Democracy and Education


MR. SHARP’S plea for democracy, in the Atlantic for November, deserved, and doubtless has had, a wide hearing. Schoolmasters especially have read and discussed it; some have taken new courage to fight a good fight; others, having been hit in a vulnerable spot, have made disgruntled rejoinders. On the general point of more and better education as the salvation of democracy, we can all agree. Beyond that, we shall find grounds enough for difference. Mr. Sharp avowedly makes ‘a plea and not a programme,’ which relieves him of the necessity of going into troublesome details.

By chance I am a school executive, incidentally a product of the public schools, and it is my duty to make programmes. We are told that there must be one common school with one common course of study, and that we must all go to the common school and pursue the one course until the end of high school — this being a realizable ideal ‘unless democracy is a dream and impossible.’

Ought we not to begin, perhaps, by defining democracy? Mr. Sharp does not, but implies that democracy (up to the age of eighteen) consists in going to the same school and studying the same things—in other words, compulsory uniformity. Now I have always thought that a democracy was a form of government under which there was the greatest possible freedom for individual development. Is compulsory uniformity, even of a liberal course of study, any better than the forced selection of a vocational education which Mr. Sharp condemns as German and undemocratic? Is the phrase about being created free and equal applicable to mental characteristics? Was not Lincoln right in stating that it applied only to the right to ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?’ Are there not abstract minds and practical minds; inquisitive and acquisitive minds; minds adapted to languages and minds adapted to mechanics? Mr. Sharp naïvely admits that he has not the mathematical faculty. Grant, if you like, that there is a single ideal course of study — will every pupil take it? Is n’t there food for thought in the story of Lowell’s friend who was going to impart to the domestic duck the rare and distinctive flavor of the wild fowl by feeding it wild celery, and never lost faith in his theory in spite of the fact that ‘the damned birds would n’t eat it’?

Education is quite as much a matter of habit and attitude of mind as of subject-matter. One thing that a school owes every pupil, granting reasonable effort on the pupil’s part, is a fair measure of success. If he is to cope with the problems he is to face after leaving school, he must face them with a confidence born of success in his school life. The haunting, even if subconscious, recollection of failure paves the way for more failures and, often, ultimate disaster. I am not pleading for a soft pedagogy or for the doctrine of interest in its frequently grotesque form. On the other hand, I will not admit the virtue of the disciplinary type of education that said to the boy, ’I don’t care what you study as long as you hate it.’ I contend merely that most of the unhappiness in the world comes from trying to adjust at the wrong level, and that we see too many boys starting life with the habit of failure stamped upon them, when a different course of study would have imparted useful knowledge and the habit of success.

There was a fine man whom I met years ago at a boys’ club, who told of idealists who came expecting to metamorphose boys from the streets, and went away disillusioned and disappointed. He himself, he said, was a ‘pessimistic philanthropist,’ expected little, was consequently pleased with small results, and had kept at his work in that settlement some twenty years. He recounted the case of a boy he had seen recently driving a team, but driving it well, and leading a respectable life, as he might not have done but for the influences that had surrounded him. If it is German to analyze one’s equipment for life, choose the line that promises the best success, and train one’s self for proficiency in it, then we have found something good in Germany at last. Note that I said, ‘choose’; for the door to all courses must be open to all candidates, under no pressure but that of wise and friendly counsel.

The response of the supposedly dull to a congenial curriculum is extraordinary. I know a boy of whom the head of one of our best classical schools said, ‘He’s a fine fellow. If you can educate him I wish you would; I can’t.’ He had been lagging two years behind the normal school development for boys of his age. By heritage he was destined to be an outdoor, practical man. He shifted to a school where he could study agriculture in a scientific though elementary way. Presto! English, history, and mathematics became possible, whereas the incubus of (to him) impossible subjects had rendered all studies alike intolerable. I had the privilege recently of seeing a boy of fourteen who had failed in a classical régime stand before a class in science for half an hour, giving a lecture and making demonstrations with poise, dignity, and skill. That boy is happy for the first time in his school career, optimistic, bent on succeeding.

It would be interesting to know how much of the present-day discontented, protestant radicalism is due to forcing pupils in school into lines of effort for which they were never fitted. The content of Mr. Sharp’s own course of study is left graciously veiled in mystery. But why not science as well as language? The headmaster of a famous classical school said recently that nothing in this field was sufficiently well taught to justify its teaching. But the practice of his school belied his words. One science is taught in his institution, — well taught, as I happen to know, — though grudgingly and as a concession to such colleges as insist upon it. If physics, why not chemistry and biology? Then, why not the science of agriculture? Surely it is one of the fundamental sciences by which we live, and perhaps, too, its ramifications will lead the student to ponder the problems of human existence as deeply as will the history of an ancient race. And granting that the title ‘high school of commerce’ has sounded grandiose in the ears of some of us, do we not know that it is possible to teach commercial geography, bookkeeping, stenography, and the elements of the law that underlies ordinary business transactions? Many a boy can be kept willingly in school by these studies, who will remain, if at all, soured, disgruntled, and inefficient, under a single course of study.

There are economic factors, too. I visited an industrial school some time ago, where I was told by the head that the chance to earn a dollar a week in school meant with most of his pupils the difference between coming to school and going to work. Unless we can abolish poverty we shall always be confronted with that problem. Compulsory attendance up to a given age does not solve it, for it is almost better to let the boy go than to make of him and his parents resentful opponents of the system. I saw on my visit a boy just completing a mahogany diningtable. He had made his own working drawings, ordered his materials, kept accurate account of his costs and his own time, and he surveyed his finished work with pride. I am thinking of that boy’s education as for ‘life’ and not for ‘a living.’ He was going out into the world contented, self-respecting, competent. Many a boy of his type, held to an abstract and uncongenial course, has become the ringleader of a gang subversive of all school discipline.

As for the shop being the best school to prepare for industry, it is only too evident that many manufacturing processes are so much a matter of routine that they require no preparation whatever, afford the worker no satisfaction, and lead to no promotion. True, there are enlightened employers who will take pains to educate their workmen for higher positions because they believe it pays. The fact remains that much of the present unrest and the large turn-over of labor in industrial plants is due to the fact that the workman is merely exploited. Far be it from the schools to prepare boys for specific elementary mechanical processes; but let us have the principles of mechanics for the mechanically minded taught from machines in the cellar or in any story of the building. Where the best results have been attained, it has usually been by industry and the school working together.

If not one course of study, shall there be one public school for all pupils? Mr. Sharp assumes that putting persons of all kinds together in compulsory association leads inevitably to mutual understanding and respect. If it does, put them together by all means. Capital and labor, rich and poor, Americanborn and foreign-born must come to the best possible understanding of each other. But, in the first place, they won’t necessarily stay together. Within even the smallest group there is some choice of companions, and those who are congenial will drift together and those who are not will drift apart; and so far as they are compelled unnaturally to stay together, they are as likely to generate enmity as friendship. I am as democratic in my feelings as another, and, as I said, a product of the public schools. I began in the primary grades, with associates in whose veins ran Irish, French-Canadian, Negro, and Chinese blood. I am happy to bear testimony that I found neither meanness nor nastiness in them, though I did in some boys on my own street; but before I had finished my highschool course, difference in ability, in aim, in heritage had separated me from all of them as close companions.

Even if it is desirable to mix all sorts, compulsory attendance at the public school will not necessarily attain that object. I know aristocratic communities where there would not be any of the foreign-born — only perhaps the occasional son of a second or third generation family servitor, and he would not leaven the lump. At the other extreme is the plight of a parent who sought my help recently. Business conditions compelled him to live in a manufacturing town, and his boy was the only one from an English-speaking home in his room at school. Heaven forbid that he should listen to the plea of democracy to leave his boy there if he could afford to send him elsewhere. All the others needed infinite time to learn the fundamentals of the English tongue, which he had known from the cradle. There was no chance for him to enjoy the freedom to develop his talents to the highest possible point, which is quite as much an essential of democracy as is equality at the polls. It is an axiom of education that pupils grouped together should be not only of the same intellectual advancement, but of approximately the same age and physical development, lest the precocious pupils be bullied and the big, slow ones be made self-conscious. This ideal is doubly hard of attainment where native-born and foreign-born attend the same school.

Again, the stream does not rise higher than its source. The source of the public school is the public treasury. The reason that we have the three-hundred-dollar teacher whom Mr. Sharp deplores is that she is as good a teacher as the community in which she labors is willing to support. While one enlightened man may be willing to pay more, he has but one vote, and can influence, at most, only a few more.


The principal objections to the private school I conceive to be that it is accessible to only one class of pupils, not always the most worthy, and that its cloistered life unfits its graduates for effective service in a democracy. To the first objection one may retort that many who are unworthy ride in automobiles while their betters walk; yet there is no agitation to abolish automobiles. This, however, is mere smartness of debate and no real answer. Nor can a categorical answer be given, because not all private schools are of the same type. First, there is the cramming school, which draws a few worthy pupils who, by reason of sickness or other misfortune, need to cover much ground speedily, together with a much larger number of the lazy, incompetent, and immoral, who would like to go to college for a good time, but would consider it stupid to learn anything for themselves when they can hire the brains of others. It were better if no such schools existed, but they are negligible in number and do less harm to the community than to the individuals whose intellects they help to debauch.

Then there are private schools doing a legitimate work at a legitimate price, but necessarily a high one. They furnish a superior article to such as can pay. The automobile comparison holds true. And yet even the men in these schools see their weakness. Sitting beside a good friend at dinner in one such school years ago, I heard him deplore the fact that all the boys came from the same kind of homes, bought their clothes in the same shops, and were going to the same two colleges. There was nothing but deadening uniformity. Recently, after a long and distinguished service, he told me that the school was founded on a social fiction and could not long continue.

Lastly, there are a number of academies and endowed schools where admission is easy for any boy of brains and ambition, where tuition fees are low and scholarships many. Obviously this is the type to which all should tend, and it is a healthful sign that many are doing so. One school that has always been for the rich only is now raising a fund of half a million dollars to provide scholarships for worthy boys who cannot pay the full price.

There are as wide differences in the degree of isolation from the community.

Some parents and some schools unfortunately do fear the ‘divine hazard of democracy.’ They want their boys to form a caste. Though they try to inculcate ideals of clean living and talk a good deal of ‘service,’ they spoil the boys by letting them be waited upon, and the only ‘service’ that the boy dreams much about is being a famous statesman or making a magnificent and condescending gift to charity when he has made his pile. Of the feeling that he is common clay like anyone else, that it is what he does and not what he inherits that counts, there is very little. The snobbery that is possible in the faculty is shown by a story of an undermaster of no great social position who spoke with enthusiasm of the ‘democracy’ of the school. ‘The boys went canoeing with the masters.’ He did not last long. I suspect the boys found him out. And the boorishness that is possible in a boy is illustrated by what I had reported to me recently — a boy from a fashionable school seated in the club car of a train, with his feet sprawled across the aisle, retorting to an older man, who asked him to move them so that he could pass, that he was as good as anyone and would do as he chose.

There are simple cures. First, let the teachers themselves by precept and example encourage right relations with the community. Let them be members, and officers, of local chambers of commerce, and of charitable and benevolent societies; let them hold political office. Let them be broad and simple and serviceable, and we need not fear for their charges. Too great devotion of teachers to their tasks makes them, perhaps, better teachers of Latin or mathematics, but certainly worse teachers of citizenship, which is their higher vocation.

Second, broaden the clientele. It is not difficult to raise money to endow scholarships. It is easier still for boarding-schools to take day pupils from the vicinity for little or nothing. There is real need of this, for the public schools of the country are the poorest. Since the buildings and faculty are already provided for the benefit of the pay pupils, these day scholars cost the school literally almost nothing. But one must be sure that the social organization of the school is such that the day boy feels really at home, else neither he nor the school receives any benefit. Every private school should represent a fair cross-section and not a stratum of society. The advantage that it confers on the nation is the superior education of a relatively small number of pupils. It must be certain to reach those most worthy. We need two things in a democracy; the highest possible general level of education, and the best possible training for those of superior ability. It makes very little difference to the community if those of ordinary capacity do not reach their fullest development; but if a destined leader in science or literature or public life falls short of what he might have been, the loss is incalculable. The private school must not only be accessible to these potential leaders, regardless of social or financial standing; it must earnestly seek them by every means possible.

Lastly, as Mr. Sharp suggests, let everyone work; not necessarily at a trade, but at the useful labor by which we all live. ‘The discipline of life should come from the normal acts of living.’ Is it not ridiculous to send ablebodied boys away to school, to be waited upon like elegant gentlemen in a club, to have even their tennis courts rolled and their hockey rinks cleared of snow so that they, forsooth, may play? Can anything do more to encourage snobbery and contempt for labor and those who perform it? Begin by saying, ‘Only those may play who will care for the playgrounds.’ If the afternoon’s tennis or hockey or baseball is shortened by pulling a roller or wielding a shovel or pushing a lawn-mower, the boys will have had as much and as beneficial exercise, their sport will be the sweeter because it has been earned, and they will be more self-respecting. Next, let them take full care of their rooms, make their beds, sweep and dust. The retort has been made that this is woman’s work. It is also, if you notice, soldier’s work. I have yet to hear of a single ‘goody’ with our expeditionary forces. Let the boys also serve the meals, rich and poor alike taking their turns, not as servants who stand always at attention, but as members of a simple family who put the dishes on the table and then sit down with the others. Even this is not enough; but the rest must depend upon local conditions. If you are unconvinced of the principle, try it. See if your boys are not less likely to leave a mess for others to clear up; see if they are not more courteous to their elders and more considerate of those less fortunate than they.

Let me recount the case of one boy who attended an ultra-fashionable boarding-school. His mother, a widow, became distressed because he expected so much of her, wanted her to wait on him, did n’t see why she could n’t give him all sorts of luxuries and indulgences. She appealed to the master of a school where the boys live under such a régime as I have just described. She said, ’Of course, he’ll hate it, but I shall be grateful if you’ll take him.’ The fact is, he liked it from the start, and became quickly unselfish and considerate. Boys, like grown-ups, will accept as many luxuries as they can have, but they admire most the competent, vigorous men of their acquaintance. They may envy the idle rich, but they idolize the Roosevelts.

The great advantage of the private school is its independence, educationally and politically. We have seen the evils of a state-fostered education in Germany. The solution is a sharing of the field by public and endowed institutions. Educationally, the private schools have made less of their freedom than they might. They have been slower to introduce new subjects, or new methods of teaching the old ones, than the public schools. The standard by which they have measured their own efficiency has been too exclusively success in passing college examinations.

Judged by their fruits, the private schools have justified themselves. During the war their graduates were the first to volunteer; practically all who were physically fit and of military age went. The young officers who led our army, a group of men unequaled for patriotism, physical fitness, and mental vigor, were recruited in large part from the private schools.


The experience of the war suggests a possible means of attaining some of the desirable ends that Mr. Sharp seeks. If difference of aim, difference of intellectual capacity, difference of language, make it undesirable to herd all our polyglot population together for nine months in the year for all the years till they are through high school, there is still ground where they can meet, and in a common service find a bond of union. Universal service, not necessarily military, being largely physical and not intellectual, and of short duration, offers advantages for getting all our people together that the schools do not possess. The summer vacations are too long, and should be put to some educational use. Yet the season is not adapted to a continuation of indoor book-work. From an early age I would have the boys brought into camps for several weeks in the year. I would have their régime there include hygiene, physical training, formal exercises to promote discipline and obedience, salutes to the flag, together with talks by prominent men on our form of government, personal responsibility to governmental authority, and other patriotic subjects.

In the later years I would include the elements of military drill and tactics, because the duty to defend one’s country when attacked is a supreme responsibility, which cannot be undertaken without preparation. We must choose between a large professional army and a larger body of citizens physically fit and trained to obedience, from which an army can be recruited in a short time.

But I would also include from the first some constructive service. Reforestation and national highways immediately suggest themselves. In rendering concrete service to the country, our youth would gain in patriotism. In rendering it all together, they would learn lessons of democracy.