Literature in the Public Schools
THE motive which urged our fathers to the establishment of schools was professedly drawn from religion ; the motive which impels us to-day is professedly drawn from politics. If we could have asked John Cotton why it was well that the children of Massachusetts Bay should be sent to school, his reply would have been, that they might learn to fear God. If we ask ourselves why the Commonwealth provides common schools, the answer is, that the children may become good citizens. In the former case, the conception of religion was bound up with the conception of a particular ecclesiastical order ; in the latter, the conception of politics is limited by the special form of society in which it has play. The former anticipated the political conception, for the germ of a free state lay imbedded in the combined theocratic and commercial company ; the latter has not lost the religious conception, for it guards jealously the vested rights of religious bodies. In both cases, the human mind is seen struggling toward a larger liberty.
The common schools thus epitomize the nation. They reflect the prevailing thought of the people; they embody its ideal. If we would measure the spiritual force of the national mind at any one time, we must examine the contents of the common schools; for as there comes a moment in the life of every father when he is less eager for himself and more concerned for his child’s fortune, so the hope, the forecast, the precipitation of ideals in the whole people, is to be looked for in the form which popular education takes. The stockmarket is not a more delicate register of the financial pulse than is the common school of the national conscience. Consider along what lines educational thought is running, and we shall discern on what great circles the nation is sailing. Observe the criticism of a prevalent system, and we touch the national life at its most sensitive nerve. The counter-currents as well as the currents of popular will may be estimated by this gauge.
The two leading activities of the national conscience at this hour regard the just relations of labor to wealth and the superiority of the spiritual to the material, and this double activity is mirrored in the double pressure upon our schools: on one side, the axe, the hammer, the saw, the file, the pencil, and the needle are thrust into the child’s hand ; on the other, literature in its purest, noblest form seeks an entrance to the soul through the eye and the ear of the child. Great as is the apparent distance between our present school condition and that which existed in the early days of the nation, the essential nearness is quite as marked. In primitive times, when our national life was less complex, there was no necessity for the organization of education of the hand. An enormous pressure of circumstance made the boys farmers, artisans, hunters, seamen, the girls housewives, in alternation with their experience of books. No nice adjustment of intellectual and manual pursuits was called for ; school waited on the farm and the shop, and each made way for the other. This relation is not unknown to-day, and on the sands of Cape Cod, within sound of the water that has covered the footprints of the Pilgrims, the hand drops the slate-pencil and the chalk when the ripe cranberry summons.
In like manner, the spiritual training of the young was determined by the conditions of society, and limited by the horizon which encircled the community. In the conception of that day, religion and theology were synonymous terms, and Christianity itself was an ecclesiastical structure. The tremendous conflict which the Puritan waged with the powers of darkness was such a hand-tohand fight that he recognized no friends who did not wear his colors, and saw in art, in literature, and in nature itself only foes in disguise. The one weapon which he used, his sword, his buckler, his shield, his javelin, his whole armory for defense and for attack, was the Bible. I count it not the least of the miracles wrought by this book that it should have so transformed the nature of the people worshiping it as to have spiritualized and rationalized the conception in which it is held. We speak of the steady degradation of idolaters who begin by using an image as the shelter of a god, and end by reverencing only the stock or stone from which all notion of the god has fled. But I do not hesitate to say that the spectacle of modern Anglo-Saxon Protestant Christianity deliberately destroying its idol of literal inspiration, in order to apprehend more perfectly the divinity enshrined within the sacred edifice, is one of the most striking manifestations of the power of spiritual Christianity. While assailants have aimed to overthrow the authority of this ark of the covenant, the reverent hands of the most fearless, yet most devout, scholars in Christendom have been at work tearing down the defenses which men have set up about it, confident that no power on earth can destroy the real sacredness. That is as indestructible as light. The revision of the Bible, by opening the Bible wider, has put an end to bibliolatry.
Now the ecclesiastical progenitors of the men in this country who have engaged in this work of revision set an extraordinary value on the Bible, making it, in fact, the political as well as the religious text-book of the people. They did more. They gave it a supreme and exclusive place in the home and school. They used it as a reading-book, because the conception of education was a religious conception, and the Bible was first and always in the minds of these men a religious book. Its authority was unimpeachable, and its influence was enormous. Within its lids were shut all those literary forces which made for the spiritual enrichment of the boy or girl. Rightly was it named the book of books, for outside of this book there was scarcely any literature of light accessible, while within it the sky overarched the human soul. History, biography, political philosophy, ethics, — all these lay on the pages of the Bible, and the reasoning faculties were strengthened and stimulated by means of this book; but the forcible discussions in church and state served the same end, and the world gave forth a literature of knowledge and dialectics which was availed of. What our fathers did not receive from the world to any considerable extent was that literature of the spirit which finds a response in the imagination and fancy. There was, indeed, in the educated class a recourse still to the spring of Helicon and the mount of Parnassus, but I am keeping in mind those who had not a classical education. The literature of light that had its expression in English letters was frowned upon in the Puritan judgment, but by a great and fortunate provision it was not excluded from the Puritan common education. The Bible contained what was necessary to salvation, and so, in a scheme which resolved society into individual persons, the Bible became the possession of each person. Most truly was it necessary to salvation. It saved men from the starvation of their higher natures. It fed the sources of spiritual power. This book brought poetry and the vision into minds which otherwise would have been darkened by knowledge. It spanned the whole arc of human life with its bow of promise, and the radiant light which streamed from psalm, from prophecy, from narrative and parable, penetrated the minds of the young. The sanctity which was thrown around it enhanced the power of its appeal to the spirit, and while its teachers were using it for its doctrinal efficiency and also as a reading-book in the schools, they were opening vistas into the realm of poetic beauty, all other entrances to which they had carefully closed.
In process of time, as the religious power which so largely influenced our early educational system in this country relaxed its stringent hold, and gave place to a philosophy which partook of the prevailing intellectual temper of the eighteenth century, the Bible became less exclusively the book of the people, and less distinctly the one book of the schools. But the schools themselves suffered for a while a neglect in the public estimation. It should be remembered that England gave little help to the colonies or to the young republic in this matter, for popular education in England was to receive its impulse, after many days, from America itself. In the low ebb of our educational life, when the first great religious force was spent, and the second great political force had not yet awaked, literature was represented in our schools by such a book as Bingham’s Columbian Orator, which contained, as its title-page promised, “ a variety of original and selected pieces, together with rules calculated to improve youth and others in the ornamental and useful art of eloquence.” It is noticeable that literature and speech-making were nearly identical in the minds of people at that period. The poetry of the book was from Hannah More, Addison, and Rowe. There was a farce by Garrick, and a passage from Miss Burney’s Camilla arranged as a dialogue.
When this indifference to schools began to give way before the growing sense of the importance to the country of a general education, the result was seen in the production of a higher class of school-readers. Those who remember the American First Class Book, and others of its kind, will recollect how high was the order of literature presented in these books. They held their place for a while, but by degrees a change occurred, and the new order is an interesting one to consider, both because it was part of a more extended mental process, and because, as I think, we are now passingout from under its influence.
Roughly speaking, our present system of common schools is about fifty years old, and in that time there has been an extraordinary activity in the production of text-books in the great departments of human knowledge. This activity is a natural result of the widespread attention to popular education. It is not the competition of publishers alone, but the set of public interest, which has made our geographies, histories, arithmetics, and spellers so elaborate, so ingenious, and so attractive in mechanical aspects. Every specialist in education sees defects in the text-books which teach his science. If he makes a text-book himself, it is because he cannot find in any of those in use just the quality which rises before his mind as the ideal excellence ; and after he has made his own, he longs to bring out a new and revised edition. This authorial energy has kept pace with the growth of the school system. It would be hard to compute the literary force which has found a field for exercise in the construction of school text-books in America. It may be said to be the one department of literature where, without international copyright, American authors have had full play, and have been affected scarcely at all by English book-makers. The text-book literature of America is almost as independent of English literature of the same kind as if the writers were debarred by law from the use of English material. They were not debarred by law, but they were subject to that higher, unwritten law which makes a great institution like the common schools of an independent nation compel those who serve the institution to consider its peculiar needs, and to be strongly affected by the spirit which resides in it. The schools of our country have had such innate force that they have shaped themselves and the apparatus they require after the law of their own being, and not after some foreign model. We go to England and France and Germany and Sweden and Russia, and bring back criticisms on our methods and suggestions ; but after all, the Americanism of our schools for good or for evil is too potent to be greatly modified by other nationalities.
Now while this activity in fitting textbooks to the needs of schools has been exercised freely in the direction of the literature of knowledge, what do we see in the field of text-book literature of the spirit ? Externally, a like advance in all that attracts the eye. The readingbooks are often exceedingly beautiful. The best of paper is used, the type is clear, and there is a profusion of delicate wood-cuts. Again, there is evident the same refinement in method which characterizes other text-books ; a like regard for intellectual gradation; a minute attention to all the apparatus of reading, the details of pronunciation, of definition, of accent. In a word, the readingbooks partake of precisely the characteristics which are observable in other text-books. They stand on the same footing with geographies, histories, arithmetics, and spellers. They are grouped in the same system. It is not uncommon to see a series embracing all these elementary studies, and the craze for uniformity is satisfied by finding readers, arithmetics, geographies, and spellers all made by one man, published in external harmony by one house, and applied with nice precision of grading to all the children in a town.
But the agreement between the textbook literature of knowledge and the text-book literature of spirit is even closer than through external conformity. There has been a constant attempt at making the latter do the work of the former. Elaborate systems have been contrived by which the pupil, when employed in the exercise of reading, shall reinforce the departments of knowledge. His reading-book tends to become an encyclopædia, and it is hoped that when he has escaped the toils of the biologist, the geographer, the historian, he will find in his reading-book more natural history, more geography, more civil and political history. The idle muses are set at work. Pegasus is harnessed to a tip-cart.
This indifference to the higher functions of literature, this disposition to regard the reading-book as mainly a means for promoting an acquaintance with the forms of written speech, — whence is its origin ? Why is it that with the whole realm of English literature open to the text-book maker, there should have been, until recently, almost an entire disregard of it, especially in the construction of those grades of reading-books which are coextensive with the school life of the vast majority of American children ? I think the answer will be found in the power of this great institution of common schools to compel those who serve it to partake of its spirit, to be strongly affected by the very character of the life which they are seeking to shape. To see the bearings of this, we must take into view the whole mass of literature for the young.
The period of fifty years last past has witnessed an increasing volume of this literature, and also the growth of a sentiment in favor of it. The disposition to separate the reading of the young from the reading of the mature is of very modern development, and it has resulted in the creation of a distinct order of books, magazines, and papers. Not only has there been great industry in authorship, but great industry also in editorial work. The classics of literature have been drawn upon not so much through selection as through adaptation. Great works, whose greatness lay much in their perfection of form, have been diminished and brought low for the use of the young. The accumulation of this great body of reading-matter — we can scarcely call it literature — has been largely in consequence of the immense addition to the reading population caused by the extension of the common-school system. When the children of a nation are taken at the age of five or six, and kept eight or ten years at school, and this schooling becomes the great feature of their life, dominating their activity and determining the character of their thought, it is natural that books and reading should be largely accessory, and that the quality of the audience should largely affect the kind of speech which is addressed to it. In a general way, this great horde of young readers in America has created a large number of special writers for the young, and both readers and writers have been governed by the American life which they lead.
Now the text-books in reading which have prevailed in our schools have come under this influence, — an influence pervasive and unstudied rather than acute and determined. The quantitative, and not the qualitative, test has been regarded. By no preconcerted signal, but in obedience to the law of their social and literary life, the makers of reading-books began to disregard English standards, and to fill these books with the commonplace of their own writing and that of those about them. They lost their sense of literature as a fine art, and looked upon it only as an exercise in elocution and the vehicle for knowledge, or, at the highest, for ethics and patriotic sentiment. They lost also their apprehension of the power of great literature in its wholes, and made their books collections of fragments. There are two facts which signally characterize the condition of the popular mind under this régime: first, that literature is relegated to the higher grades as something to be studied ; and, secondly, that the newspaper is advocated as a reading-book in schools. So remote has literature come to be in the popular conception. This state of things may have been inevitable; it is none the less deplorable.
If it ever was inevitable, it is so no longer. The Americanism which controls our common schools has had, during this period of fifty years, a development in a direction of the utmost value to education. The organization of the common-school system has come to be a great factor in our civilization. It yields statistics with extraordinary facility. The value of school property, the number of children in schools, the number of teachers, the sums expended in salaries, the cost of the plant, the running expenses, — all these things can be faintly guessed at by any one who sits down before the reports of the Bureau of Education in Washington. The results seem to be measurable; such a mighty engine, such an expenditure of fuel, so much power. We can marshal the figures, and set them against the figures of the standing armies of Europe. The eye, the ear, are assaulted by this great array of mobilized facts. And yet the largest fact remains that the system knows no central bureau organizing and directing it, no head, no compact array of officers ordering and controlling it. It is a living organism, sentient in all its parts, moving under discipline, yet the discipline of law beyond the mastery of any man. It is at once an exponent of national life and one of the great forces of America.
Look now upon this other page of our national history, which lies open by its side. Fifty years ago there were living in America six men of mark, of whom the youngest was then nineteen years of age, the oldest forty-four. Three of the six are in their graves, and three still breathe the kindly air. One only of the six has held high place in the national councils, and it is not by that distinction that he is known and loved. They have not been in battle; they have had no armies at their command ; they have not amassed great fortunes, nor have great industries waited on their movements. Those pageants of circumstance which kindle the imagination have been remote from their names. They were born on American soil ; they have breathed American air ; they were nurtured on American ideas. They are Americans of Americans. They are as truly the issue of our national life as are the common schools in which we glory. During the fifty years in which our common-school system has been growing to maturity, these six have lived and sung; and I dare to say that the lives and songs of Bryant, Emerson, Longfellow, Whittier, Holmes, and Lowell have an imperishable value regarded as exponents of national life, not for a moment to be outweighed in the balance by the most elaborate system of common schools which the wit of man may devise. The nation may command armies and schools to rise from its soil, but it cannot call into life a poet. Yet when the poet comes, and we hear his voice in the upper air, then we know that the nation he owns is worthy of the name. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles ? Even so, pure poetry springs from no rank soil of national life.
From the Americanism, then, that is the mere appropriation of the nearest good, we turn to that Americanism which partakes of the ideal and the spiritual. It is not a remote concern of our common schools that these six poets whom I have named because they are distinctively poets, and those other great ones, like Hawthorne, Irving, and Cooper, who associate with them in spiritual power, have been the consummate flower of American life ; for it is through their works that spiritual light most surely and immediately may penetrate our common schools. We cannot turn back the wheels of time and replace the Bible as the sole reading-book. The day may come when the reasonable and reverent study of this book shall be an essential part of the education of every child in America, and Christianity shall not be robbed of its most precious document and most efficient teacher by irrational methods, false notions of reverence, and professional assumptions ; but that day has not yet come, and we may meanwhile take courage and have hope when we consider in how many schools of the land its words still fall daily on the listening ear as the blessing before the morning task. We cannot, I say, nor would we, replace the Bible as the sole reading-book. The conditions of our life and thought forbid this. The avenues by which spiritual power finds entrance to the soul are more varied than our fathers supposed, or than we have yet fully recognized in our systems of education, although we are feeling our way upward. Nature is such an avenue, and we have not yet learned to place our school-houses in gardens, as we one day shall, though there are glimpses of the perception of this truth in many bright school-rooms in the land. Music is such an avenue, so also is art; but neither music nor art, though there are signs of greater native earnestness in application to them in America, has anything like the possibility of power to affect the spiritual nature of children which our literature possesses. God has set great lamps in the heaven of our national life, and it is for us to let the radiance stream into the minds of the children in our schools.
I am not arguing for the critical study of our great authors in the higher grades of our schools. They are not the best subjects for critical scholarship; criticism demands greater remoteness, greater foreignness of nature. Moreover, critical study is not the surest method of securing the full measure of spiritual light, though it yields abundant gain in the refinement of the intellectual nature and in the quickening of the perceptive faculties. I am arguing for the free, generous use of these authors in the principal years of school life. It is then that their power is most profoundly needed and will be most strongly felt. We need to put our children, in their impressionable years, into instant and close connection with the highest manifestation of our national life.
It may be objected that this is too restricted a view to take of literature in our common schools. Why not, some may say, give them the best we have, irrespective of time ? Are there not writers to-day whose Americanism is just as fervid, and who stand a little closer to the ear by reason of their youth and promise ? I answer that we cannot afford to dismiss from the account the immense value which our classical writers have by reason of their being classical. The perspective in which we see them adds to their symmetry in our eyes, and there has grown up about them already a circumstance which invests them with dignity and authority. They are in the philosophic sense idols of the imagination, and by virtue of the divinity which thus hedges them their lightest words have a weight which is incommunicable by those spoken from the lips of men and women not yet elevated above the young by the affection and admiration of generations of readers. To the group which I have named others will be added from time to time, but for educational purposes the writers whom America has accepted as her great first group must long continue to have a power unattainable by others.
I have not cared to divide my argument ; to show the power of humane literature in enlarging and enriching the common-school system, and then to demonstrate that American literature is the most fit instrument to this end. I have preferred to postulate what is inescapable, that American literature of some sort our schools will have; and my plea calls us away from the cheap, commonplace, fragmentary American literature of our school text-books, which has so long done disservice, to the inspiriting, noble, luminous, and large-hearted American literature which waits admission at the doors of our school-houses. The volume of this literature is not very great, and it is lessened for practical purposes by parts which are inappropriate for school use ; but it would not be difficult to replace the volume of reading-matter offered in the reading-books above the grade of the elementary by an equal volume of American classic literature, and the gain would be enormous. If, according to the common practice in our schools, the child were reading over and over and over again the great literature which he would never forget in place of the little literature which he will never remember, how immeasurable would be the difference in the furnishing of his mind !
Nor do I fear that such a course would breed a narrow and parochial Americanism. On the contrary, it would destroy a vulgar pride in country, help the young to see humanity from the heights on which the masters of song have dwelt, and open the mind to the more hospitable entertainment of the best literature of every clime and age. I am convinced that there is no surer way to introduce the best English literature into our schools than to give the place of honor to American literature. In the order of nature, the youth must be a citizen of his own country before he can become naturalized in the world. We recognize this in our geography and history ; we may wisely recognize it also in our reading.
Yet in the same order there is an incipient, prophetic humanism before there is a conscious nationalism, and this earlier stage of the mind requires food of its own kind. I said just now that we had sufficient classic American literature to answer the demands of the exercises in reading above the elementary period. To meet the needs of the earliest years, after the primer has been finished, we have in our reading-books chiefly tried to produce moral effects. We have been too anxious to teach elementary ethics by means of elementary readers, and if we have given ourselves up to what may be called unmoral literature, we have been content to reproduce for the child just the limited experience of life which its senses may have taught it. We have left out of account that very large element of wonder which inheres in the young child’s nature, and we have been too neglectful of that pure sentiment to which the child is quick to respond. We are to find the literature for this period in the corresponding period of the world’s childhood. The literature of fable, myth, and legend may be drawn upon. The ancient world, the mediæval world, and the infrequent children-authors of the modern world, of whom Andersen is the leader, may all be laid under contribution to satisfy the demands for literature which shall not leave the child just where it was after it has conned it, but shall have given wings to its fancy and imagination, and suffered it to take flight beyond the little confines of its sight and hearing. Literature of this sort makes the transition from the primer to national literature.
The place of literature in our publicschool education is in spiritualizing life, letting light into the mind, inspiring and feeding the higher forces of human nature. In this view, the reading-book becomes vastly more than a mere drillbook in elocution, and it becomes of the greatest consequence that it should be rigorously shut up to the best, and not made the idle vehicle of the second-best. It must never be forgotten that the days of a child’s life are precious; it has no choice within the walls of the schoolroom. In its hours for reading it must take what we give it. The standard which we set in our school reading-books will inevitably affect its choice of reading out of school ; the conceptions which it forms of literature and the ideal life will be noble or ignoble, according as we use our opportunities. It is for us to say whether the American child shall be brought up to have its rightful share in the great inheritance of America.
Horace E. Scudder.