American Classics in School

A LEXICOGRAPHER once asked me to define for him, historically, the phrase common school, as used in America, and to discriminate it from the similar phrase, public school. I had not learning enough to answer the former half of the demand, but I conjectured that the gradual substitution of the latter phrase for the older came about from the growth of private schools, especially in the richer communities, thereby requiring a sharper distinction in terms. I suppose that the application of the word common to schools grew out of the familiar use of the word amongst English-speaking people in connection with other associated interests, as land, law, and worship.

The term common school is, at all events, a sound form of words, and one full of significance. It calls us back to the prime consideration. There is now and then rumor of an assault upon the public treasury for the support of private schools which are under the control of some society of men, religious or otherwise, and the defense against such assault is in the right that only public schools shall be supported out of the public tax. This position is not easily overthrown, yet there is a higher ground for the maintenance of common schools. A common school stands over against a class school, however the class may be defined, whether in terms of society or religion, and the commonwealth is rightly jealous of this common property in education.

There has always been, therefore, a criticism of the common school, whenever the proposal has been made to introduce studies which look to the advantage of the individual member rather than to that of the whole community; and the most potent argument against the present movement in favor of industrial studies is the instinctive feeling that the common schools would thereby be diverted into the business of educating mechanics. It is a pity that this feeling could not have been equally appealed to in alarming the public mind over the tendency of the common schools to an over-production of clerks. A considerable part of the energy expended in our common schools seems to be narrowed into this channel.

That the safety of the republic depends upon the educated intelligence of the people is one of the truisms of our political creed. There is no more telling antithesis in a speech on public education than that which sets the sums expended for standing armies in Europe against the vast sums expended for common schools in America, though now and then some critic does interpose a parenthesis containing the figures of the great pension account; and probably nine out of ten educated Americans, if asked what is the chief end of the common schools, would answer, To make good American citizens.

The receipt for making good American citizens is not always analyzed, and one is bound to admit that in some cases the result is half-baked specimens; but the analyst, when pressed for particulars, rarely fails to fall back upon the generalities of mental development, with a saving clause in favor of the study of American history as a specific for accomplishing the end in view, while an increasing body of educators insist upon the necessity of incorporating in common-school courses of study an intelligible acquaintance with political forms.

Now I should be the last to undervalue such studies, and I earnestly hope that the common schools of the country may give distinct and marked attention both to history and to political science, and so adjust the teaching of them as to reach the great mass of children who close their school life at the age of fourteen ; but there is behind the facts of history and the methods of politics something more intangible, yet more vital to any large and lasting conception of Americanism, and the resources at our command for communicating the spirit which vitalizes national life are simple, natural, and effective.

The deposit of nationality is in laws, institutions, art, character, and religion; but laws, institutions, character, and religion are expressed through art, and mainly through the art of letters. It is literature, therefore, that holds in precipitation the genius of the country, and the higher the form of literature, the more consummate the expression of that spirit which does not so much seek a materialization as it inevitably shapes itself in fitting form. Long may we read and ponder the life of Washington, yet fall back at last content upon those graphic lines of Lowell in Under the Old Elm, which cause the figure of the great American to outline itself upon the imagination with large and strong portraiture. The spirit of the orations of Webster and Benton, the whole history of the young giant poised in conscious strength before his triumphant struggle, one may catch in a breath in those glowing lines which end The Building of the Ship. The deep passion of the war for the Union may be overlooked in some formal study of battles and campaigns, but rises pure, strong, and flaming in the immortal Gettysburg speech.

It is this concentration in poetry and the more lofty prose which gives to literary art its preciousness as a symbol of human endeavor, and renders it the one essential and most serviceable means for keeping alive the smouldering coals of patriotism. It is the torch passed from one hand to another, signaling hope and warning; and the one place above all others where its light should be kindled is where the young are met together, in those American temples which the people have built in every town and village in the country. It may be doubted if any single voice did so much to stir young America into sympathy with the Greeks in their rising for independence as Halleck’s Marco Bozzaris, which was shouted from every schoolhouse in the land; and while older men in the North were discussing the bearings of Webster’s Seventh of March speech, their boys were declaiming from the schoolhouse rostrum the magnificent burst at the close of Webster’s second speech on Foot’s resolution, ignorant that they were already hearing the trumpet-call which should lead them on to death for that Union which was Webster’s highest inspiration. As men grow older they become interested in questions of government and politics, and are ready to make sacrifices of time and money to secure certain political results, in which their own individual interest is after all very slight and vague. This is practical patriotism, and, despite the pessimistic belief of those who are enlightened only by dramatic situations, it was never more at the command of the country than now. But it is not uncommon to hear from such practical patriots, especially when they remember the fervor of 1861, expressions of skepticism as to the continuous existence of the sentiment of patriotism. Of course so general a doubt may be answered by as general an affirmation, and we are no nearer the exact truth; but this is certain, that practical patriotism is by no means so dependent upon considerations of expediency and personal advantage, or even duty, as it is upon the undying sentiment of patriotism. As well might we say that practical religion rested only in a sense of duty. Its springs are in love of God ; let these become dry and choked through the failure to hold conscious communion with him, and practical religion will be but a barren fig tree. Precisely thus, the sentiment of patriotism must be kept fresh and living in the hearts of the young through quick and immediate contact with the sources of that sentiment; and the most helpful means are those spiritual deposits of patriotism which we find in noble poetry and lofty prose, as communicated by men who have lived patriotic lives and been fed with coals from the altar.

If all this be true, we are bound to make as deliberate a provision for keeping this sentiment of patriotism alive as we are to provide against the possibility of an attack upon the nation from foreign enemies. Indeed, the strongest defense is in the inexpugnable sentiment. If love of country is something more than a creature’s instinct for self-preservation, if it be inwoven with love of righteousness and the passion for redeemed humanity, then it may be cultivated and strengthened, and ought not to be left to the caprice of fortune.

The common-school system is the one vast organization of the country, elastic, adapted in minor details to local needs, but swayed by one general plan; feeling the force of educated public sentiment, and manipulated by the free, intelligent association of teachers and superintendents. This organization offers the most admirable means for the cultivation and strengthening of the sentiment of patriotism, and it avails itself of it in many ways. The great national holidays are made occasions. Notable anniversaries are improved. It is not too much to say that the young men and women between twenty and thirty to-day are far more earnest citizens because of the centennial fever which raged from 1874 to 1877. But aside from and beyond these special means, the most important aid of all is to be found in a steady, unremitting attention to American classics.

It may be said, and with a show of truth, that it would be possible to bring into one compact volume the great, direct utterances of American poets, orators, and romancers upon the vital theme of our country, and that such a book as a vade mecum could be mastered in a brief portion of the school curriculum. But one feels instinctively that this end of patriotism is not to be attained by the concentration of the mind upon it for a given time ; that the sentiment of patriotism is not something to pass a written examination upon, at the end of a course of study. The larger results are attained in this as in other pursuits by broadening, not by narrowing, the range. The book of patriotism which might thus be culled is an indiscriminated part of the whole body of American literature, and its power is greater as one comes into acquaintance with the whole, and not with selected parts. It is not the " golden texts,” so called, which animate the religious mind; it is the free and full use of the whole Bible ; and the literature of America, taken in its large and comprehensive sense, is worth vastly more to American boys and girls than any collection which may be made from it of “ memory gems.”

I have written as if a prime advantage of making much of American classics in school lay in the power which this literature has of inspiring a noble love of country. But in the spiritual universe there are no fences, and the fields of patriotism and righteousness lie under the same stars. Righteousness transmuted into the terms of patriotism is the appeal from lower, material good to that which is higher and overarching. Now our schools, with their close relation to the business of life, demand a reinforcement on the side of spirituality. They have been more and more secularized, and it will only be as the people become largely at one on religious matters that they can ever recover a distinctly religious character. Meanwhile, literature and music remain as great spiritualizing forces, and happily no theoretic differences serve to exclude them from the common schools. It is to literature that we must look for the substantial protection of the growing mind against an ignoble, material conception of life, and for the inspiring power which shall lift the nature into its rightful fellowship with whatsoever is noble, true, lovely, and of good report. Mr. Parsons, in his thoughtful, warning paper on The Decline of Duty,1 strikes the keynote of our present peril when he says, “ A materialist civilization can never be a safe one.” He does not point out the preservative forces, nor intimate very distinctly to what we are to look for a corrective of present tendencies; but in the same number of the journal containing his paper is a glimpse of a boyhood which leaves strongly impressed on the mind the figure of a “boy reading Plato, covered to his chin with a cloak, in a cold upper chamber.” It is not so much in the story of that life that we are to seek for influences counteracting material greed as in words which have flowed from the lips of the man, whose boyhood knew privations. How many young minds have leapt at the words,

“ So nigh is grandeur to our dust,
So near is God to man,
When Duty whispers low, Thou must,
The youth replies, I can ” !

How many, also, have felt their pulses thrill with the exultant words of that declaration of independence,

“ Good-by, proud world! I’m going home ” !

But how large an inheritance of spiritual power might such minds acquire, if the golden days of their youth were spent over the prose and poetry which embody a life of high endeavor and secret worship !

It is from the men and women bred on American soil that the fittest words come for the spiritual enrichment of American youth, I believe heartily in the advantage of enlarging one’s horizon by taking in other climes and other ages, but first let us make sure of that great expansive power which lies close at hand. I am sure there never was a time or country when national education, under the guidance of national art and thought, was so possible as in America to-day. The organization of schools is practically complete ; statutes and public sentiment have carried it so far that an era of criticism has set in. Meanwhile, we have now for the first time a perspective of national literature. The rise of new men and new methods was needed to give the requisite fullness to our conception of the art of the older school; and as we move away from the dividing line of 1861, we are more clearly cognizant of that body of humane letters which was then inherently fixed, but needed the vista of a score of years to become defined and clearly marked to our eyes.

We are not so much concerned to discriminate the work of the older Americans as we are ready to accept the men themselves, with their well-recognized personality. The process of sifting goes on silently, but however it may gradually set the mark of approbation on this or that particular production, it is not likely that the group of men will be much enlarged or diminished. Any list made now of what, for lack of a better word, we may call standard American authors would inevitably contain certain names, unless the maker of the list were possessed of some paradoxical humor. The majority vote in the long run determines the sway of literary rulers and governors. Just because there are a few authors who have an incontestable position in America, we may and ought to turn to them for the foundation of a love and knowledge of pure literature, and my plea is that, whatever else is done in the way of reading in our common schools, these authors should command the chief and first attention ; that school courses should be arranged so as to give them a definite place, just as our American school geographies give the United States in detail, and follow with rapid study of Europe, Asia, and Africa, and just as United States history has the preference in order over European history and ancient history.

The real point of practical reform, however, is not in the preference of American authors to English, but in the careful concentration of the minds of boys and girls upon standard American literature, in opposition to a dissipation over a desultory and mechanical acquaintance with scraps from a variety of sources, good, bad, and indifferent. In a previous article on Nursery Classics in School,2 I argued that there was a true economy in substituting the great books of that portion of the world’s literature which represents the childhood of the world’s mind for the thin, quickly forgotten, feeble imaginations of insignificant bookmakers. There is an equally noble economy in engaging the child’s mind, when it is passing out of an immature state into one of rational, intelligent appropriation of literature, upon such carefully chosen classic work as shall invigorate and deepen it. There is plenty of vagrancy in reading; the public libraries and cheap papers are abundantly able to satisfy the truant; but it ought to be recognized once for all that the schools are to train the mind into appreciation of literature, not to amuse it with idle diversion ; to this end, the simplest and most direct method is to place before boys and girls for their regular task in reading, not scraps from this and that author, duly paragraphed and numbered, but a wisely selected series of works by men whom their country honors, and who have made their country worth living in.

The continuous reading of a classic is in itself a liberal education; the fragmentary reading of commonplace lessons in minor morals, such as make up much of our reading-books, is a pitiful waste of the growing mental powers. Even were our reading-books composed of choice selections from the highest literature, they would still miss the very great advantage which follows upon the steady growth of acquaintance with a sustained piece of literary art. I do not insist, of course, that Evangeline should be read at one session of the school, though it would be exceedingly helpful in training the powers of the mind if, after this poem had been read day by day for a few weeks, it were to be taken up first in its separate thirds, and then in an entire reading. What I claim is that the boy or girl who has read Evangeline through steadily has acquired a certain power in appropriating literature which is not to be had by reading a collection of minor poems, — the power of long-sustained attention and interest.

If we could substitute a full course of reading from the great American authors for a course in any existing graded series of readers, we should gain a further advantage in teaching children literature without frightening them with the vast spectre of literature. Molière’s doctor spoke prose all his life without discovering it, and children taught to read literature may escape the haunting sense that there is a serious, vague study known as literature, which has handbooks, and manuals, and vast dictionaries, and cyclopædias, and Heaven knows what mountains shutting it out from the view of ordinary mortals. There is a deal of mischief in teaching young people about literature and perhaps giving them occasional specimens, but all the while keeping them at a distance from the real thing.

At the same time, with American literature for the great body of reading in our common schools, there would be the further advantage that just when the boy or girl was beginning to appreciate the personal element in books, to associate the author with what the author said, the teacher would be able to satisfy and stimulate an honorable curiosity. The increasing attention paid to authors’ birthdays illustrates the instinctive demand from the schools that the authors thus commemorated should be part and parcel of the school life. An immense store of fresh and delightful material is at the command of teachers, for use in illustrating the works of the greater American authors ; and that part of the school course which is devoted to reading may thus be enriched and vitalized in a hundred ways, to the manifest enlargement of the mind of the pupil.

The objection is sometimes made to this general scheme that the slow development of the mind requires the books for reading to be carefully graded, and a great deal of very minute attention has been given to securing an easy, natural, and progressive grade. It is, of course, apparent that a boy who has mastered only easy combinations of words cannot at once be set to reading Thoreau’s Wild Apples, however keen may be his interest in practical experiments upon the subject of Thoreau’s paper. Grading is necessary, and it is entirely possible to apply the principle to American classics for schools. Not literature made to order to suit certain states of the juvenile mind, but those parts of existing literature selected in a wise adjustment of means to end, — that is the solution of the problem of gradation. If Hawthorne’s Wonder-Book is too hard, there are still simpler examples of Hawthorne’s sympathetic prose. The body of wholesome, strong American literature is large enough to make it possible to keep boys and girls upon it from the time when they begin to recognize the element of authorship until they leave school, and it is varied and flexible enough to give employment to the mind in all its stages of development. Moreover, this literature is interesting, and is allied with interesting concerns ; half the hard places are overcome by the willing mind, and the boy who stumbles over some jejune lesson in his reading-book will run over a bit of genuine prose from Irving, which the school-book maker with his calipers pronounces too hard.

The American classics have little by little been making their way into schools, edging themselves in sometimes under the awkward title of Supplementary Reading, and there can be no doubt that every year will see them more securely intrenched. It is noticeable that the movement in this direction is corrective of a somewhat recent condition, and encouragement may be drawn from the comparatively short life of the graded reading-books. Men in middle life remember when these books first came into vogue; before that time the reading-books were made up of selections from standard English literature. Many a person has grateful recollection of these earlier books for the stimulus which they gave to a liking for fine literature, and certain passages in Shakespeare probably owe their celebrity less to the stage and less to the popularity of the plays in which they occur than to the fact that they have been read and delivered by millions of school-children. But with the great expansion of the school system, and especially with the rapid growth of cities, the organization of schools became a prime consideration, and with this organization came a rapid development of school-books on the side which most readily appeals to the systematizing and mechanical mind. Reading-books were finely graded, and to secure this supreme good of gradation the individuality of literature was subordinated. That was used which was most convenient and lent itself most readily to the all-important end of easy gradation.

We have gone quite far enough in the mechanical development of the commonschool system. What we most need is the breath of life, and reading offers the noblest means for receiving and imparting this breath of life. The tendency of our schools is always toward an assimilation of the common life of the country, and there is no danger that they will not be practical enough. Arithmetic passes into the making out of bills and the calculation of interest. Writing gravitates toward business forms. Geography points to commercial enterprises. Reading finds its end in a Sunday newspaper. But the common life of the country has also its heroic, its ideal temper, and it is the business of those who have to do with schools to see to it that this side is not neglected. This requires thought, adaptation of means to ends, organization. To secure a just equilibrium, we need to use the great power of reading, and apply it to what is noble and inspiriting. The spiritual element in education in our common schools will be found to lie in reserve in literature, and, as I believe, most effectively in American literature.

Think for a moment of that great, silent, resistless power for good which might at this moment be lifting the youth of the country, were the hours for reading in school expended upon the undying, life-giving books! Think of the substantial growth of a generous Americanism, were the boys and girls to be fed from the fresh springs of American literature! It would be no narrow provincialism into which they would emerge. The windows in Longfellow’s mind look to the east, and the children who have entered into possession of his wealth travel far. Bryant’s flight carries one through upper air, over broad champaigns. The lover of Emerson has learned to get a far vision. The companion of Thoreau finds Concord suddenly become the centre of a very wide horizon. Irving has annexed Spain to America. Hawthorne has nationalized the gods of Greece and given an atmosphere to New England. Whittier has translated the Hebrew Scriptures into the American dialect. Lowell gives the American boy an academy without cutting down a stick of timber in the grove, or disturbing the birds. Holmes supplies that hickory which makes one careless of the crackling of thorns. Franklin makes the America of a past generation a part of the great world before treaties had bound the floating States into formal connection with venerable nations. What is all this but laying that the rich inheritance which we have is no local ten-acre lot, but a part of the undivided estate of humanity ? Universality, cosmopolitanism, — these are fine words, but no man ever secured the freedom of the universe who did not first pay taxes and vote in his own village.

H. E. Scudder.

  1. The Atlantic Monthly, May, 1887.
  2. The Atlantic Monthly, June, 1887.