Educational Methods, January 15, 1904

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Chicago Teacher's Federation




From "Democracy and Social Ethics."


As democracy modifies our conception of life it constantly raises the value and function of each member of the community, however humble he may be. We have come to believe that the most "brutish man" has a value in our common life, a function to perform which can be fulfilled by no one else. We are gradually requiring of the educator that he shall free the powers of each man and connect him with the rest of life. We ask this not merely because it is the man's right to be thus connected, but because we have become convinced that the social order cannot afford to get along without his special contribution. Just as we have come to resent all hindrances which keep us from untrammeled comradeship with our fellows, and as we throw down unnatural divisions, not in the spirit of the eighteenth century reformers, but in the spirit of those to whom social equality has become a necessity for further social development, so we are impatient to use the dynamic power residing in the mass of men and demand that the educator free that power. We believe that man's moral idealism is the constructive force of progress, as it has always been; but because every human being is a creative agent and a possible generator of fine enthusiasm, we are skeptical of the moral idealism of the few and demand the education of the many, that there may be greater freedom, strength and subtlety of intercourse and hence an increase of dynamic power. We are not content to include all men in our hopes, but have become conscious that all men are hoping and are part of the same movement of which we are a part.

Many people impelled by these ideas have become impatient with the slow recognition on the part of the educators of their manifest obligation to prepare and nourish the child and the citizen for social relations. The educators should certainly conserve the learning and training necessary for the successful individual and family life, but should add to that a preparation for the enlarged social efforts which our increasing democracy requires. The democratic ideal demands of the school that it shall give the child's own experience a social value; that it shall teach him to direct his own activities and adjust them to those of other people. We are not willing that thousands of industrial workers shall put all of their activity and toil into services from which the community as a whole reaps the benefit, while their mental conceptions and code of morals are narrow and untouched by any uplift which the consciousness of social value might give them.

We are impatient with the schools which lay all stress on reading and writing, suspecting them to rest upon the assumption that the ordinary experience of life is worth little and that all knowledge and interest must be brought to the children through the medium of books. Such an assumption fails to give the child any [clue] to the life about him or any power usefully or intelligently to connect himself with it. This may be illustrated by observations made in a large Italian colony situated in Chicago, the children from which are, for the most part, sent to the public schools.

The members of the Italian colony are largely from south Italy–-Calabrian and Sicilian peasants, or Neapolitans from the workingmen's quarters of that city. They have come to America with the distinct aim of earning money and finding more room for the energies of themselves and their children. In almost all cases they mean to go back again, simply because their imaginations cannot picture a continuous life away from the old surroundings. Their experiences in Italy have been those of simple outdoor activity, and their ideas have come directly to them from their struggle with nature-–such a hand-to-hand struggle as takes place when each man gets his living largely through his own cultivation of the soil or with tools simply fashioned by his own hands. The women, as in all primitive life, have had more diversified activities than the men.  They have cooked, spun and knitted, in addition to their almost equal work in the fields. Very few of the peasant men or women can either read or write. They are devoted to their children, strong in their family feeling, even to remote relationships, and clannish in their community life.

The entire family has been upheaved and is striving to adjust itself to its new surroundings. The men for the most part work on railroad extensions through the summer, under the direction of a padrone, who finds the work for them, regulates the amount of their wages and supplies them with food. The first effect of immigration upon the women is that of idleness. They no longer work in the fields, nor milk the goats, nor pick up faggots. The mother of the family buys all the clothing, not only already spun and woven, but made up into garments of a cut and fashion beyond her powers. It is, indeed, the most economical thing for her to do. Her housecleaning and cooking are of the simplest the bread is usually baked outside of the house and the macaroni bought prepared for boiling. All of those outdoor and domestic activities which she would naturally have handed on to her daughters have slipped away from her. The domestic arts are gone, with their absorbing interest for the children, their educational value and incentive to activity. A [page 2] household in a tenement receives almost no raw material. For the hundreds of children who have never seen wheat grow there are dozens who have never seen bread baked. The occasional washings and scrubbings are associated only with discomfort. The child of such a family receives constant stimulus of most exciting sort from his city street life, but he has little or no opportunity to use his energies in domestic manufacture, or, indeed, constructively in any direction. No activity is supplied to take the place of that which, in Italy, he would naturally have found in his own surroundings, and no new union with wholesome life is made for him.

Italian parents count upon the fact that their children learn the English language and American customs before they do themselves, and the children act not only as interpreters of the language, but as buffers between them and Chicago, resulting in a certain almost pathetic dependence of the family upon the child. When a child of the family, therefore, first goes to school the event is fraught with much significance to all the others. The family has no social life in any structural form and can supply none to the child. He ought to get it in the school and give it to his family, the school thus becoming the connector with the organized society about them. It is the children aged [six,] eight and ten who go to school, entering, of course, the primary grades. If a boy is twelve or thirteen on his arrival in America, his parents see in him a wage-earning factor, and the girl of the same age is already looking toward her marriage.

Let us take one of these boys who has learned in his six or eight years to speak his native language, and to feel himself strongly identified with the fortunes of his family.  Whatever interest has come to the minds of his ancestors has come through the use of their hands in the open air; and open air and activity of body have been the inevitable accompaniments of all their experiences. Yet the first thing that the boy must do when he reaches school is to sit still, at least part of the time, and he must learn to listen to what is said to him, with all the perplexity of listening to a foreign tongue. He does not find this very stimulating, and is slow to respond to the more subtle incentives of the schoolroom. The peasant child is perfectly indifferent to showing off and making a good recitation. He leaves all that to his school fellows, who are more sophisticated and equipped with better English. His parents are not deeply interested in keeping him in school and will not hold him there against his inclination. Their experience does not point to the good American tradition that it is the educated man who finally succeeds. The richest man in the Italian colony can neither read nor write--even Italian. His cunning and acquisitiveness, combined with the credulity and ignorance of his countrymen, have slowly brought about his large fortune. The child himself may feel the stirring of a vague ambition to go on until he is as the other children are; but he is not popular with his school fellows and he sadly feels the lack of dramatic interest. Even the pictures and objects presented to him, as well as the language, are strange.

If we admit that in education it is necessary to begin with the experiences which the child already has and to use his spontaneous and social activity, then the city streets begin this education for him in a more natural way than does the school. The south Italian peasant comes from a life of picking olives and oranges, and he easily sends his children out to pick up coal from the railroad tracks, or wood from the buildings which have been burned down. Unfortunately, this process leads by easy transition to petty thieving. It is easy to go from the coal on the railroad track to the coal and wood which stand before a dealer's shop; from the potatoes which have rolled from a rumbling wagon to the vegetables displayed by the grocer.  This is apt to be the record of the boy who responds constantly to the stimulus and temptations of the street, although in the beginning his search for bits of food and fuel was prompted by the best of motives.

The school has to compete with a great deal from the outside in addition to the distractions of the neighborhood. Nothing is more fascinating than that mysterious "down town," whither the boy longs to go to sell papers and black boots, to attend theaters, and, if possible, to stay all night on the pretense of waiting for the early edition of the great dailies. If a boy is once thoroughly caught in these excitements, nothing can save him from over-stimulation and consequent debility and worthlessness; he arrives at maturity with no habits of regular work and with a distaste for its dullness.

On the other hand, there are hundreds of boys of various nationalities who conscientiously remain in school and fulfill all the requirements of the early grades, and at the age of fourteen are found in factories, painstakingly performing their work year after year. These latter are the men who form the mass of the population in every industrial neighborhood of every large city; but they carry on the industrial process year after year without in the least knowing what it is all about. The one fixed habit which the boy carries away with him from school to the factory is the feeling that his work is merely provisional. In school the next grade was continually held before him as an object of attainment, and it resulted in the conviction that the sole object of present effort is to get ready for something else. This tentative attitude takes the last bit of social stimulus out of his factory work; he pursues it merely as a necessity, and his very mental attitude destroys his chance for a realization of its social value. As a boy in school he contracted the habit of doing his work in certain hours and taking his pleasure in certain other hours, so in the factory he earns his money by ten hours of dull work and spends it in three hours of lurid and unprofitable pleasure in the evening. Both in the school and in the factory, in proportion as his work grows dull and monotonous, his recreation must become more exciting and stimulating. The hopelessness of adding evening classes and social entertainments as a mere frill to a day filled with monotonous and deadening drudgery constantly becomes more apparent to those who are endeavoring to bring a fuller life to the industrial members of the community, and who are looking forward to a time when work shall cease to be senseless drudgery with no self-expression on the part of the worker. It sometimes seems that the public schools should contribute much more than they do to the consummation of this time. If the army of school children who enter the factories every year possessed thoroughly vitalized faculties they might do much to lighten this incubus of dull factory work which presses so heavily upon so large a number of our fellow citizens. Has our commercialism [page 3] been so strong that our schools have become insensibly commercialized, whereas we supposed that our industrial life was receiving the broadening and illuminating effects of the schools? The training of these children so far as it has been vocational at all has been in the direction of clerical work. It is possible that the business men, whom we in America so tremendously admire, have really been dictating the curriculum of our public schools, in spite of the conventions of educators and the suggestions of university professors. The business men, of course, has not said, "I will have the public schools train office boys and clerks so that I may have them easily and cheaply," but he has sometimes said, "Teach the children to write legibly and to figure accurately and quickly; to acquire habits of punctuality and order; to be prompt to obey; and you will fit them to make their way in the world as I have made mine." Has the workingman been silent as to what he desires for his children and allowed the business man to decide for him there, as he has allowed the politician to manage his municipal affairs, or has the workingman so far shared our universal optimism that he has really believed that his children would never need to go into industrial life at all, but that all of his sons would become bankers and merchants?

Certain it is that no sufficient study has been made of the child who enters into industrial life early and stays there permanently, to give him some offset to its monotony and dullness, some historic significance of the part he is taking in the life of the community.

It is at least on behalf of the average workingman that our increasing democracy impels us to make a new demand upon the educator. As the political expression of democracy has claimed for the workingman the free right of citizenship, so a code of social ethics is now insisting that he shall be a conscious member of society, having some notion of his social and industrial value.

The early ideal of a city that it was a marketplace in which to exchange produce and a mere trading-post for merchants apparently still survives in our minds and is constantly reflected in our schools. We have either failed to realize that cities have become great centers of production and manufacture in which a huge population is engaged, or we have lacked sufficient presence of mind to adjust ourselves to the change. We admire much more the men who accumulate riches and who gather to themselves the results of industry, than the men who actually carry forward industrial processes; and, as has been pointed out, our schools still prepare children almost exclusively for commercial and professional life.

Quite as the country boy dreams of leaving the farm for life in town and begins early to imitate the traveling salesman in dress and manner, so the school boy within the town hopes to be an office boy, and later a clerk or salesman, and looks upon work in the factory as the occupation of ignorant and unsuccessful men. The schools do so little really to interest the child in the life of production or to excite his ambition in the line of industrial occupation that the ideal of life, almost from the very beginning, becomes not an absorbing interest in one's work and a consciousness of its value and social relation, but a desire for money with which unmeaning purchases may be made and an unmeaning social standing obtained.

The son of a workingman who is successful in commercial life impresses his family and neighbors quite as does the prominent city man when he comes back to dazzle his native town. The children of the working people learn many useful things in the public schools, but the commercial arithmetics and many other studies are founded on the tacit assumption that a boy rises in life by getting away from manual labor-–that every promising boy goes into business or a profession. The children destined for factory life are furnished with what would be most useful under other conditions, quite as the prosperous farmer's wife buys a folding bed for her huge four-cornered "spare room," because her sister, who has married a city man, is obliged to have a folding bed in the cramped limits of her flat. Partly because so little is done for him educationally and partly because he must live narrowly and dress meanly, the life of the average laborer tends to become flat and monotonous, with nothing in his work to feed his mind or hold his interest. Theoretically we would all admit that the man at the bottom, who performs the meanest and humblest work, so long as the work is necessary, performs a useful function but we do not live up to our theories, and in addition to his hard and uninteresting work he is covered with a sort of contempt, and unless he falls into illness or trouble he receives little sympathy or attention. Certainly no serious effort is made to give him a participation in the social and industrial life with which he comes in contact, nor any insight and inspiration regarding it.

Apparently we have not yet recovered manual labor from the deep distrust which centuries of slavery and the feudal system have cast upon it. To get away from menial work, to do obviously little with one's hands is still the desirable status.  This may readily be seen all along the line. A workingman's family will make every effort and sacrifice that the brightest daughter be sent to the high school and through the normal school, quite as much because a teacher in the family raises the general social standing and sense of family consequence as that the returns are superior to factory or even office work. "Teacher" in the vocabulary of many children is a synonym for women-folk gentry; and the name is indiscriminately applied to women of certain dress and manner. The same desire for social advancement is expressed by the purchasing of a piano or the fact that the son is an office boy and not a factory hand. The overcrowding of the professions by poorly equipped men arises from much the same source, and from the conviction that "an education" is wasted if a boy goes into a factory or a shop.

A Chicago manufacturer tells a story of twin boys, whom he befriended and meant to give a start in life.  He sent them both to the Athenaeum for several winters as a preparatory business training and then took them into his office, where they speedily became known as the bright one and the stupid one. The stupid one was finally dismissed after repeated trials, when, to the surprise of the entire establishment, he quickly betook himself into the shops, where he became a wide-awake and valuable workman. His chagrined benefactor, in telling the story, admits that he himself had fallen a victim to [page 4] his own business training and his early notion of rising in life. In reality he had merely followed the lead of most benevolent people who help poor boys. They test the success of their efforts by the number whom they have taken out of factory work into some other and "higher occupation."

Quite in line with this commercial ideal are the night schools and institutions of learning most accessible to working people. First among them is the business college which teaches largely the mechanism of typewriting and bookkeeping and lays all the stress upon commerce and methods of distribution. Commodities are treated as exports and imports, or solely in regard to their commercial value, and not, of course, in relation to their historic development or the manufacturing process to which they have been subjected. These schools do not in the least minister to the needs of the actual factory employee, who is in the shop and not in the office. We assume that all men are searching for "puddings and power," to use Carlyle's phrase, and furnish only the schools which help them to those ends.

The business college man, or even the man who goes through an academic course in order to prepare for a profession, comes to look on learning too much as an investment from which he will later reap the benefits in earning money. He does not connect learning with industrial pursuits, nor does he in the least lighten or illuminate those pursuits for those of his friends who have not risen in life. "It is as though nets were laid at the entrance to education, in which those who by some means or other escape from the masses bowed down by labor are inevitably caught and held from substantial service to their fellows." The academic teaching which is accessible to workingmen through university extension lectures and classes at settlements is usually bookish and remote, and concerning subjects completely divorced from their actual experiences. The men come to think of learning as something to be added to the end of a hard day's work and to be gained at the cost of toilsome mental exertion. There are, of course, exceptions, but many men who persist in attending classes and lectures year after year find themselves possessed of a mass of inert knowledge which nothing in their experience fuses into availability or realization.

Among the many disappointments which the settlement experiment has brought to its promoters perhaps none is keener than the fact that they have as yet failed to work out methods of education, specialized and adapted to the needs of adult working people in contradistinction to those employed in schools and colleges or those used in teaching children. There are many excellent reasons and explanations for this failure. In the first place, the residents themselves are for the most part imbued with academic methods and ideals, which it is most difficult to modify. To quote from a late settlement report, "The most vaunted educational work in settlements amounts often to the stimulation mentally of a select few who are, in a sense, of the academic type of mind, and who easily and quickly respond to the academic methods employed." These classes may be valuable, but they leave quite untouched the great mass of the factory population, the ordinary workingman of the ordinary workingman's street, whose attitude is best described as that of "acquiescence," who lives through the aimless passage of years without incentive "to imagine, to design or to aspire."

These men are totally untouched by all the educational and philanthropic machinery which is designed for the young and the helpless who live on the same streets with them. They do not often drink to excess, they regularly give all their wages to their wives, they have a vague pride in their superior children; but they grow prematurely old and stiff in their muscles and become more and more taciturn, their entire energies consumed in "holding a job."

Various attempts have been made to break through the inadequate educational facilities supplied by commercialism and scholarship, both of which have followed their own ideals and have failed to look at the situation as it actually presents itself. The most noteworthy attempt has been the movement toward industrial education, the agitation for which has been ably seconded by manufacturers of a practical type, who have from time to time founded the endowed technical schools designed for workingmen's sons. The early schools of this type inevitably reflected the ideal of the self-made man. They succeeded in transferring a few skilled workers into the class of trained engineers, and a few less skilled workers into the upper class of trained mechanics, but did not aim to educate the many who are doomed to the unskilled work which the permanent specialization of the division of labor demands.

The Peter Coopers and other good men honestly believed that if intelligence could be added to industry each workingman who faithfully attended these schools could walk into increased skill and wages, and in time even become an employer himself. Such schools are useful beyond doubt; but so far as educating workingmen is concerned or in any measure satisfying the democratic ideal, they plainly beg the question.

Almost every large city has two or three polytechnic institutions founded by rich men anxious to help "poor boys." These have been captured by conventional educators for the purpose of fitting young men for the college and universities.  They have compromised by merely adding to the usual academic course manual work, applied mathematics, mechanical drawing and engineering. Two schools in Chicago, plainly founded for the sons of workingmen, afford an illustration of this tendency and result. On the other hand, so far as schools of this type have been captured by commercialism, they turn out trained engineers, professional chemists and electricians. They are polytechnics of a high order, but do not even pretend to admit the workingman with his meager intellectual equipment. They graduate machine builders, but do not educate machine tenders. Even the textile schools are largely seized by young men who expect to be superintendents of factories, designers or manufacturers themselves, and the textile worker who actually "holds the thread" is seldom seen in them; indeed, in one of the largest schools women are not allowed, in spite of the fact that spinning and weaving have traditionally been woman's work and that thousands of women are at present employed in the textile mills.

It is much easier to go over the old paths of education with "manual training" thrown in, as it were; it is much simpler to appeal to the old ambitions of "getting on in life," or of "preparing for [page 5] a profession," or "for a commercial career," than to work out now methods on democratic lines. These schools gradually drop back into the conventional courses, modified in some slight degree, while the adoption of workingmen's needs is never made, nor, indeed, vigorously attempted. In the meantime the manufacturers continually protest that engineers, especially trained for devising machines, are not satisfactory. Three generations of workers have invented, but we are told that invention no longer goes on in the workshop, even when it is artificially stimulated by the offer of prizes, and that the inventions of the last quarter of the nineteenth century have by no means fulfilled the promise of the earlier three-quarters.

Every foreman in a large factory has had experience with two classes of men--first, with those who become rigid and tolerate no change in their work, partly because they make more money "working by the piece," when they stick to that work which they have learned to do rapidly, and partly because the entire muscular and nervous system has become by daily use adapted to particular motions and resents change. Secondly, there are the men who float in and out of the factory in a constantly changing stream. They "quit work" for the slightest reason or none at all, and never become skilled at anything.  Some of them are men of low intelligence, but many of them are merely too nervous and restless, too impatient, too easily "driven to drink," to be of any use in a modern factory. They are the men for whom the demanded adaptation is impossible.

The individual from whom the industrial order demands even larger drafts of time and energy should be nourished and enriched from social sources in proportion as he is drained. He, more than other men, needs the conception of historic continuity in order to reveal to him the purpose and utility of his work, and he can only be stimulated and dignified as he obtains a conception of his proper relation to society. Scholarship is evidently unable to do this for him; for, unfortunately, the same tendency to division of labor has also produced over-specialization in scholarship, with the sad result that when the scholar attempts to minister to a worker he gives him the result of more specialization rather than an offset from it. He cannot bring healing and solace because he himself is suffering from the same disease. There is indeed a deplorable lack of perception and adaptation on the part of educators all along the line.

It will certainly be embarrassing to have our age written down triumphant in the matter of inventions, in that our factories were filled with intricate machines, the result of advancing mathematical and mechanical knowledge in relation to manufacturing processes, but defeated in that it lost its head over the achievement and forgot the men. The accusation would stand that the age failed to perform a like service in the extension of history and art to the factory employees who ran the machines; that the machine tenders, heavy and almost dehumanized by monotonous toil, walked about in the same streets with us and sat in the same cars; but that we were absolutely indifferent and made no genuine effort to supply to them the artist's perception or student's insight, which alone could fuse them into social consciousness. It would further stand that the scholars among us continued with yet more research, that the educators were concerned only with the young and the promising, and the philanthropists with the criminals and helpless. 

There is a pitiful failure to recognize the situation in which the majority of working people are placed, a tendency to ignore their real experience and needs, and, most stupid of all, we leave quite untouched affections and memories which would afford a tremendous dynamic if they were utilized.

We constantly hear it said in educational circles that a child learns only by "doing" and that education must proceed "through the eyes and hands to the brain"; and yet for the vast number of people all around us who do not need to have activities artificially provided and who use their hands and eyes all the time we do not seem able to reverse the process. We quote the dictum, "What is learned in the schoolroom must be applied in the workshop," and yet the skill and handicraft constantly used in the workshop have no relevance or meaning given to them by the school; and when we do try to help the workingman in an educational way we completely ignore his everyday occupation. Yet the task is merely one of adaptation. It is to take actual conditions and to make them the basis for a large and generous method of education, to perform a difficult idealization doubtless, but not an impossible one.

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