American Education
American Education
Atlantic Monthly
May, 1931

Complaint within the teaching profession about the quality of education in America has lately taken an interesting turn. For forty years, to my knowledge—I do not know how much longer—professional criticism has confined itself pretty strictly to matters that went on under the general system, and has not questioned the system itself. It has run to questions of pedagogic method and curricular content; to the what and the how. One notices with satisfaction, however, that within the past year some of our educators have gone beyond these matters and touched the system's structural principles. The presidents of Brown, Haverford and St. Stephen's have spoken out plainly. Professor Giddings, of Columbia, has been very explicit, and even the president of Columbia has made some observations that might be construed as disparaging. These gentlemen have spoken informally, mostly by implication, and not pretending to present anything like a complete thesis on the subject; nevertheless their implications are clear.

One wishes they had gone further; one hopes they may yet do so. My own reason for writing is that perhaps a layman's view of the situation may call out additional professional comment on it. One need make no apology for the intervention, for the subject is quite within the layman's competence. Matters of content and method (the what and the how) are primarily a professional concern, and the layman speaks of them under correction. But the system itself is not a technical affair, and its points of strength and weakness lie as properly under lay review as under professional review. In any kind of fairness, indeed, if professional opinion takes responsibility for correctness in technical matters it has enough on its shoulders, and lay opinion may well take the lead on matters which are not technical.

On its moral and social side, our educational system is indeed a noble experiment—none more so. In all the history of noble experiments I know of none to match it. There is every evidence of its being purely an expression—no, one may put it even stronger than that, an organization—of a truly noble, selfless and affectionate desire. The representative American, whatever his faults, has been notably characterized by the wish that his children might do better by themselves than he could do by himself. He wished them to have all the advantages that he had been obliged to get on without, all the "opportunities," not only for material well-being but also for self-advancement in the realm of the spirit. I quite believe that in its essence and intention our system may be fairly called no less than an organization of this desire; and as such it can not be too much admired or too highly praised.

But unfortunately Nature recks little of the nobleness prompting any human enterprise. Perhaps it is rather a hard thing to say, but the truth is that Nature seems much more solicitous about her reputation for order than she is about keeping up her character for morals. Apparently no pressure of noble and unselfish moral earnestness will cozen the sharp old lady into countenancing a breach of order. Hence any enterprise, however nobly and disinterestedly conceived, will fail if it be not also organized intelligently. We are having a fine illustration of this great truth in the fate of the other noble experiment which Mr. Hoover commended on moral grounds in one of his campaign speeches; and an equally conspicuous illustration of it is furnished by the current output of our educational institutions.

Our educational pot has always been sufficiently astir; there can be no doubt of that. It would seem that there is no possible permutation or combination in pedagogic theory and practice that we have not tried. The roster of our undergraduate and secondary courses reads like the advertisement of a bargain-counter. One of our pioneer women's colleges offers, among other curious odds-and-ends, some sort of "course" in baby-tending! Our floundering ventures in university-training have long been fair game for our cartoonists. Only this morning I saw a capital cartoon in a New York paper, prompted by a news-item on some new variant of a cafeteria or serve-self educational scheme vamped up in one of our top-heavy state universities. But now, after all this feverish and hopeful fiddling with the mechanics of education, the current product seems to be, if anything, a little poorer than any that has gone before it.

This statement may rest as it lies. I see no point in a digression to define education or to describe the marks that set off an educated person. If I were writing on oyster-culture, I should consider it a waste of space to define an oyster, because everyone likely to read my paper would know well enough what an oyster is; at least, he would know very well what it is not. Similarly, everyone likely to read this essay may be presumed to know an educated person from an uneducated person. But if this seems a cavalier way of dealing with one's readers, one may establish a perfect understanding by a reference to Mr. James Truslow Adams's paper in the November 1929 issue of the Atlantic Monthly. It is enough to say that one who, by whatever means, has compassed just the discipline intimated by Mr. Adams—a discipline directed as steadily towards being and becoming as towards doing and getting—and who in all his works and ways reflects that discipline, is an educated person. One who has not compassed it, and whose works and ways do not reflect it, may not properly be called an educated person, no matter what his training, learning, aptitudes and accomplishments may be.

Mr. Adams's paper makes it clear that the educated American is not often to be met with; and there is a pretty complete consensus that he is at present much scarcer than he was, say, twenty-five years ago. An Italian nobleman of high culture, who has seen a great deal of our college and university life, lately told me that he had made a curious observation while here, and asked me whether I thought it was a fair one, and if so, how I should account for it. He said he had now and then met Americans who were extremely well educated, but they were all in the neighbourhood of sixty years old; he had not seen a single person below that age who impressed him as having been even respectably educated, although interest in the matter had led him to look everywhere. It is unsafe to generalize from a single opinion, but it may be worth remembering that this reference is the judgment of one foreign observer of experience and distinction.

This state of things is obviously not due to any deficiency in our mechanical equipment. What impresses one most, I think, at sight of the Continental school, is the very moderate character of its plant and general apparatus of learning, as compared with ours. I have elsewhere remarked that no live-wire, up-to-date, go-getting American college president would look twice at the University of Poitiers or the old university at Brussels. Even Bonn, the aristocrat of German universities, is a very modest and plain affair in its physical aspects. The secondary schools of France and Belgium have in our eyes an appearance of simplicity almost primitive. Yet see what comes out of them. Compare the order of disciplined intelligence that somehow manages to squeeze itself out of Poitiers and Brussels with that which floats through one of our universities. With every imaginable accessory and externality in his favour, the American simply makes no comparison. Put a cost accounting system on education in France and America, with reference to the quality of the product—if such a thing were possible—and the result would be, I think, a most disquieting surprise.

Nor have the French and Belgians any natural advantage over us in respect of raw material. I firmly believe that the run-of-mine American is just as intelligent as the run-of-mine Frenchman, and the picked American as the picked Frenchman. The trouble is not there, nor can I see that it lies anywhere in the technique of pedagogy; I must needs be shown wherein our pedagogy is not entitled to a clean bill. Yet the fact is that with relatively poor equipment, with no better raw material and no better pedagogy than ours, French institutions turn out extremely well-educated men, and ours do not.

The whole trouble is that the American system from beginning to end is gauged to the run-of-mine American rather than to the picked American. The run-of-mine Frenchman does not get any nearer the university than the adjacent woodpile. He does not get into the French equivalent of our undergraduate college. If he gets through the French equivalent of our secondary school, he does so by what our ancestors called the uncovenanted mercies of Providence, and every step of his progress is larded with bitter sweat. The chief reason why my Italian friend found no educated Americans under sixty years of age is that forty years ago the run-of-mine American did not, as a rule, get much nearer the founts of the higher learning than the run-of-mine Frenchman does to-day, and for the same reason—he could not, speaking strictly, "make the grade." The newspapers some time ago quoted the president of Columbia as saying that during the past half-century the changes in school and college instruction, as to both form and content, have been so complete that it is probably safe to say that to-day no student in Columbia College, and perhaps no professor on its faculty, could pass satisfactorily the examination-tests that were set for admission to Columbia College fifty years ago.

The root-idea, or ideal, of our system is the very fine one that educational opportunity should be open to all. The practical approach to this ideal, however, was not planned intelligently, but, on the contrary, very stupidly; it was planned on the official assumption that everybody is educable, and this assumption still remains official. Instead of firmly establishing the natural limit to opportunity—the ability to make any kind of use of it—and then making opportunity as free as possible within that limit, our system says, Let them all come, and we will scratch up some sort of brummagem opportunity for each of them. What they do not learn at school, the college will teach them; the university will go through some motions for them on what the college failed to get into their heads. This is no jaunty exaggeration. I have a friend who has spent years in a mid-Western state university, trying to teach elementary English composition to adult illiterates. I have visited his classes, seen what they were about, seen his pupils, examined their work, and speak whereof I know. A short time ago, in another enormous university—a university, mind; not a grade school, but a university dealing with adult persons—two instructors published samples of the kind of thing produced for them by their students. Here are a few:

Being a tough hunk of meat, I passed up the steak.
Lincoln's mind grew as his country kneaded it.
The camel carries a water tank with him; he is also a rough rider and has four gates.
As soon as music starts, silence rains, but as soon as it stops it gets worse than ever.
College students as a general rule like such readings that will take the least mental inertia.
Modern dress is extreme and ought to be checked.

Although the Irish are usually content with small jobs, they have won a niche in the backbone of the country.

At the hands of some upper-classmen and second-year men, Shakespeare fared as follows:

Edmund, in King Lear, "committed a base act and allowed his illegitimate father to see a forged letter." Cordelia's death "was the straw that broke the camel's back and killed the king." Lear's fool "was prostrated on the neck of the king." "Hotspur," averred a sophomore, "was a wild, irresolute man. He loved honor above all. He would go out and kill twenty Scotchmen before breakfast." Kate was 'a woman who had something to do with hot spurs."

Also Milton:

"Diabetes was Milton's Italian friend," one student explained Another said, "Satan had all the emotions of a woman, and was a sort of trustee in heaven, so to speak." The theme of Comus was given as purity protestriate. Mammon, in Paradise Lost, suggests that the best way "to endure hell is to raise hell and build a pavilion."

Would it be unfair to ask the reader how long he thinks that order of intelligence would be permitted to display itself at the University of Brussels or the University of Poitiers?

The history of our system shows a significant interplay between the sentiment for an indiscriminate and prodigal distribution of "opportunity" and certain popular ideas or pseudo-ideas that flourished beside it. One of these was the popular conception of democracy. It is an interesting fact that this originally got its currency through the use of the word by politicians as a talking-point. Practically all publicists now quite arbitrarily use the word "democratic" as a synonym for "republican"—as when, for instance, they speak of the United States and France as "great democracies." The proper antithesis of democracy is not autocracy, monarchy, or oligarchy, but absolutism; and, as we all know, absolutism is much deeper entrenched in these republican countries than in monarchical Denmark, say. The term, too, became debased on its more special uses. In the America which Dickens visited, a democratic society meant one in which "one man was just as good as another, or a little better"; this phrase itself is of sound American coinage current with the merchant. Democratic manners to-day, as a rule, mean merely coarse manners; for instance, the ostentatiously "democratic" luncheon-etiquette of our booster clubs means that all hands shall, under some sort of penalty, call each fellow member by his given name, regardless of the previous acquaintance or the lack of it. Thus the educational free-for-all sentiment got a very powerfulendorsement. It was democratic. Poverty-stricken Tom, from the slashes, should go through school, college and university hand in hand with Dick the scion of Wall Street, and toplofty Harry of the Back Bay. Democracy so willed it, in spite of Nature's insuperable differentiations whereby Tom had first-rate school-ability. Harry had excellent ability in other directions but no school-ability, and Dick was a Dummkopf with no ability of any kind. Privately these differentiations might be recognized, indeed must be, but it was of the essence of democracy that there should be no official or institutional recognition of them. The unspeakable silliness of our truant laws, which make compulsory attendance a matter purely of school-age instead of school-ability, appropriately expresses this limitation.

The very human but rather ignoble tendency to self-assertion which led us to put the label of democracy on what was merely indiscriminate or vulgar led us also to put the label of greatness on what was merely big. With a whole civilization groveling in the unintelligent worship of bigness, a great school must be a big school. The thing to notice is how admirably this fell in with pseudo-democratic doctrine and also with the noble but ill-starred sentiment pervading our system. To make a big school, students must be got; to get them, standards of eligibility must be brought down to a common denominator of intelligence, aptitude and interest. Then, when they are got, something has to be found for them to do that they can do, or at least upon which they are able to mark time—such as "courses in English," the number of which exhibited annually by our institutions will amaze the reader, if he has curiosity enough about it to look it up—and this means a profound sophistication of requirements. It can be seen at once how solidly sentiment and pseudo-democratic doctrine stood behind these developments and encouraged them.

By another interesting coincidence—these coincidences in the history of our system are really remarkable—these developments also met, as if made to order, the great and sudden expansion of the nation's industrial life, the glorification of profit-making, and the implied disparagement of all intellectual, aesthetic, and even moral processes which did not tend directly or indirectly to profit-making. It was promptly perceived that the ineducable person might become a successful banker, industrialist, broker, bond-salesman or what not; plenty such there were who could manage no more than to read the stock-quotations and write their own signatures—Daniel Drew, for instance, and Cornelius Vanderbilt. Thus vocationalism came at once to the burdened system's aid. Circumstances were created whereby the ineducable person might bear directly on the business of banking, brokerage, industry, and so on, with the prestige of a college or university career thrown in. The elective bargain-counter was extended all over the academic floor-space; its limit was only at the line where imaginative ingenuity broke down and ceased to work; and certain fragile windflowers, such as "courses in English," were distributed over it here and there, partly by way of garnishment, partly as camouflage. Thus everything was made satisfactory all around. The ineducable person was taken care of with an academic career to all appearances as respectable as anybody's; sentiment was assuaged; democratic doctrine was satisfied; the general regard for size was satisfied, and so was the general preoccupation with profit.

In discussing the effect of all this, I wish to make it as clear as possible that I am not laying the slightest blame upon our educators. They had to take the system as they found it; its faults were none of their making. They had to meet measurably the egregious demands of a noble but undiscriminating sentiment, a preposterous misconception of the democratic principle, a childish reverence for bigness, and an exclusive preoccupation with profit-making. It is a large order; if in practice they were able to meet these demands by ever so little obliquely, one might reasonably ask no more. With this clearly understood, we may observe that one immediate effect is a calamitous overlapping of effort, whereby the lines marking off the school from the college and the college from the university have been obliterated. As in the case I cited, the university is doing work that by the handsomest possible concession one would say should be done in the eighth grade. The secondary school and the undergraduate college, again, are overlapping on the university in their furtherance of vocationalism. Hence, whatever may be done for sentiment or democracy or the promotion of profit-making, none of them are doing anything for education. An institution, like an individual, has only twenty-four hours a day, and only a limited amount of attention at its disposal; and so much of time and attention as it devotes to one pursuit must be taken from another.

This overlapping, indeed, gives rise to a great deal of justifiable avoidance on the part of educators, or what I understand is better known as "passing the buck." In looking over an undergraduate college last year, I remarked to the president that, on the one hand, he seemed to be doing a good deal of rather elementary school-work, and at the same time trespassing pretty heavily on the university, especially in his science courses; so that on the whole his college made me think of the small boy's objection to some asparagus that his mother offered him—it tasted raw at one end and rotten at the other. He said this was so; he had to give way to vocationalism somewhat—much more than he wished; he was doing his best against it. As for the other matter, it was the fault of the schools; they left ragged holes in the boys' preparation. "Don't you think we should do something for the poor fellows who come to us with these deficiencies?"

"Certainly," I replied. "Fire them."

"Ah, but then we should have no students, and should be obliged to shut up shop."

"Well, but at that," I suggested, "would it really be such a killing misfortune?"

"Possibly so, I think," he answered, after a moment's reflection. "My ideas are the same as yours precisely, but needs must when the devil drives. We are doing only half a job, I know—perhaps not that—but we are doing it better than any other college, and perhaps that justifies us in keeping on."

There may be something in this—I personally doubt it—but that is another matter. The point is that we can see clearly just what it is to which this lamentable situation runs back. The secondary school must take in all the shaky material sent up from the grade-school, for of such is the kingdom of democracy. In its turn the grade-school must take in all the enormous masses of human ineptitude that are dumped on it by the truant laws; and thus from one end of our system to the other do we see the ramification of the four social principles that our civilization has foisted on it as fundamental.

A second immediate effect is the loss, in practice, of any functional distinction between formative knowledge and instrumental knowledge. Formerly a student gave up, in round numbers, the first twenty years of his life to formative knowledge; his pursuits during this time were directed exclusively toward the being and becoming. That was the stated business of the school and college, and they kept him so busy with it that he hardly knew there was such a thing as instrumental knowledge in the world. He got his introduction to that later, at the university or technical school, where first he began to concern himself with the doing and getting. I have not space to discuss this aspect of our system at length—done properly, it would take many pages—but I think the reader will have no trouble about perceiving it in all its relations with what has been said already.

A third effect is the grotesque and monstrous shift of responsibility from the student to the teacher. Formerly the teacher had none of it; now he has practically all of it. The student who formerly presented himself was capable of learning; that was what he was there for; it was "up to" him to do it, and he did it. The teacher directed him, perhaps helped him a little—precious little, in my experience—but took no responsibility whatever for the student's progress. The run-of-mine student now arrives, incapable of anything, usually indifferent and incurious toward everything. Well, what is to be done? He may be relied on to do nothing particularly striking for himself—Nature has attended to that—therefore what is done must be done either for him or with him; and thus the burden of responsibility immediately passes to the teacher, and there it remains.

For some reason that I have never been able to discover, Mr. Jefferson seems to be regarded as a great democrat; on public occasions he is regularly invoked as such by gentlemen who have some sort of political axe to grind, so possibly that view of him arose in this way. The fact is that he was not even a doctrinaire republican, as his relation to the French Revolution clearly shows. When Mr. Jefferson was revising the Virginia Statutes in 1797, he drew up a comprehensive plan for public education. Each ward should have a primary school for the three R's, open to all. Each year the best pupil in each school should be sent to the grade-school, of which there were to be twenty, conveniently situated in various parts of the state. They should be kept there one year or two years, according to results shown, and then all dismissed but one, who should be continued six years. "By this means," said the good old man, "twenty of the best geniuses will be raked from the rubbish annually"—a most unfortunate expression for a democrat to use! At the end of six years, the best ten out of the twenty were to be sent to college, and the rest turned adrift.

As an expression of sound public policy, this plan has never been improved upon. Professor Chinard, who has lately put us all under great obligations by his superb study—by far the best ever made—of Mr. Jefferson's public life, thinks it quite possible that those who formed the French system had this plan before them. Whether so or not, the French system is wholly in accord with Mr. Jefferson's hard good sense in accepting the fact that the vast majority of his countrymen were ineducable, and with his equally hard realism in permitting this fact to determine the fundamentals of his plan. The Faculty of Literature at the University of Poitiers is domiciled in the Hotel Fumee, an exquisitely beautiful family mansion, built about 1510 by a rich lawyer. From an outside view, which is all I ever had of either property, I should say the Hotel Fumee carries about as much floor-space as Mr. James Speyer's residence on Fifth Avenue. I venture to say that if Columbia University cleared out all its ineducable students, root and branch, its Faculty of Literature could do a land-office business in a house the size of Mr. James Speyer's, with maybe a room or two to rent.

From what Professor Giddings and the presidents of Brown, Haverford and St. Stephen's have said, I infer that this is the season of repentance. Whether or not it will lead to a season of good works is another matter; I think it highly improbable. Nevertheless it seems useful at the present time that the situation should be diagnosed, and its "indications," as the doctors say, taken into account. Artemus Ward once said the trouble with Napoleon was that he tried to do too much and did it. Just this is the trouble with American education. In my judgment, the indications are simply that the whole school-population of the country, above the primary grade, should be cut down by ninety per cent. If anyone thinks that this proportion is too high, let him take it out on Mr. Jefferson, who is much bigger than I am; my figures are fairly liberal as compared with his. With him on my side I make bold to believe that nine-tenths of our student population, in university, college, grade schools and secondary schools, have no more justification for being where they are than they would have for an intrusion upon the French Academy or the Royal Society; and that unless and until this mass is cut adrift, the prospects for American education will show no improvement worth considering.

Professional criticism has already suggested that the college and university—and I believe there has been some similar hint about the secondary school—should slough off the otiose bulk of those brought to them by the mere vis inertiae, and those who present themselves because it is the thing to do, or as a liberation from home or a furlough for parents; likewise those who are going in for contacts, athletics, husbands, the atmosphere and flavour of college life, or for what I understand the authorities now delicately call "extra-curricular activities," whereof the coonskin coat and pocket-flask are said to be the symbols. At present this would no doubt account for sixty per cent of Mr. Jefferson's "rubbish," probably seventy, but that is not enough. The intention of Mr. Jefferson's plan was to off-load all ineducable persons, no matter what their disposition, and to have this relief applied continuously at every point in the system above the primary school.

This reform seems unlikely to be carried out, and I do not urge it or even recommend it. Conversance with human history begets a deal of respect for Nature's well-established policy of progress by trial and error, and a profound circumspection about trying to anticipate it. The experienced person regards root-and-branch reforms, even good ones, with justifiable doubt. One may be by no means sure—far from it—that it would be a good thing "by and large" and in the long run for the United States to produce any educated people, or that in its present summary sacrifice of its educable individuals it is not taking precisely the right way with them. I am not disposed to dogmatize either way, and hence I do not recommend this reform, or, indeed, any reform. I am merely recording observations of certain social phenomena, placing them in their right relations and drawing the conclusions that seem warranted in the premises. As to the final desirability of the state of things contemplated by these conclusions, I have nothing to say.

Still, education seems as yet to be a subject of experiment with us, and I observe with interest that, according to some educators, the next experiment will be with the revival of the small college. There is obviously no more saving grace in smallness than in bigness; everything depends upon what the small college is like. The forecast, however, sets one's fancy going. Perhaps—one must have one's doubts about it, but perhaps—without too much infringement on Nature's policy, or deflection of our great moral and social mission to the world at large, one small laboratory experiment might be tried, such as has never yet been tried by us. I mean an experiment in educating educable persons only. It would be interesting and possibly useful to set up two small institutions, a school and an undergraduate college, both so well endowed as not to care a straw whether a student came near them or not, and both committed wholly to the pursuit of formative knowledge; the school's attendance limited, say, to sixty, and the college's to two hundred. The school should take pupils at the age of eight, and carry them on until they could meet the college's requirements. Neither institution should take any account whatever of bogus democratic doctrine, the idolatry of mass, vocationalism or the pretended rights of ineducable persons. If such persons presented themselves they should be turned away, and if anyone got in and afterward was found for any reason or to any degree ineducable, he should be forthwith bounced out.

These institutions should be largely a reversion to type, their distinction being that of representing the pure type, without a trace of hybridization. Requirements for entrance to the college should be the ability to read and write Latin and Greek prose with such ease and correctness as to show that language-difficulties were forever left behind; knowledge of arithmetic and of algebra up to quadratics; nothing more. The four years' course in college should cover the whole range of Greek and Latin literature from Homer's time to that of Erasmus, mathematics as far as the differential calculus, a compendium of formal logic, and one of the history of the English language (not literature), and nothing more; and this should lead to the degree of Bachelor of Arts, the only degree that the college should confer.

My notion is that the instructors in these institutions could pretty well follow their own devices for five years, having no students to teach, but that in ten years things would look up a little, and that in fifty years a review of the experiment would be interesting. One could then make the observations and comparisons necessary to determine what it was worth. I can not say flatly that I recommend this experiment; I merely say that it would be interesting, might be useful enough to be worth its cost, and incidentally some poor few, at least, of our educable fry would lay up out of it a treasure more to be desired than gold—yea than much fine gold. Yet it is nothing that I would urge, for quite possibly the Larger Good requires that things should go on as they are now going.

Probably, however, I should give (though in all diffidence) some decorous hint about the sort of thing I should look for from it, if it were carried out under strictly aseptic experimental conditions. The literature of Greece and Rome represents the longest continuous record available to us—a matter of some twenty-five hundred years or more, if mediaeval and Renaissance literature were included, as it should be—as well as the fullest and most diversified record, of what the human mind has ever been busy about. Therefore the one great benefit of the "grand old fortifying classical curriculum," as far as it went, was that on one's way through it one saw by centuries instead of weeks, by whole periods instead of years, the operation of the human mind upon every aspect of collective human life, every department of spiritual, industrial, commercial and social activity; one touched the theory and practice of every science and every art. Hence a person came out from this discipline with not only a trained mind but an experienced mind. He was like one who had had a profound and weighty experience. He was habituated to the long-time point of view, and instinctively brought it to bear on current affairs and happenings. In short, he was mature.

"Sobald er reflektirt," said Goethe of Lord Byron, "ist er ein Kind." Byron was one of the great natural forces in literature—all praise to him for that—but of maturity, the best assurance of a right interpretation and right use of personal experience of the world and its affairs, he had none. So, too, the composite American is one of the greatest natural forces that have ever appeared in human society. Perhaps it is as such, and such only, that Nature proposes to use him, and she may intend to fade him out and supersede him when this function in her inscrutable economy is fulfilled—she has never been any too scrupulous about turning such tricks—and, if so, it would be hazardous to tamper with the fundamentals of a training that fits him for her purpose. Our system seems to have been constructed in anticipation of just this purpose on the part of Nature; it confirms him in a perpetual adolescence, permits his inner adjustment to the world and its affairs to proceed by a series of juvenile, casual and disorderly improvisations—sobald er reflektirt ist er ein Kind.


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