Popular Science Monthly/Volume 33/June 1888/Education and the Employment of Children

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FOR years the world has been on a moral crusade against the employment of children in mines and factories, while the far greater evils that result from the mothers going out as wage-earners have attracted comparatively little attention. Labor, within certain limits, is good for the child, giving it a wholesome moral discipline, and training it for the business by which it is to earn its livelihood; but, when a married woman has to neglect her natural duties for the responsibilities that properly belong to the other sex, it is time for humanity to protest in the name of her offspring. No one individual can fulfill satisfactorily the double or, I should say, the triple function of bearing and rearing children, and providing for their maintenance. I am a laboring woman myself, and have met with some success as a bread-winner; and I know that the conditions of performing this function satisfactorily are quite incompatible with those arduous and important duties which make such heavy demands upon every conscientious mother, especially among the poor. In the homes of the very poor there are no hired servants to keep the household machinery running smoothly while the mistress is away. The wife of the laboring man is frequently cook, nurse, house-maid, laundress, all in one; and if she must go out as a bread-winner besides, what is to prevent the domestic engine from running off the track and getting itself hopelessly ditched?

Of the two evils, if both are evils, I am persuaded that it is better that the child should go out to labor than the mother. Liberty, uncurbed by the check-rein of parental restraint, is a more than doubtful blessing, for the loss of which the child that takes its mother's place in the shop or the mill is more than compensated by the advantage of having her care at home. It is of far greater importance to the physical and moral well-being of the child that it should have a clean, well-ordered home to receive it out of working-hours, than that its working-hours should be abolished. The real hardship to the children of the poor lies not in setting them early to learn the wholesome lesson of labor, but in leaving them to grow up amid the discomforts and dangers of a neglected home, while the mother is bestowing upon loom and spindle the care that is the natural birthright of her little ones.

But here we are confronted with the question of education, and it will be asked. How is the child ever to learn anything if put to work so early? Such considerations, however, need present no real difficulty, if we could once rid ourselves of those narrow views of education which bound it by the walls of the schoolroom, and can see no way of learning anything except by getting it out of a book. Education, in the proper sense of the word, is that course of training which will best fit an individual for the business of life, or, to speak more accurately, will best enable him to adjust himself in harmony with his environment. The kind of education that is best for any person will depend, therefore, very much upon what his environment is to be; and as it certainly can not be maintained that the environment of the majority of mankind is such as to require a very great amount of book-learning, it may reasonably be asked whether some of our popular theories of education do not need remodeling. By this I do not mean that our facilities for higher education should be in any way diminished, but only that we should use a little more discrimination in applying them, and bestow the highest advantages where they are likely to do most good. Many well-meaning teachers labor under the idea that they must spend their best energies upon dull pupils, and go on for years throwing away their time in trying to accomplish what the homely wisdom of our fathers has pronounced the impossible task of making a "silk purse out of a sow's ear." Trim your sow's ear, clean it and comb it and make as decent and reputable a sow's ear out of it as you can, by all means, but don't put your gold and pearls into it, under the belief that it is a silk purse. As our Georgia farmers say, put your guano on your best land, and you will get a paying crop.

Each department of the world's work can be best carried on by those who are fitted for it. The intellectual work, like every other, can be carried on with success only by those who have some capacity for it, and, by bestowing an elaborate intellectual training upon all alike, without regard to natural qualifications, we damage both the state and the individual: the state, by wasting its resources in unremunerative intellectual products; the individual, by leading him into fields where he is forced into competition with those better equipped for the struggle for existence, and against whom, by the inexorable law of the "survival of the fittest," he has no chance to contend with success.

Where people have money to pay for the education of their children, there is, of course, no remedy; and in our private schools and colleges we may expect always to see rich blockheads grinding through the process of what they call getting an education; but where the state pays the cost it has a right to see that its money is spent so as to secure the greatest benefit to all concerned. This can be done by a rigid system of grading, each school being a stepping-stone to the next higher. Let a certain standard of scholarship be required in each, grade as a condition of entering the next higher, and let all who do not come up to this standard pass out to the factory, the workshop, the plow, the wheel, the lathe—to whatever, in fact, is to be their life's work. The requirements in the lower grades should not be too high, and every one should have an opportunity of learning to spell, read, and write, with something of the four cardinal rules of arithmetic; but after that the standard should be rapidly raised, so as to weed out all but the best material before reaching the high-school, and thus avoid the great economic mistake of turning into poor scholars material that might have made good artisans and mechanics.

Under such a system, the weary mass of juvenile mediocrity that cumbers our high-schools and keeps down their standard of scholarship would be switched off early on the right track; for, since the vast majority of the human race must live by the work of their hands, it is quite as important that the hands should be educated as the head. Schools of technology are needed for such of this class as may be destined to callings requiring special skill, such as architecture, joinery, engraving, and the like; but, for the rank and file of hand-workers, I question whether the mill and the workshop are not the best schools. To many they are the only available ones, for the families of the very poor can ill afford to sustain non-producers, and to them it is essential that the labor of every member should be directly remunerative.

If we take this broader view of education, there is no reason why its claims should conflict with the humane employment of children in work suited to their strength, at a comparatively early age, and there are cases where the enactment of laws against it would be a positive cruelty to the children themselves. Especially is this true where keeping them at home would necessitate the mother's going out to labor. Unmarried females can work as bread-winners without detriment to themselves or to society; and the ever-increasing band of "superfluous" women, which is so significant a feature of our advancing civilization, is quite sufficient to supply all demands for female labor without calling mothers away from their natural post of duty.

It is not a matter of mere sentiment to reserve the mother's time and labor for her children, but of sound political economy. There is no question of greater importance to the state than the training of its future citizens; and a home where thrift, cleanliness, and good government prevail, with that moderate amount of domestic comfort which the hand of a tidy woman can impart to even the most meager surroundings, is a more powerful factor in the production of a good education than all the schools in Christendom. I have often been struck, in the school-room, with the vast difference that exists between well-mothered children and those poor little Ishmaelites who, through want of either time or capacity on the part of the mother are left to scramble along the path of life as best they may. The teachers, with all our books and methods, can not lead a child even to speak correctly, when it hears nothing but bad English at home; how, then, can our endeavors, temporary and intermittent as they must be, counteract the demoralizing influence of the shiftlessness and disorder that prevail in a home from which the mother is always absent? It is beside the mark to object that the mothers themselves are often so ignorant and thriftless as to make their presence little to be desired in any home; can we expect to find models of the domestic virtues among those who have never had the opportunity to practice them? We all know that there are foolish and incompetent mothers in every walk of life; but would any one, therefore, argue that it is good for children in general to be deprived of the care of their mothers? Such faults of the poor as arise from lack of opportunity we may hope to correct; those that are inherent in human nature I leave to the moralist, as beyond the scope of this paper.