In Our Own Behalf

THIS title is a misnomer; it should have been ‘Educational Methods in the A.E.F.,’and would have been if schoolmasters were allowed to flirt with theory or to devise educational methods, or were even thought to know anything about educational methods. But that is the domain of the theorist, who, hampered by no happy obstacles like boys and classes, can wander along as Fancy dictates, testing his wings on all the tangents in geometry. Such is his privilege. Let us leave him, to do a little soaring on our own account. For there was, first and last, a tremendous amount of education being given in the A.E.F., and whether it seemed so or not, there was usually considerable method connected with it. If, before we finish, we find ourselves in the only semi-respectable domain of educational jingoism, all the better. Why should not the schoolteacher toot his horn as loudly as the fishmonger? Both are dealing in food for brains.

First, then, let us see what there is, of educational value, that we can learn from our army experience, and then glance as leniently as we may at the methods employed by our charming brothers, the French. And be it clearly understood that the statements which follow apply only to war conditions. No one is more ignorant, than I of the way things are taught in France in peace-time.

The first, glimpse that we had of this Yankee educating was when we were ourselves subjected to it at Fort de Peigney near Langres, where we were taught about the Chauchat automatic rifle; and the sensation was one of pure joy. The author of the immortal lines,

Backward, turn backward, O Time in your flight!
Make me a child again, just for to-night,

would have had her prayer answered; for at de Peigney we were schoolboys once more, sitting around a table in a Napoleonic fort and trying to guess right when our Jew sergeant-instructor shoved fantastically shaped bits of metal under our noses and asked whether they were shuttle-roller grooves, or barrel-stop-lever notches. It was really very fine sport. I wonder if we are not sometimes in danger of forgetting what a tremendous lot of fun there is for the boy in the mere process of a recitation. It is fun for us teachers, of course, but it is also fun for him, though tradition has made him ashamed to admit it, even to himself. He may cordially dislike a subject; he may (and usually does) sincerely loathe the external aspect of his book; he may heartily begrudge the golden hours spent in dull preparation; yet the recitation itself has some charm for him, if it be only the excitement, of gambling. It is fun to be kept awake in a classroom, instead of having to keep yourself awake in a study. It is very amusing to watch the antics and acrobatics of a teacher, who paces about in front of your class, unburdening himself of chemical formulas or ethical datives, or confronting you with queerly shaped bits of metal that require names. There is nothing at all dull in any of this. It is, in fact, quite the pleasantest part of the operation of being educated.

If some of you feel skeptical about this, listen and be convinced. The other day I asked one of the boys in my class whether he would rather study the subject he most cordially hates, by himself, for an hour, or sit through an hour’s recitation in the same subject. He said, without a moment’s hesitation, ‘ I would rather study it by myself for an hour, because then I could put my mind on it and not be annoyed by the teacher!’ How true to form our boys are, to be sure.

Now that we are all agreed that recitations are keenly enjoyed by our boys, what a chance we have in our classrooms several times a day! What wonder that we are able to perform miracles on mediocre minds; to strike, with the steel of our opportunity, bright sparks of intelligence from the flinty clay of the commonplace. If we could all of us sit once in a while as pupils in a classroom, and be entertained, instead of always ourselves furnishing the entertainment, we should cease to marvel that our pupils get ninety per cents and sundry scholarships.

Another thing, likewise taught, from sitting at the table of the Jew sergeantinstructor, must be mentioned. For it is a great solace to him whose job is the teaching of the intangible languages, instead of the practical and concrete sciences. Not that we poor disseminaters of ancient, languages, who are ourselves as lifeless as the wares we peddle, intend for a moment, to launch an attack against the glittering camp of science; our delving into the mysteries of the second periphrastic has made us too broad-minded for that: and besides, quite frankly, we wonder sometimes, in rare moments of professional candor, whether our envy of the scientists is not due to our own inability to master the intricacies of valences and atomic weights! So, I repeat, it is not because we wish to take any credit from our scientific brethren, but merely because it is some solace to us, that we mention this second point: namely, the immeasurable advantage of dealing with concrete, physical, tangible subjects when teaching Young America.

We, at Fort de Peigney, could put our fingers on the barrel-stop-lever of the Chauchat auto rifle; we could pick it up, look at it, drop it on the table, and hear it ring when it landed; it was a real, true object, unchangeable and definite; it had substance and weight and size, and, star-gazing disciples of the theoretical that we are, it appealed to us vastly. How much more, then, does it appeal to our boys, and how much more do the definite realities of the laboratory appeal to them, than the elusive, changeable, and colorless paradigms contained between the covers of Allen and Greenough! You see the difficulties under which we struggle, when even we feel the appeal of the concrete — we whose business is the abstract. Could we carve our gerundives from marble, or forge periphrastics in steel, what end or limit, would there be to our accomplishments? So let us, as we read in the catalogue that some fifty-five boys in this school are taking Greek, and that a high percentage of passes was recorded last, year in French and English, pin a rose in our own buttonholes, and reflect with Longfellow and a cheery smile that things are not what they seem.

All this is by the way. And now that Catullus and Archimedes have shaken hands, each comfortably conscious of his own superiority, let us proceed to take a very brief glance at the way the Americans taught in France, and the way the French did.

It is, of course, inevitable that any nation which, like ourselves, produces such citizens as Hurry-Up Yost and Speedy Rush, and such settlements as Dynamic Detroit, should regard its education as it regards its lunch, as something to be got through with as quickly as possible.

When we begin, for example, the study of arithmetic, we do not hark back to the beginning of time and trace the history and development of the science of numbers from the time of the Ptolemies to the present. It seems to us, on the whole, more sensible to begin with the multiplication-tables. The former would, no doubt, be the ideal method; but we Americans are the greatest idealists in the world only in certain respects, and continue to believe that time is money.

So when we went to France, we took with us our own style of education. The same methods that had been employed to produce officers in three months were used to produce machinegunners in as many weeks. Everything hummed. Not an hour was lost. Not an unnecessary detail was taught. The mechanism of the weapon we were studying, its tactical use, and some few days shooting it — those were the essential points to be mastered. Everything else was regarded as unimportant; and I must say that this turned out to be a thoroughly satisfactory method of procedure. But we did not think very highly of it at the time. In fact, the one thing we Americans are sometimes modest about is our method of education. We took it for granted that the French were better at it than we, which is natural enough, for we have somehow got the idea that as a nation we are the worst in the world at teaching our youth. How we sigh for the thoroughness of Eton! And how we are aghast at the rumors afloat in our midst that English lads have read all the Latin in the world, and while away their Sundays with Thucydides. And we supposed that the French were as far ahead of us as our English brothers.

Come with me, my friends, into a French centre of instruction, and be cheered. For with the French, who spend two hours over their lunch, and a lifetime over their education, business is not always business, and time is certainly not money. We found ourselves — another American and I sidetracked into one of these French schools, to teach technical American military terms to successive groups of French officers who already knew some English and were destined to become instructors in the art of war to Yankee outfits. But these gentlemen had far more to do than merely to learn our war-time vocabulary — a small matter, after all, which they could easily have absorbed in a week. They came fresh from the lines, where they had been spending anywhere from a month to three years dodging machine-gun bullets, or sending them for Fritz to dodge. Therefore, it was thought proper by the elderly French major in charge to deliver to them lectures concerning the history and development of machine-guns; to trot them two miles in the broiling sun to a range, that they might take a few shots at a lifeless and uninspiring bull’s-eye; and in the afternoon to give them a demonstration of the functioning of the gun, by having a sergeant or lieutenant strip and assemble it for their benefit at a sort of bloodless clinic. All this in the interest of thoroughness, and while they were panting to escape from that with which they were as familiar as they were with the palms of their own hands, to that with which they were unfamiliar — the vocabulary that they would need when they should join the Americans.

Many of the lieutenants and nearly all the captains among them had, at one time or another, commanded battalions in action. So they were forced to listen to lectures on the theory of attack for the battalion of the first, second, and third lines — enormously long harangues, delivered on three successive days. All this in the interest of thoroughness!

The youngest among them had repeatedly taken his platoon over the top, and so manœuvres were held in which they were given command of platoons, that they might learn the correct arrangement of their men before jumping off. This, too, in the interest of thoroughness.

A distinguished architect, who was disguised in the uniform of a lieutenant of engineers, arrived one day to give us a lecture on field fortifications, dugouts, trench-systems, and the like. The essay was a scholarly and masterly one, and lasted for two and a half hours. In it we were led from the caveman, squatting behind a boulder to avoid a stone hurled at his head by a neighbor, up through the wars of Joshua, sojourning a delightfully long time with Julius Cæsar and his ditches and mounds, through the layout of the Russo-Japanese trench-systems (happily the chap had never heard of Bunker Hill), to August, 1914. Then the lecturer wiped his brow, took three long breaths, moistened his lips, and began on what was really his subject.

Meanwhile, the Germans were pushing the front into ugly salients—the Soissons-Château Thierry-Reims triangle, for example; the Americans were sending soldiers into France at the rate of ten thousand a day; the British were getting ready for their final big attack, and the French were calling for reserves out of one side of their mouths, and lecturing about the development of gunpowder out of the other. It did n’t look good to men of the same nationality as Barney Oldfield, and we began to wonder whether, after all, there was not some virtue in our hurry-up American methods of educating. We were not prepared to quarrel with the French way in peacetime, but it did seem as if the exigencies of the case might warrant the temporary cashiering of their scholastic tradition.

But, you will say, it is not fair to judge a nation’s educational methods by the teaching that is done by her army officers. Quite true. So let us take a brief look at the class in English, conducted by a French lieutenant, who had a consummate knowledge of English, and had been, before the war, a teacher of English in a French lycée. We two Americans attended these classes regularly, in the capacities of Umpire and Referee for the continuous series of squabbles that arose between pupils and professor; and we were both kept busy. I give you my word that on one occasion there arose a tremendously heated discussion, quite beyond our united efforts to quell, on the difference in meaning between the English words brook, stream, and rivulet. The argument lasted for fifteen minutes, and the end was due only to the complete exhaustion of all parties concerned.

In the course of an hour’s recitation translating the Manual for Leaders of Infantry Platoons from French into English, this professional teacher called on four men to recite, correcting them in the most absurdly meticulous fashion for mistakes like split infinitives; the rest, being quite human, and not very old, watched the flies crawl along the ceiling, or penciled amazingly clever sketches of the instructor on the benches. Such methods, even in peace-time, failed to appeal to us, and in time of war seemed criminal. We were still more strongly persuaded of the excellence of American education; but the crowning tribute came later.

By good luck, this French professor of English fell sick with a slight attack of influenza. Here was the chance that we had been waiting for, for the major directed us to take charge of this class on alternate days. We embarked upon the enterprise with one idea, — SPEED, — and hustled these amazed gentlemen through a prodigious number of pages, more or less correctly, but, at all events, giving every man a chance to translate during the period. By the end of the hour they were dripping with perspiration, limp from exhaustion, and speechless in their admiration. They crowded around our desks, and asked whether this was the way we usually taught school in the United States. And we answered, ‘Certainly!’

Notice, please, what was happening: a Frenchman was expressing admiration for American education. Perhaps, then, all is not lost. Who knows but that our traditional modesty on this point has been a bit excessive? It may, after all, be as profitable to stride wakefully through the question at hand as to roam dreamily through the whole history of the world.