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Changing Demands On The School

( Originally Published 1924 )

DURING the last few generations the demands of the community on the school have multiplied almost beyond recognition.

In earlier times many of the almost unrecognized needs of childhood were met automatically, though more or less crudely, by the conditions under which people lived. On the farms, in the towns, even in cities of fair size, the family had a large measure of self-dependence. Production was not so highly specialized as it has since become, and both mother and father took an active part in home duties. So the children, some from interest, others from necessity, had a part in these same activities. The boy helped his father or the "hired man" make minor repairs in wood or metal, and then played havoc with the tools, building boats and cannon and sleds. The girl, and perhaps her brother, helped with the house-work, from wiping dishes to dusting the bric--brac. The garden, chickens, sometimes a cow, provided a foundation for nature study, which fields and streams and the family fruit-jars, filled with pollywogs and snails, carried on.

Play, too, was provided for. Open fields were common. The primitive instincts, such as those for climbing, hunting, collecting, and competing, had much opportunity for natural expression. The school, therefore, was merely a place to which children were sent to learn the three R's.

But now the increased massing of the people in cities has deprived the child of much of his birth-right. There is no woodshed in which the boy can tinker, not much enthusiasm or chance for gardens, too often no opportunity or need for the children to help about the house. The only city play-spots are likely to be in unsanitary streets in constant danger from passing vehicles, or occasionally in a park that may be inconveniently located or inadequately equipped.

Then, too, the crowded lives of our men and women leave the parents a continually decreasing amount of time to really live with their children, so the development of the social and moral virtues that come rather from example and from being lived than from any amount of precept is being more and more left to the school.

On the other hand, while the home has been giving up these sides of the child's training, conditions have also greatly increased the information that children must have in order to be even reasonably in touch with the world's activities. Discoveries and inventions have been multiplied at an unprecedented rate, and one who does not have at least a fair acquaintance with them is woefully ignorant.

In vocabulary alone the increase is astounding. The early dictionaries contained from eight to fifteen thousand words. The latest ones are little short of half a million.

Again, increasing use of machinery is enabling mankind to supply its needs with fewer hours of labor, and is therefore leaving more hours free from scheduled work. If there is no preparation for the constructive or at least harmless use of this free time, many of those who have no resources within themselves will become dissatisfied, perhaps even vicious. The love of nature, appreciation of art, music, and literature, enjoyment in constructive activity with tools or in the garden, pleasure in physical recreation, all can help to meet this need. So even machinery is creating a new and insistent demand on the schools.

But the greatest duty of all is that of preparing for intelligent and helpful living in a community. Today the world stands practically committed to democracy. When our boys and girls reach the voting-age they are supposed to be able to assume the duties of citizenship and to meet them conscientiously and wisely. The school must therefore develop community thinking and community responsibility.

When we consider the army of those who indirectly work for even the most humble of us, providing our food, our clothing, our shelter, and all the necessities and luxuries that go to make our daily lives, we begin to realize how interlaced, how impossible of separation, the interests of all of us are.

Trace in imagination the progress of one thing, the suit you wear, the meat on your table, the pencil with which you write and visualize the number of those upon whom your possession of it has depended. Others also depend in one way or another on you, and the common existence of all depends on each one's realizing that interdependence and assuming the responsibilities as well as the rights that are bound up in it.

The school, therefore, must become the smaller community, the practice-community if you will, where justice and consideration, self-reliance, and true responsibility even democracy itself are built into the characters of the children.

So the school cannot be merely a place where subjects are taught. Necessity has added to it play and handwork, household activities, preparation for lei-sure time and for citizenship. It must allow the expression of the primitive instincts of the race and must form them for the future. More and more its executives and teachers must think in terms of developing manhood and womanhood with the intricate mesh of qualities that underlie them, rather than in terms of pages and facts.

But the school must do still more. To be really vital it must touch and serve the life of the community. Some schools are so influencing the families of their pupils that the whole life of the neighborhood is being bettered. Certain rural schools find their fields in improving farming methods. Others in both city and country are bringing to their constituents music or art or literature for appreciation and study.

Still others are making their contributions through the extension of study-privileges to those who spend the usual school-hours in earning their living, or by contributing to the progress of education itself.

The school, therefore, is looming larger and larger in the make-up of our communities. No other agency can be comparable to it in its continuous influence on our people. One may stay away from church or never attend a theatre or see a moving picture, but the law demands that all native-born future citizens shall pass through the hands of the school. When that law is perfectly executed, and schooling for all immigrants also becomes a part of our system, then if the people are willing to support the right kind of schools we shall see the future formed and moulded before our eyes.

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