Education in Reverse Gear

An answer to the question, "Why are so many educational reforms ineffective?"

W. SHERWOOD FOX October 15 1938

Education in Reverse Gear

An answer to the question, "Why are so many educational reforms ineffective?"

W. SHERWOOD FOX October 15 1938

Education in Reverse Gear

An answer to the question, "Why are so many educational reforms ineffective?"


WHY DO so many of our educational reforms turn out to be duds?”

This despairing question you have heard daily,

as I have.

“The new methods are so) simple and clear that their soundness is unquestionable,” our critic goes on to say. “A lot of bungling teachers have messed them up. I’m fed' up with our whole educational system—reforms and everything else. Count me ‘off’ education in the future.”

His answer would be a most excellent one—if it were not wrong.

Recently I pressed one persistent critic to cite some cases that had driven him to assume his adverse attitude. He readily complied. One can see at a glance that they are of the kind we meet almost every day in these bewildering times.

The t*)y in the first case we shall call Jimmy Smith. Jimmy was known to his family, friends and teachers as a “bright boy,” a term that portrays him as just an ordinary boy of ordinary gifts and ordinary promise. He was able without being brilliant, industrious at school without being a bookworm. serious and yet requiring his quota of sjxirts and other forms of fun. The Smiths were a sensible family, desirous of getting on in the world but free from intemperate ambition. The parents were willing to make reasonable sacrifices to give their children a gcxxl education, and, being clearheaded, calculating folk, they saw plainly that their means would not permit them to carry Jimmy beyond the high school. In common-sense fashion they resigned themselves to that. Recognizing that education is a serious, complex matter, they sought professional guidance. Naturally they turned to a practical, uj>-to-the-minute educator. The label, “practical,” was very alluring and promising. “What is the best course for Jimmy to follow?” they asked.

They got a very pointed reply. The broad basic training now prevailing is “old moldy stuff.”. Jimmy should get, of course, a "practical” education; something that would land him in a job at once upon getting his certificate, give him a definite wage at the start, and, above all. put him two or three laps ahead of the other lad who lingers on in school to take the broader but useless courses. Of course, Jimmy must take a course for which he has a natural skill or aptitude woodworking, bricklaying, building, drawing, or something else of the same order. The advice was so simple that it seemed obviously right. The Smiths took it.

“But what happened to Jimmy?” I asked. “Apparently, things didn’t turn out quite right; otherwise you wouldn’t be puzzled over his case. He got a job, of course?”

Yes, Jimmy got a job and a steady wage, but . . . Well, to keep a short story short, after five years, during which he got a couple of small raises in pay, Jimmy is virtually at a standstill and the other lad has passed him in rank and income. “The fact is, Jimmy’s not growing. But what’s wrong with this theory of practical education, anyway? It sounds all right. I’ve lost faith in it too.”

Not Taught to Think

TT WAS quite possible to make a comment, but 1 withheld

it because I saw my friend had still another case on his mind. So I let him get it off in the hope of ultimately killing two birds with one stone.

He went on. At first, it seems, he was inclined to believe that the mistake of the Smiths was in not straining their finances and letting Jimmy go on to university. But the

case of George Brown jolted that belief out of him. George was much of the same kind as Jimmy, though his family were somewhat better off than the Smiths. They too sought counsel of a thoroughly modern educational expert. His views were like those of his highly reputed colleague, but he was somewhat more of a psychologist. Too tactful to mention the “practical” because it might suggest a lack of culture, he adroitly let George and his parents seem to decide the whole matter for themselves. I le laid the university announcement before them, and sweepingly pointed to its whole program of courses. Ancient languages, modern languages, philosophy, history, commerce, literature, engineering, medicine, dentistry—these and all the others were scanned. Abruptly, the survey was summarized by the exfX'rt with the blanket question: “Unless George is

now finally committed to a profession of some kind, of what use are these courses to him?” Diplomacy won the day, and George and his parents, being of free and unfettered minds, chose a course. Which, I cannot say, perhaps commerce or pharmacy; all I know is that it was called “practical” and was of a limited nature, and that George had manifested a native skill in that field.

But what happened to George? Well— his experience was substantially the same as Jimmy’s, only he was a stage or two farther on. He got his job and a salary, but he too has now stopjx-d growing. He knows but little outside his own calling, he is unable to think and he cannot adjust himself to new situations situations not specified in the textbooks or outside his own field. The other fellows who took the longer route via the useless courses are passing him. “Now what’s wrong?”

The two birds were now in sight; the first stone thrown was an illustration.

About twenty years ago a Chinaman in our town. Charlie Toy, bought his first motor car. In his first solo drive, he drove it to the pumping station beside the deep pool above the dam in the river. In endeavoring to turn around, he pressed one of two exactly similar pedals. He intended to press the forward pedal, but instead by mistake pressed the reverse one—and backed himself into ten feet of water to his death.

Now in this incident, one fact stands out above all others: Charlie was sincere in believing he was stepping on the right ix>dal, but all his sincerity did not save him when he actually stepped on the wrong one. Experience in driving and familiarity with the mechanism would have made this particular accident im¡x>ssible.

Unhappily, many eloquent sponsors of so-called practical education are like Charlie. Unquestionably they are sincere in their advocacy of practical methods, but all their sincerity cannot exempt them from the charge of doing society a great deal of harm. Sometimes indeed they may happen to give sound guidance to certain individuals, but in the main they are unsafe advisers.

Why? The answer is found in what happened to Brown and Smith. Each boy was guided to train some special individual skill to the one end that he might quickly equip himself to earn an assured wage. But no suggestion was made that he take a little longer time and develop the whole boy, the entire personality and the great bundle of gifts it included. To be sure, each got what lie aimed to

get—skill-training, but not education in the true and larger sense. Evidently, then, what the advisers meant by “practical” was, as it were, overnight acquisition of a ready earning power, regardless of what Smith and Browm might need in the long life that comes after the commencement of earning. In a word, the boys w-ere given no hint that the tortoise might after all beat the hare.

Probably a note of caution should be struck here that we may avoid making statements appear too sweeping. We must remember that, although the famous fable contains a great truth, the tortoise does not necessarily and always beat the hare. Nevertheless, applied to education, the fable reveals very definite probabilities; it indicates clearly where the odds lie. For the vast majority of people who are for any reason content with acquiring a skill-training only, the odds are against their getting a true education also. A certain few, favored by exceptional talents and opportunity, may by dint of great effort acquire both a skilltraining and an education. All honor to them! On the other hand, the odds are definitely in favor of those who seek an education—that is, the all-round development of their personalities and their native powers—by thinking and working in terms of breadth and “long runs.” In other w-ords, the farseeing, patient plodder has a greater chance of attaining the more important goals of life. If he fails to get a skill-training, that is the price he must run the risk of paying. However, he might get that later. The important thing to note is that, by taking time, he has equipped himself to deal successfully with the countless newsituations which the complexities of modern life are thrusting upon him. Surely, an education that leads to an end as great as this deserves to be called practical.

This then is what the educator wishes the layman to understand: Don’t be fooled by him who spouts plausibly about “practical” education. Challenge him to say what he means by “practical.” Make him prove certain things:

(1) That his primary educational concern is that young people obtain the greatest possible development of all their powers in relation to their highest interests throughout life and not for its first stage only.

(2) That he knows the difference between skill-training and education proper, and observes this difference in his thinking and talking about educational matters.

(3) That when he advises skill-training for an immediate wage, he does so in the light of special circumstances in each case, and in the sincere belief that it is at the same time the best advice for life for the particular person concerned.

If lie proves these to your satisfaction, he is safe; trust him.

Perils of Mass Education

A WORD to the layman about the perils of “mass educa-

*■ tion” is not untimely. Strange to say, there are many in our midst who advocate it. The impressive Output of mass manufacturing supplies them with an appealing argument. Others base their plea upon the apparent success of huge schools. Still others, forgetting that precious minds and human interests are our first concern, use the bait of financial savings and lowered taxation. Most dangerous is Continued on page 37

Continued from page 18

the person who sincerely believes in the superiority of uniform educational products, on the ground that they work together more efficiently as a unit because they are all alike. This is another form of the worship of the so-called “practical.” But it is also much worse than that.

Mass education is the natural foe of democracy—of ‘ government of the people by the people, for the people.” However patriotic the intentions of those who introduce it, it carries with it the germs that will ultimately destroy such a government. Democracy is founded on the truth that each human mind is different from every other human mind, and hence should be educated along the lines of its own individual nature. Someone has recently said that “a school of two hundred pupils is two hundred schools.” Of course, that is the statement of an ideal that cannot be fully attained, yet it clearly sets forth the necessary aim of democratic education.

Mass education is nothing else than the training of minds to goose-step in unison. Indeed, it gets them so used to goose-stepping that later on they are unable to do anything else. They become incapable of thinking and acting for themselves. They lose their power of distinguishing between truth and falsehood. But this is the worst result of all: they are so helpless as individuals that they can act only in unison, and they cannot do even this without a leader. They actually require a dictator of some sort to govern them because they cannot govern themselves.

Now it will not do for us to say smugly in our democratic pride that this method of education is so obviously the method of Fascism, Nazism and other abhorrent antidemocratic systems that there is no danger in it for us; we shrink from it instinctively. But there is a danger, and a real and insidious one. There are in our midst professed lovers of democracy who argue, and probably with the utmost sincerity, that only through mass education can all the people enjoy equality of educational opportunity. Their exaltation of equality and their earnestness somehow give them a magic power to swing support for their proposals. The purity of their democracy seems to be beyond question.

Unfortunately, however, there is a vital flaw in their argument; they conscientiously believe they are demanding equality of opportunity for all, whereas what they are actually demanding is identity of opportunity. This aim might be a sound one if all human minds were identical in their powers, but since no two are alike, the only valid method of education is one that provides a high degree of attention for each individual mind. Any serious and extended effort to give identity of opportunity in education has but one result—it creates the necessity of some kind of dictatorial leadership. No nation so trained in its schools can escape it. It is as inexorable as a law of nature. The present actions of Japan are the full flower of mass education. Let supporters of democracy beware !

But do not misunderstand me. I am not condemning large classes as such. Huge numbers are not necessarily a mark of mass education, though they may easily become a step toward it by being twisted into an argument for it. A good teacher knows how to handle large groups of pupils in such a way as to develop the gifts of many of them. He refrains from clipping them all to the same pattern. At the worst, he is teaching under the handicap of a heavy load. But still he may be a good servant of democracy in endeavoring to develop individual minds, so far as the handicap permits.

Don’t Ignore the Past

ONE MAY suspect as an “educator in reverse gear” the spellbinder who would rule out the study of the past and

limit our young people to contemplation of the present. All too often has soap-box oratory wrenched the poet's exhortation, “Live in the living present,” into counsel to forget what has happened in the world before our time. The curse of up-to-dateness has blinded many to the glaringly patent fact that the only satisfactory explanation of the up-to-date is the past. It was a heathenish worship of the present that fathered the blunders of the War settlement at Versailles twenty years ago. Those who appealed for a thorough and sympathetic study of national histories were driven from the temple. Their prophecies are sadly being realized in the international turmoil of today.

But it never does any good to say, “I told you so.” The best we can do is to see that this sorry spectacle can never be repeated in our nation and among nations. Yet it will be repeated if we allow our boys and girls to be trained in school only in and for things as they are now. If our young people are going to succeed in the business of life, they must see and know the things out of which this business was built—its failures, its recoveries, the principles followed by its builders.

But the evil results of ignoring the past are not merely broad and general in their effect; they touch the smaller and more personal activities of life as well. They can harm alike a business as well as business. All too many young persons who enter upon a life of affairs are so used to fixing their eyes upon the present that they fail to realize that all individual businesses have their histories, and that to succeed in his own business each recruit must know the history of that business. The details may seem petty and boring, yet systematic study of them is essential to constructive action and to progress. In the great modem training schools of commerce and finance, one of the most important courses is the history of business.

The nation, like the individual, is unable to escape the past with impunity. The nation’s specialized instrument for providing it with a training in its past is the school. They who would banish or impair that training in the school are enemies of their country’s welfare. A great Frenchman said, “Great nations have long memories,” by which he plainly meant that no nation can become great unless it has a long memory. I f the foes of the study of the past have their way, the nation will not only go backward like a crayfish but will also shoot out aimlessly in every other direction—except forward. Disregard of the past explains most of the cockeyed economics of today.

Limitations of Schooling

ONE OF the greatest dangers now threatening sound education is the false notion that practically all the ills of society can be healed by instituting academic courses. According to this notion, the school system is a sort of apothecary shop—an old-fashioned corner drugstore. Who could ever forget that typical antique layout? A shelf for cough medicines, a shelf for liniments, a shelf for physics, a shelf for every medicament under the sun.

Is the parallel plain? Survey the academic curricula of today, count their numerous courses, study their titles and their obvious aims. The evidence is overwhelming: somehow the idea has Liken possession of society that courses are like doses; that for each social ill there exists a specific educational cure.

The idea, though false, has power because it seems simple and plausible. Naturally, the average citizen thinks of courses in terms of the studies he knew in the elementary school—arithmetic, grammar. writing, reading—courses that remedied definite deficiencies in his intellec-

tual experience. In a certain sense, they were truly doses. But they were all relatively simple and easy, despite difficulties experienced by the blockheads. However, one does not have to go far in schooling until one finds there are subjects that cannot be taught as these can; subjects that cannot be presented as medicines. Literature and history are notable instances in being so delicate in their nature as to defy the methods of mechanical teachers and rote-learning pupils. Teaching them is not the transference of objecj tive things, such as figures, forms and ! formulae, from one mind to another, but rather the exertion of a subtle power whereby one personality influences another personality to acquire new feelings, new points of view and new understandings. There are many other subjects of this kind, especially in the higher ranges of education, and the reason that there are many failures in teaching them is that so j many teachers have presented them as though they were pharmaceutical doses.

And then there are some subjects which by nature cannot be taught at all academically. Ethics is only the history of systems i of morals, but good morals are acquired only by practice and through association with countless personal moral influences. A course in philanthropy could be nothing but the history of giving, whereas giving itself springs from the spirit of unselfishness. Direct formal courses in good citizenship always turn out to be duds, because j good citizenship cannot be taught in that manner; it can, however, be inculcated or induced by indirect methods, the great element of which is the personal influence of good citizens. A good teacher who is at the same time conspicuously a good citizen j is worth his weight in gold to any nation.

The inference is manifest: treat with

suspicion every new proposal to heal a social ill by the introduction of a new course in the educational program. First of all make sure that it can be healed by any academic course. If finally you think it can, next make sure the particular course suggested is the right one and naturally lends itself to being taught. You will be surprised at the results: only a few courses will pass muster, and you will get an increasingly clear vision of how a beginning might be made in uncluttering our present overloaded curriculum. For the later and more important result you will have to take the word of an experienced teacher: our schools of all grades would be accomplishing more of the work of real education, at less expense and with less fuss. And lastly, there would be less education in a backward direction—wild experiments that never should have been tried.

I am well aware that in writing thus I am exposing myself to the charge of attempting to become schoolmaster to the public— always an unpopular role. But surely it is evident that the teacher’s job does not end in reforming systems, framing courses, I making timetables and giving instruction. A very large part of his job is to know the history of education and its record of failures, blunders and successes. Such knowledge thrusts upon him the duty, however unpleasant, of warning the public against making the old mistakes and of endeavoring to furnish them with positive guidance to progressive educational policy and action. After all. in a democracy it is the citizens themselves who ultimately determine the nature of the educational system that obtains in the nation. In other words, the responsibility for the success or the failure of the school really rests upon each citizen. What a wonderful job he has !


Subscribers receiving notice of the approaching expiration of their subscriptions are reminded of the necessity of sending in their renewal orders promptly.

The demand for copies to fill new orders is so great that we cannot guarantee the mailing of even a single issue beyond the period covered by your subscription. To avoid disappointment, your renewal order should be mailed to us promptly when you receive the "expiration” notice.