Conscripted Children

Those of us who believe that modern parents are commandeering too large a portion of their children’s time are particularly worried over the usurpation of the precious years between thirteen and eighteen, for this is the period which, for many boys and girls, is turned into a stultifying lock step of dull routine by the universal acceptance of the slogan, ‘College for all.’ At this hypersensitive period of their lives when physical growth races ahead and adolescent changes are quickening all their emotions, when, more than at any other time, they need to relax from strenuous living and have leisure to find their balance as individuals, then it is that modern education puts them though the grilling pace of preparation for the college board examinations. Without pausing to ask whether these boys and girls have the intellectual interests that fit them for college, without considering whether their future lives will be made richer by four more years of academic training, the gods of the educational machine grind steadily on. If parents have the money,—or even part of the money, and the boy or girl can earn the rest,—these children must first prepare for college, and then go there.

IV

Fortunately, some of those who bear the burdens of youth upon their hearts are beginning to come to the rescue of these older conscripted children. ‘There is something wrong with our preparatory schools,’ a headmaster wrote to me lately. ‘When three boys run away, as they did from here this fall, we educators have something to look into.’ Dr. Drury, dean of headmasters, writes in his annual report of St. Paul’s School: ‑

Too large a proportion of boarding school boys go to college. Not over 75 per cent of each graduating class here, for example, can show either the intellectual fibre or the vocational urge to justify higher education. Onward they go, but not upward, often merely to satisfy parental pride which in turn is engendered by fear of relatives and neighbors. They spend hundreds of days, and thousands’ dollars, these bewildered boys, stumbling along what ought to be a widening path of usefulness, but what often proves a morass of disappointments and dissipation.

Who is to blame for this social blunder, this economic loss, this educational maladjustment? Are schools to blame for recommending, or colleges to blame for accepting? Both. But the deeper fault lies in the atmospheric expectation that a boy whose father can afford it should go to college, regardless of profiting thereby. Colleges are full, not because youth loves learning, but society loves college, and has for the years between 18 and 22 little else to offer.

Has society anything else to offer? In a recent article in the Atlantic, Mr. Frederick Winsor, also a veteran headmaster, thinks that there is alternative to college and he sets forth a constructive programme for what he terms ‘the unintellectual boy.‘ But the problem is not confined to the unintellectual child. What about the boy or girl, unusually gifted along some particular line, who cannot adjust himself or herself to the strict pattern of college work? The parents of such a child, because of his unusual ability will often make all the greater effort to push him through the college gates. I have before me as I write two newspaper clippings which during past year caught my eye as signs of healthy rebellion against this standardization of education. The first concerns a Boston youth, son of a distinguished literary family.

He was attending the Morristown at Morristown, New Jersey, preparing for college, when he decided that he wasn’t going to attend school any longer. Knowing that his family would frown on his intentions, he left without notifying them. He got himself a job as office boy at the Standard Oil offices and quit a year later to go to the Texas oil fields to see where oil came from. He worked as a laborer there until he tired of it. Then he quit and made a living for himself by singing in Texas cabarets. Convinced that the boy really had a leaning toward the stage, his family told him to come back home and they would pay his tuition in a dramatic school. They entered him at the Sargent School and there he was perfectly content, remaining the necessary two years to graduate.

The second clipping is about a boy was blessed in having parents too poor to send him to college. For seven years he had been studying a cage of rattlesnakes, spending hours each day observing their every movement and taking copious notes.

Sitting in his laboratory, a small room allotted to him in the family’s four‑room apartment on First Avenue above a small restaurant owned by the father, the young scientist spoke modestly of himself. ‘Go to college?’ he repeated. ‘No, I don’t think so. I realize that a degree would be valuable, but as I am situated, it would take me six or seven years to get it at night schooIs. Anyway, I would rather choose my own course of study. Since leaving high school I have taken a course in anthropology at Columbia, heard many lectures, and read many books. Since I have been interested in bugs and reptiles I have filled 1500 cigar boxes with mounted specimens and caught and classified thousands of others. That is my way of study.’

Such boys as these have shot up the danger signals warning us that all is not well with our compact scheme of standardized schooling.

Again, if we look at those who, obedient to our wishes, have conformed to this scheme and are now going forth into the world, we can see other signs of warning. We complain that the younger generation is restless, desiring to be continually on the go, not content with a theatre party unless it ends with a night club, not satisfied with a dinner event unless it closes with a joy ride. May not all this be a hang‑over from the heavily programmed day we have set up for the young as a criterion of correct living? We complain that youth drinks, smokes, speeds, and pets. Should we not rather ask ourselves where our young people learned to depend entirely on artificial stimulation? Possibly such bad habits as they have are intimately connected with the fact that, from earliest childhood, their recreation has always been prescribed for them, has been something brought in to them from the outside, has never been a genuine cultivation of their own natural interests. For we have never helped them develop their own resources, never left them undisturbed long enough for their inner urges to break through the armor of purely external discipline in which we have encased them. We complain that our boys and girls are too sophisticated, forgetting that it was we—their parents -‑ who pushed them prematurely out of babyhood into childhood, out of childhood into youth, out of youth into adulthood.

Someone—I think it was Amy Lowell ‑ has said that no one would ever be a poet who wasn’t born one, for it is too hard work. It may be that parents are poets of a sort, and that being a parent is too difficult a job for those who are not born to it. So, after all, we need not be too astonished to discover that thousands of fathers and mothers are complacently abdicating their responsibilities and allowing their children to be conscripted into the ranks of standardized schooling which we so ignorantly call education.

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