The Little Red Schoolhouse

— I have had occasion more than once, in this Club, to pro-test against certain reforms, so called, which in my humble opinion are fast destroying the pith and substance of New England character ; and now I have a new grievance. The little red schoolhouse is about to be abandoned, — nay, in some townships it is deserted already ; its windows are broken, there are holes in the roof, the children have been dispossessed, and the only tenants are spiders, moles, bats, timber - worms, and occasionally a hedgehog. One need not look deeply into the history of this country to discover where its great men received their early education : the master spirits of industry, of thought, of art even, were trained for the most part in the little red schoolhouse, and chiefly in New England. I have traveled about our hill towns a good deal, spending many a long summer’s day in walking or driving over lonely highways, and in all my journeys I have seen no object more significant, none more respectable, none more rich in retrospective suggestion, than the little red schoolhouse. I never pass by one without feeling an impulse to raise my hat, and yet I am far from being a sentimental person.

Of course the schoolhouse is not always red ; in thriving towns it is often painted a staring white ; in remote villages it is usually unpointed, except by the hand of Nature, whose brush is dipped in that exquisite, inimitable gray which is the despair of artists and of architects. Sometimes the little red schoolhouse is made of brick ; sometimes it is flanked by sheds or rough stables, where the scholars “ put up ” the horses that have brought them to school from distant farms. Sometimes the building is on top of a “ sightly ” hill; and then, again, I remember more than one beautiful spot in the woods, where the schoolhouse stands hard by a rude bridge, beneath which musically tumbles a limpid trout stream. As you drive past it on a hot summer’s day, the door and all the windows are open, and you have a vision of children’s heads bobbing up with curiosity, and of the schoolma’am, rather pale, sitting at her desk, with a bunch of flowers in a tumbler before her. Perchance, also, there reaches you the drawling voice of some urchin, whose perfunctory tones indicate that his heart is outside with the bees and birds, and especially with that longsought pound trout which is waiting for him in a deep pool beneath an overhanging bank.

Why is it that the little red schoolhouse is to be abandoned ? The scheme (they call it the “ reform ”) is to close all the outlying schools, and bring the children in by wagon and sleigh to the centre of the town, where they are all taught together in one big schoolhouse, fitted with a patent ventilating apparatus which does but work, and with a system of steam-heating. In one large town, not very far from Boston, which I used to visit a few years ago, I was struck by the fact that all the young men, even those of the purest New England blood, spoke with a strong Celtic accent. The explanation was that at school they had associated with the Irish children of the town, and both nationalities had profited by the companionship : the children of Irish birth had cast off a little brogue, and gained a slight nasal twang ; whereas, as I have indicated, the children of American birth had picked up just about as much brogue as their Celtic companions had dropped, and so nothing was lost. What is true of school children’s speech is true also of their manners, morals, and ideas. When all the scholars in a town are brought together in one huge building and playground, there is a fine opportunity to grind them into homogeneousness, as with a mortar and pestle, to smooth down anything peculiar or original in their characters, to elevate the bad children a little, and to debase the good children a little more, — in short, to carry out the great American idea of turning every man into the average man.

Another advantage involved in this method of gathering the school children is that it affords every opportunity for the spreading among them of contagious diseases, such as measles, scarlet fever, diphtheria, and the like ; and we all know how desirable it is that children should have these diseases as early as possible, so as to get through with them, or be killed by them, as the case may he, before entering upon the serious business of life.

However, let us be fair, let us be judicial. Perhaps I have not stated quite accurately the reasons alleged by the reformers for the change which I am deprecating. They say that in the large schoolhouse the children can be “ graded,” and all the teachers can be “ specialists.” In one room, with a single teacher, will be found fifty children, all under ten years of age ; in another room, likewise with a single teacher, will be found fifty children, all between ten and fourteen years of age, and so on. Each room can be visited in turn by special instructors in drawing, in music, and in other branches.

There is some force, no doubt, in this argument, and yet I cannot help thinking that it is based mainly on a fallacy. The essential value of teaching, from the district school up to the university, lies, I believe, in the contact of mind and character between teacher and taught ; and if this be so, then the little red Schoolhouse, with its single teacher and few pupils, is a better institution than the big schoolhouse, with fifty or more scholars to each teacher, and occasional visits from other skilled instructors. Were I a school committee man or an overseer of Harvard College, I would ransack heaven and earth, if possible, to find teachers with some originality of intellect, and with that force aud virility of character which impress themselves upon the plastic minds and hearts of young people ; and having found them, I should trouble myself very little about “ courses ” and textbooks and laboratory implements. I venture to state this as a general proposition. Wherever teaching has been recognized as peculiarly successful, whether in schools or universities, the success has been due to the ability of the instructor, and not to the excellence of the system under which, or to the richness of the appliances through which, he worked. The first, essential to such success is that the pupils shall be few, so that the mind of the teacher can be applied to the individual mind of the pupil. It may even be doubted if, for young children, the highly trained teacher of the present day is more efficacious than the farmer’s daughter who knows the three R’s, and has sense and sturdiness. There are strange ideas afloat in what may be described in cant language as “ educational circles.” Here, for example, is a paragraph which I read this morning in the report of a teachers’ meeting : —

“ In training the child for this mastery of life, we have to look at his self-expression in order to know his progress ; and he can express himself only through two channels, — by means of the tongue (through language and music), and by means of the hand. The first mode of expression is one whose importance has long been understood and appreciated. We are, however, only just beginning to understand the deep significance of what the hand says. Its language covers a wider range of self-expression than the language of the tongue. It expresses deep-rooted instincts which the tongue does not know how to express; on the other hand, it expresses newly discovered ideals of which the tongue does not know how to speak. It is to self-expression through the hand that we have to look for the fullest revelation of what is going on in the child’s inner experience.”

Such a vagary as this never found its way into the little red schoolhouse.

The reformers would come nearer to being right in this matter of the schoolhouse if, as they appear to suppose, children really were simply the young of the human genus, with minds exactly like adult minds, except for being comparatively empty. But this is not the case. Children are a sort of “ little people,” living like foreigners among us, in a world of their own. Their mental processes, their emotions, the manner in which their minds develop,— these things are very slightly understood by grown people, and they are dangerous to meddle with. Hence there is a strong presumption in favor of simplicity in educational methods. Let the child have verge and scope for the expansion of his mind and character ; let the teacher know him well enough to adapt herself aud her methods to his individual peculiarities. Do not fix him in the iron vise of a schoolroom where he is one of fifty or a hundred.

The reticence of children is in itself a sufficient proof that we cannot twist and turn their minds, fill and empty them, according to the latest invention in pedagogy. I do not wish to be egotistic ; and yet perhaps that is what I do wish; perhaps that is the chief value of the incognito which we preserve in this free-speaking Club. Well, then, to take my own case, I remember that, as a child, I lived in a world of my own, the joys and sorrows of which I never dreamed of communicating to any “grownup ” person. I even sounded the depths of orthodox theology, wrestled in prayer, was stung by remorse, repented, was “ converted ” and rejoiced, lapsed into worldliness, again ; and yet no suspicion of all this ever crossed the minds of those near and dear relatives who watched over me. A child is a very sphinx of reserve, His mind is a delicate thing, which has its own law of development; and I believe that it grows better in the little red schoolhouse than in the steam-heated and mentally surcharged atmosphere of the huge primary School.