Religio Magistri


WHAT is the faith of the teacher? What the secret strength that sustains his spirit through unprofitable journeys? What the unfailing source that will keep his mind serene through the long hours of drudging over dusty fields, the dry farming of the soul, savoring little of the fresh activities of his own world?

For there must be some religio magistri: some magnetic quality in the teacher’s chosen way to point his compass true; some energy inherent, which is justified in the men and women we have ourselves known, who have sought great teaching above all other aspirations, building and establishing with skill the enduring bases of this last, not least, of the great professional services of civilization.

It is intolerable that we should be asked to state this faith of ours in terms of money, first and last; yet the world is to blame if we accept its price for us, and we find ourselves of small account. The publicity given to college and university drives flatters only the unthinking; the success of these will be but a mere pittance in the budget of the profession. In Poughkeepsie, in the week of this writing, the Board of Education has been obliged to vote a strict enforcement of all contracts with teachers; there are vacancies in every school in the city, and unwilling workers are being held to tasks they no longer desire lest the whole system give way. The empty schoolrooms of this year are, moreover, few compared with what we dread for the autumn of 1921, when the normal schools will have graduated the smallest classes in many years. Then, just as the American people, aghast at the revelations of illiteracy, of provincialism, of class and racial hatred, — the daughters of ignorance, — will be calling for teachers, there will be none to answer.

For the first time in the history of our profession, we have accepted the money-value at which the public has priced us as an index of our worth. What irony it is that we, who have always placed our profession above all, we who have never sought, great rewards, whose work is, in the larger sense, disinterested, should be thrust forward as beggars, whining for an alms! What a joke and what a tragedy, these parades of college boys carrying banners inscribed ‘FEED THE PROF’; when college girls masquerade on Fifth Avenue in their grandmothers’ gowns, and alumnæ hire out as cooks and waitresses ‘for the benefit of the Faculty’! Could they degrade the great tradition further?

It is most characteristically American that, confronting such a situation as this, we should seek the remedy of endowment campaigns and other means of enhancing the money-value of teachers. We turn, as Kipling said we always do, a keen, untroubled gaze home to the instant need of things. But having gone thus far, and being in a fair way to go further, we think we have solved the problem through things. There is need of a different emphasis, however. The economic solution is primary, it is true. We must pay our teachers enough to maintain them. There is little comfort in being told that you are a natural-born teacher when you cannot obtain a natural living. Every college in the land faces this situation, and must continue to face it squarely. If the increased tuition fees of education, barely commensurate with increased maintenance costs, will not supply the additional income for needed salary increases, our colleges must supply them in some other way. But this done, they cannot leave the other undone.

More lasting and more vital than external stabilization of the professor’s market value must be his faith in his calling. If we cannot find it, if we cannot reaffirm it, our cause is lost in advance. Subsidies and endowments will never make teachers essential to the people’s life. Take away the religio magistri, and teaching becomes no longer a profession.

The teacher cannot, as does the scholar, find a retreat, of the spirit away from the perils and perplexities of the present life. The philologist described by Gilbert Murray finds consolation far from the world, in the kingdom of ancient letters. His salvation is conferred by mighty spirits of the past, which free him from the body of his present death. No such refuge could ever be a teacher’s source of power. He may seek rest and recreation through the study of the classics, with the romantic Hellenist of Oxford; but his faith must spring, like truth of old, out of the earth in which he toils, the product of his own work and life. Else he could make no headway against the doubts that assail him; he must surrender the battlefield once and for all. The teacher’s faith must be, not of the past, but of the living present; not of the completed thought of the ages, but of the process of the great to be; otherwise the doubts win.

More dangerous, because more insidious, enemies than the wolf at the door are the foes of the teacher’s spirit. We can restore to the profession some self-respect through adequate salaries, though we may not, in our lifetime, overtake the economic supremacy which the industrial elements of democracy have already won. At least, teachers will not starve. But what if we destroy the one liberty which should be guaranteed every man — joy in labor? A widespread but furtive envy of intelligence circulates sneers about ‘college professors.’ Parents of pupils encourage an atmosphere of criticism and opposition in the classroom. Governing boards and administrative autocrats virtually compel organization by teachers in defense of their tenure of office. Under such conditions, it will take more than the promise of a livelihood to beguile young aspirants to successful careers in the field of teaching. A reward must be shown which will make the workers at one with their work because it is in itself worthy.

Can we make them believe in its reality? For there are great doubts. The teacher of to-day, young and well trained, eager for the highest service, is confronted by three barriers, irreducible and baffling. They may, for want of better names, be called educational economics, bio-psychological determinism, and propagandism — long words, but the forces they describe have no familiar names.


Let us consider the economic situation of contemporary education. Here is a scene a thousand times repeated in the American schoolroom of to-day.

The teacher has begun work with her class. A group of eager pupils face her from the forms — impressionable minds ready for the adventure of learning. Then the shadow fills the doorway. The school principal says,‘I’m sorry, but the superintendent of schools has told me to double the number of children in every room.’ Of course, sixty is an impossible number for teaching in one room. But there are the other children. Where shall they go? And the golden opportunity is gone.

This is no imaginary scene. It happens equally in the country districts, where the remote district schools are being given up, and even more in the congested sections of the great cities. Conditions like these make mockery of the plans and dreams of the ambitious teacher. Is it any wonder that most of the energy of the teaching staff is dissipated by worry over the bare economy of the subject?

This attitude finds its natural reflection in the national conception of education. The departments of education in universities concern themselves primarily, of necessity, with school-management and administration, with the statistics and finance of the industrial organization. The problem of putting twenty-five million children through school on an inadequate scheme offers problems so complex that it is little wonder that our educational specialists are still concerned with the business of education, and have scarcely risen to a conception of education as a science, to say nothing of an art. Worst of all, the immense sums involved, the powers connected with the erection and use of the great buildings, and the profitable connections of studies and textbooks all contribute toward the development of a type of personality that may be called the educational politician. He costs the profession more in the destruction of morals than all the efficiency experts, the economists, and the statisticians of education can replace. The result of his control of educational policy has been to drive out of the profession the highest type of teacher; because teachers have been considered, not as individuals, but as units in schemes, and have been made the playthings of boards of education and of district leaders.

The same economic determinism follows the teachers through the higher grades of the profession. They are always between the devil of poverty — not alone in salary, but in departmental equipment and resources for research — and the deep sea of the student tide. Just as soon as their equipment and salary become adequate to their departmental needs, they are inundated with an increased student body, and the old plan of overwork and underequipment is resumed. Thus teachers are driven, unconsenting, to think of students, not as persons, but in terms of units, hours, semesters, and credits; the intimate personal contact of teacher and pupil becomes impossible, and theold academic traditions become mere memories.

Determinism of a different sort, introduces even more serious questions for the teachers. They have lived under the impression that the bough was inclined as the twig was bent; that, by training, the young idea could be taught to shoot; that the child would not depart from the path he was taught to go in. Brave maxims! But are they true? Steadily, year by year, psychological studies of ability and biological studies of heredity take away from the teachers their claim to a share in character formation. Teachers must reconcile themselves to learning that they cannot, by taking thought, add a cubit to the mental stature of their students. The child becomes father of the man in a new sense, most fatal to the ambitious hopes of his teachers. College, we learn from the army psychologists, adds practically nothing to the general abilities of any boy. There are two classes of minds — the fit and the unfit; education neither helps the one nor harms the other in any appreciable degree. The truth is exaggerated here, of course, but the problem involved strikes teachers in almost this form. And when the psychologists are reinforced by the biologists, with their heredity chromosomes and gametes; by the environmentists, who laugh at the thirty months of college scattered among vacations and week-ends, and ask what possible mental adaptations can take place under such handicaps, the teachers’ faith may struggle bravely against the assaults, but can you wonder that they feel sometimes like a Lost Battalion?

The heaviest assault is in reserve. The world has discovered the great half-truth that prejudices of youth last longer than those of the middle miles. So the world comes to the school-door with its propaganda. It begins mildly enough: simple souls conceive the idea that if we educate we must educate ‘for’ something. The aim of education is not the growth of the student’s powers into maturity; it includes their application as the teacher may direct. The student is no longer to be dismissed at the school-door; the teacher must lead him to the gate of opportunity and must see to it that he rings the bell.

We began some years ago to educate for character, and we sent to our boys at Christmas-time School, College and Character; we progressed into education for service, and sent them by the thousand to hear John R. Mott at student conventions; we read Dunn and Barnard, and trained our teachers to educate for citizenship; the vocationalists came down upon us, and we tried hard to educate for the needs of life. Books with these titles, and many more, stand on the teachers’ shelves, each an idea decayed into a slogan.

Herbert Spencer taught us long ago to educate for life; he pointed out that the education of any age could but reflect the social aspiration of the group which it served. But neither he nor any of the great Victorian writers on education conceived a period which would have to struggle with so many isms as does ours. Both at top and at bottom of our scale we see new academies founded, whose primary object is not knowledge but propaganda, and not propaganda but action, and direct action at that. The Rand School represents one type, closely affiliated with an organized political party. The tradeunions of the West are opening up schools for the children of union workers. Schools of social research, which begin with a bill of rights for academic freedom, too soon tend to become schools where propaganda is substituted for research. In a different mode we have the Socialist Sunday Schools. Across the river from my home is the Libertarian Academy, or International School for the Education of the Children of Radicals. On the other side of the fence, the Protection and Security Leagues are equally vociferous in a campaign to inculcate patriotism. TheNonPartisan League of North Dakota recently intimated gently to professors of the state university that it might be well for them to join a trade-union, and most of the faculty complied.

Education as propaganda is the sum of all: no time for discussion, no time for research; above all, no time for dispassionate consideration of both sides. Teachers are asked to be pleaders on one side or the other, appointed no longer on the basis of character and ability, but on the basis of official subscription to one party or the other.

Even where impartiality is supposed to exist, the method of the classroom reminds me of a journey I once took through Bulgaria. We had been held in Constantinople during a plague outbreak. When finally the Orient Express was allowed to leave, Bulgaria permitted it to pass through her territory only on condition that the train should not connect with Bulgarian soil. So, at the frontier, the train was literally sealed: the ventilators were closed, the doors were locked, and soldiers sat in the corridor with guns ready for business, to shoot anyone who lifted a window as much as an inch.

Such a miserable quarantine is that to which some parents would condemn our teachers of to-day; and trustees, like gendarmes, are held accountable to resist the intrusion of fresh air from without. When such powers as these fight against the faith of teachers, it is quite beside the point to argue, as some members of the profession have recently done, that the teacher is not all that he should be. A little plain talk from Sir Oracle will not improve matters. It is rather a source of wonder that these foes of the spirit should have caused, upon the whole, no greater disintegration in the educational armies of America. It is not low salaries primarily that have caused the break-up of faculties in several colleges in the last two years: it is educational tyranny. And if we are to restore teaching to a place among the professions, we must not merely proclaim boldly our teacher’s faith, but we must put our teacher’s religion into practice and leave the issue to the God of Battles. All honor to those who have not yet bowed the knee to the Baal of propaganda, the Moloch of the mob, and the Gogmagog, the stuffed bolster, of the bio-psychological determinists. In defiance of the great doubts, teachers can but nail their theses to the door and leave the issue to time.


To the cathedral door, then, with our religio magistri! The teacher’s articles of faith are three — he believes in his subject; he believes in his pupil; he believes in himself.

In his subject, first, that it is the best of all possible subjects under the sun for study, research, and application. The teacher must be convinced, like any other salesman, of the value of the commodity in which he deals. Of the teachers I have known whose teaching was a failure the greater number seemed to have lost faith in their subject. It is the one great law of teaching, that it goes by infection. Many a half-hearted pupil, unwillingly or unwittingly dragged into chemistry, has caught fire from the flaming zeal of the teacher.

Of course, the teacher’s faith can never proceed from half-knowledge. Your book-canvasser who repeats his parrot, knowledge of the grand, illustrated, authoritative history of the war, and tries to simulate an interest in the edition which he has not read, is the type of untrained teacher that infests our schools. When we realize that less that a quarter of our six hundred thousand teachers have any real knowledge of their science, and only a tenth of these have a first-hand acquaintance with authority or experiment in any field, we realize how much is parrotstudy, how little fact or reason, in American education.

So true is this, and so defective our system of education in its failure to make the teacher a learned person, that our more scholarly group is in violent reaction against this state of things, and insists that there is nothing to teaching; that teaching is but pseudoscience. If a man knows something, really knows it, they say, he can teach it — he cannot help teaching it. This goes with Plato’s glorification of knowledge as virtue, and is reading into knowledge something, it seems to me, which it does not ordinarily contain. The irritation against departments and professors of education among university professors the country over is due, in the first instance, to the utter failure of both public and private education to train and hold its teachers, and to raise them from a conception of teaching as mere occupation up to the professional point of view.

Certainly this may be conceded: that if any one of us will turn time’s flight backward and ask himself this question, ‘Who was my greatest teacher?’ he must confess, I think, that the first merit of his best teacher was acquaintance with and love for his subject. And this love was not diverted by thought of application to life, by vocational advantage or propaganda, but was a pure love of the subject for its own sake, for the delight of its discoveries, the neatness of its inventions, the harmony and perfection of its laws, the intricacy and smooth workings of its processes. The love was that of a good chauffeur for his motor, of a captain for his ship. What does he care where he sails her, your old mariner? Only let her be staunch and true, seaworthy and responsive to helm, and he will love her for better, for worse. Such is Gilbert Murray’s Religio Grammatici, to which I referred, in which your scholar proves triumphantly and conclusively that nothing in the world is so worth doing as settling Hoti’s business. What he actually proves is, of course, that he is a great teacher, and that in teaching teachers as Murray does, he revitalizes his subject.

Faith in one’s subject is, of course, apt to harden into its excess, bigotry. Nine tenths of all faculty quarrels are due to the secret contempt with which one professor views the subject-matter of his neighbor’s course. Rara avia the teacher who commends the subjectmatter of another department. Here and there, it is true, one sees signs of a better understanding, chiefly through the influence of national associations. The sciences, in particular, have shown signs of some real fraternizing within the curriculum. Botany now frankly acknowledges its debt to chemistry and physics; so must physiology. But the feeling is not always reciprocal, and physical chemistry views with grave suspicion the heresies that may arise through botanists who meddle with osmosis.

And so it goes round the faculty. One would think, for instance, that the languages would welcome departments of comparative literature. As it has turned out, the sister languages have had to form a kind of league of nations, with an Article X to prevent unlawful seizure of the common territory. The history of academic toleration is a short one, and full of petty wars. Teachers must give up such bigotry, and proclaim instead the common dignity of all fruitful learning, free trade over all frontiers, reciprocity, and mutual understanding. The present crisis in the profession will not be in vain, if such a result is obtained.

And the teacher must have faith in his students. He must trust their growth as the farmer trusts sun and rain and soil to work their æstival miracle. Because his potato crop has failed, will the farmer despair? On the contrary, the farmer, knowing that farming is a highly hazardous business, and subject to great losses and great gains, becomes philosophical, and leaves the event in other hands. Professor Royce was accustomed to recommend mathematics as a preparation for philosophy. Agriculture might provide the better discipline.

Your average teacher seldom, if ever, looks on teaching as a hazardous occupation. He wants perfection all the time, and grumbles if he does not get it. There are teachers like Professor Lounsbury who, as he became more and more the scholar, lost, faith in his pupils, and contented himself with making epigrams upon ‘the incredible capacity of the student mind to resist the intrusion of knowledge,’ and his famous ‘a few more pearls, gentlemen.’ There are also Northrops of Yale and Wrights of Harvard, who are held in loving veneration by college generations responding to their faith in them, and looking back to them as the great personalities of their university.

Lack of faith in youth, refusal to see in education the usual risk of crops, presumptuous assumption of all the responsibility, these are the failings of the teacher who loses hold of this cardinal article of the religio magistri. And it is precisely here that the teacher makes his great mistake. Instead of adopting nature’s laws as his great analogy, he is all too apt to assume the rôle, not of teacher, but of tyrant of the classroom, and by a false discipline to force results. The effect is inevitable. It is, as Leatherstocking said, ‘agin nater,’ and the end is death.

Your true teacher loves youth for its own sake, as he loves his subject; he keeps himself young among his lads; he sees through their eyes the importance of the matters that engross them; he brings into the classroom all the wealth of allusion that this knowledge gives him. I think of old Doctor Furnivall at eighty-six, one of the great teachers, though not in classes or set schools. I can see him now, out with his girls on the Thames, coxswain of their eight-oared shell, one with them in all their life, his Shakespeare and Chaucer societies forgot, his hated snobocracy pigeon-holed, teacher and friend of half London. When his associates raised a fund on his seventy-fifth birthday, all he would accept was a second-hand eight-oared shell for his girls and a paid-up cremation ticket.

The teacher’s faith in his students receives its reward in vicarious ways only. Through their achievements he lives. Professor John Bassett Moore said the other day: ‘When I learned that there were many members of the Peace Conference who considered the most brilliant and best-trained diplomat in Paris my pupil Wellington Koo of the China Mission, I had my unalloyed reward.’

Such pleasure is akin to that of the creative artist; but the art in which the teacher makes his impression is that of fife itself, and always through the personality which he has trained. The true teacher withholds his hand from the temptation to guide his student. He distrusts profoundly the current discussions of vocational guidance. He believes in bureaus of vocational statistics, and would lay before his students the whole world of his day, with every opportunity it may afford. But he believes that, just as an imprisoned youngling robin, which has never seen a bird’s flight, will fly on the first trial, by instinct, out of the opened cage, so the effective impulses which stimulate the choice of careers and the quest for success are deeply rooted in personality and should be held sacred by parent and teacher alike. This, indeed, is the ultimate test, of the teacher’s faith in his student.

It is even more important that the religio magistri include faith in himself. There is no true teaching without it. The only discipline worth the name is discipleship, which cannot come unless the teacher himself inspires, not only affection, but admiration. Sincerity, the one thing needful in real art, begins and ends with the teacher’s faith in himself. It is the secret of a William Graham Sumner. One may, indeed, affirm that the art of teaching rests wholly upon this foundation. Teaching is something, but enthusiam is everything, as Goethe said. It is certainly the secret of personality.

In his passion for perfection — for your teacher is always a perfectionist — the teacher too often fails to respect himself or his calling. He subjects his own best capacities to trivial and wasteful compliance with irrelevancies. He is too ready to leave his real work at the first demand; he cries for committee work, the petty detail of administrative routine, the civic forum, and the thousand and one little snares which destroy his love and usefulness for his prime functions. Your true teacher must be about his Father’s business, teaching; he has time scarcely for marks or the rules of faculties ; he has to be fenced round, protected, forgiven by the less gifted. For him rules are made to be broken, and there is no known record of a great teacher who was not. at war with the faculty rules of his time.

Faith in one’s self is most needed, perhaps, by the teacher of younger pupils. Children are quickest to detect any loss of self-confidence. Adolescent youth, on the other hand, responds most sensitively to responsibility placed in its own hands; while the postgraduate student leans most upon the teacher’s faith in subject-matter. But, for pupils of any age, the teacher’s faith must be in himself as teacher, not in any other capacity. He may sigh to take part in a more active citizenship, or envy the productive scholar, but he must press forward to the mark of his own high calling. He cannot, of course, be a teacher without keeping abreast of his time; he must study and probably produce some scholarly work, if his treatment of subject-matter is to be fresh. But he will never be puzzled as to which treasure lies closest to his heart.

It is often charged against: the young women teachers who comprise three fourths of the nation’s staff, that they choose the profession only in the expectancy of leaving it early for marriage. This may be true. It is also true that thousands of young men teach a short time before entering other professions. The lives of the greatest Americans almost always contain such periods. But all this has little to do with the standards that can be upheld. It is perfectly possible, as our army proved, to build up morale in a force whose term is short. The problem must be approachable from another angle. If school administrations, boards of education, and parents’ associations will seek to prove that the community has faith in the teacher, it will not be hard for teachers to obtain faith in themselves.

If the community fails in this duty, there is but one alternative left to the teachers — to organize in defense against the community, and to demand, not only the salaries which the work deserves, but that share in civic responsibility which their service merits. Teachers will then be accused of greed and selfishness, of desertion of the high standards of their calling. Such censure will be unjust. If public opinion responds only to the power of groupinterests, if disinterested service is forgotten, who will be to blame when the teachers join the other organized groups of labor in the civil war of class interests? The writer hopes that no such action will be taken; he believes that all gains of war are, in the final analysis, Pyrrhic victories. But we are drifting, and it may soon be too late to work for the true faith.

Misbegotten self-esteem, like the false knight of the Faërie Queene, steals the accoutrements of the knight of the true faith and fools the world. Not so that faith of the born leader which is fortified by conviction that one’s work is essential, that one’s subject is indispensable, that one’s students will be loyal; and having done all, stands. Such leaders of the teacher’s faith we need today. The right wing of our school army has been broken in by the threat of economic disaster; the left wing has disintegrated under the insidious filtration that is corrupting the integrity of our profession. It is time to move forward with our centre to the attack.