Popular Science Monthly/Volume 73/November 1908/The Public-School Teacher in a Democracy

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THE present wide-spread interest in the economic situation of school teachers in America has its sentimental foundation in the recognition of the generally beneficent relation of the public-school system to the people. With the gradual disappearance of ignorance and open cruelty among those who teach, and the establishment of a more perfect organization of the machinery of education, there has grown up intelligent interest and admiration of our school system in our own and in other countries. We, as well as our foreign admirers in educational lines, do not overlook the sad existence of evil conditions in outlying districts, but the energy of money and organization is being directed to the wiping out of these black spots on the map. Except for the occasional spasmodic anger aroused by local policies, there is general satisfaction with our educational system.

And yet, when we observe the great body of personalities, men and women alike, that transmit the learning of the ages to the young, the conviction must slowly dawn upon us that in proportion to their opportunities the teachers of elementary and high schools in this country do not measure up to the requirements of the situation. The ineffectiveness of school teachers in the most important functions of teaching is general, and is tacitly recognized by the thinking public. The exercise of commanding influence by them in any branch of social activity is unexpected, and is almost an unheard-of thing. We do not expect from this body of public servants constantly in touch with social conditions effective leadership, or the suggestion of important constructive ideas. The originators of ideas for the betterment of mankind do not look to school teachers for support, or even for understanding.

However, students of social life in America, know well the wonderful advance in the quality of teachers within the last hundred years. It is known that the schoolmasters of our English and Dutch colonial ancestors were generally social derelicts, failures in everything else, and much given to intoxication. We may safely claim that the advance in knowledge and in respectability in the ranks of those who teach has been greater than the advance of society generally. This hopeful fact might render unnecessary critical studies of the personnel of the profession of teaching, if it were not that new ideas in education urgently demand a hearing. These new ideas are concerned with the development and perfection of natural tendencies in the individual—which, if properly directed, would bring him into more sympathetic and efficient relation with society. It is the purpose of this article to show that the average teacher of to-day is not an efficient agent in social advancement. There still persist in him low or vague ideals of conduct. His mind is hidebound, and he is indifferent to problems of a social or political nature. He is aggravatingly humble, and forms a willing block in the existing bureaucratic system of school government.

Persons of even moderately delicate sensibilities are certain to be surprised if they come in contact with many teachers or principals in any of our large cities. One must be limited in his acquaintance if be does not know men in high position in school administration in cities, whose brutality is evident in their treatment of persons beneath them in authority, whose manners and speech are so coarse that their companionship in polite circles would be avoided whenever possible, whose selfishness and narrowness are so intense as to account fully under the present system of school government for their advancement beyond their less assertive fellows. Coincident with the lack of refinement characteristic of some teachers in the public schools, there is so general a deficiency of positive, militant and constructive qualities that the profession in its entirety is noticeable for its lack of intellectual alertness, of moral courage and of social and political understanding.

The student of social conditions has no difficulty in assigning to its proper cause the fact that in every part of the country teachers are often treated with disrespect (tempered with occasional fear) by their pupils, and with patronizing indulgence by people generally. In spite of pronouncements by leading public men, and by newspapers on the great and useful work of the public school teacher, the basic conviction persists that the profession of teaching is customarily followed by men who do not possess the force and manly power and the love of wide activity that characterize men who engage, for example, in law or finance. When the profession is entered by forceful young men, the relation is frequently a temporary one to be given up later for "something better."

The average high-school faculty is a heterogeneous composite of training and ability—a few forceful and several weak characters frequently with only normal-school training, a few college-trained men of ability not invited into college work, and more college men who never would be invited. When all are together the quality of the mass is distinctly commonplace, and does not contain the power of self-stimulation. There is among them an undercurrent of feeling that they are second-rate. This apologetic attitude is directly traceable as a result to an ideal set up by the first universities, and maintained through the centuries with increasing power. The great idea of the colleges and universities has been that learning is the highest aim of education. They have attained their present station as the result of working out that idea.

In the undergraduate and graduate department of every university in this country to-day, those men who are planning to be teachers are definitely scaled by their professors, by their fellows and by themselves on the basis of their ability as scholars. If they show unusual ability they are set down as future college professors; if less ability, they are scheduled as possible college instructors. The slow ones fall into the heap of future high-school teachers, and are treated accordingly. As long as the present academic and social grading of teachers holds the high schools will have to be content with the less intellectual group, except in the occasional instances where the competition for college positions compels some able young men to take up a high-school career. A high-school faculty then is consciously second-rate, and they will continue to have that feeling, and to hold that place until society advances to the plane of broader and more human, and less exclusively scholastic ideals.

Naturally, one would expect the high schools themselves to begin their own reformation, but the ideas for it are coming from elsewhere, and the hearing for them will come in all probability from enlightened minds in other fields of education, or in other lines of endeavor. High-school teachers, it is thought, and they are so informed by their superiors, have enough to do to attend strictly to their teaching. As a class high-school principals and teachers alike do not think in any profound way, for they give no proof of understanding the social and political conditions under which they work as agents in a democracy. They have no clear and adequate conception of the social and political functions of the school. Their lives are circumscribed and restrained by school laws, and often dulled by the insistent effect of hard, nerve-racking work. When the scholastic training is completed in some normal school or college, the subsequent thinking of the average teacher is incident to the occasional reading of methods. A very high percentage of teachers in the largest high schools of this country make no study of methods, and of the science of teaching, beyond what is necessary to pass examinations.

A layman would suppose that in a profession dealing primarily with the training and development of the minds of people one of the best characteristics of a good mind, self-reliance and independence in thinking, ought to be the possession of those who are in a position to encourage the development of this characteristic in children. It is a fact, however, that teachers even of the highest scholastic training, with extensive opportunities of forming judgments of their own, are unduly impressed by the opinions of persons in authority. With the leaven of intellectual capacity in the body of teachers as it is to-day, there might develop in the profession some general desire to study and understand the social and political conditions of life in this country and elsewhere, and thus to see the problem of how to make the school contribute to human progress—all this might happen if self-reliance and independence of thought were permitted to develop in our military system of school administration. There is probably no school superintendent in the country who would not urge his teachers to read and contribute from their thought to the solution of academic problems. He would welcome independence of thought as long as it is purely academic. But it is a noteworthy fact that in general the opinions of teachers on questions of school administration with local reference are not wanted. If the opinions expressed happen to be in opposition to those held by the "government," the teacher is guilty of "insubordination." Insubordination is anathema pronounced by principals, school superintendents or boards of education against offending teachers with such accompaniments of tyranny that it is small wonder that teachers are most anxious to inquire what their superiors want them to think or want. The writer was once informed by a superintendent of schools of extensive reputation that in his opinion a teacher who complained of the conduct of a superior officer should be punished for so doing, no matter whether the complaint was based on facts or not. Under those circumstances moral courage would seem to approach foolhardiness.

In large communities where the individual teacher is unknown and ignored, and the school government, only, makes representations to the people, the security of the teacher resides in occasional state and municipal laws designed to protect him from the machinations of political parties, and in his ability to keep his mouth shut and support the administration. His advancement to the highest positions depends not on the possession of unusual ability, but on his capacity to "mix" and make fortunate acquaintances among the officially powerful. In one of the largest cities of this country, it is common among men who are ambitious to hold high positions in the local educational system to make it a point to belong to as many dining organizations of educational officials as possible, to attend public installations of principals, leaving their classes to be cared for by the stay-at-homes, and to put officials of influence under lasting obligations to them by promoting subscriptions for the purchase of expensive presents, under the guise of sincere appreciation. The plan works, partly because of the emotional power of mutual felicitation, and partly because the administration is too busy to search for abler men who do not push themselves into the official horizon. All this is politics of a subtler kind than any the ward politician knew when in the same community he was the brutal power to be feared and flattered by the hopeful teacher.

The law protects the teacher in his position from the party politicians, but it does not protect the public, and the public makes no attempt to protect itself against the imposition of numerous teachers who have failed to "make good." It is practically impossible in certain of the large cities of the country to dismiss a teacher or a principal for incompetency. He can be harassed, but not dismissed. To a considerable extent custom and state or municipal laws insure him (in the case of teachers) an increase of salary as the years are added to his tenure of office.

The law which protects the teacher from unscrupulous interests strengthens and emphasizes the idea that public positions belong to the holders, and not to the public itself. The facts that a poor or low-minded teacher or principal may not only do infinite harm to human character in formation, but that he also fails to do infinite good, have not generally been taken into consideration officially in the best organized school administrations. If any one ever should suggest the idea that by the failure of a teacher to do constructive good in his position he thereby forfeited it, he would be set down as a "dreamer." Teachers and principals have been dismissed for open cruelty or viciousness, but not often for poor teaching, unsympathetic nature, low-mindedness, vulgarity, mental stagnation, and probably never solely for failure to contribute something to the moral and social uplift of a little community—the school. So general is the idea yet among teachers that their business is simply to "teach." A superintendent would need to be strong indeed with his community, if he should undertake to dismiss his inefficient teachers. The worst of them have their "influential" friends, and the argument from "bread and butter" is well nigh invincible. Our conception of the importance of education in the national life must become more clear, and our belief in education more sincere. Perhaps then we shall have advanced to the position that the selfish, incompetent agent of education shall not defeat or hinder the purpose of a great public movement, no matter what his personal needs may be.

The presence of inefficient and ineffective workers in the teaching profession undoubtedly has much to do with the present low salaries of teachers. The kind of work done, and the quality of it on the whole, have not been good enough to enable organized education to compel the payment of better salaries. Whatever complaints we may make of the dominance of the dollar in American life, the incontestable fact exists that the public that pays out three fourths of its taxes for protection of life and property willingly, pays out one fourth for public education grudgingly. Why? Largely because the people are not seriously impressed with the implied claim that the kind of education they are getting is worth that much. It is altogether likely that continual agitation will result in teachers obtaining sufficient salaries, perhaps even before the ideals of educational practise are modified in accordance with the needs of human life, and before the people insist that the inefficient workers shall not feed at the public crib. In that case the people will be paying for something they do not get. Their protection finally must lie in knowing what they want in education, as they know what they want in food, but paying for it on the basis of the best it can mean to them, instead of on the basis of the supply.

The wide-spread agitation for an increase of the salaries of teachers has emphasized the fact that teachers display more enthusiasm over a possible rise in salary than they do over any other movement looking toward their professional advancement. Of course it is true that nothing is more important than the wherewithal to feed and clothe the body, and keep it in health. But after that is attended to appropriately, the members of a profession supposed to be contributing to human progress might reasonably be expected to have other enthusiasms, such as intellectual, moral and esthetic. One who has witnessed at close hand the fury of a campaign for equal salaries for men and women teachers in the largest educational system in the country ought to have illuminating experience bearing on this point. When both sides to the controversy spend days of time, and much energy and money, employ dishonest or questionable methods to obtain the help of influential citizens or officials, accuse one another of rascality in public meetings—when men and women teachers do these things in the heat of their anxiety for higher salaries, the idealist who strives for the development of intellect, morality and beauty, must stand aside abashed and all but confounded.

Continuous and earnest as the struggle is for higher salaries, great numbers enter the profession every year, if only for a short time. It is probably true that to a large extent men and women alike take up teaching, because its returns in money are more immediate and better, at least at first, than an equal amount of struggling for an economic vantage point would bring in other fields of human activity. Among teachers there is a constant increase in the freedom from such economic competition as is necessary to hold a position once obtained. Even to obtain the position in the first place, the competition consists in a protected endeavor to increase the quality of formal scholastic preparation, rather than in a sharp rivalry of manly or womanly qualities. Competition between persons of good ability in the profession of teaching is rare. The very scarcity of teachers in all parts of the country indicates that the competition can not be sharp. It is but natural that timid persons, or those doubtful of their powers, should drift into teaching as into a safe harbor. Having once become settled as teachers they tend to grow content and inert.

Almost the sole suggestion now offered for the improvement of the great body of citizens who teach is to increase the pay. The belief seems to be that a better class, of men especially, would enter the profession. To a certain extent the result expected would take place, but it is very doubtful if remuneration for teaching ever could or should be so great as to draw able young men from pursuits whose chief human interest is that they are profitable. There will, in all probability, always be professions in which more money can be obtained than by teaching. When educational systems undertake to compete with the corporations, for example, the educational systems must lose both the contest and the moral standing they should hope to win. The great danger is that higher salaries may add to the inefficient workers who are already in the work for the money, and thus tend to perpetuate a low ideal of service.

The idealist would have a gigantic task before him if he should undertake to substitute directly for the ideal of money the ideal of unselfish public service. The "practical" man would admit that "public service" has a pleasant sound, but "human nature" demands pay for its work. This is sadly true, even while men's thoughts dwell upon the high purpose of education. They remember the pay, while their souls should thrill with the mighty music of a great idea. True education develops power through knowledge, disseminates truth, instills self-reliance into the minds of the young, teaches the common rights of men, breaks the bonds of unreasoned authority and frees the mind of the future citizens of the republic; it gives them strength to withstand adversity, and leads them to love the beautiful, and to discriminate in all things that bear upon the daily joy of living. The practical thing to do is to put aside the fear that "human nature" is going to stand in the way of the best that can come to the race. The inevitable process of evolution will take care of that, and give us a new and finer human nature. Then the question will arise how to put the true, ideal education into practise, and how to obtain the workers to carry out the purpose.

Among the thousands of "settlement" and other kinds of social workers in the cities of this country there is a sympathetic interest and a point of view which if enlisted in public education would be productive of enormous good. Through the medium of the established and natural relation of teacher and pupil, the human purpose of the social worker now so fraught with discouragement and barren in results would become practical. There is hardly any question that many of the generous spirits who give their lives to the amelioration of social conditions would gladly work through the agency of public education if they could. The school is so dominated now by the idea of formal education, and "what the colleges require" that considerations of the physical and spiritual welfare of people seem merely incidental. Moreover, the administration of school systems is so autocratic, and the officials often so overbearing, insolent and petty, that finer spirits prefer to ally themselves with other movements. The loss to organized democracy of these finer men and women is great, but more serious still is the loss in a supposedly democratic country of the opportunity to encourage the development of democracy by teaching the principles of human right and duty in the schools and practising them in the administration. No amount of knowledge learned as the result of perfect machinery of organization can justify the neglect to develop democracy through our system of public education.

The officials of administration in school systems in cities in America consist usually of a board of education appointed by the mayor of the city and one or more superintendents elected by the board of education. The members of the board of education are business men representing any profession except the teaching profession. Their absolute ignorance of educational ideals is not considered a bar to their usefulness and probably is seldom taken account of at all. The idea is that the board of education represents the citizens, and supervises the financial business of the system, while the superintendent looks after purely professional or technical affairs. But the effects of the acts of both sets of officials can not possibly be kept distinct. Every town and city in the land has its bitter quarrels between the board of education and the supervising officers. Each side is more or less ignorant of the point of view of the other and indifferent to the point of view of the teaching staff. All this is loose administration because there is no unity of purpose and no centralization of responsibility.

Now, there is a very evident centralization of responsibility in the hands of technical experts in our fire departments, boards of health, and frequently in our police departments. What is the reason that intelligent teachers may not hope for promotion to positions of administrative opportunity, if firemen may? Is it not true that citizens generally would prefer an honest and able policeman as chief of police to any able but untrained and hence ignorant citizen?

The assertion is often made that teachers are not practical, that they know nothing about business. Even if that were true, it would be an argument against the average teacher and not against the idea of giving trained citizens the opportunity to direct those affairs they know most about. With the agency for training ready at hand, it would be strange if we could not develop men with initiative to plan and skill to direct, equal to the combined abilities of those who now control our school systems.

An arrangement by which teachers might advance as they prove by their constructive ideas and their efficiency that they are fitted for something else that the service requires, would be of enormous benefit to the educational movement. The certainty that, for example, the supervisor of manual training in a large city would be a man from anywhere who could show from his published contributions to the thought on his specialty that he was a master in it, as well as a teacher and a man of unquestioned quality and ability—this would encourage the young teacher to develop to the limit of his powers. When a career of study and effort carries a man to a position of great trust and responsibility, the individual has obtained due recognition, and the cause profits by having an efficient servant. When the position is obtained without full proof of fitness, the individual gets what he does not deserve, the administration deceives the public, and insults every fit person in the service.

Assuming that the people will in time care enough for public education to want it administered for the best results obtainable, it ought to be feasible to establish a system which would be effective and not become selfish with age. If systems of taxation can be submitted to the consideration of the electors, systems of education ought also to be within the range of the average intellect. We should scorn to employ a board to do our thinking and acting on the tariff question; it is the privilege of our American manhood to do that ourselves. Why should we be so willing to accept continually the judgment of educational "experts," and thus cut ourselves off from greater proof of our claims to social and political freedom.

There are questions of large import in education that could grow into national issues, and be crystallized into shape by the collective thinking of all the people. It is not inconceivable that some of these might occupy the attention of congress to the exclusion of the usual petty private interests of importunate individuals and communities. Other issues of a purely local nature, state or municipal, would fall for settlement to the sections interested.

There could be a member of the President's Cabinet, a Secretary of Education, who would be presumed to represent the judgment of the majority on national issues in education, and with his department could have clearly defined relations to the state and to the municipal or other local officials. The state and inferior boards of education that touch intimately the privileges of parents, teachers and children should be elected, and subjected to the will of the people through the principle of initiative and referendum. That development of democratic government would make it impossible for officers of education to command arbitrarily the inauguration of policies about which neither the people nor the teachers had been consulted.

The power of initiative and referendum resting with the people entirely, or in part with the teachers, would not necessarily be a hindrance to the work of the local boards, but it would keep the interest of all alive to the welfare of the schools. It would encourage and demand greater knowledge of educational questions among the people. It would crush for all time the autocratic spirit that rules sullenly in the seats of a democratic institution. The existence of the officious, overbearing and dictatorial superintendent and principal, and the timid, sycophantic teacher would become impossible. Not only must the relation of the boards to the schools be a democratic one, but the school within itself must be organized on the basis of the same idea. Teachers and pupils have rights which the autocratic principal of to-day tramples upon with impunity, and he is upheld by the officials who created him. The safety of the republic demands the abolition of such a tyrannical condition.

A rehabilitation of organized public education along the lines of the open and just recognition of the rights of all concerned, seems a necessary prerequisite to increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of all persons engaged as agents of education. The fair, honest and public-spirited administration of the schools is a necessary preliminary guarantee to the people that public education is a movement for human progress, and for nothing less.