Popular Science Monthly/Volume 58/April 1901/Two Contemporary Problems in Education

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By Professor PAUL H. HANUS,


TWO of the important problems that the contemporary interest in education has brought prominently before the public are 1. What shall we do about the elective system of studies which is daily extending its sway over schools and colleges throughout the country? and II. How shall we bridge the gap between the high school and the lower grades; i. e, how shall we minimize the waste in the pupil's school education, and make his entire school career serve continuously and progressively—as it should—his gradually expanding interests, needs, powers, and duties?


It is well known that even those secondary schools and colleges which do not recognize electives, as such, and cling to 'courses of study,' permit not merely a choice between different 'courses,' but they also, usually, permit substitutions of studies in one 'course' for studies in another; so that, really, if not nominally, a considerable range of choice, or election of studies, is permitted in most secondary schools and colleges nearly everywhere throughout the country.

Both experience and observation seem to justify this widespread adoption of the elective system, in some form, in secondary schools and colleges. During the years of secondary school and college education the pupil passes through the important stage of adolescence and youth. He emerges from childhood to manhood. During these years he may be, and should lie. led to self-revelation, and he should be aided to organize his mental life in accordance with his dominant interests and capacities, both for vocational and extra-vocational activities. After an individual's interests have emerged distinctly, all voluntary effort is reserved for his preferences; and that achievement is most productive when it is based on interests and capacity, need not be argued. Daily experience proves that an individual's dominant interests ultimately determine the extent of his private and public usefulness and the sources of his pleasures—that, in short, they determine the richness or the poverty of his life, in the broadest sense of those words.

If this be admitted, the importance of discovering and cultivating a youth's dominant interests is apparent. He should, therefore, choose his own curriculum as soon as possible. He can learn to choose wisely only by choosing repeatedly, under guidance, as wisely as possible. Hence, although a child twelve or thirteen years old should not freely choose his own courses of study, he is, nevertheless, entitled to have his preferences considered in the choices which his parents and teachers permit him to make. As he grows older, his ability to choose wisely should be deliberately cultivated, so that usually, by the time he has completed his secondary-school education—rarely before that time—he may be prepared to choose his further studies without restrictions. A youth of eighteen or nineteen, who has been learning to choose, who has had training in foresight for five or six years, is not likely to abuse his privileges, nor is he likely to be ignorant of the importance of wise counsel, nor to wish to dispense with it.

But it may be said that if a youth is allowed to choose his own studies, he is not trained to 'work against the grain.' I am not sure that I understand the meaning attached to this phrase by those who use it. But, in my opinion, the only sense in which any sane person, in adult life, works 'against the grain,' is when he applies himself to a disagreeable or even repulsive task for the sake of some ultimate end that is intrinsically agreeable to him, or recognized as good by him. There is no other working against the grain worth cultivating. No one, not even an ascetic, habitually does disagreeable things for their own sake.

When an adult works faithfully at a disagreeable task, he does it primarily because it is clear to him that his personal interests are at stake—that his daily bread, or honor, or social elevation, depends on the performance of his work or his duty, however disagreeable it may be. In other words, there are strong extraneous motives, the force of which he can appreciate, that cause him to apply himself to the uninviting or repelling task before him. True, many a man does live his life under just such disadvantageous conditions. But it is a life of mere drudgery, from which he might have been saved if he had learned in youth to choose that calling which is in harmony with his dominant interests and capacities. His work might then have been hardly less a pleasure than his leisure, and he would, of course, have been a more useful member of society, and would have earned more leisure, because of the increased efficiency of his work.

But can any one with any knowledge of boy nature assert that faithful application to the positively and permanently uninteresting can be cultivated by extraneous motives, even if it were desirable? The motives which appeal to the adult are meaningless to the boy. Moreover, he feels instinctively that consciousness was added to the equipment of mankind, in the process of human evolution, for guidance, and he insists as long as he can on using it for that purpose. The remote reasons which apparently weigh heavily against the pupil's strong disinclination in the minds of his governors do not and cannot appeal to him as intrinsically valid. One can, of course, compel the performance of disagreeable tasks, and by repetition of compulsion one can convince a refractory youth that some achievement is always possible and necessary, in spite of his strong aversion to a particular kind of work. But what one usually cultivates, under such circumstances, is not a growing strength to master difficulties, but chiefly the habit of skilful, even of subtle evasion—the habit of calculating not how much one can do, but how little one must do.

Again, the effect of compelling a youth to pursue a subject permanently uninteresting is pernicious in another way. It cultivates the abominable habit of being satisfied with partial or inadequate achievement. Permanent lack of interest in a given field of work is an indication of corresponding incapacity; for growing interest and capacity always go together. Under such circumstances a youth never feels the glow of conscious mastery of the subject for its own sake; half achievement is the result of forced, half-hearted endeavor, and both become the rule.

The result may be even worse. To be constantly baffled undermines one's confidence in one's own powers, and ultimately imperils self-respect. To force a youth to work against the grain for its own sake is, therefore, futile, and worse than futile; for it not only fails to accomplish its purpose, but actually cultivates the evasion of school work, the aversion to school work, and, in extreme cases, it may even destroy the capacity for work of any sort. Morever, it must not be forgotten that evasion of work, aversion to work, and ennui are the fertile soil in which all the vices flourish.

Again, all such efforts to make a youth work 'against the grain,' for its own sake, by the pursuit of uninteresting studies are artificial, and wholly unnecessary. What we want a youth to acquire is the power of overcoming difficulties, and the corresponding habit of adequate achievement. This power and the corresponding habit are cultivated by overcoming difficulties, not by forced and unsuccessful attempts at overcoming them. Every subject affords abundant opportunity for overcoming difficulties, and when it is in harmony with the pupil's interests and powers, those difficulties will he overcome; first, because they lie in the way of further progress in a subject which he wishes to master; and second, because he possesses the requisite natural capacity for conquest, because he daily feels the sense of achievement—the strongest of all incentives to exertion. Hence, conquest may become the rule. Through conquest alone comes the habit of working in spite of difficulties, which is the kind of working against the grain worth trying for.

Finally, as was pointed out above, a man's life is more significant and richer in every way, the more his dominant interests and powers determine both his serious pursuits and his refined pleasures. The natural preferences of pupils during the stage of secondary education should, therefore, be heeded, not thwarted. There is no other effective way to cultivate the babit of 'working against the grain' in the only sense in which such work is wise. It is no argument to say that generations of men have been trained to work against the grain under rigidly prescribed programs of study. The sufficient reply to such an argument is already contained in what has been said about the relative effect of extraneous motives in youth and in adult life. It may be added, therefore, that this capacity where it exists has been developed in spite of, not because of, the rigid prescription of studies.

Of course, nothing that has been said applies to shirking. The shirk deserves no concessions, and should have no mercy. What the pupil has chosen to do, both the home and the school must insist that he shall do.

The question about elective studies is, accordingly, not 'shall we recognize electives?' That question has been answered in the affirmative. The question is, 'What is the wisest administration of electives in secondary education?' While each school is seeking the answer to this question in its own way, there is substantial agreement on one point: namely, that there should be restriction on the pupil's freedom to choose his own curriculum of studies. But opinions vary widely as to what these restrictions shall be, and how they shall be administered. I hold that these restrictions should be as few as are consistent with his permanent welfare. To prevent the harm which might result from the pupil's ignorance and immaturity—to guard against the possibility of the pupil's cutting himself off from an illuminating acquaintance with nature and her ways on the one hand, and the historical culture of the race, as embodied in books, social institutions and art, on the other, some of the secondary school pupil's work must be prescribed. To insure that training in choice that was emphasized a moment ago, and the best possible preparation for complete living in the fullest sense of the term, a considerable part of the instruction should be offered without other restrictions than those of sequence and amount. The fundamental questions are, of course, what studies shall we prescribe for all pupils, and when shall we permit a pupil to •discontinue a study once undertaken?

The experience of teachers who have worked under both prescribed and elective systems seems to point conclusively to the fact that no study, however highly esteemed by parents or teachers, will be a real influence in the pupil's development, and so contribute to his future usefulness and happiness in any important way, unless it is, in some degree at least, intrinsically interesting to him. Hence, no pupil should be required to pursue a study after it is clear that it does not appeal to him. Under most circumstances one year is enough—and it is not too much—to ascertain whether a study does, or does not, really challenge a youth's interest and capacity. Hence, to answer the second of the two questions just proposed, first, I should say that, in general, after a pupil has made his choice of a study, he should he required to pursue it for a year. As to the first question, namely, What studies shall be prescribed for all? it seems to me clear that no youth should be allowed, through ignorance or caprice, to cut himself off from any one of the great sources of human inspiration and guidance. If we could rely on having a varied and substantial program of studies during the pre-high-school years, some of the prescriptions I am about to suggest might well be omitted: notably the mathematics. But as long as the pre-high-school grades, even those immediately preceding the high-school grades, cannot yet be seriously regarded as the beginning of high-school education in most school systems—among them some of the best in the country—in order to guard against the blindness of ignorance when pupils come up to the high school, it is necessary to insist on a considerable amount of prescription.

I would, therefore, prescribe for every non-collegiate pupil, during his secondary school career, at least one year of the study of his mother tongue, giving most of the time to literature with its inspiring and guiding influence-: at least one year of science, so taught as to show the pupil how man is coming to master nature by understanding her, and at the same time, also, how completely one who knows nothing of natural science is cut off from participation in some of the most interesting, profound and far-reaching problems of contemporary thought; one year of a modern foreign language, through which he may learn to appreciate fully his mother tongue, and through which at the same time he may widen his mental horizon so as to include ultimately the literature, the institutional life, the ideals in a word, the intellectual resources of another modern nation besides his own; one year of history—English or American—so taught as to show the meaning of democratic institutions and the means of safeguarding and improving them. If American history is prescribed, I would have it so taught as to fill the pupil's mind with the most important truths about what his country is, and what it really stands for; not glossing over its past and present defects and unduly exalting its merits, hut bringing into strong relief our worthiest political ideals, and laying special emphasis on the lesson that the approximate realization of worthy political ideals has always been and still is possible only through the intelligent participation of citizens in public affairs, not primarily as office holders, but still more as alert and active private citizens; to do this, not so much by didactic instruction or exhortation, as by the inevitable logic of events skilfully portrayed; I would prescribe, further, one year of the history of industry and commerce, together with the elements of civics treated historically, that the pupil may see the interdependence of material prosperity and social stability, and learn to look upon contemporary social and economic problems in the light of their historical evolution; one year of elementary algebra and geometry that may open his mind to one of the most useful, the most profound, and to some minds most fascinating systems of thought which man has developed—a result which can never be expected to follow from what the pupil has learned in the narrow field covered by arithmetic; one year of drawing and manual training that will introduce the pupil, on the one hand, to the elements of the fine arts, the decorative arts and the mechanic arts, and on the other, lead him to a just appreciation of the importance of all three in ministering to the æsthetic and the material interests of men, and help him to adjust his own relation to them in thought and deed. [1]

That is to say, under existing conditions, I mean with the existing unsatisfactory pre-high-school education, still unsatisfactory in spite of the well-nigh universal and decidedly creditable recent attempts to improve it, it seems to me wise to prescribe for every high school pupil at least one year of the language and literature of his mother tongue; one year of American or English history (chiefly political); one year of English-and American economic history and civics; or, when possible, one year of elementary political economy, one year of a modern foreign language; one year of science (physical geography, or botany and zoology); one year of algebra and geometry (together); one year of drawing and manual training; each of these subjects with a time allotment of from three to four periods a week.[2] This prescribed work includes subject matter comprising about one-third of all the work a pupil of ordinary capacity should be required to do during four years of the ordinary high-school program, chosen from each of the great divisions of human culture. It thus affords a reasonably satisfactory basis for the guidance of pupils, teachers and parents, in the choices which they make or advise in harmony with the pupil's real tastes and capacities. It seems to me, therefore, a safe basis for the administration of the elective system in our secondary schools.


The other problem which I wish to discuss is closely connected with the problem of electives. It is, in effect, how shall we overcome the persistence of the artificial separation of the high school from the rest of the school system—a separation that sometimes almost amounts to isolation? Reference was made above to the unsatisfactory condition of our pre-high-school education in spite of the widespread endeavor to improve it. The grammar school is still emphasizing, too much, a very large remnant of the old formal curriculum. Arithmetic, English grammar and political geography are still looked upon as the solid studies of the later years of the grammar school, as they were before the days of enriched programs. The work in foreign languages, algebra, geometry, history, elementary science, manual training, where any or all of these studies are recognized at all, is still looked upon in most school systems as a new and more or less ornamental addition to the real work of the grammar school.[3]

In other words, we have not yet taken the newer studies in the grammar school program seriously. Hence, as I have already mentioned, most high schools do not regard the work done in these studies in the lower grades as really done; and so, in spite of the congested grammar school programme, due to the insertion of the new studies without elimination of the old ones, root and branch, from the last years of the grammar school, the high school still assumes—and probably in most cases justly—that everything below the high school is still chiefly a drill in the school arts, just as it used to be; and that such beginnings of a real education as have been attempted in the lower grades are not really beginnings—they are only trifling with high school subjects; and that, consequently, all those subjects must be begun over again. The result is that the separation of the high school from the lower grades—the 'gap' as it is often called, between 'the grades' and the high school—still exists, very much as it always has.

This curious break, in what is intended to be a thoroughly unified educational scheme, is such a contradictory phenomenon, in spite of its serious reality, that it would be incomprehensible if it had not followed naturally from the different origins of our elementary and our secondary schools. Our secondary schools originated as (Latin) grammar schools, i. e., as college preparatory schools, designed for a particular social class, and hence possessing no essential articulation with the public elementary schools. The academies, although not class schools to the same extent as the older 'grammar schools,' still concerned themselves little, if at all, with the elementary education of their pupils. When the high schools were founded on the combined model of the 'grammar school' and the academy, these traditions of secondary education were perpetuated—below the high school not a real education, only a preparation for education; education itself was deferred to the high school. Hence, the gap between the high school and the lower grades—the artificial isolation of the high school from the lower grades, which still persists in spite of our recent and contemporary endeavor to bring them together.

Nevertheless, the remedy is really not difficult to apply. We have already made so much progress that the final steps ought not to be difficult to take. We shall take them when we discontinue elementary English grammar as a distinct study, at the end of the sixth grade, and begin there a modern foreign language; when we cut out all the arithmetic in and after the seventh grade, and substitute elementary geometry and algebra; when we similarly cut out most of the political geography in and after the seventh grade, and gradually transform all our nature study during the same time into elementary natural science. When we make these and some other equally important changes seriously, and add them to the other improvements already substantially accomplished in our contemporary pre-high-school grades, we shall bridge the gap between elementary and secondary education; and the artificial isolation of the high school in a system of which it is really intended folic an integral part will he outgrown.

I should like to discuss the effect of these suggested changes more at length, but I must content myself here with touching only one of them. It will be noticed that 1 have spoken of a modern language, not of Latin, as a suitable foreign language for pre-high-school pupils. The reasons for this suggestion are not far to seek. Latin is a difficult language, and when begun at an early age. and without any previous study of a foreign language, is not economically acquired. By economically, I mean the minimum expenditure of time and energy required to make substantial progress in the language. This is becoming apparent in the very stronghold of classicism itself—in Germany. It may not be generally known that during the past few years a very interesting experiment has been in progress in Germany; namely, the experiment of cutting off the first three years of the nine years devoted to Latin in the gymnasium and real-gymnasium, and substituting instead three years of French. Three years ago there were in Germany twenty-six gymnasiums and real-gymnasiums, in which this experiment was in progress. Now, I am told, there are no less than forty. The head-masters of these schools were unwilling, in some cases that came under my observation, to express any opinion on the probable results of this experiment until more time had elapsed. The experiments were begun not long after the celebrated conference on secondary education, called by the Emperor in 1890. But others were emphatic in their belief that the experiment would be a success in the interests of Latin itself; and it was really chiefly on this alleged ground that the experiment had been permitted at all. I have no doubt that the results will justify the expectations entertained by its promoters. In this country one of our best known classical schools[4] has substituted for some years past, for the first year of a six-year course in Latin, a year of French; and there is no disposition whatever to return to the former régime.

A further argument for deferring Latin until after a modern language has been studied could be derived from the analogy of the very successful courses in elementary Greek now established in several American colleges—courses in which at least two years, sometimes three years, of 'preparatory' Greek are done in a single year; and the work is done much better than it can be done in the preparatory school, on account of the greater maturity of the pupils, and their previous linguistic training. All this points to the wisdom of deferring Latin to the later secondary school years in the interests of the Latin.

But there is another even stronger reason why a modern language, instead of Latin, should be begun in the grammar school. Of course, I have in mind a serious study of the modern language—as serious as if the language were Latin, and with a similar expectation of building on it a superior language training later on. These reasons are, first, that in two or three years a serious study of a modern language will yield a result in general culture infinitely superior to what can be derived from Latin at the same age—i. e., it will give the pupil the power to enjoy and to use another literature besides his own; and especially a literature that he can use and enjoy, whether he ever goes to school another day or not; and this cannot be asserted of Latin. I need not remind you that most pupils do not enter the high school; and hence, unless they have an opportunity to study a foreign language in the grammar school, they do not get it at all.

Other arguments for such sequence of our language courses as I am pleading for are near at hand; e. g., a pupil's knowledge of, and command over, his mother tongue gains enormously through the study of a foreign language—a modern language is as good for this purpose, for young pupils, as Latin, or even better than Latin; and a modern language in itself may have a commercial value which Latin never has, except, at present, for teachers.

Now, if we had two or three pre-high-school years of a modern language, followed by at least one year—the first high school year—of another modern language in the high school, and this followed by three years of Latin and two of Greek for those who care for the ancient languages, who can doubt that our present somewhat meager achievements in the classics in the high school would be greatly increased in quantity and that they would be vastly better in quality? This is the sensible language course of the future for those who study the classics in the high school, as I conceive it, when the high school is completely articulated to the grammar school. When that time comes I think, also, that we shall have precisely inverted the relative emphasis we now place on the classics and on the modern languages in pre-collegiate education for collegiate pupils. We shall follow the pre-high-school modern language courses by substantial high school courses in the languages, and so continue the real education of the pupil begun in the grammar school, instead of deferring it as we now do for the classical student until he reaches the college. For, at present, classical education in the secondary school, like the formal education that used to precede it in the elementary school, is, for most pupils, only an alleged preparation for education, not education itself.

When we articulate our pre-high-school courses in history, science, mathematics, manual training, and the rest, with the corresponding high school course, in some such way as has just been suggested for foreign language courses, we shall then make the pupil's school career a real and not a deferred education at every stage of his progress; and the historical disparity between the kind of studies pursued below the high school and those pursued in the high school will disappear. There will be no artificial separation of the high school from the rest of the school system. We shall have adjusted our educational endeavor to the real process of the pupil's unfolding development, and shall really make our schools minister equally to all classes of pupils, whether they have the good fortune to be born of wealthy and socially superior parents, or whether merely equipped with ability and earnestness, they are obliged to make the most of the brief educational career their circumstances will permit.

  1. Of course, I do not mean to imply that these results can be fully realized in a single year's instruction in the subjects named in this paragraph. I mean that these results are to be aimed at, whatever the duration of the instruction may be.
  2. I suggest the following time schedule for these studies: English, 3; English, History, or American History, 3; Economic History and Civics, or Political Economy, 3; Modern Language, 4; Physical Geography, or Botany and Zoology, 4; Algebra and Geometry, or Algebra or Geometry, 4; Manual Training and Drawing, 4. (The numbers mean so many exercises per week.)
  3. The reluctance of some communities and some teachers to abandon the old-time grammar school studies in the later years of the grammar school program, and to substitute for them the studies that constitute a real education, is largely due to the mistaken belief that the really unpractical and purely technical details of arithmetic and English grammar, and the statistical geography, that still consume so large a share of the pupil's time and attention in the last two or three grammar grades possess more practical utility, and have more educational value than good courses in history, literature, foreign language, elementary algebra and geometry, manual training, sewing and cooking. It should be said, also, that many principals and superintendents doubtless hesitate to adopt the improved program because they have not in their corps a sufficient number of properly equipped teachers—teachers who can be assigned to teach both in a given high school and in the upper grades of one or more grammar schools in its vicinity. But such teachers are not hard to find. Our colleges -are sending them forth by the score every year.
  4. The Roxbury Latin School.