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The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
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Pragmatical Elementary Education

by J. Shillaker, F.E.I.S.
Author of "The Educational Ideal of the French Revolution," etc.
Volume 14, 1903, pgs. 763-773


The modern state compounded of many elements increases in complexity with every fresh discovery of science, with every invention, and with every advance in civilization. One of the penalties resulting from the ceaseless activities of the human mind in its efforts to make subservient to the needs of man all the varied forces of Nature, consists in the increasing difficulty experienced by the modern in adapting himself readily and effectively to the multitudinous intricacies and realities of life thus brought into being. The demands made upon the individual of the twentieth century as a member of a civilized community tend to multiply in number and to increase in intensity. It becomes more and more difficult to live. One of the great problems of the moment is how to make fit to survive the greatest possible number of beings capable of serving their generation effectively. To realize this desirable, this beneficent aim, the members of the great human family must be efficient: they must act and react surely and immediately to their environment.

Each year sees the environmental conditions more varied: each decade finds them increasingly complicated: each century brings quick changes, rapid developments, and an ever-widening horizon. Hence the process of modern man-making becomes proportionately difficult. It is a labour aiming at the growth, the unfolding, the development of all the powers and qualities that make each unit of the social whole the most availably perfect type within the limits imposed by personality for service to the community. This is necessary for national growth, since every civilized nation reaches forward in the direction of national efficiency; it is no less a desideratum from the point of view of human society, since the members of the human family continue to struggle in order to secure in an increasing ratio a mastery over the physical and spiritual environment; it is equally important as an element in world progress in that domination that man desires to accomplish over the forces of the Universe.

Various agencies consciously assisting in the process of man-making--of fitting the human young for the part they have to play--have been evolved, the home, the school, the vocation, the State and the Church, each of which contributes its quota to the work in hand. Of these five agencies the latest born, the school, has not yet reached the acme of usefulness. The experimental and practical stage has not yet been perfected, and the science of education that follows the art has not passed into the stage of certitude. But the need of education has been slowly recognized by the public; in the school, colleges and universities, of various types, provided by the State, by religious bodies, by corporations, and by private individuals, a work of far-reaching importance is being accomplished. It is as well, however, to recognize, that important as may be the results of these agencies, their effects must be nugatory to some extent without the active co-operation of the home, the vocation, the State, and the Church.

Many minds at various times have formulated systems of education and instruction, suitable to the needs of their period. Each age indeed has been dominated by its proper ideal, whether that of spiritual culture, of aristocratic exclusiveness, of aestheticism, of pansophy, of ecyclodedism, of mental discipline, or of individualistic self-realization. And the schools following after have endeavoured to give reality to these, as each has successively held the field. A survey of the contributions of the great educators to the theory, the practice, the psychology, the philosophy, or the history of education would reveal the extent to which this present generation are their heritors: their works are worthy of the closest study. The evolution of educational doctrine can be traced through their teaching.

But a scientific study of education has been in progress for some time; education like all art, has behind it a body of principles; the science of education is in course of being. Since the great Herbart commenced his systematic investigation of pedagogical psychology and experimentally tested the validity of his conclusions in practice, the biologic and evolutionary conception has been proved true, and has been presented by every writer of note conversant with his subject. But it must not be expected that finality has been reached. The constant reconstruction, necessitated by the increase in verified, that is scientific educational knowledge derived from the study of life, of body, of mind, of society, of philosophy, and of empiric pedagogy, has made essential a new interpretation in terms of evolution. The most fruitful laboratory work has been conducted by research professors in education attached to the American, Universities who posses great facilities for making public the results at which they have arrived. From such writers as Dr. Bolton, or Henderson, or Monroe, or Horne, valuable works have emanated, stating the new positions with great clearness. The principles thus formulated, while not being exhaustive yet, cover the field very extensively; elementary education falls into place in the integrated system, becoming an essential co-ordinated section of a greater whole, fulfilling its due part in "that eternal process of superior adjustment and re-adjustment of the physically and mentally developed, free, conscious, human being to God as manifested in the intellectual, emotional, and volitional environment of man." (Horne.) Education, including elementary education, is preparation for world-work and for life-work; for world-life and for future-life; it is training in power to react to circumstances; it is making fit for gaining a livelihood; it is preparation for living, for utility, for the reasonable spending of leisure, for the satisfaction of the needs of being, for communal service, for private life and for citizenship. The modern state cannot afford to do less than to provide equality of opportunity for all its citizens by means of a properly graded system of schools having these ends in view. The only limitations placed upon development allowable, if this view be correct, are those of capacity, not those of caste. Elementary education is elementary only inasmuch as it is mainly concerned with the second period distinguished for convenience and by stage of development in the growth of the human young. It has to do with childhood. Infancy merges into childhood, childhood into adolescence, adolescence into studenthood by delicate and almost indistinguishable nuances. It is not less than just, it is to the advantage of the nation that the capable child attending elementary school should have the chance, his course therein satisfactorily completed, of passing on without let or hindrance into the grade above. Facilities do exist for the child abnormally trained or for the child of abnormal gifts to progress forward; but poverty too frequently shuts the door otherwise capable of being opened.

At the very outset the educator runs up against inherited tendencies. "Man is born free, but is everywhere enslaved," exclaimed Rousseau. Man, however, is not born free; he is the slave of heredity until education can free him from its shackles by imposing others. Everything that he is at the moment of his birth, and much that he is afterwards, is inherited not only from his parents but through them from the line of ancestry, going backward into the far and distant past. Some reversion to type, some physical trait, some mental characteristic, some moral idiosyncrasy derived from a forbear twice or thrice removed may reappear. So do the dead in a very real sense, at the outset of new life, rule despotically the living. None may add a single cell to the child's constitutional inheritance; his primal physique, his initial intellectual dower, his emotional tendencies, his innate instincts, his incipient moral inclinations and declinations, are native to him as surely as his flesh and blood. Elementary education is concerned with each of these, must strengthen such as are good, modify such as are harmful, inhibit such as are noxious. For elementary education the facts of heredity acquire great significance.

Insufficient attention has been given in this connection to the fact that a large proportion of children attending the elementary schools are badly born. Primarily a social question it is one which directly concerns all who have the welfare of the community at heart. Day by day the teacher in the classroom comes in contact with the pupils handicapped from the start, weak in physique, deficient in vitality, afflicted with mental weakness, sometimes predisposed to vice and crime, and degenerates born of degenerates. Thus, condemned to an incapacity that frequently remains through life, these unfortunates are excluded from a heritage that might have been theirs. May not the time be anticipated when every child will have a fair chance of being well born? Pitiful revelations have ensued upon that most welcome reform, the medical inspection of school children, which in their ultimate consequences should be fruitful of good in connection with the public health and in arousing the national conscience to a sense of the need to the state, of healthy and vigorous parents, producing healthy and vigorous offspring; race suicide acts most, unfortunately with respect to the progeny of those best fitted to perpetuate a high standard of physique, of intellect, of character, and of attainment, while the undesirables multiply rapidly without enriching the earth.

A further significance of heredity, whether on the physical, mental, or moral-social side or on all three, for elementary education consists in this: that each child is a separate and distinct person, one apart from every other, having needs of his own, faults peculiar to himself, implicated virtues that will unfold under proper conditions, and hence requiring special treatment. And who can understand his varied needs, the peculiarities of his individuality without making a special study of him? His case must be diagnosed scientifically. With large classes individualization of scholars presents an insuperable difficulty to any but the teacher of unusual gifts, insight, ability and caliber. The elementary schools are unfairly treated when compared with secondary schools in the matter of staffing. Matthew Arnold, already occupying an assured and honourable position in the Republic of Letters, although not yet recognized as he ought to be as a great educator, stands out above others as one of the most enlightened of School Inspectors. He boldly criticized and vigorously opposed that pernicious system of payment by results, the demerits, and inherent weaknesses of which he exposed. Matthew Arnold advocated small classes, because small classes make for efficiency. "Classes of twenty-five or thirty," he wrote, "and an efficient teacher to each class: that school system is best which inscribes these words on its banners." (Pop. Ed., Fr. 101.) In order to study the individual and to individualize instruction, a condition of basic importance is to have smaller classes and more teachers fully qualified in the schools. Money spent on staff of the right quality yields a good return to the community expending it.

But if heredity counts for much, environment counts for more; whether it be the environment provided by the home, the street, the school, the vocation, the avocation or the Church. The media encompassing the growing human organism exercise a powerful, oftentimes a subtle influence, ceaselessly. The environment,--physical, spiritual,--affects the body, inspires or depresses the mind, impresses the developing soul of the child, gives a direction to thought, to feeling, or to willing, that is healthy or baneful, throughout those wakeful hours, during which, alive to every stimulation, the being is permeated, enkindled, uplifted or dejected by the myriad sensations and suggestions which excite it. Moment by moment, hour by hour, day in and day out, this almost resistless incitation operates during those seven years of child life which cover the period devoted in part to elementary education. From this circumambient medium there can be no escape; and seldom may its effects on the growing organism be overcome entirely or obliterated. Next to every child being well born, it is of supreme importance to the nation to secure for the greatest possible number of its young the best possible environment. This social reformer, alive to the waste of human life, the destruction of latent power worth developing, and the attendant misery derived from faulty environment, has a task of no little magnitude to accomplish in order to ameliorate the evil conditions amidst which by far too large a number of the children attending our elementary schools pass the most impressionable hours of their life.

And the fact cannot be too much emphasized or too often repeated, that of the total environment of this period the elementary school accounts for only one-sixth, in so far as time is concerned. Of the remaining five-sixths, some or all may be antagonistic, militating against that which the school seeks to accomplish. It is not so much the poor home that matters, but what matters much is a poor atmosphere in the home. Many poor homes have a good atmosphere; that must be recognized with thankfulness; here, indeed, many self-sacrificing mothers with commendable heroism, more praiseworthy and less recognized than that displayed on many a bloody field of battle, fight silently a fight against untold odds, encircling their children with careful influences making for righteousness. But who can depict in all its ghoulish horrors that sordid, debasing, soul cankering environment, the drunkard's home, or the slum where virtue sinks into desuetude, and where moral leprosy contaminates and corrupts young life worthy of the opportunity to realize itself amidst worthy conditions. The unhappy youthful denizens of these squalid surroundings become degenerates, vicious, criminal. They do not start fair; they are lost to the nation, nay worse, for do not many of them join the submerged tenth, swell the prison population, or overcrowd our lunatic asylums? Faulty heredity and faulty environment delimit the usefulness of the schools. "The entire educational period," writes President Butler, "after the physical adjustment has been made, after the child can walk alone, can feed itself, can use its hands, and has, therefore, acquired physical and bodily independence, is an adjustment to what may be called our spiritual environment. After this physical adjustment is reasonably complete there remains to be accomplished the building up of harmonious and reciprocal relations with those great acquisitions of the race that constitute civilization; and therefore, the lengthening period of infancy simply means that we are spending half the life of each generation in order to develop in the young some conception of the vast acquirements of the historic past, and some mastery of the conditions of the immediate present." And the school must provide this spiritual environment; in order to do this it must reproduce within itself the great acquisitions of mankind: it must be a mirror reflecting the scientific, aesthetic, institutional, vocational, and religious possessions of the human family: it must take long views ahead, utilizing the present to prepare for the future of the race.

What need then for a school building, dignified, architecturally beautiful, fitting monument and symbol, impressing the entrant and proclaiming to every citizen that the community values highly the work of man-making to which it is dedicated. Situated, when possible, on a beautiful spot commanding lovely vistas, far removed from distracting sounds of busy traffic of road or railroad, and the clang, clash, and clatter of the implements and appliances of industrial occupations, it should provide an environment every way fitted for noble uses. The provision of playing fields as well as of playgrounds will subserve those co-operative pleasures not without their uplifting moral effects which educate as truly as the varied activities of the classroom. No more should be tolerated the erection of barn-like structures, without the spacious hall in which in corporate capacity the school can meet; without laboratories, without workroom, without gymnasium for the development of physique; without library room well supplied with children's books and selections from our wealthy literature; without swimming and other baths; without staff common room and room for the head master or mistress: sadly have we need of a race of school architects who, knowing their business, can plan useful school buildings, worthy homes for pleasant study.

And there is the higher environment provided by the school, approximating to the spiritual development of the race, consisting in its ultimate extension of all permanent value that the race has sought, thought, and achieved. Adjustment to this environment takes place through the pupil reproducing within himself, in his own mental history, the history of the race. He has from the moment of his birth become a member of the great human family, having powers within himself that must be realized for the good of the community: as an individual he must become of service to society, and this by way of practical idealism. The accomplishment comes through experience, not always at first hand; the process thus were too lengthy, too painful, and too wasteful. Mental training epitomizes racial experience. Professor Horne, analyzing the relationship of mentality and adaptation to environment, distinguishes three aspects, since the mind knows, the mind feels, and the mind wills. In connection with each of these three phases relative quality may be discerned, e.g., the mind knows truth or error: the mind feels ugliness or beauty; the mind wills good or evil. Hence the task of elementary education includes that of enabling scholars, within the limits of capacity to realize truth, and beauty, and goodness. The nature of the curriculum, hence, assumes an importance scarcely inferior to that of the personality of the teacher. Whether the curricula of the schools be overcrowded or not overcrowded remains a question on which great divergence of opinion exists. Greek has met Greek without any decisive result. An extensive curriculum which cultivates many sided interest has much of educational value to commend it, inasmuch as it is in the direction of providing a satisfactory spiritual environment: dabbling in many subjects, its undue exaggeration, must surely be avoided. The Herbartians believe most strongly and reasonably in a course of studies rich in content. "I have no conception of education without instruction," wrote Herbart, "just as conversely I do not acknowledge any instruction that does not educate. Whatsoever arts and acquirements the young may learn from a teacher for the mere sake of profit, are as indifferent to the educator as the colour he chooses for his coat. But how the circle of thought is being formed is everything to the teacher, for out of his thoughts come feelings, and from them principles and modes of action."

The Encyclopedists and Pansophists wished to have an all-inclusive course of studies; in so far as the aim is concerned, that view is correct since thus the individual has a knowledge of the total environment, insofar as the human mind has mastered it. But the organized body of human discovery has been constantly extending and has increased to such an extent that it is questionable whether even the most gifted could encompass the gigantic task of making himself conversant with the whole. Certain it is that elementary education, limited in its application to a few years of the child's life, cannot be expected to attempt such a task as that of bringing the youthful mind into touch with the whole range of sciences, arts, and volitions.

It is well, however, to make an analysis of these, in order to decide what may be reasonably expected. The human mind has sought to know itself and the world outside itself, and has been rewarded by the discovery of a body of verified and verifiable knowledge called the sciences, which may be conveniently divided into the material and mental sciences. No claim is advanced that the whole range of sciences should be taught in the elementary school, but that there should be generous provision for the teaching of science and of scientific method. In the words of Dr. Armstrong: "The use of eyes and hands-scientific method--cannot be taught by means of the blackboard and chalk, or even by experimental lectures and demonstrations alone: individual eyes and hands must be persistently practised from the very earliest period in the school career. Such studies cannot be postponed until the technical College or University is reached, the faculties which can there receive their highest development must not have been allowed to atrophy during the years spent at school."

Scientific studies fall short of what they ought to be in the elementary school, mainly because of faulty equipment and of classes too large to allow of individual training in scientific method.

Corresponding with many of these sciences are the allied and industrial arts. The proper place for teaching these is the vocational and not the elementary school.

Too much importance can scarcely be attached to the inclusion of English literature in the curricula of our elementary schools. The study of our English classics conduces to an increased vocabulary, a growing command of the mother tongue, an appreciation of the best that has been thought and said in the best possible way, prepares for participation in the active affairs of life, as well as for the pleasurable and profitable spending of leisure time. Our children have too few opportunities of browsing on good books: they leave our schools too frequently without the desire to know our classics more intimately, the classics of a literature, one of the richest in the world, the history of which records the names of a thousand worthies of first-rate importance, some of whom, by virtue of their intrinsic merits and artistic and emotional qualities, the world will not willingly let die. The ground properly prepared, systematic study of great poetry, of great drama, of great prose, can be undertaken best only when ready access to suitable authors is possible, and to good stories suitable for children. Lessons about literature, lessons dealing with the history of literature, stories derived from literature, useful as they are, can never have the effective value that is obtained from first-hand acquaintance with authors. The laboratory method of literature is as necessary as the laboratory method in science. While the child can become acquainted with but a little of this vast treasure stored up in the masterpieces of the mother tongue, it is highly desirable to place him in sympathetic relationship with this ennobling inheritance which forms no unworthy portion of our racial environment. That which Matthew Arnold wrote in Literature and Dogma remains substantially true and appropriate. "The poor," he says, "require culture as much as the rich, and at present, their education, even when they get education, gives them hardly anything at all. Yet, hardly less of it perhaps than the education of the rich gives to the rich. For when we say that culture is 'to know the best that has been said and thought in the world,' we imply that, for culture, a system directly tending to this end is necessary in our reading . . . Culture is indispensably necessary and culture implies reading; but reading with a purpose to guide it. He does a good work who does anything to help this." And as Milton, master of magnanimous prose, aptly wrote: "Books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that progeny whose soul they are: nay, they do preserve as in a viol the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them."

The human mind has endeavoured to express that which it has felt in forms, harmonious, well-balanced, and beautiful. The effort to translate this mental feeling into ideal form and shape has given rise to the Fine Arts. Again, the human mind has undertaken the task of preserving a record of all that man has achieved, and of all that he has willed to achieve. The record of these volitions constitutes that enormous body of history, the study of which teaches man that of himself he is nothing worth, and that he has value only as a worthy member of a social whole.

The general conditions conditioning the framing of the curriculum have their base in reason and fact; representatives from the three sections from science, from art, and from the volitions, the sum total of which form the spiritual environment must be included. Other momentous considerations are the capacity of the child, the enthusiasm of the teacher, and the practical utility of the subject in preparation for life and livelihood.

It is now necessary to reflect that the child, a willing agent, may and should play a part in the developing of his own being, in unfolding his own personality, by voluntarily reacting upon his inherited capacity and environmental opportunity. The elementary school has a duty to perform in building up good wills. In doing this it may be that assistance will be given to the unfolding of the personality of some future man of extraordinary ability and individuality, towering high above his fellows in intellectual gifts and moral worth. Rare leaders will arise, stepping forward in the van of progress, inviting the rank and file to follow in their footsteps. For those who have lived and led great movements, a feeling of veneration and admiration should be aroused, thus may encouragement inspire others to future achievements.

The school then must also make the will good, kindle a respect for purposive effort, and keep alive a spirit of real work. Its aims must be utilitarian and idealistic. It must cultivate the physique, the intellect, and the soul; it must also train the imagination, of which Professor Tyndall wrote, "Bounded and conditioned by co-operant reason, imagination becomes the mightiest instrument of the physical discoverer. Newton's passage 'from a falling apple to a falling moon,' was a leap of imagination." In conclusion, the elementary school may be instrumental in the dissemination of a high ideal so that those future citizens now therein may maintain a high standard of national life, of industrial and commercial honesty, and of personal devotion to duty.