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March 1909

Plain Facts About Public Schools

by Samuel P. Orth

Were you ever a member of a school board? If not, then have hardly been revealed to you, in their fullest measure, the machinations and tendencies of the dual forces that combine to establish our public schools: the educational forces on the one hand, and the public or political forces on the other. To the thoughtful board member are revealed the inherent weaknesses of the public-school system as developed in America. To him are shown "the foibles and fancies of the educationist, the heedlessness and pettiness of the more thoughtless element in the constituency, and, alas! the limitations of the teachers. And he is constantly comparing the ideal schools he supposed to exist before he got his intimate insight, and the schools he really discovered after his official relationship began. This disillusioning is distracting.

Just at present there is a stirring about in the public-school world. Some mild muckrakers have been busy with the rake, and are trying to find out "What is the matter with our public schools;" and a few conscientious critics are pointing out genuine weaknesses in the RESULTS of our public-school system. This commotion comes almost like a shock, after a long lull which had put us to sleep in the pedagogical cradle, bringing us pleasant dreams about the great public-school system, the pride of the land, the glory of the nation and so forth. For everybody was quite sure that these schools were the bulwark of our freedom, and that they somehow were too sacred to be criticised. At the same time, every one reserved the right to decided personal opinions about the way these schools should be run. For there is no other public institution so universally lauded in bulk, and so criticised in parvo, as the public-school system.

The results of the school system that are challenged in these newer indictments may be brought under three groups.

First, we are told that the pupil does not gain real knowledge. He studies about things, in an indefinite sort of way, but never learns the solid facts. The whole system, from the happy kindergarten to the mimic-college high school, is permeated with the haze of indefiniteness. There is present only the mirage of learning, not the substantial reality. The old-fashioned drilling has vanished. The line upon line and precept upon precept method, that builds real brain-substance, is replaced by pseudo-psychological "methods" taught in "normal" schools. The result is, the pupil is not trained in exactness and thoroughness.

Secondly, we are told that the pupil does not even learn to use his mind. Schoolmasters give as an excuse for the lack of exactness in their pupils, that the boys and girls have learned how to use their mental equipment even though they do not know very many facts. But here is a substantial arraignment of this supposed result of modern school methods. The school is an enslaver of memory instead of an emancipator of reasoning. Originality is tabooed, and servility demanded. The curse of the lawyer, the search for precedent, is written on the brow of pedagogy. Logic and reason are not encouraged.

And, thirdly, the results of our schools are not practical. This is heard on every hand. The schools do not fit for bread-and-butter earning, they rather make a boy or girl unfit for the hard tasks of life.

A fourth count in the indictment is sometimes added by the moralist, who claims that the moral traits of the child are hardly awakened, and that the boys and girls, especially those who break the ranks before the eighth grade is reached, are entirely unfit to meet the severe demands that the temptations of life make upon them.

These, briefly, are the charges. They may be summed up by saying that, in a very general and unsatisfactory way, the schools teach the elements of mental processes: that they, to this extent only, teach morals; and that they leave the aptitudes, manual and mental, in about as dormant a condition as they found them in.

These charges are made against the RESULTS of our public education. But these results are the outgrowth of CONDITIONS. I do not wish here to discuss the indictment, I wish only to describe frankly some of the conditions that prevail in our public schools, from which these undesirable consequences have grown. These plain facts I present, as they were unfolded to me while serving on the Board of Education in one of our large cities, where conditions are perhaps a little above the average.


And I begin with the teacher. For the teacher is the school. And in considering the teacher we must begin with the superintendent. The position of superintendent of schools is unique and anomalous. It demands the learning of a college president, the consecration of a clergyman, the wisdom of a judge, the executive talent of a financier, the patience of a church janitor, the humility of a deacon, and the craftiness of a politician. The position demands that the superintendent manage the schools purely as an educational investment for the public, without being in any degree influenced by the passions and impulses of the public. It is because of these requirements, which would tax genius and divinity, that there are so few real superintendents. If you should attend a meeting of the National Association of Superintendents, for the purpose of seeking one for your home town, you would be depressed by the scarcity of first-class material for so important a place. You would learn, on inquiry, that most of these men drifted into the superintendency,-- they just happened into the job. Some were educated for the ministry, some for the bar, some for medicine, a few had been in business, all of them had been teachers, but only a small minority had started out in life by choosing the regal following of educational leader as a profession, and had persisted in their laudable ambition with courage and perseverance. Until very recently, there was no college or university that paid any attention to school administration in its curriculum. Those great centres of learning to which the nation rightly looks for educational guidance were blind to the great needs of the common schools; so that a man, ambitious to become a successful superintendent of schools, had to pick his own way, prepared by experience and inclination but not by scientific guide. The result was perfectly natural. The making of superintendents was left to chance, and to those interested forces which contrived to gain the mastery of the situation. Some superintendents were thus made by party politics, some by certain commercial interests, some by coteries of teachers or cliques of busybodies, and some, we may be very sure, by a happy and conscientious choice. These last have been, fortunately, the propulsive force in American public education, and the nation owes a large debt of gratitude to the great pioneer superintendents, who rose above the circumstances of their appointments and gave conscience and professional prowess to their tasks.

Happily there is now growing up in our country a group of young men who have definitely chosen educational administrative work as their profession who have been trained for their calling in colleges that have recognized their special needs, and who, it is hoped will prove strong enough to withstand the temptations that are peculiar to public office. But ideal professional guidance in public school affairs will not be possible until some of the conditions surrounding the office of Superintendent are changed. The office must be entirely separated from the haphazard of politics. Formerly the superintendent was elected in many states by the people on party tickets. One of our large cities even today clings to this barbarous custom to its shame and the great detriment of its school system. At present it is almost the universal custom to elect the superintendent through the board of education. Even under this practice he is still made to feel the insecurity of his tenure. For the board members are elected, and through them the people can strike at the superintendent. Every city is prone to have a superintendent war about every ten or twenty years. A man who has to direct so many teachers, placate so many parents and come in practical contact with the public every day will make enemies, especially if he is a robust and enterprising man. And these enemies will seek revenge at the polls. So, in order to raise a generation of professional superintendents it will not be enough to have them trained in the technique of their profession. The tenure of office must be made long enough and secure enough from interference by either the board or the public to attract scholarly men.

While there has been so much of chance in the making of the superintendent, there has been a more earnest attempt made in the training of teachers although even our normal schools are of comparatively recent origin. School-teaching is even now scarcely a profession. People still think that almost any one can be a teacher. In truth, any one who can pass the required examinations and get a certificate is legally qualified to teach. These requirements are usually so low that a graduate of an ordinary high school can pass them. Indeed our cities maintain normal schools that are filled with girls taken green from the high school who are given two years of seasoning in method and are then turned back into the public schools whence they came. This perpetual stream wends its never-varying circuit annually swelled only occasionally by the addition of a few women or men who have had a college education.

This kind of hurry-up training emphasizes method not character; memory, not logic. It tends to make education mechanical, impersonal. It leads the youthful pedagogue to teach arithmetic and reading, when she should be told to teach Johnny and Mary. For education that is not individual, that does not respond hopefully and joyously to the magic of personal association, results in mental palsy. Our meagre starveling way of preparing teachers degrades the schools and the profession. The basis of teaching must be knowledge, and how shall they teach if they have not knowledge? The inspiration of teaching must be personality, but how shall they inspire if they have no soul for their work?

Moreover, this factory method of making teachers inclines to shrivel them. The exactions of their daily tasks, goodness knows, are severe enough to deaden their wider instincts. The stronger reason why their preliminary training should be of the greatest diameter. The natural propensities of all human beings are easily influenced by their vocations. Perhaps this is why some teachers are so apt to be narrow and unsympathetic toward persons and events that lie beyond the pale of their immediate work. There must be a broad sympathetic spirit at the basis of every profession; and it is this spirit that marks the subtle distinction between a calling and a business--a distinction that is important and potent.

Of course, the vast majority of public-school-teachers are women. Probably this will always be true, though more men are surely needed. Thirty years ago it was almost the only occupation a woman could enter. To-day the call of many occupations reaches her ear. The result is that many of the ablest and most robust women who must work, avoid teaching, and the ranks of the public-school teachers must suffer from this loss.

The state has certainly not done its part to glorify the profession of teaching. It has not lured talent, either by offering preparatory schools equal to those of the other professions, or by offering adequate pay. Our school resources are too small on all sides. The maximum tax levy for school purposes is usually fixed by state law, and the harassed school board is continually confronted by the task of doling out the resources at hand among teachers, and buildings, and supplies, and playgrounds, and free lectures, and a hundred other things that call for money. They are, as a rule, as generous with the teachers as the state permits them to be. On the other hand, better pay should be contingent upon a broader preparation, more effective service, a more genuine spirit of helpfulness, less petty self-seeking, and a more liberal outlook on life. Money alone cannot create a profession.


Out of such educational conditions has come the course of study. What shall these teachers teach? This seems to be a universal enigma. The question was not asked seventy years ago. The itinerant schoolmaster, boarding round, and gathering his flock from the scattered huts of the pioneers, taught reading writing and arithmetic. And the refulgent halo of the three R's rests above the traditions of these early district schools. With a little history, geography, and spelling added, this remained the course of study until some educator suddenly awoke to the fact that, while science was eagerly and rapidly enlarging the domain of human knowledge, while human ingenuity was binding the continents into unity, and civilization was moving forward with swift strides, the course of study had remained quite stationary. So the prop of "enriching" began. But alas! the enriching proceeded from books and theories, to the exclusion of the vital needs of the state. So much frosting has been put on the loaf, and so many raisins put within, that very little of the nourishing substance is left.

This course of study, being built by educators who have studied books rather than civilization, is bookish. Its creators being theorists rather than empiricists, it is transcendental. And the cry of an awakening nation is, "Back to the fundamentals. Make education practical. This is the extreme reaction on the part of the people from the extreme attempt on the part of educators to embellish the curriculum. The impulsive public, electing its school board, demands a "practical education," but fails to define what constitutes a practical education. So with the swaying pendulum we are bound to have either Day-Dreamer or Gradgrind.

Thus far we have been told not to meddle with the course of study. We the laymen, must keep our hands off and let the professional educator arrange the schedules. And as a result every fad and fancy has been given a place, until the printed course of study resembles the menu card of a metropolitan restaurant. Modernly, every teacher has her psychologists and the beautiful science of child-study has been wounded and torn by thousands of clumsy, awkward amateurs, whose addenda to this "course" of study make the schools ridiculous to earnest, sensible men. These varied and all-embracing programmes of study presuppose every Tommy and Mary Ann to be a modern Lotze, capable of greater feats of genius than constructing, or even comprehending, a Microcosmos.

Of course it is all dealt out in homeopathic doses. There are pellets of anatomy and physiology, of painting and drawing, of psychology and philosophy, of a little arithmetic and a little grammar. All the pellets are sugar-coated, for the whole pedagogical theory seems to command that the teacher make all these things easy for the pupil. So we have all kinds of patent devices for making the child's pathway one of velvet. There are wonderful new text-books that have all the lessons analyzed and classified, leaving very little for exertion. There are charts, multi-colored, that simplify the lessons, and pictures and cabinets that illustrate the charts. Everything is put in the pupils' hands. Genuine effort seems to be discouraged.

The vicious, immoral thing about all this is, that it enacts a great and terrible lie to the child. He is made to believe that superficiality is a substitute for thoroughness, and that effort is superfluous as well as unpleasant. And what is even more cruel, he is entirely unprepared for the school of life, where no teacher and no text are at his side to resolve his tasks from work into play.

And this hodge-podge of "essentials" and "enrichments" the teacher is told to dole out by "method." And mere method, technical routine, is the deadly enemy of individual work. And individual development is the supreme function of human life. Society could endure the crazy patchwork of an enriched course of study, and the stern competition of life teach the youth the lessons of perseverance and application; but society cannot long endure the suppression of personality. Our machine-made teachers are, by machine methods, making of our splendid boys and girls, each one stamped with the divinity of individuality, mere machines.

Now that the educator has had his day in telling us what to teach and how to teach it, the taxpayer is beginning to teach the pedagogue. He approaches the question from the bread-and-butter side. He leaves the basic studies in the course, follows the child into the world, and asks for RESULTS. The danger from this is apparent.

In the technique of the course of study, America is just beginning to learn from Germany the lesson of differentiation. Heretofore we have crammed everything into one building, and into one course of study. For instance, the city high school, the offspring of the old academy, has had tacked on to it some work in manual training and also some few commercial studies. The product is a hybrid, neither a technical school, nor a commercial school, nor a classical school. The time has now come for separating the diverse organs, and developing their functions. Technical and commercial high schools, fully equipped and doing a splendid work, are now found in our most advanced cities.

Of the grades the same is true. The trade-school is coming into vogue rapidly. It has come to stay. But not as an adjunct to the present grade schools. It will be an entity by itself. As our country fills up, this differentiation will increase. It must become our national economic salvation.


These American schools are public schools. This lends to them at once their greatest significance, their greatest power, and their greatest handicap: is at once the source of their wonderful strength and their gravest weakness. The handicaps mentioned above are technical, and to a great extent can be remedied; probably in the course of fifty years they will be. But when shall the foibles of the people be consumed, and when their impulsiveness tamed? The schools belong to everybody, and everybody wants to keep his spoon in the educational porridge, and stir, and stir, and stir.

Of the hampering and intermeddling public, the most excusable portion is the unreasonable parent. Parents who may be reasonable about all their neighbors and about all other subjects, are not unlikely to become impatient and unreasonable about school matters that pertain to their own children. It becomes a question of my Charlie versus your Charlie. Of course the variety of subjects that appeal to the unreason of such people is limitless. It may be a matter of discipline, or of transfer, or of personal pique against the teacher, or any one of a thousand different trivialities. But this particular species of parent immediately magnifies it into an astounding greatness, and usually makes a neighborhood issue of it. This may merely be annoying; always it is irritating; and sometimes, unfortunately, it becomes inflaming. Then it leads to written charges, to court-martial by the superintendent, star-chamber sessions by the board, lawsuits in the courts, and to political issues at the polls. Superintendents have been ousted, principals discharged, teachers' hearts broken, by these unreasonable meddlers. Such instances will recur, in various guises, to the reader. One fractious parent can upset an entire neighborhood, and dispel that beautiful spirit of cooperation between the home and the school that forms the real potency of education.

When this unreasonable ire is poured out upon a board member, its results are far less deplorable, for he is not as essential to the welfare of the schools, and has weapons at his command. While his life is made a burden by all kinds of busybodies, he yet has the imperial privilege of talking back.

Then there are many groups or special interests which try to use the schools to further their enterprises or prejudices. Among these the party politician may be placed first. Happily he is a vanishing factor in school elections and administration. The boards are in some states still nominated by party machinery, and placed on party tickets, but the Australian ballot and nomination by petition are being widely adopted for the school ticket. This removes the board from party politics so far as such a thing is possible. But the party spoilsman, in some cities, still looks upon school janitors and employees as legitimate party spoils. And he even ventures to call on the superintendent and board members to suggest appointments for the teachers' roll, or to further the promotion of some teacher who may be related to an influential citizen, not infrequently accompanying his "request" with a mild threat. It is to the interest of the partisan, of course, that members are elected to the board whom he can use. Such men are ordinarily unfit for administering school affairs. It is an axiom that the usefulness to a community of a board-member increases directly as his political partisanship decreases. No doubt a purely political school board, particularly a board, has been one of the great curses of our public schools. But they are almost a thing of the past, and with their departure will vanish the attempts to use schools for purely partisan ends.

Of course, there is Politics in everything,--in church, in business, wherever a group of men and women are contending for place and power. This instinct for playing the game of human nature is strongly developed in Americans, and forms the motive of our remarkable organizations, and all our public institutions are peculiarly subject to these influences. This spirit lends itself very readily to trivial transactions. Old-time politics are not nearly so destructive to school efficiency as are the petty "peanut" politics called forth by grievances, by revenge, by commercial cupidity, and a score of other petty potencies. Take, for instance, the question of retiring a superannuated teacher. Even in cities that provide a pension fund, this is a most delicate and hazardous undertaking for superintendent and board. If the teacher of sixty or seventy years does not wish to retire gracefully and peacefully, she calls upon her hundreds of former pupils, many of them now leading business and professional men, she calls on the city editor of the daily papers, on her minister, her doctor, and her lawyer, on the members of her lodge and her church, and together they march in motley array, with grim energy, upon the school officials, more determined than crusaders, and, quite convinced that the welfare of the world is hanging on the outcome of their fight. If the school authorities yield, discipline goes wild. If they persist, the crowd threatens and plays politics when the term of the superintendent or board expires. And it is surprising what a fine class of citizens can be enlisted in these grievance campaigns. Men and women who surely ought to know better, who are expected to be self-possessed, allow themselves to be carried to ridiculous extremes over such matters.

Likewise the dismissal of incompetent teachers is made almost impossible in some communities by such over-zealous delirium on the part of good people. Sometimes lodges, business organizations, and even churches, are used as cudgels over the heads of the miserable school authorities. I have known a sewing society in a certain church in a small town to champion an unworthy superintendent and lead the fight to the polls, and, by virtue of the anomalous law that gives women the franchise in school questions, carry on a campaign of gossip and win an election.

In most of our cities there is a prevalent, provincial feeling that looks with disdain and disfavor upon the hiring of teachers from other towns. This sentiment makes of our schools semi-eelymosynary institutions, whose principal function is to give employment to the daughters and sons of the place. The bane of this in-and-in breeding is felt in every large city. So acute is the feeling that, if the superintendent goes abroad for a few alien teachers, he is decried as disloyal, and he is fortunate if the disgruntled ones fail in organizing a foolish opposition to his well-meant endeavor to infuse new life into his schools. There are instances on record where a determined parent has set out to elect a school board so that her daughter might be appointed a teacher, though she was lacking both in spirit and knowledge. "I have lived here thirty years and paid taxes, and the city owes it to me to employ my daughter rather than hire some one from out of town who never helped make this city," said an irate parent to me, after I had told him I could not interfere with the appointing of teachers by the superintendent. And this feeling is quite as prevalent as it is hurtful to the schools.

Another form of school politics found in every city emanates from those commercial interests which find it profitable to be able to control school administration. While I believe the methods of book companies and supply houses have been very greatly improved in the last twenty years, it still remains true that some of their methods are inscrutable, and their attempt at interference with the selection of school boards and superintendents is not conducive to the best educational results. The popular estimate of the amount and manner of this interference is vastly and grotesquely exaggerated; but the involved interests have only themselves to blame for this. Their competition often lacks that fair and broadminded spirit that is usually found among business men, while any unwarranted attempts to control school elections and appointments are hurtful to the schools. Of course this can be said of any other public business.

Still more unfortunate is it when a clique of teachers forms a cabal against superiors for the purpose of furthering its own selfish interests. They succeed at times in allying themselves with a faction in the board, and a reign of terror follows their enthronement. Cheap pedagogical factionalism has crippled many a school system. Only heroic remedies help such a pathological condition.

The result of all this agitation and potboiling is increased manifold by the attitude of the sensational newspapers. Such papers find meat in quarrels, and are always tempted to distort the truth into a misshapen thing. Fortunately such newspapers are rare. Even the wildest among them profess a crocodile interest in the children of the schools and the teachers. But even the best and most conservative newspapers often do an irreparable injury to the educational work of the schools by giving voice to the silly discontent and personal vindictiveness of the disgruntled. Thus they awaken the distrust of the people and lead to a loss of confidence, based on no adequate reason, that undermine the work of conservative educators; The carping, fault-finding newspaper, that never permits a cheerful, helpful adjective to escape its fonts, that is pessimistic by policy, always hinting at things sinister, and saying that thus-and-so affirms that this and that should have been done as it was not done, and that so-and-so would have been better if this or that had not happened, and so forth,--this newspaper is infinitely worse in its influence on the schools than the senseless busybody and self-seeking meddler.

It is always easier for a sore-head to get a big headline in the dailies than for the constructive conservative; and unfortunately for society, human nature is always more willing to listen to calumny than to praise, and to lend its strength to tearing down than to building up.

The consequence of all this multiformed political activity is, that turmoil unseats tranquillity, dark discontent stalks by the side of cheerful helpfulness, distrust dispels hope, and uneasiness and restlessness are felt everywhere in the schools. All these disgruntled forces, by working in unison, can usually elect at least one member to a board of education. Lucky is the city where it is not a majority. This member is the grievance member. He, or she, becomes the repository of all secret complaints. Dissatisfied teachers or parents or neighbors pour out their imaginings into his or her lap. Reporters, hard pressed for stuff, ply him or her with ingenious questions. The public is fed on a diet of "suppose" and "they say," while the poor schools are a-quiver, wondering what will happen next.

If these disgruntled ones succeed in carrying an election, and with it a majority of the board, then the voice of the sovereign people must of course be obeyed. Whatever was the issue, usually kept in reserve during the campaign, it must be dragged out and the will of the people vindicated--sometimes by breaking the heart of a fine and cultured teacher; sometimes by discharging a superintendent of independence and courage who refuses to do the bidding of the unreasonable board, and dares to stand between people and their enemies; sometime ripping up a course of study, or by dismissing a business manager, or by reinstating a delinquent official. Whatever the original grievance, by the time election is over it has grown, like a fast-rolling snowball, and the avalanche is rushing on its destructive course.


In spite of these volatile, irresponsible, disgruntled elements; in the teeth of agitation about what to teach and how to teach it, and how to build and where to build; against restlessness and suspiciousness on the part of teachers and patrons, our free schools have vindicated the great wisdom of their founders. At heart everybody believes in them, and they are among our most cherished public possessions. We must not be blind to the handicaps that so universally beset them.

Before they can approach the idealized usefulness that so often is pictured of them, they must be placed under purely professional control, out of the reach of the mere agitator, the headless and heedless costermonger of educational panaceas, and the unreason of the multitude. Moreover, there must be a saner popular participation, finding expression in much more generous tax levies, and the election of the wisest and sanest men the community to membership on the governing board. There must come a greater public interest in the educational work of the school. Some method will be devised, whereby the public will be enabled to infuse some of its energy and practicalness into the school work. The dividing of the city into small districts and appointing a committee of visitors from each district, whose duty it is to visit the schools, and suggest to the board of education and the superintendent such changes as they deem wise, has produced good results in German cities. And there must certainly be more educational aggressiveness on the part of the pedagogue, more response to the actual needs of life, both cultural and vocational.

It appears that the public-school educator needs tranquillity, freedom, and enterprise. He needs tranquillity, because the development of his science requires the repose of the study. The rude jolting of suspicion, jealousy, vindictiveness, and bigotry are fatal to the growth of a sane pedagogical science.

He needs freedom, for an institution dependent upon the political vicissitudes of the day cannot be stable and well poised.

And, above all, he needs enterprise, the enterprise to match his schools with our civilization.

Maybe, if there were more genuine enterprise, not the make-believe, bustling kind, among the educators, there would be a great deal less carping and parsimoniousness on the part of the people. Maybe the public would hail with great joy and cooperation such an energizing of the schools. Maybe it is too much to hope that this tranquillity, freedom, and enterprise shall ever abide in the schools that belong to an impulsive public which often seems to prefer a self-complacent mediocrity to a virile efficiency.

The Atlantic Monthly; March, 1909; "Plain Facts about Public Schools"; Volume 103, No. 3; pages 289-297.
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