Self-Government in Public Schools

ONE day, about four years ago, some boys in a western high school were testing the laws of gravitation by heaving rocks over the edge of a bluff on which the school was located. It chanced that the laws of gravitation were in good working order that day, and the rocks went straight down, and through the roof of a tiny cottage at the foot of the bluff. The widow who lived in the cottage, not being interested in the experiments, bemoaned the damage to her roof, and went straightway to the principal of the school to report the offenders.

The boys were called together and told how carelessness of this sort affects the reputation of the school, and a committee was appointed from their number to determine what reparation should be made to the woman in the cottage. The immediate result was that the boys raised a subscription among themselves and had the roof repaired.

But there was another, and a far more important, result of this little episode. Then and there was inaugurated a system of self-government among the pupils at that school which has proved a force second to none in the efficiency of the school. From a commercial high school with an enrollment of five or six hundred students, the school has changed to a polytechnic school of two thousand. But with each year the work of the self-government committee has broadened and strengthened until self-government has become a vital principle underlying every activity from the study-room to the athletic field.

The system did not spring full-fledged into being. It has evolved. After the boys had made good in the matter of the rocks and the roof, another conference was called and a committee appointed to relieve the teachers of yard-duty. The boys were told that the yard was theirs and that if anything went wrong it was their wrong to right. And the principal of the school was the sort of man who believes that the only way to do a thing is to do it; and from that day no teacher has ever stood watch over the boys in the yard. They were made to feel absolute responsibility for good conduct on the school grounds. And by the end of the year the success of the plan was so pronounced that the pupils were asked to attack the problem of governing the entire school.

A problem it was, indeed, particularly when the school was moved to a fine new building with halls extending over an entire city block, with scores of class-rooms, a large auditorium where frequent assemblies are held, a gymnasium, and all the departments and equipment of a modern polytechnic high school. Order must be maintained in the halls, in the study-room during an assembly, on the playground, and going to and from school, without interference on the part of teachers. Only during recitations must the teacher be responsible for order, and even then any disorder is reported to the committee for correction.

Back in the first days, when the boys were beginning to prove themselves, the girls were given the care of the lunching places. Gradually their responsibility was increased until a committee of girls took place alongside the committee of boys, one having complete jurisdiction over the girls, the other over the boys. The committees, consisting of a boy and a girl from each class, are elected by the pupils, eligibility being merely a question of scholarship. Previous deportment cuts no figure, and it has happened that boys known as ringleaders in all sorts of mischief have been elected even to the presidency of self-government committees. On one occasion the election of a mischievous boy was deliberately plotted, in the hope that a semester of lax discipline would follow. What did follow was a term of the most severe discipline the school had known, and it is needless to say the boy was not reëlected. During his term of office the boy kept out of all mischief, and knowing the ways of his kind and the boys who were likely to be implicated in any wrongdoing, he could lay finger on the offender every time. Always he dealt punishment with justice, but without mercy; and when he went back into the ranks he did so with a somewhat chastened spirit.

In so large a school, every sort of question of discipline arises. There is stealing, there is selfishness of every kind, there is bullying and browbeating on the part of older and stronger boys, and the fear of force and influence on the part of the weaker, beside all the petty annoyances, from note-scribbling to the kicking of tin cans down the aisle during class. As homes are becoming less and less homes in the real sense, the responsibility of moulding the character of boys and girls is being more and more shifted to the public schools; and perhaps at no time in the history of public schools has school discipline required more judgment, more firmness, or more tact, than to-day. And the habitual optimist may score a point when, instead of reverting to the pedagogic principle of “No lickin’, no larnin’,” there is put in practice the democratic dogma of government of the people, by the people, for the people.

The authority of these self-government committees does not stop short of actual suspension, although in taking this last step the principal is invariably consulted. But the greatest strength of self-government work lies in the fact that the offender is tried before a jury of his peers. It is not some unsympathetic, middle-aged person, who has forgotten he was ever young and lawless, who sits in judgment, but a roomful of the offender’s school-fellows — possibly some of his or her best friends. And the question that naturally arises is whether these boys and girls are big enough and broad enough to lay aside all prejudice and personal feeling, and deal impartially with the individual. The best answer is a report of a meeting of the girls’ self-government committee held the last day of the week before the close of school.

A girl was called to answer for continued disorder in the study room, and the cutting of many classes during the week. A note to some boy, afterward hastily torn and thrown on the floor, was the clue that led to the discovery that the girl was in mischief in the study-room when she should have been at her English and mathematics. It was a roomful of her friends that she had to face when the president called her forward to answer to the charges. She had been many times before the committee for disorder. She was guilty now, and had little to say for herself. She was sent to the hall, while another offender was made to tell why she had stolen flowers from a teacher’s desk, and reminded that taking even so small a thing as a flower was really theft. She, too, was guilty, and had little to say for herself to this jury of her fellows.

When both had been sent from the room, the committee discussed, with perfect calmness, the two cases. The chief offender was a particular favorite, but it was pointed out that her behavior had been bad for a long time, that every effort had been made to help her, but that neither the counsel of friends selected to talk with her, nor lighter punishments, had had any effect. It had been deemed useless to leave the matter to her parents, as she was known to be petted and spoiled at home and left entirely to her own will in all things. At last it was decided that since she had shown no disposition to yield either to persuasion or punishment, she should be allowed to remain in school on but one condition — that of absolutely good behavior.

She was then recalled, and the president, one of her friends, told her, gently but earnestly, that her offenses were so serious as to merit an extreme sentence. She was required to make up fifteen hours in study during the final days of school, and would return the next term with a suspended sentence of suspension — which means that each week she must bring to the committee a report of satisfactory work from her teachers, and in the event of being once more reported for disorder or unsatisfactory work, suspension would follow.

The girl who took the flowers was severely reprimanded, and was given sixteen hours to make up during the week when the air was full of the excitement of commencement and class days. These sentences from their playmates were harder to bear than a reprimand from a teacher, with whom the pupil is not associated in a social way. And it is doubtful if any set of grown-ups — for example, a body of teachers — could reach a higher plane of abstract justice, independent of personal feeling, than did those thirty or forty girls.

Nor does self-government have a tendency to develop prigs. While the boys and girls maintain a considerable dignity at all times in the discharge of their duties, at other times they are just boys and girls like the rest. Under stress of youthful spirit, they have even been known to forget for the moment that as goats they were in any wise different from the sheep. On one occasion the boys of the school were much disturbed by the appearance of a several-weeks-old moustache in their midst. The wearer of it was repeatedly requested to shave it, but he always refused. At last the boys could stand it no longer, and half of the offending moustache was shaved off, in spite of the owner’s protests. The shorn one lost no time in bringing his father to the principal. Now, the principal had been a boy himself, and he knew the offense that another boy’s moustache can give. He also knew that if he had been robbed of his first moustache he would never have stopped until he had whipped every boy connected with the robbing. He told the boy and his father to name the punishment for the others, and while they, thus disarmed, went home to decide what it should be, he made inquiry as to the authors of the mischief. To his surprise, he learned that almost every boy was a member of the self-government committee. Even when he called them together to discuss the matter, they could not see that they had done wrong. Nor, down in the principal’s heart, which is still part boy’s, could he. But since the boy, whose dear first moustache was gone, chose to take the matter seriously, something must be done. The boys offered to make public apology. The shorn one refused to hear it. Nor, after much consideration, could he decide that the world contained any solace for griefs like his, and he determined to return to school and let the matter pass. But the boys, realizing that they had lowered the dignity of their office, resigned in a body from the self-government committee. It was the greatest sacrifice they could make, and they made it manfully. But the vindication of their fall from grace, and the appreciation of the stuff they were made of, came at the next election, when every boy was reinstated, one being elected to the presidency, which he filled with rare tact and dignity.

“The self-government system,” says John H. Francis, the principal of this school — the Los Angeles Polytechnic High School — “is more difficult than the old system of government by teachers. You must first secure the belief of the pupils that the committee is absolutely square, and it is difficult to make either pupils or parents believe that pupils can rise above their own prejudices and favoritism. And it is difficult to make parents believe pupils have sufficient judgment to pass upon questions of government.

“It is difficult to get pupils on the committee who have the personality that will command respect and obedience. After you get them you must stay pretty close to them to see that they do rise absolutely above any favoritism, and see that their judgment is at least fair; and after that you must stand back of what they do in a way that will hold both the committee and the rest of the school, and keep parents satisfied. If the committee failed, that would discourage its members. If the parents felt everything was left to the committee, they would criticise. It devolves upon the teacher or principal to maintain a proper balance.

“But self-government is the best solution of the question of school discipline. With self-government introduced into the sixth, seventh, and eighth grades, these higher grades could control the whole school. Pupils should be made to feel that they are the citizens of the schools, that the efficiency and the reputation of their schools are for them as much as for their teachers. The public school is the place to develop the fundamental principles of citizenship, and it is not doing what it should along this line. If teachers and principals had the right kind of ideals they could revolutionize the social world.

“Self-government gives the student a responsibility that is strengthening. Pupils inclined to be trashy and irresponsible have entered upon the work of the committee with a seriousness that was the first indication of real character. Among the better class of students, it has developed a manliness and personality in the boys, and tact and dignity in the girls that are little short of miraculous. The experience and the knowledge of human nature which they derive from it are an invaluable asset in their equipment for life.”

The success of the self-government system in this, the largest high school on the Pacific coast, has aroused interest among educators throughout the country. The example has been followed by another high school in Los Angeles, and the same principle is being applied to a rather more limited extent in the Central High and Central Manual Training High Schools of Philadelphia, and one St. Louis school. Not since the birch switch and hickory rod were relegated to the limbo of unutterable barbarities has anything come so near a solution of the vexed question of school discipline. And while the best results of the self-government system will always be obtained in schools where the principal or teacher back of the student committees is of the sort that could readily enforce law and order by the strength of his personality, in any circumstances its effectiveness would probably equal that of other means, and the by-product of experience is a clear gain to the students who have an active part in the self-government work.