Address to the Chicago Federation of Labor, February 11, 1905

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At Music Hall, Fine Arts Building, Feb. 11, 1905.

I only mean to speak for a very few minutes, because I think you will agree with me that the two people who have already spoken are the two people who know most about the situation, that they have spoken very well, and have covered nearly all the points involved. As I understand it, however, the Federation of Labor, while it has not yet had a report from its Charter Committee, has already committed itself to an elective school board versus an appointive board, and I shall ask to say a very few words on that subject.

There is no doubt that some cities in the United States which have elective school boards are regretting it, and are ready to go back to appointive system, and also that some of the cities that have appointive boards are clamoring for an elective system.

Many years ago I once traveled in Spain, and I was told when I entered the country that if you went by water you always wished you had gone by rail; but if you ventured to go by rail you regretted throughout the journey you hadn't gone by water. But, after all, that was a mere choice of method, while here we have a choice of method involving something else. We have here one method which may or may not work well, but one which is, nevertheless, more essentially in line with democratic institutions, more representative of the thing which we in America are all striving to get, than the other method is. It seems to me there can be little doubt that the elective board is the method which gives to the people of the city the largest chance to discuss educational measures and to feel themselves more in sympathy with their own popular school system than the appointive board ever can. After all, the mass of the people in any quarter of the city, or any part of the country, would always rather vote for principles than for men. Clever politicians recognize this desire on the part of the voter and they can only fool them by making them believe they are standing for principles. You never can get pure principles; they must always be illustrated and attached to daily life. The thing which interests people most, and is always most naturally attached to their daily experience and to the lives of their children is the unending problem of education. We have been told that our schools, when properly extended, are going to cost $7,750,000 in order to provide for the mere apparatus for the extension, and $2,500,000 increase in the annual budget is required in order to run them as Mr. Cooley has stated. We will need to have a revival in educational matters, an enormous belief in the utility and in the value of the public schools, in order to get these taxes paid, in order to get the people willing to submit to taxation, or even to arouse themselves sufficiently to sharpen a stick and get after the corporations, as Miss Haley recommends. (Applause.)

You can't secure a large increase in public revenue like this unless you have an enormous amount of public feeling and public enthusiasm.

The public school system of America is ordinarily supposed to have started about 1837, it was the beginning of that which we now call the public school system. That date is the date of the greatest activity of Horace Mann, the great educator who went up and down the country and convinced the people into the belief that nothing was too good for the education of their children, no matter how much it cost; that a man would better put less money in a house and lot and put more into the education of his child; that a man would better not have a piano in his house, if he could not afford the personal ownership of that piano and at the same time support a fine school for the education of his sons and daughters.

Men will not be taxed for the money to run the sort of school that we ought to have unless they are enthusiastic about the schools. A mere handful of men may think that we ought to have manual training in the schools or that we ought not to have manual training; the board and the superintendents may discuss this matter and present their carefully expressed opinions to a committee, but the people themselves will not thereby have investigated it and will have no enthusiasm for it. The whole question of manual training in the schools should be talked up and down the city, talked about as men talk when running for office, as they present a political platform, pro and con, for and against manual training. I think Mr. Cooley and the members of the Board of Education on this platform will agree with me that the kindergartens we have in the public schools, 125, in contradistinction to the 800 we ought to have, were retained not because the Board of Education thought they could afford them--quite the reverse; but because the popular clamor of the people demanded their retention and signified their willingness to pay for them. In the long run people do care for the education of their children more than they care for anything else. Over half of the foreigners which I know are people who have come to America because they wanted to give their children a better chance. They want "the young ones to have what they could not get over there." One hears that every day, and I think the teacher who knows [page 2] the foreign citizen will agree with me. They themselves haven't had a chance for the education which is given to their children in the public schools. (Applause.) And, therefore, it seems to me not altogether a question as to whether the elective board has worked well in this city or that city. We cannot consider that alone. We must also consider the principle upon which it is based, although I am sure that I cannot be disputed in this statement, that in those cities in which the election of the members of the Board of Education has been made a special election separate from all the other candidates on the "blanket ballot" it has never failed to be satisfactory. In those cities the parents of the children are allowed to have an intelligent presentation of the issue at stake and a reasonable use of the school houses in which such a nationality centers.

The method of an elective board has not worked very well in those cities where the election has been turned over as merely a part of the political machinery, to be manipulated and taken care of by the ward heelers, as they take care of the election of a garbage inspector. Of course it has gone badly then, but never where it has been regarded as a great education campaign with candidates who represent educational principles.

My next topic, that of promotional examinations, is not exactly germane to this discussion because the Board of Education as I understand them, do not mean to embody promotional examinations in any definite bill and, therefore, it has nothing to do with the revision of the charter, but I have been asked to say something about promotional examinations and I am glad to comply in a word or two. From one point of view I have no right to speak. I am neither a teacher not in any way officially connected with the schools, but speak merely as a citizen, as a looker-on who sometimes have the reputation of seeing the most of the game. I will not claim that, but they at least see something of the game, which may be of interest to the players themselves.

The promotion of the teachers, as I understand the system in Chicago, is dependent to the extent of 50 [percent] upon examinations. That is, half of the marks upon which the promotions are based are the reports from the principals and supervisors, and the other half of their marks depend upon the examinations which they take in studies largely furnished by the Normal extension classes. Now, it seems to some of us that a professional person must be judged in the long run by his professional work; that a lawyer is judged not by set examinations in this state or that state, but by his success in practice. We find out how much Blackstone he knows when he is at the bar with a fellow lawyer pouncing upon any mistake he may make in his quotations from Blackstone. It may be argued, of course, that lawyers or other professional men who have a training as a basis, are subject to open competition; that they are not protected, that they are not paid from the public funds and that therefore they are not in that sense public servants as teachers are.

No one can stand more firmly, I think, than I do for a merit system. No one can have seen more clearly, unless he had to live in the 19th ward for fifteen years, as I have happened to live, the evils of a non-merit system, and no one believes more strongly than I do that before we can get our public affairs in order we must have some such machinery as the merit system affords. But the merit system may very easily be brought to disrepute in its first trial, and it is at the present moment largely on trial in America everywhere. It may very easily be applied in such a way as to make it not a reasonable test of merit, but as to make it a very bungling contrivance and deservedly suspected of stupidity. It seems to me that to test people as students when they are engaged as teachers, to test their knowledge by examinations and not as it appears in their work, is a misapplication of the merit system. Their professional efficiency comes out in the children whom they teach; it is revealed in their daily occupation and in their mental alertness. Of course, they must feed their minds because they will go all to pieces if they do not feed their minds and their work will soon show it. But to insist upon set studies and a set apparatus of examinations is to test them in one thing and to employ them for another thing. (Applause.)

There used to be an old system of political economy which some of us had to study in college that said that every man was lazy; that no man, especially a man who worked with his hands, would ever exert himself unless he were faced with starvation; it was only when the gray wolf was at the door, so to speak, that he would go out and do a stroke or two of feeble work. Now, of course, we know that sort of political economy has been more or less put upon the back shelf. Perhaps some of you remember those old diagrams which represent a man's activity by a curved line gradually sinking until he struck the starvation level, when it went sharply upward under the stimulus of hunger. The diagrams, so nearly as I know, do not now appear on any blackboard in any school. But are we not doing something of the same sort in pedagogy? We are acting upon the notion that a teacher will not study unless she has a sharp prod from the outside; unless she is told "if you don't take these studies you can't secure promotion." I believe it will not be very long before that, too, is relegated to the back shelves. (Applause.)

The newest political economy talks very little of the starvation stimulus but a great deal of the instinct of workmanship. It points to the stimulus which is to be found in work itself and of the many forces which society itself constantly applies to its workmen. It tells of the inventors who have served this country; men who have worked without any hope or pay, and worked in the face of almost certain failure, because they were possessed of this desire to work out an idea they had in their minds because they were driven by an inner impulse. Something of that sort, I believe, is coming more and more into our estimate of those people who do any sort of stimulating mental work, and certainly no work is more inherently stimulating than that which has to do with little children.  Dr. Dewey again designates work with the little child as the most appealing and the most rewarding of possible occupations. It is stupid not to take advantage of that appeal and of the reward which daily contact with the little child gives, and to substitute for that great and enormous advantage, the stimulus which lies in examinations. A teacher responding to this natural, professional interest in her pupils must find each day that if she wants to keep herself at all in line with the growing requirements of the school room that she must read, she has to continue her education, she must study, she will seek mental [page 3] pabulum wherever she can get it. In short, put her in constant contact with the growing child, make her success depend upon his development and she will feel that no effort is too great to meet the professional demands upon her.

When I came to Chicago fifteen years ago, I had never lived in a city before and I was enormously interested in the public schools. I had gone to a little village school house, and I never dreamed that public schools could be so remarkable as I found them here. There was all the charm of divinity; down in Englewood under Col. Parker one line of experiment was being tried, another line under Mr. Speer, still another under Mrs. Young. I mention these almost at random as I recall different educational centers in the city. The teachers were not examined in making geography or industry the basis of their teaching, they were not examined in their ability to make a child observe quickly, but they were enormously interested in the children under their charge and responsive to pedagogical teaching. I think Chicago had some claim then, as perhaps it has now, to be in the advance of the public school system of America.

It seems to me over and over again, we have to believe that stimulus for the best work lies in the work itself. The efficiency of a body of teachers does not altogether depend upon the individual ability of each teacher. It must depend much upon it, but also upon her relation to her scholars; perhaps even more it depends upon the power of working together as a professional body with a common cause.

It seems to me that we ought to do away with extraneous tests. Let us by all means have a merit system in our schools, but let us study to find the best merit system. Let us see to it [today] that if we are going to have civil service in the schools that we have a good, respectable, well tested civil service built from within and not clapped on from the outside. One of the first steps in a well established civil service is the pension system which is being discussed so largely. Let us not set up a travesty of civil service even though it may be a very respectable one. After all, it is the minds of the children that we are studying to improve, and the improvement of the teacher must depend upon that.