Beginning Civilization Over Again

— The poor boys of large cities have plenty of physical vigor, plenty of cleverness, plenty of bravery ; but, as a class, they have the sad failings of untruthfulness and irresponsibility. Untruthfulness must have been bred in their bones, it comes to them so naturally. A boy has a school age and a country-week age. He goes to the theatre with the dime entrusted for an errand, and he swears, when called to account, that he has lost it. He loafs away the evening on a street corner, and reports at home that he has been to a boys’ club. He withdraws his deposit with the stamp savings society on the plea of needing a pair of shoes, and goes to the circus with the money. He returns a library book, which has come to grief through his own carelessness, with a circumstantial account of the way it got into the hands of the baby. He finds himself a job, and goes regularly to work under pretense of going to school, that his earnings may not be deflected into the family exchequer.

These are deceits with a purpose. He lies just as glibly without a purpose,— out of pure fun or from the force of habit. Sometimes he lies even to his own disadvantage. For instance, he comes in all sincerity to be helped out of a scrape, and misrepresents to you the very circumstance that might save him. A written promise makes a certain appeal to his honor ; but as to keeping an oral promise, that is purely a question of convenience.

So much of the untruthfulness on the part of the boys as has to do with the keeping of promises is closely allied to the lack of the feeling of responsibility. A dozen or more boys are unable to get from the library that they patronize the particular book they have set their hearts on, because it is not returned when it should be. The boy who has it is done with it. He knows well enough that it is wanted. He fails to act on his knowledge from indifference, not from malice. A Saturday excursion into the country goes by default, because the one boy who was to notify the rest of the partly did not do it. He received a ticket for a league game to be played the same Saturday : he was provided for ; never mind about the ten others. He has never stopped to think that in social arithmetic one is many times less than ten. The final dress rehearsal of a dramatic club is impossible because two of the young actors take a sudden notion to go in swimming ; and so on. In a word, these boys have no social sense in most relations of life.

But there is one signal exception, — the street gang. In the street gang is a genuine healthy esprit de corps. A member of a street gang who tells tales, or who otherwise willfully or carelessly neglects his duty to the gang, is liable to condign punishment. Thus, I happen to know of a boy who was severely drubbed for failing to pass the word along to his gang of the presence on a certain wharf of a discarded crate of specked oranges, of which he himself took advantage.

This strong gang feeling takes another interesting form. There is one gang that meets on one street corner, and another gang that meets on another corner two streets away. To any observer the two gangs are of the same social stratum. Yet there is a subtle difference of some sort which forbids the members of one gang from associating with the members of the other gang : each has a sort of social scorn of the other.

What have we here, then, but the phenomena of primitive society, — the individual irresponsibility and untruthfulness, the ganger clan feeling which is the beginning of a social structure, bringing with it a sense of social obligation, and the differentiation of gangs or clans ? It is an interesting if not a flattering reflection that the student of primitive institutions finds the best field for study in city life, where civilization in its complexity has o’erleaped itself, and re-presents the phenomena of barbarism.

The only way to rebuild civilization, where the task has thus to be all done over again, is to begin in the same fashion that civilization itself was first begun : accept the street gang as the base of a higher structure, as the tribe was in the beginning ; gradually enlarge its range, till the gang conscience widen to the ward conscience or boss allegiance. Happy are we if boss allegiance widen to a civic conscience. This is the road that the street boy must travel if our institutions have the saving grace that we think they have ; and there is no shorter road.