Popular Science Monthly/Volume 83/July 1913/The Business Man and the High-School Graduate

1580006Popular Science Monthly Volume 83 July 1913 — The Business Man and the High-School Graduate1913James P. Munroe




NOT so very long ago the merchant, the manufacturer, the teacher, the young man, and the public in general were under the spell of the boys' magazine, wherein the first prize—the prize of partnership in the business and marriage with the "old man's" daughter—is awarded to the boy who keeps his hands clean, brushes his shoes, picks up stray pins on the office floor and carefully saves the twine from his employer's parcels. To do these things is indispensable; but besides this, the aspirant for partnership (and the daughter) must also—according to the story-books—write a perfect hand, never make a mistake in addition, never forget a message, never have a deceased grandmother on the afternoon of the ball-game, never think of aught except mastering every detail of the business, never be any thing, in short, but the kind of prig that real, red-blooded boys are not.

The so-called Manchester school of political economy was built around a supposed economic man wholly unlike any human being ever born. Consequently there were promulgated for nearly a century a host of solemn fallacies which have given, and are still giving, endless trouble to civilized society. In much the same way the supposed demands of business upon boys have crystallized around these storybook heroes and have led the business man, the boy and the boy's teacher into all sorts of difficulties, misunderstandings and wild-goose-chases after educational impossibilities.

It may be that the story-book boy and the story-book employer—and even the daughter—did exist at some period anterior to the middle of the nineteenth century; but since that time all three have been as extinct as the dodo. Yet much of the thinking and much of the talk about the demands of business are based, even now, upon these ancient and mendacious yarns.

To reach any sound conclusions, to-day, however, one must rid himself of the obsession of these romantic fallacies and must face the actual facts. The clean-hands, blacked-shoes fallacy has ruined thousands of boys who, if they had pitched in and got their hands dirty, would have turned out first-rate mechanics and mill-men, instead of sixth-rate clerks. The pin-picking and twine-saving fairy-tales have started many a boy on the downward path of petty, two-cent economies instead of on the upward way of large-minded, far-seeing business policies. While as for the other things demanded by the story-books—they are about as obsolete as sand boxes and quill pens.

Who seriously cares about long-hand writing, when actual business to-day is done by the aid of shorthand and the typewriter? What is the use of drilling a boy who has cost the community at least $4,000 into becoming a fairly accurate adding machine when one can buy an absolutely accurate metal one for a hundred dollars? Why lay so much stress upon errand running when the telephone is a far more efficient messenger? Why talk about learning all the ramifications of an industry, when the main hope of business success is in being a first-rate specialist? Why even specify that the boy shall know how to wield a broom, when the incorporated cleaning company will sweep the offices, and sweep them well, for far less money than the wages of the veriest greenhorn?

Should the present agitation over vocational education come to nothing—which is almost inconceivable—it will have been worth while if it forces teachers, boys and, eventually, employers to ask themselves straight questions and to face actual conditions. What does modern business really require of the average boy? How fully can the boy meet—or can he be trained to meet—those requirements? And, finally, what can the school do and how far can it go in bringing the boy into line with the reasonable demands of a rational, up-to-date mercantile or manufacturing concern?

Just now everybody is in a turmoil over all three of these problems; for all of us—business men, boys and schools—are in a transition state. Business itself is in the travail of readjustment—as witness the attempted regulation of it by the Congress and the states; and as witness, also, the vogue of anything that labels itself scientific management. The young man—still reading the old story-books about business—is finding out that those tales and the real conditions are not even fourth cousins to one another. While the schools, tired of putting boys through the treadmill work demanded by formal college entrance examinations, and looking for some better incentive to hold before the pupil, are turning (generally with more eagerness than knowledge) towards preparation for business as something at once tangible to them and interesting to the youth.

It is a tremendous point gained, however, that all three of them—business man, boy and pedagogue—are working at the same problem, each from his own angle of vision, but all seriously; the business man being desperately in earnest as he finds that profits are dependent upon securing really trained men; the boy being more and more driven, by modern competition, to weigh the problems of his after-school vocation; and the schools, as the educational tax gets heavier and heavier, feeling ever more keenly the need of showing tangible returns for the millions given every year to education.

No business man can presume to say, however, that those millions are thrown away so long as he is every day wasting much good material (both human and inanimate) through haphazard, antiquated and unscientific ways. Since he is manfully buckling down, however, to the problems of real conservation in manufacturing, transporting and selling goods, so must the teacher, also, get down to actualities. For in all industries the chief element to be conserved is the human element; and the teacher is paid by the state to understand, guide and give a right start to his quota of those boys and girls who are to be the producers, distributors and consumers of the coming time. For years and years everybody has been saying that the real work of the schools is to produce good citizens; but no one—broadly speaking—can be a good citizen unless he is an able producer and an intelligent consumer. Education that does not have these ends in view results in dreamers, parasites and social anarchists. Education that does recognize these aims is in line to produce self-reliance, self-respect and social responsibility—the three main bases of sound citizenship.

However high the ideals of all teachers should be, however strongly they should insist upon breadth, culture and "uplift" for their pupils, every one of those noble things of education should be soundly bottomed upon the no less noble demands of self-respecting, intelligent, purposeful winning of the daily bread. What higher and finer goal for all school life than the founding of a family and the rearing and training of the next generation? Yet how absolutely bound up with that true ideal of a civilized state is the ability to earn a living, in ways congenial to the earner and in such an amount that ease of mind, comfort of body and education for the brain and soul shall follow for the worker himself and for those depending on him?

Using the word "business" to cover all the fields of human activity along material lines—the fields of production, distribution and consumption—every boy and girl in every school is going to find his or her chief interests and his or her chief medium for development in the business world. Therefore, every teacher should understand—at least in a broad way—what business is, what it demands, and how those demands are to be met—so far as they can be met—by the school.

Obviously, however, the most zealous of teachers could not acquaint himself intimately with more than one general line of business activity; and it is a serious question whether or not, if he had so trained himself, he wouldn't then be doing the teaching profession a service by leaving it. The teacher must never forsake the teaching point of view—the view that his duty is not to train the boy for business, but to use business as a powerful instrument in training the boy. To do this, however, the teacher must understand not only boys in general, but also business in general. And, however great may be the differences between manufacturing and merchandizing, between banking and baking, there are certain fundamentals characteristic of substantially every branch of that production, distribution and consumption of commodities—noting that consumption, and therefore household management, is put on a par with production and distribution—which is gathered under the one comprehensive term: modern business.

The most striking characteristic of modern business is the rapidity with which it is moving from a competitive to a cooperative basis. This is resulting, on one hand, in the "trusts" and other combinations, which furnish so much good copy for the newspaper and the congressman; on another hand, in the public service corporations, wherein quasi-public needs are supplied by quasi-private bodies; on another hand, in that genuine cooperative production and distribution with which we are less familiar than are the Europeans; and, finally, in that public ownership, pure and simple, which the modern politicians are falling over one another in their haste to promise to the people in exchange for the people's votes.

In whatever form it may appear, however, cooperation results in two things: bigness and complexity. When two men form a partnership the profits may be out of all proportion to the business paraphernalia. But when oil producers get together, and then (at the behest of Congress) unmix themselves again; when the subways, elevated roads and surface lines knit themselves into a single great transportation cobweb; when the workingmen of a whole county decide to buy their flour at a single purchase; and when forty cities and towns combine to supply themselves with water; then there result not only a bigness that has taught us to talk in billions as easily as our fathers talked in hundreds of dollars, but also a complexity which staggers us poor outsiders and, there is reason to believe, staggers the insiders as well.

The third feature of modern business, growing naturally out of the characteristics of bigness and complexity, is that profits to-day are made by the geometrical progression of innumerable small gains instead of through the adding together of a few large gains. Selling a few hundred things at a good profit in a country store in Xew York state brought in to Mr. Woolworth's employer a few thousand dollars a year. Selling millions of things for not exceeding ten cents each has enabled Mr. Woolworth himself to capitalize at $75,000,000, and to erect the highest building in the world. The mining fortunes of yesterday were made by working the richest veins and pockets, leaving the rest to waste. The mining fortunes of to-morrow will be made from the dump-heaps of abandoned plants. The day of the telescope in business, the day of seeking new worlds in order rudely to exploit their natural resources, has gone by; and the day of the microscope in business, of getting infinitesimal profits infinitely multiplied, has come. Thus far we have been a world of wasters; henceforth we are to be a world of savers, and are thus to outwit Malthus and to make the world's resources not less, but greater, by every added baby born.

A marked characteristic of modern business, consequently, is (in merchandizing) frequent "turn-overs," and (in manufacturing) the utilization of what used to be called waste. The stream of trade flows so fast through a modern department store that the one cent profit here and the two cents profit there aggregate in the course of the year a huge amount of money. According to a recent article in the "World's Work," the beef barons actually lose on sirloin steaks and choice cuts of pork; where their profits are made is in converting every scrap of the animal's carcase into something that can be sold.

To keep the stream of business flowing through a great store, and to make it profitable to save every hair of every beast in the Chicago stockyards, however, there must be highly-developed organization, highly complicated machinery, and just as little as possible of that most expensive form of power, the human hand. Human hands are still wanted, and in proportionately greater numbers than ever before in history; but merely as servants to machines that multiply hundreds and thousands of times the initial force given by those hands. It is nonsense, however, to talk of this as slavery to machinery. On the contrary, it is mastery of the forces of nature, an ever-increasing mastery, which is—so to speak—kicking the brute laborer, the pick and shovel man, up into the ranks of the machine-user, and is kicking the machine-user up into the ranks of the organizer, those ranks where brains are every day setting hundreds and thousands at new work, and every day bringing what used to be luxuries down to the horizon of the commonest man. The cost of living is high, not because of the scandalous luxury of the rich, but because of the commendable luxury of the poor. It is true that the desire for the good things of life is growing somewhat faster than the devices and economies of modern industry can bring those good things within reach; but this is simply a question of gradual adjustment. And the fact that more men are every day wanting and demanding more things is one of the surest guarantees of a continued and genuine prosperity.

An inseparable accompaniment of machinery, however, is speed. Therefore the next notable characteristic of modern business is whirlwind pace. Thirty years ago, even New York, Paris and London w-ere horse-car towns, with clerks nodding over pigskin ledgers, errand boys playing marbles in the roadway, with no telephone, no rapid transit in the modern sense, with scarcely any devices for making speed or saving time. To-day, even London, the archetype of conservatism, is a whirlpool of motor-buses, speeding men and clamoring advertisements.

Consequently, not merely what the business man, but what modern business itself, demands of the high-school graduate is rational and orderly speed. In the high school, in the schools below, in that larger school, the community, and above all, in the boy's home, he must have been trained to "go the pace," not of dissipation, but of modern industry.

Since, however, no one can get speed, without a breakdown, out of a weak or badly-built engine, so one can not get efficiency from a half sick or ill-developed youth. Consequently, now as never before, the business world must have boys who are sound in body and in nerves and who know the value of good health, clean living, exercise, right eating and fresh air. As already intimated, the average boy of eighteen has cost the community at least $4,000 to "raise";—most high-school boys have cost a good deal more. Furthermore, to train that $4,000 boy to the point where he is a real asset in the business, costs that enterprise a considerable additional amount. Therefore the community can not afford, the business into which the boy goes can not afford, to have him break down, because of a weak body, poor nerves, or dissipation, just when he is beginning to bring in fair returns upon his capital cost. The first thing, then, that modern business demands in its apprentices is sound bodies, steady nerves and a good working knowledge of hygiene. These things are worth far more than a knowledge of double-entry bookkeeping; and the school, in cooperation with the parents and the community, must provide this kind of teaching.

The next essential for speed is quickness of mind, nimbleness of body and good coordination among all the senses. One doesn't acquire these, however, by stewing all day in an uncomfortable desk over a lot of books. One gets them by using all his muscles and all his senses, in a wide variety of exercises, mental, physical and manual, directed in educative ways and by rational progression, towards well-defined ends—not occult ends, seen only by the inner consciousness of the teacher, but tangible ends visible to the boy himself.

The third essential of speed is team-play. Every schoolroom should be an organism as well knit, as thoroughly balanced, as purposeful as a 'Varsity football team; for that is the kind of coordination towards which every mercantile and manufacturing enterprise is rapidly, and with full understanding of its value, tending. The teacher who still uses competition instead of cooperation as a main spur towards speed, is woefully behind the times, and loses that most valuable aid in education—working together for a common result.

Effective team-play, however, is founded upon promptness, ready obedience, willingness to subordinate one's self to the general good, enthusiasm, and that comprehensive quality called loyalty. All these are at the very root of every successful enterprise; and what modern business asks most eagerly is that the boys who come into it shall obey orders intelligently and promptly; shall see how much, instead of how little, they can accomplish to further the interests of the concern; and, in whatever they do, shall show the essential virtues of team-play: enthusiasm, self-subordination and unflagging loyalty.

But a man can not be enthusiastic and effective if he lives in a mere groove. Therefore, while the youth who is to succeed in the complexities of modern industry must be a specialist, he must be a broad one. A man may move fast in a treadmill, but he gets nowhere. On the other hand, a motorist, though tied to a roadway, makes his twenty-five miles an hour because he sticks to that well-surfaced track instead of trying to wander through bushes, potato-fields and gravel banks. He doesn't leave the road, but he sees and knows the whole surrounding territory. Consequently a fourth essential of speed is thoroughness in one line with an outlook into many lines, with an intelligent interest in many things, and with a broad attitude towards all human interests.

A fifth essential of speed is the cutting of red tape. Circumlocution, that curse of the law, is being rapidly driven out of business, because a merchant or manufacturer can not afi'ord to waste time and lose headway in doubling and twisting. If there is a short way of doing a thing—be it in business or in school—do it; and save time, money and nervous energy.

Therefore in demanding of the high school graduate rational and orderly speed, modern business asks the teachers of those young men and women:

1. That they do everything possible to send into business life sound animals who appreciate the value of good health and who know how to conserve it;

2. That they give those pupils such studies and exercises and in such a way as to result in activity of mind, thorough coordination between mind and bod}", well-trained senses and an eagerness to work and to learn;

3. That all the school work be so carried on as to foster a spirit of team-play, a sense of the value and power of working together for the common weal;

4. That to this end the teacher subordinate the memorizing of facts to the inculcating of promptness, obedience and loyalty;

5. That the studies which make for breadth of view and variety of interest be emphasized, and those which make for mere information, technic and drill, be minimized;

6. That, to accomplish this, subjects like arithmetic, bookkeeping, grammar, rhetoric, etc., be cut down to their lowest terms and fewest principles, throwing out all processes and exercises which are obsolete, little-used or cumbersome, putting in all the short-cuts and labor-saving devices which are of general application; and that those subjects, such as history, economics, political and economic geography, etc., which make for breadth of view; those exercises, such as rightly conceived manual training, ordered games, freehand drawing, etc., which make for quickness and control of the body; and those general school relationships which promote team-play, loyalty, the spirit of working together for a tangible and desirable end, be fostered, amplified, and in every way, encouraged.

Above all, the community high school should be the medium for leading the boy and girl from the irresponsibility of children into the responsibility of men and women. With that end in view, the school days and weeks should be on a business basis, with long hours (diversified, of course, with a proper alternation of mental and physical activity), strict accountability on the part of the pupils, and an organization based, as nearly as possible, upon the best business and factory models. So long as youth of seventeen and eighteen do not take their high-school work seriously, they will not take business seriously. And it is this lack of seriousness, this failure to realize that success in business can come only from strict attention to business, which lies at the root of most, if not all, of the complaints made by business men against the products of American schools. Those employers find many, if not most, of the boys and girls who come for employment, unfitted for and, if I may use the word, unfittable into, the complex demands of modern business life. Remembering the story-books, they think it is because these aspirants can not write and cipher and spell. But they are fast finding out that the causes of the trouble, in most instances, are weak bodies, or untrained senses, or sluggish minds, or lack of purpose, or general immaturity, or ignorance of how to work with others, or an all round irresponsibility, or a combination of from two to seven of these common human defects. Secondary schools can not, of course, make silk purses out of sows' ears; but they can make it their chief business to deliver to the business world boys and girls whose bodies, senses and minds have had so much organized training as heaven has permitted them to receive; who have passed out of the state of "kids" into that of men and women; who have a conception of and experience in cooperation and team-play; who know what loyalty means; and who have taken school work so seriously that they are prepared to look upon the earning of one's daily bread as something other than a listless game.

Modern business demands these things. Experience has shown that a rightly ordered secondary school system can produce them. That all schools do not is the fault partly of the teachers, partly of the employers, partly of the community in general, mainly of the parents. The fathers and mothers, and the rest of the community, must be educated to give moral and financial support to this effective type of education. But the only persons who can educate them are the schoolmasters; and they must do it in a roundabout way by gradually introducing this rational, real education into the higher and lower schools. The results will be so immediate, and in many cases so startling, as to make even the overworked business man take notice. And when he begins to realize that the school is really trying to meet his needs; when he begins to see that the millions poured into the public schools are producing efficient young men and young women, he will cease growling over his school taxes, and will turn some of the fortunes that he now gives or bequeaths to colleges into the far too lean treasuries of the higher and lower schools.