As heretofore mentioned, I began teaching in a rural school when I was sixteen years of age. From the viewpoint of modern educators I was a menace to the pupils who came under my care. After fifty-four years of observation I am not sure that modern educators are correct in their judgment. It is true that I possessed very little knowledge of the subjects I attempted to teach. But having acquired the fundamental virtues, I was sympathetic, democratic, and enthusiastically helpful. This human equipment is even today of tremendous value.
During my first term of teaching I read Page's Theory and Art of Teaching. This book is still worth reading in spite of the extraordinary claims of modern writers on education. I have already referred to O. S. Fowler's three books which some years later constituted the foundation of his book entitled Human Science. These books, together with George Combe's "Constitution of Man," gave me a foundation for a philosophy of education that in my judgment has never been surpassed.
My training at the Oswego Normal and Training School was superficial. Great emphasis was placed on method. The subject of psychology was not so much as formally mentioned. It is true that Professor Herman Krusi, my instructor of geometry, was saturated with the philosophy of Pestalozzi and Froebel.
When I left the normal school, like all the other students, I was confident that I was master of pedagogy. After laboring under this delusion for several years, I began studying at first hand the students who came under my tuition. I discovered that I must give my best attention to the world I lived in, to the world my pupils lived in. I do not claim to have made any new discoveries. I do claim to have escaped from the thralldom of ironclad classification and standardization. Today we have educational laboratories, schools of education, whole libraries on education and tests galore. I am not condemning these agencies because the dominating motive is worthy of hearty commendation. I do deplore the degree to which they have been developed. Educational freedom is impossible under the present regime.
In 1884, I was convinced that a saving education demanded the consideration of the whole human organism, the head, the heart, and the hand. After pushing a plan for several years to secure all round education I was compelled to fall in line with orthodox demands or close my school.
For example, in my school I followed Professor Krusi's plan of teaching geometry. Many of my graduates were preparing to enter the University of Michigan, state normal schools and other higher institutions of learning. We used no textbook and stated all theorems in the form of problems. An appeal was made to the initiative of students. The results were highly satisfactory insomuch as the learner acquired correct habits of thinking, rather than special skill in word memorizing. An ordinary student who pursues this plan is following one that he must use all through life. In every day affairs, problems confront the worker. His education should put him in command of the art of constructive thinking. The higher institutions demanded that more ground be covered in the regulated time units. The Ferris Institute, in order to live, was forced to adopt a text book on geometry and substitute superficial training for personal initiative.
The ordinary college graduate, after entering upon his vocation, finds that he knows very little geometry; in fact, knows very little of any of the subjects that he pursued in his regular course. If by any chance he becomes a teacher he must return to the subjects he has studied and now really master them. If he is not exceptional in his attitude he will follow the road marked out by tradition. He will fail to discover just how each subject in the school curriculum is related to the student's use of the subject in his life relations.
Modern teaching of arithmetic illustrates what I mean. From the time an [sic] arithmetic has been used, teachers who have been loyal to tradition, taught arithmetical processes never employed in the business world. They have failed to observe that in practical arithmetic it is imperative that the student knows how to add, subtract, multiply and divide whole numbers and fractions rapidly and accurately. The boy or girl who can do this will find his path strewn with roses because all else in arithmetic grows out of the requirements of the business world. After the student is adept in using the four fundamental processes he can, if wisely directed, easily become familiar with modern business usages. The "how" he learns from lumberman, carpenters, builders, paper hangers, mason, druggist, grocers, bankers, and so forth. I am at a loss to explain the sluggishness and indifference of so-called educators to the actual demands of the world they live in. Of course it is easier to follow tradition.
The same form of stupidity prevails in the teaching of the English language, the most important subject in the curriculum of a secondary school. The child enters the primary school with a vocabulary of words that have come to him in his life relations. As a rule he can neither read nor write when he is first enrolled. For that reason, or rather because the teacher is a slave to tradition, she at once teaches him to read and write instead of teaching him to read and talk. All through life nine hundred and ninety nine of his communications will be oral. He will not carry a pencil and notebook about with him. He will just talk. But the teacher asks the child to write sentences, learn the use of capitals and punctuation marks. She spends hours blue-penciling the papers handed in by her pupils, and still the children do not acquire skill in the use of English. Year after year this wasteful and irksome work goes on. I am not denying the value of capitals and punctuation marks. I simply maintain that there is a time and place for this form of drill. Strange that so many teachers never think of their own experience in trying to master the English language. In childhood speech is the all important art unless the art of thinking shall be given first consideration. The human when speaking slowly utters one hundred twenty-five to one hundred fifty words per minutes. In writing, his speed is twenty to twenty-five words per minute. The task of learning a language by writing is therefore tedious and next to impossible. If thinking is primary, and I most emphatically think it is, then the oral method is imperative.
I do not speak of arithmetic and the English language in order to present a method, although the method is implied, but for the primary purpose of directing attention to the importance of giving education the place it deserves in our life relations. Education is for the enrichment of life rather than for ornamentation.
Modern school curriculums should be simplified; should be confined to a few essential things, and these few things should be taught so that they will stick. If taught in harmony with actual life needs, success is assured.
I am not in sympathy with commencement addresses that speak of education as a process that can be completed in four years or more and said completion is ratified by conferring a diploma. Education is life. It involves growth, development and training.
Many people entertain a very old superstition, which grows out of the notion already mentioned, that education is a preparation or this or that vocation. Consequently present school laws are undemocratic. Free schools are open for a class for those who are five to twenty-one years of age. This is all wrong. American public schools should be open for all of the people all of the time. I frequently hear educators say that fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters past twenty-one would not attend school if the opportunity were offered. I resent this excuse, because for forty years these people barred from the public school attend the Ferris Institute. I have known father and mother, son and daughter to be in attendance at one time. Men and women sixty years of age have spent delightful months at the Ferris Institute. If these intellectually hungry people could have had suitable opportunities would they have paid car fare, board and tuition in order to gratify their aspirations?
I deplore the menace of college and university degrees. Correspondence schools and summer schools encourage this mania. Many hard working teachers hazard health and the highest welfare of their families in making extreme sacrifices. The educational lock step system is largely responsible for this condition. The machine demands that only men and women holding degrees shall be permitted to teach in certain grades. Because a teacher holds a degree does not signify that he can teach. Not infrequently the man or woman after receiving a degree unconsciously hermetically seals his "think tank" and never thereafter breaks the seal. I am aware that not a few will say that I am opposed to higher education. I am in favor of higher education, an education that educates.
Long years ago I read Edwin Sequin's book on "Idiocy". I owe much to Dr. Sequin for revealing to me the tremendous possibilities that slumber in the most ordinary minds. On account of my accepting this fact I am opposed to mechanizing education. In every normal child there lurks some of the elements of genius. This belief has permeated all of my work as a teacher. It is a fact that even God's chosen people use only a small portion of their potentialities. Our system of education has a tendency to make its recipients self-satisfied, consequently they do not capitalize their natural resources. They elect a vocation, make a comfortable living and if they live long enough become fossils. It is easier to convert each day into a series of reflexes than to make an adventure which invites wholesome thinking. As an educator I have worked early and late with my students trying to convince them that to realize their best possibilities is the aim and object of education.
At the Ferris Institute for forty years, thirty minutes have been devoted every morning at the opening of school to an awakening "stunt". After a song or two the president or vice-president reads some great biography morning after morning, or he reads an appeal written or spoken by some great man or woman. If a great man or woman happens to come to the city this individual is invited to come before the school to give a short, forceful address. I try to bring my students in contact with great minds. Our best graduates frequently remark that their first real awakening came in the "Morning Exercises."
Furthermore, I may add that I have always been in search of the four-leafed clover; I could write a book on my discoveries. Whether you like it or not, the noble thinkers always have led mankind and will always continue to do so.
I am sorry to say that our American universities have become so large and unwieldy that their professors have not time nor inclination to imitate Professor Henslow who found leisure to walk with the young Charles Darwin. It is safe to say that without Henslow we might never have had Darwin, the naturalist. The reader has already discovered that I have always had a boundless faith in the possibilities of human nature.