Children's Literature

An Educational Experiment

William E. Bohn

First Published: 1917;
Source: The Class Struggle, Vol I., No. 1, May-June, 1917;
HTML Markup: For in June, 2002.

We are expending some $600,000,000 a year on public education. This gigantic sum is spent with little thought about the quantity or quality of the product. Armor plate delivered to the government is carefully tested; we do not even know how to make a test of our educational purchase. The government itself, under which our elaborate educational operations are carried on, fails to recognize the need of a test. The various surveys which have been undertaken deal more with machinery than with the character of the product. For such an evaluation involves a study of our whole social structure, a determination of the purposes of education. And such a study no expert "surveyor" has been authorized to make. Imagine an ordinance board test armor plate without knowing what purpose it is to serve!

For the past dozen years there has been a vast deal of talk about these matters. The more intelligent part of the nation is thoroughly wrought up over the formal and definitely unsatisfactory character of the work done in the public schools. Hosts of teachers and school administrators have been thinking and talking. But the school authorities, those who hold the pursestrings and direct our educational destinies, have taken little part in all this. The people, acting through their officials, have neither formulated ideals nor provided for experiments looking in that direction.

Now enters the General Education Board and announces a well-financed plan for an adequate experimental school. At the present writing, more than three months after the formal announcement, the discussion of it has been lamentably unproductive of enlightened opinion. One party, a large and vociferous one, raises the ancient cry that this is but one step more away from Latin and toward perdition. Another group, including some Socialists, conceals its lack of thought by denouncing Mr. John D. Rockefeller. This proceeding is particularly irritating to anyone who is interested in education. If the people of the United States allow Mr. Rockefeller's General Board to carry on the much-needed work of experimentation they have no right to complain of the result. The work must be done. If the people, through their authorized agents, do not do it, the General Board will. At any rate, the new school must be judged on purely educational grounds.

At the present time materials for a serious appraisal of this venture are very slender. We have, of course, the formal statement of the Board and various books and articles representing the opinions and purposes of its experts. The new institution, to be called the Lincoln School, can be known only by its fruits. A really experimental process will naturally be a variable one, and variably successful. Prophesies as to its usefulness are rather less valuable than the weather forecasts of a Hicks Almanac. Nevertheless it may be worth while to consider briefly the general tendencies indicated by such outlines of the experiment as are available.

The formal announcement issued to the public on January 20 makes mention of two pamphlets. Ex-President Eliot's Changes Needed in American Secondary Education and Dr. Abraham Flexner's A Modern School. Moreover all of the definite suggestions contained in the announcement indicate that the sponsors for the project based their action on the principles outlined in these two works. It is to their pages, then, that one goes for hints as to the temper, the point of view, the educational theories of men who will control the destinies of the Lincoln School.

Both documents are frankly and refreshingly iconoclastic. Their bias is, firstly, scientific, and, secondly, American. To one who has labored through volumes of philosophically European pedagogy their unconventional method of attack brings something of shock but more of relief. They say, quite simply, science is the great thing in the modern world, so our young people must be trained to observe and to think. Or, they argue, here we are, a great nation with certain social problems born of our new time; therefore let us teach what our young people need to know in order that the nation may grow and justify itself. For a good part of the time Dr. Flexner is close on the track of Pestalozzi, but never once does he name that revered saint. He puts the matter on a recognized, common-sense American basis; why all this fuss about words? It is knowledge of things anti ability to think that count. Hitherto America has bowed so humbly before Europe in matters of educational theory that this freshness of attack contains a promise of change if not of improvement.

The purpose of the modern school is to train the young person "to know, to care about, and to understand the world he lives in, both physical and the social world." "The object in view," we are told in another sentence, "is to give children the knowledge they need, and to give them the power to handle themselves in our own world." No subject-matter or activity is to be accepted on the strength of its traditional claim. A positive case must be made out for each item in the program. The pupil may be forced to learn some things that run counter to the grain of his liking. But the teacher must be quite certain that knowledge of them will serve directly some useful purpose. Nothing is to be taught for the sake of discipline. The learners will get their discipline just as we all get our real discipline; that is, by doing real things, solving real problems. "It is indeed absurd to invent formal difficulties for the professed purpose of discipline, when, within the limits of science, industry, literature, and politics real problems abound." So says Dr. Flexner.

Coming more definitely to the character of the curriculum, Dr. Flexner divides the field of activities into four parts: science, industry, esthetics, and civics. A more formal person would have talked of mind and soul on the one hand and of industry and politics on the other. The most significant sentence in his whole discussion is this: "The work in science would be the central and dominating feature of the school." There we have it. This school is to be characterized by the domination of the men of science. Dr. Flexner is perfectly correct in saying that even in our most advanced schools the nature-study work in the grades has been "too incidental." And there is much truth in his remark that the physics and chemistry taught in our high schools is too abstract. The science-teaching, in short, has not been organic; it has not grown with the child, has not been a part of his life. In the new "modern" school the child's whole development is to be based on observation and the consequent natural development of reason. One feels in reading the paragraphs devoted to science that the author speaks with enthusiasm and authority. It is here that he is delivering his real message.

The treatment of industry is far less satisfactory. In this field Dr. Flexner sees little beyond the possibilities of educational experience. Dr. Eliot's discussion of the subject is fuller and more sympathetic. He dwells on the educative value of industry as carried on in the old-fashioned home and in the guilds of former centuries, and then goes on to discuss the part that formal education must play in the industry of our time.

The discussion of esthetics is, in proportion, sufficiently extended, but in spirit and technical grasp it falls below the other sections. Under this head Dr. Flexner includes all the child's art activities, recreations and sports. No classics in literature, painting, or music are to be forced upon the pupil's attention. By every method that proves effective his real interest in the various arts is to be "carried as far and as high as is for him possible." He seems fearful lest his critics may think he has in mind the training of "makers of art." In all this discussion he seems to me to miss the real point. He does not perceive the fundamentally artistic nature of the child. Nor does he see how the art-instinct plays into the whole of life. Dr. Eliot devotes a paragraph to the fact that America has lost immeasurably through the inherited Puritan prejudice against fine art studies. Unconsciously both he and Dr. Flexner are proving this thesis. They believe in the value of dance and song and poem and picture. They know, too, that the children must approach them unconventionally and actively. But they fall far short of ancient Plato in realization of the power of beauty as an organizer of life's forces.

In view of our manifold social problems, the subject of civics is treated in step-motherly fashion. Dr. Flexner merely shows that history should be taught with an eye to "modern needs and demands." There is little enthusiasm here, little sense of the crying need for young men and women of clear insight, sure knowledge, and high ideals.

As to possible results of the operations of the new school, Dr. Flexner is modest enough. The pupils who attend it will; he expects, develop into effective, social units, and he makes haste to add, the freedom permitted them should stir their souls and develop their spiritual interests. But the school is founded with the desire of wielding influence over other schools, of reaching out far beyond the circles of young people directly taught in its class-rooms. The setting up of positive standards, the encouragement given to the inquiring spirit will, he hopes, do much to hasten a change in our system of education as a whole.

In its general features, then, the outlines of the new educational experiment may be said to constitute the contribution of the men of science to our educational theory. Dr. Flexner's pamphlet is the lineal descendent of Huxley's Essay on a Liberal Education. This aspect of the project should be frankly accepted as a great advance. The knowledge which we sum up under the term science is the characteristic knowledge of our time. The man of science is our priest; the laboratory is our holy of holies. Here men come nearest to the secrets that control our lives. Here they tap the currents of power which how out in new forms of civilization. Since this is true, an educational system growing normally out of our thought should be dominated by the scientific spirit.

In another respect, too, this plan is of our own stuff. I have spoken of the characteristically American disregard of great names and philosophical refinements. This approaches now and then almost to a charming-naivete. The easy optimism, also, is a product of our own spirit. Our optimism is, in part, based on a sublime faith in mechanism. It belongs naturally to a scientific and mechanical age. A civilization which tears down fourteen-story buildings in favor of forty-story ones and scraps last year's machinery for this year's model is naturally inclined to believe that cutting loose from the traditional system will quickly solve our problems. The spirit of the men behind this plan is typically American, too, in looking for immediate usefulness. The worst thing and the best thing said of us is that we are "practical." Well, this is the "practical" experiment in education. It is difficult to state these facts without seeming to be critical of them or sceptical as to their worth. But if we are ever to have a theory of life or a system of education based on what our life really is, they must grow out of just such connections as these. If our schools are to serve our needs and to grow with our growth they must be weak where we are weak and strong where our strength lies. So I, for one, am prepared to recognize the very punctiousness of Dr. Flexner's observations as a sign of progress. We should get on faster if we were to strike out thus freely in all lines of intellectual and artistic activity.

But in one important respect the authors of the plan show all the limitations of their class. They have little realization of the social demands which America has a right to lay upon her schools. They are, apparently, hardly conscious of the social problems which the coming generation will face with the equipment which their school is to give. They would say, if they were cross examined that a person trained to face real problems in a realistic way is fitted to attack the high cost of living or the struggle of capital and labor. And we should be forced to agree that a young scientist is better fitted for life than a young linguist. But we can surely do most for our young people if we begin our educational thinking by taking a look at them. We must study their present limitations. We must know their tastes, their ambitions, and the future that awaits them. Then the special school environment which we provide can be so fashioned as to fit them for the problems which they will face. This is what Dr. Eliot and Dr. Flexner have not done. Dr. Flexner, in fact, bases his theorizing on the supposition that education normally should come to an end at the age of twenty. Much of what he proposes would be applicable equally to those who leave the schoolroom at fourteen. But surely the programs for the two classes would differ in many points. And there are many suggestions which lead one to think that he has in mind the professional classes rather than the manual workers.

There is a lack, it should be noted in conclusion, of recognition for the intellectual and spiritual stimulous which comes from social ideals. What are the young people to be educated for? What is to be the end of it all? Efficiency? Efficiency in what or to what end? What is to rouse the kindling enthusiasm of our aspiring boys and girls? There is to be a breaking away from the past, progress. Toward what? This lack of a social concept is the fundamental weakness of the whole project.