A Few Dangers
( Originally Published 1924 )
A DISCUSSION of educational tendencies can hardly be left without mention of a few dangers that must be avoided.
To many, a free, interesting school seems to be so near the millennium that it needs neither organization nor system. I can no more imagine an efficient school without plan than I can a human body without a skeleton. But as I do not care to see the bones of the skeleton obtrude themselves on my sight, so neither do I believe it necessary that the organization of a school shall force itself into the foreground in a way to mechanize and institutionalize what should be above all a human thing. Furthermore, the skeleton organization of a school should be a flexible skeleton, supporting, but not too greatly restricting, the motion of the body of which it is a part.
Again, many teachers confuse liberty with license, believing that those of us who wish children to learn to some extent by their own experiences would there-fore turn them loose to be swayed by every whim, while we — in the name of liberty — allowed them to form bad habits, to ignore and trample on the rights of others, and generally to destroy instead of building up. I cannot believe that sincere students of child psychology are ready to subscribe to any such theory. Freedom of choice and of conduct are tremendously important, but they, like anything else, must be used wisely. In this, as in all other fields, a child must learn somewhat by the accumulated experience of the past, which is represented by the adults with whom he is in contact.
Many teachers, also, take it for granted that the fundamentals of learning are necessarily being fixed if a child seems happy in school. Happiness furnishes the best condition for learning, if the child is taking pleasure in mental effort on the thing to be learned. It is quite possible, however, for children to be simply "amused" in school without actually learning any great amount concerning the use of the "tool" subjects that they will need throughout school and life. It is on account of this danger that the standardized subject-tests are proving such a help to teachers who wish to have happy, interested children, yet must assure themselves that definite progress is being made in certain subjects.
Loss of faith is a serious matter. Yet teachers sometimes lose faith when faced with a difficult task, and revert to methods they know to be wrong. It is so hard to keep patience with a slow child, or one who is persistently annoying, that we too often fall back into repressive nagging tactics, trying to tide over the present, even though we gain nothing for the future.
Oversensitiveness and other forms of selfishness, whether in executives, teachers, or parents, are a real menace. When adults think first of their own dignity, their own comfort, or their own wishes, rather than of the children concerned, that pettiness reacts inevitably on the school or home. Genuine love of children and devotion to their interests are their own safeguard, and their dignity is unassailable.
Above all, no teacher should try to bring about progress by revolution instead of evolution. Education has been building for thousands of years. It carries on its back loads of useless traditions and outgrown theories, but there is too much vigor in it to warrant too drastic treatment. We may cut away a useless part here and there, or recast one part or another, but it should be done with reverence, if without fear. And in making our changes, let us not become obsessed with any one method or system. The limitations of any system, or of the thought of any one man or woman or any group of men and women, are too narrow for the education of a race.