Child Labor and Education, May 10, 1908

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If I could make a synthesis of the fine speeches that have been made before me, I should say that even in a state where we have a good child labor law well enforced, and a model compulsory [page 2] education law well enforced, we still find many things to be desired. It may be of interest to this audience if I tell you some of the experiences we have had in Illinois in regard to those two model laws, and of the advances we hope to gain in relation to child labor and compulsory education. In the first place, we have come to believe that many children leave school when they are fourteen years of age -- and if an affidavit can make them fourteen a few months earlier, so much the better -- largely because school does not interest them, and also because their parents see no relation between the things they learn at school and the trade which they want them to follow afterward. Much could be accomplished if the school were more closely articulated with the life which the child will later lead. This is of course difficult because society is in a constant state of change. At present we are passing through a great industrial revolution.

To be forced to admit, however, that education has not made a corresponding change, that there has been no well directed effort on the part of educators to meet these changing industrial conditions, is to spell failure so far as education is concerned, with those who are brought most sharply in contact with the present industrial order, who are the employees in its factories and in the means of transportation. They realize in their daily experiences that their children are not getting in school the things that they will need later, and they resent keeping them there with some very good reasons.

The movement for manual training is a blind effort to meet these changing industrial conditions, but it does not yet connect with the last requirement. A wise teacher will say that a little child in kindergarten and first grade likes to make things because he is imaginative. He makes a house which barely stand up and a boat which looks like a shoe. He may call his house a castle or a bridge, and his teacher will say: "That is a very nice castle." or, "A very nice bridge," because it expresses his imagination. This same teacher, when the boy is twelve or thirteen and is still making things with his hands, will not allow him to dovetail a box if it is not accurately done and his imagination must be curbed in favor of workmanship. In the first place, the child is expressing imagination, and in the [page 3] latter stage he is learning technique. But the same boy at fourteen or fifteen years of age, making something in a school, is not content to dovetail a box for its own sake, but insists that what he is doing shall have some direct relation to the earning of money. It must have to do with the life of the family with which he is at present associated, or with that dreamy family which lies in his mind as a thing of the future. A wise teacher would say that the child goes through the imaginative period and the receptive period, and the time comes when he feels that he is a part of the life about him, and that this is quite independent of the fact that he may be immediately required to earn his living or not. If this is a true diagnosis of the phases through which a child goes we would have to admit that we have failed to keep the child in school during these later years because we have made no direct appeal to his desire to play the part of a man in the world lying outside of the school house.

In Massachusetts, some time ago, a commission was appointed by Governor Douglas, which made a careful investigation of the children of fourteen and fifteen years of age engaged in the great factories and shops. They found things which some of us knew before, although we could not reduce them to figures. They found that children working at fourteen went from factory to factory; that they worked in a box factory a few weeks and a tin-can factory another few weeks, and that they learned nothing and settled down to nothing; that the children at sixteen were earning little more than at fourteen, and that they were quite skeptical in regard to the value of "sticking to a job." If these same children had been kept in school for two years longer, in the belief that they were learning things which would enable them to earn more money at sixteen; if their parents could have been convinced that they would be repaid for the sacrifice of keeping them in school during these two wasted years -- years wasted from the point of view of the education of the child, from the point of view of the wages which he brought into the family, and quite wasted from the point of view of the industrial development of Massachusetts, because no foreman in a well regulated factory can secure much value from the work of a boy or girl who stays only a few weeks -- their value to themselves and to the community might have been very much greater. [page 4]

What is this challenge which is brought to our modern education? Why is it that we have failed to see that this impulse to get ready to play the part of a man and earn money is a worthy educational impulse, quite as suggestive in its line of interest to the educator as the other things are, upon which education has founded itself. Herbartians say: Study the child and give him the things which he so earnestly desires.

Is it true that our education is still largely medieval and therefore class education. Medieval scholars learned the signs and symbols in which the great truths had been embodied, for in that way alone could they amass and transmit this precious learning. But in the present civilization to put stress upon signs and symbols is to drive away from school the multitude of children eager to take part in the active outside life; and the only way to save them to the school is to hitch it up to the life outside. To give the child industrial training in its historical implications and scientific foundations; to make the child understand that his work has little meaning unless it is attached to the social development about him; to give him to feel that he is taking no part in the world unless he is doing his work worthily and understandingly, such an education would not only make over the whole school, but the future generations of such children might begin to modify the industry itself.

No one will underestimate the industrial age in which we live. It is our pride and our achievement. But if we would temper it, make it less ruthless, prepare the children for it so that they may stand up against its tendency to make them mere machine tenders, we must modify the school and do it fearlessly with some deference to what the child demands. Sometimes when you see a little fellow eager to go to work and held in school by the stern compulsory education law, his mother counting the days during which she must continue to scrub until the child begins to bring in wages, it is pitiful. You would not have the child go to work earlier, but you would give him the cheer of knowing that when he does go to work all that he has learned will count, and that his mother is making the sacrifice that she may share the fuller life with her boy later on.

We say it now with the air of uttering a platitude, we can't say it with the conscience and vigor which the right kind of a [page 5] school would enable us to do. I would like to give this word of advice to the states which are entering upon this needed reform of child labor, and enacting legislation on compulsory education, that the whole thing will be clearer for the working people to understand if you will modify the schools as you go along, not into schools for apprentices, but into schools which reckon with the child's later industrial life. The present industrial situation affords a splendid opportunity to educators. For the first time in the history of the world workers are without knowledge of the thing they are doing and without perception of the thing they are making. It is certainly the duty of the state to keep the children out of industry until they are old enough to stand up to it with their muscles and backbones, but it is also the duty of the state to teach the child to dominate his machine by understanding it. He must know what the machine is about as well as the old-fashioned child on the farm knew what the plow was for. It means both to socialize the school and to humanize industry.

There is a gulf between the school and the factory which needs to be bridged, not by the school making concessions, but by making adaptations. If the school stands still, on the one hand industry becomes materialistic and ruthless, and the school on the other hand loses its vitality and becomes dead, and more or less medieval in its methods. To bring the two together is the mission of the people who would enable the workman to master his machine with his mind as well as with his hands, and to supplement the daily grind of the factory with some spiritual power which will humanize and lift the workman above its deadening effects. Such an education would help all of us to judge life more fairly in its material and spiritual aspects.

The story that Miss Gordon told about the children who are sacrificed to the green plush album, reminded me of an experience we had in a lodging house in Chicago. A boy of eighteen came there dying of tuberculosis. We wrote to his mother in Pittsburg, and she sent some money that we might send him home, and with the money was a long letter expressing her disappointment in this boy, stating that he had gone to work in a glass factory at nine, where he stayed three years; then he went with his father into one of the large foundries in Pittsburg [page 6] and had been a good boy until at the age of fifteen he had typhoid fever. After he recovered from the illness she said he didn't seem to be worth very much, and soon after that he ran away with a dog and pony show. She could not understand, because he had always been a good boy and had seemed to care for more serious things, what attraction the dog and pony show should have for him. But the show broke up in New Orleans. The boy beat his way back as far as Chicago, and there he was at eighteen, dying of tuberculosis. The mother wrote that this younger brother was doing well in the high school and his sister was going to be a teacher; that they had paid for their home and had a nice room ready for him with a carpet and lace curtains. It was the green plush album in another form. The poor woman had no idea that she had sacrificed this first child to her very laudable desire to buy a home and to educate the younger children. She felt that the dog and pony show had ruined him, and the notion that his desire for excitement was the inevitable reaction against premature labor, could not enter her mind. It would have taken a more hard-hearted person than any of us were to suggest these things to her in her hour of affliction. So the boy went back and died, and his mother is no doubt taking great comfort in the little house with the carpet and the lace curtains, and the younger children who were to profit by the sad example of her first-born. Those of us who live among working people see this false standard which the schools and churches fail to correct, the materialistic standard of life which we allow factories to set for us, forgetting that after all they are our servants, supplying only the material basis of life; that education must master them for the sake of the children even as legislation protects the children from being prematurely caught in their operation.

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