Craftsmanship in teaching

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I take it that none of us is ready to answer these questions in the affirmative. Deep down in our hearts we know that we have a useful work to do, and we know that we are doing it passably well. We also know our defects and shortcomings at least as well as one who has never faced our problems and tried to solve them. And it is from this latter type that most of the drastic criticism, especially of the elementary and secondary school, emanates. I confess that my gorge rises within me when I read or hear the invectives that are being hurled against teaching as a profession (and against the work of the elementary and secondary school in particular) by men who know nothing of this work at first hand. This is the greatest handicap under which the profession of teaching labors. In every other important field of human activity a man must present his credentials before he takes his seat at the council table, and even then he must sit and listen respectfully to his elders for a while before he ventures a criticism or even a suggestion. This plan may have its defects. It may keep things on too conservative a basis; but it avoids the danger into which we as a profession have fallen,--the danger of "half-baked" theories and unmatured policies. To-day the only man that can get a respectable hearing at our great national educational meetings is the man who has something new and bizarre to propose. And the more startling the proposal, the greater is the measure of adulation that he receives. The result of this is a continual straining for effect, an enormous annual crop of fads and fancies, which, though most of them are happily short-lived, keep us in a state of continual turmoil and confusion.

* * * * *

Now, it goes without saying that there are many ways of making education hit the mark of utility in addition to those that I have mentioned. The teachers down in the lower grades who are teaching little children the arts of reading and writing and computation are doing vastly more in a practical direction than they are ever given credit for doing; for reading and writing and the manipulation of numbers are, next to oral speech itself, the prime necessities in the social and industrial world. These arts are being taught to-day better than they have ever been taught before,--and the technique of their teaching is undergoing constant refinement and improvement.

The school can do and is doing other useful things. Some schools are training their pupils to be well mannered and courteous and considerate of the rights of others. They are teaching children one of the most basic and fundamental laws of human life; namely, that there are some things that a gentleman cannot do and some things that society will not stand. How many a painful experience in solving this very problem of getting a living could be avoided if one had only learned this lesson passing well! What a pity it is that some schools that stand to-day for what we call educational progress are failing in just this particular--are sending out into the world an annual crop of boys and girls who must learn the great lesson of self-control and a proper respect for the rights of others in the bitter school of experience,--a school in which the rod will never be spared, but whose chastening scourge comes sometimes, alas, too late!

There is no feature of school life which has not its almost infinite possibilities of utility. But after all, are not the basic and fundamental things these ideals that I have named? And should not we who teach stand for idealism in its widest sense? Should we not ourselves subscribe an undying fidelity to those great ideals for which teaching must stand,--to the ideal of social service which lies at the basis of our craft, to the ideals of effort and discipline that make a nation great and its children strong, to the ideal of science that dissipates the black night of ignorance and superstition, to the ideal of culture that humanizes mankind?


[Footnote 11: An address before the Eastern Illinois Teachers' Association, October 15, 1909. Published as a Bulletin of the Eastern Illinois Normal School, October, 1909.]



I know that I do not need to plead with this audience for a recognition of the scientific spirit in the solution of educational problems. The long life and the enviable record of this Society of Pedagogy testify in themselves to that spirit of free inquiry, to the calm and dispassionate search for the truth which lies at the basis of the scientific method. You have gathered here, fortnight after fortnight, to discuss educational problems in the light of your experience. You have reported your experience and listened to the results that others have gleaned in the course of their daily work. And experience is the corner stone of science.

Some of the most stimulating and clarifying discussions of educational problems that I have ever heard have been made in the sessions of this Society. You have been scientific in your attitude toward education, and I may add that I first learned the lessons of the real science of education in the St. Louis schools, and under the inspiration that was furnished by the men who were members of this Society. What I knew of the science of education before I came to this city ten years ago, was gleaned largely from books. It was deductive, a priori, in its nature. What I learned here was the induction from actual experience.

My very first introduction to my colleagues among the school men of this city was a lesson in the science of education. I had brought with me a letter to one of your principals. He was in the office down on Locust Street the first Saturday that I spent in the city. I presented my letter to him, and, with that true Southern hospitality which has always characterized your corps, he took me immediately under his wing and carried me out to luncheon with him.

We sat for hours in a little restaurant down on Sixth Street,--he was my teacher and I was his pupil. And gradually, as the afternoon wore on, I realized that I had met a master craftsman in the art of education. At first I talked glibly enough of what I intended to do, and he listened sympathetically and helpfully, with a little quizzical smile in his eyes as I outlined my ambitious plans. And when I had run the gamut of my dreams, he took his turn, and, in true Socratic fashion, yet without making me feel in the least that I was only a dreamer after all, he refashioned my theories. One by one the little card houses that I had built up were deftly, smoothly, gently, but completely demolished. I did not know the ABC of schoolcraft--but he did not tell me that I did not. He went at the task of instruction from the positive point of view. He proved to me, by reminiscence and example, how different are actual and ideal conditions. And finally he wound up with a single question that opened a new world to me. "What," he asked, "is the dominant characteristic of the child's mind?" I thought at first that I was on safe ground--for had I not taken a course in child study, and had I not measured some hundreds of school children while working out a university thesis? So I began with my list. But, at each characteristic that I mentioned he shook his head. "No," he said, "no; that is not right." And when finally I had exhausted my list, he said to me, "The dominant characteristic of the child's mind is its seriousness. The child is the most serious creature in the world."

The answer staggered me for a moment. Like ninety-nine per cent of the adult population of this globe, the seriousness of the child had never appealed to me. In spite of the theoretical basis of my training, that single, dominant element of child life had escaped me. I had gained my notion of the child from books, and, I also fear, from the Sunday supplements. To me, deep down in my heart, the child was an animated joke. I was immersed in unscientific preconceptions. But the master craftsman had gained his conception of child life from intimate, empirical acquaintance with the genus boy. He had gleaned from his experience that fundamental truth: "The child is the most serious creature in the world."

Sometime I hope that I may make some fitting acknowledgment of the debt of gratitude that I owe to that man. The opportunities that I had to talk with him were all too few, but I did make a memorable visit to his school, and studied at first hand the great work that he was doing for the pupils of the Columbia district. He died the next year, and I shall never forget the words that stood beneath his picture that night in one of the daily papers: "Charles Howard: Architect of Character."


The essence of the scientific spirit is to view experience without prejudice, and that was the lesson that I learned from the school system of St. Louis.

The difference between the ideal child and the real child,--the difference between what fancy pictures a schoolroom to be and what actual first-hand acquaintance shows that it is, the difference between a preconceived notion and an actual stubborn fact of experience,--these were among the lessons that I learned in these schools. But, at the same time, there was no crass materialism accompanying this teaching. There was no loss of the broader point of view. A fact is a fact, and we cannot get around it,--and this is what scientific method has insisted upon from its inception. But always beyond the fact is its significance, its meaning. That the St. Louis schools have for the last fifty years stood for the larger view; that they have never, so far as I know, exploited the new and the bizarre simply because it was new and strange,--this is due, I believe, to the insight and inspiration of the man[13] who first fashioned the framework of this system, and breathed into it as a system the vitalizing element of idealism. Personally, I have not always been in sympathy with the teachings of the Hegelian philosophy,--I have not always understood them,--but no man could witness the silent, steady, unchecked growth of the St. Louis schools without being firmly and indelibly impressed with dynamic value of a richly conceived and rigidly wrought system of fundamental principles. The cause of education has suffered much from the failure of educators to break loose from the shackles of the past. But it has, in some places, suffered still more from the tendency of the human mind to confuse fundamental principles with the shackles of tradition. The rage for the new and the untried, simply because it is new and untried,--this has been, and is to-day, the rock upon which real educational progress is most likely to be wrecked. This is a rock, I believe, that St. Louis has so far escaped, and I have no doubt that its escape has been due, in large measure, to the careful, rigid, laborious, and yet illuminating manner in which that great captain charted out its course.


Fundamentally, there is, I believe, no discrepancy, no inconsistency, between the scientific spirit in education and what may be called the philosophical spirit. As I have suggested, there are always two dangers that must be avoided: the danger, in the first place, of thinking of the old as essentially bad; and, on the other hand, the danger of thinking of the new and strange and unknown as essentially bad; the danger of confusing a sound conservatism with a blind worship of established custom; and the danger of confusing a sound radicalism with the blind worship of the new and the bizarre.

Let me give you an example of what I mean. There is a rather bitter controversy at present between two factions of science teachers. One faction insists that physics and chemistry and biology should be taught in the high school from the economic point of view,--that the economic applications of these sciences to great human arts, such as engineering and agriculture, should be emphasized at every point,--that a great deal of the material now taught in these sciences is both useless and unattractive to the average high-school pupil. The other faction maintains that such a course would mean the destruction of science as an integral part of the secondary culture course,--that science to be cultural must be pure science,--must be viewed apart from its economic applications,--apart from its relations to the bread-and-butter problem.

Now many of the advocates of the first point of view--many of the people that would emphasize the economic side--are animated by the spirit of change and unrest which dominates our latter-day civilization. They wish to follow the popular demand. "Down with scholasticism!" is their cry; "Down with this blind worship of custom and tradition! Let us do the thing that gives the greatest immediate benefit to our pupils. Let us discard the elements in our courses that are hard and dry and barren of practical results." Now these men, I believe, are basing their argument upon the fallacy of immediate expediency. The old is bad, the new is good. That is their argument. They have no sheet anchor out to windward. They are willing to drift with the gale.

Many of the advocates of the second point of view--many of the people who hold to the old line, pure-science teaching--are, on the other hand, animated by a spirit of irrational conservatism. "Down with radicalism!" they shout; "Down with the innovators! Things that are hard and dry are good mental discipline. They made our fathers strong. They can make our children strong. What was good enough for the great minds of the past is good enough for us."

Now these men, I believe, have gone to the other extreme. They have confused custom and tradition with fundamental and eternal principles. They have thought that, just because a thing is old, it is good, just as their antagonists have thought that just because a thing is new it is good.

In both cases, obviously, the scientific spirit is lacking. The most fundamental of all principles is the principle of truth. And yet these men who are teachers of science are--both classes of them--ruled themselves by dogma. And meantime the sciences are in danger of losing their place in secondary education. The rich promise that was held out a generation ago has not been fulfilled. Within the last decade, the enrollment in the science courses has not increased in proportion to the total enrollment, while the enrollment in Latin (which fifteen years ago was about to be cast upon the educational scrap heap) has grown by leaps and bounds.

Now this is a type of a great many controversies in education. We talk and theorize, but very seldom do we try to find out the actual facts in the case by any adequate tests.

It was the lack of such tests that led us at the University of Illinois to enter upon a series of impartial investigations to see whether we could not take some of these mooted questions out of the realm of eternal controversy, and provide some definite solutions. We chose among others this controversy between the economic scientists and the pure scientists. We took a high-school class and divided it into two sections. We tried to place in each section an equal number of bright and mediocre and dull pupils, so that the conditions would be equalized. Then we chose an excellent teacher, a man who could approach the problem with an open mind, without prejudice or favor. During the present year he has been teaching these parallel sections. In one section he has emphasized economic applications; in the other he has taught the class upon the customary pure-science basis. He has kept a careful record of his work, and at stated intervals he has given both sections the same tests. We propose to carry on this investigation year after year with different classes, different teachers, and in different schools. We are not in a hurry to reach conclusions.

Now I said that the safeguard in all work of this sort is to keep our grip firm and fast on the eternal truths. In this work that I mention we are not trying to prove that either pure science or applied science interests our pupils the more or helps them the more in meeting immediate economic situations. We do not propose to measure the success of either method by its effect upon the bread-winning power of the pupil. What we believe that science teaching should insure, is a grip on the scientific method and an illuminating insight into the forces of nature, and we are simply attempting to see whether the economic applications will make this grip firmer or weaker, and this insight clearer or more obscure. I trust that this point is plain, for it illustrates what I have just said regarding the danger of following a popular demand. We need no experiment to prove that economic science is more useful in the narrow sense than is pure science. What we wish to determine is whether a judicious mixture of the two sorts of teaching will or will not enable us to realize this rich cultural value much more effectively than a traditional purely cultural course.

Now that illustrates what I think is the real and important application of the scientific spirit to the solution of educational problems. You will readily see that it does not do away necessarily with our ideals. It is not necessarily materialistic. It is not necessarily idealistic. Either side may utilize it. It is a quite impersonal factor. But it does promise to take some of our educational problems out of the field of useless and wasteful controversy, and it does promise to get men of conflicting views together,--for, in the case that I have just cited, if we prove that the right admixture of methods may enable us to realize both a cultural and a utilitarian value, there is no reason why the culturists and the utilitarians should not get together, cease their quarreling, take off their coats, and go to work. Few people will deny that bread and butter is a rather essential thing in this life of ours; very few will deny that material prosperity in temperate amounts is good for all of us; and very few also will deny that far more fundamental than bread and butter--far more important than material prosperity--are the great fundamental and eternal truths which man has wrought out of his experience and which are most effectively crystallized in the creations of pure art, the masterpieces of pure literature, and the discoveries of pure science.

Certainly if we of the twentieth century can agree upon any one thing, it is this: That life without toil is a crime, and that any one who enjoys leisure and comfort and the luxuries of living without paying the price of toil is a social parasite. I believe that it is an important function of public education to impress upon each generation the highest ideals of living as well as the arts that are essential to the making of a livelihood, but I wish to protest against the doctrine that these two factors stand over against one another as the positive and negative poles of human existence. In other words, I protest against the notion, that the study of the practical everyday problems of human life is without what we are pleased to call a culture value,--that in the proper study of those problems one is not able to see the operation of fundamental and eternal principles.

I shall readily agree that there is always a grave danger that the trivial and temporary objects of everyday life may be viewed and studied without reference to these fundamental principles. But this danger is certainly no greater than that the permanent and eternal truths be studied without reference to the actual, concrete, workaday world in which we live. I have seen exercises in manual training that had for their purpose the perfection of the pupil in some little art of joinery for which he would, in all probability, have not the slightest use in his later life. But even if he should find use for it, the process was not being taught in the proper way. He was being made conscious only of the little trivial thing, and no part of his instruction was directed toward the much more important, fundamental lesson,--the lesson, namely, that "a little thing may be perfect, but that perfection itself is not a little thing."

I say that I have witnessed such an exercise in the very practical field of manual training. I may add that I went through several such exercises myself, and emerged with a disgust that always recurs to me when I am told that every boy will respond to the stimulus of the hammer and the jack plane. But I should hasten to add that I have also seen what we call the humanities so taught that the pupil has emerged from them with a supreme contempt for the life of labor and a feeling of disgust at the petty and trivial problems of human life which every one must face. I have seen art and literature so taught as to leave their students not with the high purpose to mold their lives in accordance with the high ideals that art and literature represent, not the firm resolution to do what they could to relieve the ugliness of the world where they found it ugly, or to do what they could to ennoble life when they found it vile; but rather with an attitude of calm superiority, as if they were in some way privileged to the delights of ├Žsthetic enjoyment, leaving the baser born to do the world's drudgery.

I have seen the principles of agriculture so taught as to leave with the student the impression that he could raise more corn than his neighbor and sell it at a higher price if he mastered the principles of nitrification; and all without one single reference to the basic principle of conservation upon which the welfare of the human race for all time to come must inevitably depend,--without a single reference to the moral iniquity of waste and sloth and ignorance. But I have also seen men who have mastered the scientific method,--the method of controlled observation, and unprejudiced induction and inference,--in the laboratories of pure science; and who have gained so overweening and hypertrophied a regard for this method that they have considered it too holy to be contaminated by application to practical problems,--who have sneered contemptuously when some adventurer has proposed, for example, to subject the teaching of science itself to the searchlight of scientific method.

I trust that these examples have made my point clear, for it is certainly simple enough. If vocational education means simply that the arts and skills of industrial life are to be transmitted safely from generation to generation, a minimum of educational machinery is all that is necessary, and we do not need to worry much about it. If vocational education means simply this, it need not trouble us much; for economic conditions will sooner or later provide for an effective means of transmission, just as economic conditions will sooner or later perfect, through a blind and empirical process of elimination, the most effective methods of agriculture, as in the case of China and other overpopulated nations of the Orient.

But I take it that we mean by vocational education something more than this, just as we mean by cultural education something more than a veneer of language, history, pure science, and the fine arts. In the former case, the practical problems of life are to be lifted to the plane of fundamental principles; in the latter case, fundamental principles are to be brought down to the plane of present, everyday life. I can see no discrepancy here. To my mind there is no cultural subject that has not its practical outcome, and there is no practical subject that has not its humanizing influence if only we go to some pains to seek it out. I do not object to a subject of instruction that promises to put dollars into the pockets of those that study it. I do object to the mode of teaching that subject which fails to use this effective economic appeal in stimulating a glimpse of the broader vision. I do not object to the subject that appeals to the pupil's curiosity because it informs him of the wonderful deeds that men have done in the past. I do object to that mode of teaching this subject which simply arouses interest in a spectacular deed, and then fails to use this interest in the interpretation of present problems. I do not contend that in either case there must be an explicit pointing of morals and drawing of lessons. But I do contend that the teacher who is in charge of the process should always have this purpose in the forefront of his consciousness, and--now by direct comparison, now by indirection and suggestion--guide his pupils to the goal desired.

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