Can School Programmes Be Shortened and Enriched?

“The condition of secondary schools in the United States is at present one of inferiority; ... the country ought not to be satisfied with that condition.”

In the process of improving the secondary schools, colleges, and professional schools of the United States, —a process which has been carried on with remarkable energy since the civil war, — certain new difficulties have been created for the higher education in general, and particularly for colleges. These difficulties have to do with the age at which young men can get prepared for college, and therefore with the ages at which boys pass the successive stages of their earlier education. The average age of admission to Harvard College has been rising for sixty years past, and has now reached the extravagant limit of eighteen years and ten months. Harvard College is not at all peculiar in this respect; indeed, many of the smaller colleges find their young men older still at entrance. The average college student is undoubtedly nearly twenty-three years old at graduation; and when he has obtained his A. B., he must nowadays allow at least three years for his professional education.

In respect to the length of time required for a satisfactory professional training, there has been a great change since the war. Twenty years ago, the period of residence at Harvard University for the degree of Bachelor of Laws was eighteen months; now it is three years. Many of the States of the American Union have passed laws which practically make three years the normal period of study before admission to the bar. Ambitious medical students are giving four years to their medical training. Twenty years ago, the leading colleges were satisfied to take men just graduated in arts as tutors in Latin, Greek, and mathematics. Now they expect a candidate for a tutorship or instructorship to have devoted two or three years to study after taking his Bachelor’s degree. School boards and trustees have become correspondingly exacting. In short, professional education in the United States is growing constantly more thorough and elaborate, and is therefore demanding of aspirants to the professions more and more time. The average college graduate who fits himself well for any one of the learned professions, including teaching, can hardly begin to support himself before he is twenty-seven years old. This condition of things is so unreasonable in a new country like the United States, being hardly matched in the oldest and most densely settled countries of Europe, that some remedy is urgently demanded; and the first partial remedy that suggests itself is to reduce the average age of admission to college to eighteen. This reduction would save about a year. In effecting this saving of time, it is greatly to be wished that no reduction should be made in the attainments which the average candidate for admission now brings to the American colleges; for it is probable that the saving thus effected will not be sufficient in itself, and that the public interests will require in addition some shortening of the ordinary college course of four years. College men, therefore, are anxiously looking to see if the American school courses can be both shortened and enriched: shortened so that our boys may come to college at eighteen instead of nineteen, and enriched in order that they may bring to college at eighteen more than they now bring at nineteen, and that the standard of the A. B. may not be lowered.

The anxiety with which men charged with the conduct of college education look at this question is increased by the relative decline of American colleges and universities as a whole. This relative decline, which was pointed out nearly twenty years ago by President Barnard, of Columbia College, has been very visible of late years. The population of the United States is supposed by the best authorities to increase about one third in every period of ten years. In the ten-year period from 1875 to 1884 inclusive, the universities and colleges named in the tables published by the Commissioner of Education show an increase in their number of students of only eleven per cent. instead of thirty-three and one third per cent. If we select from the same tables the ten-year period from 1876 to 1885, the increase is sixteen per cent.; but the explanation of this higher percentage of increase is that the total number of students in the year 1876 was abnormally low, being 2400 less than the number for 1875. If we add to the institutions enumerated as universities and colleges all the schools of science and all the higher institutions for the education of women, we still find that this enlarged list of institutions has not gained students at the same rate at which the population has increased, although the schools of science have made very large gains in the decade referred to. Thus the increase in the number of students in universities and colleges, schools of science and women’s colleges, taken together, was only twenty-three per cent. in the ten years from 1875 to 1884 inclusive. Obviously, there are serious hindrances affecting all the institutions which receive young men and women at the age of eighteen or nineteen, to keep them under liberal training for three or four years. One of these hindrances undoubtedly is that the colleges as a whole held too long to a mediæval curriculum; but a greater hindrance, in all probability, is the burden imposed upon parents when their elaborately educated sons cannot support themselves in their professions until they are twenty-seven or twenty-eight years old. Hence the importance of the inquiry, Can school programmes be shortened and enriched?

In studying this problem, it is natural to turn first to the schools sometimes called preparatory, — that is, to the best high schools and academies; but if we examine the courses of study in these schools, we find that the four years during which they keep their pupils are generally crowded with work. Thus the Phillips Academy at Exeter, N. H., one of the best academics in the United States, has a four years’ course which is so full that hardly any suggestion can be made for condensing or abbreviating it. But what are the requirements for admission to Exeter? “Some knowledge of common school arithmetic, writing, spelling, and of the elements of English grammar.” These requirements might reasonably be made of a boy leaving the primary school at eight years of age; yet the average age of admission to Exeter is sixteen and one half. Now, Exeter is an academy which would not content itself with such low terms of admission unless under compulsion. It would require more if it could get more from the average candidate; but it draws its pupils from a wide area, and its experience is against making greater demands. The Exeter course is itself encumbered with some studies suitable for a boy of ten. Thus it devotes much time to arithmetic, and teaches the very elements of English and English literature. A secondary school which is obliged to take its pupils in the average condition of the boys who enter Exeter can hardly do more for them, in the four years between sixteen and twenty, than is now accomplished at that academy. What is true of Exeter is true of the whole body of upper schools. They have to make up for deficiencies of the lower schools. It is necessary, therefore, to examine the American school programmes from the beginning, — to start with the primary school, and go on through the grammar school and the high school, searching for the places where time and labor can be saved.

The subject seems to be one chiefly interesting to colleges, but it really touches the whole school system. In the first place, whatever improves the school programmes for those children whose education is to be prolonged, perhaps, until they are twenty-five years old, will improve the programmes also for the less fortunate children whose education is to be briefer. The public schools will never send to higher institutions any very large proportion of the children who are trained in them; but their programmes may best be made substantial and systematic by fitting them to the needs of their most intelligent and fortunate pupils. Moreover, we may reasonably strive to make every grade of the public school programme, primary, grammar, and high, and indeed every year in any programme, a thing good in itself, as well as a good introduction to the course of study which lies beyond it. The better the programme is in itself, the better it will be as a preparation for further study. To the primary and grammar schools this principle applies in all its fullness. In the high school and academy, the principle needs qualification for the foreign languages only; and for that portion of the programme options should be allowed. The question, Can American school programmes be at once condensed and enriched? has, then, a wide scope, and touches the interests of the whole population.

When we are brought face to face with a question of feasibility, — Can schools do more than they are now doing for the American boy? — it is interesting to inquire how much is done for boys by the public schools of other nations. It is easy to institute such comparisons by means of the printed programmes of German gymnasia, French lycées, and American high or Latin schools. For instance, let any teacher, superintendent, or school committee, desiring to study this question of feasibility, procure the programmes of the Boston grammar schools and Latin School, as a good American type in the absence of any programme of national authority, and compare the courses of study year by year for boys of the same age with those of the official programmes of the French classical schools (Plan d’Etudes des Lycées. Programmes de l’Enseignement Secondaire Classique. Paris: Delalain Frères). This comparison is a limited but fair one. It is in each case the classical course, covering the ages from eight to seventeen, which is to be studied; but the corresponding programmes in which Latin and Greek are replaced by other subjects might also be compared. In the French schools, mathematical and scientific studies can be substituted for Latin and Greek in large part, and in Boston the English High School offers a programme like that of the Latin School, but with similar substitution of mathematical and scientific studies for all the Greek, and some or all of the Latin. A comparison limited to the classical programmes is, however, quite as instructive as any other. The French national programme may well be selected for study rather than that of a German gymnasium, because the work done in German secondary schools is more comprehensive, elaborate, and difficult.

The new French programme above cited is a recent reduction of that which was in force from 1880 to 1885, the reduction amounting to about twenty per cent.; and the number of recitations per week is nearly the same as in the two Boston schools. Of foreign programmes the French is the best to compare with those of American schools, because France is socially a democratic country, politically a republic, and industrially a country whose chief reliance, in the strenuous competition to which its population is exposed within and without, is the intelligence and skill of its producing classes. In all these respects France and the United States closely resemble each other. Moreover, the French boy has no possible advantage over the American boy in strength of constitution, intelligence, or endurance; on the contrary, he is not so large a boy as the American, on an average, and he is not so well fed.

A brief examination of these two programmes side by side reveals several important facts. The French course of study is decidedly the more substantial; that is to say, it calls for greater exertion on the part of the pupil than the Boston; it introduces the children earlier to serious subjects, and it is generally more interesting and more stimulating to the intelligence. For example, at eight years of age the French boy begins to study a foreign language, either English or German; the American boy begins to study a modern language five years later, at thirteen, when the best period for learning a foreign tongue is already passed. The French boy of eight begins the study of history in a very attractive way through the study of biography; the American boy gets no history until he is thirteen, when he begins Greek history. The French boy of eight devotes just one third the time to arithmetic that the American devotes, and in the whole course does not give to that subject more than one third the time the American gives; yet for practical purposes the French are quite as skillful with numbers as the Americans. The French boy gets at natural history earlier than the American boy, and in better subjects. Again, the French programme represents an actual fact, the large majority of French boys passing regularly at the ages indicated through the prescribed course of study; whereas the programme of the Boston Latin School, prepared for the years from eleven to sixteen inclusive, actually covers the years from thirteen to eighteen inclusive. In comparing the attainments of the Boston boy with those of the French boy, we must therefore add two full years to the ages set down in the American programme. The inferiority of that programme then becomes conspicuous. There is no single subject mentioned in it in which the French boy does not accomplish more than the American. This appears clearly in the amounts of Latin and Greek set down, but equally plainly in geometry and physics. Moreover, the French course extends a year beyond the Boston course, and in the final year, called philosophy, gives a comprehensive survey of philosophy and ethics, — a thing never attempted in the United States with boys of seventeen, but found practicable and in the highest degree useful in the French republic. The preponderance of the French language, the mother tongue, in the French programme is also most noticeable. Until Latin and Greek are introduced, French occupies half of the whole course; when the study of Latin and Greek is at its height, French still claims a substantial portion of the time; and in the final year French resumes almost exclusive possession of the programme. Great improvements have been made during the last ten years in the study of English and English literature in the best American schools; but the mother tongue does not yet hold anything like the place in American schools which French holds in the French schools. In the French lycées, geometry comes before algebra, and with the help of drawing is treated thoroughly before algebra is seriously attacked; plane geometry being finished by the time the boy is fourteen years of age. At the Boston Latin School, on the other hand, plane geometry is not completed until the boy is seventeen according to the programme, but nineteen in reality. Even a cursory examination of the two systems will convince any one that the French boy has a chance to make a much greater total attainment by the time he is eighteen than the American boy can make at the best schools of this country by the time he is nineteen. Thorough study of them will only strengthen this conviction.

The comparison thus instituted gives no warrant for impatient, revolutionary action. The transformation it suggests is not to be wrought in a year, but should be the aim of patient labor during many years. Everybody knows that foreign institutions of education cannot be imported; that a nation’s educational institutions are strongly influenced by its political, ethical, and industrial conditions; and that the improvement of schools and colleges must necessarily be slow. It may, however, be justly inferred, even from this limited examination, that the condition of secondary schools in the United States is at present one of inferiority; that the country ought not to be satisfied with that condition, and indeed should strenuously exert itself for the ,improvement of American programmes, both by condensation and enrichment. If it be said that the American boy turns out pretty well, after all, and that the American community, as a whole, is as intelligent as the French or the German community, the ready answer is that free institutions are in themselves a considerable education for the population, but that the advantage which the nation has over Europe in possessing free institutions ought not to reconcile it to a position of inferiority as regards schools. It ought to aim to have the best schools, too. If it be practicable to make American primary and secondary schools better, the work of improving them should be set on foot. The fair inference from the experience of European schools being that it is practicable, we are encouraged to consider some of the means of improving the American public school, from the primary grade through the highest.

(1.) In the first place, better programmes need better teachers. The great difference between the French and German secondary schools and the American is in the quality of the teachers. Two modes of improving the general body of those employed in the public schools demand special attention. First, school committees, superintendents, teachers themselves, and all friends of public education should constantly strive to have a better tenure of office established. The American schools will never equal the schools of Germany and France until well-proved teachers can secure a tenure during good behavior and efficiency here as well as there. Consideration, dignity, and quietness of mind go with a permanent tenure; and the public school service will never compete successfully with the service of private educational corporations until the public employ is as good as the private employ in this regard. Secondly, the average skill of the force in the public schools may be increased by raising the present low proportion of male teachers. Herein lies one of the great causes of the inferiority of the teaching in American schools to that in the French and German. The proportion of women teachers in American schools is vastly greater than it is in Europe. The larger the proportion of women in any system of public schools, the larger will be the percentage of new appointments every year, and the larger the amount of work done by temporary substitutes. Newly appointed teachers and substitutes are generally inexperienced; or, at the best, they are teachers suddenly put to work in unaccustomed places. This superiority of men as teachers has, of course, nothing whatever to do with the relative intelligence or faithfulness of men and women. It is a well-known fact that many women enter the service of the public schools without any intention of long following the business; and, also, that women are absent from duty from two to three times as much as men. Young men who take up this service as a temporary expedient are also unsatisfactory material. The schools need the life-work of highly trained and experienced teachers. After these two most important means of raising the average quality of public school instruction come lesser means, which ought not to be neglected: thus, superintendents and committees can do something by invariably advocating the expenditure of money for teaching, rather than for mechanical appliances or buildings. Cheap teachers and expensive apparatus and buildings are precisely the reverse of wise practice, particularly if the fine buildings are not fire-proof, after all. Again, the work in the public schools can be improved by the establishment of teachers’ examinations, which secure a better preparation in the average teacher, and by methods of supervision, which make known the relative merits of teachers who are on probation. Good progress has been made in this direction during the past ten years.

(2.) The second direction of untiring effort should be towards the improvement of programmes; for the programmes are all-important to the steady development of the whole system of schools, from top to bottom. A good course of study will not execute itself, — it must be vivified by the good teacher; but an injudicious course is an almost insuperable obstacle to the improvement of a city’s schools. As a rule, the American programmes do not seem to be substantial enough, from the first year in the primary school onward. There is not enough meat in the diet. They do not bring the child forward fast enough to maintain his interest and induce him to put forth his strength. Frequent complaint is made of over-pressure in the public schools; but Friedrich Paulsen is probably right in saying that it is not work which causes over-fatigue, so much as lack of interest and lack of conscious progress. The sense that, work as he may, he is not accomplishing anything will wear upon the stoutest adult, — much more upon a child. One problem in arithmetic which he cannot solve will try a child more than ten which he can solve. One hour of work in which he can take no intelligent interest will wear him out more than two hours of work in which he cannot help being interested. Now, the trouble with much of the work in the public schools is that it is profoundly and inevitably uninteresting to the childish mind. To enrich the school programme, therefore, and to make serious subjects follow each other in it more rapidly than now, will not necessarily increase the strain upon the child; it will, however, necessarily increase the skill demanded of the teacher: and hence the improvement of teachers must go hand in hand with the improvement of programmes. The best way to diminish strain is to increase interest, attractiveness, and the sense of achievement and growth. American teaching, in school and college, has been chiefly driving and judging; it ought to be leading and inspiring. Here are these beautiful fields. I will show you the way through them. Here are these rewarding exercises. I will show you how to practice them. Here are these heights. I will lead you up them.

(3.) Much time can be saved in primary and secondary schools by diminishing the number of reviews, and by never aiming at that kind of accuracy of attainment which reviews, followed by examinations, are intended to enforce. Why should an accuracy of knowledge and of statement be habitually demanded of children which adults seldom possess? How many well-educated adults can add long columns of figures correctly, or find the least common multiple or the greatest common divisor of six or eight numbers? Nothing but practice can keep one skillful in these exercises; and we may reasonably be grateful that few people are compelled to keep in the necessary practice. Few adult minds retain accurately considerable masses of isolated facts, and it is commonly observed that minds which are good at that are seldom the best minds. Why do we try to make children do what we do not try to do ourselves? Instead of mastering one subject before going to another, it is almost invariably wise to go on to a superior subject before the inferior has been mastered, — mastery being a very rare thing. On the mastery theory, how much new reading or thinking should we adults do? Instead of reviewing arithmetic, study algebra; for algebra will illustrate arithmetic, and supply many examples of arithmetical processes. Instead of re-reading a familiar story, read a new one; it will be vastly more interesting, and the common words will all recur, — the common words being by far the most valuable ones. Instead of reviewing the physical geography of North America, study South America. There, too, the pupil will find mountain-chains, water-sheds, high plateaux, broad plains, great streams, and isothermal lines. The really profitable time to review a subject is not when we have just finished it, but when we have used it in studying other subjects, and have seen its relations to other subjects, and what it is good for. For example, the French programme puts a review of arithmetic, algebra, and geometry into the last year. With all his mathematical powers strengthened by the study of algebra and geometry, and with all the practice of arithmetic which his study of mensuration and algebra has involved, the boy returns at seventeen to arithmetic, and finds it infinitely easier than he did at fourteen. Further, the French boy has escaped those most vexatious, of arithmetical puzzles which a little easy algebra enables one to solve with facility. Many an educated New Englander remembers to this day the exasperation he felt when he discovered that problems in Colburn’s Sequel, over which he had struggled for hours, could be solved in as many minutes after he had got half-way through Sherwin’s Algebra. Is it not an abominable waste of the time and strength of children to put them to doing in a difficult way, never used in real life, something they will be able to do in an easy way a year or two later? To introduce artificial hardness into the course of training that any human being has to follow is an unpardonable educational sin. There is hardness enough in this world without manufacturing any, particularly for children. On careful search through all the years of the public school programmes now in use, many places will be found where time might be saved and strain lessened by abandoning the effort to obtain an exaggerated and wholly unnatural accuracy of work. It is one of the worst defects of examinations that they set an artificial value upon accuracy of attainment. Good examination results do not always prove that the training of the children examined has been of the best kind.

(4.) In almost all the numerous collections of school statistics which are now published in this country, it appears that the various grades contain children much too old for them, who have, apparently, been held back. This phenomenon seems to be due partly to the ambition of teachers, and partly to the caution of parents. To illustrate with a specific case: In the Boston primary schools, which are intended for children of five to seven years of age inclusive, forty-four per cent. of all the children, for three years past, were over seven; and in the grammar schools of the same city, which are intended for children of from eight to thirteen years inclusive, from twenty to twenty-four per cent. were over thirteen. It has already been mentioned that the average age of admission to the Latin School is not eleven years, as indicated in the programme, but thirteen years. It is really thirteen years and three months. For three years past, from one third to one half of the graduating classes of the Boston grammar schools have been more than six years in the schools, the programme calling for but six years. In the Boston primary and grammar schools, the tendency is in the wrong direction; that is, in 1887 there was a larger proportion of pupils over age than in 1877. The ambition of teachers tends to keep children too long in the several grades, because they desire to have their pupils appear well at the periodical examinations, and also because they like to keep in their classes the bright children as aids to the dull ones. The caution of parents tends to produce the same difficulty, because they fear over-pressure; not comprehending that with children, as with adults, it is not work so much as worry that injures, or finding that the existing system adds worry to work. The exaggerated notion, already referred to, that it is necessary for a child to master one thing before he goes to another, is also responsible for the retardation of children on their way through the regular course. The result of this retardation is that the boy comes too late to the High School or to the Latin School, and so fails to complete that higher course if he is going into business, or comes too late to college if his education is to be more prolonged. The great body of children ought to pass regularly from one grade to another, without delay, at the ages set down on the programme; and any method of examination which interferes with this regular progress does more harm than good. Of late years, many experiments have been made on semi-annual promotions and other means of hurrying forward the brighter children. The aim of these experiments is laudable; but the statistics suggest a doubt whether semi-annual promotions really promote, and whether they do not disturb, to an inexpedient degree, the orderly progress of the school work. In general, the work of any school must be laid out by years, and on this account irregular promotions will hardly provide a remedy against the common evil of retardation.

(5.) If we look back a generation or two in the history of American schools, we shall find that the time spent in school by children, during a year, has been decidedly reduced, although great improvements have been made during the same period in the ventilation of the school buildings, and various bodily exercises, such as singing, gymnastics, and military drill, have been introduced. This reduction of school hours has gone quite far enough, and some steps need to be taken in the other direction. The ideal school should be so conducted that the child’s physique is not impaired by attending it, or his enjoyment of his daily life lessened. Then longer school hours would not be unsafe or unwelcome. It should be the teachers that need rest and vacation, and not the children. In cities, vacation schools seem to be a desirable addition to our present organization. A long vacation may be a very good thing for children who have at home some intellectual resources, or who can go to the country or to the sea, and there learn some things not found in books; but for children of ignorant or heedless parents, who have nothing of intellectual life to offer them at home, a long vacation is likely to be a serious injury, particularly in cities and large towns. Vacation schools tend to bring forward, or keep up, the least favored children, thus accelerating the general rate of progress during the year.

The chief objects of this paper are, first, to point out a serious difficulty which is embarrassing the whole course of American education; and, secondly, to indicate, briefly, a few of the directions in which labor may be wisely spent in improving our school system, to the general end that the pupils may receive a better training in a shorter time. The professional experience and zeal of superintendents and teachers will know how to devise and execute the appropriate measures of relief and improvement.