Popular Science Monthly/Volume 84/February 1914/The Rural Opportunity and the Country School




THE rural community is the granary of the world. Civilization is not possible without the farmer. The great city could not endure without the country. This feature of the economic situation is just now making itself prominent. The rapid increase of population in the cities naturally means decrease of population in the rural districts, which, in turn, means decrease in agricultural area, so that, while pro rata, increased products of the soil are demanded, decreased products are the facts. At least there is no marked increase of the food product of the world. These conditions bring the rural district to the front as holding the key to the situation.

But the rural community is not only the granary of the world, it is also the sanatorium of the world. In the fight against disease nothing counts for more than pure air, wild storms of wind, and isolation. This asset can not be measured in dollars and cents. Here also, the country becomes indispensable to the city. Hospitals and homes of all kinds, now, are pushing out into the country and gathering upon the hills. God's great out-of-doors is with the farmer, and medical science is making the largest possible use of it in that direction. The opportunity here opened for the rural community to fill a large place in the world is wide and deep.

Still another and perhaps greater opening before the rural community is its possibility to reform the boys and girls, stray waifs from the city, that are now being colonized in the country. Massachusetts has about abandoned her larger institutions for homeless boys and girls for the purer atmosphere of the farm home. Children of such type can be better managed in the country where they are isolated than in an institution where a hundred or more are segregated. Besides, the farmer, usually in need of boys, seldom fails to greatly benefit these waifs, and sometimes makes good citizens of them. I can point to a number of instances where excellent results have been obtained, and boys on their way to the penitentiary, and girls to the reformatory, have been lifted to higher planes of moral energy, trained often to take the initiative in large activities, meanwhile making for themselves homes of comfort and love. The opportunity is before the rural district to lift a large part of the world to new life, and to give new energy to that part of the world which is left.

Above all, in the greater persistence of rural family life, the greater stability of the marriage tie, the consequently larger family, the rural community forms a surer foundation for the future than the city. Professor Carver, in his "Principles of Rural Economics," says:

The rural family is a stable institution, whereas the city family has become a relatively unstable one. The divorce rate is much higher in the cities than in the country districts. The city family tends to die out through celibacy, sterility and various other agencies, whereas the rural family persists. The farms not only feed the cities with their material products, but they also furnish the cities with men and women.

All this is within the possibility of the country community; in many ways, has always been, and now is pressing for recognition as a noble opportunity, yet it is here that the community has most signally failed. Some things along this line naturally are to its credit, but they are few, and compared with its possibilities and opportunities, seem insignificant. The locality that might render the world such high service seems oblivious to the demand. Knocking at its door to-day, asking for food and shelter, for new vision and higher planes of physical and moral energy, stands a great age, while the men of the rural community remain unseeing, unbelieving, timid, indifferent, almost antagonistic. The rural district is greatly hampered with an inheritance of social customs that well nigh negative any new thought, or hope, or plan. Its circle of thought is narrow, its plane of energy is low, and it easily wearies of any reform. On the other hand, the city is awake with vital energy. In his "Energies of Men," the late Professor James says:

City and country people illustrate the difference between men who are energizing on a high and a low plane of life. The rapid rate of living, the number of decisions in an hour, the many things to keep account of in a busy city man's or woman's life, seems monstrous to the country brother. A day in Chicago or New York fills him with terror. But settle him there, and in a year or two he will have caught the pulse beat. And he will have come to enjoy this tremendous life.

That is, he will have climbed to a higher plane of energy, and is now using more of his possible power, living more nearly his larger life than before, and is a stronger man. But if the man from the rural district, under the city stimulus, can rise to a high plane of energy, may he not also do that at home, in the midst of his native environment?

The rural community must rise to these higher planes of energy and cultivate its great waste opportunities. It must learn that on its new birth, in the last analysis, the world of men and women are mainly resting their hopes for the future, not only for comfort, but also for life itself. Furthermore, it must learn, that, not only in the line of food, or in the way of health and happiness and reform, is it a necessity of the world, but also, in the possibility that its farm homes, in simple and subtle ways, by healthy, natural processes, may develop within their own narrow limits many a strong soul, many a great man. This community can take the unfortunate, morally and mentally bent boys and girls from the crushing life of the city, and, under the clearer skies of a simpler life, by injecting more of the time element into their education, make them into new and wholesome men and women. It can stimulate its own boys and girls to higher ideals and larger views of the world, and by arousing itself to this mission the community can not fail, in large measure, to recover its own lost grip on the wider world.

A great day for the rural district is clearly at the front. Are the people of these localities awake to the opportunity? It is because I think I can answer the question in the affirmative that I am writing this article. But, given the appreciation that a great opportunity is at their door, the next movement is to grapple with it, and master it. That such may be done, the people will be compelled to make some marked changes in their thinking, and in their method of work. Here strong and wise leadership is called for. After the minister, no man has more nearly in his own hands the uplift of the rural district than the schoolmaster. The school is a power plant for intelligence, vision, training, and manhood. It is for use. And wisely used must render great help in solving the rural problem. But the school board, and the schoolmaster of the country districts, must rise to a higher and more intelligent plane of energy if they are to count in the new life of the community.

Our age may well be termed a renaissance. But in that character it has only just begun to dawn on the small and scattered sections of the country. There came a day in the fifteenth century when Italy renewed her youth. A new and mighty impulse to nobler ideals stirred the nation. Slumbering instincts aroused themselves, and songs of the spirit, unsung since the ancient empire passed away, became once more a joy and a glory. New songs were sung. The imagination reasserted itself, and the mind recognized a deeper and diviner significance in life. It is called the Italian renaissance, the rebirth of literature and learning and art in Italy. This awakening placed the nation on a high level of intellectual and spiritual energy where she soon demonstrated to the world that, in herself, she possessed an age, greater, in some respects, than that of Pericles.

But the rebirth of Italy was no miracle. It did not come in a night. It was largely the product of the schoolmasters. At least it involved the elements of learning and scholarship. The stimulus indeed was from without, being the discovery and possession of Greek literature and art, but in reality, the secret of it was in the stored energies of the people. It was the uprising of long dormant forces in the heart of a great nation. A miracle is not demanded to bring new visions and new energies to the rural community. It is only necessary that they hear their call, and realize the need of developing their own deepest life. And in this it is only needed that they begin low enough and gradually rise to the mastery of their mission. In this the schools are indispensable. But to do its legitimate work the school must be manned with teachers who feel a divine call to service. That, in turn, calls for a school board with imagination and vision. Here the dearth is deep. The rural school is in poor condition to render much service, while the service demanded is great. The task of the teacher is to open new visions, to arouse deeper energies in the pupils, and through them to lift the ideals of the community, and to make the people hear the call of the times. The men must be shown how much possible energy, of a high order, right within their own district limits, is lost to the community and to the world because the boys and girls are not made to realize the value of more and better training, or kept in school long enough to find themselves.

This school is suffering sadly from social heredity. Thirty years ago I taught the winter school in a rural district down by the sea. It was in the proverbial red schoolhouse, in the center of the district, being a mile from the nearest inhabitant, in a grove of spruces through which the sunlight, save in little streams and eddies, never came, and directly opposite the village burying ground. A gloomier spot, or one less fit for a schoolhouse, it would be difficult to imagine. At the opening there were sixty-five pupils, ranging in ages from four years up to twenty-five. There were about as many classes, from the infant class learning their letters to the big boys studying navigation. The work went on according to the old customs and therefore was voted right. It could not have been very efficient. Three years ago I visited that school again. The schoolhouse, still red, stood in the old grove of spruces, sunless and damp, still fronted the north pole, the graveyard was still across the road, and not yet any sign of playground in sight. Some things had changed. They were having three terms of school instead of two, and all were taught by a woman. The pupils would not average as old as mine, emphasizing the growing tendency to drop out early, and there was no real attempt at grading, least of all any effort to put the school on a basis where it could better serve its own peculiar community. The lads, who, through the season, hauled lobster traps and seined mackerel, or cut stone in the great island quarries, were learning nothing about the sea, or the fish, or the stone formation of the island, albeit many of them had already chosen one of those lines of work for a life calling. The old class in navigation had dropped out. Twenty-seven years had marked few changes and no real advance.

And this is not an extreme case, either. Quite every rural school is failing in plan and purpose to exploit the vital needs of the community. I have examined a great many rural schools, making careful note of the text-books they used. These books, in general, are quite in a foreign tongue. They possess literary value enough; the arithmetics contain an abundance of problems for training in railroading, manufacturing, brokerage, banking, insurance, the grocery business, what not, but only now and then an example on surveying, or measuring wood, and nothing whatever on mechanics and agriculture. The vocabulary contains some words that are in use in the district, but not the terminology in which the community is thinking and exploiting its hopes and fears, its ambitions and ideals, especially its practical life.

A light-keeper on one of the Maine islands, years ago, as I landed from a lobster smack to teach the winter school, said to me: "I am glad to see somebody who can talk something besides lobsters and mackerel." This island was engaged in those industries, and had one of the largest fleets along the shore, and was becoming a prosperous community. Naturally they talked "mackerel." In the schools, however, mackerel and lobsters were tabooed. They used the common text-books, containing about everything except what nine tenths of the pupils needed most to learn. I tried to obviate this omission by making problems directly related to their home industries, by teaching something about the resources of the ocean, the habits of its denizens, and kindred subjects, but to no purpose, for, immediately, I was overwhelmed with curt notes from irate mothers, saying: "We get enough talk about mackerel and lobsters' at home, without having it taken into the schools. Our men talk 'mackerel' all day and half the night, and we can't stand it to have the children take it up." Yet I had taken up the theme in a very different way, trying to cast about it enough of science and romance to take away the odors of familiarity, but they would have 7 none of it. Fathers said to their boys: "Don't follow the sea. Its a dog's life." Mothers taught their girls to seek life in the larger towns and cities. Anything but the life by which they were winning their bread. They discouraged the hope of finding a larger life in their island wealth and the resources of the surrounding sea, and sent their boys and girls to the city.

The rural communities hitherto failing to row their weight in the economics of the world, now finding themselves dropping astern, are entering complaint of unfair treatment in the social and industrial distribution. This however may be a hopeful sign, for men are thus compelled to turn their attention to the conditions underlying the situation. In such an examination they can not fail to discover that there is great waste in these country districts, not only of land, but more striking and important, great waste of human energy. The girls and boys are not educated. The rural community has never made a just estimate of human values. Its values are in land and cattle, boys and girls are a kind of necessary nuisance. At the most, after twelve or fourteen years of age, they are left to train themselves. The community has never been willing to finance the chances of these boys and girls by manning the schools with teachers of large enough caliber to hold them through the eighth grade, or to develop the possibilities of their lives for strong and useful careers. If such communities are ever to assume their normal burden in economics, or the social life of the world, their boys and girls must be carefully trained in the schools.

These communities have not only lost their best men to the city, but they have never tried to make the most of those who remained at home. Here is the opening for the schoolmaster. He must gather up the waste material in the persons of boys and girls, and by enriching and prolonging the course of study, hold them in the schools until they have obtained something like a fair knowledge of the elementary necessities of a life work. Now, the larger number of rural boys and girls leave school at the end of the sixth or seventh grade. If a boy hangs on a little longer it is because his parents force him to, and it is often at the expense of his self-respect, for he must go on with younger pupils. He is now twelve, or thirteen years old, and feels that, although staying in school, he is not getting anywhere, while he might be at work earning money.

After the seventh grade the rural school is well-nigh chaotic. It is pretended, by some school boards, that the full eight or nine grades are taught, but the wholesale manner in which pupils from these schools are turned down in the tests for the city high schools rather negatives the claim. The following figures taken from the government school report for 1903 are eloquent with misgivings. After the seventh, for the whole country, 20 per cent, of the grade drop out of school. But in the rural districts, where the seventh grade virtually finishes the course of study, the number dropping out is over 50 per cent, of the grade, which not seldom means all of the boys. The girls linger a little longer. Here is a waste of energy, a loss of vital possibility for which any amount of money saved can not compensate. Boys leaving school at such stage have not obtained the elements of a common education.

Still the country school has possibilities. Raised to a normal standard, generously equipped, and strongly manned, it can do much to redeem the waste and apathetic life of the community. It possesses the initiative of a renaissance, but it must be made the most of. In order to accomplish such result a great many customs must be readjusted to a new day and its larger environment. In this readjustment we must be sure and begin low enough, by giving thought to what hitherto has seemed insignificant, namely, the careful location of the schoolhouse, and its orientation. The school building should be in a dry, sunny, sightly spot. Ordinarily it should face the southern compass. This would move seven tenths of our rural schoolhouses, and turn more than half of them end for end. It is not at all necessary that a school building should face the road, or be very near it. Light, warmth, horizon, room to play, these are the important considerations in locating a schoolhouse. Play, in the rural districts, is almost a forgotten art. No provision is ever made for it. No ball grounds, or tennis courts, or croquet lawns, are ever seen near the rural schoolhouse. The boys get no training in team work, or athletics. The community has yet to learn that a boy's play is a vital element in his education. Here, in the location and layout of the school grounds, is the first use of the rural school for community uplift.

Moreover the curriculum of the rural school is faulty. It has been kept at odds with its environment. In the midst of trees and flowers, birds and bugs, the child has been held down to a study of words and forms, and figures, not much related to his common life, and at the best too abstract for him to digest. He learns nothing of agriculture, mechanics, or biology. The children are not taught to study nature, or, in the least, directed or instructed in their play, except in a few instances. Nothing of manual training, even in simple forms, is ever attempted. These things have been crowded out by the old-fashioned literary curriculum. While there need be no neglect of reading, writing, spelling, or arithmetic, still, it is true that "these ought ye to have done and not to have left the others undone." Indeed, I would add to the reading and writing, together with the elements of agriculture and nature study, a systematic culture of memory selections, little enough of which have I found in any school. But it calls for a teacher of culture and training to make and exploit such a curriculum. Here the teacher is of paramount importance.

The teacher must be capable of leadership in the community. For, although these pupils may be learning only the elements, they must still be shown, at the right time, the wider world, in unison with which, when at their best, they also are moving. There must be opened to them a world of deeper significance than that commonly seen. They must be taught to feel the throb of a universe in the pulse beat of their own hearts. They must be filled with enthusiasm for life. This calls for a teacher of large caliber, of rich culture. It is a blunder, as well as a waste of money, to select teachers for the rural schools, as is now largely the custom, from the graduates of the high school. No one ought to be employed to teach a country school who is not a graduate of college, or trained in the best normal schools, or one who, by industry and experience, has gained an equivalent for such culture.

Then, after the seventh grade, the schools would become much more effective if they were centralized. The old district system has not lost all of its value, for the first six grades, or perhaps seven, can be taught in the old schoolhouse, providing that schoolhouse be rightly orientated and equipped with playgrounds, and other necessities, quite as well as in the center, and the children are within their mothers' reach. But the next upper grades, in the rural community, must be centralized, strongly manned, with an adequate curriculum. Here manual training and elementary agriculture, can be taken in hand, and when this is done in earnest and with skill and enthusiasm, it becomes interesting, and by its appeal to the boy's larger self, holds him longer in school.

But the rural district needs a high school. It may be true that no rural community can equip a school that would compare with the city high school, where, now, some of the boys and girls are sent; nevertheless if it would take its own place in the world, the rural community must have its own high school. For it is not the boys and girls that are fitting for college, financed and forced by their parents, who create the school problem here, but the boys and girls who have not so much as heard that there is a college. It is the large number of pupils that might attend high school, and possibly go up to college, were a high school nearer home involving little, or no expense, and for which, to some degree, their fathers were responsible, who complicate the school problem, and make it vital. No one can conjecture what talent, or slumbering genius even a year in the high school might develop in the dullest boy. And it is the possible boy and man who must be provided for. The waste of possible men and women of greater parts than the common life bears witness to among the farmers is great and sad. In the face of so much latent energy of the highest kind, the talk one hears about the expense of the thing is utterly unworthy of an intelligent community. It is indeed true that the farmer has suffered from the tax system of our government more than any other class, but it is not so much demanded that more money shall be raised, as that what is raised be more intelligently expended; so placed that it can make returns in character and in life.

Now that the world, once more, is waking up to the fact that the rural community is an absolute necessity in the economy of civilization, a splendid opportunity opens before the schoolmaster to make himself felt. Here the schoolhouse may become the power house of a higher life. But the master must have the training necessary to reach the practical element in these problems; he must be able to meet the boy's need of a dignified curriculum, and he must possess in himself a neverending fund of imagination, of enthusiasm, and of long vision. Given such a man backed by a well-equipped schoolroom, and the community has a powerful asset towards grappling with the new life of the day, and meeting the economic, political and moral demands now being made upon it.