Popular Science Monthly/Volume 52/November 1897/An Experiment in Citizen Training

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1391382Popular Science Monthly Volume 52 November 1897 — An Experiment in Citizen Training1897Winifred Buck



SO far as the present writer knows, Mr. Jacob A. Riis was the first person to say that it was a boy's energy and love of organization—not his badness—that made him join a street gang; Mr. Riis also added that energy and love of organization are just the characteristics to make the best members of a "boys' club."

Mr. Riis and Mrs. Van Rensselaer (the President of the Public Education Association) have succeeded through their energy and perseverance in gaining permission of the Board of Education to open in the evenings certain rooms in one of the Tenth Ward schoolhouses. In these rooms, as soon as possible, clubs are to be opened for both boys and girls. To describe the restrictions and regulations concerning the organizing of these clubs would be out of place here, but it is hoped that in a few years every schoolhouse in New York will open certain rooms for the purpose, as the demand among boys and girls for such organizations is very great.

The first club which will be opened (called "club" in distinction from many organizations which are really more in the nature of "classes," having definite instruction as a regular part of their programme) is to be "Junior Good Government Club No. 2." This kind of club has no connection whatever with the more famous organizations of nearly the same name, but the title so well describes its chief purpose that it was thought best to adopt it. Junior Good Government Club No. 1 has been in existence for about four years in the University Settlement in Delancey Street. As it is the only one we know of which consciously follows certain principles, a description of it may be of interest to those who perhaps think of starting some such club themselves, or who might care to know what the first schoolhouse club is to be.

The club in question is composed of thirty-five boys, whose ages range from twelve to fifteen years. A greater number than five could scarcely have full justice done them either during the first hour, when a large room and a small gymnasium are all they have to play a wonderful variety of games in, or during the last hour, when the allotted time would be insufficient for each boy to have his part in the discussion of the many subjects that come before the club for consideration.

Each of the two hours of the club's session has its special significance. During the first the boys and the large room with its many opportunities (and limitations also) represent the conditions of a primitive society, for the only law which seems necessary to make every one happy is a simple one, and is applied in this hour in its simplest way. This law is "perfect freedom for all, bounded only by the freedom of others." No one thing could teach the principles of this great law better than games, for not only must it be obeyed within each game, but it must be constantly observed in the relations of one to another, when, in a very limited space, many different kinds are being played at the same time.

Visitors have often seen some of the boys in "No. 1" playing modified baseball in the main part of the room, and others practicing trapeze and dumb-bell exercises in the gymnasium, while in odd corners and other available spots of both rooms boxing and wrestling matches were taking place at the same time that the more quiet boys were playing at tables the games that better suited their natures. All the boys realize so well that each one of them must make some concession for the good of all and for the safety of property, that these games are played with the utmost good nature, apparently great pleasure, and safety not only for the members but for the pictures and gas shades which decorate the walls.

During this first hour a great deal of noise is allowed; but it is only in harmony with the law of freedom that, should it become annoying, it must cease. During the usual amusements of this first hour, however, no one can fail to notice how noise adds to the spirit of gayety, and how it increases physical activity. Indeed, has a silent game of tag or baseball ever been heard of?

In this hour the director interferes as little as possible, although she is obliged, three or four times, to suggest some adaptation by which a greater number of boys can enjoy themselves. She can not remember a time, however, in which it has been necessary for her to more than suggest the change. Such a thing as dismissing any of the boys, or threatening to dismiss them if they will not accept the suggestion, is unheard of. In the experience of this writer all normal children prefer right to wrong. If one believes this, one must see at once that it is only fair to give them the chance voluntarily to do right first. The question, "Is this just, is this fair?" (if it is in relation to a situation simple enough for a child to see all the bearings of) will be enough to make him choose instantly the right course. That is just what the first hour of freedom aims at giving—opportunities for seeing one another in clear and simple relations. It affords an excellent preparation, too, for the second hour when, to carry out the original idea, it might be said that a higher state of civilization is attained, and consequently it becomes necessary to build upon the simple fundamental law an apparently complicated system if justice and freedom are to be assured each member. It is soon found that the club (or society, to carry out the larger view of club life) should consist of members who not only are ready to comply with a general law, but who as individuals also possess certain characteristics. The wish to discuss these characteristics makes the first raison d'être of the business meeting. A few of the simpler rules of parliamentary law (which, by the way, typifies in itself almost perfectly the law of freedom and justice in complicated relations) are learned from Cushing's Manual. Officers are elected, and then the momentous question arises for discussion, "Do we want as members of our club boys who gamble, steal, smoke, or swear?" We can not wonder much that these are popular sports on the East Side. An overcrowded tenement house is not an inspiring or healthy place to play in. Baseball is forbidden, and running games are almost impossible in the streets. Roller skating and bicycling can not be said to have many devotees for obvious reasons. Thus boys of naturally fine characters are driven to stealing and gambling as the only fields in which to exercise their imaginations, and in which to find excitement and diversion. Of the reasons for these "sports" being wrong, a surprising number have never thought. However, in speaking in public before one's peers, it is possible from the moment the first word is uttered to feel ideas springing into life which one was never conscious of having had before, and to hear one's self arguing eloquently for some cause in which one had little interest two minutes before. The first attempt at self-expression calls together the hitherto scattered fragments of thoughts and impressions, and forms them into deep-rooted convictions. This happens all the time in the business meeting, when the necessity for making their own laws sets all the boys to thinking, and most of them to talking also. It is a bad boy indeed who will do very often what he has convinced himself is wrong.

After days of excited talk nearly every one in the club is ready to admit that it is wrong to steal and gamble, foolish to smoke, and vulgar to swear, and ready to make a law to the effect that these practices are forbidden to the members. The question of punishment for possible backsliders naturally comes next. The first ideas on this subject are very crude. Punishment—very severe and the same for every folly and crime—satisfies them for a while, but the time surely comes when some one suggests the possibility of mitigating circumstances, and finally, after hours of discussion, punishment is graded. Then some one has the thought that, after all, punishment is not the word to be used, or, indeed, the idea to be carried out in a club, and that the various penalties paid for breaking laws (suspension or expulsion usually) should merely be regarded as a means of self-defense by the club, and as the natural consequence of crime by the offender. Little by little, from a crude and brutal or sentimentally weak set of laws, grows a constitution not only written in the correct form, but containing much truth and justice. But in starting a new club it is better for the director not to give the club a perfect constitution, for it is only the years of discussion and experience out of which that perfect constitution is evolved, that helps the boys. All the good that comes from club life must come slowly and gradually—so gradually that all the minutest details of the machine of government are known and understood by the boys, and acknowledged by them, one by one, to be necessary. Figuratively speaking, and perhaps stretching the idea a little to make the meaning clear, they have broadly in the two hours of the club's session, and in detail in the three years of club life and growth, lived through all the stages of man's development, from his simplest attempts at law-making thousands of years ago to the complex machinery by which we are governed to-day. By understanding the necessity for every law as it is made, the boys become willing law-keepers; they become intelligent ones also, for they see that constant watchfulness and thoughtfulness are necessary to keep those laws up to the ever-growing and changing requirements of humanity.

Although the ultimate authority is, of course, vested in the director, in the Junior Good Government Clubs the boys are encouraged to stand on their own feet, so to speak, and to make decisions on all questions themselves, as it is believed that in this way their characters will be strengthened and their reasoning powers developed. The director of "No. 1" goes so far as to tell her boys that she does not claim infallibility; that if they see any untruth in what she tells them, or any flaw in her logic, it will not signify disrespect or impertinence to argue against her, just as they would if they disagreed with an ordinary member. Indeed, more than once has the director humbly given in to the superior judgment of one of the boys. However, it is sometimes more convenient if the boys have not the habit of making points of order against her.

The importance of letting the boys see the natural consequences of wrong-doing is inestimable, and it is because of this that the debates on the innumerable subjects in connection with club government are far more useful in moral development than debates on outside subjects—political or literary. After a decision in a debate on club affairs, the boys will see "how it works" in a week or two; they will also know the exact circumstances that led to the necessity for a decision.

It is also because of the value of seeing the natural consequences that it is better for a club of this kind to be governed by the laws which all have taken part in making, rather than by the director, who is apt to get mixed as to what are natural consequences and what are her own nerves.

It is a curious fact that the untrained boy, like the untrained man, when given the chance of self-government, falls at once into the way of devising the most ingenious and complicated bad government possible. Junior Good Government Club No. 1, and all the other clubs this writer knows, have lived through their Tammany Hall periods. When a year comes in which the majority of members have had two or three years' training in the club, charges of bribery and corruption are few, but when the older members move out, and their places are filled from below by more youthful "politicians," then the Tammany-Platt situation is inevitable sooner or later.

It is often asked if clubs of this kind are distinctly reformatory. The writer of this article once visited a criminal lunatic asylum, and after making a tour of the wards and having noticed the striking malformation of the heads and bodies of the patients, she asked one of the doctors if he knew how many of them owed their condition to lack of nourishment before and after birth. "Roughly speaking, fifty per cent," he answered. If lack of nourishment can cause criminal insanity, it can cause simple criminal tendencies, and unfortunately insufficient and improper nourishment is the common condition among even those people whom we are wont to consider not "desperately poor." To answer the question asked at the beginning of this paragraph, it is very doubtful if abnormal criminal children would be greatly benefited by Junior Good Government Clubs. Reformatory these clubs certainly are for those who have become criminal through environment only; but reform is not the chief object to be attained. Growth in character and reasoning power comes to a child after a few years in such a club, and many latent gifts are developed in his nature through the freedom to use all of himself. Such clubs are just as important for the children of rich and intelligent parents as for those of the poor and ignorant. Whether the former, with their many opportunities for enjoyment, would find clubs amusing is another question.

Although we said that the reform of criminals was not the chief objects of these clubs, nevertheless it is accomplished very frequently, and, what is even better, a higher and higher sense of honor and morality is developed in each boy every year of his club life. In most cases to have the intelligence to know what is right is to do right, and with growing perception, awakened by continually thinking, questioning, and reasoning, the most harmless act of one year appears to the boys a downright wrong-doing the next.

The success of the clubs in the public schools will depend very much on the help given by well-educated and sympathetic people of either sex. If three or four Junior Good Government Clubs could be established in the course of time in every school in New York, there would be less work for our political reformers to do twenty years hence. From the experience of several years it is safe to prophesy that boys who learn to run honestly and successfully their Junior Good Government Clubs are never going to try, in after years, to run dishonestly (but too successfully, in one sense) their city.