The Schoolhouse as a Centre

IN a recent political contest, one of the symbols of party principles was a little red schoolhouse. A symbol is capable of a narrow, exclusive application, or of a comprehensive, suggestive one. If we give this one over to party and use it for inflammatory purposes, it may get burned up in the fire it kindles; but as a sign of national order and progress it may fairly be accepted by men of every race and tongue and creed. The common schoolhouse is in reality the most obvious centre of national unity, and, with the growing custom of making it carry the American flag, it is likely to stand for a long time to come as the most conspicuous mark of a common American life.

It is an illustration of the formal remoteness of the American citizen from the central administration that the only officer of the government with whom he has much to do is the postmaster, who serves in the interest of keeping the people in communication with one another. It is equally significant of the extent to which the people at large have absorbed one great governmental function that the local officer who comes closest to the life of all is the schoolmaster.

We are so accustomed to give history a political interpretation that very obvious and marked distinctions in national life get lost sight of or are underestimated. For example, so much attention has been paid to the genius of republican institutions as contrasted with that of monarchical that students of American history rarely remark on the contribution made to our national order by the existence of a great voluntary system of ecclesiasticism ; for the significance is not so much in the separation of church from state as in the vitality shown by the church itself as a component part of national life. In like manner, we are so used to the flexible educational system of the country that we do not always consider how profoundly this system affects the men and women of the land in their responsibility for the well-being of the nation. While we have been discussing, with a certain irritation at the apparent futility of the discussion, the right of woman to the ballot, and taking some alarm at the logical consequence of giving the ballot to woman, to be found in having offices held by women, we have without question made the number of women who hold office under state laws vastly greater than the number of men; for if teaching is not a state office, the State has no office in its gift.

It is worth while to pause at this point to consider the effect of a more general recognition of the truth I have averred in the fact that a school-teacher is an officer of the State. In the extension of the civil service reform principle and its establishment as a fundamental doctrine, we are slowly erecting a class upon natural selection to take the place of a class upon an artificial and aristocratic basis. That is to say, when the minor offices of nation, State, and city are to be secured by special training and open competition on the part of young men and women, and held by them during good behavior, we shall see such occupation acting as a determining force in the choice of a career. But although the members of the civil service will be connected formally with the administration of the government, federal, state, or municipal, it is most likely that what may be called the state-consciousness of these members will be faint as compared with the sense of a livelihood gained by their occupation; for their work will, for the most part, be purely executive, and only as it becomes in any sense directive and shaping will it result in a consciousness of an identification with government. Now, this erection of a stable civil service is the creation of administration working along well-defined lines ; it is in a measure part of an elaborate mechanism. But the vocation of teaching is far more free and spontaneous. It represents self - determination of a higher sort. It has to do with personality in its fuller expression, and the consciousness which goes with it is capable of profounder relations. Given, therefore, the conception of teaching as an office of the State, and you at once ally the teacher with directive, shaping forces, and state-consciousness becomes capable of high development. We are in the midst of political movements which demand greater emphasis to be laid on the State; the State is to own and run railroads, to organize labor, and to do a great many things which our AngloAmerican instincts and experience make us slow to grant; but these movements intimate a livelier sense of the solidarity of society, and all the while, without much spoken emphasis, in the actual evolution of the State, the function of teaching in the common schools is becoming a real part of the administration of state affairs. Just as steadily as the office becomes stable and draws to itself the best blood, this relation of the office to the State will be dignified. In our separate commonwealths we are using, and growing yearly more familiar in the using, a great governmental power based upon the principle of local self-government, and we are exercising this power through the personal action of common-school teachers. Strengthen and improve teacher and position, and the whole tone of government is raised.

So absolutely is this function of government divorced from our national administration that the Bureau of Education at Washington was for several years barely recognized by Congress ; it was looked upon with indifference, if not with suspicion; its powers were very closely circumscribed, and its office now is scarcely more than that of a medium for collecting and distributing information. The explanation is to be found not simply in the jealousy of a central power, but in the fact that through long usage the people have accustomed themselves to the direct exercise of the control of public education. Hamlet, village, town, city, county, and State, religious and educational organizations, private endowments, — through all these manifold agencies the people have kept their hand on this mighty engine, and the health of the country lies in the continuance of this great policy. So closely woven is the whole educational system of the country with the life of the people that the health of the one is the health of the other, the moral decay of the one the moral decay of the other.

So electric, also, is the communication of part with part that a successful movement in one locality passes swiftly into wider reaches. A few years ago, two resolute men in an insignificant Eastern town, one a member of the board of education, the other superintendent of schools, set to work upon a somewhat lifeless system, and imparted to it such energy through their own personality and their common-sense principles that it was not long before men and women were hurrying from all parts of the country to see what was going on. The “ Quincy method ” became a familiar term, and not only gave an impetus to a great Illinois normal institute, but affected educational thought everywhere. The same thing must happen again and again. The more perfect a system the more it is liable to decay from within, and new necessities constantly arise for some man or woman of creative energy to breathe into it the breath of life.

Meanwhile, along with this exercise of local self-government there has grown up a system of voluntary association, and some of the most definite attempts at systematic reform have issued from organizations like Teachers’ Associations, which are purely voluntary, and rely for the enforcement of their doctrine upon an educated public opinion. The organizing faculty is brought to higher development in the American mind, I suspect, than in any other members of the human race. The multitudinous forms of voluntary association in politics, religion, and business have resulted in an ease of organization which precludes the need of much solicitude on this score. In educational matters this organizing faculty has been constantly at work perfecting systems, and, though its energy has often been misspent on external things, there has been a tendency toward a solidarity which has been most interesting, because, at first sight a departure from democratic modes, it really intimates a greater intelligence on the part of the people. I refer to the rapid growth of the policy by which superintendents are appointed to take charge of the entire system of schools in counties, cities, and towns. This policy has been so developed that in Massachusetts, where the county system does not prevail, groups of towns lying within a convenient neighborhood form voluntary organizations for the maintenance of superintendents.

The importance of this introduction of the superintendent into the commonschool system can scarcely be overestimated. At first it was opposed, and it continues to be opposed in some quarters because it seems to withdraw the schools from immediate contact with the people as represented by their elected school committee. But the step has been taken for two general reasons : as society grows more complex, a purely democratic management of affairs yields to republican methods, and administration tends to centralization in delegated authority ; more significantly, education is coming to be recognized as a special science, calling for training on the part of those who shall direct it, and the more intelligent members of a community have an increasing reluctance to assume a kind of responsibility for which they know themselves not to be qualified. It looks now as it the system would long prevail by which a school committee chosen by city or town will hold very much the relation toward superintendent and teachers now held by a board of trustees toward a president and faculty of a college, namely, a pretty direct supervision of the material concerns, and scarcely more than a confirmatory regulation of the interior administration and the schedule of studies. It is doubtful if any order of state inspectors is likely for some time to come to have more than advisory powers.

Within the school system itself the presence of the superintendent is the sign of a most important advance. It means nothing less than the creation of a profession of teaching combined with administration. It is in a measure an enormous multiplication of posts analogous to that of the college president. The superintendent’s office holds out to the whole teaching guild a prize to be won, and the spirit already shown in the ranks of superintendents themselves indicates how keen an ambition for distinction is at work. The office represents a certain stability and permanence, so that a man may enter deliberately upon the career of a teacher with the knowledge that he stands a chance of occupying a post where his fullest academic and experimental acquirements may have full play. Whatever serves to establish the profession of teaching tends to ennoble it. Heretofore, the only prize set before a teacher in the lower or secondary schools was a headmastersbip, or possibly a chair in some college. But the office of superintendent, with its more distinct administrative function. will appeal to many men with greater force, and the entire order of teachers will be inspirited by the discrimination of this office.

Yet it is clear that, important as this reinforcement of the teaching profession is, much more is needed before the schools will have that place in American civilization which we believe they must have in view of the fact that they are the most emphatic exponents of that civilization. The absence of distinct contributory force in the profession is noticeable to any careful observer. The number of men and women who enter it for life is comparatively small. Many who remain in it indefinitely do so, not from choice, but from necessity ; and no profession which does not carry with it the resolution, careful equipment, enthusiasm, and devotion of the greater part of its members can hope to be a constant force in the community. In a future number of this magazine an attempt will be made to analyze the causes of this instability. It is enough hereto point out a few of the obvious explanations. By far the largest number of teachers below the college grade are women, and marriage is of right a very disturbing element. The social and minor political agencies at work interfere with freedom of action and permanence of position ; the absence of a well-ordered system of promotion is a discouragement ; most of all, the inadequate pecuniary reward of service deters the most spirited and active-minded from making it more than a stepping-stone to some other occupation or profession. It is very possible that of late years a new distraction has entered to lessen the invitation of the school to intellectual men and women. The multiplication of town libraries has given rise to a new vocation, and one likely to otter to young women especially a more agreeable field than the schoolhouse affords. There is, moreover, at work here a subtle influence which lies very deep, — near the bottom, indeed, of the whole subject. The rank of any profession is determined by the money value of the average position, or by the traditional dignity it holds in the community, or by the prizes it offers, or by a combination of these. Now, a certain honor attaches to books as such which is communicated to those who have to do with them, and, independently of the character of the persons compared, we strongly suspect that in most communities a little more distinction is conferred upon the librarian than upon the school-teacher of the same grade, as measured by salary.

Be this as it may, the library furnishes an instructive parallel of comparison with the schoolhouse. As a comparative novelty, and coming into the life of the people full formed, it takes at once a position superior in some respects to the schoolhouse. It is in many instances an outright gift of some person who can carry out conceptions formed intelligently and upon high models. It is admitted at once that the house of books should be convenient, spacious if possible, and rightly beautiful. Its appointments are those of refinement, and it is treated with respect by those who make use of it. The village is proud of it, and the city which has been educated to the point of building a library is very likely to make it monumental in character, and to expend a wealth of architectural beauty and decoration upon it. Part of this feeling arises, no doubt, from the fact that the library is the resort of all, old and young, even if the young predominate, while the schoolhouse is a temporary refuge of that portion of the community which is supposed to be indifferent to its surroundings because so soon to leave them altogether.

The schoolhouse is move directly the product of the community itself. It is not often the gift of one citizen, and its character is somewhat expressive of the estimate in which the school is held by the community. It is rarely marked by any grace or beauty, and is on the whole a little inferior in appearance to other public buildings. But wherever, through the activity of public-spirited citizens or by special gift, it rises to anything like distinction, the pride of the people is evident, and a new conception of the dignity of the school is created. If the policy which prevails in the construction of libraries were practiced with schoolhouses, the effect upon the community and upon the occupants of the schoolhouses would be very marked. It is one of those cases where it is hard to distinguish between cause and effect. We may say, given a higher valuation to common-school education, and the people will pay higher salaries and build more beautiful schoolhouses; but it is scarcely less logical to say, induce the people to pay higher salaries and to take pride in their schoolhouses, and they will set a more worthy valuation on education.

At all events, the two movements of the mind are likely to go on pretty nearly together ; and I suggest, as a practical course to he pursued by those persons in any town or village who are earnestly interested in the improvement of education there, that they give their energy to making the schoolhouse the most beautiful public building in the place. It should be spacious, and it should be well set. A garden, a common, about a schoolhouse would at once give it distinction. In a recent number of this magazine1 some excellent observations were made upon the architectural enrichment of schoolhouses ; the considerations were perhaps more appropriately for city building’s, but the principles involved are more readily applicable in towns and villages where greater space may be given for the proper placing of a building. In like manner, though the town may have its library and its museum, it is of great consequence that books, pictures, casts, and mural decoration should render the interiors of school buildings something more than shelters for teachers and pupils. When it is considered that schools have deliberately or by compulsion of circumstance taken upon themselves many of the functions of domestic life, it becomes all the more important that every child should get in the schoolroom the best that any well-ordered house can give; there is a communistic duty of leveling which the school can perform better than any other institution. We look for the day when the schoolhouse shall have not only choice editions of good books on its shelves, reproductions of the best art on its walls, and a well-chosen neighborhood museum, but a conservatory, not for botanical uses, but for the pleasure to the eye, as it is in the homes of the rich ; and if there is only one fountain in the village, it should be in the schoolhouse court or garden.

We are met, however, with the very natural objection that the schoolhouse, though concentrating the attention of the public, especially of the part that has children, can be only in a very limited sense the centre of the town life ; that, as intimated, the library affords a positive distraction from this notion. Under present conditions, this is, no doubt, the case; and if we left the subject here, we should be forcing the note and attempting to make an artificial centre. Yet there is involved in the notion of the common school the germ, I believe, of a larger plant. It is only in a partial way that the high school supplements and carries forward the work of the common school. It is even open to question whether, upon leaving the lower grade, we are not entering a territory best occupied by voluntary organizations or endowed establishments ; whether, in fact, we are not to see such a solidarity of secondary schools, colleges, and universities as will send back the people at large to a more exclusive regard for that fundamental part of the system which they can best control because they are nearest to it and most in relation to it. What I conceive as possible is such a liberalizing of the notion of education as will familiarize those who are constantly connected with the common schools with the conception of an expansion of the idea as a permanent element in town and village life, where the common school is a most distinct factor.

As we have laid emphasis upon the structure and appointment of the schoolhouse itself, so here we apply the same principle. I would have at least one schoolhouse in the town provided with a commodious hall. It has been the custom to connect these halls with libraries, or to make them a feature of the town office-building. If, however, the schoolhouse of the future, architecturally admirable and fair within, contained also a gathering-place for the people desirous of availing themselves of farther educational facilities, the transition from school to lecture or exhibition would be made with greater ease. The notion of university extension, though imported, has taken some root, but it is at present a little too dissociated from the notion of commonschool education. The real junction between the higher institutions of learning and the schools of the people will come about when the schools themselves have become more distinctly an expression of the village or town life. In our cities, evening schools are performing something of this function of expanding commonschool education, but rather as a repair of defects than as an enlargement of work already done. There is large opportunity for the organization of education upon common-school lines above and beyond the time now given to the common school. The question, How shall we preserve the spirit of learning which is or should be induced in the common school so as to make it operative beyond schooldays ? is one of the great problems to be solved to-day. There are signs of experiments, especially in the West, which promise important developments. The reading circles, both of teachers and pupils, the many literary clubs which demand study as well as discussion, the extension of the library idea into school use, all these are signs of a true awakening. It is for the wise and thoughtful in every community to guide these forces into great channels, and we are convinced that the common-school system, so flexible, so capable of enrichment, offers the natural, available medium for unlimited development. It holds the key to the situation in any problem we may encounter when considering the momentous subject of American civilization.

Horace E. Scudder.

  1. See C. Howard Walker’s paper in The Atlantic for December, 1894.