Popular Science Monthly/Volume 86/May 1915/The Play Attitude and the School Fraternity




IN primitive society men hunted and fought in bands; they planned their expeditions in councils; they celebrated their victories and lamented their defeats in dance, chant and ritual. Boys early left the tutelage of their mothers, and the males—old and young—betook themselves to their "men's houses" lodges or secret societies, from which the women of the tribe were excluded. In some instances women formed like associations, expressing in this way the difference between feminine interests and the more active, predatory tendencies of men.[1]

Whatever the racial origins, the fact is plain that in children to-day there crop out instinctive proclivities to fight, to hunt, to court danger: they form gangs and secret societies in which they play the rôles of primitive man and imitate the occupations of their elders. After the earlier period of romping and playing individualistic games, they find greater delight in group games. At a certain age boys refuse to play girls' games, and separately engage in more violent, complex activities demanding general rules for their successful pursuit. Later, as the characteristics due to sexual ripening grow pronounced, the desire to please the opposite sex enters as a motive. Intricate sports are played with greater efficiency, facility in subordinating individual glory for the sake of the prestige of the team increases. When the physical and mental unrest attending dawning manhood and womanhood arises, vague, deep emotions and ideals are felt, and the occupations which in childhood were "played at" are now considered in the light of possible careers. Gradually the sense of having a mission in the world unfolds, forming one of the bases of religious awakening and interest in history and politics.

A satisfactory account of the phenomena pertaining to the social grouping of childhood and youth should include the following items. (1) It should stress the place of impulses and feelings which are ancestral, conflicting and urgent; recognizing that these impulses ripen at different periods, are roughly uniform, in spite of varying strengths in particular individuals, and that they embody combative and cooperative dispositions, both of which are essential to effective grappling with practical problems. (2) The fundamental requirement of growing organisms is overt activity and experimentation arising from immaturity and plasticity in the young of the higher animals. To master the details of a changing environment in the more serious after-life, a vast number of physical and mental coordinations must be learned. This experimental balancing of impulses is play. (3) In following out the special motives which may be found to underly play—to be a cause, the desire to create, to dramatize, to "show off"—nature urges the youth into groups, and by means of the give and take of association stimulates sentiment, imagination, leadership and that expansion of self which comes from the consciousness of participating in a group of which each member is a contributing factor and the rules of which the member obeys because he has helped to make them.

It is needless to contend that the puritanical aversion to play, remnants of which are still extant, is evidence of an antiquated psychology and a partial interpretation of morality and education. One of the encouraging indications of recent years is the general willingness to examine the phenomena of childhood and adolescence in a scientific manner without the bias of a total-depravity doctrine or the opposite dogma of the unconditional goodness of natural impulses. The real problem is now seen to be that of knowing the facts and of directing the raw material of youthful activities in a wholesome way. A resultant of the changed attitude is a keener perception of the claims of childhood outside the conventional fields of kindergarten and school—in the street, in the department store, in the factory, and in the scores of juvenile employments which are annually entered by children leaving the elementary schools. By following the lead of Groos and other writers we can appreciate the implications of the forces which urge boys and girls to play house, soldier and conductor, to build "shacks," or to guard the grocery-comer for the exclusive nightly meetings of "the bunch." If the suggestion of the evolutionists is valid, that the baseball is a rounded missile whose progenitor was the more deadly arrow or spear, we can understand the popularity of the national sport. We can realize the possibilities which are implicit in the rivalries and emulations between gangs from different neighborhoods; and why, if there are no provisions for the safe overflow of the play impulses in a city made for adults and manufacture, trade, and other solemn "business," the legitimate desires of youth will turn to the harmful practises of outwitting the policeman, collecting stolen goods, or imitating the exciting career of the outlaw.

A second consequence of the investigation of play from the genetic standpoint is a keen awakening to the necessity of channeling the imaginative, enthusiastic energies of youth by organizing clubs, scouts and playgrounds under municipal supervision. The capital invested in social centers and playgrounds is the objective testimony to a new direction of public conscience and will. An expression of the public judgment in regard to the offices of the play attitude is conveniently given in the Proceedings of the Third Annual Congress of the Playground Association of America:

1. Playgrounds to be effective must have supervisors, directors and teachers who have had such training that they understand the child and can direct his activities so as to bring about the best results mentally, morally, physically and socially.

2. Play, being the chief activity of children during infancy, contains the beginnings of all subsequent development and culture. Its function is educative, and its forms are derived from hereditary adaptations and coordinations pleasurable to us from their usefulness in the distant past of the race. We consider the chief purposes of the playground to be: (a) the promotion of robust health through the encouragement of a free and enjoyable life in the open air; (b) the development of nervous coordinations and the normal functions, especially of the vital organs, through the vigorous activity of play; (c) the arousing of deeper interests, emotions and enthusiasms through those activities by which the central nervous system was developed in the past of the race and to which alone it responds with full effectiveness; thus determining the energy of nervous discharge and consequent vigor of all after life; (d) the training in courtesy and good fellowship through those social relations of play in which friendships are chiefly formed; (e) the establishment of a moral trend to life through the cultivation of right habits and those loyalties on which social morality and good citizenship chiefly depend; (f) the cultivation of a sense of the joy of life, by which the soul is harmonized and unified and a play spirit for life's work is acquired.[2]

As to the specific qualities generated in the play group, we may repeat the conclusions of all who have looked into the matter—that the playground is a field of discipline in the elementary virtues of a democracy: loyalty, sensitivity to fair dealing, and the capacity to lead and to follow under the control of standards applicable to every one in the group. How the boy, in playing a game, puts himself in the other's place and enlarges his range of sympathy and imagery is acutely described by Joseph Lee:

The team and the plays that it executes are present in a very vivid form to his consciousness. His conscious individuality is more thoroughly lost in the sense of membership than perhaps it ever becomes in any other way. So that the sheer experience of citizenship in the simplest and essential form—of a sharing in a public consciousness, of having the social organization present as a controlling ideal in your heart—is very intense. . . .

Along with the sense of the team as a mechanical instrument, and unseparated from it in the boy 's mind, is the consciousness of it as the embodiment of a common purpose. There is in team play a very intimate experience of the ways in which such a purpose is built up and made effective. You feel, though without analysis, the subtle ways in which a single strong character breaks out the road ahead and gives confidence to the rest to follow; how the creative power of one ardent imagination, bravely sustained, makes possible the putting through of the play as he conceives it. You feel to the marrow of your bones how each loyal member contributes to the salvation of all the others by holding the conception of the whole play so firmly in his mind as to enable them to hold it, and to participate in his single-minded determination to see it carried out. You have intimate experience of the ways in which individual members contribute to the team and of how the team, in turn, builds up their spiritual nature. . . .

It is one thing to be able to feel the swing and unity of a company marching or wheeling on a level floor; it is a very different thing to retain your sense of organization when there is a tangle of bushes or a stone wall between you and the next man on your right. . . . The triumph of the trained imagination in still holding its sense of organization under such circumstances is a notable one; especially when, as in the most successful teams, the player 's grasp of the whole movement is of so masterly and flexible a nature as to be adequate not merely to carrying out a prearranged manœuvre in a rigid and unadaptable form, but to sharing with the other members of the team in the intuitive perception of such modifications as may be required by instant and unforeseen emergency.

And the team is not only an extension of the player's consciousness; it is a part of his personality. His participation has deepened from cooperation to membership. Not only is he now a part of the team, but the team is a part of him.[3]

But the social consciousness of the gang and-the team has the defects of its virtues. Intelligence and adaptability may be stimulated when boys of widely differing social strata and races meet on a common footing and learn a meaning of equality which is not incompatible with assertion of individual abilities. Nevertheless, the closeness of contact and the powerful emotional appeal may induce a narrow corporate egotism sustained by uncritical custom and the hardening process which attends all institutions. Neighborhood and school may become demoralized by in-grown associations which resist all attempts to harmonize the ends of the small groups with the rights of the community. To preserve the legitimate function of primary groups and at the same time to connect them with the legitimate activities of institutions possessing wider outlooks is a problem confronting secondary schools and colleges. If the process of carrying over the attitudes built up in family and playground, of modifying and redirecting spontaneous impulses, is not done in the school, there is little guarantee that corporate loyalty, so valuable in itself, shall enter into the larger loyalties to the city and the nation.

The general difficulty, therefore, which the school has to meet is to utilize the socializing forces which seek expression in gangs, clubs and fraternities, and to eliminate harmful secrecy and clannishness. The question of fraternities in secondary schools (to which the present discussion is confined) is important because the fraternity is a type of relatively advanced associations arising when a degree of intelligence and ability to discriminate has appeared, when groups are not merely taken for granted, as they were in the period of childhood. Play in early years has reference to immediate ends: as appreciation of the claims of other persons intensifies in adolescence, all pursuits can be interrogated from the standpoint of their consequences. The individual and his group can be recognized to be players in a complicated drama.

Without venturing dogmatic judgments, a few considerations to be taken into account may be outlined. If we adhere to the principles underlying American democracy, it may be asserted that in a progressive society every institution must demonstrate its right to continue by its fruits; that, on the whole, the claims of the community within which a group exists is superior to the corporate demands of the smaller group. The fraternity is one outlet of natural desires for companionship; it expresses the tendency of the like-minded to unite for forwarding their purposes: but whether the fraternity is a help or a drag is to be determined according to the same standards which decide the right to persist of any other group—family, school or political party. The queries to put-to it are: Is the group open to others who are fit? Is the basis for selecting members a worthy one? Does this purpose conduce to petty rivalry or to catholicity? Is there a rule of custom which can not be reconciled with the function and public opinion of the whole school? After long experience with the workings of fraternities and sororities in secondary schools, Dr. Owen writes:

It is idle to object to them that they are selfish and inadequate, when we remember that they are creations of young and inexperienced children. It is equally idle to declaim against them unless we can provide some other system that will do for all what they do for some. I am strongly opposed to the fraternity system in our schools, but I hope I am not bigoted on the question. My fundamental and single objection to them is the fact that they organize the school on a social basis that is narrow and selfish. I can conceive, however, of a social organization of the school in which they might possibly be of but little significance. But as long as the life of the school is what it now is, they serve but to emphasize our neglect. I can appreciate the theoretical defense made in their behalf by a culture-epoch theory of history. The simple fact is that they stand in the way of a social organization of the school that shall provide for all free expressions to social instinct, controlled development of social power, and a happy enjoyment of the society of one's fellows. The best way to deal with the school fraternity is to beat it at its own game.[4]

The specific means of attaining the "controlled development of social power" comprise all those reorganizations of outlook, method, curriculum and "uses of the school plant" which have engaged the attention of educators in recent years. In spite of considerable consensus of judgment regarding the relation of school to society, much remains to be accomplished. After years of discussion it is still pertinent to state that the work of making the secondary school a genuine community is not that of creation out of nothing, but of extending and correlating social tendencies already operating; that the problem of assimilating the non-social factions in the school is not one of mechanical adjustment and stricter discipline. If the school as a group is to compete with the narrower loyalties aroused by clique and fraternity it must stand in the minds of teachers, parents and students, for intense, live and big purposes—racial, occupational and civic. It must supply on a large scale the values which exist in small compass in the fraternity. Otherwise the school itself may become an ingrown institution, and its student-government devices, its festivals and athletics for all, its swimming pools and dancing, its football fields and club houses, may become agencies of personal enjoyment outside the correctives of the moral and civic needs of the environing society.

The problem of the fraternity, consequently, is not to be settled by repression or arbitrary enactment. Its solution involves a progressive extension of the play attitude from gang to school and beyond—a play attitude which recognizes responsibility for more and more remote ends and abolishes the time-honored dualism of work and play. For the spirit of the creative artist is not confined to the fields of music, painting and the drama. In the professions, in industry and in politics, the men and women who have caught the contagion of play in their youth make their ideal enterprises enthusiastic, daring games, guided, however, by the standards of execution which they have learned on the playground.

  1. Webster, "Primitive Secret Societies," Ch. II.
  2. Proceedings of the Third Annual Congress of the Playground Association of America, pp. 92-93.
  3. Joseph Lee, "Play as a School of the Citizen, Charities and the Commons," August 3, 1907, pp. 489-490.
  4. W. B. Owen, "Social Education through the School," The School Review, Vol. 15, pp. 23-24.