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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
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
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
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
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
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
The Atlantic Monthly; March, 1959; Schools for Everything; Volume 203, No. 3;