Nonfiction > Harvard Classics > Lectures on the Harvard Classics
  Lectures on the Harvard Classics.
The Harvard Classics.  1909–14.
I. General Introduction
By Professor H. W. Holmes
IN all profitable thinking about modern education one central fact is stated or assumed—the fact that education has become a public enterprise. To think of it as a matter mainly of private interest, to discuss it chiefly in terms of personal development, is to ignore the achieved conditions of civilized life and the clear trend of progress. The spread of public schools is but the obvious outward sign of a growing conviction concerning all educational endeavor. That conviction was long ago proclaimed and has now become a guide to action—the conviction that the community has a vital stake in the education of every child. Education is a common concern not merely because there are many children to be educated, but because there can be no significant outcome in the education of any child which is not of importance, not to him only, but also to others, immediately to many, more remotely to all.  1

  This has always been true. Modern life, with cities and the inventions which belittle time and space, has only made it more apparent and action upon it more pressing. No one can think with penetration upon the results of education who does not come at last to a fuller vision of the interdependence of men. That men shall live less and less each for himself, more and more each for the common good, is not merely a consequence of increasing numbers on the earth, but an essential condition of human progress, in the individual as well as in society. It is a poor and meager culture which does not end in greater power to serve. To become a man is to become capable of living effectively with others and for all, in the normal relationships of life—not in subservience to custom, but in devotion to a welfare larger than one’s own, a welfare at least not incompatible, in the end, with the welfare of the world. It is not enough to say that the common interest is at stake in the education of every child; the very process of education is properly a training for effective membership in the common life.
  Such is the reasoning behind the great outlay of public money on schools, libraries, museums, and other educational agencies. Civilized communities undertake education as a part of their proper business, not as a charity, but as a necessary public function. Schools are tax supported and education is compulsory. The state claims final authority to prescribe standards and to supervise even private educational ventures. It calls on all citizens for their full support in this task of conserving and developing human resources. It considers every taxpayer as much in duty bound to support ultimate social improvement through education as to direct social improvement through public enterprises of any other sort. Personal return cannot be taken into the account; the good to be achieved is primarily a public good, in which the childless also share. And the problems of education are problems of public policy, involving the whole theory of the state, of government, of the social order, and of civic progress.  3
  All educational questions have thus become increasingly complex. The character of modern life makes even well-rounded personal development a matter of much difficulty, for the life of the individual child is in some ways narrower to-day than it was in simpler times. To secure for modern children the full exercise of body, intellect, imagination, sympathy, and will is in itself a task which calls for insight, energy, and cooperation, to say nothing of money. Yet to provide for the formal cultivation of personal capacities, faculties, and powers, is by no means to solve the problem of education, even for a given child. The results may happen to be good, but the problem has not been solved, for it has not been adequately stated.  4

  It happens, in the first place, that “body, intellect, imagination, sympathy, and will” are poor terms to use in the actual direction of teaching. They name abstractions which have induced more futile educational discussion and more useless educational effort than can ever be reckoned. No child is a collection of general faculties which can be trained for universal use. But even when we have discovered the special capacities with which the individual is actually endowed, and with which we may therefore profitably work, the problem is only in part before us. It is quite as important to consider what our child is to do with his capacities, what stuff he is to exercise them on. It is the content of education that gives it social direction and social importance; from the public standpoint it is the school, the course, the subject that mean most, for these determine the concrete character of the individual’s later activities and interests. That ancient educational saw, “I care not what you study, if you study it well,” is profoundly misleading—a mischievous piece of common sense which hides the truth in order to emphasize a part of it. No matter what “faculty” a subject “trains,” it is the information, the ideas, the ideals, principles, points of view, methods, interests, enthusiasms, purposes, and sympathies it imparts that chiefly determine its educational value. It is the content of a man’s education which helps most to fix his place in the community, his vocation, his avocations, and his availability for special service.

  Education presents not one problem, therefore, but many. In the earlier years, to be sure, all children need much the same intellectual experience, at least in school. “The fundamentals” are the subjects everybody ought to master. Thus at first there is only the complexity of meeting individual differences among children—the brilliant, the backward, the well nurtured, the neglected. Complexity enough! And even so, each subject presents, besides, its own problem of social interpretation: “What everybody ought to master” in arithmetic or in geography is by no means clear, and new definitions of the aim and scope of each subject are continually needed. Such definitions must be made from the standpoint of public service and the real demands of life, not from the standpoint of complete mastery of the subject. A social view of education demands selection and reorganization of the elements of knowledge. But beyond this is the fact that children cannot long be kept in the same educational highway. The need to separate arises at least as early as adolescence, the end of childhood and the gate of youth. Here differences of native endowment, economic condition, and conscious purpose force the first fundamental differentiation of schools, courses, and classes. Even if, in some millennium of social justice, the stern necessity of earning a living in the teens were to be done away, the social necessity for variety of schooling would remain. Society needs many kinds of thinkers and workers, just as there are many kinds of aptitude to be trained. There is no “general course” which can provide an “all-round education,” in the sense of providing all that is really needful for anybody who knows what is good for him. To discover the best in education for one child or class of children, though with the public interest well in mind, is to answer but one of the questions the educator must hereafter always ask.
  For the public interest goes far beyond the need of supplying to all a uniform minimum of schooling. Democracy means far more in education than the warding off of danger from illiteracy. It is a crude and at bottom a wholly mistaken view of public education which confines it to “the three R’s,” or to those admitted necessities and such other subjects as the common good may dictate for the common school. The public interest is not met by merely elementary education. It is met only when every prospective citizen may secure without undue sacrifice that extent and kind of education which will make him most efficient in his fundamental social relationships, including his vocation. The state needs knowledge, efficiency, insight, and idealism in industry, commerce, the arts, science, philosophy, religion, and family life as much as in citizenship more narrowly defined. The only logical result of the thoroughly social character of education is public support of every socially profitable kind of schooling, with commensurate public authority.  7
  Democracy in education invites, to be sure, the evils of political control; yet education is one of the few permanent means of counteracting political evil. No one need fear to trust educational authority to a public aroused to the meaning and value of education, and this essential condition of public support depends on the slow growth of public conscience and public intelligence. In any case, private initiative will long have an honorable part to play in education and the very policy of the state may often best be served by leaving the special and the higher schools in private hands: but there are a few communities in which the extension of public provision and public authority in education is not imperative.  8
  Of that extension what must be the guiding conceptions? Before all else must come the honesty of an attitude at once scientific and ethical. Educators must face the facts, without abatement of their enthusiasm for ideals.  9

  Teachers and school officers find before them not mere types of humanity, with abstract virtues and vices, general habits, faculties, and powers waiting to be cultivated for “life” as it may be philosophically defined; they have to deal with real and ever-varying human beings, whose impulses, emotions, and purposes reach forward to the actual challenge of the specific duties, interests, and rewards of the real world. To provide, for every normal individual, whatever his endowment, nurture, or experience, an opportunity to prepare himself for a part in the legitimate work of the world, a share in its proper pleasures, and an understanding of the meaning and value of the life he leads—this is the problem to be solved. What are the things men do in which the public interest calls for intelligence and efficiency such as may be got in schools? For the getting of such intelligence and efficiency in the doing of such things, what schools are needed? In these schools what subjects shall be taught and how?
  These questions present the problem of education as it must be viewed from the standpoint of the common good—and the questions presented by education viewed from any other standpoint are far less important. No doubt we need, in the crash and strain of modern life, remembrance of the old ideal of personal distinction. Grace is worth too much to lose it beyond retrieving, even for efficiency. But how impoverished now appears that aristocratic ideal which made much of personal charm and little of social worth—for which the education of women could consist chiefly of dancing, French, and hand embroidery! Whatever its faults and dangers, it is a stronger age which approves for women schools of household economy, of nursing, or philanthropy, so say nothing of clerical training, medicine, or law. But he interprets the modern ideal too narrowly who would have it take no account of beauty, leisure, or reflection. The work of the world is fundamental, and in itself neither selfish nor undignified; but the world’s play—its generous sport, its curious science, its philosophic speculation, its art, and its worship—is a region of enduring values. It is only the separation of work and play that belittles either. A social conception of the ends of education finds reason for folk-dancing and pageants in the public schools, but none for the exploitation of children through premature industrial training. The common good demands education for play no less than education for work, education for the larger efficiency of insight, breadth of view, and reflective intelligence no less than education for the narrower efficiency of habit. Democracy cannot perpetuate slavery through schools.  11

  But the essential conditions of freedom cannot be established through education; only the love of it, the understanding of it, and the power and will to use it for service can be gained from the most liberalizing of curricula. The possibility and the extension of freedom are the work of direct social and political reform. It is futile, meanwhile, to insist that liberal studies shall be all that schools shall offer. It is simple error to insist that a traditional range of studies—the classics, science, mathematics, even history, or English—provide the only possible culture for freedom. Schools must meet the need of the world as frankly and directly as they can, without squeamish prejudice against practical or vocational studies. Shopwork may afford more liberal culture to a given boy than Greek—and the problem of educational values is always thus specific. The only profitable distinction between liberal studies and vocational studies is one which looks out and forward to the life the individual is to lead. A man’s calling, if it be of much difficulty, demands vocational training; his life in the family, the community, the state, and the church demands an education which may justly be called liberal; the worthy use of his leisure demands an education which may properly be called cultural. But what is vocational for the artist will be cultural for others; and a given subject may serve many uses in every normal life. A complete education will prepare for life in all its relationships, either by direct study of the problems they present, or by the study of subjects valuable in one of them or in all.
  This conception of the ends to be attained is clear enough; it is the means that fail. And the failure of means is due less to public apathy than to inherent difficulty in finding them. New schools, new courses, new subjects must be created. A new interpretation of old subjects and a new method of teaching them must be worked out. Much of our traditional teaching, especially in high schools, academies, and colleges, goes quite astray; it is fruitless because its uses are not clear or because they are not made clear; and the “intellectual discipline” which is supposed to result from it either does not occur or is not carried over into the conduct of mature life. Mental and moral habits and ideals, such attitudes, tendencies, and principles of conduct as “thoroughness,” “order,” “concentration,” “self-reliance,” may be taught by precept and example in the work of any subject; in every case they must be generalized and held consciously in mind, practiced and renewed in vision if they are ever to permeate life. In this general training of the mind and will, the unconscious effect of one subject is little better than that of another of similar complexity and scope. Science is as good as Latin, and mechanical drawing may be better than either. Much depends on the ethical enthusiasm, the insight, the sympathy, and the leadership of the teacher; much on the methods of teaching and class management he employs. More depends on the traditions and the administrative, disciplinary, and social policies of the school. This is to say that these precious moral results of education are chiefly matters of personal contagion, direct inspiration, and experience in the common effort of work and play. They are achieved as much in the home or on the playground as in the school. It is the specific habits of attention, the special methods of observing, comparing, classifying, and reacting on facts, the particular forms of skill, the definite information, the peculiar outlook, the actual incentives which a given subject may possess that make it serviceable in education. In these things subjects differ and lend themselves to different use. In these things history differs from dressmaking, science from agriculture. And in these things the same subject will differ as it is taught for different purposes, to pupils of different ages and different capacities and motives. Literature cannot yield the same fruit in a night school that it yields in a college. Under a conception of education which demands preparation for all the essential activities of life, in schools designed to meet the needs of every age and class, subjects must be evaluated and organized anew.  13

  The schools and courses now most needed are partly known, partly to be conceived. Vocational education has come to stay, but its various forms and alliances have yet to be completely determined. The fear that vocational training will materialize and lower education is groundless, even in theory. To train carpenters and printers in schools instead of by apprenticeship is not a threatening educational revolution; doctors, lawyers, and engineers were once trained by personal tuition under practitioners. Vocational training has long existed in the higher professions; its establishment for industry and business is the result of social changes which have undermined apprenticeship; and the fact that this training is now given at public expense shows a new sense of the social importance of labor. In the life of the modern world artisans are no more to be neglected than artists, farmers than philosophers. Vocational education is a mighty step in advance, which offers inspiring opportunities for the extension of general education, as an accompaniment of technical training, to those who might otherwise have secured neither. Ought we not to rejoice at the retention of boys and girls in schools, where they can be under the disinterested influence of teachers, whereas they might have drifted from one shabby and depressing experience to another until they had been able, perhaps, to “pick up a trade,” acquiring their views of life and their ethical principles and habits who knows how? The pressing problem of vocational training is not the problem of justification and defense, but of organization and extension.
  The kind and number of vocational schools to be established must be settled partly by the economic return for special forms of vocational efficiency. In the long run the social need for efficiency in a trade or profession determines the legitimate rewards of success in that calling. The fact that people will pay well for medical skill is an indication of social need for it. It cannot be said, of course, that schools should be established to train men for every calling in which they may earn a good living. A school may be established as much to teach men the value of training for knowledge and power in a special form of service as to prepare individuals to profit by rendering that service; for it is only in the end that economic demand justly reflects true social need. Accordingly, the public interest calls upon the educator to define social need and correct social demand, no less than to meet it. To plan a system of schools requires vision of a new and better order, in which the wants of men, and their consequent willingness to pay for the satisfaction of them, are more reasonably founded in the general welfare. Yet in discussing the advisability of training for any occupation, the possibility of earning a living in it cannot be ignored. If agriculture could not be made to pay we should not have agricultural high schools or agricultural colleges. Even a school of philanthropy finds added sanction in the fact that trained social workers are paid for their services. In vocational education, then, there is at least an obvious basis for discussion concerning schools, courses, and curricula. The state must train its workers, and work for which there is fundamental need is work which pays. Vocational education presents problems of the most vexing sort, but its rationale is clear.  15

  It is the persistent need for general education that complicates the issue. Economic demand may justify child labor, but educational theory does not. A theory of education which finds no place for vocational education is antiquated and meager; but a theory which considers only the requirements of work is meager and inhuman. No training for special skill in a trade is conceivable in the elementary school: manual training, gardening, sewing, cooking, and agriculture have a place in childhood because children cannot learn by books alone, but need a training of body, hand, and eye, of purpose, loyalty, and leadership which these subjects can provide. This need does not disappear with adolescence, but generalized manual training—constructive work on objects without economic value, the making of childish gimcracks, of joints which join nothing, or of seams which sew no garment—ceases early to have even an educational value. The purely educational worth of any form of manual training comes gradually to depend on the economic value of the ends for which the pupil works. Manual training as a part of the general curriculum of a high-school pupil must be practical training in some form of manual skill of actual value in the working world. Even a pupil who intends to go to college may well take one or two courses of handwork in the secondary school, for the broadening of his experience and outlook and the specific training he may thus secure: a course in the elements of many occupations would be better still. But this is not vocational education. True vocational education aims at efficiency in a special field of work—it trains printers, stenographers, dressmakers, carpenters, mechanicians, doctors, lawyers, clergymen, journalists, engineers. It brings into play the purpose to earn a living by what one learns—which President Eliot has called the “life-career motive.” It narrows, not unjustifiably, but inevitably. The difficulty is to educate for citizenship, for the duties of parenthood and social living, for leisure, and for the interpretation of life—in spite of the need for early specialization, when that need is present.
  That need does not arise altogether from differences in wealth. After adolescence many pupils lack incentive for an education that has no direct reference to a career. But the demand for vocational training is so overlaid and entangled with economic pressure that selection of candidates for vocational schooling on the ground of individual aptitude and free choice is visionary. While our social system permits comparative poverty to constrain the vast majority of young men and women to go to work at the earliest possible age, we must face the necessity of early specialization in training, whatever their capacity or need for further general culture. Education can only emphasize the value of liberal studies and strive to include in every curriculum as many as possible, and in profitable form. It can also resist the tendency to specialize too soon.  17

  Education has thus to struggle, like government or philanthropy, beneath the burdens imposed by the injustice of our economic order. We must make educational provision for social conditions which ought not to exist—night schools for illiterate foreigners, specialized vocational training for factory workers and shopgirls who ought to have at least the time for a much extended general education in addition to their preparation for work. We must also be content to see the high privilege of general education seized by boys and girls whose easy lives make them careless of its value and inconstant in its pursuit. These conditions schools themselves cannot change. But by public provision and by scholarships the opportunity for prolonged education may be kept open to the able and ambitious. The spirit of teaching and school administration may help to prevent the formation of social caste. By precept and example democratic ideals and the will to serve may be encouraged in those who are in danger of losing them. And no academic bars need be hastily and blindly set up—as in the narrow interpretation of college entrance requirements or in failure to provide a reasonable opportunity for higher education of some desirable sort—against those who seek further training after mistaken choice of a high-school course or the early disadvantages of having to earn a living. In a democracy the educational system must at least guard jealously against the perpetuation of special privilege. Schools must discourage the advance of the unfit, not of the unfortunate.
  Obviously there is need for wise guidance of individuals into the kind of schooling which will best fit them for the life they can best lead. Vocational guidance is but part of the larger problem of “the redistribution of human talent” (a phrase recently and aptly coined by Professor Carver) and it is often best to be accomplished as a part of an educational guidance which takes account of the need for liberal culture as well as for vocational training. Transcendent ability is doubtless seldom obscured through lack of counsel or of privilege; educational guidance will not discover many a mute inglorious Milton nor send to schools of pharmacy many a discouraged Keats. It may prevent, however, less disastrous misfittings in a thousand cases, and therein is its sufficient sanction. But guidance will be futile if there are no proper paths to tread. The money now provided for schools must be increased many fold, if schools are to become for all men the gates of opportunity and the highways to service. We must remember, to be sure, that there are many educational agencies besides schools; libraries often do far more toward education. But any systematic education is schooling, and if the interests of society are to be adequately met, all valuable forms of educational activity must be organized, supported, and made available to the individuals who seek to use them.  19

  To increase the size of schools is not enough. Schools and classes are already far too large. System is not enough. More schools and courses, of greater variety; smaller schools and smaller classes, with greater opportunity for personal contact between teachers and taught; more teachers, of higher native capacity and better training—all these are needed. But these things we shall not have until the common conception of schools and teachers has suffered change. We still think of teaching too narrowly or too vaguely—too narrowly if we look upon teachers as purveyors of learning for its own sake, too vaguely if we think of them as taskmasters in a dubious abstract discipline of mind. The task of the teacher must be reconceived; we must think of him and he must become a guide to worthy living, teaching not only his subject but how to use it and what it is for, making clear its incentives and ideals, its methods and its values, and helping his pupils to interpret life more justly because they have seen it in a new light. This is the larger opportunity of every teacher, but especially of the teacher of a traditional subject in a traditional course. The teacher of stenography may more safely confine himself to skill and speed with dots and dashes than the teacher of Latin to exactness in the use of tenses. The first task of any teacher is to teach his subject well, but he cannot leave the social interpretation and application of education wholly to principals, parents, school pamphlets, and chance. If the public is to value the teacher’s work more highly, he must make it more valuable.
  To become more valuable, teaching must develop both a science and a philosophy of its own, teachers must study their problems as physicians study theirs and as statesmen theirs. For the problems of teaching are at once problems of efficiency and problems of destiny. The teaching of any subject calls for scientific study of methods and ethical study of ends. How shall we teach it well? depends for its answer in part on the answer to What shall we teach it for? These questions have not yet been answered with finality for any subject. With due change of wording they may be asked of any school or course: How shall we manage it well? and, What shall we manage it for? All questions of educational practice are thus both scientific and philosophical.  21

  In the elementary school we need better methods of drill—greater efficiency in the formation of habits, as for instance in arithmetic. To gain it we must turn to experiments in the psychological laboratory and to exact measurement of arithmetical progress in the school. It is only in the last few years that we have had an adequate knowledge of what arithmetical ability is. We do not yet know with much precision how it develops under different methods of instruction. The teaching of every subject suffers for want of accurate records of results. We lack standards, fundamental tests, and a sufficiently detailed knowledge of the psychology of the subjects we teach. But measurement and experiment apply in the main to memory work and the formation of habits. They will not quickly show us how to relate one subject to another or to the life outside school walls; they cannot yet help us to vitalize our subjects and make them yield opportunity for independence and cooperation on the part of our pupils. They will not soon teach us how to make learning a light to life. In the arithmetic of the elementary school we need a social philosophy to govern our selection of topics to be taught or omitted, to justify varying emphasis on logical conceptions, drill in calculation, or exercise with real problems. So in the teaching of every subject we need new study, both exact and broad.

  In the work of the high school this double duty is even more apparent. We face the immediate necessity of extending the period of compulsory school attendance far into the period of secondary education. But we cannot lightly set aside both the need to earn and the impulse to work, and the demand for workers will not readily yield to the idealism of the educator who would ignore it in favor of general culture. Compromise must be the outcome, but also coöperation: we must have many forms of vocational training, and employers of young workers must aid the state to educate them through schemes of part-time schooling. Such schemes are already in operation and commend themselves as both efficient and humane. In this increased provision for schooling the purely technical subjects lend themselves readily to measurement of results and standardization of method; it is the subjects of larger social value, such as civics or English, that must be studied anew, in the light of clearer conceptions of their aims and closer observation of their effects. We have to learn how to use these traditional means of education (and such newer ones as the study of household sanitation or personal hygiene) under new and trying conditions and with new purposes, as the liberal adjuncts of many forms of vocational training.
  Yet in the secondary school which aims wholly at general culture (or at preparation for college, which is not supposed to be an obstacle to general culture), the problems of aim and method in the teaching of traditional subjects are more pressing still. How shall a modern language be taught to some real purpose? For what purpose shall it be taught? The actual mastery of the tongue can be achieved very much more effectively than it is now achieved if methods of teaching can be based on fuller knowledge of the psychology of learning and completer tests of classroom work and home study. The fundamental values of the subject can be more clearly conceived and more directly pursued if we can shake ourselves free from the befogging belief in general discipline as the goal of teaching in this or any given subject. Ability to handle the language as an instrument of thought and expression—for the achievement of this aim we need a new analysis of the fundamentals and more accurate standards of progress: appreciation of the foreign civilization represented in its literature—for the achievement of this aim we need new selection of material and more vital reference to life. In this and in many traditional subjects teachers are constantly at work at this double adjustment, and from them as well as from psychologists and students of education we may look for progress and reform.  24
  For scientific study of method, whether by experiment in the psychological laboratory, by classroom test, or by exact statistical record, can but provide the basis for constructive reorganization of teaching in any subject; discussion of aims by educational leaders can but define in general terms a new interpretation of material; the teachers in the schools must make effective or prove visionary the ideals thus achieved. If they cling to traditional conceptions and tried method—as many do, especially in private schools—they block progress; and if by personal worth and the power of leadership they win respect and affect deeply the lives of their pupils, the weight of their conservatism is the harder to bear. But the hasty and ill-considered application of scientific generalization or social conception is an equal if a rarer fault. The teacher must master for himself the science and the philosophy of his subject and be critical practitioner as well. He must be open-minded, critical, constructive.  25

  This attitude is more general among teachers and principals of elementary schools and among school superintendents than among teachers and masters of secondary schools; among public secondary-school teachers than among private secondary-school teachers; and least general among college teachers. Yet to these latter the call to professional study of the problems of their own work is loudest. They have greatest need to test their results and possibly revise their methods, to reconceive their aims and discover new ways to achieve them. In America the college stands perforce for culture; yet it clears itself with difficulty from the snares of technical specialization in chosen fields of knowledge—a specialization essentially vocational. College professors must be specialists—scholars in the full sense of the term; but college students do not for their part commonly intend or care to specialize in the same sense. To study one field with greater thoroughness than others; to gain from it a disinterested enthusiasm for learning; to approach in one direction the limits of achieved knowledge; to taste the joy of constructive intellectual effort; these are essential elements in a college student’s curriculum. But this does not call for the methods or ideals of graduate specialization, even in the student’s chosen field. The privilege of college study is the opportunity to reach safe ground, in all the more important fields of scholarship, for the exercise of reflective intelligence. With a view to providing this opportunity college teachers may well spare time from research for that close observation of methods and results and that unprejudiced discussion of aims which are needed in the teaching of all subjects everywhere.


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