Craftsmanship in teaching

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Most of the doctrines that are turning our practice topsy-turvy have absolutely no support from competent psychologists. The doctrine of spontaneity and its attendant _laissez-faire_ dogma of school government is thoroughly inconsistent with good psychology. The radical extreme to which some educators would push the doctrine of interest when they maintain that the child should never be asked to do anything for which he fails to find a need in his own life,--this doctrine can find no support in good psychology. The doctrine that the preadolescent child should understand thoroughly every process that he is expected to reduce to habit before that process is made automatic is utterly at variance with long-established principles which were well understood by the Greeks and the Hebrews twenty-five hundred years ago, and to which Mother Nature herself gives the lie in the instincts of imitation and repetition. It is conceivable that these radical doctrines were justified as means of reform, especially in secondary and higher education, but, even granting this, their function is fulfilled when the reform that they exploited has been accomplished. That time has come and, as palpable untruths, they should either be modified to meet the facts, or be relegated to oblivion.


It is safe to say that formalism is no longer a characteristic feature of the typical American school. It is so long since I have heard any rote learning in a schoolroom that I am wondering if it is not almost time for some one to show that a little rote learning would not be at all a bad thing in preadolescent education. We ridicule the memoriter methods of Chinese education and yet we sometimes forget that Chinese education has done something that no other system of education, however well planned, has even begun to do in the same degree. It has kept the Chinese empire a unit through a period of time compared with which the entire history of Greece and Rome is but an episode. We may ridicule the formalism of Hebrew education, and yet the schools of rabbis have preserved intact the racial integrity of the Jewish people during the two thousand years that have elapsed since their geographical unity was destroyed. I am not justifying the methods of Chinese or Hebrew education. I am quite willing to admit that, in China at any rate, the game may not have been worth the candle; but I am still far from convinced that it is not a good thing for children to reduce to verbal form a good many things that are now never learned in such a way as to make any lasting impression upon the memory; and our criticism of oriental formalism is not so much concerned with the method of learning as with the content of learning,--not so much with learning by heart as with the character of the material that was thus memorized.

But, although formalism is no longer a distinctive feature of American education, formalism is the point from which education is most frequently attacked,--and this is the chief source of my dissatisfaction with the present-day critics of our elementary schools. In a great many cases, they have set up a man of straw and demolished him completely. And in demolishing him, they have incidentally knocked the props from under the feet of many a good teacher, leaving him dazed and uncertain of his bearings, stung with the conviction that what he has been doing for his pupils is entirely without value, that his life of service has been a failure, that the lessons of his own experience are not to be trusted, nor the verdicts of his own intelligence respected. Go to any of the great summer schools and you will meet, among the attending teachers, hundreds of faithful, conscientious men and women who could tell you if they would (and some of them will) of the muddle in which their minds are left after some of the lectures to which they have listened. Why should they fail to be depressed? The whole weight of academic authority seems to be against them. The entire machinery of educational administration is wheeling them with relentless force into paths that seem to them hopelessly intricate and bewildering. If it is true, as I think it is, that some of the proposals of modern education are an attempt to square the circle, it is certainly true that the classroom teacher is standing at the pressure points in this procedure.

We hear expressed on every side a great deal of sympathy for the child as the victim of our educational system. Sympathy for childhood is the most natural thing in the world. It is one of the basic human instincts, and its expressions are among the finest things in human life. But why limit our sympathy to the child, especially to-day when he is about as happy and as fortunate an individual as anybody has ever been in all history. Why not let a little of it go out to the teacher of this child? Why not plan a little for her comfort and welfare and encouragement? It is her skill that is assimilating the children of our alien population. It is her strength that is lifting bodily each generation to the ever-advancing race levels. Her work must be the main source of the inspiration that will impel the race to further advancement. And yet when these half-million teachers who mean so much to this country gather at their institutes, when they attend the summer schools, when they take up their professional journals, what do they hear and read? Criticisms of their work. Denunciations of their methods. Serious doubts of their intelligence. Aspersions cast upon their sincerity, their patience, and their loyalty to their superiors. This, mingled with some mawkish sentimentalism that passes under the name of inspiration. Only occasionally a word of downright commendation, a sign of honest and heartfelt appreciation, a note of sympathy or encouragement.

Carnegie gives fifteen million dollars to provide pensions for superannuated college professors; but the elementary teacher who is not fortunate enough to die in harness must look forward to the almshouse. The people tax themselves for magnificent buildings and luxurious furnishings, but not one cent do they offer for teachers' pensions. What a blot upon Western civilization is this treatment of the teachers in our lower schools. These people are doing the work that even the savage races universally consider to be of the highest type. Benighted China places her teachers second only to the literati themselves in the place of honor. The Hindus made the teaching profession the highest caste in the social scale. The Jews intrusted the education of their children to their Rabbis, the most learned and the most honored of their race. It is only Western civilization--it is almost only our much-lauded Anglo-Saxon civilization--that denies to the teacher a station in life befitting his importance as a social servant.


But what has all this to do with school supervision? As I view it, the supervisor of schools as the overseer and director of the educational process, is just now confronted with two great problems. The first of these is to keep a clear head in the present muddled condition of educational theory. From the very fact of his position, the supervisor must be a leader, whether he will or not. It is a maxim of our profession that the principal is the school. In our city systems the supervising principal is given almost absolute authority over the school of which he has charge. In him is vested the ultimate responsibility for instruction, for discipline, for the care and condition of the material property. He may be a despot if he wishes, benevolent or otherwise. With this power goes a corresponding opportunity. His school can stand for something,--perhaps for something new and strange which will bring him into the limelight to-day, no matter what its character; perhaps for something solid and enduring, something that will last long after his own name has been forgotten. The temptation was never so strong as it is to-day for the supervisor to seek the former kind of glory. The need was never more acute than it is to-day for the supervisor who is content with the impersonal glory of the latter type.

I admit that it is a somewhat thankless task to do things in a straightforward, effective way, without fuss or feathers, and I suppose that the applause of the gallery may be easily mistaken for the applause of the pit. But nevertheless the seeker for notoriety is doing the cause of education a vast amount of harm. I know a principal who won ephemeral fame by introducing into his school a form of the Japanese jiu-jitsu physical exercises. When I visited that school, I was led to believe that jiu-jitsu would be the salvation of the American people. Whole classes of girls and boys were marched to the large basement to be put through their paces for the delectation of visitors. The newspapers took it up and heralded it as another indication that the formalism of the public school was gradually breaking down. Visitors came by the hundreds, and my friend basked in the limelight of public adulation while his colleagues turned green with envy and set themselves to devising some means for turning attention in their direction.

And yet, there are some principals who move on in the even tenor of their ways, year after year, while all these currents and countercurrents are seething and eddying around them. They hold fast to that which they know is good until that which they know is better can be found. They believe in the things that they do, so the chances are greatly increased that they will do them well. They refuse to be bullied or sneered at or laughed out of court because they do not take up with every fancy that catches the popular mind. They have their own professional standards as to what constitutes competent schoolmanship,--their own standards gained from their own specialized experience. And somehow I cannot help thinking that just now that is the type of supervisor that we need and the type that ought to be encouraged. If I were talking to Chinese teachers, I might preach another sort of gospel, but American education to-day needs less turmoil, less distraction, fewer sweeping changes. It needs to settle itself, and look around, and find out where it is and what it is trying to do. And it needs, above all, to rise to a consciousness of itself as an institution manned by intelligent individuals who are perfectly competent themselves to set up craft standard and ideals.

IV [Transcriber's note: This is a typographical error in the original, and should read "V"]

But in whatever way the supervisor may utilize the opportunity that his position presents, his second great problem will come up for solution. The supervisor is the captain of the teaching corps. Directly under his control are the mainsprings of the school's life and activity,--the classroom teachers. It is coming to be a maxim in the city systems that the supervisor has not only the power to mold the school to the form of his own ideals, but that he can, if he is skillful, turn weak teachers into strong teachers and make out of most unpromising material, an efficient, homogeneous school staff. I believe that this is coming to be considered the prime criterion of effective school supervision,--not what skill the supervisor may show in testing results, or in keeping his pupils up to a given standard, or in choosing his teachers skillfully, but rather the success with which he is able to take the teaching material that is at his hand, and train it into efficiency.

A former Commissioner of Education for one of our new insular possessions once told me that he had come to divide supervisors into two classes,--(1) those who knew good teaching when they saw it, and (2) those who could make poor teachers into good teachers. Of these two types, he said, the latter were infinitely more valuable to pioneer work in education than the former, and he named two or three city systems from which he had selected the supervisors who could do this sort of thing,--for there is no limit to this process of training, and the superintendent who can train supervisors is just as important as the supervisor who can train teachers.

It would take a volume adequately to treat the various problems that this conception of the supervisor's function involves. I can do no more at present than indicate what seems to me the most pressing present need in this direction. I have found that sometimes the supervisors who insist most strenuously that their teachers secure the coöperation of their pupils are among the very last to secure for themselves the coöperation of their teachers.

And to this important end, it seems to me that we have an important suggestion in the present condition of the classroom teacher as I have attempted to describe it. As a type, the classroom teacher needs just now some adequate appreciation and recognition of the work that she is doing. If the lay public is unable adequately to judge the teacher's work, there is all the more reason that she should look to her supervisor for that recognition of technical skill, for that commendation of good work, which can come only from a fellow-craftsman, but which, when it does come, is worth more in the way of real inspiration than the loudest applause of the crowd.

Upon the whole, I believe that the outlook in this direction is encouraging. While the teacher may miss in her institutes and in the summer school that sort of encouragement, she is, I believe, finding it in larger and larger measure in the local teachers' meetings and in her consultations with her supervisors. And when all has been said, that is the place from which she should look for inspiration. The teachers' meeting must be the nursery of professional ideals. It must be a place where the real first-hand workers in education get that sanity of outlook, that professional point of view, which shall fortify them effectively against the rising tide of unprofessional interference and dictation which, as I have tried to indicate, constitutes the most serious menace to our educational welfare.

And it is in the encouragement of this craft spirit, in this lifting of the teacher's calling to the plane of craft consciousness, it is in this that the supervisor must, I believe, find the true and lasting reward for his work. It is through this factor that he can, just now, work the greatest good for the schools that he supervises and the community that he serves. The most effective way to reach his pupils is through the medium of their teachers, and he can help these pupils in no better way than to give their teachers a justifiable pride in the work that they are doing through his own recognition of its worth and its value, through his own respect for the significance of the lessons that experience teaches them, through his own suggestive help in making that experience profitable and suggestive. And just at the present moment, he can make no better start than by assuring them of the truth that Emerson expresses when he defines the true scholar as the man who remains firm in his belief that a popgun is only a popgun although the ancient and honored of earth may solemnly affirm it to be the crack of doom.



I wish to discuss with you some phases of the problem that is perhaps foremost in the minds of the teaching public to-day: the problem, namely, of making education bear more directly and more effectively upon the work of practical, everyday life. I have no doubt that some of you feel, when this problem is suggested, very much as I felt when I first suggested to myself the possibility of discussing it with you. You have doubtless heard some phases of this problem discussed at every meeting of this association for the past ten years--if you have been a member so long as that. Certain it is that we all grow weary of the reiteration of even the best of truths, but certain it is also that some problems are always before us, and until they are solved satisfactorily they will always stimulate men to devise means for their solution.

I should say at the outset, however, that I shall not attempt to justify to this audience the introduction of vocational subjects into the elementary and secondary curriculums. I shall take it for granted that you have already made up your minds upon this matter. I shall not take your time in an attempt to persuade you that agriculture ought to be taught in the rural schools, or manual training and domestic science in all schools. I am personally convinced of the value of such work and I shall take it for granted that you are likewise convinced.

My task to-day, then, is of another type. I wish to discuss with you some of the implications of this matter of utility in respect of the work that every elementary school is doing and always must do, no matter how much hand work or vocational material it may introduce. My problem, in other words, concerns the ordinary subject-matter of the curriculum,--reading and writing and arithmetic, geography and grammar and history,--those things which, like the poor, are always with us, but which we seem a little ashamed to talk about in public. Truly, from reading the educational journals and hearing educational discussion to-day, the layman might well infer that what we term the "useful" education and the education that is now offered by the average school are as far apart as the two poles. We are all familiar with the statement that the elementary curriculum is eminently adapted to produce clerks and accountants, but very poorly adapted to furnish recruits for any other department of life. The high school is criticized on the ground that it prepares for college and consequently for the professions, but that it is totally inadequate to the needs of the average citizen. Now it would be futile to deny that there is some truth in both these assertions, but I do not hesitate to affirm that both are grossly exaggerated, and that the curriculum of to-day, with all its imperfections, does not justify so sweeping a denunciation. I wish to point out some of the respects in which these charges are fallacious, and, in so doing, perhaps, to suggest some possible remedies for the defects that every one will acknowledge.


In the first place, let me make myself perfectly clear upon what I mean by the word "useful." What, after all, is the "useful" study in our schools? What do men find to be the useful thing in their lives? The most natural answer to this question is that the useful things are those that enable us to meet effectively the conditions of life,--or, to use a phrase that is perfectly clear to us all, the things that help us in getting a living. The vast majority of men and women in this world measure all values by this standard, for most of us are, to use the expressive slang of the day, "up against" this problem, and "up against" it so hard and so constantly that we interpret everything in the greatly foreshortened perspective of immediate necessity. Most of us in this room are confronting this problem of making a living. At any rate, I am confronting it, and consequently I may lay claim to some of the authority that comes from experience.

And since I have made this personal reference, may I violate the canons of good taste and make still another? I was face to face with this problem of getting a living a good many years ago, when the opportunity came to me to take a college course. I could see nothing ahead after that except another struggle with this same vital issue. So I decided to take a college course which would, in all probability, help me to solve the problem. Scientific agriculture was not developed in those days as it has been since that time, but a start had been made, and the various agricultural colleges were offering what seemed to be very practical courses. I had had some early experience on the farm, and I decided to become a scientific farmer. I took the course of four years and secured my degree. The course was as useful from the standpoint of practical agriculture as any that could have been devised at the time. But when I graduated, what did I find? The same old problem of getting a living still confronted me as I had expected that it would; and alas! I had got my education in a profession that demanded capital. I was a landless farmer. Times were hard and work of all kinds was very scarce. The farmers of those days were inclined to scoff at scientific agriculture. I could have worked for my board and a little more, and I should have done so had I been able to find a job. But while I was looking for the place, a chance came to teach school, and I took the opportunity as a means of keeping the wolf from the door. I have been engaged in the work of teaching ever since. When I was able to buy land, I did so, and I have to-day a farm of which I am very proud. It does not pay large dividends, but I keep it up for the fun I get out of it,--and I like to think, also, that if I should lose my job as a teacher, I could go back to the farm and show the natives how to make money. This is doubtless an illusion, but it is a source of solid comfort just the same.

Now the point of this experience is simply this: I secured an education that seemed to me to promise the acme of utility. In one way, it has fulfilled that promise far beyond my wildest expectations, but that way was very different from the one that I had anticipated. The technical knowledge that I gained during those four strenuous years, I apply now only as a means of recreation. So far as enabling me directly to get a living, this technical knowledge does not pay one per cent on the investment of time and money. And yet I count the training that I got from its mastery as, perhaps, the most useful product of my education.

Now what was the secret of its utility? As I analyze my experience, I find it summed up very largely in two factors. In the first place, I studied a set of subjects for which I had at the outset very little taste. In studying agriculture, I had to master a certain amount of chemistry, physics, botany, and zoölogy, for each and every one of which I felt, at the outset, a distinct aversion and dislike. A mastery of these subjects was essential to a realization of the purpose that I had in mind. I was sure that I should never like them, and yet, as I kept at work, I gradually found myself losing that initial distaste. First one and then another opened out its vista of truth and revelation before me, and almost before I was aware of it, I was enthusiastic over science. It was a long time before I generalized that experience and drew its lesson, but the lesson, once learned, has helped me more even in the specific task of getting a living than anything else that came out of my school training. That experience taught me, not only the necessity for doing disagreeable tasks,--for attacking them hopefully and cheerfully,--but it also taught me that disagreeable tasks, if attacked in the right way, and persisted in with patience, often become attractive in themselves. Over and over again in meeting the situations of real life, I have been confronted with tasks that were initially distasteful. Sometimes I have surrendered before them; but sometimes, too, that lesson has come back to me, and has inspired me to struggle on, and at no time has it disappointed me by the outcome. I repeat that there is no technical knowledge that I have gained that compares for a moment with that ideal of patience and persistence. When it comes to real, downright utility, measured by this inexorable standard of getting a living, let me commend to you the ideal of persistent effort. All the knowledge that we can learn or teach will come to very little if this element is lacking.

Now this is very far from saying that the pursuit of really useful knowledge may not give this ideal just as effectively as the pursuit of knowledge that will never be used. My point is simply this: that beyond the immediate utility of the facts that we teach,--indeed, basic and fundamental to this utility,--is the utility of the ideals and standards that are derived from our school work. Whatever we teach, these essential factors can be made to stand out in our work, and if our pupils acquire these we shall have done the basic and important thing in helping them to solve the problems of real life,--and if our pupils do not acquire these, it will make little difference how intrinsically valuable may be the content of our instruction. I feel like emphasizing this matter to-day, because there is in the air a notion that utility depends entirely upon the content of the curriculum. Certainly the curriculum must be improved from this standpoint, but we are just now losing sight of the other equally important factor,--that, after all, while both are essential, it is the spirit of teaching rather than the content of teaching that is basic and fundamental.

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