Educational Methods as they Relate to Labor Issues, March 25, 1904

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Chicago Teachers' Federation

CHICAGO, MARCH 25, 1904.


As They Relate to Labor Unions.

From "Democracy and Social Ethics."


We apparently believe that the workingman has no chance to realize life through his vocation. We easily recognize the historic association in regard to ancient buildings. We say that "generation after generation have stamped their mark upon them, have recorded their thoughts in them, until they have become the property of all." And yet this is even more true of the instruments of labor, which have constantly been held in human hands. A machine really represents the "seasoned life of man" preserved and treasured up within itself, quite as much as an ancient building does. At present, workmen are brought in contact with the machinery with which they work as abruptly as if the present set of industrial implements had been newly created. They handle the machinery day by day, without any notion of its gradual evolution and growth. Few of the men who perform the mechanical work in the great factories have any comprehension of the fact that the inventions upon which the factory depends, the instruments which they use, have been slowly worked out, each generation using the gifts of the last and transmitting the inheritance until it has become a social possession. This can only be understood by a man who has obtained some idea of social progress. We are still childishly pleased when we see the further subdivision of labor going on, because the quantity of the output is increased thereby, and we apparently are unable to take our attention away from the product long enough to really focus it upon the producer. Theoretically, "the division of labor" makes men more interdependent and human by drawing them together into a unity of purpose. "If a number of people decide to build a road, and one digs, and one brings stones, and another breaks them, they are quite inevitably united by their interest in the road. But this naturally presupposes that they know where the road is going to, that they have some curiosity and interest about it, and perhaps a chance to travel upon it." If the division of labor robs them of interest in any part of it the mere mechanical fact of interdependence amounts to nothing.

The man in the factory, as well as the man with the hoe, has a grievance beyond being overworked and disinherited, in that he does not know what it is all about. We may well regret the passing of the time when the variety of work performed in the unspecialized workshop naturally stimulated the intelligence of the workingmen and brought them into contact both with the raw material and the finished product. But the problem of education, as any advanced educator will tell us, is to supply the essentials of experience by a short cut, as it were. If the shop constantly tends to make the workman a specialist, then the problem of the educator in regard to him is quite clear: it is to give him what may be an offset from the over-specialization of his daily work, to supply him with general information and to insist that he shall be a cultivated member of society with a consciousness of his industrial and social value.

As sad a sight as an old hand-loom worker in a factory attempting to make his clumsy machine compete with the flying shuttles about him, is a workingman equipped with knowledge so [meager] that he can get no meaning into his life nor sequence between his acts and the far-off results.

Manufacturers, as a whole, however, when they attempt educational institutions in connection with their factories, are prone to follow conventional lines and to exhibit the weakness of imitation. We find, indeed, that the middle-class educator constantly makes the mistakes of the middle-class moralist when he attempts to aid working people. The latter has constantly and traditionally urged upon the workingman the specialized virtues of thrift, industry and sobriety—all virtues pertaining to the individual. When each man had his own shop it was perhaps wise to lay almost exclusive stress upon the industrial virtues of diligence and thrift; but as industry has become more highly organized life becomes incredibly complex and interdependent. If a workingman is to have a conception of his value at all he must see industry in its unity and entirety he must have a conception that will include not only himself and his immediate family and community, but the industrial organization as a whole. It is doubtless true that dexterity of hand becomes less and less imperative as the invention of machinery and subdivision of labor proceeds; but it becomes all [page 2] the more necessary, if the workman is to save his life at all that he should get a sense of his individual relation to the system. Feeding a machine with a material of which he has no knowledge, producing a product totally unrelated to the rest of his life, without in the least knowing what becomes of it or its connection with the community, is, of course, unquestionably deadening to his intellectual and moral life. To make the moral connection it would be necessary to give him a social consciousness of the value of his work, and at least a sense of participation and a certain joy in its ultimate use; to make the intellectual connection it would be essential to create in him some historic conception of the development of industry and the relation of his individual work to it.

Workingmen themselves have made attempts in both directions, which it would be well for moralists and educators to study. It is a striking fact that when workingmen formulate their own moral code, and try to inspire and encourage each other it is always a large and general doctrine which they preach. They were the first class of men to organize an international association, and the constant talk at a modern labor meeting is of solidarity and of the identity of the interests of workingmen the world over. It is difficult to secure a successful organization of men into the simplest trades organization without an appeal to the most abstract principles of justice and brotherhood. As they have formulated their own morals by laying the greatest stress upon the largest morality, so if they could found their own schools it is doubtful whether they would be of the mechanic institute type. Courses of study arranged by a group of workingmen are most naïve in their breadth and generality. They will select the history of the world in preference to that of any period or nation. The "wonders of science" or "the story of evolution" will attract workingmen to a lecture when zoology or chemistry will drive them away. The "outlines of literature" or "the best in literature" will draw an audience when a lecturer in English poetry will be solitary. This results partly from a wholesome desire to have general knowledge before special knowledge, and is partly a rebound from the specialization of labor to which the workingman is subjected. When he is free from work and can direct his own mind he tends to roam, to dwell upon large themes. Much the same tendency is found in programs of study arranged by woman's clubs in country places. The untrained mind, wearied with meaningless detail, when it gets an opportunity to make its demand heard, asks for general philosophy and background.

In a certain sense commercialism itself, at least in its larger aspect, tends to educate the workingman better than organized education does. Its interests are certainly world-wide and democratic, while it is absolutely undiscriminating as to country and [creed, coming into contact with all climes and races. If this aspect of commercialism were utilized, it would in a measure counterbalance the tendency which results from the subdivision of labor.

The most noteworthy attempt to utilize this] democracy of commerce in relation to manufacturing is found in Dayton, Ohio, in the yearly gatherings held in a large factory there. Once a year the entire force is gathered together to hear the returns of the business, not so much in respect to the profits as in regard to its extension. At these meetings the travelling salesmen from various parts of the world -- from Constantinople, from Berlin, from Rome from [Hong Kong] --report upon the sales they have made, and the methods of advertisement and promotion adapted to the various countries.

Stereopticon lectures are given upon each new country as soon as it has been successfully invaded by the product of the factory. The foremen in the various departments of the factory give accounts of the increased efficiency and the larger output over former years. Any man who has made an invention in connection with the machinery of the factory at this time publicly receives a prize, and suggestions are approved that tend to increase the comfort and social facilities of the employees. At least for the moment there is a complete esprit de corps, and the youngest and least skilled employee sees himself in connection with the interests of the firm and the spread of an invention. It is a crude example of what might be done in the way of giving a large framework of meaning to factory labor and of putting it into a sentient background, at least on the commercial side.

It is easy to indict the educator, to say that he has gotten entangled in his own material and has fallen a victim to his own methods; but granting this, what has the artist done about it -- he who is supposed to have a more intimate insight into the needs of his contemporaries and to minister to them as none other can?

It is quite true that a few writers are insisting that the growing desire for labor, on the part of many people of leisure, has its counterpart in the increasing desire for general knowledge on the part of many laborers. They point to the fact that the same quality of conscience which seems to stifle the noblest effort in the individual because his intellectual conception and his achievement are so difficult to bring together is found on a large scale in society itself, when we have the separation of the people who think from those who work. And yet, since Ruskin ceased, no one has really formulated this in a convincing form. And even Ruskin's famous dictum that labor without art brutalizes has always been interpreted as if art could only be a sense of beauty or joy in one's own work, and not a sense of companionship with all other workers. The situation demands the consciousness of participation and well-being which comes to the individual when he is able to see himself "in connection and cooperation with the whole"; it needs the solace of collective art inherent in collective labor.

As the poet bathes the outer world for us in the hues of human feeling, so the workman needs some one to bathe his surroundings with a human significance -- some one who shall teach him to find that which will give a potency to his life. His education, however simple, should tend to make him widely at home in the world and to give him a sense of simplicity and peace in the midst of the triviality and noise to which he is constantly subjected. He, like our men, can learn to be content to see but a part, although it must be a part of something.

It is because of a lack of democracy that we do not really incorporate him in the hopes and advantages of society and give him the place which is his by simple right. We have learned to say that the good must be extended to all of society before it can be held secure by any one person or any one class; but we have not yet learned to add to that statement that unless all men and all classes contribute to a good, we cannot even be sure that it is worth having. In spite of many attempts we do not really act upon either statement.

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