May Wood Simmons 1901

Education and Socialism

Source: International Socialist Review, Vol 1, No. 10, April 1, 1901;
Transcribed: Sally Ryan for in 2000.

IT will be the aim of this paper to outline some of the features of our present educational system, the revolutionary tendency that is now pervading it, and finally the changes that socialism would bring, for in no department of social activity shall we see a greater or more vital revolution than in the methods and object of education.

To state exactly the object of education both the sociological and the biological side must be taken into consideration. That the social phase of education has been largely ignored in the past may be seen from the following definitions taken from the older writers.

Plato says, “The purpose of education is to give to the body and to the soul all the beauty and all the perfection of which they are capable.”

Kant defines education as “the development in man of all the perfections which his nature permits.”

With John Stuart Mill “education includes whatever we do for ourselves, and whatever is done for as by others for the express purpose of bringing us nearer to the perfection of our nature.”

Herbert Spencer briefly states that “Education is the preparation for complete living.”

Rosseau contents himself with the following indefinite generality: “Education is the art of bringing up children and of forming men.”

In Horace Mann we see the beginnings of a new idea in education: “By the word ’education’ I mean much more than the ability to read, write and keep common accounts. I comprehend under this noble word such a training of the body as shall build it up with robustness and vigor, at once protecting it from disease and enabling it to act formatively upon the crude substances of nature–to turn a wilderness into cultivated fields, forests into ships, or quarries and clay pits into villages and cities. I mean also to include such a cultivation of the intellect as shall enable it to discover those permanent and mighty laws which pervade all parts of the created universe whether material or spiritual. This is necessary because if we act in obedience to these laws all the resistless forces of nature become our auxiliaries and cheer us on to certain prosperity and triumph. But if we act in contravention or defiance to these laws, then nature resists, thwarts, baffles us, and in the end it is just as certain that she will overwhelm us with ruin as it is that God is stronger than man.”

Looked at from the standpoint of society as well as of the individual education means not only the adaptation of the individual to his surroundings, but the training of him to understand his environment and thus the giving to him the power to modify and change it.

Take for example the physical sciences. Education along this line would require an actual understanding for instance of the ways of applying energy–by means of the lever and inclined plane with their modifications–of the nature and modes of action of electricity, the combinations resulting from the union of different chemical elements, etc.

This knowledge could then be used either in new inventions or in handling present instruments and materials.

Again the value of history in education does not consist in the mere knowledge of events or even the exercise of memory on the part of the individual, but in the principles for the guiding of future society that may be drawn from past events.

The power to read is not in itself an education, but the ability, by means of which to gain, for use, the knowledge of facts that have been stored up by other minds. This educative value of reading, this spontaneous making the thought of the author our own, has been largely destroyed by the formal methods of teaching the subject which have created a habit of observing words and their forms, and that only.

Like all things, however, education has been shaped in the past by the economic conditions and needs of society. Long after the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries education was chiefly characterized by a ponderous scholasticism. The artisan, not looked upon as in any sense a ’scholar,’ was the only one who with a trained eye and hand could design and make things.

The past century has been a commercial age. It has been marked by great inventions, a vast increase in trading, an enormous production of goods and a growing intricacy of diplomatic relations. A careful survey of present educational methods and subjects of study must convince one that our schools are made to further the interests of the ruling industrial and commercial class of the time.

The technical school that practically serves the purpose of training passably good engineers and mechanics has marked the past few years. It is owing to these technical schools that Germany is to-day becoming able to compete with England both in foreign markets and at home. These best technical schools turn out such a vast number of trained workmen that, underbidding each other in the labor market, their value has decreased until Germany has the cheapest skilled workmen to be found.

Plans are now under way to establish a commercial school at Berlin in which the study of English will be an especial feature. The reason for this is plain. Not only a great portion of Germany’s export trade goes to English speaking countries, but English is fast becoming the language of commerce, and a knowledge of it will enable her merchants to push their trade more effectually.

It is interesting also to note the founding of large schools of diplomacy. When modern inventions have put great nations into proximity, and relations are strained, and it has become a matter of nations competing for trade and struggling for territory, it is essential that capital should have trained diplomats to skillfully adjust conditions in foreign markets and political circles and thus guard the interests of the ruling class. Such a school is founded in connection with Columbian University at Washington.

Mr. Gunton says in his magazine that more interest should be taken in these schools because–and here he gives the capitalists’ only reason for education–"of the expansion of American trade.” It is in this way that education, which should aim at a rounded man and womanhood, is being used for the benefit entirely of the ruling class.

The American manufacturer has heretofore been obliged to draw his designers and workmen of especial skill from foreign schools, but now he sees that it is far more economical to found such schools at home, either private or public, and use them to produce a limitless supply of skilled laborers who, competing with each other, will lower wages.

A recent report of the Bureau of Labor Statistics gives the following as one of the reasons for introducing manual training into schools: “Parents realizing that employers will insist that the boy ’start at the bottom in any industry’ decide that he must begin to gain the industrial experience which will increase his wages at as early an age as possible, rather than to continue in school to learn the, things which they feel will never be of real use to him.”

It is with difficulties such as these that the new education finds itself confronted from the first. Like all revolutionary movements, for that is what in its essence the new education is, it finds the old system which it has outgrown–seeing itself unable to check the new movement–seeking to pervert it to its own benefit. Hence the ruling class see only in domestic science as taught in the schools the means for training more competent servants or in the sloyd work the making of better carpenters.

Our system of industry to-day demands no individuality of the immense body of workmen. It has grown so far mechanical that in the great industrial establishments there is small need for the inventor or artist. This is not contradictory with the statement before of the demand for skilled workmen. Skilled workmen in no way presuppose workmen with any individuality developed.

Our school system has not advanced beyond the demands of the economic conditions. It has the same leveling effect. So many children promoted into a certain grade. The same work and way of doing this work is required of each one. The teacher with forty or fifty children in a grade has little opportunity to study the inclinations of each child. All are made to “toe the same mark.” The whole system has become dull and mechanical. The very power of initiative is crushed out of the child.

So entirely commercial is our age that we are not surprised to find our school system run upon that basis. Sufficient school buildings there are not. In many neighborhoods we find from two to three hundred children waiting to be admitted to the kindergarten while many more are attending but half time.

The number of teachers compared with the number of pupils is altogether insufficient. Forty-five or even sixty we have seen enrolled in ward schools under one teacher. These teachers, who are always overworked, are usually utterly unable to teach anything of science. They have never themselves been trained to observe or handle real things and cannot teach the child to see.

Laboratories in physical science may appear to us well equipped considering the condition of the apparatus used in teaching physics or biology or chemistry ten years ago, but the vast majority of the schools are still poorly furnished with the materials for good work in these lines.

But we are passing at present through a period of change, from a time of commercialism and competition to an age of cooperation, and there are present among us the germs for a new growth in education. Already the awakening has begun to be felt.

Beginning as far back as Rosseau, Cemenius and Pestalozzi, an effort was made to put actual perception and observation of things by the senses in place of the mechanical instruction by word. It is not generally known, however, that it is to Robert Owen that we owe some of the first clear statements of the coming revolution in education. He was the first to look upon instruction and education from the point of view of the social organization.

A recent article in the Neue Zeit points out that he brought forward the demand that the intellectual and physical education should go hand in hand. That from the age of eight years up instruction should he united with regular labor in the house and garden. That from the thirteenth year children are to enter into the higher arts and trades and thereby be prepared to further the riches and well-being of society in the most effective manner with the greatest satisfaction to themselves. He comprehended the activity of labor in instruction not only as a necessary pedagogical end, but also as a means to the social production of goods.

The new education and socialism are being developed from the same social conditions. They have as their object the same thing–freedom. Freedom for each one to develop his own methods of thought and his own initiative. To express in material form his inner being. It is recognized that to furnish this inner man and woman with material there must be supplied to them constant contact through their senses with the outside world, for that which is produced is but what has gone in through the senses, modified by each one’s individual characteristics and tendencies.

It is for this reason that the new education emphasizes the importance of work with tools and materials that the pupil may design and work out his design in a material form. Nature studies also are a prominent feature of the new education. Trips into the country bring the city child into contact with an entirely new phase of life. He sees the seed put into the ground, its growth, the processes by which wheat is converted into flour and bread, the growth of flax, cotton and wool as materials for the manufacture of textile fabrics. This is in a sense a “return to nature,” but not the nature of Rosseau. It is a nature made large by the discoveries of science. Science has opened to us the secrets of the world’s formation, the laws of gravitation, the mysteries of the growth of physical organisms and all its secrets have been discovered only by men working in direct contact with the things they tried to reveal.

Education under socialist conditions would produce men and women, not machines. As Marx has said, the end of socialism is “an association wherein the free development of each is the condition of the free development of all,” “an economic order of society which together with the greatest possible development of social productive power secures the highest possible harmonious development of human beings.”

To-day like the press, the pulpit and the lecture room, so the school is under the control of the ruling class which uses its control for its own advantage. When capitalism has demanded technical skill its schools have produced men trained along that line; when it has required any other quality its schools have produced men with that quality; and when it has found that ignorance, docile and unquestioning, has served its purpose best it has reduced the laboring class to that condition.

To go a step further: as pointed out by Prof. John Dewey, “education should be a process or living and not a preparation for future living.” The school to-day is an unnatural life calculated only to prepare one for future work. It has no relation either with the home or society. The life of the average American student is abnormal and returns him to society both scholastic and pedantic. To-day so-called education ends with the class-room instead of all of life being an education. Even the spirit of social solidarity and mutual interest is destroyed by the present system. For one boy to assist another in his task is a thing for which to be punished.

Again, education is far more than the training of the intellect alone. It was a principle of Greek philosophy to unite instruction with music and exercise. Socialism would require and make possible the physical development as well as the mental. Productive work would be united with education. The student studying into the mechanism of the steam engine would be able to put his hands upon one and learn by use its every part.

Following the manufacture of textile goods and the development of industry he would trace it through its primitive forms, the wheel for spinning and the clumsy loom for weaving up through the complicated machinery and vast looms of a modern factory.

Studying the industries connected with the production of foodstuffs, of agriculture in general, he would go out and use the tools employed in the raising of grain and see the growth from the pointed stick with which the savage scratched the ground or the flail that our forefathers used to beat out the and threshing machine of to-day.

The pitable ignorance of our city population of anything to be found in the country, and of our country folk of great manufacturing establishments, and of the majority of our whole population of any part of actual life outside the narrow confines of their own work must be a source of wonder to future generations.

Society would thus be presented to the child in a simplified form. He would begin with the primitive stages through which society passed in savage and barbarous times and gradually ascend in his education to the complex and intricate system of modern industry. Anthropology and etymology would become live and inspiring topics.

For education to be of value it must present a unity in the things taught. Our old system has made each department of science an entirely new and foreign subject to the beginner, having no relation to anything either before or after. For instance, take geology and geography. Few have been trained to see that geography is the study of the present conditions of the earth that represent a certain stage in a long series of stages; that geology is the study of these different stages and the changes in the earth’s surface that have resulted in its present physical appearance.

Every teacher should be able to take up subjects of study in due relation to society and the science of society–sociology. So far this unity or synthesis has been a subject of discussion among philosophers, but has received slight notice from the pedagogue.

At the beginning we stated that the object of education is the adapting the individual to his surroundings and the fitting him to change and modify them. These changes should be such as would lead to the progress of humanity. In how infinitely few cases, however, has science been used to benefit the condition of the great mass of the people except when protection for the ruling class demanded that certain steps should be taken. For example, study has put on record much of value in the scientific preparation of food, in the producing of sanitary conditions, and in the prevention of diseases.

Under socialism, with pure food well prepared and healthful surroundings, we shall look to see disease practically stamped out and the life of man extended.

The century has seen great advance in science in medicine, experimental psychology and physiology; yet this knowledge is the monopoly of the few. As shown by Kropotkin in his “Appeal to the Young": “In our society to-day science is only an appendage to luxury which serves to render life pleasanter for the few, but remains absolutely inaccessible to the bulk of mankind.” “The philosophers are crammed with scientific truths and almost the whole of the rest of human beings remain what they were five or ten centuries ago, that is to say, in the state of slaves, and machines, incapable of mastering established truths.” “We need to spread the truths already mastered by science, to make them part of our daily life, to render them common property.”

Again, the discoveries in experimental and physiological psychology must revolutionize many of the old methods of teaching. Genetic psychology, for instance, has shown that the first years of a child’s life must be a time of physical activity. The body of the child is not yet under control. It is impossible for him to remain quiet. Yet we remember when school discipline required these little bodies to remain quiet in a seat for four or six hours in a day and our schools are but just beginning to throw off this old discipline and to guide this aimless but necessary activity into useful channels.

Not only the normal but the great number of abnormal will be benefited by the discoveries of psychology. Study has shown what can be done to make the mentally defective useful to society. Likewise with the criminals. The social conditions that have created a large part of them being changed their number would he vastly decreased. The others could be used somewhere in the social organism in productive work. This in no way argues that we should weaken the race by protecting the mentally weak and degenerate. Both would finally become well nigh extinct if not left to perpetuate at will their kind.


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