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I don't need to convince my readers that a generous, liberal education is the natural birthright of every child, like justice, freedom of religion, liberty, or fresh air. We all already know that. And we don't need to discuss how much that education should cover. We know that a good life should include a mind that's been guided to learn the proper things. As Plato said, knowledge is virtue, although that isn't true in every case. Educated teachers are quick to understand that Humanities must play a role in any educational plan worth anything. But teachers are faced with so many challenges, which Miss M. L. V. Hughes sums up nicely in her book, Citizens to Be:
'It's a tragedy that, for so long, Humanities has failed to maintain the kind of conditions suitable for realizing its goal for the general population.'
But we of the Parents Union Schools have succeeded in teaching Humanities under those conditions, and we think we've solved the great problem of education. We're able to offer Humanities in our own language to large classes of children from illiterate homes in such a way that the students enjoy it and assimilate it. I realize that one single swallow doesn't make a summer, but one school's experience
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demonstrates that it can be done. It's possible to teach a fairly literary curriculum enjoyably and easily, while still including all the other usual school subjects. The electric currents that make wireless telegraphy possible were always there, but it wasn't until Marconi sent his historic first message that wireless telegraphy was a reality, and any passenger on board a ship in the English Channel could send a message. In the same way, the experiment done in the Drighlinton School in Yorkshire showed how a humanities education could be done by any teacher. I'm impressed by how much of this kind of work is already being accomplished in our PNEU schools. The other day I heard of a man whose entire life had been uplifted by a single poetic sentence that he'd heard as a child. And I heard someone else remark that the average person can't resist a shelf of books. People are also saying that the war has made us a nation of readers, both those who remained at home and the soldiers on the frontlines. And not just readers of dime-store novels, but mostly readers of the best books in poetry and history. Isn't the school system to be credited with this change? But teachers are still not satisfied. Their reach goes beyond that, and they are more aware than ever of those around them living sordid lives, and the apathetic ignorance that prevails, casting a cloud over any successes they've attained. So they worry about having so little time that it's impossible to do a thorough job teaching vast subjects like history and literature.
I wonder if this uneasiness is caused by something we're too slow to recognize: that the mind's requirements aren't that different from the body's. They both need certain things to be happy--exercise, variety, rest, and, most of all, food. But we have offered intellectual or physical gymnastics instead of knowledge, which makes no more sense than expecting a child to be physically fit because you fed him a good meal. And our understanding of education is partly to blame.
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The mind is usually defined by what it can do, not how much stuff it holds. A child is born with the ability to absorb and appropriate knowledge--but he doesn't have any knowledge in him yet. But we seem determined to work on him to make him more fit to absorb and assimilate, instead of using the time to get him the knowledge he wants and needs, but doesn't have. We train his reason. We cultivate his judgment. We develop his creativity and imagination. We exercise this or that faculty. But we can't develop those things in a healthy child any more than we could develop his digestive system. In fact, the more we meddle, the worse it is for the child. We notice that our youth seem apathetic. They get excited about football games, but don't care about things of the mind. What if these things are the result of the very methods we use in our schools--the simplified, pleasant ways in which we explain, coax, demonstrate, illustrate, summarize, and do all the helpful things we do for children that they're quite capable of doing for themselves? In fact, they were born able to do those things. Undoubtedly, some of what we give them is intellectually nourishing, but we don't give them as much as they need. Let's take courage, and we'll be surprised, as we've all seen from time to time, at how much challenging intellectual mind food almost any child will take at a 'meal.' Then he'll ruminate and digest it in his own time.
Maybe the first thing we need to do is to get a real picture of how the mind and knowledge work together, something I call 'the relativity of knowledge and the mind.' The mind takes in knowledge, not to know, but to grow. The mind grows wider in its variety of interests, more profound in depth, better able to make sound judgments, and more noble. But it can't grow without the food of knowledge.
The truth is, we're handicapped. It isn't so much the three or four difficulties I've already mentioned that are the problem. It's certain errors of judgment, ways we unwittingly under-value things, that we all fall into because that kind of attitude is universal. As teachers, we under-value ourselves and our role as teachers. We don't realize that it's the nature of the world for teachers to have a prophetic charisma and inspiration. His job mustn't be seen as a wearisome routine of spoon-feeding cereal to babies. His job should be the delightful interaction of equal minds. His role is that of a guide, philosopher and friend. The conflict
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of wills between teacher and student that makes school work so stressful almost ceases to be a factor when we deal with students as mind-to-mind equals, sharing and discussing knowledge.
Not only do we under-value ourselves, but we unwittingly under-value the very children that we would lay down our lives for with passionate devotion. For so long, we've been taught to think of children as the end product of education + environment. So we forget that, from the first, they are total little persons. As Carlysle has well said,
'To the person who has a sense for the godlike, the mystery of a person is always divine.'
We can either reverence children, or we can despise them. We can't do both. We can't reverence them if we continue to think of them as incomplete, undeveloped beings who need our input to arrive at completeness of human-ness. We should see them as complete persons who are weak and ignorant. Their ignorance only needs to be informed, and their weakness only needs our support, but their potential is as great as ours. No matter how kindly we treat children, we are despising them as long as we see them as incomplete persons.
As soon as a child can form words to communicate with us, he lets us know that he can think with surprising clearness and directness. He sees with the kind of intent observation that we've long lost. He enjoys and sorrows with an intensity we no longer experience. He loves with a wild abandon, trust and confidence that we, unfortunately, can't share. He imagines with a creative power that no artist can match. He acquires intellectual knowledge and mechanical skill at such an amazing rate that, if an infant could continue to progress at the same rate into adulthood, he could learn the entire field of knowledge in his lifetime! (It might be helpful to re-read the early chapters of David Copperfield in relation to this.)
I'm defining the child as he truly is. I'm not making him out to be as divine as the heavens above, like Wordsworth does. And I'm not making him out to be as low as the depths, like evolutionists do. A person
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is a mystery. We can't explain him, or account for him. We can only accept him as he is. The wondrous individuality of personality doesn't disappear or cease to be when a child begins school. He's still 'all there,' to use a slang term in a different way. But we begin to lose access to his mind from the day he enters the classroom. The reason for this is because we've embraced the belief that knowledge only comes from what we get through our five senses. We think that a child can only know about what he sees and handles--we forget that he can conceive in his mind and figure out in his thoughts. I'm belaboring this point because our faith in a child's spiritual/intellectual ability to learn is one of our chief assets. Once we realize what a wonder a child's mind is, we begin to see how important it is to nurture it, and we see that knowledge is the food of the mind in the same way that meals are the food of the body. In the days before WWI, which seem like a lifetime ago, our narrow-minded contempt for knowledge was well-known. Nobody other than teachers or a few thinkers here and there took knowledge seriously. We boldly proclaimed that the content a child learned wasn't important; what mattered was the way he learned it. We had a bold contempt for mere 'book-learning.' But that's changing. We are beginning to suspect that ignorance is a national problem, one of the main reasons for our difficulties at home that hinder our efforts in other countries. There's only one cure for ignorance, and that's knowledge. School is the place where children get knowledge. Whatever else teachers do for children, their first priority should be giving them knowledge--not in carefully measured dosages like a pharmacist counting out antibiotics, but in regular, generous servings. If we ask, 'What is knowledge?' we find that there's no clear, concise answer at hand. We know that Matthew Arnold had three classifications of knowledge: knowledge about God and divine things, knowledge about man, which is humanities, and knowledge about the physical world, which is science. That's enough to start with. But I'd like
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to challenge his classifications. I'd like to classify all knowledge under the heading of humanities when it makes a direct appeal to the mind through a literary means [books]. Divine knowledge is contained in one of the three greatest books of the world [presumably the Bible; I wonder what the other two are?]. Science is written about in beautifully poetic literature that's clear, precise and graceful, at least in France, if not always in England. So, doesn't it seem allowable to include all knowledge under 'humanities' when literature is a proper medium from which to learn it? One thing we know, at any rate. No teaching, and no information, is processed as knowledge in anyone's mind until his own brain has actively assimilated it, translated it, rearranged it, and absorbed it so that it becomes a part of the person and shows up, like food that the body takes in, as part of the living organism. Therefore, teaching, lecturing, dramatizing, no matter how brilliant or coherent, does no good until the student becomes an active participant and goes to work on it in his mind. In other words, self-education is the only possible education. Anything else is like mere paint that's spread on the outside surface of the student's nature and has no effect on who he is.
I've tried to draw your attention to the way our current twentieth century educational ideal undervalues children and undervalues knowledge. The mind and knowledge are like a ball and socket, or two halves of a pair of scissors. They're made for each other, necessary to each other, and can only act as a team. When we understand that, we'll realize that our task as teachers is to provide students with the supply of knowledge that they need. If we do that, then everything else--character, behavior, efficiency, ability, and large-mindedness, which is the finest quality that a person can have, will take care of itself. 'But how?' asks the frenzied teacher, who has been working with the unending toil of Sisyphus. I think we've discovered the answer. At least, it seems to work admirably. I'm anxious to share the principles with you and tell you how it works.
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Let me first repeat some results that I've had with thousands of children, which I mentioned in the introduction. In the last few years, in fact, many Council Schools have seen the same results:
-- The students, not the teachers, are responsible for what they learn. They do the work by their own effort.
-- The teachers give encouragement and support. If necessary, they clarify, summarize, or explain. But the actual work of learning belongs to the students.
-- The student, depending on the age and grade/year, reads between 1000 to 2-3000 pages from a large variety of scheduled books. The sheer amount of work scheduled for each term doesn't allow for more than a single reading.
-- Reading comprehension is tested with oral narration
-- No review is attempted to prepare before term exams because too much material has been covered to allow going back to look things up.
-- Whatever the students have read, they know. They can write about any part of it easily and fluently in lively English. They can usually spell well.
-- During term exams, which last a week, students fill 20-60 sheets of Cambridge paper [probably sheets of lined paper like notebook paper, or possibly pages in a composition notebook] depending on their age/grade. If they had ten times the number of questions, they'd most likely fill ten times as much paper!
-- It's rare that all the students in a class can't answer all the questions in all the subjects, like history, literature, citizenship, geography, science. But children do have individual differences, and some do better in a specific subject. Again, some write long answers, and a few don't write as much. But, no matter how they answer, practically all of them know the answers to the questions.
-- During a term exam, students freely use
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a lot of substantives [specific detailed nouns], including many proper names. One time, I had a ten-year-old's paper counted to see how many substantives he used, and there were well over a hundred! Here are the ones he used beginning with the letter A:
Africa, Alsace-Lorraine, Abdomen, Antigonons, Antennae, Aphis, Antwerp, Alder, America, Amsterdam, Austria-Hungary, Ann Boleyn, Antarctic, Atlantic--
and here are the M's:
Megalopolis, Maximilian, Milan, Martin Luther, Mary of the Netherlands, Messina, Macedonia, Magna Charta, Magnet, Malta, Metz, Mediterranean, Mary Queen of Scots, Treaty of Madrid--
and, on all these subjects, students wrote as easily and thoroughly as if they were writing to a sister who was away, and telling her about a new litter of kittens!
-- Students write with perfect understanding that's appropriate for their age, and there is hardly ever a blooper even in hundreds of sets of papers. They have an admirable ability at getting to the gist of a book or subject. Sometimes they're asked to write their answer about a person or event in verse, and the result is remarkable. Not that it's great poetry, but it sums up a lot of thoughtful reading in an imaginative way. For example, one student summed up Cordelia from King Lear in twelve lines:
Nobliest lady, doomed to slaughter,
An unloved, unpitied daughter,
Though Cordelia thou may'st be,
"Love's" the fittest name for thee;
If love doth not, maid, bestow
Scorn for scorn, and "no" for "no,"
If love loves through scorn and spite,
If love clings to truth and right,
If love's pure, maid, as thou art,
If love has a faithful heart,
Thou art then the same as love;
Come from God's own realms above!
M.K.C. age 10, Form II (grade 4-6)
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David Livingstone's life (read for its geography of Africa) is summarized like this:
"The whole of Africa is desert bare,
Except around the coast." So people said,
And thought of that great continent no more.
"The smoke of thousand villages I've seen!"
So cried a man. He knew no more. His words
Sank down into one heart there to remain.
The man who heard rose up and gave his all:
Into the dark unknown he went alone.
What terrors did he face? The native's hate,
The fever, tsetse-fly and loneliness.
But to the people there he brought great Light.
Who was this man, the son of some great lord?
Not so. He was a simple Scottish lad
Who learnt to follow duty's path. His name
Was Livingstone, he will not be forgot.
E. P. age 15, Form IV (grade 9)
And here is how a 14 year old girl in Form IV (grade 9) rendered Plutarch's Life of Pericles:
Oh! land, whose beauty and unrivalled fame;
Lies dead, obscure in Time's great dusty vault.
Not so in memory, for truly here,
Each and alike look up and do revere
Those heroes of the hidden past. Plato,
Whose understanding reached the wide world's end;
Aristides, that just and noble man.
And last, not least, the great wise Pericles
Whose socialistic views and clever ways
For governing the rich and poor alike
Were to be envied. In his eyes must Greece
Live for ever as the home of beauty.
So to the Gods great marble shrines he made,
Temples and theatres did he erect;
So that the beauty of his beloved Greece
Might live for ever. And now when seeing
What is left of all those wondrous sights
We think not of the works themselves
But rather of the man who had them built
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It's possible that she used 'socialistic' when she meant 'democratic.' At any rate, her notion is original! Her poetry technique isn't anything extraordinary, but I think you'll agree that each poem shows thoughtful appreciation for some part of the term's reading. The verses are uncorrected.
A lot of time is spent between ages 6-8 learning to read and write. But the students still get a good deal of consecutive knowledge in history, geography, tale and fable. At the end of the term, they dictate their answers to the term exam questions. Their answers form well-expressed little essays on whatever subject they're dealing with.
The time scheduled for teaching a half-dozen or more less literary subjects like Scripture and the subjects I've already indicated, is mostly spent with the teacher reading maybe two or three paragraphs at a time from one of the scheduled books. Then the children, from here and there in the classroom, narrate. The teacher reads, expecting that the children will listen and know. Therefore, she reads with distinctness, force and careful enunciation. It is merely a way of giving the children help and support in understanding. She is being careful to convey the meaning of the author and not her own interpretation. This procedure of the teacher reading aloud and the class narrating is continued throughout elementary school by necessity because some of the books are rather expensive, so only one copy is purchased for the class. I wonder if the habit of listening carefully with full attention might equalize children from uneducated homes, and children from privileged homes? At any rate, the work they turn in seems surprisingly equal. By the way, no subjects, passages or episodes are selected because the children have a special interest in them. The best available book is chosen and read through during the course of possibly two or three years.
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Let me add that these principles and this method don't just appeal to the clever child, but to the average child and even the challenged child. Just as we all come to a feast of Shakespeare and get out of it whatever we need or want, students do the same thing at the intellectual feast we set before them in their lessons. There's enough to satisfy the sharpest mind, yet the slowest child is able to keep up with his own willing effort. This fairly varied and successful intellectual program is done in the same time, or even less, as it takes other schools to do their normal schedule. There's no review, no preparing the night before (because more work is accomplished during the normal school hours than other schools where students are often just passively hearing lectures), no note-taking because it isn't necessary, since students have the material in their books and know where to find it, and, since there's no cramming for exams, there's more time to spare for vocational training or other work.
This kind of education should act as a social lever, too. Everyone is so concerned about improving the conditions and lives of the poorer class. But have we considered that, by giving them a better education, the problems of decent living will take care of themselves, as most people will be able to solve them on their own?
Like all great ventures of life, this method that I propose is a venture of faith--faith in the power of knowledge, and faith in the power of children to absorb it. It will succeed because of the nature of two things: the nature of knowledge, and the nature of children. If the two are brought together in ways the mind can handle, a chemical combination takes place and something totally new appears: a person of character and intelligence, an admirable citizen whose own life is so full and
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so rich that he won't become a useless drain on society.
Education is closely connected with religion. Every passionate teacher knows that he's obeying the precept to 'feed My lambs'--to feed them with all good, healthy things for man's spirit--most importantly, the knowledge of God.
I've spoken about the laws of mind or spirit, but, really, we can only guess here and there and hesitantly follow whatever light we get from the teachings of the wise and from general experience. We have to look for general experience because individual experience can be misleading. I learned that principles and methods that had been tried for a long time could be used in classrooms of forty children in a mining village. Therefore, I felt sure that we were following laws that would result in a satisfying kind of education.
The mind needs sustenance as much as the body does in order to grow and be strong. Everybody knows that. Long ago, people realized that the kind of mental gruel used in schools was the wrong kind of diet. Grammar rules, lists of names, dates and places--all the things the old schoolmasters used to use--were found to be just the kind of material that children's minds reject. Because we were wise enough to see that the mind actively seeks what it needs, we changed our tactics. We thought we were following the children's lead. It worked well, and we were ready to improve even more, if necessary. But what if all of our educational tools, our illustrations, our clarifying, our leading questions, our tireless patience in driving a point home with the students, were all based on false assumptions? What if we made a mistake in our assessment of the immature mind of the child by assuming that immature meant imperfect and incapable? 'I think I could get it, Mama, if you didn't explain quite so much.' Is this the silent thought-cry of school children today? Children really
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are capable of so much more than we give them credit for. But we get their capable minds into action the wrong way.
We make a mistake when we let our own well-intended teaching get between children and the knowledge their minds need. The desire for knowledge (curiosity) is the main component in education. But a child's natural curiosity can be rendered as useless as a crippled arm by encouraging other desires in its place. Other desires might be emulation (the desire to be the best), prizes (greed), power (ambition), or praise (vanity). I'm told that grades, first place standing and prizes aren't really a part of elementary education (except prizes for attendance). So, the love of learning for its own sake is more likely to have free reign in elementary schools than in other schools.
Children are already persons from the time they're born. This is the first article of the educational creed that I want to advance. Being born persons implies that they come pre-wired with the ability to pay attention, hunger for knowledge, ability to think clearly, discriminating tastes in books even before they can read, and the ability to handle many subjects [and keep them all straight].
The practical-minded teacher might say, 'if you can guarantee that our students will pay attention, we can guarantee that they'll make good progress in reading what Colet calls good literature.' I explained on pages 13-15 how I found the solution to this dilemma--the problem of how to get students to pay attention.
Let me say again that these principles and methods are especially good for large classrooms. The number of other children stimulates the class [to conform], and the lessons go on with more momentum. Each child is eager to participate in narrations, or do a good job on written narrations. By the way, only short answers are required when writing, so there's less work making corrections.
Let me make two more points about the
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choice of books and what term exams are like. The best way I can think of to describe the sort of books that children will agree to deal with, is to say that they have to be literary. A seven or eight year old will narrate a difficult passage of a book like Pilgrim's Progress with unusual interest and insight. Yet I doubt many adults would retain anything from Dr. Smile's excellent book called Self-Help. The fact that children across the board will reject a wrong book makes one wonder, and should teach us something. And it's equally fascinating how children given the right book will drain it to the dregs. The thing they need from books seems to be quantity, quality and variety: the best books about a variety of subjects--and lots of them! But the question of which books to choose is a delicate, difficult issue. After twenty five years experience (the Parents Union School was started in 1891), selecting lesson books for children of all ages, even we still make mistakes. The next term exam reveals the error! Children can't answer questions based on the wrong book. The difficulty in selecting books is further complicated by the fact that we can't rely on children's tastes any more than we can let their preferences dictate their meals.
The moment has come for the case of Education vs. Civilization to come to court. Hopefully, Civilization will retire to her area of improving life and stop intruding on the higher functions of inspiration and direction, which are within the jurisdiction of Education. Both Education and Civilization are subservient to Religion, each in its own place. One may not overstep the boundary of the other. At any rate, it's encouraging that we're within sight of giving stability of mind and nobleness of character to people of all socio-economic classes. That's the proper outcome and the unfailing test of a LIBERAL EDUCATION. Also,
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it's good for the great basic principle of fun to be discovered in unexpected places--like the schoolroom, which is all too often a place associated with drudgery.
Milton's ideal of 'a complete and generous education' is sufficient for any occasion--'it prepares a person to do everything he needs to do in his private and public life, in peace or in war, and to do it with justice, skill and nobility.' Our generation will have to prove whether this ideal works with all kinds of people in various conditions, and whether this ideal is necessary. It has been well said by Rudolf Eucken that,
'Just as there's only one kind of truth, and it's true for everyone, so there's only one education that works for everyone. Regarding the education of the people, the only question that matters is, How is this common education going to work under the most meager conditions, and with large masses of people? Real education should be able to accomplish that.'
Eucken didn't make any suggestions as to what kind of education could accomplish that. It's up to the reader to determine in his own mind whether the method I've outlined in this book might be worth a try.