Popular Science Monthly/Volume 74/January 1909/The School and the Family

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IN our complicated civilization a change in any direction may have unforeseen effects in other directions. If we do away with an aristocracy of birth, we leave room for a plutocracy and for politics as a trade; if we learn to use machinery, we throw into quasi-slavery a large part of the people; if we improve the means of communication and transportation, we build the tenement districts of the cities; if we develop a system of credits and exchange, we get public debts, panics, lockouts and congested wealth; if we use reason more, the surer instincts atrophy.

One of the cases where notable progress has yielded sinister by-products is the tendency of the school to weaken the family. Civilization may persist and progress without the family; but human and pre-human societies have been so completely based on it that no one can foresee the results of its destruction. Mankind will last only so long as children are born and cared for; and no plausible substitute for the family has been proposed. It is in any case evident that the premature weakening of the family will bring disaster; our reasoned efforts should at present be directed to its support and toward adjusting to it our newer adventures.

The school by its nature weakens the family, for it takes the children away from home and gives them interests not centered in the home. Within certain limits it may be a gain to polish homely wits and supply a new and wider outlook. The family can withstand a certain amount of aggression and may even be the better for it. But the notion is wide-spread that the more years a child spends in school, the more days in the year and the more hours in the day, the better it is, and that the scholastic trivialities inherited from the idle classes are the proper material for education. There is even approval of places like kindergartens and girls boarding schools, which are harmful both to the family and to the individual.

The sacrifice of the family to the school under the best of conditions is serious enough; it is distressing to see methods used that are wantonly destructive. If children are really more cultivated than their parents there is inevitable discord. We can only say that the older generation must suffer for the newer, the present family for the better family that is to be. But the emphasis on superficial book knowledge that is so common leads the young people to assume a superiority which they may in no wise possess in the more sterling qualities. We greatly overestimate the value of the three r's, the two g's and the one s. People are what they feel and do, much more than what they know; in any case the residuum of knowledge surviving the eight years of the elementary school is pitifully small.

One must learn to read in self defense. If ninety per cent, of the population carry pistols, it will not do for the remaining tenth to go unarmed. And people should learn to read in order to preserve and pass forward the social heritage, which may some time be the endowment of all, and is now the necessary condition for selection of those competent to improve or enjoy this heritage. But the present advantages of reading to the average individual are small, while it is probably injurious to family life. The main benefit of reading for most people seems to be that it is a substitute for alcohol, in which excess does not lead to such harmful consequences. The effect of reading the newspaper or current novel is similar to that from a small dose of alcohol or opium; it relieves conscious strain and the burden of routine individuality. A weekly journal or an ounce of alcohol on Saturday evening would doubtless be better than illiteracy or abstinence; but people will not run themselves as machines subject to the laws of utilitarian hygiene. The Bible may be read aloud and give solidarity to the family and community; the city newspaper absorbs the individual in transient details, not fit to be talked about or remembered. . Its tawdriness distracts from homely interests. As a social factor, it is more likely to lead to national hysteria than to solid homogeneity.

There is relatively less to be said against writing and more in its favor. Its acquisition, while likely to be harmful to the immature nervous system, is less destructive than learning to read. What the average man reads is rarely worth while; what he writes is ordinarily of use. As a matter of fact, he writes very little, and could get on fairly well without that little. But of course, under existing conditions, every one should know how to write. I have found that practising on the typewriter for twenty minutes a day for two months, namely, a total expenditure of twenty hours, will enable people to write faster, not to mention legibility, than they could after eight years of schooling and twenty years of practising with the hand, though doubtless it is this practise that makes typewriting easy to learn.

It has become necessary for every one to deal with numbers and quantities, but it is a question as to how far the average man is helped in this by the school work in arithmetic, with the possible extension to geometry and algebra. One of the most persistent errors of our scholastic methods is the teaching of a child of a certain age with great labor and at the production of much stupidity what could be learned easily and with pleasure a couple of years later. It is possible to teach an infant to walk two months before the body is ready, but bow legs are likely to be the only permanent result. So it may be that the premature use of numbers apart from any real interest is actually harmful. The school work in arithmetic is certainly of very little use.

Exploitation of the conventional spelling and grammar is one of the insignia of the classes, which, like their dress and etiquette, is imitated by the masses without profit. The accuracy of spelling secured by school drill is useless; the syntactical limitations injure expression and style. Nothing much can be said in favor of geography, history and literature as they are taught, or for such science as now and then appears. We have a book method, essential for certain purposes, extended far outside the limits of its usefulness. The clerk or priest becoming teacher regards the elements of those subjects in which he is expert as the only ones proper to education, and the great mass of the people are ready to imitate those who have assumed authority over them. The futile system is supported ex post facto by a bad psychology, which claims that the methods used will teach children to observe, remember and reason. Primary education is planned as a preparation for the high school, and the high-school course as a preparation for college; the college is for students preparing for the professions and at the same time a club for the idling classes.

It is not at all clear why the public should pay a thousand dollars for the expenses of each boy who goes through college to enjoy the pleasures of drinking clubs and betting on athletics; and it is surely absurd to let the conventional courses of the college distort every elementary school. As Franklin said, there is a good deal of difference between a good physician and a poor physician, but not much difference between a good physician and no physician; and the same is true of the lawyer, the clergyman, the journalist and even the university president. We could get on tolerably well without all these gentlemen, except only the few who are working to advance knowledge and its applications; and it is, in any case, needless to make their production the principal aim of our educational system. The good ones are born fit for their work, and will do equally well whether they learn to read at twelve or at six.

The imprisoned hope of Pandora is the only justification of our educational system. We look forward to getting some day professional men who will serve a better civilization, and schools that will make children happier, wiser and more useful. In the meanwhile we consume on the altars of our schools more property than the lawyers can guard, more health than the physicians can restore and more unborn souls than the clergymen can save.

The unborn children due to the schools have been too little regarded. From the very beginning of organic evolution the principal function of every generation has been the production of the next. The origin of each higher species has been an incident of this function, and man who looks before and after has been the final result. The ultimate outcome of evolution has been a rationalism that threatens to end the long process.

Last year the deaths in France exceeded the births by 19,920. In some departments there were less than seventy births to fill the places vacant by one hundred deaths. A patriotic Frenchman has written naïvely that this state of things is not so bad as it seems at first sight, as all civilized nations will soon be in the same condition. It is indeed true that the birth rate is decreasing in every country. The seriousness of the situation is obscured by the fact that the death rate is also decreasing, so that an increase of population has been as a rule maintained. But the decrease in the death rate can not continue indefinitely, and if present tendencies persist the birth rate will fall below the death rate everywhere, as has already happened in France and in New England.

It is now considered praiseworthy to postpone marriage until a family can be supported in comfort, and proper not to have more children than suits the pleasure of the parents. In 81 divorce cases tried in a month in a New York City court—divorces have trebled since 1870—the 162 married persons had among them 52 children. A census of twenty-two apartment houses in New York City proved them to contain 485 families and just 54 children—one child to nine families. These are the extreme cases; but among the educated and well-to-do classes the number of children does not nearly suffice to continue the race. The Harvard graduate has on the average seven tenths of a son, the Vassar graduate one half of a daughter.

These conditions are regarded as bad because the successful stocks are superseded; but to the present writer this does not appear to be the danger. There is probably not so much difference between one stock and another but that in each generation the place of the extinct families can be supplied from the inferior classes to advantage. A hereditary aristocracy is not maintained by inbreeding but by selection from below.

The fundamental danger to society lies in the fact that the pattern set by the ruling classes dominates; and this is especially true in a partial democracy, such as the United States or France. Where classes are distinct and permanent, each can have its own ideals, as it has its own dress. But when the hats and shoes of the rich are imitated by the middle classes, and those of the middle classes by the laboring classes, we may be sure that there will be a similar following of the leader in social customs and morals. If the two-child family is temporarily standardized for the upper classes, it will soon become the model elsewhere, and when one child takes the place of two, as it is already doing, the contagion will not be limited to the class in which it originates.

It may be that the population of the western world increased during the nineteenth century as rapidly as it could be assimilated. If Malthus had been correct in his theories it might be as anti-social and be made as illegal to have six children as to have two wives. But Malthus was a false prophet; thanks to the applications of science the means of subsistence have increased more rapidly than the population. If the density of population in the United States were equal to that in Great Britain, all the people in the world could live here; and they could live in comfort. There is a complete lack of the constructive imagination which might lead to bitter mourning for the hundreds of millions of human beings that might have been but are not, and to boundless regret for the science and art they might have produced for the benefit of all; but the decline and extinction of the race can not well be dismissed as a matter of no consequence.

It is now only to a limited extent the case that there are vigorous races waiting to take the place of those decayed. The Teutons may supplant the Celts, and be supplanted by the Slavs. If the negroes maintain their fertility and decrease their morbidity, and the eastern nations maintain their family sanctions, they may supplant the white races. But an extension of rationalism and a tolerably uniform world civilization will tend toward similar conditions everywhere in regard to the family and the birth rate. The past history of the human race is probably longer than its future history will be. Physicists tell us that the earth may be uninhabitable in twenty million years; it may be uninhabited by man in twenty centuries.

The disintegration of the family and the decline of the birth rate are due to many causes of which we need here concern ourselves with but two—the city and the school—for the object of this article is to offer a constructive suggestion intended to make these factors less destructive.

The modern city is surely subversive of the home and the family. Houses without individuality, dark and ugly, tenements and apartments, boarding houses and hotels, not owned by those who live in them, inhibit the instinct to form a home. Children do not stay in the house and can be put to no use about it. They are away at school and on the street; later they earn money for themselves. Women are not physiologically fit to bear and nurse children. The father is away all day, and the mother is often away. The parents and the children do not have work, amusements or interests in common. There are no family traditions and sanctions. A certain irresponsibility in the tenement districts gives a fairly large birth rate and a high infant death rate, but every advance in temperance and thrift decreases the birth rate.

It has been said that we must look to the country for men and to the city for ideas. But the trouble is that the city takes from the country its men and supplies it with ideas and ideals which are unfit. If paternalistic legislation and philanthropic efforts are of any use, they should be directed to the support of the family farm and the country home. A measure such as the protective tariff which builds up the manufacturing center and the city at the cost of the country should be regarded as intolerable. Measures such as agricultural experiment stations, the rural postal delivery and postal express should be welcomed. We need most of all to make life in the country attractive and fine, to lessen routine and incessant labor, to make each church and school a center for the social, intellectual and artistic life of a community.

The country school is at present no such place. Its general tendency is not to prepare children for usefulness and happiness in country life, but rather to make them inefficient and uncomfortable there and to send those who are more clever and ambitious away to the city. And the school shares with the city the bad preeminence of being one of the principal causes now working to break up the family.

It has been noted above that in so far as the school gives children interests not centered in the home, the family is inevitably weakened. This may be necessary in the interests of wider socialization, but in its methods and results the school contrasts unfavorably with the church, especially with the unreformed churches and the Hebrew synagogue. The sacraments of the church—baptism, confirmation, marriage, burial—are closely interwoven with family life; its services, ceremonies, fasts and fetes are shared together by parents and children. In spite of inconsistencies in creed and in practise, the religious institutions both of the west and east tend by their observances and by their non-rational sanctions strongly to support the family. The school supersedes the church as a socializing factor to the injury of the family. In so far as this result is due to the methods by which the schools are conducted and the kind of instruction given, every effort should be used to find remedies or palliatives. In so far as it is due to the partial rationalization that follows, we are face to face with a difficult problem.

It may be thought that people are not likely to become too reasonable; nevertheless perhaps the principal danger to our civilization is the checking of instincts by rationalistic considerations. The instincts for mating, for forming a home and for the care of the young are prehuman and very strong. But like other instincts, they are only compelling for a limited period and under suitable stimuli. Postponement from prudential motives and the general conditions of modern life lead readily to their atrophy. This occurs first in the dominating and super-educated classes, and the model they set is followed in widening circles. Further it is noteworthy that there is no primitive instinct to have children; the instincts of mating, home-building and the care of the young suffice in the earlier stages; later the chief sanctions have been religious and tribal, and these are waning, largely through the influence of our educational methods. The reinforcement of instincts and impulses by rationally devised sanctions appears to be the only hope there is for the family and so far as can be seen now for the race.

Next after the rationalistic attitude implanted by our present methods of education and the diversion of the interests of children and young people from home life, the most serious injury to the family from the school is probably economic in character. It is said that a boy is legally of age at twenty-one, because for the first seven years of his life he is a charge to his parents, for the second seven years he is self-supporting and during the third seven years he repays the outlay for the first period. However this may be, there is no doubt but that children are more welcome when they add to the family income than when they take from it. A definite relation exists between the economic demand and the supply of children. A leading economist has argued that the population of the United States would be the same had there been no immigration. There are more children in farming communities and in factory towns than elsewhere; laws against child labor decrease the number of children.

As sentimental vegetarianism, if general, would exterminate most of the domestic animals, so humanitarian efforts for the welfare of children tend to exterminate them. The school is the most potent factor. When the well-to-do and professional classes must support their boys until the age of twenty-five and their daughters until twenty-two—a thousand dollars a year for each is not regarded as an excessive allowance—the limit of economic possibility is soon reached. And the burden on the poor is relatively as great when they send their children to school to the age of twelve or sixteen, after which they go off to shift for themselves. It looks as though the state would need to add to free schools not only free books, free sports, free transportation, free food and free clothes, but payment to parents for the time of their children—an ominous outlook for society. Charitable and state institutions other than schools, such as hospitals and old-age pensions, make children less desired. It is an old saying that a father can support seven children, but seven children can not support one father; still every father does believe that his children will come to his aid when needed. If he sends them off to school to be taken care of by the state, and in turn looks to the state to take care of him, the state may have to pay for the bearing of children as well as for raising them. And when states no longer want citizens for defense or aggression and have no peculiar institutions to support, it is not likely that the cosmopolitan world will be more ready than the individual to sacrifice present pleasures in order that there may be posterity.

In addition to the psychological and economic effects of the school subversive of the family, the physiological effects are serious. The health of our children is in large measure conserved by the inefficiency of our teachers. If children really did what our scheme of education asks, the results would be much worse than they are. It is also true that conditions at home, especially in cities, are such that the school may be an improvement. But the ordinary defective eyesight and lateral curvature of the spine are signs of deep-seated injury to the nervous system and bodily organs. Schools are centers for the spread of contagious diseases. The sedentary habits are not only injurious at the time, but are likely to persist, and the result is that but few educated people have normal circulations, digestions and reproductive systems. Alcoholic drinks, tobacco, coffee and medical drugs are used to replace the stimulation that should be obtained through normal work and out-of-door exercise. Some must do too much physical work and are never rested, while others shirk it altogether and are permanently tired.

It is generally assumed that the small family and diminishing birth rate are due to psychological and economic causes, but it is probable that physiological and pathological conditions are equally potent. When there is no child or but one, until recently at least, physiological infertility may be assumed; and this class represents one third of all families of college alumni. Among these alumni, a considerable percentage of whom are clergymen, large families such as were formerly common simply do not occur, and it is difficult to believe that voluntary restriction is absolutely universal. Among women of the American upper classes there are probably about as many miscarriages as births, and probably less than one fourth of all mothers can nurse adequately their infants. The small family is often due to voluntary restriction in deference to the health of the wife.

It is quite impossible to determine the extent to which the failing birth rate is due to physiological infertility or the extent to which this is chargeable to the schools. It has been held that intellectual development inhibits the reproductive function; in Malthusian days this was even urged as a beneficent plan of nature. Girls are injured more than boys by school life; they take it more seriously, and at certain times and at a certain age are far more subject to harm. It is probably not an exaggeration to say that to the average cost of each girl's education through the high school must be added one unborn child.

Our system of coeducation is favorable to conventional morality, but not to romantic love. A man is no more a hero to his girl chums than to his valet; a certain distance is necessary before the halo about a girl's head becomes visible. Small doses confer immunity to the larger passions. The 40,000 girls now in our colleges are putting off marriage beyond the age when impulse is dominant. This is regarded as one of the merits of the system; but it means that half of them will not marry and that the other half will have families of the average size of two children. Women of this sort ask too much of the men. They want a kind of education and a kind of interests that can not be universal; they are not content to begin with the simple servantless menage that satisfied their parents. It is well for family happiness when husband and wife have interests in common; a university professor can have to advantage a college-bred wife. But the superficial culture of the American woman, the reading of the monthly magazines and best-selling novels, the frequenting of those theaters, art exhibitions and women's clubs, for which the husband has no time or taste, are not conducive to harmony and homogeneity in family life.

The economic employment of women in sedentary work and work away from home, which is such a marked development of modern and especially of American conditions, obviously tends to prevent marriage, to limit the number of children and to break up the family. When spinsters can support themselves with more physical comforts and larger leisure than they would have as wives; when married women may prefer the money they can earn and the excitement they can find in outside employment to the bearing and rearing of children; when they can conveniently leave their husbands should it so suit their fancy—the conditions are clearly unfavorable to marriage and the family. It is further an important consideration that men who must compete in the market with women can not afford to marry and support a family. Here again the school and the employment of female teachers are dominant factors.

There are in the United States about 400,000 women employed as teachers, and the numbers are continually increasing. In our cities there were at the time of the last census 76,348 female and 6,302 male teachers, and the proportion of females has since increased, so that now probably not more than one teacher in fifteen is a man. In one Ohio town there are about 200 female teachers without a single man. In the graduating class of a California normal school this year there were 272 girls and one man. In Germany, on the other hand, about two thirds of the teachers are men.

This vast horde of female teachers in the United States tends to subvert both the school and the family. The lack of initiative and vitality in our entire school system is appalling. The influence of our half million teachers on the problems of democracy and civilization is entirely insignificant. The attractive and normal girls and the few able men tend to drop out, leaving the school principal, narrow and arbitrary, and the spinster, devitalized and unsexed, as the dominant elements. Boys get but little good from their schooling and leave it when they can. Girls, who need men teachers even more than boys, predominate in the upper classes. Women are good teachers, especially young girls with their intuitive sympathy for children and mothers who have bred children of their own, and women are cheaper than men cf equal education and ability. But the ultimate result of letting the celibate female be the usual teacher has been such as to make it a question whether it would not be an advantage to the country if the whole school plant could be scrapped.

It has been urged that the backwardness of the middle ages was due to the fact that the ablest men were selected for celibacy; with equal plausibility it might be argued that the 400,000 American women teachers withhold the million children who might give to our country the intellectual distinction that it lacks. However this may be, it is certain that the homes and the children are lacking; and in every school patterns are set to be copied in the next generation with disastrous results.

It will doubtless be thought by most of those who read this paper that the futility of our present educational scheme and the evil effects of the school on the family have been exaggerated. The rhetorical phrases that have been used to give emphasis may leave an impression of lack of sanity and humor. It is indeed true that the shadows rather than the lights have been depicted. It would be possible to write in praise of universal education and the humanity of modern civilization, to tell once more how the American school opens the gateway to any career to every child, and how woman has been freed from a slavery as complete as that to which any race has been subjected. But it is not the object of this paper to relate the progress of civilization; its aim is to draw attention to certain poisonous by-products in the hope that antidotes may be found, and to make a suggestion tending in this direction.

The proposal—not likely to be heeded, for if it were, then its need would largely disappear—is that the teacher should be the family and so far as may be that the scholar should be the family.

In the last of the often-read tales that give distinction to American literature, we learn how the traveler, after a weary world search for the three fatalities that should give him love, treasure and influence, returns to his native New England village to find them there in a wife who had been the playmate of his childhood, in tilling the earth of his garden and in teaching the country children. One of the great novels of the greatest living master of letters tells how the heroine failed to find her hero in the warlord, but found him in the schoolmaster, when together among the hills they taught their boys the ways of truth and honor.

Is there indeed in all the wide world a better place than a home in the country where parents and children are doing what they can for themselves and for the neighborhood? The clergyman and the physician are, by the character of their professions, half missionary and half charlatan; in the lawyer and the journalist the missionary element is decidedly less. But there might be in this broad land of ours five hundred thousand men, as many women, twice as many children, all leading lives wholly useful and noble, as teachers in their communities. The money is there; the men and women are not lacking; the children need not be; it is only the spirit and the will that fail.

Can one not fancy a school in the country, the house a model of simple beauty, built and adorned from year to year by those whose use it serves? It would be adjacent to or perhaps a part of the home of the teachers, surrounded by gardens, orchards and barns. The house would be fitted out as a club, with books, pictures and music continually renewed. Its furniture, its lighting, its ventilation, its heating, its water-supply and baths, its workshop, its kitchen and laboratory, all would offer a standard for the neighborhood. In this house the children would gather, and so far as might be the older folks, for some two hours a day. The master and the mistress and their older children, with the help of others who were able, would teach the tricks of reading, writing and reckoning to those who lacked them, and all would be encouraged to go as far as they cared along the paths of letters and science. Two further hours might be spent in working about the place, in the shop, in the garden or with the animals, sewing, cooking or cleaning, learning to do efficiently and economically the things that must be done. The children and older folks would gladly return to the school for sports and games, indoors and out, for books and music, for theatricals, lectures and meetings, to eat and to gossip.

A school of this kind would be supported mainly by the work of those whom it served; perhaps no taxation would be required; in any case the money needed for the master, the mistress and their children to live in quiet elegance would not be much. The garden or intensively cultivated farm with the equipment of the school would need to be supplemented by a minimum of ready money. To each school might be added some productive concern—the raising of strawberries, mushrooms, or squabs, a creamery, smithy or printing shop. The teachers, and to a certain extent the people of the neighborhood, would be experts in some one line; they would do this special work as well as it could be done and be alert to improve the methods. Prentices would be trained who could carry expert skill to other neighborhoods.

The master and the mistress would have ample time. Four hours a day might be devoted to the children of the school, in work only partly sedentary. The wife could be spared when higher duties demanded, and the man could devote himself for a time to the completion of some pressing work. Both could have some trade or profession in addition to the teaching. It might be only the care of the school and garden—the postoffice would naturally be there—or the village shop might be added, or one of them might be skilled in carpentry, plumbing or surveying. They might edit and print the country newspaper, or a special journal whose edition of four hundred would go to all quarters of the world. One or both of them might be physicians, promoting hygiene and public health, knowing their own limitations and the limitations of the profession, able to refer patients to the best specialists within reach. Or one might be himself a specialist, spending part of the year at the university and city hospital, carrying forward researches in experimental medicine. The teacher might—could the Jangling of the creeds be hushed—be the village clergyman; or he might be the lawyer, drawing up deeds and wills, suppressing lawsuits, showing the ways of justice and mercy. The teachers might be devoted to science, letters or art, perhaps applying the better methods to agriculture or industry, writing verses for the country papers, or training the choir; but here and there would be one able to move forward the boundaries of science, to write what would be read far off and long after, to create art in touch with the emotions of the people.

Five hundred thousand families, continually increasing in numbers, engaged in learning and in teaching, would give to this country a true democratic aristocracy. Into it would be taken the best elements of all the people, and from it would be chosen leaders in every department of human activity. Sons and daughters would return to carry forward the work of their parents; family sanctions and traditions would be maintained from generation to generation. Children would always be the chief concern in a home and in a school such as this. There would be no pathological, no economic, no psychological conditions at work for their extermination. Mothers fit to bear and nurse their young would be selected and trained. Children would not only be the chief treasure sought; they would also add to the material wealth of the family. Those who did not want children would be cast aside as little better than the abortionist and the infanticide. In all the world there is nothing more ultimate than the primitive voices of the two Rachels; Rachel weeping for her children, not to be comforted, because they are not; Rachel who said: Give me children, or else I die.