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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 86/February 1915/The Problem for the Rural School

THE PROBLEM FOR THE RURAL SCHOOL
By Professor J. B. SEARS

STANFORD UNIVERSITY

WHAT is the real problem now before the rural school? This is a question that is being asked on all sides, and by an increasing number of people. Professional and laymen alike are trying to find out, not only why it is that the rural school has been so much neglected, but in what specific ways it has been neglected; and, what is even more important, what the rural school is really obligated to do.

It is true that the praise of the district school has been sung almost from the dawn of its existence; that the poet, the essayist and the orator have all referred in endearing terms to the little red schoolhouse on the hill; to the district school, the pride of our land and the embodiment of the best principles of American democracy, etc.; and we have continued to believe things about the country school in general which we knew did not apply to any particular case in point. Thus the real and the ideal have managed to avoid a conflict till the issue has become very pronounced, not because the school is any different from what it was a half-century ago, but because the demands upon it have increased in complexity, and so intensified its problem, which it has never solved any too well. And it is because the facts of its inefficiency have been accumulating so rapidly that during the past decade a wealth of literature, technical and otherwise, has been finding a ready consumption. Just what these facts are we ought to know. No policy can be laid down which is in any sense comprehensive if it is not made in the clear light of the real nature and extent of those problems which it is the function of the rural school to solve or help to solve.

It is well to remind ourselves from time to time that in the minds of the founders of our nation, as well as in our own thinking, education is conceived to be essential to our form of government. Yet, if we examine more closely to see just how the school has been handled by the state, we may quickly find that it has never been a definite part of a constructive national or state policy in the broad and comprehensive sense commonly accepted. For while in theory the school has been instituted and espoused as an instrument to be used in the development of political and social permanency, yet in very fact we discover that when this principle or ideal, which is referred to in almost every state constitution, becomes a reality, it is a state concern too much in name only, with such vital matters as support left, in the final analysis, to the locality for which the school is constructed. (Fortunately notable exceptions to this are increasing in number.) But where this is true, it is plain to be seen that in a district where there is little taxable wealth there must be either a very high tax rate, or the alternative of little school money, and hence a poor school. Thus the state may levy the school tax and distribute it, but when it levies a higher rate in one district than in another, or distributes less to one district than to another, even though that district may actually have more children to educate, it would seem that there are at least some very important ways in which the schools are not state institutions.

It is because of this interpretation by the state that the rural school, which along with many other phases of rural life, being left desolate by the accumulation of wealth in the cities, has suffered. And by comparison with the city schools its suffering has been very real. For the rural schoolhouse of to-day is of the same general type that was in vogue a hundred years ago; a large percentage of its teachers have not only had no professional training, but are teaching for the first time; the teacher rather rarely succeeds herself, and is often succeeded by one or two others within a single year; one teacher has all the grades and teaches from fifteen to thirty classes daily; poor library and no laboratory apparatus, save some dust-covered curios bought from a clever agent by an unsuspecting school director; no play apparatus or director; no domestic-science or manual training; little agriculture; and little or no supervision. This may not be a pleasant picture, but for the United States as a whole it is not badly overdrawn, in spite of many excellent signs of awakening here and there. But it is only by comparison, point by point, with a modern city system that the real poverty of the country school becomes apparent.

These are the conditions we are becoming conscious of to-day, and they are provoking a serious study of the real underlying troubles. The teacher, the preacher, the farmer, the banker, the legislator, the president, all are asking the same fundamental question, each from his own particular angle. The teacher sees that the country school is not vitally tied up with its problem, the preacher finds that the country church is disappearing, the banker realizes that a more successful handling of the farming problem will aid his business, legislatures are looking to the conservation of the soil and the destruction of farm pests, the national government has looked after the important matter of credit for the farmer, and the report of the Roosevelt Country Life Commission speaks in similar terms. Thus when we are counting the defects of the country school we are only counting one group of symptoms. The trouble is deeper and more far-reaching than any one institution. The problem is therefore not the mere problem of the school, but the whole problem of country life.

We are to ask, then, not what are the present limitations of the country school, but what are these big vital problems which are of such vast concern as to claim the active attention of so many men in high authority. We are concerned to know what is the real function of the country school, and whether or not it is part of a conscious program for handling these larger issues, or whether the state has merely said: let there be a country school, and then sat quietly by with folded hands. This latter may still be entirely too true, but if so it is high time that the state should be taking the constructive side of its problems more seriously.

The country problem is one for all people, urban as well as rural, for in its last analysis the welfare of all rests flat down upon the land. That is not too broad a statement, for though other industries undoubtedly have a future in this country, yet we can not fail to see that it is America's broad and fertile acres that determine her responsibility among nations, as well as her future economic position. Whatever affects the occupation of farming, therefore, is of consequence to the rural situation in general.

A glance at the accompanying chart will impress one with at least one very important change that has taken place in the past century and a quarter.

PSM V86 D180 Urban rural percentage of US population in 1910.jpg

When our nation was first established there was almost no city life at all, and even in 1800 only 4 per cent. of the people lived in cities of 8,000 inhabitants or over. By 1850 this had increased only to 12½ per cent., after which its increase is very rapid, till in 1910 almost half our total population lived in the city. At the rate of the past decade, the next census will show that here, in the greatest agricultural nation in the world, the few are feeding the many. This means over ninety million consumers, with only about forty-five million producers.

What this change has meant is difficult to state in few words. This shifting in population is effect as well as cause. Parallel with it has gone the development of factories, which has taken many industries to the city which were once a part of farm life. And it is to be remembered that whatever affects the economic life affects also the social life in all its institutionalized expression. So the home life on the farm, the country church, the country school, all have been influenced by these changes. Likewise with the development of machinery, farming is being made more and more scientific. Hand labor is therefore disappearing, and cooperation between farmers along with it. So the old life on the farm, that was in itself a broad education, is gone, and it is the legitimate function of the school to fill this gap. But it is not yet filled, for legislation has constructed a school adapted to the old days, when wealth was evenly distributed, and democratic ideals were best met by systems of local control and local support.

In this age of city-building it is interesting to note the tendency toward the operation of farms by tenants. In 1880 there were 74.5 per cent. of the farms operated by owners. In 1910 this had decreased to 62 per cent. At this rate the absent landlord will be supreme ruler in the course of a few generations. The accompanying table will be illuminating in this connection. True, the price of land has raised

Year Per Cent. of Farms Operated by
Owner Tenants
Cash Share Total
1910 62.0 14.0 24.0 38.0
1900 64.7 13.1 22.4 35.3
1890 71.6 10.0 18.4 28.4
1880 74.5 8.0 17.5 25.5

(having almost doubled in the past ten years), and it is necessary, therefore, for each succeeding generation to remain as tenant a little longer than the generation before; true also that the number of farmers who are retiring to a quiet city life, but holding their farms, is increasing; and true that city investors are buying land but not farming it. So, if it is not a wilful desertion of the farm in all cases, it is nevertheless bringing the question of absent landlordism among us, and that is not a wholesome tendency. It should be remembered that this has been the tendency in the face of a vast supply of cheap government land, which will soon be a thing of the past. And now, add to this the further fact that the number of farms under mortgage is on the increase, having risen from about 28 per cent. of all the farms in 1890, to nearly 34 per cent. in 1910, and we seem to complete the evidence that something needs to be done if we are to succeed as an agricultural people.

It will only darken the picture to add that the per cent. of illiteracy in the country is just double what it is in the city, and this despite the fact that nearly all the illiterate immigrants who come to this country reside in the cities.

The problem of rural life from an economic viewpoint seems broad enough, and the task of the rural school looms large; yet we must add, that while 53.7 per cent. of the people in the United States live in the country, the per cent. of children of school age (6-20) who live in the country is 58.5. That is 53.7 per cent. of the people have to educate 58.5 per cent. of the children; while the other 46.3 per cent., who live in the city, have to educate only 41.3 per cent. of the children.

From the social side there is a problem nearly as great. For even if the telephone, the rural mail delivery, the automobile, and the good roads movements as doing much to make possible a better social life, yet where is the theater, the moving pictures, the library, the high school, the club house, the athletic fields, the parks, the shop windows, the bright lights, the crowd? These are in the city, and they call loudly to the young life in the country. Isolation is the word in the country which corresponds to the word congestion in the city. The play side of life is too narrow, and people die of lonesomeness.

It is not the purpose of this article to suggest the country school as a panacea for all these social, religious, intellectual, and economic ills, but it would urge that a systematic study of the whole problem should be made in order that the appropriate function of each rural institution may be more scientifically determined. What is said here is true only of the United States as a whole, and not of any one section in particular. But a constructive effort should be made in every community to understand the problem as it exists there. And then for its solution we need, not so much a new institution, as a reinterpretation of the function of the institutions we already have. The rural church ought to exist, but it must teach wholesome religion in the place of medieval creeds, and build community churches instead of Methodist or Presbyterian churches. In like manner, the school must drop some of its traditions, quit luring children away to the city, and begin to reconstruct in terms of country life. It must be a state school in more than name, and be a school for old as well as young. The schoolhouse must be open for all kinds of social and intellectual programs, and become the center of community life.

But this can not be done by the various rural institutions working singly, at different fragments of the problem. Concerted effort is needed, and we can not propose a safe plan of reconstruction for the school, or for the church, or for social life, until we know more about the present status and more about the facts which must underlie any constructive program.

The Country Life Commission is a notable example on a large scale of what ought to be done for every country community. The state should probably take the lead, as Ohio is doing in her rural school survey, and make a complete study of the whole of her rural life. Until this is done, the school and the church will cling to tradition, and the broad cultural side of life on the farm will be neglected. And so long as this is neglected, that long will the social reason for deserting farm life exist, and the drift to the city continue.

If it is not in the province of the rural school to assist in the solution of these problems, by giving to the children a proper understanding of the rural conditions, by providing a center for the social and intellectual life of the community, then all its traditional procedure, all its narrowness which is being so broadly criticized, is justified and represents efficiency. Or putting it another way, if the government, which theoretically exists of, by and for the people, does not attempt to meet these destructive tendencies in our national life, it is following an outworn social and political philosophy. And if the state does try to meet them, and does not use the rural school as a means to that end, it is ignoring one of the most efficient agencies it has, and one whose very meaning as an institution rests in its capacity to render this broad social and intellectual service to farm life.

The problem of the rural school is therefore the problem of the rural people. It is not as narrow as a book, but it is as broad as life. The school must accept its share in these large social, economic, and intellectual responsibilities, and stand ready to assist in the execution of a broad constructive social policy, whose aim it shall be to make rural life not merely tolerable, but wholesome and attractive.