Statement on the Chicago School System, [February 1, 1907]


It hardly seems necessary to say much in support of the general principles of this report. As in abundantly evident from the quotations to be found therein, they have the support of the most enlightened educational opinion of the country. It is hard to believe that anyone would hesitate to recognize the necessity of the statement that the teachers, in he huge school system of a great city, should have something to do with the formation and criticism of the administration which they have to carry out.

It has always seemed to me that there is no one who is so unfortunately isolated as the teacher in the school-room of our city schools. Above her stands the vast system of school administration giving her the books and methods which she is to use, and before stand the children who can receive the contents of the curriculum and be affected by the methods of the school only through her agency. There is no natural way in which she can react back upon the administration, by which she can make herself individually or collectively felt in the system of which she is the most important part.

There lies back of this isolation a false conception that teaching is in reality a mechanical art, which calls for no recognition of the personality of the teacher herself. It implies that the teacher may be subject to a sort of discipline which is permissible in a factory or an army. There orders can be issued which are to becarried out with precision, without consultation or discussion on hte part of those who are to execute them. Any one who will receive [page 2] and be subject to these directions is fulfilling his part in the machinery of the system. This is, of course, a conception of teaching which no one here would be willing to accept. Teaching is not a mechanical art; it is a social process; it is a process in which personalities come into contact with each other; and where we have contact of personalities, we have social organizatino. This organization cannot be imposed from the outside, it must arise from the interaction of these living personalities.

If the teachers through whose social intercourse with the children this organization is to grow up, have no natural method of reacting back upon the administration of the schools, the conditions are fundamentally hostile to education as a social process, and as fundamentally favorable to the mechanical training which is the recognized bane of our city schools. It is the fact, that in every healthful organism the natural life of hte parts through their interaction upon the others, serve to control the organization of the whole, that is the very core of democracy. it follows, therefore, from the very recognition of the social character of education, that there must be some channel through which the influence of this social life in the school can flow back to assist in determining the administration of hte schools. it is only through the teachers, whose personalities dominate this social intercourse in the school-room, that such a channel can be found. it is this truth that lies behind the demand for the democritization of our schools.

We hear two criticisms with regard to our city schools. [page 3] One of them is that the children are not equpped as they should be when they leave them. It is pointed out that the larger part of the children have left by the time they have reached the fifth grade, and that they do not leave it with the control over language and number which they will need in their work as men and women. They cannot spell correctly nor write legibly, nor figure quickly and accurately. What these critics then demand is drill, drill, drill, in which the three R's, for this comparatively short period during which the children are in school, and in which they must get pre-requisites of any sort of success in this commercial and industrial age of ours.

The other criticism abuses the schools because they do not make law-abiding citizens out of the children out of the little fraction of their lives they spend in the school-room.

These two criticisms are apt to be made by the same men without suspicion that they are hopelessly inconsistent with each other. Good citizenship is the outcome of healthful social habits, and can no more be achieved by drill in the three R's than by the treading of a treadmill. But if these critics are unaware of the contradiction which underlies their arrangment of the schools, they are abundantly aware, with us all, that there are conflicting elements in the school system which willnot harmonize. We encourage the constructive and social occupations in the school, - the manual-training, the household arts, the modelling, painting and music- and then turn our backs upon them as fads and frills, and return to the three R's, only to commit ourselves more completely to the principle of this larger life- content in the [page 4] curriculum at the next swing of the pendulum toward the fads and frills.

We praise the little Red School and its efficient education that was so independent of modern architectural, hygienic and decorative trappings, but we continue to build all the new Schoolhouses with gymnasiums, manual-training shops, cooking laboratories and assembly-halls.

The simple fact is that we do not know toward what our schools are growing. We have no clearly conceived program, and when some one sets up such a program it is promptly knocked down and we find ourselves adrift again. There is, in a word, an evolution going on in the schools, and we cannot control it by a statemtn of what the result is to be, for, as little as in any other evolution, can we know the result before it appears. The best criterion of the imemdiate process of growth is its healthfulness. If there is an educational evolution going on it cannot be controlled from the outside by a program handed down to the school and its teacher by external authorities merely. It must be controlled from the point of view of the life itself that is lived in the schools. The changes that take place in that program must arise from what happens in the life and not vice versa, as is to a large extent our present theory and practice.

Only so far as the teachers have some natural  method of expressing themselves in the school administration, can the administration take advantage of the actual life that is being lived in the schools to criticize its own programs, and to adapt them to the evolution of the education that is taking [page 5] place, not in the brains of pedagogues but in the concrete social experiences of children and teachers.

That this exercise may be interpreted, and that the personalities that come into relationship with each other in the school-room may be recognized, and fittingly used, it is necessary that the teachers shoulod have some real part in he administration of our schools.

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