Conscripted Children

I

In this age of the child we are justly proud of our ever‑increasing laws prohibiting child labor among the poor. One wonders sometimes if, before this era closes, we shall not have to pass similar laws to protect the children of the well‑to‑do. Affluent parents, naturally enough, are eager to give their sons and daughters all the best opportunities that money can buy, and the excess of their zeal often creates new difficulties. There seems to be some danger that the present system of long hours and accumulated years required in formal schooling may thwart the real mental and spiritual growth of these privileged children just as surely as long days in mines, factories, and sweatshops once thwarted the physical growth of the children of the poor.

As a nation we have become not only education‑conscious but education-mad. Consider the disconsolate father who, as he sits before the fire with catalogues of thirty boys’ schools piled high before him, regrets that his only son can take advantage of but one of these de luxe opportunities which are offered him. That is the case more or less with all of us anxious parents. And to be sure that no child of ours shall miss any of his chances, we have joined eagerly with educators, psychologists, and other parents to organize and develop a standardized programme of living from which, almost from birth to adulthood, our children have no escape.

And what is this programme that has been so carefully devised by specialists? At fifteen months of age, about the time the average child walks alone, we find this small individual entering school life. Brought at nine or ten in the morning to a pre‑school, he is carefully examined for colds and charted for future study. Then, together a group of children of his own age, he is put out to play with toys which psychological tests have shown to be of the proper size, weight, and interest for his tender muscles and awakening mind. Later he is fed a properly balanced meal, prescribed by an expert dietitian, and then put to bed for a definite period of rest and sleep. At a duly appointed hour he is returned to his waiting nurse or mother to be taken home. As he grows older, his toys change to suit his years, his meals become more varied, and his day at the preschool lengthens. This, in essence, is his life for nine, ten, possibly twelve months of the year until at last he reaches regular school age.

When he is six years old he enters the first grade, which is usually a half-day session. The afternoons he spends in the park, under the watchful supervision of a nurse, where limitations of space and lack of suitable materials make normal play practically impossible. By the time he has reached fourth or fifth grade his school day has been extended into the afternoons, and this is followed by an hour or two of organized play. Saturday ‑‑ or what is left of it after the barber, the dentist, and the orthopaedic surgeon have deducted their dues—is usually unscheduled up to this age, but from then on it falls more and more into the hands of boys’ and girls’ clubs, Scout organizations, music teachers, and dancing masters. In short, by the time the child has reached his teens he is likely to be carrying an eight‑ or nine‑hour job practically six days a week.

At this point comes the boarding school for nine months of the year, with almost every hour of the week closely scheduled ‑‑ Sundays as well as Saturdays. Or those who are not sent away to private schools have their lives almost as carefully regimented by the day schools, which have now become all‑day institutions with home work prescribed to fill the evenings. The three months of vacation are, for many children, given over to summer camps. After this, college—and one need not set up any classifications here, for it is now a commonplace of American life that every boy and girl whose parents can afford it must have a college education. This, in brief, is the system which has been laid out for us by child experts and educators generally, and the well-to‑do parents of America have accepted it without question as the normal and natural procedure in the upbringing of their children. Thus, in an era of peace, we are conscripting our children for education just as deliberately as, in time of war, the government conscripted our sons for the army.

II

At this point I can hear the voices of earnest parents raised in a chorus of protest. ‘Oh,’ they say, ‘if we are conscripting our children for education, we are doing it for their own good.’ Well, perhaps so; but I wonder.

Is it the infant who benefits most from the pre‑school, or is it the mother who can use this free time to relax at bridge or a luncheon, to increase the family income by a halftime job, or to prevent herself from growing rusty by following a course at the university? Is the boarding school or the lengthened school day better for the child, or is it better for the parents who, because of it, can live in a city apartment instead, of a suburban house and be at hand for the theatres, lectures, concerts, and other social events of the winter season? Is the boy (or girl) sent to camp summer after summer for his own advantage, or is he sent because it is the easiest way for parents to escape having to adjust their vacation to suit his needs? Are our young men and women being herded within the gates of the colleges because they have an insatiable thirst for knowledge, or are they sent because it is a sop to parental pride to be able to say, ‘My son? Oh, he’s in Yale.’

Behind the mass movement which has brought about this almost Prussian regimentation of our children there are many parents who have been moved solely by a genuine desire to provide the younger generation with every conceivable advantage in their preparation for life. While granting this, however, one must also admit that the movement could hardly have become so universal if thousands of parents had not been all too willing to shed the responsibilities of parenthood.

Whatever the motive or the justification, it would not be amiss if parents would scrutinize more closely this modern programme of education. It might be well to ask ourselves, for example, just what we are doing to our babies when we put them in a nursery school. Let us remember that the first nine months of every human life are spent in complete isolation; perhaps this is nature’s reminder that the young of the species need a long, slow, individual preparation for independent life. If this is so, it becomes very pertinent to ask whether any child under five should be subjected to group living, even though the group is being supervised by experts. Naturally, he may learn to eat spinach more easily when he sees other children enduring the same affliction, but, even though all the dietitians may rise up to confound me, I suspect that there are more important things for a two- or three‑year‑old than learning to eat spinach.

To subject a child of that age to an experiment in group living is to demand of him one of the major adjustments in life—and this at a time when he has hardly outgrown playing with his own toes. It may be many years before we can know what this new environment has done to his nervous system; but of this much we can be sure in advance: it will mean an earlier maturing of the child and a corresponding shortening of ‘babyhood. It may also be that by demanding conformity to a group at such a tender age we shall establish in his mind the patterns of mob thinking, making it forever impossible for him to become a self‑reliant, individual appraiser of life. The pre‑school is new, and its vogue tremendous. It may, for all I know, have something of definite value to offer us, but of this we cannot be sure until it has stood the acid test of experience. Nevertheless, in characteristic American fashion, we have acclaimed it enthusiastically simply because it is new, or we have complacently accepted it because it has offered the easiest way out of our difficulties.

The other morning I wandered into a pre‑school and stood watching a group of city four‑year-olds romping, twisting, climbing over and under the bare, straight bars of a jungle gym, ‘Aren’t they having a happy time?’ the teacher smiled at me. ‘It’s good for their arms and legs.’ I nodded, but my heart smote me. What a substitute for an apple tree of spring, with the hazard of its curved and bending branches, its swaying, its fragrance, its shaded hiding places, its secret robin’s nest! Yes, the jungle gym is good for arms and legs, but it stops right there.

I went out thinking of what I heard a well‑known college dean say recently when he spoke before an assemblage of so‑called progressive parents. He had been reading Professor Thorndike’s latest book, in which that veteran thinker says that there are many things being taught in high schools to‑day which could be learned much better and more quickly at the age of twenty‑five. The dean had just come from a sociological conference where experts in economics had shown that the working hours and the working days of the average man are being shortened, and his working years as well; in the not far distant future they saw the prospect of vastly more leisure for all classes of society than has ever before been known in the history of mankind. ’Would it not, then, be better,’ queried the dean, ‘to bestow some of this coming leisure upon the child during his childhood years, and put off to a later date the mastering of those subjects which can be learned then more quickly and easily?’ He went on only half seriously: ‘Are we not, perhaps, making a mistake to send our children to school at all? Instead of school buildings, should we not provide huge parks, woods, and playgrounds where they could just grow and play and vegetate; and then send them to school when they grow up?’

Although the dean was speaking half in jest, nevertheless he was toying with an important idea. To a child, time is a golden asset. Each morning a child’s natural response to life should be that of Browning’s Pippa flinging her window on her one brief yearly holiday:—

Oh, Day, if I squander a wavelet of thee,
A mite of my twelve hours’ treasure...

It is hard to imagine any child springing with sandaled feet to meet the heavily regimented hours which we adults of to‑day have so laboriously worked out for our own children.

In the elementary school which my children attended it was decided a few years ago to set aside a double period one afternoon a week when the school would literally be thrown open to the children. During this period there was the shop with all its fascinating tools and clean white lumber, the studio with fresh‑mixed paints and great, inviting sheets of paper stretched on easels; there was clay, moist, waiting; there was the stage, the quiet room where one could write, the kitchen where one could really cook. All these doors stood open and each child could choose which he would enter. Many exciting things have happened to my children in this school, but nothing ‑‑ not even the visit of Admiral Byrd—brought such a thrill as the granting of this free period for creative work. I was prepared to understand when, a little later, the children came to me and begged, ‘Please don’t send us to camp this summer. We want some free time.’

III

What do children want to do with free time? In spite of psychologists and gifted teachers, we do not know, but we do know that they want in a thousand ways to try out life. When we first moved from the country to the suburbs in order to put our children in a city school my fourteen-year‑old son came home late for dinner every night for a week. When he was questioned about it he was evasive, until at last he confessed, ‘I know now where all the subways go. I’ve tried every last one of them!’ This may not have been the healthiest way to study geography, but it was certainly an effective one. This boy was simply doing what every normal boy wants to do—go exploring. A generation ago his father followed up a trout stream to its source; he followed up a subway.

In Harris Hawthorne Wilder’s recent biography, The Early Years of a Biologist, we can read the prayer of a six‑year‑old boy as it has been recorded by his mother: ’Our dear Heavenly Father, I want a human skeleton very much.’ This was the prayer of a boy who grew up to be one of the greatest teachers of biology in America.

I mention these two illustrations not only to show how little we know, in spite of our experts, about the real wants and needs of children, but also to show how often the child, given the chance, does know ‑‑ immediately and accurately. And in many instances what he wants to do is just what he ought to do at that particular moment. But he must have time ‑‑ free time, limitless time, unhurried time for his exploring. Many years ago my father told me about his boyhood on a New England farm and I can remember the tone of deep gratitude with which he said, ‘My father was too poor to give me anything toward a college education, and too ignorant of its worth to give me even sympathy; but he was just enough to give me my own time, although he needed it desperately on the farm.’ We give our children money, we try to give them sympathy, we give them liberally of education; but we are not just enough to give them their time.

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.

Presented by

Saving the Bees

Honeybees contribute more than $15 billion to the U.S. economy. A short documentary considers how desperate beekeepers are trying to keep their hives alive.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.

Video

Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.

Video

The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.

Video

Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.

Video

Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in National

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In