The New Departure in the Public Schools

THE introduction into the Boston public schools of Six Popular Tales, selected and arranged by Mr. Henry Cabot Lodge, and a volume of Poetry for Children, edited by Samuel Eliot, superintendent of schools, marks another step in the process of growth which appears to be going on in modern opinion in regard to education.

At length the old system which has endured so long seems crumbling, and new methods and new ideas appear on every side. That old system, the system beloved by the true pedagogue, is only too well known. It is the system of routine and of cram, and there are few people under forty who have not at some time suffered under it.

To excite interest or arouse enthusiasm has not been considered the task of a master in the common schools. On the contrary, an interested school-room would probably be rather noisy, and hence objectionable. Scholarship has been held to consist in learning textbooks by heart, and in answering by rote such questions as were printed for the master’s use ; that school has been the best where the routine was most iron bound, where children were drilled in their exercises like soldiers in the manual, and where excellence, in the one case as in the other, depended on turning human beings into machines.

Now, apart from the fact that such discipline is pernicious, because it enfeebles the mind by overloading it with undigested matter, and crushes out originality by discouraging all independent thought, it is equally objectionable on other grounds. Long experience has proved that it is a doubtful blessing to teach a man to read, and then turn him upon the world to pick up such further education as the cheap literature of great cities affords. The immense sale of sensational newspapers of the worst class proves the truth of this fact, and is admitted to be one of the most threatening signs of the times. There is no use in attacking the publishers of criminal literature by indictment, and by fine and imprisonment. Where there is a demand there will be a supply, all the laws in the statute-book to the contrary notwithstanding. The true way to suppress such publications is by lessening the demand, and this can be done only by educating the children in the common schools to read something better. That much can be done in this direction the believers in the new departure are thoroughly convinced, and that without any great expense or radical change, except in bringing common sense to bear upon the educational problem.

The popular dissatisfaction with the results attained by the elaborate, costly, and ineffective system in use has been to bring forward a new class of school superintendents, and to inaugurate the movement which has caused such books as those edited by Dr. Eliot and Mr. Lodge to be put into the schools.

Admitting at the outset that beside the vast mass of human knowledge, that portion which can be taught to students at the greatest of universities must be but a petty fragment, the theory that many things should be taught is frankly abandoned. The school at once ceases to be considered as a place where an education is given, and becomes a place where children are taught how to learn, and, if possible, inspired with a love of knowledge for its own sake. The problem is, first, How are children to be interested in their lessons ? and, second, How are they to be taught to love to read ?

The way to begin would obviously seem to be at the beginning. The first years of a child’s education are those in which he acquires habits of mind and methods of thought which influence his whole life, and yet the primary department is that branch which has hitherto been most neglected. If the beginning has been right, if in the first three years of school the child has learned to read and write with ease and to take pleasure in reading and writing, to carry him further is an easy task. If, ou the contrary, study has been irksome ; if he has not been trained to fix his attention and to apply his mind; and, above all, if he has not learned to read with pleasure and to be fond of books, future success becomes difficult, or impossible.

Many thousand years ago mothers and nurses discovered how to teach babies to talk. About other educational problems there may be doubt, but this one is settled : the one thing every human being, rich or poor, learned or ignorant, can do really well is to speak the tongue his mother taught him. Now if pedagogues, instead of making children go their way, would only consent to follow the example set by the mothers and teach as they do, or, in other words, would let children learn in the way in which nature meant them to learn, they might be successful, too; but they consider themselves wiser than nature, and therefore they fail. A mother does not begin by teaching her baby to spell before it learns to talk. She says, “ I am 'mother;’ say ‘ mother ; and the baby understands perfectly, and tries, and after a while says “ mother,” and is delighted ; and so learning to talk goes on. with perfect satisfaction to every one. In view of these well-known facts, common sense would suggest making an effort to see if it is impossible to teach reading and writing in the same way ; in perfect faith that if it can be done it must be right, because it must be natural. That it can be done with entire success the result of many different experiments has proved. The method is very simple. For example, the teacher, on the first day of school, draws a man on the blackboard, and then taking a little class of about a dozen children about her she asks them what she has drawn. They say “a man,” and are Interested at once. She then writes the word “ man,” and tells them that means “ man,” too. They understand immediately, and after she has rubbed it out and rewritten it a few times they learn to recognize it wherever they see it. Then while the impression is still fresh they are sent to their scats to see how good a man they can make on their slates for themselves. This is the first writing lesson, and though naturally the first attempts are not very successful, it is surprising how quickly children learn to imitate any word they see written, and with what never - failing interest and enjoyment they will copy words and sentences upon their slates. Every word they read they also write, and of course spell; for children would no more spell the word “man” wrong when they wrote it, after having learned to draw it in this way, than they would draw the man himself without his head. Indeed, the method of teaching spelling is the great feature of the system. If anything has been demonstrated by repeated failure, it is that teaching to spell English by ear is impossible. Nine out of ten of the people who speak the English language to-day. if they are in doubt how to spell a word, write it down to see how it looks ; that is, they spell by eye, although the eye has never been trained to retain the shape of words. The object system spends its whole power on this training of the eye. From his first lesson, before be knows a letter, the child is taught to imitate the written shapes ; he is taught to rely entirely upon the eye, and after he has learned his letters, and can spell orally, instead of drawing what were to him at first arbitrary signs, the same system is continued. Spelling is taught by dictation and by exercises In writing original composition, until at length the eye retains naturally and without effort the form of every word that has been seen.

Meanwhile, orthography is learned. Having always seen sentences written beginning with a capital, it seems to the children a law of nature that all sentences should so begin, and accordingly they never think of writing otherwise. They learn in the same way what a question mark is, aud what it means, and where it should be put, and so on throughout. Strangely enough, also, although the child has never been taught his letters, and only knows written words as signs representing objects, he finds no difficulty in recognizing the printed words when he sees them in a book.

Thus children who have learned to read from script upon the blackboard, when they are put into primers go on with so little difficulty that the delay in the school work may be neglected. Every one knows, however, that the converse does not hold true, and that children who have first learned to read print do not read handwriting naturally. As time goes on another strange phenomenon takes place. Children begin to read new words at sight, without knowing their letters, or at least the names of the letters. They appear to have come to associate certain written signs with certain sounds, and to generalize just as they do when they learn to talk. No child, for instance, ever heard the word “ gooder,” yet the chances are he will say “ gooder,” and not “ better,” because he has learned by observation the rule for forming the comparative, but not the exception to the rule. So in learning to read he seems to recognize the force of the letters long before be knows their names. When this stage is reached the battle is won. After that children soon learn the names of letters for themselves ; at most the teacher has only to spell the words aloud for a few days as she writes them on the board. The difficulty then is to supply the books. There is no danger that children thus taught will not love to read. Learning has been one long pleasure to them, because it gave a vent for their energy in work they thoroughly understood, which occupied at once their brains and their hands. They read childish books with the same ease and the same delight that they talk childish talk, and the chief care of the instructor now should be to see to it that plenty of the right kind of reading is supplied : reading to stimulate the interest, to rouse the imagination, and to fix the attention : reading at the same time healthy and sound, and which shall lead to better things in the future. It is partially to supply this want that Dr. Eliot and Mr. Lodge have edited these books. It may be thought that it required no gift of prophecy to foresee that stories that had delighted children for a thousand years would delight them still, yet these stories have never been put in schools before. Nor is the mere story the chief end in view. They have been edited with the object of making them perfect as a school-book. The oldest and purest texts have been chosen, and it is safe to say that there are no reading-books in existence of equal literary merit. The same is true of the poetry ; the selection has been made with the object of educating the taste, and preparing the scholars to enjoy the best forms of literature as they grow older.

The amount of reading which can be disposed of during a year in a good primary school is amazing. Such books as these are simply devoured by children who have hitherto been starved so far as their fancy and their imagination are concerned. If any one cares to test practically how strong the interest of children who are thus taught really is, he has only to buy a dozen picture-books, or indeed story-books of any kind, go to some primary school where this system is in successful operation, and tell the children that he has brought them something new to read. He will probably be satisfied that there is no lack of eagerness about him, and that the little people know quite well what they want.

Exactly the same thing holds true of writing. No human being can be interested in making pot-hooks, or in filling dreary copy-books with copies, but almost any one can be interested in putting his thoughts into words if he is rightly taught. As a matter of fact, nothing seems to entertain children more, after they begin to write with tolerable ease, than to give on their slates an abstract of some story they have read, or to describe anything else that happens to have attracted their attention. Where this system of original composition has been adopted from the beginning the classes soon acquire real ease and facility of expression ; they write as they read and as they talk, naturally.

The object throughout should be to make boys and girls use their minds and think for themselves, instead of passively taking whatever tasks are set them to learn. The same idea can be made to pervade the whole school course. If children are thus treated, they can be interested in their studies, especially if attention is paid to the disposition and peculiarities of the individual. The existing system is of cast-iron. The true system is elastic. Children are not made to fit the school and the school-master; on the contrary, the school should be made to encourage the individual development of each child. To kindle intelligent interest in all is impossible, but in every class there are some who begin quite early to show decided tastes in certain directions. To foster and to develop such growth should be the highest aim of the common schools. It would be, doubtless, impossible to give individual instruction to each pupil in the school itself, but unlimited resources are at hand. The public libraries are, for practical purposes, perfect, and they are open to all. Under a judicious system, the reading supplied to the schools might be made a sort of index or introduction to the public libraries. It would be easy and by no means costly to have a course of reading, beginning with these little primary books and extending to the high schools, which would in five or six years give the children a fair idea of English literature, stimulate their interest, and at the same time put them in the way of following out any subject for which they had a taste. Teachers, on their side, should not stop at the books placed in their hands. It should he their greatest pleasure, as it certainly is their highest privilege, to point out to their children the books to read at home, and thus to give that invaluable lesson which is now so seldom learned, — how to go alone. Nothing can be done, however, so long as schools remain the victims of routine. Immense buildings, costly apparatus, multitudes of studies, forms, parade, and show, do not make good schools or good scholars. That school is good in which the work is done intelligently and with interest. That school is bad in which the work is superficial, unintelligent, or dull.

That modern ideas should be bitterly resisted by many teachers trained under old ideas is natural. They worship the text-book as a resource in time of trouble, and do not know what to do if they are called on to rely upon themselves. Yet no text-book, however good, can give what must be given to make teaching effective. Instruction depends, for all its vitality and for all its vigor, on the life and power which the teacher can put into his talk. Without that the best of books must be dull to schoolchildren, the most carefully digested course must become mere humdrum routine. There is no public question of more interest and of more importance. The schools do not do the work they might; they do not fill the place they should. The expense at which they are carried on is crushing. More will not be given until more is demanded by the public, and to arouse public interest and call public attention to the school question as it now stands is the best service that can be performed for popular education.