Chapter I:



John Dewey


From John Dewey (1902). The Educational Situation Contibutions to Education, Number III. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), ch. 1. See also Dewey, J. (1976). The educational situation. In J. A. Boydston (Ed.), John Dewey: The middle works, 1899--1924: Volume 1: 1899--1901 (pp. 257--313). Carbondale and Edwardsville, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.

HORACE MANN and the disciples of Pestalozzi did their peculiar missionary work so completely as intellectually to crowd the conservative to the wall. For half a century after their time the ethical emotion, the bulk of exhortation, the current formulae and catchwords, the distinctive principles of theory have been found on the side of progress, of what is known as reform. The supremacy of self-activity, the symmetrical development of all the powers, the priority of character to information, the necessity of putting the real before the symbol, the concrete before the abstract, the necessity of following the order of nature and not the order of human convention -- all these ideas, at the outset so revolutionary, have filtered into the pedagogic consciousness and become the commonplace of pedagogic writing and of the gatherings where teachers meet for inspiration and admonition.

It is, however, sufficiently obvious that, while the reformer took possession of the field of theory and enthusiasm and preaching, the conservative, so far as concerns the course of study was holding his own pretty obstinately in the region of practice. He could afford to neglect all these sayings; nay, he could afford to take a part in a glib reiteration of the shibboleths, because, as a matter of fact, his own work remained so largely untouched. He retained actual control of school conditions; it was he who brought about the final and actual contact between the theories and the child. And by the time ideals and theories had been translated over into their working equivalents in the curriculum, the difference between them and what he as a conservative really wished and practiced became often the simple difference of tweedle dum from tweedle dee. So the "great big battle" was fought with mutual satisfaction, each side having an almost complete victory in its own field. Where the reformer made his headway was not in the region of studies, but rather in that of methods and of atmosphere of school-work.

 In the last twenty or twenty-five years, however, more serious attempts have been made to carry the theory into effective execution in subject-matter as well as in method. The unconscious insincerity in continually turning the theory over and over in terms of itself, the unconscious self-deceit in using it simply to cast an idealized and emotional halo over a mechanical school routine with which it was fundamentally at odds, became somewhat painfully apparent; consequently the effort to change the concrete school materials and school subject-matter so as to give the professed ends and aims a pou sto within the school walls and in relation to the children.

Drawing, music, nature study with the field excursion and the school garden, manual training, the continuation of the constructive exercises of the kindergarten, the story and the tale, the biography, the dramatic episode, and anniversary of heroic history found their way into the schoolrooms. We, they proclaim, are the working counterparts of the commands to follow nature; to secure the complete development of the child; to present the real before the symbolic, etc. Interest was transferred from the region of pedagogic principles and ideals, as such, to the child as affected by these principles and ideas. The formulae of pedagogics were reduced in importance, and the present experience of the child was magnified. The gospel of the emancipation of the child succeeded the gospel of the emancipation of the educational theorist. This gospel was published abroad, and verily its day seemed at hand. It was apparently only a question of pushing a few more old fogies out of the way, and waiting for others to pass out of existence in the natural course of events, and the long-wished-for educational reformation would be accomplished.

Needless to say, the affair was not quite so simple. The conservative was still there. He was there not only as a teacher in the schoolroom, but he was there in the board of education; he was there because he was still in the heart and mind of the parent; because he still possessed and controlled the intellectual and moral standards and expectations of the community. We began to learn that an educational reform is but one phase of a general social modification.

Moreover, certain evils began to show themselves. Studies were multiplied almost indefinitely, often overtaxing the physical and mental strength of both teacher and child, leading to a congestion of the curriculum, to a distraction and dissipation of aim and effort on the part of instructor and pupil. Too often an excess of emotional excitement and strain abruptly replaced the former apathy and dull routine of the school. There were complaints in every community of loss of efficiency in the older studies, and of a letting down of the seriousness of mental training. It is not necessary to consider how well founded these objections have been. The fact that they are so commonly made, the fact that these newer studies are often regarded simply as fads and frills, is sufficient evidence of the main point, viz., of the external and mechanical position occupied by these studies in the curriculum. Numbers of cities throughout the country point the moral. When the winds blew and the rains fell -- in the shape of a financial stringency in the community and the business conduct of the school -- the new educational edifice too often fell. It may not have been built entirely upon the sand, but at all events it was not founded upon a rock. The taxpayer spoke, and somehow the studies which represented the symmetrical development of the child and the necessity of giving him the concrete before the abstract went into eclipse.

It is, of course, agreeable for those who believe in progress, in reform, in new ideals, to attribute these reactions to a hard and stiff-necked generation who willfully refuse to recognize the highest goods when they see them. It is agreeable to regard such as barbarians who are interested simply in turning back the wheels of progress. The simple fact, however, is that education is the one thing in which the American people believe without reserve, and to which they are without reserve committed. Indeed, I sometimes think that the necessity of education is the only settled article in the shifting and confused social and moral creed of America. If, then, the American public fails, in critical cases, to stand by the educational newcomers, it is because these latter have not yet become organic parts of the educational whole-otherwise they could not be cut out. They are not really in the unity of educational movement -- otherwise they could not be arrested. They are still insertions and additions.

Consider the wave by which a new study is introduced into the curriculum. Someone feels that the school system of his (or quite frequently nowadays her) town is falling behind the times. There are rumors of great progress in education making elsewhere. Something new and important has been introduced; education is being revolutionized by it; the school superintendent, or members of the board of education, become somewhat uneasy; the matter is taken up by individuals and clubs; pressure is brought to bear on the managers of the school system; letters are written to the newspapers; the editor himself is appealed to to use his great power to advance the cause of progress; editorials appear; finally the school board ordains that on and after a certain date the particular new branch -- be it nature study, industrial drawing, cooking, manual training, or whatever -- shall be taught in the public schools. The victory is won, and everybody -- unless it be some already overburdened and distracted teacher-congratulates everybody else that such advanced steps are taking.

The next year, or possibly the next month, there comes an outcry that children do not write or spell or figure as well as they used to; that they cannot do the necessary work in the upper grades, or in the high school, because of lack of ready command of the necessary tools of study. We are told that they are not prepared for business, because their spelling is so poor, their work in addition and multiplication so slow and inaccurate, their handwriting so fearfully and wonderfully made. Some zealous soul on the school board takes up this matter; the newspapers are again heard from; investigations are set on foot; and the edict goes forth that there must be more drill in the fundamentals of writing, spelling, and number.

Moreover, in the last year or two there are many signs that the older and traditional studies do not propose to be ignored. For a long time, as already intimated, the conservative was, upon the whole, quite content to surrender the intellectual and emotional territory, the sphere of theory and of warmly toned ideals, to the reformer. He was content because he, after all, remained in possession of the field of action. But now there are symptoms of another attitude; the conservative is, so to speak, coming to intellectual and moral consciousness himself. He is asserting that in his conservatism he stands for more than the mere customs and traditions of an outworn past. He asserts that he stands for honesty of work, for stability, for thoroughness, for singleness of aim and concentration of agencies, for a reasonable simplicity. He is actively probing the innovator. He is asking questions regarding the guarantees of personal and intellectual discipline, of power of control, of ability to work. He is asking whether there is not danger of both teacher and child getting lost amid the portentous multiplication of studies. He is asking about the leisure requisite to intellectual and mental digestion, and subsequent growth. He is asking whether there is not danger to integrity of character in arousing so many interests and impulses that no one of them is carried through to an effective result. These are not matters of mere school procedure or formal arrangement of studies, but matters fundamental to intellectual and moral achievement. Moreover, some recent magazine articles seem to indicate that some few, at least, of the reformers are themselves beginning to draw back; they are apparently wondering if this new-created child of theirs be not a Frankenstein, which is to turn and rend its creator. They seem to be saying: "Possibly we are in danger of going too fast and too far; what and where are the limits of this thing we are entered upon?"

My sketch, however inadequate, is yet, I hope, true to the logic, if not to the details, of history. What emerges from this running account? What does it all mean? Does it not signify that we have a situation in process of forming rather than a definitive situation? The history reflects both our lack of intellectual, organization and also the increasing recognition of the factors which must enter into any such organization. From this point of view, the renewed self-assertion, from the standpoint of theory, of the adherents of the traditional curriculum is a matter of congratulation. It shows that we are emerging from a period of practical struggle to that of intellectual interpretation and adjustment. As yet, however, we have no conscious educational standard by which to test and place each aspiring claimant. We have hundreds of reasons for and against this or that study, but no reason. Having no sense of the unity of experience, and of the definitive relation of each branch of study to that unity, we have no criterion by which to judge and decide. We yield to popular pressure and clamor; first on the side of the instinct for progress, and then on the side of the habit of inertia. As a result, every movement, whether for nature study or spelling, for picture study or arithmetic, for manual training or more legible handwriting, is treated as an isolated and independent thing. It is this separation, this lack of vital unity, which leads to the confusion and contention which are so marked features of the educational situation. Lacking a philosophy of unity, we have no basis upon which to make connections, and our whole treatment becomes piecemeal, empirical and at the mercy of external circumstances.

The problem of the course of study is thus, in effect, a part of the larger problem so pressing in all departments of the organization of life. Everywhere we have outgrown old methods and standards; everywhere we are crowded by new resources, new instrumentalities; we are bewildered by the multitude of new opportunities that present themselves. Our difficulties of today come, not from paucity or poverty, but from the multiplication of means clear beyond our present powers of use and administration. We have got away from the inherited and customary; we have not come into complete possession and command of the present. Unification, organization, harmony, is the demand of every aspect of life -- politics, business, science. That education shares in the confusion of transition, and in the demand for reorganization, is a source of encouragement and not of despair. It proves how integrally the school is bound up with the entire movement of modern life.

The situation thus ceases to be a conflict between what is called the old education and the new. There is no longer any old education, save here and there in some belated geographic area. There is no new education in definite and supreme existence. What we have is certain vital tendencies. These tendencies ought to work together; each stands for a phase of reality and contributes a factor of efficiency. But because of lack of organization, because of the lack of unified insight upon which organization depends, these tendencies are diverse and tangential. Too often we have their mechanical combination and irrational compromise. More prophetic, because more vital, is the confusion which arises from their conflict. We have been putting new wine into old bottles, and that which was prophesied has come to pass.

To recognize that the situation is not the wholesale antagonism of so-called old education to the so-called new, but a question of the co-operative adjustment of necessary factors in a common situation, is to surrender our partisanship. It is to cease our recriminations and our self-conceits, and search for a more comprehensive end than is represented by either factor apart from the other. It is impossible to anticipate the exact and final outcome of this search. Only time, and the light that comes with time, can reveal the answer. The first step, however, is to study the existing situation as students, not as partisans, and, having located the vital factors in it, consider what it is that makes them at the present juncture antagonistic competitors instead of friendly co-operators.

The question is just this: Why do the newer studies, drawing, music, nature study, manual training; and the older studies, the three R's, practically conflict with, instead of reinforcing, one another? Why is it that the practical problem is so often simply one of outward annexation or mechanical compromise? Why is it that the adjustment of the conflict is left to the mere push and pull of contending factors, to the pressure of local circumstances and of temporary reactions?

An answer to this question is, I believe, the indispensable preliminary to any future understanding. Put roughly, we have two groups of studies; one represents the symbols of the intellectual life, which are the tools of civilization itself; the other group stands for the direct and present expression of power on the part of one undergoing education, and for the present and direct enrichment of his life-experience. For reasons historically adequate, the former group represents the traditional education; the latter, the efforts of the innovator. Intrinsically speaking, in the abstract, there is no reason to assume any fundamental, or even any minor, antagonism between these two groups. Such an assumption would mean that the requirements of civilization are fundamentally at war with the conditions of individual development; that the agencies by which society maintains itself are at radical odds with the forms by which individual experience is deepened and expanded. Unless we are ready to concede such a fundamental contradiction in the make-up of life, we must hold that the present contention is the result of conditions which are local and transitory.

I offer the following proposition as giving the key to the conflict:

The studies of the symbolic and formal sort represented the aims and material of education for a sufficiently long time to call into existence a machinery of administration and of instruction thoroughly adapted to themselves. This machinery constituted the actual working scheme of administration and instruction. These conditions persist long after the studies to which they are well adapted have lost their theoretical supremacy. The conflict, the confusion, the compromise, is not intrinsically between the older group of studies and the newer, but between the external conditions in which the former were realized and the aims and standards represented by the newer.

It is easy to fall into the habit of regarding the mechanics of school organization and administration as something comparatively external and indifferent to educational purposes and ideals. We think of the grouping of children in classes, the arrangement of grades, the machinery by which the course of study is made out and laid down, the method by which it is carried into effect, the system of selecting teachers and of assigning them to their work, of paying and promoting them, as, in a way, matters of mere practical convenience and expediency. We forget that it is precisely such things as these that really control the whole system, even on its distinctively educational side. No matter what is the accepted precept and theory, no matter what the legislation of the school board or the mandate of the school superintendent, the reality of education is found in the personal and face-to-face contact of teacher and child. The conditions that underlie and regulate this contact dominate the educational situation.

In this contact, and in it alone, can the reality of current education be got at. To get away from it is to be ignorant and to deceive ourselves. It is in this contact that the real course of study, whatever be laid down on paper, is actually found. Now, the conditions that determine this personal contact of child with child, and of children with teacher are, upon the whole, the survival of the period when the domination of the three R's was practically unquestioned. Their effectiveness lies in their adaptation to realizing the ends and aims of that form of education. They do not lend themselves to realizing the purposes of the newer studies. Consequently we do not get the full benefit either of the old or of the new studies. They work at cross purposes. The excellence which the conditions would possess if they were directed solely at securing progress in reading, writing, and arithmetic, and allied topics, is lost because of the introduction of material irrelevant and distracting from the standpoint of the conditions. The new studies do not have an opportunity to show what they can do, because they are hampered by machinery constructed for turning out another kind of goods; they are not provided with their own distinctive set of agencies. Granted this contradiction, the only wonder is that the chaos is not greater than it actually is; the only wonder is that we are securing such positive results as actually come about.

Let us study this contradiction somewhat more intimately, taking up one by one some of its constituent elements. On the side of the machinery of school-work I mention first the number of children in a room. This runs in the graded schools of our country anywhere from thirty-five to sixty. This can hardly be said to be an ideal condition, even from the standpoint of uniform progress in reading, writing, and arithmetic, and the symbols of geography and history; but it certainly is indefinitely better adapted to securing these results than that of the symmetrical and complete development of all the powers, physical, mental, moral, aesthetic, of each individual child out of the entire fifty. From the standpoint of the latter aim, the discrepancy is so great that the situation is either ridiculous or tragic. Under such circumstances, how do we have the face to continue to speak at all of the complete development of the individual as the supreme end of educational effort? Excepting here and there with the genius who seems to rise above all conditions, the school environment and machinery almost compel the more mechanical features of school-work to lord it over the more vital aims.

We get the same result when we consider, not the number of children in a given grade, but the arrangement of grades. The distribution into separate years, each with its own distinctive and definite amount of ground to be covered, the assignment of one and only one teacher to a grade, the confinement of the same teacher to the same grade year by year, save as she is "promoted" to a higher grade, introduce an isolation which is fatal, I will not say to good work, but to the effective domination of the ideal of continuous development of character and personal powers. The unity and wholeness of the child's development can be realized only in a corresponding unity and continuity of school conditions. Anything that breaks the latter up into fractions, into isolated parts, must have the same influence upon the educative growth of the child. 1

It may, however, be admitted that these conditions, while highly important as regards the aims of education, have little or nothing to do with the course of study -- with the subject-matter of instruction. But a little reflection will show that the material of study is profoundly affected. The conditions which compel the children to be dealt with en masse, which compel them to be led in flocks, if not in hordes, make it necessary to give the stress of attention to those studies in which some sort of definite result can be most successfully attained, without much appeal to individual initiative, judgment, or inquiry. Almost of necessity, attention to the newer studies whose value is dependent upon personal appropriation, assimilation and expression is incidental and superficial. The results with the latter are naturally often so unsatisfactory that they are held responsible for the evil consequences; we fail to trace the matter back to the conditions which control the result reached. Upon the whole, it is testimony to the vitality of these studies that in such a situation the results are not worse than they actually are.

Unless the teacher has opportunity and occasion to study the educative process as a whole, not as divided into eight or twelve or sixteen parts, it is impossible to see how he can deal effectively with the problem of the complete development of the child. The restriction of outlook to one limited year of the child's growth will inevitably tend in one of two directions: either the teacher's work becomes mechanical, because practically limited to covering the work assigned for the year, irrespective of its nutritive value in the child's growth; or else local and transitory phases of the child's development are seized upon -- phases which too often go by the name of the interests of the child -- and these are exaggerated out of all due bounds. Since the newer studies give most help in making this excessive and sensational appeal, these studies are held responsible for the evils that subsequently show themselves. As a matter of fact, the cause of the difficulty lies in the isolation and restriction of the work of the teacher which practically forbids his considering the significance of art, music, and nature study in the light of continuity and completeness of growth.

This unity and completeness must, however, be cared for somehow. Since not provided for on the basis of the teacher's knowledge of the whole process of which his own work is one organic member, it is taken care of through external provision of a consecutive course of study, external supervision, and the mechanics of examination and promotion. Connection must somehow be made between the various fractional parts -- the successive grades. The supervisor, the principal, is the recourse. Acting, however, not through the medium of the consciousness of the class-room teacher, but through the medium of prescription of mode of action, the inevitable tendency is to arrest attention upon those parts of the subject-matter which lend themselves to external assignment and conjunction. Even music, drawing, and manual training are profoundly influenced by this fact. Their own vital aims and spirit are compromised, or even surrendered, to the necessities for laying out a course of study in such a manner that one year's work may fit externally into that of the next. Thus they part with much of their own distinctive and characteristic value, and become, to a considerable extent, simple additions to the number of routine studies carried by children and teacher. They serve no new purpose of their own, but add to the burden of the old. It is no wonder that, when the burden gets too great, there is demand that they be lopped off as excrescences upon the educational system.

The matter of promotion from grade to grade has a precisely similar effect upon the course of study. It is from the standpoint of the child, just what the isolation and external combination already alluded to are from the side of the teacher. The things of the spirit do not lend themselves easily to that kind of external inspection which goes by the name of examination. They do not lend themselves easily to exact quantitative measurement. Technical proficiency, acquisition of skill and information, present much less difficulty. So again emphasis is thrown upon those traditional subjects of the school curriculum which permit most readily a mechanical treatment -- upon the three R's and upon the facts of external classification in history and science, matters of formal technique in music, drawing, and manual training. Continuity, order, must be somewhat maintained -- if not the order and method of the spirit, then at least that of external conditions. Nothing is gained by throwing everything into chaos. In this sense the conservative is thoroughly right when he insists upon the maintenance of the established traditions of the school as regards the tests of the pupil's ability and preparation for promotion. He fails, however, to recognize the other alternative: that the looseness and confusion, the vagueness in accomplishment and in test of accomplishment of which he complains, may be due, not to the new studies themselves, but to the unfit conditions under which they operate.

I have already alluded to the fact that at present the teacher is hardly enabled to get a glimpse of the educative process as a whole, and accordingly is reduced to adding together the various external bits into which that Unity is broken. We get exactly the same result when we consider the way in which the course of study is determined. The fact that this is fixed by board of education, superintendent, or supervisor, by a power outside the teacher in the class room who alone can make that course of study a living reality, is a fact too obvious to be concealed. It is, however, comparatively easy to conceal from ourselves the tremendous import of this fact. As long as the teacher, who is after all the only real educator in the school system, has no definite and authoritative position in shaping the course of study, that is likely to remain an external thing to be externally applied to the child. 2

A school board or a superintendent can lay out a course of study down to the point of stating exactly the number of pages of textbooks to be covered in each year, each term and month of the year. It may prescribe the exact integers and fraction of integers with which the child shall make scholastic acquaintance during any period of his instruction; it may directly or indirectly define the exact shapes to be reproduced in drawing, or mention the exact recipes to be followed in cooking. Doubtless the experience of the individual teacher who makes the connections between these things and the life of the child will receive incidental attention in laying out these courses. But, so long as the teacher has no definite voice, the attention will be only incidental; and, as a further consequence, the average teacher will give only incidental study to the problems involved. If his work is the task of carrying out the instructions imposed upon him, then his time and thought must be absorbed in the matter of execution. There is no motive for interest, of a thoroughly vital and alert sort, in questions of the intrinsic value of the subject-matter and its adaptation to the needs of child growth. He may be called upon by official requirements, or the pressure of circumstance, to be a student of pedagogical books and journals; but conditions relieve him of the necessity of being a student of the most fundamental educational problems in their most urgent reality.

The teacher needs to study the mechanics of successfully carrying into effect the prescribed matter of instruction; he does not have to study that matter itself, or its educative bearing. Needless to say, the effect of this upon the actual course of study is to emphasize the thought and time given to those subjects and phases of subjects where there is most promise of success in doing the exact things prescribed. The three R's are again magnified, while the technical and routine aspects of the newer studies tend to crowd out those elements that give them their deeper significance in intellectual and moral life. Since, however, the school must have relief from monotony, must have "interest," must have diversification and recreation, these studies become too easily tools for introducing the excitement and amusement supposed to be necessary. The judicious observer who sees below the surface, but not to the foundation, again discounts these studies. Meanwhile the actual efficiency of the three R's is hampered and lessened by the superaddition of the new ways of employing time, whether they be routine or exciting in character.

It may easily be said that the class-room teacher at present is not sufficiently educated to be entrusted with any part in shaping a course of study. I waive the fundamental question -- the question of democracy -- whether the needed education can be secured without giving more responsibility even to the comparatively uneducated. The objection suggests another fundamental condition in our present school procedure -- the question of the status of the teacher as regards selection and appointment.

The real course of study must come to the child from the teacher. What gets to the child is dependent upon what is in the mind and consciousness of the teacher, and upon the way it is in his mind. It is through the teacher that the value even of what is contained in the text-book is brought home to the child; just in the degree in which the teacher's understanding of the material of the lessons is vital, adequate, and comprehensive, will that material come to the child in the same form; in the degree in which the teacher's understanding is mechanical, superficial and restricted, the child's appreciation will be correspondingly limited and perverted. If this be true, it is obviously futile to plan large expansions of the studies of the curriculum apart from the education of the teacher. I am far from denying the capacity on the part of truth above and beyond the comprehension of the teacher to filter through to the mind of an aspiring child; but, upon the whole, it is certain beyond controversy that the success of the teacher in teaching, and of the pupil in learning, will depend upon the intellectual equipment of the teacher.

To put literature into a course of study quite irrespective of the teacher's personal appreciation of literary values -- to say nothing of accurate discrimination as to the facts -- is to go at the matter from the wrong end. To enact that at a given date all the grades of a certain city shall have nature study is to invite confusion and distraction. It would be comic (if it were not tragic) to suppose that all that is required to make music and drawing a part of the course of study is to have the school board legislate that a certain amount of the time of the pupil, covering a certain prescribed ground, shall be given to work with pencil and paper, and to musical exercises. There is no magic by which these things can pass over from the printed page of the school manual to the child's consciousness. If the teacher has no standard of value in relation to them, no intimate personal response of feeling to them, no conception of the methods of art which alone bring the child to a corresponding intellectual and emotional attitude, these studies will remain what precisely they so often are -- passing recreations, modes of showing off, or exercises in technique.

The special teacher has arisen because of the recognition of the inadequate preparation of the average teacher to get the best results with these newer subjects. Special teaching, however, shifts rather than solves the problem. As already indicated, the question is a twofold one. It is a question, not only of what is known, but of how it is known. The special instructor in nature study or art may have a better command of the what -- of the actual material to be taught -- but be deficient in the consciousness of the relations borne by that particular subject to other forms of experience in the child, and, therefore, to his own personal growth. When this is the case we exchange King Log for King Stork. We exchange an ignorant and superficial teaching for a vigorous but one-sided, because over-specialized, mode of instruction. The special teacher in manual training or what not, having no philosophy of education -- having, that is, no view of the whole of which his own subject is a part -- isolates that study and works it out wholly in terms of itself. His beginning and his end, as well as the intermediate materials and methods, fall within manual training. This may give technical facility, but it is not (save incidentally) education.

This is not an attack upon special or departmental teaching. On the contrary, I have just pointed out that this mode of teaching has arisen absolutely in response to the demands of the situation. Since our present teachers are so largely an outcome of the older education, the so-called all-around teacher is for the most part a myth. Moreover, it is a mistake to suppose that we can secure the all-around teacher merely by instructing him in a larger number of branches. In the first place, human capacity is limited. The person whose interests and powers are all-around is not as a rule teaching in grade schools. He is at the head of the great scientific, industrial, and political enterprises of civilization. But granted that the average teacher could master ten distinct studies as well as five, it still remains true that without intellectual organization, without definite insight into the relation of these studies to one another and to the whole of life, without ability to present them to the child from the standpoint of such insight, we simply add an overburdened and confused teacher to the overburdened and confused child. In a word, to make the teaching in the newer studies thoroughly effective, whether by specialists or by the all-around teacher, there must, in addition to knowledge of the particular branch, be sanity, steadiness, and system in the mental attitude of the instructor. It is folly to suppose that we can carry on the education of the child apart from the education of the teacher.

If I were to touch upon certain other matters fundamentally connected with the problem of securing the teachers who make the nominal course of study a reality, I should be started upon an almost endless road. However, we must not pass on without at least noticing that the question is one of political, as well as of intellectual organization. An adequate view of the whole situation would take into account the general social condition upon which depends the actual supplying of teachers to the schoolroom. The education of the candidate, of the would-be teacher, might be precisely that outlined above, and yet it would remain, to a large extent, inoperative, if the appointment of school-teachers was at the mercy of personal intrigue, political bargaining, and the effort of some individual or class to get power in the community through manipulation of patronage. It is sentimental to suppose that any large and decisive reform in the course of study can take place as long as such agencies influence what actually comes in a living way to the life of the child.

Nor in a more comprehensive view could we be entirely silent upon the need of commercial as well as political reform. Publishing companies affect not only the text-books and apparatus, the garb with which the curriculum clothes itself, but also and that directly the course of study itself. New studies are introduced because some pushing firm, by a happy coincidence, has exactly the books which are needed to make that study successful. Old studies which should be entirely displaced (if there be any logic in the introduction of the new one) are retained because there is a vested interest behind them. Happy is the large school system which is free from the congestion and distraction arising from just such causes as these. And yet there are those who discuss the relative merits of what they are pleased to call old and new education as if it were purely an abstract and intellectual matter.

But we cannot enter upon these larger phases. It is enough if we recognize the typical signs indicating the impossibility of separating either the theoretical discussion of the course of study or the problem of its practical efficiency from intellectual and social conditions which at first sight are far removed; it is enough if we recognize that the question of the course of study is a question in the organization of knowledge, in the organization of life, in the organization of society. And, for more immediate purposes, it is enough to recognize that certain conditions imbedded in the present scheme of school administration affect so profoundly results reached by the newer studies, by manual training, art and nature study, that it is absurd to discuss the value or lack of value of the latter, without taking these considerations into account. I recur to my original proposition: that these studies are not having their own career, are not exhibiting their own powers, but are hampered and compromised by a school of machinery originated and developed with reference to quite different ends and aims. The real conflict is not between a certain group of studies, the three R's, those having to do with the symbols and tools of intellectual life, and other studies representing the personal development of the child, but between our professed ends and the means we are using to realize these ends.

The popular assumption, however, is to the contrary. It is still the common belief (and not merely in popular thought, but among those who profess to speak with authority) that the two groups of studies are definitely opposed to each other in their aims and methods, in the mental attitude demanded from the child, in the kind of work called for from the instructor. It is assumed that we have a conflict between one group of studies dealing only with the forms and symbols of knowledge, studies to be mastered by mechanical drill, and between those that appeal to the vital concerns of child life and afford present satisfaction. This assumed opposition has been so clearly stated in a recent educational document that I may be pardoned quoting at length:

In regard to education we may divide the faculties into two classes -- the doing faculties and the thinking faculties. By the doing faculties I mean those mechanical habits which are essential to the acquisition of knowledge, and are pure arts, such as the art of reading; that of performing arithmetical operations with rapidity and correctness; that of expressing thoughts in legible characters, and in words of grammatical arrangement. These arts can only be acquired by laborious drilling on the part of the teacher, and labor on the part of the pupil. They require little instruction, but repetition until they are performed with ease and almost pleasure. To neglect to impart these habits is to do a great injury to the child; nothing should be substituted for them, though instruction in other branches which require more thought and less art may be mingled as recreations with them.

I have never seen so condensed and comprehensive a statement of the incompatibility of aims and method for both teacher and pupil as is given here. On one side we have "doing faculties," by which is meant powers of pure external efficiency. These find their expression in what are termed "arts," which is interpreted to mean purely mechanical habits -- sheer routine facility. These are acquired by continued drill on the part of the teacher, and continued laborious repetition on the part of the child. Thought is not required in the process, nor is the result "instruction" -- that is, a real building up of the mind; the outcome is simply command of powers, of value not in themselves, but as tools of further knowledge, as "essential to the acquisition of knowledge." The scheme of contrasting studies is not so well developed. It is made clear, however, that they appeal to thought, not to mechanical habits, and that they proceed by instruction, not by drill. It is further implied that their exercise is attended not so much with labor as with pleasure on the part of the child -- which may be interpreted to mean that they have a present value in the life of the child, and are not mere instrumentalities of remoter acquisition. The situation as regards school work is contained in the proposition that the mechanical facilities based upon sheer drill and laborious repetition must make up the bulk of the elementary education, while the studies which involve thought, the furnishing of the mind itself, and result in a direct expansion of life, "may be mingled as recreations." They may be permitted, in other words, in the schoolroom as an occasional relief from the laborious drill of the more important studies.

Here is the dividing wall. The wall has been somewhat undermined; breaches have been worn in it; it has, as it were, been bodily pushed along until the studies of thought, of instruction and of present satisfaction occupy a greater bulk of school time and work. But the wall is still there. The mechanical habits that are essential to the acquisition of knowledge, the art of reading, of performing arithmetical operations and of expressing thought legibly and grammatically, are still the serious business of the schoolroom. Nature study, manual training, music, and art are incidents introduced because of the "interests" they provide, because they appeal to ability to think, arouse general intelligence, and add to the fund of information. A house divided against itself cannot stand. If the results of our present system are not altogether and always satisfactory, shall we engage in crimination and recrimination -- setting the old studies against the new and the new against the old -- or shall we hold responsible the organization, or lack of organization, intellectual and administrative, in the school system itself? If the old bottles will not hold the new wine, it is conceivable that we should blame neither the bottles nor the wine, but conditions which have brought the two into mechanical and external connection.

If my remarks in dwelling upon the split and contradiction in the present situation appear to be unnecessarily gloomy, it should be remembered that this view is optimism itself as compared with the theory which holds that the two groups of studies are radically opposed to each other in their ends, results, and methods. Such a theory holds that there is a fundamental contradiction between the present and the future needs of the child, between what his life requires as immediate nutritive material and what it needs as preparation for the future. It assumes a fundamental conflict between that which nourishes the spirit of the child and that which affords the instrumentalities of intellectual acquisition. It proclaims a fundamental opposition to exist in the mental activity between the methods of acquisition of skill, and the methods of development. The practical consequences are as disastrous as the logical split is complete. If the opposition be an intrinsic one, then the present conflict and confusion in the school-room are permanent and not transitory. We shall be forever oscillating between extremes: now lending ourselves with enthusiasm to the introduction of art and music and manual training, because they give vitality to the school-work and relief to the child; now querulously complaining of the evil results reached, and insisting with all positiveness upon the return of good old days when reading, writing, spelling, and arithmetic were adequately taught. Since by the theory there is no possibility of an organic connection, of co-operative relation, between the two types of study, the relative position of each in the curriculum must be decided from arbitrary and external grounds; by the wish and zeal of some strong man, or by the pressure of temporary popular sentiment. At the best we get only a compromise; at the worst we get a maximum of routine with a halo of sentiment thrown about it, or a great wish-wash of superficiality covering up the residuum of grind.

As compared with such a view, the conception that the conflict is not inherent in the studies themselves, but arises from maladjustment of school conditions, from survival of a mode of educational administration calculated for different ends from those now confronting us, is encouragement itself. The problem becomes first an intellectual and then a practical one. Intellectually what is needed is a philosophy of organization; a view of the organic unity of the educative process and educative material, and of the place occupied in this whole by each of its own parts. We need to know just what reading and writing and number do for the present life of the child, and how they do it. We need to know what the method of mind is which underlies subject-matter in cooking, shop-work and nature study, so that they may become effective for discipline, and not mere sources of present satisfaction and mere agencies of relief -- so that they too may become as definitely modes of effective preparation for the needs of society as ever reading, writing, and arithmetic have been.

With our minds possessed by a sane and coherent view of the whole situation, we may attempt such a gradual, yet positive modification of existing procedure as will enable us to turn theory into practice. Let us not be too precipitate, however, in demanding light upon just what to do next. We should remember that there are times when the most practical thing is to face the intellectual problem, and to get a clear and comprehensive survey of the theoretical factors involved. The existing situation, with all its vagueness and all its confusion, will nevertheless indicate plenty of points of leverage, plenty of intelligent ways of straightening things out, to one who approaches it with any clear conviction of the ends he wishes to reach, and of the obstacles in the way. An enlightenment of vision is the prerequisite of efficiency in conduct. The conservative may devote himself to the place of reading and writing and arithmetic in the curriculum so that they shall vitally connect with the present needs of the child's life, and afford the satisfaction that always comes with the fulfillment, the expression, of present power. The reformer may attack the problem, not at large and all over the entire field, but at the most promising point, whether it be art or manual training or nature study, and concentrate all his efforts upon educating alike the community, the teacher and the child into the knowledge of fundamental values for individual mind and for community life embodied in that study. Both conservative and reformer can devote themselves to the problem of the better education of the teacher, and of doing away with the hindrances to placing the right teacher in the schoolroom; and to the hindrances to continued growth after he is placed there. The American people believe in education above all else, and when the educators have come to some agreement as to what education is, the community will not be slow in placing at their disposal the equipment and resources necessary to make their ideal a reality.

In closing let me say that I have intentionally emphasized the obstacles to further progress, rather than congratulated ourselves upon the progress already made. The anomaly and confusion have, after all, been of some use. In some respects the blind conflict of the last two generations of educational history has been a better way of changing the conditions than would have been some wholesale and a priori rearrangement. The forms of genuine growth always come slowly. The struggle of the newer studies to get a foothold in the curriculum, with all the attendant confusion, is an experiment carried out on a large scale; an experiment in natural selection, of the survival of the fit in educational forms.

Yet there must come a time when blind experimentation is to give way to something more directed. The struggle should bring out the factors in the problem so that we can go more intelligently to work in its solution. The period of blind striving, of empirical adjustment, trying now this and now that, making this or that combination because it is feasible for the time being, of advancing here and retreating there, of giving headway now to the instinct of progress and now to the habit of inertia, should find an outcome in some illumination of vision, in some clearer revelation of the realities of the situation. It is uneconomical to prolong the period of conflict between incompatible tendencies. It makes for intellectual hypocrisy to suppose that we are doing what we are not doing. It weakens the nerve of judgment and the fiber of action to submit to conditions which prevent the realization of aims to which we profess ourselves to be devoted.

My topic is the elementary educational situation. In a somewhat more limited and precise view than I have previously taken of the situation, I believe we are now nearing the close of the time of tentative, blind, empirical experimentation; that we are close to the opportunity of planning our work on the basis of a coherent philosophy of experience and a philosophy of the relation of school studies to that experience; that we can accordingly take up steadily and wisely the effort of changing school conditions so as to make real the aims that command the assent of our intelligence and the support of our moral enthusiasm.


1. This thought is developed in the first number of this series: Isolation in the School, especially pp. 33-40; 92-98. [i.e. Young, E. F. (1900) Isolation in the School University of Chicago Contributions to Education, No. 1 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press); editor’s note].

2. See, again, Number I of this series, pp. 31-32 and 106-109.