What can I do with my boy? I can afford, and am glad, to give him the best training to be had. I should be proud to have him turn out a preacher or a learned man; but I don’t think he has the making of that in him. I want to give him a practical education; one that will prepare him, better than I was prepared, to follow my business or any other active calling. The classical schools and the colleges do not offer what I want. Where can I put him? Here is a real need and a very serious problem. The difficulty presses more heavily upon the thoughtful American than upon the European. He is absolutely free to choose a way of life for himself and his children; no government leading-strings or social prescriptions guide or limit him in his choice. But freedom is responsibility.
Secondly, being thus free, and being also in face of the prodigious material resources of a vast and new territory, he is more fully awake than the European can be to the gravity and urgency of the problem. Thirdly, he has fewer means than any other, except the English parent, of solving the problem to his son’s advantage. It is one hundred and thirty years since the first German practical school (Realschule) was established, and such schools are now common. Sixty years ago, in France, the first Napoleon made great changes, mostly useful ones, in methods of education. For more than a generation the government schools of arts and trades, arts and manufactures, bridges and highways, mines, agriculture, and commerce, have introduced hundreds of well-trained young men every year into the workshops, factories, mines, forges, public works, and counting-rooms of the empire. These young men begin as subalterns, but soon become the commissioned officers of the army of industry.
The American people are fighting the wilderness, physical and moral, on the one hand, and on the other are struggling to work out the awful problem of self-government. For this fight they must be trained and armed. No thoughtful American in active life reaches manhood without painfully realizing the deficiencies and shortcomings of his own early training. He knows how ignorance balks and competition overwhelms, but he knows also the greatness of the material prizes to be won. He is anxious to have his boys better equipped for the American mans life than he himself was. It is useless to commend to him the good old ways, the established methods. He has a decided opinion that there are or ought to be better ways. He will not believe that the same methods which trained some boys well for the life of fifty or one hundred years ago are applicable to his son; for the reason, that the kind of man which he wants his son to make did not exist in all the world fifty years ago. So without any clear idea of what a practical education is, but still with some tolerably distinct notion of what it is not, he asks, “How can I give my boy a practical education?”
Thanks to the experience gained during the last twenty years in this country, it is easier to answer this question than it used to be. Certain experiments have been tried whose collective results are instructive. There have been found many American parents willing to try new experiments even in the irrevocable matter of their children’s education, so impressed were they with the insufficiency of the established system. It requires courage to quit the beaten paths in which the great majority of well-educated men have walked and still walk. A boy who is brought up in a different way from his peers and contemporaries, with different information, habits, and associations, suffers somewhat both in youth and manhood from the mere singularity of his education, though it may have been better than the common. If it were the custom for all young men, whose parents were able to let them spend one third of the average human span in preparation for the rest, to study Chinese ten years or more; if scraps of Chinese had the same potent effect on the popular imagination as have classical quotations in Parliament, and selections from Plutarch in Congress; if, in short, acquaintance with Chinese were the accepted evidence of having studied till twenty-one or twenty-five years of age before beginning to earn a living, it might well be matter of serious consideration for a careful parent, whether his son had not better devote the usual number of years to the study of that tongue.
Without a wide-spreading organization, no system of education can have large success. The organization of the American colleges and their connections is extensive and inflexible. Endowed institutions offer teaching at less than its cost. A large number of professors trained in the existing methods hold firm possession, and transmit the traditions they inherited. Then there are the recognized text-books, mostly of exquisite perverseness, but backed by the reputation of their authors and the capital of their publishers. Lastly, the colleges have regular inlets and outlets. They are steadily fed by schools whose masters are inspired by the colleges, and they as regularly feed all the real and all the so-called learned professions. 5
The new education must also be successfully organized, if it would live. A system of education which attracts no great number of boys, which unites its disciples in no strong bonds of common associations and good-fellowship, and which, after years of trial, is not highly organized with well-graded schools, numerous teachers, good text-books, and a large and increasing body of attached alumni, has no strong hold upon the community in which it exists. Let us see what has been done towards this organization.
We wish to review the recent experience of this country in the attempt to organize a system of education based chiefly upon the pure and applied sciences, the living European languages, and mathematics, instead of upon Greek, Latin, and mathematics, as in the established college system.1 The history of education is full of still-born theories; the literature of the subject is largely made up of theorizing; whoever reads it much will turn with infinite relief to the lessons of experience. But it should be observed that it is experience in mass, the experience of institutions, the experience of a generation, and not individual experience, which is of value. To have been a schoolmaster or college professor thirty years only too often makes a man an unsafe witness in matters of education: there are flanges on his mental wheels which will only fit one gauge. On the other hand, it must be acknowledged that conservatism is never more respectable than in education, for nowhere are the risks of change greater. Our survey of the institutions which represent the new education in this country will be absolutely impersonal; the merits of different systems are to be discussed, not the characters or qualifications of the men who have invented, or worked under, these systems. This limitation of the discussion is judicious, from all points of view; for in no country is so little attention paid by parents and students to the reputation of teachers for genius and deep learning as in our own. Faradays, Rumfords, and Cuviers would get very few pupils here, if their teachings were unmethodical and objectless, if, in short, they taught under a bad general system. Spasmodic and ill-directed genius cannot compete in the American community with methodical, careful teaching by less inspired men. This American instinct seems, on the whole, to be a sagacious one. Nevertheless, it is only when genius warms and invigorates a wise and well-administered system, that the best conditions are attained.