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December 1939

The Reform of the Schools

by James L. Mursell

In a previous article, entitled 'The Defeat of the Schools,' which appeared in the March *Atlantic*, I developed at some length the simple but dismaying proposition that actual and effective standards in American public education are deplorably and inexcusably low. This assertion is buttressed by a vast assemblage of facts and findings, accumulated over many years by educational research, some of which I cited. The work is not readily accessible to anyone but the specialist. It is dull, uninviting, microscopic, and calls for critical scrutiny. One must take in a great deal of it at a bird's-eye view before its full import becomes clear. But, once comprehended, it is highly dramatic. The situation revealed is enormously worse than any layman is apt to imagine. We go through a set of complicated and costly motions called 'teaching' algebra, geometry, physics, chemistry, history, English, Latin, and so forth. And what happens? Almost nothing at all! This may seem incredible. But it is true. The subjects are 'taught.' But they are not being learned.

Such a survey forces upon one inevitable questions: What is wrong? What can be done about it? It is the purpose of this paper to suggest an answer. In particular I wish to call attention to a very comprehensive solution of the problem of school reform which is coming to be known as the general-education movement. Lest anyone anticipate another panacea, let me hasten to say that workers in this field are decidedly restive at the suggestion that they really constitute a 'movement' at all. The word is used only because no one can think of a better. They know full well that America has been oversold on pedagogical gadgets which never perform up to expectations, and they themselves have no patent medicine to recommend. Moreover this 'movement' which objects to being called a movement is not an affair of a few specially favored schools where money is no object and pretty theories grow like weeds. A great many serious and practical people, up against the daily problems of education in public-school systems, undergraduate departments of universities, and colleges all over the country, have been taking stock of the situation, and have not found it good. Within recent years they have been discovering themselves in substantial agreement about where the trouble really lies and what ought to be done about it. Many of them, often unknown to one another, have been developing new and promising plans of operation which, when compared, have striking identities. There has been a coming together of minds, a consensus; and it is only in this sense that the evolving pattern, though novel and definite enough, can be called a 'movement.' (Notice the avoidance of capitals!)

I.

The general-education movement, like all sound and hopeful beginnings, is a plagiarism and expansion of the past. The large and growing group of workers on whom the idea has dawned have a common starting point which is far from new. They have begun by rediscovering for themselves that education really matters. Old stuff, you may say, and fit only for commencement addresses? Well, perhaps! But what if one really takes the idea seriously, and brings it into contact with the lamentable spectacle of education as it now is? Then, surely, one may expect something drastic and perhaps not unexciting to happen.

To people who have caught and are catching the general education idea it seems manifest that in a democratic civilization the supreme urgency is for every individual effectively to inherit, possess, enjoy, and use his birthright of culture. This, to be sure, is an old thought. It is an expansion of the traditional American insistence that a free electorate must be an educated electorate. But the implications of that well-worn doctrine carry far beyond the limits of civic or electoral responsibility in the narrow sense. The resources of human culture, accumulated through the ages by the spirit of man, alone make possible a human way of living, whether in the home, in industry and commerce, in the spheres of religion and recreation, or in politics. Only the man who possesses them is capable of freedom, of living constructively in a nexus of free institutions.

But such values can come only from an education which consists in learning, in mastery, in growing insight, in standards which really operate, and not just in going to school. So when multitudes of young people accumulate credits, pass courses, carry off elegant sheepskins, and come out knowing little or nothing, it is simply intolerable. Culture is not elegance or ornament. It is the very stuff of free and democratic living--infinitely too important to be handled in any such cavalier and essentially dishonest fashion. When the patient toil of educational research unmistakably demonstrates that the average pupil in school fails to learn even though he succeeds in passing, that culture is not penetrating the minds of millions of young Americans in spite of all that is being done, it is no small matter. On the contrary, a disastrous lesion has been revealed in the body politic, a choking off of the vital spiritual force which is ultimately the only drive for a free society.

When the worker in general education turns to the psychologist he learns immediately and with emphasis that all this need not be. There is nothing in the constitution of the human mind which prevents any average boy or girl from really coming to terms with any one of the great segments of human culture. It has been shown that a genuine and serviceable grasp of a foreign language can be gained in a good deal less time than many high-school pupils take to learn nothing worth while about it. English style can be improved; a love of literature can be inculcated; a mastery of mathematical thinking can be developed; an understanding of science can be built up, historical or aesthetic insights can be acquired. Nothing, indeed, seems more certain than that the average human being is capable of immensely diversified learning, and that he can learn very rapidly and surely, with the enthusiasm which comes only from speed and conscious success, given the right conditions and the right kind of direction. The right conditions and the right kind of direction! This is what has been lacking, and not some special, unique, and unattainable quality of mind. The defeat of the schools in their major task of enabling the individual to inherit his cultural birthright has been self-inflicted.

II.

So one may say that the general-education movement begins as a discontent and a faith, both rooted solidly in ascertained fact--a recognition that a great and urgent task is not being accomplished, and a reasoned belief that it can be. But also it is more than this. While the workers associated with it are usually suspicious of panaceas, they are largely agreed in diagnosing our educational troubles, and also as to the kind of measures which ought to be taken. Let us begin with the diagnosis.

As these men and women have come to see the matter, the great source of weakness in conventional school education is that it has been dominated by the specialist. Here is at least a hint of why the term GENERAL education has come into use, and of some of its implications. Now the specialist is concerned with the CREATION of cultural materials--with discoveries in the laboratory, new historical and social interpretations, the composition of works of art and literature, and the like. Indeed the very raison d'etre of specialization is that it is essential for such tasks. In order to make any significant mark as a musician, or a mathematician, or a chemist, or a historian, it is necessary to stay within bounds; and there is a tendency for the bounds to become narrower as the specialty becomes more effective. Wander through the various floors of the Michael Pupin building at Columbia University, and you will find on the doors the names of more different kinds of physics than most reasonably well-educated people ever heard of. The successful promotion of the science of physics has brought into being and is reciprocally supported by all this immense and impressive division of labor.

Obviously the specialist is a most admirable and necessary person in the laboratory or the library or the studio. Society owes him an enormous debt. But put him in the schoolroom and he is likely to begin playing the part of the bull in the china shop. He is in the position of a good production engineer suddenly shunted into salesmanship. It is not his metier. If he is to function at all well he must, for the nonce, stop being a specialist altogether. For the production or creation of culture calls for one kind of disposition and attitude, and the distribution of culture quite another.

Of course the specialist rarely invades the public-school classroom in his own proper person. But he gets there just the same, and exercises a dominating influence that is nearly always unfortunate. He does this through the textbook he has written, through the course of study on which he has advised, and above all through the teacher who has 'majored' in his field, and who can imagine nothing sweeter in life than to become a specialist himself. Here is approximately how he goes to work.

Professor Jones is a distinguished member of the mathematics department of Brook University. He is approached by a publishing house with the proposal that he prepare a textbook in algebra for ninth-grade pupils. The idea is somewhat distasteful, because it will take him from research, and he regards research as much more important than helping any number of ninth-graders. But he has a summer home which seems to swallow money endlessly, and so with a sigh he consents. What should go into the textbooks. Well, obviously, the elements of algebra. He has a well-marked trail to follow, worn smooth by the feet of many a specialist before him. There must be the fundamental operations, the use of brackets, factorization, the management of fractions, logarithms, equations up to and including simple quadratics, arithmetic and geometric proressions, some graphs. Perhaps he makes a few additions and introduces timid variants of his own. A novelty here and there helps sales, and certainly cannot do much harm even when touted as the latest educational wrinkle. The job--a hack job, for all that it may be faithfully done--is soon put through, and he returns with relief to his more important labors, and awaits his royalty checks. This is not an unfair picture of how a great many textbooks are 'made,' and how the intellectual content to be taught to (but not learned by) American boys and girls is determined and laid out.

To the worker in general education every last thing about it seems wrong. Think of what Professor Jones is supposed to be doing. He ought to be doing what Wells did when he wrote *The Outline of History*, what Durant did when he wrote *The Story of Philosophy*, what Van Loon did when he wrote *The Arts*, what Hogben did when he wrote *Mathematics for the Million*. Only, being a professional scholar, he ought to do a better job than at least three of these gentlemen. He is performing an act of cultural salesmanship. Surely this ought to be no cause for the slight tinge of shame, or at least of deprecation, with which he approaches his task. He has a glorious bill of goods--the noble science of mathematics. He has a glorious public--young minds which need enlightenment and which are sure to respond eagerly to the real thing if only they can get it. How shall he make mathematics real, vital, helpful to them, as it can and ought to be? This is his central problem. As an attack upon such a problem his procedure is nothing less than pitiable. Out of the great and fascinating cultural wealth of mathematical thought and discovery and adventure, what items does he select? Those which appeal to the specialist as important for the reason that they are convenient starting points for the further study of his specialty. But most boys and girls are not going to continue to the advanced study of mathematics, so that nearly all the items he lays out are of no conceivable use or interest to them. That is their hard luck, and not the responsibility of Professor Jones. His responsibility is to the 'elements' of algebra, not the pupils.

Here, as a vast number of workers associated with the general-education movement or idea have come to see the matter, is the real cause of weakness, the real reason why learning in school is so excessively poor and scanty. The trouble lies in the sheer sterility of the cultural materials which specialists hemmed in by their specialties have selected for boys and girls to learn. No methods or tricks or devices can put these materials across effectively, because the breath of life is not in them. When one tries to improve learning by picayune devices which are supposed to be 'psychological'--printing the book in the right kind of type, fixing up the right kind of exercises and reviews, introducing pictures, projects, mastery units, and so on endlessly--one is concentrating on essentially secondary matters which have neither meaning nor effect unless a primary condition is fulfilled. One must obey the first and great commandment, or all the rest of the law is empty sound and sheer futility. The stuff itself must be manifestly worth while. It must come home to the learner as something worth learning, or it will never be effectively and permanently acquired.

So the worker in general education has come to see himself as standing between the specialists who create culture and the pupils who consume it. He has even, with some covert apologies, coined a barbarous and yet not unexpressive name for himself. In contrast to the specialist he tends to call himself a 'generalist.' That is to say, he seeks to serve the interests of the public--the pupils--vis-a-vis the cultural resources which must be brought to them and which they surely and sorely need. What items will be most suitable to the young mind? What items will most surely and quickly help that mind to see what a great subject is all about? The analogy of the salesman, again, is very close. The factory experts and accountants will certainly know far more than he about various phases and details of the manufacturing process. But he knows something hidden from them, and contributes a point of view and technique without which their labors would be for naught. He knows what the public is willing and able to take, what it wants, what it needs. In exactly the same way the educational 'generalist' sees himself as collaborating with the specialist and the expert, and working up what he produces into educationally viable and vital materials.

III.

Such is the diagnosis. What shall be the prescription?

Once more let me emphasize that the general-education movement does not advocate any standard panacea. If you were to visit the Pasadena High School, the General College at the University of Minnesota, and Bennington College, you would certainly find what on the surface seem very different educational arrangements in operation. This is just as it should be, for a formula which is supposed to fit all situations is almost certain, in reality, to suit none of them. What is amazing, however, is the extent to which educational 'generalists' are agreed in principle as to what ought to be done. The essence of their claim is that conventional school procedures urgently need to be simplified and rationalized. The ordinary high-school or college curriculum is made up of a large number of narrow courses. To the general educator it appears that we should follow just the opposite tack, and make a curriculum out of a much smaller number of broad ones. Essentially the idea is just as simple as that. Yet it strikes down to the very roots of the educational problem.

The system of narrow courses which has fastened itself upon the American schools in the past fifty years is highly unfortunate in two ways. It poses a whole row of insoluble educational riddles; and it is a perfect opportunity for the specialist to do his worst.

Here is a pupil confronted with a curriculum made up of courses in commercial arithmetic, elementary statistics, elementary algebra, advanced algebra, plane geometry, solid geometry, analytics, trigonometry ancient history, medaeval history, history of the Renaissance, modern history, economic history, and so on ad infinitum. What chance has he to make a wise choice, even with the best of advice? It is as bad as one of those huge bills of fare which drive one frantic trying to choose a reasonable meal. Must one study geometry to be an educated man? Must one know about the Renaissance? What about the Industrial Revolution, which seems to have a certain importance also? It would be nice to take something on the appreciation of pictures, but a course on music would also be good. Yet unfortunately French gets in the way of both. Try to get some kind of reasonable order into such a melange.

But suppose that we have before us a curricular scheme which offers a broad course in science as such,--not physics, chemistry, biology, physiology, and so forth, but science as such,--taking as much time as two or three of the conventional minor narrow sequences; and another of the same kind in literature; and another in the social studies; and yet another in the arts. There is some reason in this. It is all the difference between a bewildering a la carte and a well-planned table d'hote. It has immediately the look of a classification of cultural materials in terms of the interests and needs of the ultimate consumer, whereas the other has not. No elaborate argument is necessary to show that a person who is to live a free and effective life in a world such as ours needs to have access to science, literature, the social studies, and the arts, and to be aware of their relationship to his own daily choices and concerns. This surely is what being educated means. A person who has to teach elementary geometry or beginning Latin to a group of young people often finds it necessary to use the most fantastic arguments in an effort to answer the inevitable question: What's the good of studying this stuff? The ordinary reply is that it 'trains the mind.' Yet after all, why might not stenography or dishwashing do that particular trick just as well? But if he is teaching the nature and structure of language as an instrument of expression and thought, or the meaning of mathematical thinking in the affairs of men past and present, or effective standards of aesthetic appraisal, or opening up the riches of world literature, he is not likely to be up against such a difficulty. There is a fundamental sanity about the broad, encyclopedic course which strongly tends to convince the learner that here is something worth having.

Then again, the narrow course is the happy hunting ground of the specialist. If we propose to teach geometry or French to young people, there is not much alternative in what must be done, unless one is prepared to sabotage the whole system and introduce all sorts of material which has no relationship to the announced title of the course. We do exactly what Professor Jones did in writing his algebra text; that is to say, we select the 'elements' of the subject--its easier techniques, whose meaning and value reside in the fact that they are the basis for further study. Some leeway can be found in the order of topics to be treated, and even in the topics to be introduced. But they will all tend to be preparatory in character, instead of immediately interesting and important. This means that for the great majority of pupils, who will never go much further, the whole thing is a total loss. What shall it profit me to be told of a glorious view at the ten-thousand-foot level when it is quite certain that the first thousand feet will be my limit?

In contrast with this, the essence of the broad course is immediacy. I teach, let us say, elementary plane geometry. In that case I am almost obligated to spend a good deal of time on the congruence of triangles. The topic, perhaps, has considerable value for those who are going to have some sort of mathematical future. But this is certainly a minority.

Could I, then, make a course which would consist entirely of topics of current and immediate concern and importance, and which would still deserve to be called elementary plane geometry? It would be something of a tour de force. But suppose I am teaching a course in mathematics as such then indeed the situation is different. Here is a vastly greater wealth of material from which I may choose, and there are no arbitrary boundary lines beyond which I must not go. It may be very hard to arrange a course which in its very structure and content will show the average pupil that geometry as a specialized, delimited subject matters much to him. It ought not to be hard to arrange a course to show him the significance and fascination of mathematics.

IV.

Instead of algebra, geometry, trigonometry--Mathematics; instead of Latin, French, German--Linguistics; instead of physics, chemistry, biology, physiology--Science; instead of music, painting, sculpture, the dance--Art; instead of economics, sociology, anthropology--Social Studies; instead of English literature, classical literature, French literature--The Humanities. This is a type picture of the rationalized and simplified scheme. The narrow subdivisions are proper for the specialist and for the intending specialist. The broad areas are proper for the generally educated person, whose interests and needs are the concern of the 'generalist.' It should be understood that the particular layout of broad areas here mentioned is not the only one possible. As a matter of fact, it varies widely in different places. The conception reaches its ultimate limits in the tutorial plan at the college level, and in the so-called 'integrated curriculum' in the elementary school. But it need not be, and usually is not, pushed so far. The basic claim is that it provides a much readier access to living and significant cultural materials, and makes it much easier for the learner to perceive the relationship of those materials to the concerns of his own living, than the plan of innumerable small pigeonholes.

Anyone who supposes that the change is one of name alone and not of fact should sit in for a while with a group of workers who are laying out courses along these lines. He would quickly find out that he was wrong. For instance, at the present time the General Education Board is financing nation-wide activities in the development of Science as a broad and unified area of study. Those responsible for the venture are drawing upon the scholarly resources of world-famous specialists in the various scientific fields. But the general scheme in which all are collaborating is made in the interest of the pupil who will never be a scientific expert of any kind, and who yet needs scientific insights if he is to live intelligently. New and vital materials for teaching are being developed and made available. For instance, soil erosion is a problem whose living importance it is not hard to show to almost anybody. Where would it come in the setup of specialized courses? The answer is: Nowhere at all. But under the new plan it can be utilized as a curricular topic, and a whole range of insights from almost all the sciences can be concentrated upon it. The work I mention is perhaps the most ambitious single job now being carried on by persons associated with the general-education movement. But the same thing is happening on a considerable scale in many places in connection with the arts, the humanities, the social studies, and so forth. A widespread and practical curricular renewal is under way.

Teachers who come in contact with reorganizations of this kind usually feel a quite special thrill of enthusiasm. So many beautiful iridescent bubbles have been blown in the educational world, and they have usually burst so soon, that we all tend to be rather suspicious of new proposals. But here, at least, is something at once forwardlooking and practical. It represents advance, but one has the sensation that one's feet are on the ground.

What, after all, are teachers trying to do? What is it all about, anyhow? They are, surely, distributors of culture--salesmen, if you will. They want to select those cultural elements which matter most here and now, which have the greatest immediate and intrinsic significance and appeal. They know that unless the learner himself recognizes the legitimacy of what he is being asked to learn no skill and no pressure will ever lead to satisfactory and permanantly worthwhile results. The impediment has been an organization of material into endless narrow subdivisions; and this has meant that the material itself has been deprived of life and value.

The very things most obviously worthy to be learned by everybody are just the things that cannot be put in pigeonholes. But they can be put in large compartments. Very well, let us abandon the pigeonholes. This is sure to bring with it changes in the whole structure of education in America the nature of which cannot yet be clearly envisaged. Our entire system depends upon the concept of credits accumulated in limited courses. If you abandon the limited courses, what about the precious credits? Nobody knows yet, but we shall find out. The effective dissemination of a living culture is a matter far too urgent to be blocked by any conventions or any fetishes or vested interests, however well established. Simplification, rationalization, the provision of cultural materials whose manifest significance is the chief dynamic in their acquisition--this is the prevailing direction of American school reform today.


Copyright © 1939 by James R. Mursell. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; December, 1939; "The Reform of the Schools"; Volume 164, No. 6; pages 803-809.

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