Popular Science Monthly/Volume 19/August 1881/Editor's Table

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EDITOR'S TABLE.
SELF-GOVERNMENT IN EDUCATION.

HE who said that the key to the government of mankind is given in the three words "hell and bayonets," made a compact formula for that system of external coercion by which human conduct in past times has been chiefly regulated. Men have been ruled, through their fears and by intimidation, the state threatening the penalties of this world, and the Church those of the next, to enforce conformity to the prescribed standards of right conduct.

And there must be external compulsion, if there is no other. Men have to be dealt with according to their natures, and where these are low and brutalized they must be coerced by coarse and brutal methods. But social experience slowly develops the better traits of character, so that men become amenable to the influence of higher motives. In what we call the progress of society, external constraint gradually gives way and men learn more and more to govern themselves. Evolution here as elsewhere is by substitution. The progress of human freedom consists not in escape from restraint, but in the exchange of lower for higher restraints—in the replacement of state-control by self-control.

Unquestionably this is the most fundamental and important change that is going on in society. It is the highest aspect of human progress. It is the growth of the voluntary system, at the expense of the involuntary or compulsory. It is the development of man-kind by discipline in the self-regulation of conduct. The transformation of men in this way is a great reality, and gives origin to whatever there is of free or liberal government in the world. All the humanizing influences by which men are ameliorated and improved take final effect in their liberation from external governing forces, so that they become responsible, self-determining agents, and in that sense free and independent.

How educational systems have been and are still related to this great tendency is a very interesting question. It can not be denied that they have had some share in promoting it, but their influence on the whole must be counted as powerfully adverse to it. In fact, school government has been generally modeled on the conception of monarchical government: the teacher has been a "master," and has ruled his subjects by arbitrary coercion. The rod—the instrument of most degrading punishment—has ever been the symbol of educational control; and, although it begins to be widely seen that it does not represent the better method, thousands of schools are still fighting to maintain it. The schools reflect the general condition of thought, and, if the state is stringently coercive and the people tolerate it, the schools will imitate the policy. Besides, men love the exercise of power, and teachers are no exceptions to this dangerous propensity. External compulsion, moreover, is the simpler and easier way of governing, and, in fact, is all that is left to the teacher without resources. The resort to the rod and kindred measures stamps the teacher with incapacity for his vocation—that is, with an ability to govern by the best methods. Everybody knows that the rod plays no such important part in the work of education as it formerly played. Its sphere has been encroached upon by superior influences. Its stanchest defenders only claim to use it but "sparingly," and the best teachers reject it openly and entirely.

The old system is thus partially outgrown and much discredited; but there has as yet been but little intelligent and adequate effort to organize the method of self-government in its place. The more offensive forms of coercion are abated; but school-government still mainly rests upon external authority, though brought to bear in milder ways. There seems to be still but little recognition of the principle that the essential and supreme work of education is to form character by the cultivation of self-control, which implies liberty and responsibility. And this is not to be learned by precept, but by practice. Self-government, like music, can only be acquired by exercise, and to gain this the school itself must be worked by this method. Students must be thrown back upon themselves, and habituated to responsible self-direction.

As this is the highest result of education, so it is undoubtedly the most difficult of attainment. The grosser forms of punishment may be quite dispensed with, and still the school-goverment may be that of external caretaking and paternal regulation. The model college president has been the man who could know or divine everything that is going on among the students, and circumvent and disconcert them in all their little irregularities. Under this system it has ever been the ambition of the students to beat the faculty, and it naturally engenders a state of antagonism between the students and the governing authorities. Such a system by its very nature must fail to develop the most valuable traits of manhood.

From this general point of view we have taken much interest in the reform of collegiate government which has been attempted during the past year at Amherst. It is reported that President Seelye submitted a new plan to the faculty, that it was adopted, and that the results thus far have been in a high degree satisfactory.

The method consists in placing the student and the college upon an equal footing, and bringing them into relation by a mutual voluntary engagement. A correspondent of the "New York Evening Post" says:

Every student upon entering college signs an agreement to observe its laws. This agreement is held to be a contract. If it is broken there is an end of the contract, and the contracting parties are as they were before it was formed. The student is no longer a member of the college, and the college owes nothing further to him. . . . The ground taken by the Amherst College government is that the faculty are the helpers of the younger men who want an education. The manhood of the students is recognized, and they are trusted to govern themselves without the interference of the faculty, save when the rupture of the contract compels the separation of a student from college.

At first the students did not grasp the sweeping force of the new laws, and one case of discipline, resulting, however, in a renewal of the broken contract by the student and college authorities, occurred before the idea was firmly fixed that the students were to be a self-governing body as far as their conduct is concerned, and that the only concern of the faculty was the observance of the contract and the retention of the students, or the end of contract relations with them if their promise should be broken.

Since this case, say the faculty, a higher tone has been observable among the students. They are no longer watched; professors do not feel called upon to act as police-officers; there is a freedom and self-accountability not known before, and consequently a better grade of deportment than before. After a student has been informed that he is no longer a member of college because he has broken his promise to obey the college laws, no further attention is paid to him. Should he come to recitations, as he can do, because they are open to visitors, he will be regarded exactly as a visitor. He can leave town or not, just as he chooses, and he can go to another college, as far as any notice from Amherst is to be feared. By the agreement among the colleges, no student could go from one to another without papers showing an honorable dismissal. No student expelled from one could find an open door at the other. Amherst has now withdrawn from that position.

President Seelye has made the following slight correction of the foregoing:

We have not yet relinquished the former prohibition upon the admission of students expelled from other colleges, nor are all who will sign the contract placed on an equal footing and no questions asked; on the contrary, no student is admitted here without a careful inquiry into his antecedents and his standing, nor unless lie gives satisfactory evidence that his contract will be kept. We have only relinquished our claim upon the other colleges to help us by their prohibitions in maintaining our discipline.

We regard this experiment as having great significance. It is something to have this evidence of liberal aspiration on the part of college authorities, and it is much to have so prompt an acknowledgment of the salutary results of the reform; but everything is gained when such an institution steps forward and plants itself upon a great principle hitherto regarded as a mere matter of theory. It is more than a change in the form of government; it is an actual transfer of the governing power. Contracts are common things, and it may seem a small matter that a student should make a contract with the college where he proposes to be educated. But the contract is, that he is to govern himself, and voluntarily to square his conduct to the prescribed requirements of the institution. Honor, pride, ambition, are all pledged that he will keep his engagement. It is no small thing for a college quietly and effectually, to secure these forces on the side of order, and thus avoid the conflict and antagonism with its students that coercive government naturally engenders; and it is certainly no small thing for the student to take a relation that will involve the constant and vigilant exercise of the most manly traits of character. The college thus becomes in an important sense a school of moral self-culture, a discipline in manhood, and offers the best preparation that can be given for the duties and responsibilities of practical life.