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Schools And Education
Child Development
Child's Education
Education And Life
The Common School
Physical Education
Citizenship And Schools
Education In Democratic Society
Ethics In Schools
Efficiency Of Our Schools
Creative Education
Drama And Education

Education In Democratic Society

( Originally Published 1913 )

What the function of education shall be in a democracy will depend on what is meant by democratic education.

Too many of us think of education for the people as if it meant only learning to read, write, and cipher. Now, reading, writing, and simple ciphering are merely the tools by the dili gent use of which a rational education is to be obtained through years of well-directed labor. They are not ends in themselves, but means to the great end of enjoying a rational existence. Under any civilized form of government, these arts ought to be acquired by every child by the time it is nine years of age. Competent teachers, or properly conducted schools, now teach reading, writing, and spelling simultaneously, so that the child writes every word it reads, and, of course, in writing, spells the word. Ear, eye, and hand thus work together from the beginning in the acquisition of the arts of reading and writing. As to ciphering, most educational experts have become convinced that the amount of arithmetic which an educated person who is not some sort of computer needs to make use of, is but small, and that real education should not be delayed or impaired for the sake of acquiring a skill in ciphering, which will be of little use either to the child or to the adult. Reading, writing, and arithmetic, then, are not the goal of popular education.

The goal in all education, democratic or other, is always receding before the advancing contestant, as the top of a mountain seems to retreat before the climber, remoter and higher summits appearing successively as each apparent summit is reached. Nevertheless, the goal of the moment in education is always the acquisition of knowledge, the training of some permanent capacity for productiveness or enjoyment, and the development of character. Democratic education being a very new thing in the world, its attainable objects are not yet fully perceived. Plato taught that the laborious classes in a model commonwealth, needed no education whatever. That seems an extraordinary opinion for a great philosopher to hold; but, while we wonder at it, let us recall that only one generation ago, in some of our southern states, it was a crime to teach a member of the laborious class to read. In feudal society education was the privilege of some of the nobility and clergy, and was one source of the power of these two small classes. Universal education in Germany dates only from the Napoleonic wars; and its object has been to make intelligent soldiers and subjects, rather than happy freemen. In England the system of public instruction is but twenty-seven years old. Moreover, the fundamental object of democratic educationto lift the whole population to a higher plane of intelligence, conduct, and happiness-has not yet been perfectly apprehended even in the United States. Too many of our own people think of popular education as if it were only a protection against dangerous superstitions, or a measure of police, or a means of increasing the national productiveness in the arts and trades. Our generation may, therefore, be excused if it has but an incomplete vision of the goal of education in a democracy.

I proceed to describe briefly the main elements of instruction and discipline in a democratic school. As soon as the easy use of what I have called the tools of education is acquired, and even while this familiarity is being gained, the capacities for productiveness and enjoyment should begin to be trained through the progressive acquisition of an elementary knowledge of the external world. The democratic school should begin early-in the very first grades-the study of nature; and all its teachers should, therefore, be capable of teaching the elements of physical geography, meteorology, botany, and zoology, the whole forming in the child's mind one harmonious sketch of its complex environment. This is a function of the primary school teacher which our fathers never thought of, but which every passing year brings out more and more clearly as a prime function of every instructor of little children. Somewhat later in the child's progress towards maturity, the great sciences of chemistry and physics will find place in its course of systematic training. From the seventh or eighth year, according to the quality and capacity of the child, plane and solid geometry, the science of form, should find a place among the school studies, and some share of the child's attention that great subject should claim for six or seven successive years. The process of making acquaintance with external nature through the elements of these various sciences should be interesting and enjoyable for every child. It should not be painful, but delightful; and throughout the process the child's skill in the arts of reading, writing, and ciphering should be steadily developed.

There is another part of every child's environment with which he should early begin to make acquaintance, namely, the human part. The story of the human race should be grad ually conveyed to the child's mind from the time he begins to read with pleasure. This story should be conveyed quite as much through biography as through history; and with the descriptions of facts and real events should be entwined charming and uplifting products of the imagination...

Into the education of the great majority of children there enters as an important part their contribution to the daily labor of the household and the farm, or, at least, of the house hold. It is one of the serious consequences of the rapid concentration of population into cities and large towns, and of the minute division of labor which characterizes modern industries, that this wholesome part of education is less easily secured than it used to be when the greater part of the population was engaged in agriculture. Organized education must, therefore, supply in urban communities a good part of the manual and moral training which the co-operation of children in the work of father and mother affords in agricultural communities. Hence the great importance in any urban population of facilities for training children to accurate handwork, and for teaching them patience, forethought, and good judgment in productive labor.

Lastly, the school should teach every child, by precept, by example, and by every illustration its reading can supply, that the supreme attainment for any individual is vigor and love liness of character. Industry, persistence, veracity in word and act, gentleness, and disinterestedness should be made to thrive and blossom during school life in the hearts of the children who bring these virtues from their homes well started, and should be planted and tended in the less fortunate children. Furthermore, the pupils should be taught that what is virtue in one human being is virtue in any group of human beings, large or small-a village, a city, or a nation; that the ethical principles which should govern an empire are precisely the same as those which should govern an individual; and that selfishness, greed, falseness, brutality, and ferocity are as hateful and degrading in a multitude as they are in a single savage.

The education thus outlined is what I think should be meant by democratic education. It exists today only among the most intelligent people, or in places singularly fortunate in regard to the organization of their schools; but though it be the somewhat distant ideal of democratic education, it is by no means an unattainable ideal. It is the reasonable aim of the public school in a thoughtful and ambitious democracy. It, of course, demands a kind of teacher much above the elementary school teacher of the present day, and it also requires a larger expenditure upon the public school than is at all customary as yet in this country. But that better kind of teacher and that larger expenditure are imperatively called for, if democratic institutions are to prosper, and to promote continuously the real welfare of the mass of the people. The standard of education should not be set at the now attained or the now attainable. It is the privilege of public education to press toward a mark remote.

From the total training during childhood there should result in the child a taste for interesting and improving reading, which should direct and inspire its subsequent intellectual life. That schooling which results in this taste for good reading, however, unsystematic or eccentric the schooling may have been, has achieved a main end of elementary education; and that schooling which does not result in implanting this permanent taste has failed. Guided and animated by this impulse to acquire knowledge, and exercise his imagination through reading, the individual will continue to educate himself all through life. Without that deep-rooted impulsion he will soon cease to draw on the accumulated wisdom of the past and the new resources of the present, and, as he grows older, he will live in a mental atmosphere which is always growing thinner and emptier. Do we not all know many people who seem to live in a mental vacuum-to whom, indeed, we have great difficulty in attributing immortality, because they apparently have so little life except that of the body? Fifteen minutes a day of good reading would have given any one of this multitude a really human life. The uplifting of the democratic masses depends on this implanting at school of the taste for good reading.

Another important function of the public school in a democracy is the discovery and development of the gift or capacity of each individual child. This discovery should be made at the earliest practicable age, and, once made, should always influence, and sometimes determine, the education of the individual. It is for the interest of society to make the most of every useful gift or faculty which any member may fortunately possess; and it is one of the main advantages of fluent and mobile democratic society that it is more likely than any other society to secure the fruition of individual capacities. To make the most of any individual's peculiar power, it is important to discover it early, and then train it continuously and assiduously. It is wonderful what apparently small personal gifts may become the means of conspicuous service or, achievement, if only they get discovered, trained, and applied. A quick eye for shades of color enables a blacksmith to earn double wages in sharpening drills for quarrymen. A delicate sense of touch makes the fortune of a wool buyer. An extraordinary perceptive forefinger gives a surgeon the advantage over all his competitors. A fine voice, with good elocution, and a strong memory for faces and parliamentary rules, may give striking political success to a man otherwise not remarkable. In the ideal democratic school no two children would follow the same course of study or have the same tasks, except that they would all need to learn the use of the elementary tools of education-reading, writing, and ciphering. The different children would hardly have any identical needs. There might be a minimum standard of attainment in every branch of study, but no maximum. The perception or discovery of the individual gift or capacity would often be effected in the elementary school, but more generally in the secondary; and the making of these discoveries should be held one of the most important parts of the teacher's work. The vague desire for equality in a democracy has worked great mischief in democratic schools. There is no such thing as equality of gifts, or powers, or faculties, among either children or adults. On the contrary, there is the utmost diversity; and education and all the experience of life increase these diversities, because school, and the earning of a livelihood, and the reaction of the individual upon his surroundings, all tend strongly to magnify innate diversities. The pretended democratic school with an inflexible programme is fighting not only against nature, but against the interests of democratic society. Flexibility of programme should begin in the elementary school, years before the period of secondary education is reached. There should be some choice of subjects of study by ten years of age, and much variety by fifteen years of age. On the other hand, the programmes of elementary, as well as of secondary schools, should represent fairly the chief divisions of knowledge, namely, language and literature, mathematics, natural science, and history, besides drawing, manual work, and music. If school programmes fail to represent the main varieties of intellectual activity, they will not afford the means of discovering the individual gifts and tendencies of the pupils...

The next function of education in a democracy should be the firm planting in every child's mind of certain great truths which lie at the foundation of the democratic social theory. The first of these truths is the intimate dependence of each human individual on a multitude of other individuals, not in infancy alone, but at every moment of life-a dependence which increases with civilization and with the development of urban life. This sense of mutual dependence among multitudes of human beings can be brought home to children during school life so clearly and strongly that they will never lose it. By merely teaching children whence come their food, drink, clothing, and means of getting light and heat, and how these materials are supplied through the labors of many individuals of many races scattered all over the world, the school may illustrate and enforce this doctrine of intricate interdependence, which really underlies modern democracy-a doctrine never more clearly expressed than in these two Christian sentences: "No man liveth to himself," and "We are every one members one of another." The dependence of every family, and indeed every person, on the habitual fidelity of mechanics, purveyors, railroad servants, cooks and nurses, can be easily brought to children. Another mode of implanting this sentiment is to trace in history the obligations of the present generation to many former generations. These obligations can be easily pointed out in things material, such as highways, waterworks, fences, houses, and barns, and, in New England, at least, the stone walls and piles of stone gathered from the arable fields by the patient labor of predecessors on the family farm. But it may also be exhibited to the pupils of secondary schools, and, in some measure, to the pupils of elementary schools, in the burdens and sufferings which former generations have borne for the establishment of freedom of conscience and of speech, and of toleration in religion, and for the development of the institutions of public justice. Of course history is full of examples of the violation of this fundamental democratic doctrine of mutual help. Indeed, history, as commonly written, consists chiefly in the story of hideous violations of this principle, such as wars and oppressions, and the selfish struggles of class against class, church against church, and nation against nation. But these violations, with the awful sufferings that follow from them, may be made to point and emphasize the truth of the fundamental doctrine; and unless the teaching of history in our public schools does this, it were better that the subject should not be taught at all.

Another ethical principle which a democracy should teach to all its children is the familiar Christian doctrine that service rendered to others is the surest source of one's own satis faction and happiness. This doctrine is a tap-root of private happiness among all classes and conditions of men; but in a democracy it is important to public happiness and well-being. In a democracy the public functionary is not a master, but a trusted servant. By excellence of service he earns not only a pecuniary consideration, but also respect and gratitude. This statement applies just as well to a letter-carrier, a fireman, or a village selectman, as it does to a high school teacher, a judge, or a governor. Democracy applies literally the precept: "If any man would be great among you, let him be your servant." The quality of this faithful service and its rewards should be carefully taught in school to all children of a democracy. The children should learn that the desire to be of great public service is the highest of all ambitions; and they should be shown in biography and in history how the men and women who, as martyrs, teachers, inventors, legislators, and judges, have rendered great service, have thereby won enduring gratitude and honor.

Since it is a fundamental object of a democracy to promote the happiness and well-being of the masses of the population, the democratic school should explicitly teach children to see and utilize the means of happiness which lie about them in the beauties and splendors of , nature. The school should be a vehicle of daily enjoyment, and the teacher should be to the child a minister of joy. Democratic society has already learned how to provide itself, at least in the more intelligent communities, with open grounds in cities,and parks in suburbs, and has in these ways begun to provide directly for the wholesome pleasures of the population. It should be a recognized function of the democratic school to teach the children and their parents how to utilize all accessible means of innocent enjoyment.

Finally, the democratic school must teach its children what the democratic nobility is. The well-trained child will read in history and poetry about patricians, nobles, aristocrats, princes, kings, and emperors, some of them truly noble, but many vile; and he will also read with admiring sympathy of the loyalty and devotion which through all the centuries have been felt by generous men and women of humbler condition toward those of higher. He will see what immense virtues these personal loyalties have developed, even when the objects of loyalty have been unworthy; and he will ask himself: "What are to be the corresponding virtues in a democracy?" The answer is: Fidelity to all forms of duty which demand courage, self-denial, and zeal, and loyal devotion to the democratic ideals of freedom, serviceableness, unity, toleration, public justice, and public joyfulness. The children should learn that the democratic nobility exists, and must exist if democracy is to produce the highest types of character; but that it will consist only of men and women of noble character, produced under democratic conditions by the combined influences of fine inherited qualities, careful education, and rich experience. They should learn to admire and respect persons of this quality, and to support them, on occasion, in preference to the ignoble. They should learn that mere wealth has no passport to the democratic nobility, and that membership in it can be transmitted to children only through the transmission of the sound mental and moral qualities which are its sole warrant. This membership should be the rightful ambition of parents for their children, and of children for their future selves. Every person of the true quality, no matter what his station, or vocation, is admitted of right to this simple democratic nobility, which home, church, and school unite in recruiting; and there are, consequently, more real nobles under the democratic form of government than under any other. -Dr. Eliot

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