Education: The Mastery of the Arts of Life


THROUGHOUT the long ages during which education has been of the very essence of life, by endless selection and by the relentless test of time a natural educational method has emerged which has a wonderful record of successful application under widely varying conditions. We are not sailing on an uncharted sea, for although innovators have come and gone, their practices warping or thwarting the lives which have come under their influence, always the sound historic method has survived, being wrought ever more firmly into our lives.

The other day I visited a school where this method is being used with success. It consists in the practice of the arts of life, sometimes with the assistance of the teacher, sometimes by the pupils working out points of technic with each other, when the teacher is not present. Occasionally the teacher will reprove or punish, most often because pupils have become too interested and boisterous for her comfort. Once I saw her bring a new problem to the class, and direct attention to its solution; but in the main the day’s work is initiated and sustained by the interest of the pupils. We have here two of the fundamentals of sound education: that its method shall include and mainly consist of the practice of the arts of life, under the direction and inspiration of competent teachers; and that effort shall be initiated and maintained, not primarily by outward discipline, but by the guided interest and aspiration of the pupil. The curriculum of this school is very old, the best data indicating that it has been in continuous use, almost without change, for one or two million years.

I had been watching a mother cat and her kittens. A cat must be able to catch food, to fight, and to distinguish between fighting and playing; and these necessities indicate what to it are some of the principal arts of life to be mastered. As I observed the group, the kittens in play would repeatedly attack the mother, she would retaliate, and then would come a tussle, in which the kittens would use all the ability they possessed in efforts to parry and strike, to bite and claw, continually imitating the mother. Sometimes the mother would begin the play, but usually the kittens, not only would begin, but would continue with such interest and vigor that, when the mother, tired out, wanted to stop the game, she would have to punish the kittens severely before they would admit that the lesson period was over. Once, a mouse she had caught became the subject of a lesson, the kittens trying to capture it while it attempted to escape.

As I watched this family at its lessons, I thought of changes in its curriculum which would be made by those innovators who in the past few generations have been teaching human children in accordance with weird theories of education. We might reasonably expect their first dictum to be that we must not trust to the interests of the kitten; that what it needs is to be compelled to do hard, disagreeable tasks; that it must, under duress, take great pains in developing uninteresting, useless technic, for the sake of mental discipline. Perhaps it would be desirable to compel the kitten to stand on its head! This would be sufficiently unpleasant and useless, and the discipline so acquired might be ‘carried over’ into other fields, so that later, when the grown cat should see a mouse, it might be possessed of a firm, continuing resolve to catch it. The fact that it would not have learned how to catch mice would be a minor disadvantage which could be overlooked.

This analogy of the kittens is not trivial. The instincts of the child, although more complicated, represent the resultant of selective tendencies acting through the ages. Education is not an institution devised and adopted by men, and kept alive by ceaseless vigil. It is an innate process of human life, as inherent as is physical development from infancy to maturity. Educational stimuli do not need to be produced and transmitted to the child by external application. They unfailingly originate within him, just as surely as do hunger and thirst. They may be awakened, guided, controlled, trained; inhibitions may be removed; but in the main they work according to their own laws. To have faith in creation as it expresses itself in the instinctive demand of youth for education; to sit at the feet of childhood and to learn its ways; to use to the utmost, and to direct wisely, its resources of interest and desire — this is educational wisdom. To ignore these great resources, to assume that we must work with childhood as with clay, expecting no innate determining activity on its part, but merely moulding it to fit a preconceived conventional type — this is educational tragedy.

The theories which educational innovators of recent centuries have forced upon us are to no small extent a direct by-product of the doctrine of total depravity. Though the doctrine itself has been abandoned by men of modern outlook, yet its implications continue to control our conventional educational system. To orthodox American educators, a child’s tendencies are essentially unreliable and are largely bad. These men require that the child be drilled in useless subjectmatter, that his life be fitted to an intellectual strait-jacket, and that he smother his deep-rooted love for adventure and inquiry, accepting their statements as final authority; and when the spirit of youth rebels, and its life, thwarted in normal growth, expresses itself in unlovely ways, their remedy is to turn the screws still tighter.

In a recent number of the Atlantic this point of view is admirably expressed : —

From beginning to end, discipline permeated the curriculum of the school of yesterday. The interests of the individual pupil were rarely, if ever, consulted. The work assigned was to be done. The question of its appeal, of its difficulty, of its practical value to the particular pupil, was not even open for discussion. And what splendid men and women this old-fashioned, not always agreeable, disciplinary education developed!

A great number of men who have another outlook believe that the presentday dissipation of youthful energy is due to the fact that the subject-matter of the conventional school has very little relation to actual life. They credit boys and girls with at least a small amount of that same common sense which inclines mature people to refuse to be interested in that which they believe in no way concerns them. They believe also that, as the faculties of men grow gradually through use, so the ability to exercise discernment, initiative, and self-restraint, are more likely to be well developed if the youth gradually assumes the direction of his own interests, than if he remains under complete intellectual subordination during his school-life and then suddenly is given full responsibility for himself, But in the view of the conventional school man our present trouble with dissipated energies does not result from too much ignoring of interests. In the article quoted above we find this confession: ‘Many of us are forced to believe, and with all our hearts, that at the root of this deplorable situation lies a widespread acceptance of this modern doctrine of yielding to the interests of youth.'

Unfortunately, a reaction from this doctrine of making a tragedy of youth by almost totally ignoring its interests, has carried some men and women to an acceptance of educational anarchy. One educator of prominence recently expressed this attitude in substantially the following terms: —

When God creates a child, He endows him with tendencies and instincts which, if allowed free play, will lead to his perfect development. Every child is a new creation, differing from every other. Except as he may have become abnormal through unfortunate environment, he has a sacred right of freedom, of developing just what is in him. The teacher in his finiteness cannot foresee the child’s possibilities, and has no right to direct how his life should grow. His sole duty is to furnish a full, free environment, where the child can become just what it is in him to become, without let or hindrance. He should have little discipline except as he craves it, few obligations that he does not desire and prefer to assume. It is the teacher’s duty to set before the child truth, wisdom, the good and the beautiful, leaving him free to choose, trusting to his instincts for the selection of what is best for him. In this way only can the untold possibilities of life be fulfilled. Society owes it to the child to give him this environment, and not to demand any services in return until the child’s maturity.

It would seem that nothing but sheer lack of sympathy and imagination would lead one whole-heartedly to accept the former philosophy, and that nothing but the dreamer’s utter disregard for hard facts would make possible the complete acceptance of the latter. Infancy, childhood, and youth represent a transition from nearly complete incompetence to maturity. It is not by holding dogmatically to an attitude, but by a continual exercise of imagination, sympathy, and common sense, that this ever-varying condition can be met. At no time can the instincts and the spontaneous interests of the child be ignored without most serious consequences; and at no time should these interests, frequently casual or trivial, and supported by a frail immature will, without some degree of reinforcement, direction, and control, be allowed to determine his activities. Certain basic human qualities, such as integrity, courage, and patience, have been proved so universally to be desirable; and others, such as dishonesty, cruelty, obscenity, are so unfailingly destructive of personal and social welfare; that within certain indefinite limits, which liberal common sense must endeavor to ascertain, we are bound to use our best efforts to direct the course of youthful development. An acknowledgment of this duty should in no wise weaken a profound reverence for the hidden possibilities of youth, or the resolution to allow these possibilities to develop according to their own laws, and without our inhibitive interference.


The innovators who would almost totally ignore the interests of childhood have had for a few generations almost entire control of the educational machinery of America; but although they could for a time control the machinery, the instinct for education in youth was too strong to be killed. While they thought that they were the educators of the country, they were, in fact, but filling in a few of the gaps in the educational system.

For instance, the ordinary life of early New England furnished occasion for the development of many qualities which go to make good men. Home industry supplied most material necessities. To become able to produce them required extensive technical training. It was getting this training in the home, with the discipline it implied, which constituted the major part of the young New Englander’s education; and the problem of the school was so to supplement this home-environment, that the home and the school taken together would furnish the conditions necessary to produce the completely developed man. We miss the point when we single out from the whole circle that small arc which consisted of formal schooling, and style it New England education. The dean of the college of education in one of our largest universities recently remarked that during his boyhood on the farm he had but three months in the year of schooling, which left nine months for him to get an education.

As education through home arts has declined, people have begun to realize that the school-house has received too much credit, and the barn not enough. So we are beginning to reproduce the latter in our educational system, as witness our farm-schools, trade-schools, mechanics’ institutes, and the modern trend toward ‘practical’ education. Just now we have a feud between the barn and the school-house. Some of the men who have rediscovered the barn, and are building these ‘ practical ’ schools, and even some of our advanced technical schools, despise any training which cannot be measured in terms of the pocketbook. As for our classical men, they usually have denied even the existence of the barn as an educational institution. In the few cases in which they have seen the need of training in the arts of life, they have looked upon it as more or less menial, suited only to those who are to become hewers of wood and drawers of water.

Recently I observed a most pathetic instance of this traditional attitude. In a large eastern city is a group of men and women who consider themselves, and are accepted as, the acme of American culture. Their own boys are educated in classical secondary schools, known throughout the country for their fine traditions. In these schools, aside from athletics and a small amount of manual training, there is little training in the coordination of muscle, nerve, and brain, or in initiative and self-reliance. The education is largely that of a priest, a lawyer, or a gentleman of one or two hundred years ago. But these same men, realizing that some children should have a different kind of training, many years ago created a trade-school to which they send ‘ deserving boys of limited means.’ Here I found sound, normal boys in a ‘practical ’ atmosphere, getting a ‘ practical ’ education. They had conventional school-work of the grammar grades, and in addition learned to be printers, machinists, carpenters, and farmers.

The great city is only three miles away, with its museums, music, operas, libraries, and all that a centre of American culture can give; yet each boy leaves the school grounds only two to four times a year. If a boy, after months of this complete isolation, goes to the city without permission, he is subject to dismissal. It would be impossible to design furniture more cheaply, drearily ugly than that in the dining-room. The chairs, which cost sixty-five cents each, are like those which can be bought in any cheap furniture store. The dormitory is a huge barn-like room with long rows of little white cots, absolutely the only other individual furniture in the room being a harness-hook on the wall for each boy, where he may hang his clothes.

This is a literally truthful account of a ‘ practical’ school, sending out American boys into life in American cities. The master is a man of substantial native ability, who would react quickly to any opportunity for better things; but he has little voice in determining policies. The school is financed and controlled by men who represent the cream of American culture, graduates of a great and grand old University, where their classical training was dominated by the ‘humanities.’

As I left the institution I thought of Lanier’s plaint: —

Alas, for the poor to have some part
In yon sweet living lands of art,
Makes problem not for head, but heart.
Vainly might Plato’s brain revolve it:
Plainly the heart of a child could solve it.

The East is not alone at fault. In a large western city an endowment of five million dollars recently has been provided to found a trade-school. The head of this institution has complete freedom of action. He requires every working boy who enters the institution to be actively engaged in the particular trade in which he studies, and his school-work is confined to adding to his expertness in that trade. When I asked whether this system did not narrow the pupil and prevent the development of larger appreciation of life, I received the reply that it might be unfortunate for these boys to have appreciations developed which would make them discontented with their lot. The head of this institution accepts enthusiastically the spirit of the German educational system.

In this same city I found a typical stereotyped classical secondary school, where the chief object would seem to be to eliminate contact with life. To do this more effectively, the school is placed so far out of the city that two hours’ time each day is necessary for going and coming. No use is made of the country space except to provide an athletic field, and the curriculum has made practically no concessions to knowledge that men have gained during the last century. Wherever possible this institution has adopted the forms and terminology of the great English public schools. Wealthy business men send their boys there to prepare them for college.

The two phases of education ought never to have been separated, and it is because we habitually adopt current ideas rather than create our own that we have continued to think of them as distinct, and as requiring separate institutions. In planning the education of a child it is our duty deliberately to determine as fully as possible what experiences and environments are necessary in order that he may come to his fullest development. Some of these we may reasonably expect him to have in his everyday life. Others he will not have unless we intentionally provide for them. The whole duty of the educator is this — to supplement the ordinary contacts of life with others, so that the entire environment will develop to the fullest the possibilities of the child. It follows that the content of formal education cannot be fixed, but must change continually, so as always to supplement and complete the continually varying environment and experiences of everyday life. With the unprecedented rapidity of changes in the modern world, only by intentional, keen analysis of the situation, by maintaining a perpetual inventory, can we hope to make the necessary adjustments. Only live fish can swim upstream in the present-day educational current; and educational duty cannot be fulfilled by industrious labor in the ways of yesterday.

For education, as it has come down through the ages, consists always of learning how to live to-day through mastery of the arts of life of to-day; and in the arts of life I would include every normal ability or competence of body and of mind. That educational system is incomplete which does not keep open the vistas of life in every direction. Nothing which is essential to a fully developed life and which is not being acquired elsewhere, can safely be omitted. We cannot ignore material interests. Whether we consider artist, professional man, or laborer, the embarrassments and inefficiency of everyday life are decreased and its freedom enlarged by the possession of a working knowledge of commercial usages, of the art of being solvent, of appraising accurately one’s possessions, of correctly measuring and judging material values. Every man should be master of the elementary principles and technic of ordinary business affairs.

When the home does not teach good manners the school should do so. In so far as the home opens up the possibilities of literature, or of any other field, the school need not. The religious life cannot be ignored. Aspiration, high ideals of conduct, wonder, humility, and reverence before life and the source of life, consecration to convictions, unselfishness, love of our fellow men, the relation of moral standards to industry — all these can be considered or encouraged without offense in almost any school. A realization of the need of intellectual integrity and independence cannot always be imparted without offense, but the need is vital to any sound system of education. Given this range of interests, training in religious doctrines may be left safely to other agencies.

We should try to inspire the habit of searching out what is the burden of the world’s wisdom and judgment in reference to the main issues of life. This demands a live knowledge of history, literature, and biography. We should develop the habit of questioning and examining accepted beliefs, whether of common knowledge, or in science, business, morals, or other fields. Youth should be encouraged to work out for itself tentative standards of economic, moral, and spiritual values; to pay heed to its use of time and resources; to define its attitude toward industry and social life, toward the live issues of the day, and toward life itself. No educational system is complete if its aim is so to engross the attention of men and women, either in industrial, professional, or social life, or in the pursuit and enjoyment of culture, that they will not have time to ask themselves the question, ‘What is it all about?’ To have asked this question, and to have reached a satisfactory attitude, which is not out of harmony with modern knowledge, is necessary to a teacher who is wisely to direct the aspirations of youth.

Any educational system is seriously at fault which does not develop a habit of laying claim to life’s fine resources. The environment of the child should result in opening eyes and mind to natural phenomena, to life-processes and habits of plants and animals, to the data of geology, of physics, and of astronomy; and to the appeal of good literature, poetry, history, and of the various forms of art. We should include in our programme the development of social relationships, interests, and responsibilities. Habits should be acquired of effective expression of considerateness and goodwill, and of the elimination of social friction through the medium of courtesy, good manners, and good form, this ‘good form’ to consist of consummate skill in living the Golden Rule, not of proficiency in the mannerisms of an exclusive social class.

Independence, originality, and initiative are mighty factors in human progress, but they find little opportunity for development in obedient poring over the prescribed daily lesson in the classroom. In many individual cases these high qualities actually survive eight or twelve years of routine plodding in our conventional schools — eloquent testimony as to how nearly ineradicable they are. The spirit of adventure, so nearly universal in youth, commonly is thwarted at every turn. Yet this is one of its finest gifts; when it has gone, life’s greatest promise is past. An educational system should nurture and direct this spirit, bringing it to expression in a daring to aim at high standards, in adventures into new fields of action, thought, and knowledge; in a desire for the hard, strenuous things which temper and stabilize character. The sporting instinct of youth demands these difficult tasks, and life is stale when they cannot be found.

While youth has these fine qualities so strongly rooted, it frequently lacks the wisdom or outlook to define the objects of its enthusiasms, and commonly adopts those of surrounding groups or individuals. To the father or teacher these qualities are treasures handed over to his keeping, for him to direct toward whatever ends he will. If he fails to direct them at all, or endeavors to suppress them because they do not fit a routine programme, they find objects for themselves, often on those low planes which commonplace life everywhere suggests.


In the end it is the mastery of all these arts of life, and not Greek and Latin, algebra and geometry, that is education. As we bear this fact clearly in mind, the relative importance of subjects begins to change, to become greater or less, as they contribute to the final result. To-day American education is breaking free from its impediments, and is groping its way back to the ages-old method of learning by practicing the arts of life.

The following description is of incidents that have come within my experience, all during the last few months, though not all in the same school. They do not portray a system, but only casual intimations of a new day.

In a certain primary school I found many of the little children keeping chickens and selling eggs. With eggs selling for fifty cents a dozen, even the younger children had learned all the common divisions of fifty. As they had not yet mastered the intricacies of pounds and bushels, the youngest bought feed in small quantities, a few cents’ worth at a time. The older children, who were able to calculate the cost, took the part of dealers. A boy of high-school age was wholesaler, buying feed by the ton for all chickens and cattle, and selling it in lots of twenty pounds or less. They built playhouses, made and decorated holiday dresses, and made crude pottery. Definite comparison of these children with children in conventional schools indicated, not only superior development of hand and eye and better developed initiative, but also that they were further advanced in the subject-matter of the conventional school. At a bank administered by pupils in the school building, checks were cashed in payment for purchases and for labor or other services. Every pupil had money on deposit. Standard accounting methods were used, and a daily balance was kept of each pupil’s account.

During the past winter the main school building, formerly used as a hotel, had burned down. In erecting the new building the boys of high school age had done about sixty per cent of the work outside of school hours, this labor having a value of about fifteen thousand dollars. In printing, in editing the school newspaper, and in gardening, the same enterprise was apparent.

Some of the day pupils, who are children of foreign laborers and soon will drop out of school, receive credit for progress in the manner of making beds, caring for baby, and sweeping the house. Under the teaching of a competent doctor and a nurse, the girls take care of babies in various families in the town, this work being designated as mother-craft. Arrangements are made for the boys and girls to be guests of educated people of moderate means, getting glimpses of refined living conditions. These people have not forgotten that to the immigrant child the interior of a well-to-do American home is as unfamiliar as a Chinese temple.

The headmaster and his wife live on the campus in a carefully furnished house. Pupils who are to meet the master find him there in the livingroom before a fireplace, and for the time being are his guests. A class in domestic science was combined with one in commercial arithmetic. In groups of two the young people of highschool age chose building lots in various parts of the city, made deals for purchasing the lots, worked out problems of taxes and special assessments as applied to them, determining the apportioning of taxes among such interests as education, police protection, and sanitation, and then planned houses to be built on them. The domestic science teacher helped in planning the arrangement and in furnishing the rooms.

On looking into the classwork I found a great variety of progress. In grammar-school subjects, such as arithmetic, spelling, and grammar, each pupil progressed as his own abilities determined. Pupils who had done good work were ‘on self-reliance.’ Stopping one boy at his work, I asked him what that meant, and he replied, ‘You see, when you are on self-reliance you can do as you please. I had graduated from the seventh grade in history and geography, but I was only in the sixth grade in arithmetic. Now that I am on self-reliance, I can spend all the time I want to on arithmetic, and can catch up.’

In a class which seemed proof against any interest in literature two boys who were caring for the cows asked if they might, as their work in English, read government bulletins on Holstein cattle. Starting with this, their attention was attracted to parts which might have been written better. Comparison was made with the style of classic authors, stories of keen interest to boys being taken as examples, and before the season was half over they found themselves reading good literature with the beginnings of appreciation. I found much reading of good books, and much effort at original composition.

All this and much more I have seen during recent months. In many schools over the United States one meets flashes of sanity as expressed in devices for modernizing school methods and aims, and these are now leading to an orderly presentation of fundamental principles. Life’s activities, whether social, industrial, creative, or cultural, are made up of a few great fundamental arts or occupations. Whether or not life as a whole is a success depends on whether or not these activities are pursued successfully. The aim of education is to prepare for and bring about their successful following. Certain acquirements, such as skill in reading, writing, and numbers, and the possession of the fundamental facts in any field of knowledge, constitute the tools of life without which men cannot function effectively. Every well-considered action and every sound deduction of reason must be dependent upon the possession of skill and knowledge, or, to use a more formal expression, upon the possession of the necessary technic and of the pertinent data. This underlying preparation must be secured, if not by interesting adventures, then by patient drill and drudgery. Yet we should value such accomplishment somewhat as we do money, considering it not as valuable in itself, but as an almost indispensable medium of accomplishment.

Just as money when possessed for its own sake is a burden, so any knowledge is a useless impediment, which cannot, when occasion offers, function in some normal activity or appreciation, or in some sound deduction. The educational process should consist, not primarily in gaining this information, but in the practice of the arts or occupations of life. Obviously, then, the school must enable the arts of life to be practiced. It should furnish the inspiration and the occasion for each child to undertake adventures in which he is or can be interested, and by means of which he will acquire some of the necessary habits, skill, knowledge, and initiative which will fit him to live. It should be the business of the teacher so to inspire the choice of projects or adventures and so to direct the work that in the doing of it these qualities will be developed. A child might take for a project making a garden, building a boat, or preparing for college. Several pupils may work upon a groupproject; or they may have more than one at a time. Through the pupil’s interest in such projects, related subject-matter will be introduced. The choice of an adventure is of prime importance only as it furnishes for a longer or shorter time the best instrumentality for the child’s development.

Drill and routine cannot be eliminated and leave training normal or complete. But generally they can be given value in the pupil’s estimation. Pupils learn most effectively and with the minimum loss of time if taught through, rather than in opposition to, their interests. Boys and girls do not always rebel against drudgery, — indeed, what could exceed in routine and drudgery pulling a sled up hill, over and over again, for half a day? — but they do object when it has no obvious connection with that which they value. If we find a final residuum of drill which cannot be made incidental to a project, such as drill in the rudiments of arithmetic or in spelling, we still can take away the deadliness of the drudgery if we will use the resources of human nature.

Recently the colored man who mows my lawn changed his basis from timework to piece-work. When I came to pay him at his old rate for work done in a surprisingly short time, he protested, ‘Boss, I thought I was working by the job, and you know nobody works by the hour like he does by the job.’ Few of us can work with keen zest at a task of endless repetition, where the degree of excellence of the work done has no bearing on the compensation. Only a fool would enjoy spending his life in sweeping back the tide. Sane men — and sane boys — demand results commensurate with the investment. We give a boy his spelling lesson, an hour a day, month after month and year after year. He knows that no excellence of service will relieve that drudgery, and he has not the experience or capacity necessary for a vital appreciation of final profit in the far-off years. Suppose that, in case we must teach spelling by the book, we give him a list of a hundred or two hundred words which he must master during the month, and tell him that, when they are learned, his spelling period during the remainder of the month will be free for his own pleasures, or for work he likes? So can even the residuum of drudgery be made lighter, and the keenness of life maintained.

In the school of the future the mastery of the arts or occupations of life will be the end and aim of education. The method of education will be the practice of those arts. Subject-matter and technic will furnish the tools needed in acquiring and exercising this mastery. Projects will furnish the occasion to awaken and maintain the interest and the incentive for effort in acquiring subject-matter and technic, and in practicing the occupations of life. By recognizing the inherent spontaneity of the interests and aspirations of childhood, the greatest of educational assets will be commanded. The school of the future will be protean. It will overflow into all parts of the community, utilizing farm, home, factory, store, and office. There will be time for team-work, for group-play, for class-work, but much of the time will be spent singly or in groups, with the teachers’ guidance, in working out the project, with its ramifications into literature, mathematics, science, history, physical labor, and business dealings.