Popular Science Monthly/Volume 39/May 1891/An Experiment in Moral Training
|AN EXPERIMENT IN MORAL TRAINING.|
WHILE waiting in a corridor of the Oswego Normal School building, forty or fifty lads and lasses from the practice school marched in quadruple column past me. They were full of life, observant, unaccompanied by teacher, but attending to the duty of the moment in an orderly manner. The company separated, each division passing to its own room. After a brief interval I followed the band, made up of boys and girls from fourteen to sixteen years of age. I found them conversing with their principal in such manner as induced me to tarry. The experiences of that hour seem so full of meaning as to deserve record and emphasis.
Evidently the pupils were for the time unconscious that the gentleman before them was vested with authority; evidently it was his purpose to show no authority, but to talk with the children as heart to heart, as man to man. Freedom, earnestness, and sincerity characterized the interview; in fact, the spirit of the room constantly suggested, "Come, let us reason together."
Below I give a free reproduction of that which I saw and heard:
Teacher. Several weeks ago I left a question for you to think about. What was it? (Each pupil raised his hand thoughtfully, and the teacher indicated who might respond.)
Pupil. You asked how many of us were willing to have those pupils who hinder the work of the class removed from it.
Teacher. Yes. How many have decided? (Each of the nine-teen pupils raised the hand.) How have you decided, Henry?
Henry. I am willing.
Teacher. How many are willing? (All but the largest lad signified their willingness.) Why are you not willing, John?
John. I do not think the boys have had a fair chance. (I then became aware that two boys belonging to the class were absent. During the remainder of the lesson these boys, whom we will call Frank and Ward, were frequently referred to by name.)
Teacher. What do you mean? You know I have spoken to them repeatedly. They know they hinder the progress of the class by their conduct. How have they not had a chance?
John. I don't believe any of us have talked with Frank and Ward.
Teacher. How many have spoken to them about their conduct? (Not one hand raised.) How many have done anything to signify disapproval of it? (One of the older girls, with serious and even anxious expression, raised her hand.) What have you to say, Mary?
Mary. I have not spoken to the boys, but the other day when Ward was doing wrong I shook my finger at him like this.
Fanny. I have not spoken, but I have shaken my head at Frank.
Teacher. Two out of nineteen have expressed disapproval of conduct which interrupts the work of our class. I am glad two have tried to help by the warning hand and the warning head. It is a question of the removal of Frank and Ward from this class, where they hinder, to a room where they may learn to be helpers—may learn by more severe measures than we use here to control themselves. Only one in this class has been sent to that room; he may tell us if being placed in it helped him. (The lad referred to rose and stated frankly that he had been helped by being in the room named.)
Teacher. For whose good would Frank and Ward be put in that room?
Pupils. Theirs and ours.
Teacher. Yes. Then why not vote to place them there?
John. I think the class ought to try to persuade them to do better before they are sent away.
Teacher. So do I. I saw a policeman step up to a disorderly man on the street, put his hand on his shoulder, and quietly say: "You better go on, better go home; if I find you doing this again, I shall have to gather you in." The policeman was giving friendly warning to the man. How many of you are willing to warn Frank and Ward? How many are willing to talk to them about their wrong-doing? (All hands but John's raised.)
Teacher. How is this, John? You are not willing to have the boys taken from the class, and you are not willing to talk to them.
John. You see, Mr. Norton, I am just as "bad as they are, and I couldn't speak to them. (Said with much blushing and great openness.)
Teacher. In my school in —— were two boys. No, I must not say my school, I must say our school, for there we had got on so far that the pupils used to say our school. Well, in our school in —— were two boys, Ned and Tom. After Ned had been in the school a year and had grown to be a reliable lad, a great help to us all, the school board in —— voted to take Tom from the school he had been attending and to put him in our school. Tom's father came to see me, and I asked him to tell me about his son. This is what that father—he was a lawyer and a judge—said: "Mr. Norton, if my boy can have a bull-dog that will chew up every dog in this town; if he can own a game-cock that will knock over every game-cock in the city; if he can have a horse that will throw dust in the eyes of every other horse in town, he is happy. But, Mr. Norton, that boy has not a single literary aspiration." I was not particularly anxious to have in our school a boy of whom his own father—and he a judge—gave such an account, but he came without a personal invitation from me. For two days he behaved himself, but the third day he was at his old tricks. Why did he behave himself at first?
Pupils. He didn't know how the new pupils would take him. He was just waiting to see what stuff they were made of.
Teacher. Exactly. He introduced his accomplishments gradually. What do you think his classmates ought to have done when he began to perform?
Pupil. Not look at him.
Teacher. Good. If when he had stood on his head in one corner—I do not mean to say that was his particular forte—and had looked up for admiring approval, he had found all the class attending to school-work, if he had then turned his best somersault, but still could catch no eye wandering from the real business of the hour, what do you think he would have done?
Pupils. Stopped his nonsense.
Teacher. Yes, I think so. But those pupils did look at Tom occasionally with a certain degree of admiring interest; they had not grown altogether self-controlled. What would be the effect of this attention from the class?
Pupils. Tom would cut up more and more.
Teacher. He did. One day Ned, in a talk with me, said that he and Tom used to be great friends, that they used to make it very interesting for their teachers in the other school; what one could not think of the two could. I asked Ned how it was he had changed, had stopped making it so interesting for the teacher, and had become reliable and attentive to school business. He said: "Mr. Norton, the boys did it. When I cut up they talked to me, and they kept on talking till I just had to quit my old ways." Then I said to Ned, "Who is going to talk to Tom?" He replied quick as a flash, "Mr. Norton, I never could, for you see Tom and I used to be in the same boat, and if I should talk to Tom he would laugh at me good." I did not ask him to speak to his friend, but I did ask him who would do it and help get him on the up-grade. To make the story short, the outcome was that Ned volunteered to talk to Tom. Tom turned round, and in a year that Tom who had not, according to his own father's statement, a single literary aspiration, elected to enter the academy and go on with his education. Ned did a good work' for Tom. Tom was the hardest boy I ever knew who turned right about and set his face toward the top of the hill. I have known worse boys whose faces were always toward the foot of the hill.
(During the preceding narrative the class was an engaging sight. Their faces, grave at first, broadened. The little chap who had got good in "that room" expanded till he covered all that part of his desk separating him from Mr. Norton; he put his head on his outspread arms and opened every avenue to the reception of information regarding the boys who made it very interesting for their teachers. Suppressed chuckles showed his admiration for Mr. Norton's word-pictures of boys. Even Mary smiled protestingly. In Ned's relation to Tom, John saw his to Ward and Frank; the sense of his obligation to them grew stronger, and finally he screwed his courage up to volunteering to promise to do his duty and talk to them when they disturbed the class.)
Teacher. I know it is not always easy to speak to a friend who is doing wrong. One has to deny one's self for others. I visited a home a while ago in which were father, mother, three sons, and two daughters. There was a small salary and a little farm. The boys were to be sent to college—two were there. All the nicest fruit on the farm, the best vegetables, the cream were sold, and the family lived on the plainest food, that the boys might be educated. The father wore old clothes except when he preached. The mother had no nice dresses, she worked hard, her hands were not pretty, and her face was full of wrinkles. The father and mother were always denying themselves every luxury and many comforts for their children. Do you suppose they gained anything because they denied themselves?
Pupils. They grew good. They grew generous. They would have their reward.
Teacher. Yes, patience, fortitude, love, goodness showed in the faces of that father and mother. A reward comes to any one who denies himself through love of another; he is not just the same after the denial; he is better and stronger.
At this point I was called from the room, but I learned that each member of the class promised to do his duty by Ward and Frank if they remained in the class. I learned that these boys were told by Mr. Norton that their class voted to retain them. The boys promised to try to do their duty. Mr. Norton told them that boys reported that they had a good time when they talked with him in his office. He was glad they had a good time, he also enjoyed it; but now that they had given their word of honor to try to do their duty, he thought he ought to have evidence that there had been more than a good time. "What shall we do, Mr. Norton?" "Anything you like." The boys conferred, then wrote and signed a promise, which they gave their principal and asked him to read to their mates that they might know that they were in earnest. After this they were returned to their room, which is in charge of an apprentice or practice teacher.
A few days after I visited the class and found Frank and Ward doing well. Later they relapsed somewhat. During this relapse I met Mr. Norton and reported it to him. He smiled hopefully and said: "Young persons do not move steadily toward the desired haven; they drift, adverse winds sweep over them; in fact, their progress is very similar to that of adults. I do not ask how far on the way my pupils are, but which way they are tending. Frank and Ward are tending toward the haven. I will see them, ask them how they are doing, encourage where I can, remind them of their promissory note in my pocket, warn them if I must. We are on the up-grade. Character-building is a slow process; have you not found it so in your own case?" "Yes," was my reply. "But, Mr. Norton, why do children so hate to go into that room, so hate to vote to have their mates go there when they frankly say it is for the good of the pupils who go, and for the class relieved for a time of their presence?"
"Because they are coming to appreciate character, to admire the person who can govern himself. They see a difference between the men in prison who do not use whisky because they can not get it, and the men outside who do not use it because they will not. They are feeling the dignity of freedom and the responsibility that accompanies it. They look upon their class-room as a place where the pupil is free—free to do his own choosing. When he shows by persistent wrong-doing that he can not be trusted to choose, he goes to 'that room' where another chooses for him and enforces his choice, if need be, by the use of the rod. The more strength for right choice the pupils get, the more reluctant they are to vote their mates destitute of power or determination to choose wisely, which they do when they banish them to that room."
I believe lessons like the one recorded are unusual. The points which seem to deserve emphasis are—the freedom and sincerity of the pupils, their entire lack of antagonism to such discussion, their clear perception of the facts in the case and of the relations of cause and effect, their acknowledgment of their duty and their resolve to do it. "While there was reference to the conduct of Ward and Frank, the discussion mainly related to their own duties and responsibilities.
Being acquainted with the average youth of the age of these pupils, I saw that the conversation I had heard was the latest of many. The freedom, the seriousness, the consideration for others, and the final decision to help, indicated that this class had passed beyond the primary grade in morals.
Another thing was impressive: These pupils were helped to a correct emotion regarding duty, but the matter did not end in emotion; they were immediately and purposely so circumstanced as to have continual opportunity to decide in accord with their ideals of right or to decide against it. Further, it was evidently Mr. Norton's plan to show the pupil his own good purpose whenever he seriously failed to execute it, and to inspire him again with hope and decision.
Is not this class in the practice department of the Oswego Normal School getting moral training, not simply moral instruction? Might we not indulge in cheering visions of the citizens our schools might rear were all our children getting similar training? Give us a century of such work in our schools, and such an article as that on Education and Crime, in the Monthly. would be a curiosity