W. SHERWOOD FOX February 15 1938


W. SHERWOOD FOX February 15 1938



A higher standard of training for teachers, and better salaries, would correct many faults, says


WHAT IS wrong with our schools anyway? No other question is more often put to us teachers than this. Its cast and tone reveal the questioner’s conviction that something is wrong. But our normal and perhaps very natural reaction is to reply by asking another question: Who says so?

The replies are prompt, direct, serious and illuminating. Here are a few typical ones.

‘‘Why, at the educational convention in Toronto last April, you teachers yourselves, if the press reported correctly, picked the educational system to pieces and clamored for a thousand and one reforms. When members of a household begin publicly to find fault with the housekeeping, there must be something wrong with it.” "Recently at a meeting of the Canadian Chambers of Commerce in British Columbia, a proposal was made and approved that, in order to set the school right, a Bureau of Educational Research be established at Ottawa. Manifestly when an influential group of educated and critical citizens take it for granted that the school system is seriously defective, the less critical citizen has a right to be alarmed.” "If a former distinguished university professor, now turned novelist, dares to write about ‘crazy education,’ it looks as if the school were condemning itself.”

Apparently, then, the layman has some very good reasons for asking with anxiety and even with considerable impatience, what is wrong with our schools.

There is only one way for informed and honest educators to deal with his question, and that is a very simple one. They must, first of all. admit that he is right; and next, show him why; and, finally, point out the way to reform.

He who declares that the schools of today are wrong is right, chiefly for the reason, known to all students of education, that the schools are always wrong.

This sounds like a terrible indictment, but it is very far from it. In each period of recorded history, in all countries of the world, educational systems have fallen short of meeting fully the changing conditions of the people. Reform in education is, therefore, always necessary; and it cannot be effected, especially in democracies, without constant, candid and unrestricted discussion. Each national system of education, while in part a shaper of the nation, is in still greater part a product of its age. In other words, the school is a replica of the nation in miniature. Its virtues and shortcomings are those of the people. If, then, we, the people, are the school, the wrongs of the school can be righted only by righting ourselves.

Now what are our outstanding faults and shortcomings? How do they get into the school and hamper its attainment of its aims? Let us deal with the second question first.

Home Influence

BROADLY speaking, there are three avenues whereby the defects of the people penetrate the school : the great mass of the adult population, the pupils, the teachers.

The populace as a unit exercises its influence through the demands it makes upon the school in the nature of its product. These demands are based upon a very common uncritical assumption that the school is a sort of factory making over "raw materials,” that the children of the nation are these "raw materials,” and that original flaws in them can be eliminated by education just as manufacturers

remove impurities from the inert raw materials with which they deal.

The pupils as a group exercise their particular influence by bringing into the school the faulty habits of thought, observation and action, and the incorrect assumptions of the society from which the pupils come.

The teachers, however efficient, in their endeavors to eradicate these flaws have to work against the combined resistance of the pupils and their social background. Naturally, it is very hard, if not impossible, to get pupils to regard as flaws the things which they see as normal features of their own family life and of that of the neighborhood. The teachers, in their turn, being also of and from the people, exercise their retarding influence by importing into the school (unwittingly, of course) the faults of the society in which they were reared. That we teachers are to be held responsible for retarding in any degree the realization of educational purposes should not be resented by our profession. It is to be expected, for surely we are just as human as our fellows and are in no way a sacrosanct order of beings exempt from the frailties of our kind.

Now what are the leading faults of English-speaking America? Bare outlines must suffice.

The “Getting By” Habit

HTHE TRAIT of North American character that Shocks the European most is our general satisfaction with "just getting by.” It juts out of our continental life from Alaska to the Mexican frontier. To have met the barest requirements of service and to have got our wages, to have fulfilled the letter of a contract, to have delivered the goods as specified in regard to place and timethis we tend to regard as the performance of our whole duty. And if it so happens that the person with whom we are dealing is satisfied with less than the contract, this pleases us all the more. Frequent success in this kind of attainment has established it as the goal of future effort. If the good will be accepted, we say, why need we strive to give the better? Is this not a strange attitude in a society that prides itself in being progressive?

This defect appears in many forms. One of them— among the worst—is our careless use of language. The general assumption of North Americans is that if eventually you succeed in making the other person understand what you are driving at. nothing more should be expected of you. It does not matter that through bad grammar, slipshod syntax and sloppy pronunciation, we create uncertainties in the other person's mind that retard his understanding of what we are trying to say. No, we have "got by” and that

is all we care. It means nothing that through clearness and correctness of statement we might have accomplished a better transaction or paved the way to better transactions in the future. After all. clearness in thinking and in conveying thought enhances ease and speed in negotiation, and the enhancement of these things means better and bigger business. Improvement in the administration of all human affairs depends directly and to a tremendous degree upon improvement in the use of spoken and written language.

Now the children of our society come to the school with the idea—not formulated, of course, but ingrained into their nature—that precision and correctness of language simply do not matter. Think of the problem that confronts the poor teachers who believe that they do matter and matter greatly ! Their task is practically that of retraining and remaking society in expressing itself clearly and accurately. Let us make no mistake in believing that it is only in the primary school that pupils hold this idea; students of the secondary school and of the university are equally guilty. If the fault were not inherent in the people as a whole, it could normally be trained out of students before they reach the university. In Europe and Great Britain those who cannot command the fundamentals of their vernacular are not admitted to universities.

University professors who endeavor to train adults in the elements of their own language are engaging in a thankless task. I cite one rebuff only out of many due to absolute ignorance of what constitutes even normal conversational English. After oft-repeated admonitions concerning the most rudimentary details of composition, a studentteacher thus wrote:

"I wish to inform you that I am dropping your university. I feel that I have not received credit for the work I have been doing. In the first place, I do not understand why I received a failure in English . . . Further, I do not wish to receive any more slams.”

What are we to do with such teachers as these who, despite their special training, do not understand that a correct use of language is a thing of moment? Not having a standard of correctness themselves, they have none to communicate to their wards. The instruction in literature and the forms of speech which the curriculum requires them to give, is nothing to them but a lifeless and stupid routine. Can we blame their pupils if they think that these subjects are a hateful waste of time? Why wonder if later, as grown-up voters, they entertain certain doubts as to the efficacy of education?

But surely such teachers are few? On the contrary, they are numerous, though not a great proportion of the whole. Yet it is a shame that any of this stripe at all get into the profession, since they are a tangible factor in preventing formal education from accomplishing more of what it is created to do.

Thoroughness is Lacking

ANOTHER form of the shortcoming is a general tendency to avoid thoroughness, finish and neatness. To say that it is a remnant of pioneer days, when to provide enough food, shelter and clothing, no matter how crude, was the first need, is only pointing to its historical origin. It does not relieve us of the responsibility of striving to root it out of our lives in these advanced days. We no longer have an excuse for being slipshod and incomplete in performance, and for being ignorant that such a deficiency is a handicap to prosperity and progress.

Since the school is an institution of the people, this deficiency insinuates itself into the school as a parasite into its host. It is conveyed by all the three chief agencies we have already noted. Once it is inside, it saps and weakens the life upon which it feeds. It is often the real, though not always the apparent cause of the defeat of educational endeavor. The efforts of educational leaders to carry out programs and methods of study that will lead to thoroughness are frequently weakened and sometimes wholly nullified by the protests of parents, home and school clubs, and several like organizations, who claim that the offspring of the dear public are being killed by the needless exactions of the school. Even university administrators are quite used to hearing such representations. In the last analysis, I venture to say, most of this resistance of the public springs from our society’s lack of an instinct of thoroughness, and from its ignorance of the truth that education of necessity involves very hard and thorough work.

work. Another inherent fault is an almost universal unwilling-

ness to pay the price for things that are worth wnile. North

America is the continent of shortcuts, not across beautiful

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What*sWrong With OurSchoois?

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fields of daisies or poppies as in the Old Country, but across the fields of serious intellectual endeavor. Young and old alike we have become spoiled by a legion of labor-saving devices. We have developed a labor-saving manner of thinking. When we have a spiritual or intellectual task to perform, we instinctively seek first of all an abbreviated method of doing it. We forget that there is no vacuum duster, no electric heater, no mechanical polisher for the mind. For cleaning or warming or polishing the mind, there is no device but hard work carried out to its logical end. The best teacher in the world can do for the pupil but little more than banish some of the dullness of school, and provide an atmosphere that encourages the effort to learn.

Demands of parents and of the general public that instruction in the schools be made brighter, more cheerful, more inspiring, fully coincide with the desires of the teachers themselves. But when these demands are carefully analyzed (for instance, the demand that homework be abolished), they are shown to be in the main something different from what they appear to be. In reality, they are demands that the pupil be released from the toil of learning and that he be permitted to grow up contented with half doing jobs that are assigned him. This, as Euclid would say, is absurd. When more pupils come from a background where it is taken for granted that there are no royal roads, no shortcuts, to the training of the mind and spirit, then our schools will do an immensely better job than they can possibly do now.

It is an old story that good instruments are misrepresented by misuse. Husbands will persist in using domestic scissors to cut wire, and wives in trying to drive screws with chisels. But scissors and chisels both remain excellent tools for their intended purposes. In education, organization is an indispensable tool in any country, but unfortunately in North America our history has compelled us to employ it in an exceptional way. Starting their educational enterprise centuries behind Europe, our forefathers found that elaborate organization was the only device at their disposal to help them toward quickly overcoming the lag. Their excessive emphasis upon it, which we have inherited, is very natural. Of course, they could not foresee the present very pernicious result of their emphasis. The glaring prominence given to the machinery of education has done much to obscure in the public mind the essential principle of education, namely, that it is a gradual, vital process of the mind which cannot take place unless the mind concerned toils perseveringly with the subjects of its study. Leonardo da Vinci was partly alluding to education when he prayed, “Thou, O God, dost give unto us all good things at the price of labor.”

Our great reliance upon organization, the tendency to confuse the instrument and its purpose, manifests itself in many ways. The so-called “credit system,” so amusing and so appalling to Europeans, is one of them. This involves the pupils’ acquisition of a required number of specified units of study. The content of the unit in time and subjects varies among regions, systems and institutions. Standings are granted, diplomas awarded, degrees are conferred for the accumulation of the magical number of units designated in each instance. Nowadays even a moron can acquire sufficient credits for entrance to university if he is allowed to write the examinations often enough. Viewed in its unmodified starkness, this system may appropriately be termed the “Savings Bank System of Education.”

“Take a Chance’*

TLTOWEVER, the system is not to be

-*■ summarily and wholly condemned. Like other abused instruments, it has its place. If it is used as a general guide line and not as an exact spirit level, it can be of inestimable service in avoiding guessing and haggling. If it is applied without regard for the variable human factors of both teacher and pupils, it may become a dangerous weapon in creating an utterly wrong conception of education. Most trained administrators and teachers know how to use it safely. It is a most lamentable thing, however, that the immature student and public at large have the habit of regarding it as a precise measure of educational training and mental development.

For example, John Jones, Jr., has just received a diploma as Expert in the Science of What Not in exchange for a record of 100 units of study which he has just presented to his school. The affair looks like a deal over the counter. John, his dear ones and his admiring friends, unacquainted with the philosophy of the credit system, are scarcely to be blamed if they assume that John has now secured for himself a solid block of education relatively estimated as worth 100, and has shown himself to be somewhat superior to his neighbor, Jimmy Johnson, Jr., who has been able to scrape up a block of credits rated at only ninety-five.

Many historians have noted a striking North American characteristic—we are willing “to take a chance” in anything, no matter how serious and momentous it may be. It is dangerous for us Canadians to assume that we are the lesser sinners in this respect. Teachers find a majority of pupils instinctively prepared to leap without looking. Looking would entail effort, and, besides, one might land safely without looking and that, of course, would be all right. The same principle underlies an old American business attitude toward bank-

j ruptcy which President Dixon Ryan Fox. of Union College, Schenectady, points out. He says in substance: If bankruptcy came, it was taken as a normal episode in the career of self-education. Willing to take a chance of failure without regard for the harm to himself or to his creditor! Unwilling to take time beforehand to plan reducing the chances of failure to a minimum ! Teachers have a herculean task to eradicate or even abate such an instinct in their protégés.

Raise Teachers’ Salaries

OUR PICTURE is a sketchy outline of English-speaking North America of this age minus its virtues, which are many and great. Only one of these, however, is relevant here: the citizens of North America still retain’their noble faith in education and. if they are shown how the defects of their school system can be discovered and removed, are still willing to continue to support it generously. Such a virtue covers a multitude of sins !

But now that we know the faults of our schools, how are we to proceed? What we should not attempt is plain. It would surely be utter folly to try to reform the whole public as a unit. That would he like an endeavor to heat all outdoors with a house furnace by leaving the windows open. Similarly, pupils and students are so huge a group that we could not hope for quick results in applying our first and most important efforts to them.

There remain, then, the teachers—a unit which, though large, is yet not too large to deal with. To devote most of our chief efforts to them is, as a long-term policy, our “best bet.” The sequence of results is manifest: improved teachers, who will improve the quality of pupils, who in their tum will become the improved public of the next generation. One must remember this: in education the time scale is not terms and years, but generations.

It requires no special insight and ability to say that the first step toward greater efficiency in education is to exercise greater selectiveness in the appointment of teachers in all branches of education. It is an old statement, but for that very reason needs to be repeated unceasingly. But the selectors can make no progress without the aid of the public. The public must understand that a prime prerequisite to an advance in selection of teachers is the raising of the ivhole scale of teachers’ salaries.

The present scale invites into the profession only a handful of those who are qualified by nature. Their special talent fits them also for the more highly rewarded walks of life. A wage which on the average approximates bare subsistence cannot attract enough of those whose efficiency depends upon freedom from the dogging anxiety of how to keep decently alive. The public and its boards of education should understand that an adequate salary is a powerful instrument of selection. It eliminates most of the inefficient teachers even before they apply.

Better Training Needed

MENTION of the second step will raise some eyebrows. More encouragement must be given to those agencies that are striving to improve the training of teachers. This applies to colleges of education, normal schools, universities and all allied institutions. Here is where a deliberate and concerted attempt can be made to abate our common faults and to reduce appreciably their drag upon the school. The resistance offered to pedagogical training is very great and takes on many forms, but most of them are really nothing more than the prospective teacher’s normal human dislike of being improved. Some of the difficulties are to be found, of course, in the trainers themselves, for they too are human. But one must remember that they are steadily and industriously improving their methods of training.

A third step also is necessary. It would seem superfluous to have to point it out. If

we, the people, are the school, we should be kept informed as to what the school is doing now and is planning to do in the future. It is only fair that we should expect our representatives who manage the school for us, that is, the teaching profession, to give us this information and to give it in simple everyday English rather than in the technical language of education. If they will do that, we shall all gladly listen and will be able to understand.

The school as we know it in North

America is the greatest planned social experiment the world has ever known. Because it is planned in origin, it can be carried on only by continued planning. We have shown the world a unique and colossal faith in our plan. Despite our inability to realize all our hopes, the plan and our faith have not yet been proved to be a failure. We know definitely what and where the chief obstacles are. It only remains for us to work hard and enthusiastically at our faith.