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Practical Education

( Originally Published Late 1800's )

The present age is intensely progressive and practical. Men enter upon the duties of life with a hopskip-and-jump. They can brook no delay. They invest capital with lavish hand and demand immediate returns. They rush from one business enterprise to another with a suddenness that would have taken away the breath of an ancestor. Moderation is a virtue unknown to the men of our time. We enter upon gigantic schemes, work with unsparing energy, accomplish large results and pass off the stage of action like the vanishing of a meteor, to make room for breathless workers pressing close upon our heels. The race of life is quickly run its prizes most hotly sought, and its rewards most speedily won. A man succeeds or fails in a moment and in the next is for-gotten, in the hurry and bustle of new work and new excitement. The national flag hangs at half-mast while the nation mourns a fallen hero and remains for the mourning of another. The first is forgotten before the grass grows green above his breast. A nation turns in tears from the tomb of Grant to weep over that of Hancock. And so the rushing scenes of life follow each other in mad haste and our lives are lived at fever-heat, with no leisure, no rest, no enjoyments' but those that are found in work.

The age demands an education to keep pace with this breathless haste. Our young men and women are being educated for busy and intensely active careers, and they wish their training to be adequate to the seeds of the hour and of the most practical kind. Whatever else it is, the educational process, in these days, must be conducive to a beneficial result. It must have a distinctly practical bearing upon the duties of one's vocation. Whether we join the ranks of the advocates of classical culture, or train with those who magnify the sciences ; whether we use the methods of the New Education or cling to the ways of the Old, we must be able to show that our methods will produce the best practical results. Utility is the final test of every educational process or appliance, and an education must be practical or it has no claim to exist in this day and age of the world. Unless men are educated for the practical duties of life they had better not be educated. The crying demand of the times is for men who can accomplish results easily and quickly, and unless our educational advantages tend in this direction they cease to be advantages and become hinderances; for knowledge that does not in some way serve a ready purpose in a man's life-career is so much useless lumber in the treasure-house of his mind.

This was substantially the ground taken by John Locke, in his "Thoughts Concerning Education," published in 1693. In this celebrated essay, the writer took what would now be called advanced ground, in pressing the utilitarian theory of education. He condemns the study of the classical languages as not being suited to the needs of life. He vehemently criticises the methods of the English university training as having no practical bearing upon nine-tenths of the vocations of Englishmen. In vigorous language he pleads for a practical knowledge of writing, accounts and arithmetic, and those more rudimentary forms of knowledge which have a direct bearing upon one's vocation. The essay has to this day a permanent value in the literature of educational reform.

But is it necessary to name some art or business or profession to which an education shall be directly applied before we call it practical ? Is there not some common ground from which, educationally speaking, men may start for divers vocations and varying degrees of success ? Is education an end in itself, or is it solely and completely a means to an end and that end only a tool in trade ? Must the culture of the mind give place to the culture of the hand ? Must we set the pursuit of truth aside and advance the pursuit of technical knowledge that bears only upon the business of a vocation? Must we educate John Smith, the lawyer, the banker, the artisan, and do nothing for John Smith the man? Is that the true theory of education which would place the ability to do skilled labor above the high arts of reason and noble graces of manhood ? Is is better to teach a boy how to make a rake than how to make a speech? Is it more practical to instruct a boy in the mysteries of Double Entry, than it is to lead him to the best thought of the ages and teach him the history of every land and fill his soul with a new inspiration and raise every faculty to a higher manhood ? Will he keep books any the less intelligently for such training ? Will he make a poorer rake or build a worse house because he has been taught to think well and reason profoundly ? We think not. We think the "bread and butter theory of education" is not adequate to the needs and demands of our modern life.

We are ready to admit that education is a means to an end; but it is not necessary to suppose that the end must be a groveling one. Indeed, the value of an education must be determined, for the most part, by the greatness of its aim and the largeness of the result accomplished. It will not fail of being useful because it is broad and liberal. Indeed, its utility must be measured by the breadth of its purpose and the extent of its advantages. Whatever contributes to the improvement and enlargement of the man makes him a better worker, a more efficient man; hence it is useful. And then, too, a man is something more than a mere working machine. He has relations to society and the state. He has other relations to his family and friends, and whatever affects the man favorably in all these relations is useful and practical. And that education which tends to bring out the highest degree of manhood, to enable him to grace these relations, is in the end the most practical. That course of training which lays a strong foundation for character, which elevates the man morally and' intellectually, and raises him above the mere plodding toiler in a humdrum avocation, must always be regarded in the light of a truer and wiser education. It was for this that Pestalozzi lived and died ; it was for this that Froebel made new landmarks in the education of children ; it is this that has inspired the labors of every great and noble teacher from Thomas Arnold of Rugby to the greatest instructor of the present day. This is what education means in its truest and best sense.

In a professional way, the writer is often thrown in contact with men who have had poor educational advantages. They are generally serious men whose experiences with life have made them question closely the utility of every enterprise they undertake. It is a difficult task to make them see that the study of Latin, for example, has any practical bearing upon the lives of ordinary men. The three R's was all the education they ever had, and they have succeeded well in life, and it is hard for them to realize that the arts of the New Education can be of any use to the sons of such practical men. A sturdy farmer will ask, "Why not have John study something that will do him some good when he is through school ?" To the farmer the study of Latin or the pursuit of the higher Mathematics or an extended course in Literature or History seems the essence of stupidity. How will these elegant accomplishments enable his son to plow a straighter furrow or harvest wheat more easily ? The farmer is afraid, perhaps, that the study of these branches of learning will unsettle his boy for the farm and set him longing for one of the professions, and so he looks askance at the "new-fangled notions" in learning and does not like to have John go to school after he has mastered the mere rudiments of his education. To him nothing is practical except that which has a direct bearing upon his vocation. Those of us who are "College-bred" know that Latin and Greek and all the "ologies" would make John a better farmer, for the very reason that they would make him a better man and put better sense and larger views of life and men into his head. God forbid that our educational process should lead the boy's mind from the farm. There is no reason why he should not go from College to the Homestead to honor the calling of his father and do credit to the grand title of Country Gentleman. But our ideal notions of how John ought to be educated does not fall in with the ideas of our friend, the farmer. It does not fit his view of utility. It seems to him a frightful waste of time and money and effort. And so it is with men in a hundred other walks of life. With their thoughts fixed upon a few points where an education is directly applicable to their callings, they think necessary schooling quite limited and cry out for practical education, that shall make men carpenters, mill-hands, grocery-clerks, bookkeepers, etc., to the end of the catalogue of business occupations. A moment's thought will show a candid reader that this would be the most impractical education imaginable. Our schools would, by this means, be turned into buzzing factories, noisy shops, places where boys would play at trade and still learn only the theory of their callings, to learn real business where they have always learned it, in the school of experience. The senseless cry for practical education has already harmed our schools immensely, and in the search after "methods of nature," or some other inhuman contrivance, the essentials of real education are neglected and we are drifting farther and farther away from the learning which lays a deep foundation for solid thought, sound reasoning and practical sense.

It would be unfair, doubtless, to say that the view taken by those who advocate an intensely practical education is essentially degrading; yet it amounts to that by placing the idea of education low, when it ought to be high. It keeps down the standard of culture and tends to make our young men satisfied with some system of "short-cut" to the duties of life. We claim this for education, that there is a common ground for all men; that up to a certain point education seeks only the development of the man and his faculties; that beyond this point lies the province of technical or the so-called, much-lauded practical training. We claim that a liberal training to the end of an academy, normal-school or college course, is the most practical training possible for any man to enter any vocation.

We have shown elsewhere in these chapters that a successful life depends upon certain qualities of character which must belong to all men alike. For instance, the successful man must possess sound moral principle. He must be master of himself and all his powers and resources. He must possess courage, energy and tact. He must be well-grounded in an integrity which scorns a dishonest deed. These traits are essential qualities. They are needed by all men alike. We may pursue various callings; but we must have these virtues or we cannot succeed. The education, therefore, which develops and gives strength to these qualities of mind and character is the practical education. It is here that all men meet on a common basis and this is sufficient defense for that system of school training which seeks to educate all by the same course of study and instruction, varied only to suit the particular bent of individual mind. That this is the true theory, the history of Pedagogy fully shows, and the world is becoming settled in the belief that the most practical education is that which does most for the man as a man.

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