Popular Science Monthly/Volume 74/March 1909/The American Public School




HORACE MANN, speaking in 1841, said: "A practical unbelief in the power of education—the power of physical, intellectual and moral training—exists among us, as a people." Two generations later are we still, as a people, unbelievers? We extol with fervor, with acclamation, with volubility, free schools; we pay our taxes not too unwillingly, spend an occasional session in our children's schools, help John and Mary, spasmodically and ineffectively, with their harder lessons, send them at some sacrifice to a high school or perhaps to college, and then thank God for the priceless blessing of a liberal education!

Having thus, with characteristic amiability and liberality done his duty according to the custom of his neighbors, the average American proceeds to exalt the "self-made" man, to deride the college and even the high school graduate, and to wonder why, with free schools and compulsory schooling, crime, folly and corruption flourish so amazingly. As in 1841, there is a "practical unbelief," not in education itself, but in the thing called education which most schools and colleges give.

We Americans pride ourselves upon being a practical people, yet fail to treat education as a practical question. Therefore, as a rule, our public schools are neither practically governed nor fitted in a practical way for the ends which they should serve. Blinded by time-honored fictions, we ignore the plainest facts. Paying vast taxes for the support of schools, we act as though the spending of that money would be guided by Divine inspiration. Making this upon education one of our largest outlays, we are content that such an enormous expenditure should be in the hands of changing and irresponsible boards, to most of whom the problems of education are as remote as the wisdom of Confucius. Setting in motion the machinery upon which we depend for the quality of future citizenship and therefore for the very existence of the republic, we are, as a rule, quite heedless whether that machinery turns out youth well fitted or totally unfit for the duties of men and women. The public schools are a business investment which stern necessity taught the founders of the nation the wisdom of making; yet the hardest thing to impress upon this nation of business men is that simple and fundamental fact.

Without public education genuine democracy is impossible; therefore the democratic state must make provision for free common schools. From every point of view, however, especially from that of the pupil's own good, those common schools should be regarded as investments from which the state, if it would prosper, must get the best possible returns. All measures in education, be they of the kindergarten or of the college, should be judged mainly from the standpoint of an enlightened political economy, from the standpoint, that is, of securing the greatest good for the greatest number by the least expenditure of social force.

Quite as much for our sakes as for theirs we require all children of certain ages to attend school and, directly or indirectly, tax ourselves to pay for this free teaching. But in paying taxes and in voting for a school board—supposing even that we do the first cheerfully and the second with some shadow of knowledge of the candidates—we are fulfilling but a small part of our duty to youth and to ourselves. There are at least two other obligations. The first of these—since we compel the child to go—is to make sure that his schooling is the best obtainable; the second—since we contribute so much to the cause of education—is to make certain that we secure the equivalent of this money, in the quality of citizenship which the schools produce. If we acknowledge the wisdom of educating every child; if, not simply recognizing it, we actually compel it and set up a system against which private enterprise is powerless to compete, it would seem but plain duty to make this compulsory education humanly perfect. Even failing, however, to recognize this moral obligation, it still remains extraordinary that a nation so shrewd as ours, lavishing millions upon free education, should not look more closely to it that industrial capacity, mental and physical strength, and effective citizenship result.

Being, so to speak, a protected monopoly, the public school, to Justify its favored position, should do as much for every child as any other means of education, were it free to maintain itself, could accomplish. As long as the claim can anywhere truthfully be made that parents must send their children to private schools in order to their best education, just so long the public schools are falling short of their full and essential service, a service that involves the giving, not of mere instruction, but of real education. To prepare youth for civic duty and for industrial, business or professional life, the free schools must furnish those means of intercourse, those fundamentals of a civilized society, which the casting of a ballot and the pursuit of a business or a trade demand; but, in addition and far more importantly, they must lay such foundations that every youth, broadly speaking, may become the best workman, the most successful man of affairs, the completest citizen that it is possible for him to be.

A man's real success in life is determined by two things: the degree of development of his faculties and his conduct as a member of society. It follows, therefore, that the two main ends to be sought by a public school are to give the boy command over himself and to teach him how to be a useful citizen. That is to say, public education exists in order to develop human power, and the kinds to be developed by a school are two: social power and personal power. The school must do the most it can to perfect every one of its pupils in the ability to play the largest part possible to him in the life of the community; it must help him, also, to make the most of himself. Of course these two ends of education intertwine; one can not make a boy a good citizen without making him, at the same time, a better man; neither can one make him a good man without producing, concurrently, a better citizen. To make a boy perform his due part in society he must be taught the arts of social life: how to read, write and cipher, how to comport himself, how to maintain pleasant relations with his kind. Moreover, this body of upgrowing youths must be trained and accustomed to act together, to feel their interdependence, to see the interrelations of the vast social structure perfection in which has made modern civilization possible. But, more than this, the school must, so far as it can, train, foster and direct the physical and moral forces of every individual child towards his highest individual development.

The boys who enter a counting-house or factory, the girls who take service in a shop or kitchen, the citizens who, in uncounted ways, maintain their communities and support the sovereign state, must, as a rule, know how to read, write and cipher. To do these things well counts greatly in their favor. That so many do not do them well is a serious charge against the public school. These, however, are not the fundamental qualities which employers seek and which communities require. They demand health, character, honesty, truth-telling, clean living; they demand willingness to work, readiness to comprehend, quickness of adaptation, fertility of resource, vision; they demand alertness, vigor, self-command, dexterity and muscular control. These things which result, not from set lessons, but from self-discipline, self-reliance, self-knowledge, determine the success of a boy or girl in life, and these qualities the public school must seek to develop through every means and every force at its command.

Looked at from any point of view, economic or moral, physical health is the fundamental material good of mankind. Yet what contribution does the ordinary public school make towards hygiene? As a rule it crowds fifty or sixty children into a room that, under the most favorable conditions, has fresh air enough for only thirty. It places no bar against the unwashed child, gives him no incentive or opportunity to be clean; therefore most schools contain enough of these effectually to poison the atmosphere for those who are kept decent. All these children, breathing an insufficient quantity of more or less polluted air, are in many instances cramped into penitential desks, ten minutes' stay in which provokes intolerable restlessness, and are told by a much overworked teacher, also ill-supplied with a like bad quality of air, to keep still and to do a uniform task, a task which is too easy for some, too hard for others, and mainly distasteful to all. The teacher does her best; the pupils do better than one would suppose; both are victims of ill-planned conditions. Nothing superior to rigid discipline and unvaried tasks can be thought of when sixty little individualities, bursting with life and spirits, must be dampened into order and dragged forward somehow into that formidable next grade by an overwrought teacher whose work is judged solely by its outward results.

The inevitable outcome of such conditions, especially with growing girls and the teacher herself, is headache, nervousness, ill-temper—all the present and future ills which lurk in this Pandora's box of bad hygiene and overcrowding. Moreover, to serve as an antidote, we find in most cases nothing but some listless calisthenics, monotonous marching, and aimless romping in a bricked back-yard. So much do most schools contribute towards that foundation of a useful life, good health. Alertness, vigor, dexterity, self-command, individuality, can hardly develop out of such anti-natural conditions as these. The boy may be vigorous, alert and dexterous; but it will be in spite of the school, it will be because his life outside the schoolroom, that life which he loves, is full, as the school life is devoid, of the means to encourage those admirable and necessary qualities.

And those other virtues which the employer of young men is always seeking and so seldom finds, for which municipal life is crying out, without which the nation will perish—does one get them, as a rule, because of or in spite of the public school training? Does the setting of uniform tasks, with penalties for their neglect, either uniform or gauged by the passing temper of the teacher, develop an eagerness to work and a delight in labor? Do wholesale lessons explained by wholesale to sixty children, each one of whom has a different mind-content, a different means of apprehension, each of whom needs, therefore, special leading over every new difficulty—do these tend to promote readiness, quickness and alertness? Nothing, on the contrary, could be better calculated to dry up that intense eagerness to know, that grasping after new ideas, which most children come to school with and which, alas! so many go away without. Do desiccated text-books, rote work, graded lessons, the whole abominable system of yearly promotion, result in that quickness of adaptation, that fertility of resource, which are the very soul of civilization? Is honesty encouraged by the usual school discipline and methods? Does truth-telling always plainly get its reward? Is purity fostered by the promiscuous herding of hundreds of children, old and young, corrupt and innocent, in the same building, under teachers whose time must be given to mint, anise and cummin rather than to these weightier matters of the Eternal Law? Says M. de Coubertin, "Not ignorance and sloth of mind threaten our younger generation so much as moral inertia and atrophy of the will. The supreme problem is to cure these." This moral inertia can be overcome, this will of the child can be developed and trained only by treating each pupil as a special problem to be worked out with knowledge, with sympathy, with tact, with enthusiasm, by every teacher under whose control the child is brought.

The bottom fallacy of much of the acknowledged inefficiency of public education is that equality implies uniformity. We are to give all youth an equal chance; therefore let us put it through one common course of study, therefore let us give it a discipline of the barracks. But this is not to secure to children an equal opportunity at all. Whose omniscience devised this uniform course which is so to act upon the antipodal natures of John and of Patrick, of Marie and of Tessa as to give them an equal chance to develop into their very best? Who found this universal solvent of all the oddities, stupidities and personalities of a townful of child nature? A uniform course is the very embodiment of inequality, making the weak weaker, the dull duller, the cross-grained more out of touch with the rest of mankind. Such a course may suit three children out of every twenty; but the remaining seventeen are mainly stupefied by it, learning only to associate what is most disagreeable, what is most useless, what is most quickly to be forgotten with those school years during which it was vainly attempted to fit their tender and growing individualities to an arbitrary mould. The only way in which to give every child an equal chance with every other is to provide for each the atmosphere and incentives suited to his particular needs and nature. Then that nature will respond and grow, revealing powers and aptitudes inconceivable under the blight of uniformity. There is no such thing as an "average child." He is a fiction as absurd as the passionless man of the old political economy. As well might one talk of an average vegetable and subject all plants to an unchanging regimen.

The fundamental principle of the "new education" which is as old as India and Greece—is to develop and strengthen individuality. All men are born free: you shall not make them slaves to a fictitious average. All men are born equal before the law: you shall not make them unequal before the law by forcing upon them a common training which gives those few whom the course happens to fit an enormous advantage, leaving the rest substantially untouched by the real forces of education. So much of the military, disciplinary side of the school as promotes solidarity, makes children feel themselves to be social units, favors the impulse to activity arising from mere mass, is vital to the state. The marching together, singing together, playing together (provided the play be judiciously organized) is a splendid stimulus to social and civic life, impossible to be done away with. Along with this, however, and all the more strongly because of this, the individuality of the child must be nourished, promoted and developed by every rational means. Within the range of his powers all health, virtue and capacity are within him as the germ is within the seed. The teacher's business is to stimulate, to encourage and also to prune, these elemental forces. This can not be done by instruction given by wholesale, but only through genuine education acting directly upon the individual child.

Shall teachers, then, be converted into nursery governesses, one to each pupil? That extreme would be worse than the other. Under a right plan of public education, however, no teacher would have charge of more than twenty pupils; and no teacher would have charge of any at all unless, by temperament, by understanding of child nature, by a thorough professional training, he or she were fitted to make out of every one of those twenty pupils the most that can be made. Such professionally trained teachers, with classes limited to a proper size, would not simply instruct, they would really educate their pupils by giving them the tools of knowledge, not as dead processes, but as living means to illimitable ends. Out of the common, elementary studies, with no loss but with great gain in form, they would develop the content of literature, of power of expression, of sober reasoning, of world interest, of nature interest, of social and civic responsibility; and. upon these fundamental studies they would lay the solid foundations of self-reliance, self-knowledge, self-respect. They would do this, moreover, not through dependence upon text-books, routine, and uniform lessons; nor, on the other hand, would they do it by excursions into psychological subtleties or by pandering to their pupils' and their own self-consciousness. They would do it as every intelligent, human man or woman who has the "faculty" of teaching and who has been taught to teach, knows how to appeal to the differing nature of each child, making him see the common fact from his special point of view and assimilate it to his personality, thereby building up by sure degrees his individual character.

Such teaching—and this is no vision; it has been demonstrated again and again—would make most children eager to go to school, impatient to learn, greedy of every new chance of mental and moral growth. Out of such an atmosphere would come a race of artisans and business men—better still, of citizens—such as the world has not yet seen. It would be a really efficient race of working men, neither wasting time and materials, nor shirking what they have to do; for they would have been taught how to work, how to concentrate themselves upon a task, how to get pleasure from the mere act of doing thoroughly and well. It would be a race of studious and inventive workmen, of progressive business men and of enlightened citizens; for they would have tasted the delight which comes with the use of the acquisitive faculties, with nimbleness of wit, ingenuity of thought and adaptation of means to ends. It would be a race of self-reliant and self-respecting artisans, traders and individuals; for they would have been shown the enormous significance of the ego, who makes his own career and who, if he will, can make that career of tremendous importance to his day and generation.

Such a diminution in the size of classes, such an insistence upon supreme fitness in the teacher, will add incalculably to the cost of public education, through doubling the number of teachers and through doubling or trebling their pay; for present salaries will not warrant such a professional training as the new education demands. From the industrial standpoint alone, however, this added expenditure would pay vast dividends. There is frightful waste of power in the burning of coal to run a locomotive; but it is as nothing to the waste in the industrial world in the attempted utilization of human power. Illhealth, low physical force, untimely death, intemperance, vice, crime, manual inefficiency, stupidity, lack of interest, shirking—all these and many other human failings continually clog and stop the industrial machine, so that it would scarcely be an exaggeration to place the effective power of the millions engaged in gainful occupations at one tenth of what it should be. If by proper schooling this efficiency could be doubled—and it is reasonable to say that it could be much more than doubled—how infinitely would such a gain outweigh the added cost of a rational public education.

No startling changes are necessary in the free school system. Its general plan is admirably suited to American conditions. It needs but to be altered in this detail and in that, in the expansion of this principle and in the suppression of that practise. We must, however, do away with the curse of uniformity, allowing, instead, full play to individuality; we must, furthermore, fit the means and methods of the school to the real needs of the future worker and citizen; and we must, in addition, make the profession of teaching self-respecting by releasing it from its present bondage to amateurs, to well-intentioned but inexpert school boards who are jauntily settling pedagogical problems that appall trained experts. The teachers, if they are to teach from themselves instead of from prescribed text-books, must have a larger share in the control and development of schools and must be so trained and stimulated as to be fit to assume that larger share. Not elaborate buildings, or reformed courses of study, or wiser supervision will, of themselves, make the new education succeed—it will be the teachers; and if this vast responsibility rests upon them, with them must rest also power and initiative, in them must appear professional pride far beyond what they possess to-day.

These fine, great schoolhouses, with all modern devices—provided their ventilating systems work, their floors are kept clean and their rooms are not overcrowded—are admirable; but they do not in themselves educate. The complicated apparatus, the works of art, the libraries, with which many of those schoolhouses are filled, again are admirable; but in themselves they are mere sticks and stones. The subdivision of labor among teachers, the calling in of specialists, the elaboration of methods of teaching are—sometimes—excellent; but they are but the husks of real education. Psychological laboratories, child-study, the heaping up of great masses of pedagogical data are also, when backed by real knowledge, excellent: but they are only minor helps to a real education. Pile buildings, apparatus, methods, psychological subtleties high as Pelion on Ossa and there will result no better education than was given in the ancient district school unless behind this complexity of educational machinery are real teachers knowing how to teach and with time to do true, individual teaching. The more we elaborate education, the more time we spend on pedagogical minutiæ, the more we load ourselves down with apparatus, the more plainly it appears that the sole essential for real education is the educated teacher who knows how to teach. Upon his, or her, personal fitness rests the future of the country; with him, or with her, not in systems and apparatus, lies the solution of this vexed question of the public school. The regeneration of mankind will be brought about, so far as the common school can effect it, by the direct, human influence of the individual teacher upon the individual pupil.

Such teachers, however, will not appear in numbers sufficient to make their influence felt until they are assured of decent remuneration, of tenure of office during real efficiency, of small classes, and of a professional standing regulated, as is that of physicians and lawyers, by the profession itself. And only when the great public gives that assurance, by its individual and corporate support of those who are trying to foster the new education, will it prove that it really believes now, any more than it did in 1841, in the actual "power of physical, intellectual and moral training."