Art in the Public Schools
ONE finds everywhere in our country, to-day, manifested in various forms, a longing for the beautiful ; a craving for that which is not bread, but which soon or late is found to be essential to certain deep necessities of the human appetite. This is often an unfathomed longing, a dumb demand; but it is very genuine, and makes appeal to all who hope and believe that the time has come for a more liberal and more symmetrical system of education.
It is felt, and felt justly, that it is for the most part in the schools that this teaching must be supplied; the question is, How shall it be done ? And before endeavoring to reach a solution two things must be remembered : first, the dangers and limitations of our national birth ; and secondly, the long abstinence from.study in æsthetics which was entailed in the difficulties of our national growth. Ours was indeed a grave beginning, —the birth of a nation under circumstances at once so picturesque and so pathetic. Art, which demands a time of peace as one of the conditions of its best development, found a frail tenure in communities which had no visible past, and whose future was a matter of anxious conjecture. At such a time moral issues rush to the front, and an austere habit ignores, if it does not forbid, manifestation of feeling in definite form. Yet on the other hand, art is stimulated by great and heroic endeavors ; and whatever æsthetic achievements existed in the earliest days were wrought in reverence and sincerity, incorporating traditions of the Old World, if ever so slightly. But after this early and severe moment, elements more dangerous yet hindered æsthetic expression. The quick and haphazard growth of towns and cities, the new use of wood as a building material (wholly unsanctified by study), the invention of machinery, and finally, the absence of standards, — these things created a thin, raw, and superficial order of architecture which set at naught the canons of good taste. Nor were purer and deeper lessons taught than these embodied ; for our public school education was early made a matter of intellectual training only, and, with exceptions too small to note, continued so until not far from the present time.
Not only was no instruction in the principles or practice of art given, but even the schoolhouse itself was from the beginning deficient in all the prime elements of educational fitness ; nor has its evolution from the cold, barren little shanty of the first days to the large, commodious, well-lighted, and well-aired building of to-day done much towards providing anything beyond material comfort. Yet in spite of all discouragement, East and West, is felt the surge of an inarticulate, uncultivated love of beauty ; and it was this yearning which made it possible for the architecture of the Columbian Exposition to become an objectlesson of the first magnitude in showing the response which all our people made to a noble expression of art. The buildings there rose in accordance with the great principles of harmonious development. Symmetry and proportion were everywhere observed ; the white color of all the outer walls spoke of restraint and unity of effect; the ornament was full of meaning.
All this, as was to have been expected, was deeply enjoyed by studious and cultivated visitors ; but a yet more rich appreciation came from the gladness with which rough and untutored people beheld it. They wandered among the buildings and along the lakes with a childlike delight; they longed — final tribute of the heart! — to stay there, and to bring others to share their joy. " When I saw the Peristyle,” said an overworked woman from a Minnesota farm, “I cried.”
Few who recognize this passionate longing for the beautiful will doubt whether the needs of the people shall be supplied, their cries answered; but to repeat the deep question, In what manner, according to what principle, shall beauty be brought to supersede ugliness in outward objects, and how shall the untrained instincts of a people be cultivated ? This problem is rendered doubly difficult by the fact that most of what already exists has not the rude simplicity of primitive work to which can be added —largely because of that simplicity — new elements of a nobler sort; but we have to encounter the elaborations and affectations of bad art, together with the crude, untutored methods of artisans whose training has been wholly devoid of artistic knowledge ; who have not known the elementary traditions of form and of finish ; who often think it original to change beautiful classic ornament into new and fantastic forms ; and who, in the exercise of uneducated taste, have thus produced with wood and stone an altogether unlovely result, to which, alas, the eye has become accustomed. Especially in public buildings is this ignorant treatment seen ; for here " machine finish” has almost unlimited sway, and vulgar precedent is followed to the exclusion of many simple and excellent models which, as has been said, were the fortunate traditions of early colonial work. If one enters any of the more recent schoolhouses to-day, one finds great care and pains shown in new systems of heating and ventilation ; the rooms are lighted and warmed with increasing reference to health, comfort, and general safety ; but with these improvements is seldomfound any recognition of the prime fact that practical convenience is perfectly served only when it is achieved beautifully. It must be remembered that it is in these schoolhouses that the greater part of the children get their first impressions of many things which, consciously or unconsciously, enter into life,—impressions which create ideas, which control behavior. It is here that ideals are formed, here that much of what may be called home influence is felt; and here, accordingly, is it that all surroundings, as truly as all teaching, become part of the essential education. Very lately there has been a warm sentiment called forth in behalf of the improvement of these costly, sanitary, and yet cheerless and neglected schoolhouses, and many things have been done hastily to repair the lapses of a so-called " practical ” period. Admirable gifts have been made of photographs and bas-reliefs, and much has been said of cultivating a patriotic spirit in our schools. This shows an excellent intention, but one must go deeper, must make beauty more organic ; for the danger to-day is that of laying what may be called a veneer of beauty on this commercial substructure, and then thinking, comfortably and fatuously, that we have put art into the public schools.
Artistic objects introduced in profusion cannot alone put art into the public schools. These objects must be understood, their meaning assimilated, the ideas they embody loved, and their presence made an organic part of the beauty and fitness of the schoolroom, before we can speak of the influences of art as an element in our system of education.
Indeed, we fall easily into crude assumptions in these matters; we speak in the language of commerce, forgetting that art — and the love of art — is not a commodity. It has no price. It cannot be made or invented. Rather, it is born in the recognition, by some reverent soul, by some deep nature, of truths which can be expressed in form and color and sound. This expression can be achieved only by long endeavor, by patient and laborious study, by unremitting industry. When this patience and this labor find a fit embodiment, and when the beholder has in turn felt the power of the truth, then is art possessed and enjoyed. But it will be perceived that there is no money in the transaction.
Since, then, art cannot be obtained by purchase, let us consider briefly in what simple elementary way we may in very truth put the love of art into the public schools ; and to do this it is necessary to ask wherein lie the sources of beauty. Do they not lie primarily in the love of nature, of home, of country, and of heaven ? Are they not found in tenderness of association and of memory, and in the yet more subtle imaginations of the spirit ? It would surely seem so. And it is on these definite lines of fundamental meaning alone that what we have called organic development can proceed. We must begin at the beginning ; the schoolhouse itself must indicate, even if it does not wholly fulfill, the things which awaken affection and loyalty in the hearts of those who go in and out of its courts.
If we first ask, How is it now in these matters ? we have only to go to the nearest schoolhouse, and we shall see. The yard, if there be one, — especially in the poorer quarters of the city, where most is needed all that may refine and civilize, — will not have in it one green leaf or blade of grass ; nor will the doorways invite entrance. Within, the halls and the recitation-rooms will be clean, and dull beyond belief. The few objects hung upon the wall through the interest of affectionate and thoughtful teachers will have no artistic effect, because the background will be some tint chosen perhaps by a journeyman painter, and laid on during the absence of official oversight, in the summer vacation. The color of the walls will have no relation whatever to the color of the floor, nor the color of the floor to that of the furniture. In a word, there will be expressed, in the multitude of instances, no thought of art from doorstep to skylight, no touch of human feeling, no reminder of the things which are “ born to perish never.”
A thoughtful man, educated in such a schoolhouse in a country town, said once that from a window in the dreary room where he studied he could see a little river which wound along the meadow; and that the sight of it and the thoughts it awakened had affected his whole life. Through the ministrations of art deeply understood, it is possible to put into every schoolhouse of the land such intimations of beauty as this little river held.
To begin with, the entrances of a schoolhouse should be made as inviting as those of a home. If there be a yard, no matter how small, it should have, first of all, evergreen trees in it, or some bit of leafage which, winter and summer, would bring a message from the woods ; it should have flowers, in their season ; and vines should be planted wherever possible. Within the school every color should be agreeable and harmonious with all the rest. Ceiling, floor, woodwork, walls, are so to be treated as to make a rational and beautiful whole. All violent colors are to be avoided, all very dark colors ; but apart from these, beauty and common sense will direct selections of tones suited to position and use, and always those which from room to room are related to one another. In entrance halls, for example, where no studying is done, a fine pleasing red or cheerful yellow is an excellent choice; in bright sunny rooms, a dull green is at once the most agreeable color to the eye, and perfect as a background for such objects as casts and photographs. In a room where there is no sunlight, a soft yellow will be found of admirable use. The ceilings should be of an ivory-white tint, which will conserve light by reflection, and will be refined and in key with all other colors. But these colors cannot be selected by chance ; they must be chosen by some one who knows the laws.
The treatment of wood is a study in itself. For practical use wood can be treated readily in two legitimate ways : either it can be painted with relation to the wall colors, or it can be stained to anticipate the results of time upon wood surfaces. Only too often all the woodwork of schoolrooms is ruined in effect by the vulgar use of highly colored shellacs ; or again, the beautiful natural grain of oak and ash is filled with an ugly white wax, —processes which prevent any improvement with time, and which preclude a good color scheme. Whenever it is practicable, a moderately dark floor is much better for the pupils’ eyes. Follow the example of nature : let light always fall from above, and not strike the eye by reflection from below.
The enumeration of these simple facts sounds trite indeed. Yet are they today so wholly forgotten or overlooked that they must be repeated with emphasis until they are recognized as fundamental ; and their observance will stimulate practical cleanliness and order, which, be it remembered, are far more easily achieved where beauty and artistic arrangement lead the way and dictate corresponding decorum. Especially is there room for loveliness of form and color in the windows of schoolrooms. Windows, and the free passage of light in large quantities, are a prime necessity ; yet so far these large openings have not been considered as a legitimate part of any scheme of decoration. Let the windows, always of clear glass, instead of being filled with ugly oblong panes, have a simple tracery of lead-lines, with perhaps here and there a bright jewel set in the midst: this would give peculiar pleasure to children, and be in itself an object-lesson in design and in color, obtained at very slight cost.
A first source of beauty would thus be found in the generally melodious and homelike aspects of the schoolhouse itself. Next, perhaps, would come the expression of the sentiment of patriotism, of which our schools should be the nursing mothers. This may well be indicated in the entrance hall of the schoolhouse, with the flags of the country and the State stacked on either side, and on the walls busts and portraits of our great men, the date and place of whose birth should always be recorded; which, being seen, might come to be remembered and celebrated. A wreath or a flower laid beside the portrait of Washington would show that “ natural piety ” of which Wordsworth speaks, and which in our children is not dead, but sleeping. Over the door of entrance might be hung the seal of the city or town ; and so the first impression received on entering would be of country, — an impression fitted to inspire that generous emotion, that beauty of feeling, which is indeed one of the sources of artistic development. In the larger schoolhouses, all the halls could in time be filled with patriotic emblems. These would be the places for pictures of national history, for local objects of renown; and by a natural sequence, the recitation and lecture rooms would remain to be decorated by objects of art of a more strictly educational character. Perhaps a word of protest is here necessary against the practice of endeavoring to match the schoolroom walls with the lessons taught therein; for instance, pictures of American history where American history is taught. This remotely recalls the graphic method of Dotheboys Hall: " Can you spell potato ? Then go into the garden and dig one.” Rather, in the rooms where our national history is the theme, let there be pictures of the world’s great heroes set in the imperishable forms of great art. Let Marathon and Agincourt show the relationship of American struggles to all the great battlefields of the past; for it may be easily proved that to the eager mind of the child such a historic story as the battle of Trenton can be more deeply vitalized, and put into more heroic proportions, by the frieze of the Parthenon than by a picture of Washington crossing the Delaware.
In the recitation-rooms, then, let there be busts, bas-reliefs, and the now beautifully enlarged photographs of the best art of Greece and of the Renaissance. The cast and the photograph give an exact reproduction in line and in light and shade of great works, and the cast especially has in itself a very high decorative value ; their cost is slight. In any large recitation - room, an effect of distinction and simplicity could be obtained by a symmetrical arrangement of these charming objects. In a Greek room, for instance, there could be over the teacher’s desk a large photograph of the Acropolis ; and on either side of this casts of Hermes and the Venus of Milo, supreme examples of the best period : these should be supported by plaster brackets. Opposite might be a fine classical bas-relief, with photographs of full-length statues ; and above the blackboards smaller bas-reliefs, set in definite order. In thus decorating a room, the arrangement of the various objects is only second to the objects themselves: there must be symmetry and a harmonious adjustment; a casual or eccentric method of putting pictures on the wall can defeat at a blow the artistic impression of the collection.
Again, in a room devoted to the art of the Renaissance there are the beautiful bas-reliefs of Lucca della Robbia and of Donatello; there are lovely details of flower - work, together with an almost endless series of the Virgin and Child, of angels and cherubs, the heroic St. George of Florence, and the great mounted warriors Colleoni and Gatta-Melata.
In all such rooms, small shelves over the doors could hold little objects which might give interesting details of form and color, like vases, cups, and platters ; and the study of these elements of decoration would lead to an ever increasing interest in the museums of art and the great treasures of the past, — an interest that would foster wonder and reverence, which have ever been essential to the growth of the imagination.
A fourth source of beauty in the school would lie in the establishment of tablets of memory and affection as a natural outcome of school life. There is deep need of bringing the personal feeling of the child into active manifestation in connection with its studies. Tablets which commemorate goodness or courage in a teacher or a student would strengthen the feeling of companionship and mutual faith. There might also be cabinets where small things of local and personal association could be collected and become matters of traditional interest ; while, in harmony with these appeals to fraternal pride and good-fellowship, will be found a large and lovely element of artistic decoration in the use of beautiful and inspiring legends upon the walls. Immortal words thus made familiar to the child, what consecration of life might they not initiate!
Thus far the sources of the art impulse, as recounted, have been traced in those surroundings and conditions which affect children unconsciously, and which by association would instill ideas and habits. Let us now suppose a schoolhouse in which all these possibilities have been fulfilled, and ask, Is this all that can be done to stimulate the love of art in our schools ? No, there is something deeper and richer still to be desired. It is the establishment, under enduring conditions, of the great department of instruction known as Manual Training.
Until recently, the school system of Massachusetts and of other States has included as technical training only the teaching of drawing; and this has been taught under a name wholly false, for it has been called " instruction in art.” It is not necessary to explain at length, for he who runs may understand, that the teaching of drawing and of art are as different in method and in result as are the teaching of grammar and of writing poetry. Drawing can be taught to any child ; but art, as such, can be taught only to those few who have in themselves an inner gift, an original knowledge. Instruction in art, therefore, is never part of popular education : it is, and must be, special. On the other hand, all forms of manual training have a unique value in popular education. Drawing, modeling, sewing, work at the bench, work at the lathe, — what do all these accomplish for the pupil ? They foster the training of the eye, the habit of observation, the faculty of imitation, and the skilled training of the hand. And more: they develop the emotions and the imagination, they stimulate invention, and they enlarge the possibilities of wholesome and creative industry. Perhaps the first and the supreme good that manual teaching brings to its students is that it makes them love their work ; in a word, it does what intellectual training alone cannot do ; it is indeed the other half of instruction, and of large ethical importance.
It is but natural that during the long period of rapid material growth some of these necessities should have been overlooked, but even among those whose first concern is not with matters of education there is to-day an awakening of interest in such matters. We have passed from one stage of our material life to another wholly different, where our skilled labor must be the product of our own needs, worked out on a traditional basis, but with native material, competing with skilled labor from Europe, and enabled to compete with it successfully only because of enlarged perceptions and deepened knowledge of our own problems and our own destiny.
The president of the Institute for Artist Artisans in New York recently called attention to “ the dangers and financial loss due not only to the lack of competitive skill and taste in this country, but to the need in all our schools of more vital methods of development.” “ Not only,” he adds, “ would this expansion of the field of skill open immeasurable opportunities to our naturally tasteful women workers, but it would also soften much of the asperity and bleakness of labor and life. Among us, the best salaries and the most responsible positions are often transferred to imported foreigners, who, if not alien in feeling, are inevitably unfamiliar with American sentiment; and as a natural consequence, their work, however good and representative of themselves, can never deeply express the American spirit.”
Moved by considerations such as these, those who long to see the public schools perfected must use every endeavor to add first the kindergarten system —with wise adaptations — to the primary department, and the varied branches of manual training, as have been indicated, to the upper class work. Happily, the old limited systems, such as military drill, and the endless dull construction of things intended for no use, of forms drawn for no purpose, — in short, the purely mechanical and imitative manual processes, — are fast disappearing before the stimulating and progressive methods which a keener insight and a sounder knowledge have invented. Sloyd, as defined by an acute student of technical training, “ is tool work so arranged and employed as to stimulate and promote vigorous, intelligent self-activity for a purpose which the worker recognizes as good. " What a happy contrast to the old vacuous régime, when work was done without exciting interest or pleasure or generous emotion ! If we inquire as to the source of inability and of indifference and discontent among the working classes to-day, we shall find that much, very much of it comes from a lack of interest in their work. They have not been taught to treat what they make as a genuine piece of artistic craft. No one has shown them how, by the knowledge of good tradition, combined with skill, patience, and ingenuity, they can make a beautiful product, — beautiful because made by loving hands in perfect adaptation to its use. Such teaching as this has always contributed to the joy of nations.
It will be seen, then, that in seeking to indicate by what means art may become incorporated in our public schools we are led to ask for a vital expansion of the system of teaching, and for applied decoration of the most highly considered character. For the moment, it may be well to accept with gratitude the gifts of those intelligent friends of education who come with full hands to ornament the schoolhouse walls, and to bring æsthetic reminders of beauty in many forms to illuminate and dignify the classrooms. These gifts help to the fulfillment which is to be desired ; but they fall short of that fulfillment in that they do not become an integral part of the established order. A complete readjustment must lie within the official plan.
To this end, let public opinion be invoked to bestow upon the Boards of Education power to enlarge their systems of instruction by introducing manual training ; to spend public money for the fit and beautiful adornment of schoolhouses ; and to urge that only expert hands be employed to direct these liberal extensions of our invaluable schools.
When these great ends are attained, we may reasonably believe that the love and service of art will have free play in the lives of the children who receive public instruction, as head and hand will be educated together ; and a trained hand added to a trained head is the most complete equipment for life a human being can possess. In training the hand an incipient artist will find power, and all will find enlarged opportunity and delight. Manual work, in teaching many of the principles of art, will stimulate activities which, under wise direction, take shape in æsthetic and moral perceptions. Indeed, it is still far too little understood how head and heart alike respond to the cultivated use of that complex, mysterious, and most wonderful tool, the human hand. Through even its rudimentary use the child finds himself capable of achieving a visible product. He becomes a little creator; he represents, in new material, objects which lie about him, and rejoices in these infantile productions.
“ I have seen,” says Emerson, " a lump of spermaceti carried about by a family through three household movings and a fire, because it was carved in the form of a rabbit.”
Here once more we gather hints and intimations of the human hunger for beauty which has been our theme. For the feeding of that hunger our Boards of Education have vast opportunity; and until this opportunity is fulfilled in making everything as beautiful and fit as is possible in the buildings where learning is taught, and in providing for the free expression of the love of beauty in the harmonious development of the scholars, — till all this is done, there must be some among us who still complain that the children are not fed.
Sarah W. Whitman.