THE first two reports1 of Dr. Eliot, the successor to Mr. Philbrick as superintendent of the Boston public schools, embracing as they do the results of a year’s observation and work, may well be taken up together. The former, issued last September, was a comprehensive survey of the system ; the latter, dated in March, is a special inquiry into parts of the system. The survey of the schools, made by a man who was conversant in general with their workings, had himself been a conspicuous teacher in them, but now first looked at them in the light of his own special responsibility, could not fail to disclose their strength, and the weakness as well as the dominant principle of the superintendent. In his statement of what constitutes the end of publicschool education, and in his suggestions as to the means fittest to that end, Dr. Eliot at once discloses his strength, and intimates, however unconsciously, the opposition which he is sure to encounter. No one can frankly set about reforming our public schools without inviting antagonism, and when the reform points to ideal ends it is sure to be misunderstood. Dr. Eliot shows true wisdom in accepting the existing order and making practicable reforms his immediate aim, but he has the courage and candor to confess his devotion to higher principles than people generally like to see positively at work in public affairs ; and there will be a dislike, more or less openly expressed at first, to a man who makes his convictions in religion furnish him not only with phrases, but actually with practical suggestions.
The report must be taken openly for what it professes to be, — the judgment, honorably expressed, of a man who believes in the higher utility ; who holds not only that to be useful in education which increases human power in material things, but that which aims directly at character, and does not stop short of a recognition of the divine end. “ It is in the public schools,” he writes, “that the great body of the nation is to receive its intellectual training, and, I venture to add, its moral training. No other sources of instruction are so open, none flow so freely, none so helpfully; and it is not their fault so much as ours, in drawing from them, if they fall short of our wants. What we most want must be clear enough by this time. ‘Character,’ says Mr. Emerson, ‘gives splendor to youth.’ He might say it gives other things, and among them the power to profit by the opportunities which education offers. Discipline is essential to tone, and tone to learning. The child who behaves ill, who has no manners, perhaps no principles, certainly no apparent ideals, may have the best literary or scientific instruction ever given, but in vain ; he comes to it in indifference, and leaves it in ignorance. Moral training is at the heart of all training. To it, as to the object for which no effort or sacrifice was too great, our schools were devoted by their founders, and we who come after can find no better.” Again, his practical suggestions, all inspired by this elementary truth, end with the earnest plea for a restoration of the practice of repeating the Lord’s Prayer at the morning session. “ Cannot the Lord’s Prayer again be repeated, as it used to be, and the opening of the morning session become once more devotional ? I am sure that if either teachers or pupils were consulted, not one who had ever felt his daily studies lightened by asking a blessing upon them but would plead for being permitted once more to arise and go unto our Father. Schools can never be wholly secular. Prayer, or common prayer, can be hushed in them, and all their immediate lessons can be drawn in from the invisible to the visible. But their ultimate teaching leads on beyond all bounds of sight or time, and carries, or aids in carrying, back the soul to Him who gave it.”
In the same spirit is the general conception of what constitutes successful teaching. Dr. Eliot never loses sight, in the midst of the complex mechanism of our schools, of the fundamental importance of a living teacher. Treat the children as children, the teachers as teachers, is the demand he makes. Recognize the power of personality, and liberate both children and teachers from the bondage of text books and of an unyielding system. More air rather than more light is his cry, and he would have the air come as a breath from heaven.
The encouraging frankness and the high ideals of the report which presented a general survey are not forgotten when, with a year’s experience, the superintendent specifies in detail the improvements which he sees possible and desirable. He begins with the most important schools, — the primary,— and gives fullest consideration to their needs: “ The great thing to do for our primary pupils is to keep them as fresh and impressionable as when they came to us.” “ If things come before names, if they come singly and come as wholes, it is plain that we have not been wont to begin with children as would be best; . . . our names have come before things. Text-books have seized upon the little child, like the ogres of old, and devoured his thoughts.” “ One of the excellences too often absent from our primary classes is sweetness of voice. A teacher forgets it in her eagerness to teach; scholars forget it in their eagerness to learn. It never ought to be forgotten.”
In dealing with the grammar schools, similar wise and kind suggestions are made: “ It is for their good, as for that of the school and that of the city, to retain the grammar scholars to the end ; . . . a good deal can be done by moderating the demands upon them, and letting them breathe more freely.” He advises again the free use of supplementary reading : “ Few children can read Hawthorne’s Tales or Tom Brown’s School Days without some sort of animation, —an animation which they really feel, and therefore can express. The interest they take in reading such books will inspire them to read others like them; and thus their out-of-school hours will be better occupied.” He objects, on the broad ground that it impairs self-respect and true independence, to the assumption by the city of the cost of school - books and stationery. The new course of study in the primary and grammar schools, initiated at the beginning of his superintendency, is approved because of the freedom which it gives the teacher. “ Freedom in teaching means personality in teaching.” It means also, though Dr. Eliot does not say it, greater intensity of application, and our only fear for this new mode is that while saving the children it will exhaust the teachers. It is probable, however, that the greatest strain comes at the time of transition from the old to the new mode. Certainly it will compel a class of teachers to whom the old foot-rule measurement cannot be applied. He dissuades from corporal punishment; he calls for a simplification of the high-school course; he repeats his conviction that the children in the upper classes may be taught what and how to read, including the use of the Public Library ; he advises a simplification also of work in the Latin schools; he would have the normal school in full sympathy with the new, free education ; he regards the Kindergarten as a private charity rather than a public school, and thinks that the evening schools demand a thorough overhauling. We think it will be found in Boston as elsewhere that the inviting theory of evening schools has blinded people to the impracticability of making them part of the public school system.
Throughout this second report the same spirit breathes that animated the first. The end is never lost sight of; the details of means are considered only as provisions for the end. It is this combination of high ideals with practical sagacity which ought to give fresh courage to all who value our public schools. There is a confidence in the mind of this public servant which generates confidence in others. “ Whatever may obstruct them ” (the schools), he says, with an elastic courage, at the end of his report, “ whatever mistakes in instruction, administration, or organization may be made, they yield to a steadfast ideal.”
- A History of the Witches of Renfrewshire. A new Edition, with an Introduction, embodying Extracts hitherto unpublished from the Records of the Presbytery of Paisley. Paisley : Alex. Gardner. 1877.↩
- Thirty-Fourth and Thirty-Fifth Semi-Annual Report of the Superintendent of Public Schools. September, 1878 ; March, 1879 Boston : Rockwell and Churchill, City Printers.↩