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March 1959

Schools for Everything

A native of California and a veteran of World War II, MELVILLE J. HOMFELD graduated from the University of California at Santa Barbara and took his master's degree and his doctorate in education at Stanford. He has taught in grade school and in college, has served as principal of a junior high school, and since 1947 has been superintendent of Menlo Park city school district.

by Melville J. Homfeld

There are signs today that the school has become society's dumping ground, that the public school system has become a vast refuse heap for any and every unwanted service or task that other social or governmental institutions and agencies find too tough to handle. The community, the home, and to some extent even the church have used the public schools to relieve their consciences of feelings of guilt by passing on unfinished business which they have found difficult of accomplishment or just burdensome.

Can we expect to go on and on in this ever-expanding program, one in which public educators attempt to do all things for all people and do them well? Can we do everything for everybody? If not, by what criterion shall we select those things which we can do, and how shall we say no?

The first half of the twentieth century has seen an almost complete metamorphosis of the institution which we call the public school. The grammar school of 1900, which has now become the elementary school, offered as its curriculum reading, writing, spelling, grammar, and numbers, and a few very adventurous souls were teaching some history and geography. The typical high school curriculum consisted of more mathematics, history, a concentrated study of the English language and its literature, and, of course, Latin. Some of the more daring secondary schools were permitting the teaching of German and French, but such frills were generally reserved for girls' finishing schools or for university study in preparation for advanced research.

Now, to be sure, I have no intention of recommending that we go back to 1900. I am not damning any of the changes that have taken place during the last fifty years. I do say that it is time for us to take stock. It is time to look at what we have done to our schools.

Law enforcement agencies, highway engineers, automobile designers and manufacturers, and traffic experts have created or permitted to be created a seemingly insoluble problem of mass murder and mayhem on our highways. When society wanted to find a solution, it turned to the public schools and said, "Here, how about teaching us to drive safely? We haven't been able to teach ourselves." And so driver education is a standard course of study for our youngsters.

When the good people in our society found themselves faced with an ever-rising divorce rate and increasing percentages of illegitimate births, and unable to do much about it, they turned to the public schools and said, "Please won't you teach our children family responsibility, how to become good parents, knowledge of sex and reproduction, how to select a mate, and how to act on a date?" and so more frill courses were added to the curriculum.

I am reminded of an incident related to me by Mrs. Homfeld concerning an interruption of an afternoon ladies' bridge party at the home of one of our neighbors. The front door of the living room opened with a swish and closed with a bang, and there stood the pride and joy of the household--a teen-age daughter. Her hair flying, her cashmere sweater pulled askew, her skirt turned halfway round on her hips, and a wad of gum keeping her jaws noisily working, our heroine looked neither right nor left, but strode diagonally past half a dozen tables of bridge players to the grand piano, where she reached into a huge cluster of hors d'oeuvres, gathered together as many of the tidbits as she could, and then marched out of the room through a door at the other corner. The hostess giggled nervously and remarked, "And that is the kind of manners they teach our kids in high school."

When employers of young people found the apprentice system and in-service training of workers to be a difficult and expensive task, they turned to the schools and said, "Here, you can easily equip yourselves to teach carpentry, or drafting, or plumbing, or sheet-metal work, or electricity, or typing, or bookkeeping, or any one of a hundred other things. You do it."

When the young American housewife decided to live beyond her husband's means, when Mama went to work and Grandma rebelled at the idea of taking over full responsibility for the children, the young couple brought pressure on our state legislators to establish child care centers, and again the public school was selected as the agency to carry out the job.

A task even more difficult than any of these is being slowly pushed on the school: correcting emotional and social shortcomings of children. Many schools today are including on their staffs dental hygienists who in fact are therapists, social welfare workers who are in fact social therapists, psychologists and psychiatrists who are in fact mental therapists, and even medical doctors to help not in the physical education of children but in the therapy which might lead to the correction of physical deficiencies.

And surely school people are not without blame. We of the profession of education have had a strong tendency to welcome with open arms any and every new task offered us. But I believe a time of reckoning is at hand. Not only must we soon come forward with an answer to the question, "What shall we teach?" but I believe we must also consider seriously the query, "Can we teach everyone?"

I cite the instance of the tragic death of a junior high school principal in New York last autumn. In frustration over his inability to curb the misbehavior of a small minority of his student body, he ended it all by throwing himself from the roof of his own school building. I raise the question, "Was his problem one of public education, or was it rather one of society at large?" Where is that small minority of children now? Within a few hours following his death, they were permanently expelled along with some six hundred other incorrigibles from the schools of New York, not because they could not learn but because they were not physically and emotionally willing to conform to minimum standards. For years the teachers and administrators of New York schools had struggled with this incorrigible minority on the basis that if they kicked them out, there was no place for them to go. The question I raise is, "Is it the school's responsibility, or is it the responsibility of society at large?"

Of a less dramatic but equally serious nature is the problem of the children who are so emotionally disturbed that they become a burden on the teacher and on the other children in their classes. Over and over I have seen teachers and principals resist the removal of such children from class on no more sound grounds than that "the child is better off in school than at home or running the streets." Or take the case of the child of irresponsible parents who is sent to school improperly fed or rested or clothed, or just plain dirty. The tendency of teachers is to struggle somehow with the problem--find food or find clothes or provide an opportunity for rest, or all three.

Can the role of public education include the responsibility for the physical, social, emotional, and spiritual as well as academic instruction of children, or might some of these be handled better by other institutions? Should it include the preparation of children for marriage and parenthood, or might other institutions or persons do this job as well or better? Should the schools take the responsibility for children's activities from dawn to dusk in order to curb juvenile delinquency, or might we better look to other agencies to accept responsibility for part of this day? Should we say yes to every pressure group that wants to add one more frill course to our curriculum, or should we say, "No, our job is thus and so. Some other agency must be made responsible for that."

The state of California requires its elementary schools to teach nineteen subjects. They include the nature of tobacco, the nature of alcohol, training for healthful living, morals, manners, safety, fire prevention, physical education, conservation of natural resources, art, music, history of California, civics, the commemoration of Bird Day, Arbor Day, Luther Burbank Day, and Susan B. Anthony Day. Most local boards of education also require elementary schools to teach craft courses, instrumental music, woodworking, sewing, cooking, and a variety of other subjects. Each schoolhouse and plant must also be maintained and operated as a community center for recreation and civic activities for both young and old. And then, of course, we have to teach reading, writing, arithmetic, spelling, geography, history, and language as well.

Most high schools are required either by law or by the pressure of the communities in which they operate to offer one hundred or more subjects, and most of these subjects must be offered on two or three levels of difficulty.

Changes are coming in the schools. There can be no doubt of this. I can name some of them for you. We are going to group children more and more for instruction. Curriculums are going to include more academic subject matter. The school year is going to be longer. We are going to eliminate some things from the curriculum, and federal aid to education will doubtless become a pattern.

We here in our own little school district have tended to resist the inroads of what I choose to call "doubtful school tasks." Essentially our schools are academic in nature. We do not pretend to cure anyone's ills or correct their physical, mental, or emotional deficiencies. We do not offer therapy of any kind. We try not to take on the responsibilities that should be met by parents, churches, or other professions and institutions.

Believe me, I am not sure that we are right. If I were to poll the adult population of my school district to get the reaction to the question, "What do you think of the oversized, overpowered, high styled, chrome-plated, 1959 products of the automotive industry?" there is no doubt that I would get an overwhelming response favoring less flashy, more conservative, less expensive cars. And yet 75 per cent or more of the people buy the biggest, most powerful, most glittering automobile. Is their evaluation of education in the same vein? Do they give lip service to one kind of education but really want another?

Let's all look at our school system and identify for ourselves, for our administrators, for our board of education, and for the community the spots where we duplicate services which are or should be offered by other agencies. Let's stop duplicating services. The schools should set goals that are attainable and should not overcommit their ability to serve. Let them refuse to accept responsibilities which are beyond their capabilities and refuse to undertake so many duties that none is thoroughly performed.


Copyright © 1959 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; March, 1959; Schools for Everything; Volume 203, No. 3; pages 62-64.

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