average student and especially the average young man, some study of natural science ought to go with every year in the school. The child is surrounded by a world of actualities, each producing a definite effect on his senses. In an out-of-door world, he recognizes that external things are real. He knows that the sun rises in the east, and he soon learns the various phases of woodcraft and fieldcraft—how to comport himself in the presence of realities. The constancy in these relations gives to him a kind of moral training, and the knowledge he obtains he wins at first hand. It is acquired in terms of his own experience and in such terms all real and helpful knowledge must always be stated.

In our cities we can not replace the training of the farm, the knowledge of the woods and hills, but we can continue to give in some degree, the essential part of it—contact with realities and extension of knowledge in terms of experience. This is through real contact with animals, plants, rocks, chemical compounds and physical instruments, and a well-conducted scientific laboratory has the same value as out-of-doors experience, with the great addition that it can be made systematic and therefore effective for power. The value of genuine nature study, study of science in out-of-door laboratories is of the very highest order. Not so the imitation nature-study, the study of sentimentalisms about nature, of nature words smothered in painted adjectives, now popular in some quarters. Of still less value are the nature books written as potboilers by men who would turn out dime novels or problem plays just as cheerfully if the literary current set in that direction. The student of realities in nature and the "nature-fakir" are not on speaking terms with each other.

Once the students cuts entirely loose from real objects, and spends his days among diacritical marks, irregular conjugations and distinctions without difference, his orientation is lost. He loses the distinction between what is inherently true and what is true by agreement among men. He does not go far enough to touch bottom again in the real science of philology. And the average American boy quits the high school in disgust because he can not interpret its work in terms of life—he can not see how its work is related to the world of things as they are.

As to the relative value of the sciences, that is a minor question. Those sciences are best which give largest play for observation and judgment. Those sciences are best which can be taught best, with most accuracy and most enthusiasm. In general, it is better to teach one science well than two imperfectly, and the reason for teaching any science is its helpfulness to the mind, not the fact that there may be money in knowing it. But to have any value at all the science we teach must deal with realities, not book-science. "If you study nature in books, when you go out of doors you can not find her."

And this, too, is a reason why manual training of some sort ought to form some part of every well-balanced school course. Training of the hand is really training of the brain. This is a motor world we live in—a world in which men do things. We of America are preeminently a motor people. We do things. What can I do with it is the first interest of every child. And to learn to do things with the hand is of greater value as mental training than the disentanglement of phrases, or the memorizing of lists of verbal irregularities. The development of manual training of some sort for all boys and girls will represent the greatest immediate forward step in secondary education. But the purpose of this training must be intellectual, not to teach a trade, and only secondarily to fit for the engineering courses of the universities.

As the third of the three most important duties of the high school, I would place the mastery of English. The student ought to learn how to write good English—clear, accurate and straightforward. He should read enough good English to know it when it is written. He should study poetry enough to know what it is about, and if he is to do any memorizing, there is nothing that enriches the mind so much as the memory of good verse. I do not know how good English can be taught. Most of the students who use it seem to have grown up in it rather than to have learned it in the schools. But it is the most important tool of every man who possesses it. It is wanted in every profession in every walk of life. The high-school course of every man who acquires it must be judged successful and no pains should be spared to emhpasize its importance. How to give this power is another question. Probably the real teacher of English, like the poet—which indeed he must be—is born, not made.

The rest of the high-school course has a minor claim on our attention. Algebra and geometry have a high practical as well as definite intellectual value. These constitute, moreover, the only door to the profession of engineering. History may be learned in the high school, but its significance is mostly seen later. The practical demands of intelligent citizenship seem to call for modern history, elementary economics and civil government as high-school subjects. Besides, those who do not go to college will read no history they do not begin in the high school. The languages, ancient and modern, have a high value to those who can master and use them, for every new language opens to a man a new world and the influences of a new civilization. Most high-school students get very little from any of them, and the one intellectually most important—the Greek—is practically excluded from our secondary schools as being of least practical value. Without in the least underrating the value of Latin to "roman-minded men," who make a manly use of it, there is no doubt that the average American high school boy gets less out of Latin than out of any other subject in the curriculum. We may regret this, but we must face it as a fact. For the rest, drawing ought to have a place in the course if only for its value as an aid to observation. "A pencil is one of the best of eyes," as Agassiz used to say, and drawing is one of the means of expressing observation in terms of action.

In brief, the American high school ought to limit the range of its activities so as not to do too much at the expense of thoroughness. It ought to broaden its range so as to give to each boy or girl what is individually best, and it ought to keep in touch throughout with realities, with the power of doing things, and it ought to cherish as its choicest art, the cultivation of the power of clear, accurate and original expression in the greatest of all languages, which is our own.

  1. Address before the California State Teachers' Association, Santa Cruz, 1907.