Alexander, Hartley Burr Letters to Teachers, and Other Papers of the Hour Chicago: The Open Court Publishing Company 1919

“Curriculum” is a word I detest. It means a race-course and it suggests to my mind the image of a grand free-for-all in which the children–some with blinders and some with interference guards–are the entries; the teachers, with snapping whips and reins taut, are the jockeys; the parents are the bettors on the side-lines; and the grades are the marks of the course, leading up to the finish, where the youngsters come under the line nose to nose at commencement. The whole thing is full of dash and “pep”–and empty of meaning.

I do not mean to say that the subjects studied in the schools are vain or that the methods of teaching are inept; that could be but the judgment of ignorance. But I do say that my own most vivid impression of our “courses” of study, in grades and university alike, is of organization and systematization and theorization that obscures and threatens to destroy the true meaning and value of public education. The machinery of instruction has become so intricate that more attention is drawn to its operation than to its product. This is wholly damaging to the intelligences of both teacher and pupil. Indeed, we should reconstruct our image of our own task; the school should be not a factory, but a garden; the teacher not a machinist, but a cultivator. I am no farmer, but I have no doubt that the first rule of good agriculture is, Keep your eye on the crop.

The crop which the public schools are to produce is intelligent citizenship, and the seed which they must sow and nurture is the seed of liberal learning. Everything else, therefore, is secondary to the old trinity–reading, writing, and arithmetic–which is the beginning of liberalism. If the schools but teach these three they have given keys to all other knowledge. Mankind has devised two great modes of communicating ideas–language and number. Each of these is an instrument of the intelligence, nor can human intelligence move freely if either be undeveloped. In looking to the end of education, therefore, it is first of all essential to provide for the mastery of these first gifts of civilization–which are also its last preservers.

The study of number leads to various attainments. I suppose its most obvious end is the practical. It is not merely to the small transactions of daily life that number is the key–to the use of clocks, time-tables, class periods, business appointments, meal hours, to money, transactions, accounts–but, in a broader scope, most of our material civilization is built upon mathematics; mechanics, manufactures, engineering, building, taxation, commerce, and again, the sciences, physical and biological alike, all are dominated by the need of an understanding of number. There is a kind of standardization of civilization which is represented by its mastery of mathematics, and is only in part symbolized by such universals as the metric system or Greenwich time, measures, respectively, of earth and heaven. The study of number leads directly to the understanding of geography and astronomy, and after these to the sciences, applied and theoretical, natural and social–and it is this fact, even more than its immediate utilities, that makes of arithmetic the most practical of studies.

But there are other than these practical consequences of the study of number. First, the most direct road to knowledge of right and wrong, true and false, is via arithmetic. In other fields of knowledge persuasion is needed to convince of the right or demonstrate the true. In mathematics the process of demonstration is a process of discovery, and the learner finds out for himself that the line between truth and error is hard and undeviating. This is a moral lesson–the moral lesson that is the foundation of all integrity of character. Second, and directly related to the preceding, arithmetic is the road to the discovery of our common-sense. Number is the most universal of all languages; its truths are undeniably clear to all men. Everywhere else there is room for disagreement; in mathematics we find the common ground of men’s common thinking. This is what we mean by commonsense; and it is a thing of no small significance that human beings may be brought to this degree of mutual understanding without effort, for it symbolizes the possibility of a final understanding in all our vital human affairs. Even before the great war men had begun to dream of a universal science, shared by the thinkers of all nations and leading, through scientific congresses and world conferences, to an eventual political understanding. The thing is not yet impossible, and all (in last analysis) just because there is no disputing about arithmetical truths. And thirdly, from the study of number comes the most conscious mental self-reliance. Of all human arts, the cultivation of mathematics is least dependent upon external conditions- it is equally possible in Greenland or the Congo; it is an affair of man’s intellectual powers, and its consequences and constructions are so infinitely varied that we speak, and speak correctly, of a world of mathematics, meaning a world of the mind’s own self-reliant discoveries. Each of these three, knowledge of truth and error, participation in humanity’s common-sense, and the self-reliance of the intelligence, is a quality fundamental in the building up of human character. Is it a wonder, then, that Plato set over the portal of his academy, “Let none ignorant of number enter here”?

But along with mumber must come mastery of that other great means of human communication, language. Reading is the key to the discovery of what others think; writing is the instrument for the expression of one’s own thoughts. These two are the give and take of discourse, and it needs no exposition to show that they are the first needs of a democratic state. One can imagine dumb slaves at labor under a master or monks living in their solitary cells under a vow of silence; but in a free political society there must be a free expression–debate, oratory, the press, literature, all calling for a skillful power of speech and a willingness to hear and read. Besides this public value, there is all that a knowledge of books can mean for the enriching of the life of the individual (as a giver and as a receiver). Indeed, one has but to reflect how narrow is the letterless life, how defrauded of its possibilities, to be doubly convinced that a love of reading is the first gift of education.

The point of the study ought to be a love of reading and the cultivation of a literate taste, rather than a stressing of forms and apparatus–whether the language be native or foreign. Language exists primarily for use, and its use is the communication of ideas. I never could see much reason in the notion that the study of language is a “discipline,” the good of which is to be derived from its difficulty. Of course there is grammar to be mastered and vocabulary to be memorized, and more than all, comprehension to be given of the fact that language is capable of style and is only effective when the style is appropriate–that is, that there are different styles for different occasions, and in particular marked differences between the use of language in oral discourse and its use in literary forms. But all this is instrumental to the great end of learning to read and to love reading. For it is not only from reading that we get our fuller appreciation of beautiful speech, but it is reading which opens up to us the vast fields of history and philosophy and poetry, and all of that great inheritance of the thought of great minds and the records of great achievements which give civilization its meaning and national tradition its pride and spirit. I regard my own university courses primarily as introductions to certain fields of literature–groups of books; and my purpose in teaching is to persuade those who come to me to read further in these books than any limited course of study can provide for. This, I believe, should be the impulse of all study of languages (English or other)–to cultivate the love of books. And of course, books should be provided; a school without a library is groping in the night.

Writing is the complement of reading. It is the art of the expression of thought (in no small part, therefore, the art of thinking), and it should be taught as an art. Penmanship and spelling are to writing what grammar and vocabulary are to reading–instrumental and preparatory. The real purpose of the art is self-expression. Think for a moment what the first-class mail of the United States means to the community, not merely in the way of economic and civic solidarity, but in the far more fundamental task of keeping alive and eager those warm instincts of human kinship–family and friendly and social–upon which our mutual sympathies rest; is it not, then, certain that the writer of even the most personal letter is serving the state and the cause of mankind? For the cultivation of the humane in human nature is assuredly the greatest of the causes to which human effort is devoted.

Doubtless some of my readers are wondering why all this talk about the obvious. Of course the three “r’s” are taught, and will continue to be taught. But are they always taught with understanding of their purposes?–an understanding which the pupil should acquire no less than the teacher have. The question was put in a class in educational theory: “Ought a prospective farmer be given the same instruction in writing as a prospective clerk?” The question misses the whole point of the art of writing and the whole meaning of liberal education. When teachers of teachers entertain such problems as real it is surely not untimely still to discuss the meaning of the elements of learning.

Furthermore, I have that suspicion of the curriculum which I mentioned at the outset. It seems to me that the constant peril of systematized schools is of falling into the notion that the rote and routine are more important than the ends of study. So many periods of this subject or that, so many pages of the textbook, so many required topics out of the way–all this gets into the teacher’s mind and contagiously passes to the pupil; until the whole affair of schooling becomes a game (which the skillful student delights to “beat”), or a race the object of which is to cover the widest range of territory in the fewest possible years–which means seeing school-life and all life quite awry.

Rather (if we are to stand for liberalism) we should be looking always to the ends. Teacher and pupil alike should become aware that arithmetic and the other branches of mathematics are a magic key to the unlocking of nature’s secrets–that the whole daylit world is full of numbers, and that the more one knows of numbers the better will be one’s understanding of the world. They should perceive, too, that honesty and rectitude and integrity of mind are related to number, and that arithmetic is good common sense. The pupil should be introduced as soon as possible to the world of thought and imagination which reading opens–history, literature, speculation; and the love of these things should be the constant end of tuition. And through reading and writing alike the youngster should be brought to understand that language–even one’s mother tongue–is an art of thinking and expression, and is therefore a possession well worth pains and striving. The art of teaching is surely an art of showing ends worth working for. The teacher cannot give the benefits of study; he can only point them out, and by example and enthusiasm for the best inspire in the student that willingness to work, without which there can be no education. It must be generous work, too, if liberal culture is to be attained–given for love of the things sought, for knowledge of truth and perception of beauty and strengthening of character; and it ought not to seem to any child or youth merely a race for so many buttons or credits or for nosing out at the finish.