Allison Ware

”LIFE AND THE ELEMENTARY CURRICULUM

Allison Ware
State Normal School, San Francisco

THIS opening twentieth century is producing a wonderful crop of problems. The struggle for clean and efficient government, the regulation of public service corporations, the conservation of national resources, the adjustment of the relations of labor and capital, and a whole host of minor problems in which society is seeking to direct itself for the best welfare of its members, mark the age as one of acute social unrest.

It has been said that school teachers do not know or care very much about the world’s problems; that their time is taken up with much ado about, well, say about Orders in Council, and the ablative absolute, and the formula for cube root, and why Mobile is where it is. Possibly the charge is as scurrilous as it is rude. Let that be as it may; the problem involved in our topic is no less vital and no less clamorous for solution than the other rising social issues of the times. Moreover, it is more than a school problem. It is a world problem, and the world is becoming more and more importunate for its solution. For the word has gone out that the curriculum of our common schools doe’s not prepare young people for life. In self-respect as workers holding a pride in our work, and in self-interest as servants wishing to prosper in the good will of those we serve, it behooves us to meet the question squarely: ‘Are our schools failing to prepare their pupils to meet the demands of life outside of school? If so, what is the matter?’

It is hardly necessary to offer proof that the first of these questions is being answered in the negative by a very large and an increasing number of critics. It would be hard, indeed, for anyone to be so far and lone in the desert of tradition as to fail to hear the demands and complaints that arise on every hand.

‘What you teach is not learned by your students,’ says, in substance the officer in charge of the entrance examinations at West Point. And he backs the charge up with data too inflammatory to print in an educational journal.

‘The remedy for the defects in our educational system,’ says President Eliot, staunch pillar of pedagogical orthodoxy, ‘is to have industrial schools for children between the ages of fourteen and eighteen.’

‘The principal need of our rural communities is such reform in the rural school as shall make it serve the needs of the people.’ So reports the celebrated Commission on Country Life whose work has recently been finished after sessions in thirty-five states and the examination of one hundred and thirty-five thousand reports.

Theodore Roosevelt has had time, too, to take a crack at our schools with his big stick—the stick well studded with hob nails of common honesty and common sense: ‘Our immediate purpose is to take the first steps in providing for the ninety-five per cent who are not now trained for a vocation advantages corresponding to those enjoyed by the relative few who are trained in the professional and technical schools.’ And again, ‘The school system should be aimed primarily to fit the student for actual life rather than for a university.’

These are but samples of the expressions of discontent which have marked with increasing frequency the popular no less than the professional literature of the last few years. But all these complaints by individuals of high or low degree are mere punctuation marks to the real indictment—that sweeping indictment against the worth of our system which is joined in by thousands of parents whose lack of faith leads them to let their children quit school; and by those hundreds of thousands of children, half educated or uneducated by the standard of our meager, traditional requirements, who drop by the way each year. With better school equipment on every hand, with prosperity enabling parents to keep their children in school, with tempting sops of comfort in the shape of manual training, polytechnic courses, commercial branches, domestic science, ‘agriculture’ and what not, with compulsory education laws, and with policemen detailed to haul in erring sons of promise by the scruff of their necks; in spite of all this the fact remains that in California four children out of five never finish the grammar schools. And of those boys who do finish the grammar schools and have the hardihood to begin the high school, seventy per cent drop out before graduation.

Skeptical souls may find diversion and relief in grave quibbling as to the accuracy of these figures. Some optimists, indeed, aver that fully twenty-five per cent of our children graduate from the grammar schools; and that not less than five per cent complete the high school. But the matter has long since passed the place when anyone needs figures in order to catch the point. It is common knowledge that our eighth grades are hopelessly shrunken when compared with the lower grades. It is common knowledge, too, that graduation classes of ten or twelve are the rule in high schools of one hundred to one hundred and fifty pupils; that the upper classes in such schools resemble in marked degree the classes in a young ladies’ seminary.

To start with, what is wrong with the curriculum of our elementary schools? In the first place, we lack a definite, tangible, common-sense conception of the purposes of these schools. We have called them the ‘people’s birthright,’ ‘the bulwark of our institutions,’ ‘the training ground for citizenship;’ all of which does great justice to our feelings without conveying any lasting peace to our minds. Is there not some fundamental idea which stands as the educational basis for this first stage in our educational scheme? Is there not some distinguishing mark by which we may know to a certainty the end for which such schools are designed? If so, it will not be hard to judge the value of our present product and to appraise for its real worth each element now included in, or seeking, admission into, the curriculum of those schools.

We speak of our elementary schools as our common schools. Do we mean by this that they are numerous and well distributed? Surely there is something more significant in the adjective than mere indication of number. Do we mean then that they are common in the sense that eggs are spoken of in market reports as common? That they are inferior, unworthy of confidence or of low relative value? By no means this, for of all the branches of our educational system they are the most cherished and respected. We speak of some of our great men as having had but a common school education and feel that we have dignified the men and the school by such association. They are called common, not because they are numerous, or of little worth. They are common in a far more significant sense than this, for they deal with the common or general educational needs of the whole people. That is to say, they deal, or should deal, with those elements of education which are of prime value to all individuals of our society. It is their function to give to all the children of the nation those elementary adjustments to the demands of life required in common of us all.

Let us see what this means. There are some things which are essential parts of the education of every American. Whatever his occupation, environment, creed or special needs may be, there are common staples of education which he must have, or be unprepared to meet the general demands which membership in civilized society lays upon him. A horseshoer as a horseshoer, a factory hand as such, or a minister in his ministerial capacity needs to know little or no arithmetic. But men in the common relations of life, each of these has frequent need of it. A lawyer may interpret the law and a cobbler may cobble with skill, and still know nothing about geography. But as men, each is expected to attain at least to the standard of common sense in that subject which is set by intelligent people in the world about him. So it is in spelling, reading, writing, the use of language, history and science. There is a general human need for such intelligence in all of these as will give its possessor his proper place in the social unit of which he is a member. Without this intelligence one would be an alien to his race and times; a barbarian, an outlander, out of touch in a thousand ways with the needs of life.

This fundamental piece of work, therefore, our elementary schools should do: they should give to the children of the nation eight full years’ worth of that knowledge, culture and emotional discipline required of all intelligent adults by the common demands of civilized life. Here is the training that lies at the root of all social integration. Our common business relations, our standards of appreciation of literature, the play, the nation’s past, of morals and manners depend largely upon it. It is the basis for intelligent contact with the world through speech, writing or action. It is at the foundation of nationalism. It is the cement binding the heterogenous elements of society into a true social structure.

This function of the elementary schools to distribute the education of common or general usefulness is no theoretical deduction. It is implied in the framework of the system under which such schools are established and operated. These schools are devised for all the children of the land and voluntary attendance is often supplemented by compulsory education laws. Their arrangement by grades and the scope of their courses of study are practically uniform, and this implies that what they give is of first value to all. From all external signs it would seem clear that they have been designed to distribute to each child his share in the race heritage of common intelligence.

This would seem to be so simple as to be axiomatic: the whole content of a course of study intended for all, and so far as possible given to all, must be useful to all. It must supply all comers with things of essential value to each. Now, if it should be found that the course of study of our common schools has in it matter clearly only of special value to special classes of individuals, or of value near the vanishing point to any class of individuals, or, on the other hand, if it should appear that it has left out matter of primary value to all, then to just that degree it has failed to meet the ends for which it has been devised. In such case no amount of generous equipment on the part of the public, and no extenuating theorizing or resolution of good will on our part, can set the affair right. The worth of our system of common schools, and the answer which must be made to the rising storm of criticism which confronts it, both depend upon the results of one simple test; do these schools give to the children of the nation an education of which all parts are of fundamental value to all who receive it?

First, as to the tool subjects. Reading, writing and the use of the mother tongue are, of course, a fundamental part of our necessary common equipment. Most people use them in their vocations; all people have need of them in the common relations of everyday life. On the whole they are well provided for in our elementary schools. Such defects as may be found in our treatment of them arise partly from imperfections in methods—especially in the work in language where systematic drills have not yet taken their proper place—and partly from the encroachments made upon them by useless surplusage in other subjects.

Arithmetic, in the light of common needs, is in a less satisfactory state. Greater familiarity in handling the problems arising in the daily

experiences of life, and far more accuracy in the fundamental operations involved in such problems are demanded. On the other hand, time is wasted on mathematical calculations of interest only to mathematicians or to specialists in this or that peculiar vocation. A transitory knowledge of relatively useless branches such as cube root and troy weight has been sought at the expense of thoroughness in the problems arising from daily business activities. The arithmetic peculiar to the navigator, the plasterer, the banker, the bond broker and the commission merchant have crowded out the drills in accuracy without which slovenly results in any sort of computation are inevitable.

Spelling, in a less and a lessening degree, is subject to the same criticism. Time is wasted and thoroughness in essentials is dissipated by too much attention to word analysis, scientific nomenclature, trick or freak words, and to words remote from the uses of our common written expression. Too little time is spent in making fast a knowledge of the spelling of those few thousand staple words which all of us have frequent need to write.

But in spite of these defects the tool subjects when all is said are fairly well handled in our elementary course of study. Moreover, such defects in content and method as they display seem to be diminishing evils. These subjects bear such an intimate relation to the common uses of life that the school can not go very far astray in respect to them. The world checks our work in them so carefully that , we must of necessity abide pretty closely by its standards.

The situation is different in regard to the cultural subjects. Take the history course for instance. A very large part of the school work in this subject has no place in that common culture which the world requires of us all. All the long forgotten interests of past generations are preserved in it like fossils in ancient rock. Burgoyne’s campaign, the panic of 1836, and the three styles of colonial government are made much of. The problems which it discusses are those which interest the historical philosopher, whether or not the world has any interest in them or purpose in knowing of them. We ask children to understand and remember the deductions of the specialist in history as to the influence of the frontier on Jackson’s administration. It is thought necessary to instruct children in the intricacies through which scholardom has traced the forces that developed the federal constitution. Meanwhile, a brimming measure of dates, names, and incidents long since vanished from the minds of men outside of schools is thrown in for full weight. The result is an educational hodge-podge. One half of it is worthless when known; the other half is confused with the worthless, receives no special emphasis, and is retained with difficulty until the examination is over. It is high time that teachers should demand of text writers and course-of-study makers that the content of the work in history should be made fully worth while to all who receive it. And this will be done when we are ready to admit that school history should be squared to meet the common educational needs of American boys and girls and not to satisfy the standards of specialists who develop the subject for its own sake.

The case of geography is parallel to that of history. The bulk of our material in this subject has no conceivable value to anyone save a geographer. Data that the busy world does not know and does not need to know; statistical matter which no one can possibly remember without making its retention a life work; chains of cause and effect solely of interest to the geographical philosopher or the intellectual dilettante; technical analyses of aspects of nature and affairs of men; all these abound. Indeed, this is the very heyday of their vigor, for each new text out-pedants the one before in these respects. Meanwhile, great living lessons which the world urges us to know go untaught; and such world-useful knowledge as does get in is mixed with the worthless stuff and together with it, suffers a speedy process of mental elimination.

Literature has a plain duty to perform in the scheme of common education. The world has a right to expect that the children of the new generation shall be given their share of the love that has become our race heritage. Good reading habits and tastes should be established from the study of literature. Through literature, also, should come the possession of those emotional attitudes which membership in civilized society requires us to have. These are the values it holds for all. How have we gone about the_ task of distributing them ? We have based our work upon four or eight selections when fifty would scarcely have sufficed. Those chosen are such as appeal to the most highly developed literary tastes and are therefore ill adapted to arouse the appreciations of children. Selections dear to the literary scholar, but long since placed on the top shelf by the uncompromising verdict of the world, take the place of the living legends, traditions, stories and poems which have proved their right to live by sturdy survival in the affections of men and women outside of school. And the material thus selected has been handled in a way to effectually destroy such values as might peradventure under other treatment be drawn from it. The study of classifications of figures of speech, and rhetorical devices, and rules of versification have chilled appreciation. The chase and capture of far-fetched allusions has driven out enjoyment and emotional response. Biographical shreds and patches have displaced the knowledge that common culture requires of all. One would imagine from the pedantic content and the analytical method of our literature course that each pupil was a little be-spectacled specialist in English whose principal aim was to secure a scholarly insight into the mysteries of literary technique. We should not be surprised to find as a result that our schools have failed to yield the results in reading habits, literary appreciation, and emotional discipline which are demanded by our common needs and which the common schools are duty bound to supply.

There is one subject in the curriculum of our elementary schools which is hard to classify either as a tool or a cultural subject. Life has so crowded it from its highways that one can find no standards set by use whereby we may be guided in characterizing it. This is the study of rules concerning the mechanics of the English language included in textbooks and universally taught in schools under the name of grammar.

The presence of formal grammar in the course of study has never yet been explained by a single reason that would stand analysis. The noisiest reason for its appearance there is found in the ancient dogma that it is essential as a foundation for the correct use of the mother tongue in speech and writing. It is absolutely as idle to attempt to refute this dogma by serious argument as it would be to attempt to disprove in the minds of its adherents the strong emotional faith, held by many, in the influence of the moon’s phases upon the weather. All that can be hoped for is that a new generation will grow up without it. One may call human experience to the test and show that not one individual in a hundred invokes a knowledge of grammar rules in daily speech and writing. It may be shown in such uncommon cases as exist, where some rule-ridden unfortunate does find it necessary to con over the formulas for word combinations, before uttering a thought that at best he has but a poor substitute for the unconscious accuracy of well grooved habits. It may be proved beyond question that the graduates of our common elementary and high schools, in spite of years of gruelling instruction, do not know enough rules of grammar properly to ask for pie. It may be pointed out that there are only a score or less of common violations of good language usage, and that, therefore, a score of less of grammar rules should suffice even were they sovereign remedies for the diseases of our language. It may be urged that practically all the rules of grammar known by others than grammarians relate to language forms which the knower in spite of his knowledge, habitually misuses; and that practically no one knows the rules for the hundred and one cases which in spite of his ignorance, he habitually employs correctly. It may be explained that it is as idle, from the standpoint of future conduct, to tell a child why ‘He don’t’ is wrong as it is to have him write ten times in a copy-book, ‘Honesty is the best policy.’ It may be made clear that grammar came from language as a diversion of the scholar and that many a happy race goes pleasantly on from generation unto generation singing its songs, chanting its chants, whooping its whoops, and speaking its speeches without knowing that it is blessed with a grammar. But all this, and a thousand times as much, falls upon ears of stone when it is uttered in the presence of one who holds to the ancient dogma as a sacred faith of his fathers.

An ingenious argument for the study of formal grammar rests in the plea that the study of English grammar prepares the student for the study of French, German or Latin grammar. In the first place, this claim is flatly denied by many language teachers who declare that the mushed and garbled notions of English language-forms which pupils carry with them into the high school are a source of confusion rather than illumination in the study of the grammar of other languages. In the second place, the knowledge of French, or any other foreign language, is not a part of that knowledge required of all by the world’s needs and uses. Therefore, it and all its peculiar prerequisites should be special subjects of instruction for those few who find individual need for such special instruction. Third, the study of grammar-forms of the French, or any other foreign language, is in itself an idle and useless thing, having no place in a sound method, of teaching a reading, writing, or speaking knowledge of that tongue. And finally, whatever the truth of the original assertion may be believed to be, we are at least absolutely sure that not ten per cent of our boys and girls ever study a foreign language, much less learn one. It is a curious doctrine that seeks to require a nation’s children to spend a considerable part of five years of their school life upon a subject because, forsooth, now and then one of them may be required by some evil custom to learn Latin conjugations and the principal parts of French irregular verbs.

These false values attributed to the study of English grammar are not attacked here because they deserve it. No unprejudiced observer can judge them without detecting their imposture; and to those biased with the traditions of false values no amount of argument may avail. It will surely take a generation, and, without the intervention of special grace or a master satirist, perhaps a hundred years before course-ofstudy makers will dare to lay violent hands upon these dogmas which flout the dictates of the plainest common sense.

And meanwhile, before our eyes is the record of desertions among our pupils; facing us every day is the problem of a congested curriculum; and rising on every hand is the increasing clamor of the world for a common education that shall prepare for the common needs of life.

We are ready at last for an answer to our question: ‘What is wrong with the curriculum of our common schools?’ In this curriculum we have developed subjects and failed to develop children. We have dealt in piled up pyramids of knowledge without sifting it to find what parts are worth while and what parts are worthless from the standpoint of common usefulness. We have exploited the special knowledge of scholars and neglected to emphasize the fundamental knowledge of value to everyone. We have raised up traditions of false values which rule us, while the values sought by and needed in the world without go undiscovered. We have forgotten that school

work should look out upon life work and that school education to be sound most lead to life uses. We have forgotten that the common schools exist not for specialists, not for traditions, not for pedantry, not for subjects, but for living boys and girls, to the end that they may pass out into the world equipped with the common things which life requires of all.

Good masters, all! What do we propose to do with this common school system which we are running? Are we still smugly satisfied with it? Can we deny any longer the existence of a rising discontent? Are we still deaf to the voice of the world, rising on every hand with the sound of many waters, which demands that life be let into the schoolroom? Or are we slow with reform merely because we have the inertia of the ox? Or are we still ready to tremble with superstitious dread when the ghost of formal discipline appears before us, rattling its dry bones and clanking its rusty chains? Or are we still overwhelmed with timidity when in the presence of pedantry girt round with its age-old traditions?

The time has come for a reorganization of the curriculum of our common schools to the end that they may become true trainers for life. Are we ready to lead in the work, or are we destined to stand holding fast to unfulfilled promises until the current of inevitable progress sweeps us from its path?”

Reference Data:

CTA Journal, Vol. 5, by California Teacher's Association and Teacher's Association of Northern California, 1909, pages 10-20


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