Some Old-Fashioned Doubts About New-Fashioned Education

“ DOUBTS ” is my title, not “ Views ; ” and, as this title indicates, my paper is the expression of a mood rather than of a conviction. A mere observer of educational methods is often bothered by doubts as to the relative value of the old educational product and of the new. The new product, the educated man of to-day, is in some measure the necessity of the time. The demands of a special calling require preparation so early and so long that the all-round man — that invaluable species which has leavened and civilized all society — bids fair to be soon as extinct as the dodo. No one denies that the rare being who, in spite of the elective principle, persists in getting a general education first and a special one later, is a man of more power than if he had been driven through a general education by some other will than his own ; yet with the kindergarten at one end of our education and with the elective system at the other, we see, or seem to see, a falling off in the vigor with which men attack distasteful but useful things, — a shrinking from the old, resolute education.

The new education has made three discoveries : —

1. Education should always recognize the fitness of different minds for different work.

2. The process of education need not be, and should not be, forbidding.

3. In earlier systems of education, natural science had not a fair place.

No wonder that the new education seems to some men a proclamation of freedom. The elective system, with its branches and connections, is the natural reaction from the unintelligently rigid ignoring of mental difference in individuals. Its fundamental idea is practical, and at times inspiring. When there are so many more things worth knowing than anybody can master, to force everybody through a limited number of definite tasks before calling him educated, to make him give years to studies in which he may be a dunce, without a glimpse (except stolen glimpses) of other studies for which he may have peculiar aptitude, seems flying in the face of Providence. A classmate of mine earned (so he says) three hundred dollars in teaching a boy, who is now a distinguished physician, to spell “ biscuit; ” and another classmate taught a boy Greek for three months, at the end of which time the boy’s knowledge of that language was summed up in the words “iota scrubscript.” In the first of these cases, not much may be said for forcing spelling on the pupil; in the second, not much for forcing Greek. Again, people are more interesting for being different, — for not being put through the same mill. Uneducated country people, for example, are far more interesting, far more individual, than meagrely educated city people (such as most of the salesmen in a large shop), or than semi-educated school-teachers who are graduates of some one inferior normal school. We do not want men to be alike. We cannot make them alike ; why do we try ? If we wish to raise cranberries and beans, and own a peat swamp and a sand hill, we give up the swamp to the berries and the hill to the beans, and make no effort to raise both things in both kinds of soil. Why not let each man do what nature says he was made for ? Why beat his head on a stone wall, — a process that cannot be good for his mind ? The old plan of learning the whole Latin grammar by heart was to some minds torture. Why should the early exercise of our powers and the training of those powers to higher service be repellent or even austere ? Life is hard enough without our wantonly making it harder ; let us suffer our boys and girls to enjoy education. Again, here is the earth we live on ; here are the birds and the flowers : why shut out the study of these for Greek, Latin, and mathematics ? Are the humanities human ? Is mathematics either so agreeable or so useful as botany or zoölogy ?

Every one of these questions is emancipatory ; but the emancipation may be carried too far. Look, for example, at the elective system. No persons lay themselves open more recklessly to reductio ad absurdum than advocates of the elective system. Everybody believes in the elective system at some stage of education ; the question is where to begin : yet extension after extension is advocated on general grounds of liberty (such liberty, by the way, as nobody has in active life) ; and propositions are brought forward which, if we accept them, give the elective system no logical end. Down it goes, through college, high school, and grammar school, till not even the alphabet can stop it.

Doubt I. Are we sure that we do not begin the elective system too early, or that we shall not soon begin it too early ?

The attempt to make education less forbidding has called forth various devices, among them the method of teaching children to read without teaching them to spell; and the kindergarten is responsible for various attempts to make children believe they are playing games when they are, or should be, studying. Here, for example, is an extract from a book designed to teach children harmony, but entitled The Story of Major C and his Relatives : —

“ We will stop a moment and play a game or two of scale with these flat Majors, and then go on to the other families waiting for us. Major F and his children play in just the same way as his next-door neighbor, Major G, and he also has one sign or mark ; but instead of its being a sharp, it is a flat, and he too has one dark-haired child, which he calls B Flat. You see how easy it really is to play a scale, if you only remember this rule about No. Four and No. Eight, which is always the same in all the Major families.

“All the other Majors excepting Major C Flat live on the second floor, and all call themselves flats ; so you may begin anywhere on any of these black keys and play a scale. Before you leave these Majors, you must notice that Major C Flat and Major B have to enter by the same door, but when they are once inside, each has a home and a family of his own.

“ There is a reason for this, and some day, when you are a little older, I hope that I may explain it to you.

“ If you will go to the piano, and play a game of scale with Major F and his children, you will probably find them jumping and frisking about like little kittens, but at a word from the Major they take their places in the same way as the other children, — all Major seconds apart, except this cuddling little No. Four and No. Eight, who are always minors, whether in a Sharp or a Flat family.”

A modern text-book on the study of language remarks that in walking out we see various kinds of birds, — sparrows, robins, hens, and what not; and that just as there are various kinds of birds, so there are various kinds of words, — nouns, verbs, adjectives. I see signs of a reaction from these debilitated methods, — in particular from the method which teaches children reading without spelling ; but the effect of these methods is with us still.

Doubt II. Are we sure that the enjoyment which we wish to put into education is sufficiently robust ?

I may teach a boy to saw wood by suggesting that we play “ Education in Cuba.” We may imagine ourselves a committee for supplying the island with as many teachers as possible, both men and women. Oak sticks will furnish men, and pine sticks women (the softer sex) ; every sawing will make one more teacher, and every sawing through a knot a superintendent. This clever scheme has at least the merit of an undisguised attempt to make a hard job less disagreeable, and does not interfere with the clear understanding on the boy’s part that he is sawing wood to help the family; just as Meg, Jo, Betli, and Amy, when they called the four hems Europe, Asia, Africa, and America, and talked about each continent as they went along, knew perfectly well that they were working. No imaginative device, however feeble, will take away the manliness of a boy who knows that work is work, and makes play of it when he honestly can ; but nothing debilitates a boy more effectively than the notion that teachers exist for his amusement, and that if education does not allure him so much the worse for education.

As to natural science, I admit that it had not in the old-fashioned programmes a dignified place — such a place as would be given to it by the Committee of Ten ; yet natural science may not even now have proved its equality with classics and mathematics as a disciplinary subject for boys and girls. The Committee of Ten maintained the proposition that all studies are born free and equal, — possibly with an inkling that the new studies are, so to speak, freer and more equal than the old. Any one who clings to the old studies as a better foundation for training is told that his doctrine contradicts the principles of the Committee of Ten : but even this does not satisfy him ; for he may not be sure of the basis for the committee’s conclusions. If the earth rests on an elephant, and the elephant rests on a tortoise, the tortoise is a good tortoise, but still we need to know what the tortoise rests on.

Again, we are told — and if I am not mistaken, we are told by enthusiastic advocates of new methods — that the object of education is not knowledge so much as power; in Greek, for example, we no longer ask a boy to know three books of the Iliad, “ omitting the Catalogue of the Ships,” — we ask him to translate Homer at sight: yet modern doctrine fails to see, except in glimpses, that no better way of gaining power has yet been discovered than the overcoming of difficulties. The fear old-fashioned people have about new-fashioned education is that too much depends on whim, and that whim may be born of indolence.

Take the old system in its most monstrous form, — take learning Latin grammar by heart before translating any Latin author; nobody now defends a practice so stupid : yet that wonderful feat of memory strengthened many a memory for other wonderful feats. The boy who mastered Andrews and Stoddard knew the power of patient effort, the strength of drudgery well done. Through a natural reaction, memory is underrated now. Education at the time when memory is trained easiest and best must be saved from the barrenness of memory work and must be “ enriched.” Even the multiplication table is threatened with banishment. We leave the strait and narrow way, and wobble all over the flowery meadows. We are held down to accuracy so little that it is next to impossible to And a youth who can copy a list of printed names without misspelling. We have boys who cannot spell, men who cannot spell, teachers who cannot spell, teachers of English who cannot spell, college professors who cannot spell and who have a mean opinion of spelling.

If there is one set of phrases more threadbare than another, it is “ along the lines,” “ broader lines,” “ developing along these lines,” and the like ; and in education I seem to hear, with wearisome iteration, “ along the lines of least resistance.” The theory is taking at first sight, and looks eminently practical. In dealing with lifeless things, such as machinery, it is the only sensible theory, — more work done by the machine, more obstacles overcome by the contriver ; but it is an extraordinarily inadequate theory for the education of man. We see parents — possibly we are parents — who bring up children “ along the lines of least resistance; ” and we know what the children are. Is it illogical to infer that children taught at school “ along the lines of least resistance ” are intellectually spoiled children, flabby of mind and will ? For any responsible work we want men of character— not men who from childhood up have been personally conducted and have had their education warped to the indolence of their minds. It is necessary to treat people as individuals; but it does them a world of good sometimes to treat a great many of them together, and to let them get used to it as best they may. The first lesson of life, as Lowell reminds us, is to burn our own smoke ; that is, not to inflict on outsiders our personal sorrows and petty morbidnesses, not to keep thinking of ourselves as “ exceptional cases.” The sons of our wealthiest citizens may be educated in either of two ways : they may be sent to school, or they may be turned over to governesses and private tutors. Any one who has observed them in college knows how much better educated those are who have gone to school, — how the very wealth which enables a parent to treat his son as in all ways exceptional and to give him the most costly and carefully adjusted education which he can devise defeats its own end. With due allowance for the occasional boy who is so backward and so eccentric that he can do nothing in a class, I believe that nine out of ten of these pampered youths would do better at a good school than under a private tutor. The reason why they would do better, the reason why their playmates who have gone to school do better, lies largely in the ignoring of individual peculiarities, — in the very thing to prevent which they are kept out of school. If it is true that God made no two men alike, it is equally true that He sends His rain on the just and on the unjust, and rules His universe with inexorable laws. The world cannot be our intimate friend, patient with our eccentricities, smoothing our paths. We must learn this just as we learn not to pick up a live wire and not to fool with the buzz saw. The world is full of buzz saws; and whether we like them or not, they keep right on. Here I may cite Mr. W. S. Gilbert: —



Roll on, thou ball, roll on !
Through pathless realms of Space Roll on!
What, though I ’m in a sorry case ?
What, though I cannot meet my bills ?
What, though I suffer toothache’s ills ?
What, though I swallow countless pills ?
Never you mind !
Roll on !
Roll on, thou ball, roll on !
Through seas of inky air
Roll on!
It’s true I 've got no shirts to wear ;
It’s true my butcher’s bill is due ;
It’s true my prospects all look blue —
But don’t let that unsettle you !
Never you mind !
Roll on!

[It rolls on.

In practical life the job has to be done, and the man must adapt himself to it or lose it; and in practical life everybody but the trained man, the man who has gained power through training, is going to have a hard time. Education should first and foremost train ; and training has for its very substance the overcoming of obstacles: furthermore, every specialty is better mastered, better understood in its relation to human life and achievement, by the man who has worked hard in other subjects. I believe that the ἔργον, or job, is the better for the πáρεργον, or side-job. Even now, one difference between a college and a polytechnic school is that the college provides a basis of general culture for the specialist to build on, whereas the polytechnic school aims rather to put a man into a self-supporting specialty with no “ frills.” There is something the same difference between a man of science and a mechanic.

“ In his own early youth,” says Dr. Martineau, as cited by the Boston Herald, “ education was thought of use more to correct the weak side of one’s nature than to develop its strong side, and so he gave double time to the studies he disliked. This he admits to have been too ascetic a rule, and yet preferable, on the whole, to the emasculate extreme of doing nothing but what one likes to do, so prevalent to-day. Power to drudge at distasteful tasks he considers the test of faculty, the price of knowledge, and the matter of duty, and that without this the stuff is in no man that will make him either the true scholar or the true Christian. At present the tendency is largely the other way. To choose none but studies agreeable and attractive from the start is what young people are more and more disposed to insist on. Virtually, the student comes to the professor with a bill of rights in his hands, and says, ' Mind, you must not be dull, or I will go to sleep ; you must attract me, or I shall not get on an inch ; you must rivet my attention, or my thoughts will wander.’ Very well, then, if such be your mood, go to sleep, do not get on an inch, and let your attention wander, is Dr. Martineau’s justly contemptuous feeling at such sort of inanity. ' I warn you,’ he says, ' that this enervated mood is the canker of manly thought and action.’ Now there is something tonic and bracing in this attitude of rebuff to the half-weakly, half-insolent tone of so many of the young people of to-day. If you want us to be virtuous, heroic, learned, and accomplished, they practically say to the church, the school, the college, to their parents, you will have to exert yourselves. We want to gratify you, but will tolerate nothing dry, nothing hard, nothing ascetic. The duty of the preacher or of the professor is to waft us to Heaven or Parnassus on gentle zephyrs ; otherwise each must endure the pain of seeing us conclude to go somewhere else.”

So far what I have said is chiefly theory ; but the a priori reasoning is supported by painful signs, — by crude specialists that one shudders to think of as educated men (learned men doubtless, but not educated men) ; by hundreds of students who lack the very underpinning of education, who are so far from knowing the first lesson of training — namely, that to be happy and successful they must get interested in what they have to do, and that doing it regularly and earnestly means getting interested — so far from knowing this, that they sit in front of a book helpless to effect any useful transfer of the author’s mind to theirs. Brought up to feel that the teacher must interest them, they have become so reduced that they would like, as it were, to lie in bed and have their studies sent up to them. Unwittingly the new-fashioned education encourages their indolence. I remember talking some years ago with a student who was fond of chemistry, but whose habits of work, as I saw them in another subject, were shiftless and slack. I tried to show him the necessity, even for his chemistry, of habitual accuracy in thought and expression ; and at last I told him that, though the position he took might do for a genius, it would not do for ordinary men like himself and me. He replied that he had rather be anything than an ordinary man. What he is now, I do not know. Another student refused to take pains with his English because, as he said, he had been brought up among people who spoke English well “ by intuition.”This intuitive English is often picturesque and winning ; but it is seldom capable of difficult work.

How many boys know what will best develop their minds ? How many parents, even if themselves educated, can resist the combined pressure of boys and plausible new - fashioned educators ? Even the youth who wants the old prescribed curriculum cannot get it; he may choose the old studies, but not the old instruction. Instruction under an elective system is aimed at the specialist. In elective mathematics, for example, the non-mathematical student who takes the study for self-discipline finds the instruction too high for him ; indeed, he finds no encouragement for electing mathematics at all. The new system holds that the study should follow the bent of the mind rather than that the mind should bend itself to follow the study. As a result, prescribed work, so far as it exists under an elective system, is regarded by many students as folly, and if difficult, as persecution. When the writing of forensics — argumentative work which involved hard thinking — was prescribed in Harvard College, no work in the College was done less honestly. Students would often defend themselves for cheating in this study because it was “ really too hard for a prescribed subject.” I know I am using a twoedged argument: does it show how the new system weakens mental fibre, or how the old system encourages dishonesty ? Different men will give different answers. As to forensics, we may contrast with the spirit of the students the spirit of the man who did most for the study. A trained instructor, whose peculiar interest lay elsewhere, was asked to undertake the difficult and repellent task of teaching prescribed argumentative composition. What resulted is what always results when a trained man makes up his mind to do a piece of work as well as he can, — genuine enthusiasm for the subject; and the instructor who expected to feel only a forced interest in argumentative composition has become an authority in it.

I know that often the idler bestirs himself, fired by enthusiasm in his chosen subject; and that then he sees the meaning, and even the beauty, of drudgery : but the drudgery is less easy, because he has never before learned to drudge with enthusiasm, or even with the fidelity which may in time beget enthusiasm ; because he never trained his memory in childhood, when memory is trained best; because he has always, from kindergarten to college, been treated deferentially ; because he has transferred the elective system from studies to life. “ I see in the new system,” said a father the other day, “ nothing to establish the habit of application — the most valuable habit of all.” “ There is nothing,” said the teacher with whom he was talking, “ unless the student gets interested in some study.” “ Yes,” said the father, “he may strike something that interests him; but it seems dreadfully unscientific to leave it all to chance.”

Doubt III, related to Doubt I. Do we not see in the men educated according to modern methods, such a weakness in attacking difficulties as may indicate that we should be slow to let the secondary school march in the path of the college and the grammar school follow close behind ?

Another doubt about new-fashioned education I have been glad to see expressed in recent numbers of The Nation. It concerns what is expected of teachers ; it concerns the abnormal value set on textbooks, and, I may add, the abnormal value set by some institutions on the higher degrees. We frequently hear it said of a teacher that he has taught for many years but has “ produced ” nothing ; and this often means that he has never written a text-book. I would not undervalue text-books as a practical result of experience in teaching : but the teacher’s first business is to teach, — writing is a secondary affair; and, as a rule, the best part of a teacher’s production is what he produces in the minds and in the characters of his pupils. Few of the great teachers, whether of schools or of colleges, are remembered through their text-books. Dr. Arnold of Rugby wrote text-books (some of them bad ones); but it was not text-books that gave Dr. Arnold his hold on English boys. The late Dr. Henry Coit had, we hear, marvelous insight into a boy’s character, and marvelous power over every boy who was near him; but we never hear of his text-books, — if, indeed, he wrote any. Nor is it through text-books that we know Dr. Bancroft of Andover, Mr. Amen of Exeter, and Mr. Peabody of Groton. The new education lays so much stress on writing and on investigation, and on theses as the result of investigation, and on originality in these theses, that it seems sometimes to encourage a young man in maintaining a proposition of which the sole value lies in its novelty (no one having been unwise enough to maintain it before), and in defending that proposition by a Germanized thesis, —

“ Monstrum horrendum, informe, ingens, cui lumen ademptum.”

Such theses, I suspect, have more than once been accepted for higher degrees ; yet higher degrees won through them leave the winner farther from the best qualities of a teacher, remote from men and still more remote from boys. It was a relief the other day to hear a headmaster say, “ I am looking for an under teacher. I want first a man, and next a man to teach.” It is a relief, also, to see the marked success of several schoolmasters whose preparation for teaching consists first in manliness, and secondly in only a moderate amount of learning. That a teacher should know his subject is obvious ; nothing, not even new-fashioned instruction in methods of teaching, will make up for ignorance of the subject itself: but the man of intelligence and self-sacrifice who bends his energy to teaching boys will soon get enough scholarship for the purpose ; whereas no amount of scholarship can make up for the want of intelligence and self-sacrifice.

Doubt IV. While fitting the study to the boy, have we been unfitting the teacher for him ?

Obviously the new education throws a tremendous responsibility on teachers. We see why it should; and all of us who are familiar with the inner working of a modern school or a modern college know that it does. How is it training the new generation for this responsibility ? In some ways admirably. It tries to show that teaching is not a haphazard affair, but a subject for investigation and study; it tries to show how libraries should be used, and how original investigation should be conducted : but old-fashioned people doubt whether it gives due weight to the maxim that Professor Bowen used to repeat so often, “ The foundation must be stronger than the superstructure.” They doubt whether teachers, themselves educated “ along the lines of least resistance,” can stand the strain of modern teaching. As a relief from wooden teaching and wooden learning, the new education deserves all gratitude. No one is so conservative as to prefer a dull teacher to an interesting one because the dull teacher offers more obstacles to learning. In this matter, as in all other matters of education, the question is not whether we should be altogether old - fashioned or altogether new-fashioned (we may be “ alike fantastic if too new or old ”) : the question is where the old should stop and the new begin.

Doubt V. In emancipation from the evils of the old, may we not be rushing into another servitude almost or quite as dangerous as the first ?

I have often used the word “ training.” Now what is training, and what is the peculiar characteristic of the trained mind ? Training is the discipline that teaches a man to set labor above whim ; to develop the less promising parts of his mind as well as the more promising ; to make five talents ten and two five ; to see that in his specialty he shall work better and enjoy more for knowing something outside of his specialty ; to recognize the connection between present toil and future attainment, so that the hope of future attainment creates pleasure in present toil ; to understand that nothing can be mastered without drudgery, and that drudgery in preparation for service is not only respectable but beautiful ; to be interested in every study, no matter how forbidding ; to work steadily and resolutely until, through long practice, — and, it may be, after many failures, — he is trusted to do the right thing, or something near it, mechanically, just as the trained pianist instinctively touches the right note. Training is all this and more. Why should we be content to let so many of our boys get their best discipline not from study but from athletics ?

“ But the new education,” you say, “ is in some ways more general than the old. From the start it opens to eager eyes all the beautiful world of science ; little children get glimpses into subjects of which old-fashioned little children never heard.” This is too true. Oldfashioned people have old - fashioned doubts about what seems to them a showy, all-round substitute for education, — a sort of bluff at general culture, such as we see when children, at great expense to their schools (the new education is almost ruinously expensive), dissipate their minds by studying a little of everything. I was delighted to hear Professor Grandgent say not long ago, “ The curse of modern education is multiplication of subjects and painless methods.” I suspect that in another generation we may even overdo the “ enriching ” of the grammar school. I do not undervalue the pleasure and the profit of what is called “ a bowing acquaintance ” with a variety of subjects : the mistake is to accept such an acquaintance as education.

The early specialization as to which I have expressed doubt is made almost necessary by the advance of learning, the shortness of life, and the leanness of pocketbooks. The false general education is never necessary. People call it broad ; but there is a big fallacy in the word “ broad.” A horizontal line is no broader than a perpendicular one. Just so the line of study may stretch across many subjects, and be quite as narrow as if it really penetrated one. I still doubt whether we can do better for our children than, first, to drill them in a few subjects, mostly old ones : then to give them a modest general education in college, or in all but the last year or two of college ; then to let them specialize as energetically as they can (but not exclusively), — and throughout to keep in their minds not pleasure only, but the stern Lawgiver who wears the Godhead’s most benignant grace.

L. B. R. Briggs.