A Democratic School
IN his discriminating criticism of the American boarding-school Mr. Parmelee presented to the Atlantic readers an interesting study of the situation and the remedy. To the former nothing can be added. The American boy’s temperament reacts in the manner described to the conditions that surround it in boarding-school life; one might say in any school life, for, I believe, a number of the symptoms considered walk hand in hand with all American educational systems, both public and private. As to the remedy; this is my fourth year in a school that has been fully tested out and has proved to the satisfaction of all concerned that its system is the answer, the only practical answer, to the various problems discussed by Mr. Parmelee.
I will take up his three principal points one by one, and offer the solution — not the visionary solution, but the solution that, in one school at least, works to-day.
‘First, as regards their commercialism. A school of this kind, however high its ideals, is, we must remember, at bottom a business, and in the view of its authorities the first requisite of such a business is that it must pay.’
This is Mr. Parmelee’s first difficulty. It is evident that, to make a school of the average type pay in this age, the rates must be high, too high for middleclass boys to profit by the advantages of attending a boarding-school. The task is to reduce expenses in such a way as to lower the tuition fee. This, of course, must not be done by decreasing the number or salaries of the faculty, or by detracting from the quality or quanity of the food. An impossible case, you say? Yet the question has been solved. In the school I have in mind the selfhelp system is a thoroughly practical answer. Large sums are saved by the work around the buildings which the boys do (no kitchen or laundry-work) without inconvenience, or interference in the slightest degree, either with the necessary academic work, or with regular athletics. It is to be noted that the hardest tasks set can be done thoroughly in the half hour allowed twice a day; and generally less time is required.
Let me assure you that this is no visionary fancy. It is a fact; it works; it has worked for over ten years. The school in question has grown from the cautious experiment to the present splendid fulfillment. It has never been publicly advertised, yet the waiting list numbers several hundred. Never has the future looked brighter. The system has spread, in some or all of its forms, to several other schools. It is the coming type.
Next, the question of arbitrary discipline. Self-government is the satisfactory answer. Here, Mr. Parmelee observes, all head-masters balk. It is a too-much-talked-of and disastrously tampered-with subject to find favor or even toleration with the preparatoryschool faculties. Can the average headmaster conceive of a big study hall, with every desk filled, no authority in the form of masters in the room, or even in the building, and yet the ticking of the clock far down in front distinct and sharp in the very last seats — this not for a moment, but for hours at a time? Again you say, impossible; and again I say it is true, and it is working side by side with the self-help system, to the adequate solving of these two serious boarding-school problems.
To be more clear. The members of the faculty have no duties of any kind except their classroom work. The entire discipline is controlled by three ‘prefects’ appointed by the head-master from the graduating class, and four other fellows elected by popular vote, two from the fourth and two from the fifth form. These seven make up a council, which meets once a week, and has practically absolute power, — excepting the right of expulsion, — subject, of course, to the head-master’s veto. Perhaps it does n’t sound practicable, but then, it works. The difference in the attitude of boys to the masters is astounding. A more sincere spirit of friendship and respect is developed, because the ‘spy system,’ with its mutual lack of confidence, is done away with. Of this I will speak later.
The prefects, with another corps of inspectors drawn from the sixth form, are in charge of the regular working of the self-help system. They make out the job ‘list,’ which is changed from day to day, and is formed by entering numbers opposite the names on the school list. These numbers represent certain ‘jobs,’ so that the prefects have little knowledge of ‘who gets what.’ The jobs are done twice a day, and inspected and reported on in job-assemblies held before the morning and afternoon school sessions. Jobs that fail to pass inspection are done over at stated periods, and reported to the prefect of the day. A very poor job, or a failure to do a job over, receives an hour’s ‘detention,’ which is served immediately after lunch by an hour of outdoor manual labor. This hour’s detention is the standard penalty used both by the council members and by the faculty.
In exchange for the ‘spy system’ mentioned above, a form of honor system is used. Questions of all sorts are asked in assembly, and it is a tradition and a point of honor very loyally upheld that the offenders will at once own up, regardless of the nature of the act or the consequences it involves. It is a credit both to the system and to the boys in the school that practically no questions go unanswered.
Mr. Parmelee’s third point concerns the spirit of college entrance. The greater part of the boys who attend such a school as this, and plan to go to college, are making no ‘social function’ of it. It is with them a serious matter and they act accordingly. They are the very type which Mr. Parmelee regrets has so little chance.
It is not my place to discuss the rights or wrongs of the College Entrance Board. The standards it sets may be unwise, but conscientious work finds no trouble with them, and the aim of the school I am discussing is conscientious work in every department. Conscientious work on the ‘jobs’ has solved the great economic problem of schools. Conscientious self-government has proved practical in forwarding the plan. Conscientious study is swinging wide the doors of the colleges.
May I suggest as our crying need, rather than Mr. Parmelee’s ‘American Cecil Rhodes,’ more men of the type of the head-master of this school, who conceived this educational system. He has endowed American boyhood with a great gift — a gift not yet fully under stood by present-day educators, but one which we who have benefited by it must believe to be the coming school, the true, democratic, American school.