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The Social Center, The Cure Of Rural Isolation

The primary ideas that lie behind the social center are social and civic, and it is for this reason that it is so much needed in the country. All of the educational purposes that have been mentioned will have their social side as well. They offer opportunities for the country people to get together and to talk in connection with all exhibitions, lectures, classes, institutes, and the library. It is well that these social occasions should be definitely planned for and that the department of domestic economy should serve tea and sandwiches as often as possible, in order to create social occasions. The social center is the natural cure of the isolation of the country and its lack of recreation. The majority of the work of the world is social. The lawyer, the doctor, the preacher, the merchant, and most tradesmen are working constantly with others. The farmer, on the other hand, is working in the open fields and by himself. He may see only his own family from one end of the week to the other. With the coming of the rural de-livery he no longer needs to go to town even for his mail. He raises most of the things he needs for the table. He has an abundance of time to think, but little opportunity to talk, except with members of his own family. Doubtless he has become accustomed to these conditions, but they are uncongenial to the boys and to the hired man. We are naturally social animals. Children cry when left by themselves, and only so far as we become engrossed in the work we are doing, or in our thoughts, can any of us overcome the sense of loneliness from being by ourselves. The nature of the farmer's work cannot be changed, but it is possible to provide in the evening the society that the day has lacked. European peasants live in villages and go out to their farms each morning. This has been suggested as the cure of the isolation here, but the farmhouses are built in the country, and it does not seem likely that the American farmer will ever pick up his house and move into the town. Instead of this, as soon as he is able he often gives up his farm and moves to the village to live. The isolation of the country is usually considered to be its greatest drawback and the cause of the most of this city-ward trend. As it makes the country less attractive, it causes property to decrease in value ; as it tends to drive away the most capable and leave the less capable behind, it causes farmers to lose caste and standing. The social center is the natural solution. As the people cannot get together at their work, they should get together in their play. The social center is the more necessary in the country than in the city in proportion as the life of the farm is more solitary.


City people take their vacations and do most of their playing in the summer time. We have very many summer resorts, but comparatively few winter resorts. The city man usually has a half holiday in summer, but seldom in the winter. In the country these conditions are reversed. The summer is the busy season, when the daylight hours are long and most of the urgent work has to be done ; but over the entire northern part of the country the farmer has little to do in the colder months except to care for his stock. t is this less crowded period that must be largely utilized for recreation, education, and sociability. The farmer probably has as much leisure as other men, but it is very unequally distributed over the year. Since he must do the major part of his playing in the winter, it seems to follow that he must do it largely indoors, and the social center is the natural solution.


There seems to be a general feeling that moral conditions are bad in the city and good in the country, but I question if this is so. The city has its great criminals and philanthropists ; it furnishes the rich soil in which all things grow rank. The country does not produce the great saints or the great sinners. t has no prostitution, but there are probably quite as many loose young people in the country as in the city. The hired man who goes to town to " have a good time " is apt to get drunk and visit the worst type of houses. Immoral tales and obscene language are a large part of the conversation of hired men and country boys. The sex instinct is very insistent in the teens, and there is gathered about it the romance of love. Country youth are not usually chaperoned, and there are abundant opportunities for seclusion. Add to this the fact that there often is little else to think of, and you have a condition out of which immorality will always grow. There is scarcely a social occasion which is not beset with temptations, the dances are generally held in the woods or at hotels, and walks and drives are solitary. The country must give a proper organization to its social life if it is only for the sake of the boys and girls.


If there is a well-equipped consolidated school, every sort of recreation that is found at a city social center may well be started there. If there is a gymnasium, there may be gymnastics and folk dancing ; there may be matched games in volley ball and basket ball, and even bowling and shuffleboard will not be out of place. There may very likely be prejudice against social dancing, but there is no other place where it may be quite so wholesome as at the social center, where the whole family is present. There probably will not be much prejudice against the quadrille and the Virginia reel, even if the round dances are not approved of, and these will serve to make the people better acquainted.


There is a good deal of feeling in certain quarters that the old-time singing school should be revived in the open country. The singing school of the olden times was a valuable social occasion ; it offered a pleasant opportunity for the young people to get together, and it did much to make the rural home socially self-supporting. Singing is one of the things that draws the home circle together and establishes the family life. t makes for sociability everywhere and helps people to get acquainted. t is reported that most of the " sparking " of olden days was done at the old-time singing school or at the spelling match. General singing is a large element in many of the city social centers.

An effort is also being made to revive the old-time "spelling down," and for much the same reasons. Obviously spelling has not the same social value as music ; nevertheless, at least one evening a month at the social center might well be given to each of these activities of the old-time social center.

The great weakness of the social as well as the industrial life of the country is the lack of organization. There is not at present any place where country people get together so that this organization can be effected. The social center makes possible the organization of every sort of recreation, such as the Boy Scouts, the Camp Fire Girls, athletic clubs and tournaments, corn and canning clubs, woman's clubs, the grange, etc. There should be some available room in the social center where each of these organizations could meet. In most cases it may be a classroom, but there should be two or three social rooms in each building which may be used as teachers' rooms, committee rooms, school-board rooms, club-rooms, or social rooms, as occasion demands.


The moving-picture man is now found in every part of the globe, making a record of whatever is rare or curious. Nearly every great event must face dozens of machines, which record with indisputable accuracy the facts, and there are also large companies of actors who are performing before the camera scenes from great dramas, from literature and history, as well as numberless plays in a lighter vein. We usually think of the moving picture in connection with the theater, but there is really no reason for this association in our minds except that at the present time it is mostly seen there. The moving picture is the power of representation or description carried to the superlative degree. It gives to all the opportunity to witness all great events and to be conversant with all countries and all occupations. Almost anything that the eye may behold by itself or through the microscope may be represented in the moving picture. t is a story where events happen rapidly, a condensation of life with the annoying delays left out. Much that we see in the moving-picture theaters is merely the dramatization of dime novels. The best that can be said for them is that they are better than the saloon or the brothel, and that they are at least as good as the stories which they represent. A dime novel is not very uplifting at best, but that is not the fault of the picture but of the story which it portrays. The moving picture can represent better than language, either spoken or printed, the raising of all fruits, vegetables, and grains, all processes of manufacture, all customs and ways of people, all historical events, crucial events in biography and literature, all dramas which are essentially dramas of action, and nearly the whole microscopic world, which is so largely the world of science. This indicates that the moving picture is the most effective way of teaching the processes of industry, geography, history, much of literature, and much of science. t must in the near future be a part of the equipment of every school.

The old-time moving-picture machine was expensive, and the film cost from a hundred to five thousand dollars to produce. Mr. Edison has, however, recently put on the market a small moving-picture machine, the Home Kinetoscope, which costs only from sixty-five to seventy-five dollars. The film is only a little over an inch wide, with three parallel bands of pictures. t is eighty as opposed to a thousand feet in length, and costs from two dollars fifty cents to twenty dollars. These films can be exchanged for thirty cents to one dollar, according to the grade of the film. The eighty-foot film contains the same number of pictures as a thousand feet of the old film. The mechanism of the Edison Home Kinetoscope is so simple that it can be operated by a child. The film is noncombustible. As it is usually shown it makes a picture about four or five feet square. t uses either electricity or acetylene, and a cheap acetylene generator can be secured with it. However, it has more flicker than the large machine, and does not give as satisfactory results. This small machine was designed by Mr. Edison especially with the view of introducing it into private parlors and the individual classrooms of the public school, and he is reported to have men all over the world now taking the pictures for the moving-picture geography. He has another set of educators who are preparing the films on history, and we may expect that we shall soon have a set of educational films that will cover nearly the whole curriculum of the elementary school. He says this is to be his greatest achievement, the putting the school course into moving pictures. Something over one hundred different school subjects are now on the market for this small machine, and the number is being rapidly increased. Within the last few months the kinetophone, or the talking picture machine, has been perfected and put on the market, so that it is now possible to represent sounds as well as objects. The moving picture has the great advantage over books, that it is much more interesting. There would not be many cases of children playing hooky from a moving-picture school. The impressions that it makes are very much more vivid and are consequently better remembered ; and it is a great saver of time, because it abbreviates the processes by leaving out unimportant details. On the surface it would seem to be expensive, but when we consider its efficiency in what it does, I doubt if it is really so.

Morally the moving-picture theater is probably even now our best type of theater. There is much less in the films that is objectionable than there is in the plays given in the highest-priced theater on Broadway. There is a National Board of Film Censors in New York, by whom many of the films are censored. The films to which this Board objects are destroyed, and if only certain parts of the film are objection-able, these parts are cut out. Most of the larger cities have also their own board of film censors, which is usually in the police department. As a result very few of the films shown in progressive cities are objectionable. They may be inane, and often are; they may be untrue to life, which often hap-pens; they represent a sort of dream world of romance, where the hero always wins, however foolish he may be ; but there is seldom anything positively bad in the moving pictures that are now being made in this country or that can be seen in any of the moving-picture theaters. The most objectionable features are the vaudeville interludes, which are generally of a low order as art and are sometimes suggestive. But one may see a great deal at almost any of these theaters that is well worth seeing.

Not long ago I saw at Hull House, Chicago, a picture of the life of Moses. The whole story was there in the vivid colors of the Orient, as plain to the eyes as though one had been an eyewitness of these great events.

At a theater in Worcester was a picture of the Boston Tea Party. We saw the meeting in which the plot was perfected, the men disguising themselves, and finally the tea being thrown overboard. The various uniforms which were shown were, I believe, historically accurate. Any child could see this picture for fifteen minutes and remember it for the rest of his life, whereas he might study the ordinary historical account as found in the school histories for a long time and then forget it in fifteen minutes.

Not long ago I saw in a Western city a picture representing the sleeping sickness in Africa. A German scientist is working in his laboratory, and at length succeeds in isolating the germ of the disease. He makes a culture and inoculates a rat. Before injecting the serum, he takes a drop of the rat's blood and puts it under the microscope. The red corpuscles of the blood can be seen moving about with the greatest freedom. They are so numerous that they make the picture dark. The next day he takes another drop of the rat's blood and puts it under the microscope. You are the eye-witness of a great tragedy. The germs of the disease, which can be seen as plainly as good-sized fish, are swimming about in the drop of blood, and as they go they attack the red corpuscles and eat them up. The second day he puts a second drop of blood under the microscope, and you see that the war of extermination has gone on merrily. The germs have become an army, and the red corpuscles are making their last stand. The third day the rat dies, and the micro-scope shows that the red corpuscles are all gone and the germs are in full possession. This picture was much more satisfying than the ordinary microscope observation, because it was the experiment that succeeded under perfect conditions. There are also excellent films representing the literature of the high school. The trouble is that at present these valuable films are as " two kernels of wheat hid in two bushels of chaff." One has to see so much inane material before a really good film appears, that it is hardly worth the time. t is estimated that more than four millions of people visit these moving-picture theaters every day. They are mostly people of the working classes, who are seeking rest after a hard day's work. The films are intended to furnish amusement to the weary, not instruction for the most part.

It is difficult for the moving-picture man to select his films if he wants to, because as a rule they are sent out on a circuit and come to each in regular order. If he wishes to select his pictures, he has to pay more for them than he does if he will take them in series. Of course such an unselected series of films, representing for the most part dime-novel ad-ventures, is not adapted to the use of the schools, and in time there must be an exchange intended for the schools alone.

The first step for such a series has already been taken by Mr. Edison. We must have a moving-picture geography made by an expert geographer, a moving-picture history planned by a historian, selected events from the lives of great men to give a vivid knowledge of the man and to inspire emulation, and yet other pictures which will represent many of the great dramas and much of the best literature. All the different trades and occupations should be represented, both for the sake of the general knowledge and that young people may choose their life work with intelligence.

The moving picture has wonderful effectiveness in teaching moral lessons, because of the keen sympathy that it creates. It is easy to see that the whole audience is often indignant at deeds of cruelty, and the picture performers are sometimes hissed as they would be in real life. The keenest sympathy with suffering is shown. Mr. Fairchild in his courses for moral education uses the moving picture constantly. A short time ago I took a boy of three to a moving-picture show. One of the scenes shown was of a bully who was unkind to a dog. The dog is hungry and the man will not give him any-thing to eat, and kicks him when he comes near. He finally catches the dog, ties a stick of dynamite to his tail, and lights the fuse. The dog, however, does not perform according to expectations, but runs in among the men. They run and the dog runs after them. They enter a shed followed by the dog. The men run out, but the dog seizes the bully and holds him ; the men lock the door, the bully pulls the stick of dynamite off the dog's tail, the dog crawls under the door, and the shed blows up. The next day I was out walking in the woods with this small boy, and he said, " If we should meet a dog anywhere, we would give him something to eat, would n't we ? " and again in a moment, " Then he would like us, would n't he ? " I do not think any amount of talk about kindness to animals would have made the same impression. The church ought to have its own exchange for all the Bible stories, and most social lessons can be taught more effectively through moving pictures than in any other-way. If we are to have moral education in our schools, or if we would introduce more kindliness into daily life, the picture machine is a powerful ally.

As every city and state will need a series of films, the practical thing would seem to be for the city or state to make a contract with the companies for a series of films representing the approved subjects of the curriculum, and then to send these films around from school to school within the city. This would require every school to have one moving-picture machine at least, and perhaps one for each classroom if the smaller machine proves to be the practical one. For the social center the large machine will be better, except for the one-room school, and with the moving picture the social center will be a success from the first. The same pictures may be used in the school and the center. This will also keep the parents in touch with the school work, as there will be no difficulty in getting them to follow a geography or history lesson in moving pictures.

Moving-picture machines have been installed already in the social centers in a number of cities, and in some of the high schools. Almost any film company has a considerable number of films that are suitable for use in a public school or a social center. Three films, approximately a fifty-minute program, need not cost more than three or four dollars, so that the expense is not at all prohibitive. A catalogue of the subjects offered can be secured by writing to any film company. Wherever the moving picture can be installed, it will solve the question of attendance and will make the place a real center.


Picnicking seems to be the one form of rural recreation that is common among farmers at present, and the common picnic grove is the natural summer edition of the social center. The sort of picnic that is needed is a township picnic for every Saturday afternoon from the first of May to the end of September. This should take place at the township park or the consolidated school if there is one. This will give the opportunity for the Boy Scouts and Camp Fire Girls to practice. It will permit of the organization of athletic clubs and the holding of tournaments in tennis, baseball, basket ball, and volley ball.

The monthly program. The activities that have been out-lined for the social center have been educational, recreational, and civic. Perhaps they may seem to be too numerous. The program suggested would appear as follows :


First Friday of each month : singing school

Second Friday : spelling match Third Friday : debate

Fourth Friday : school exhibition and fair

Every Wednesday night : a public lecture

Thursday nights : classes in domestic economy and agriculture followed by lunch and dancing

Saturday night : moving pictures

The young people would meet in the gymnasium or the classrooms for their clubs or exercises at the same time their seniors were having their meeting.

For the summer time there should be a Saturday-afternoon picnic each week and drills of the Boy Scouts, meetings of the Camp Fire Girls, and athletic tournaments and contests.

It may appear that the social center is taking the people away from home too much, but it must be remembered that the same person will not as a rule attend each evening, and also that, as the whole family attend together a number of these occasions, it does not disrupt the home, even if they are frequently away. Such a center would organize public opinion into a strong restraining force, and would keep the boys and girls away from questionable resorts by giving them a more attractive place to go.

( Originally Published 1914 )

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