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

One of the aspects of public education which teachers, more than others, are apt to forget is that the schools do not exist solely for the sake of the formal instruction given in them. The curriculum bulks large in the school economy–that goes without saying; and all other activities must be organized around it; it represents school work, and its mastery the first measure of the school’s efficiency. But still it ought not to be overlooked by teachers (as it is little likely to be by the exuberant youth) that the school years include time for much more than the formal work, or that there are school avocations along with the school vocation of study. We should remember, in short, that the word “school” itself harks back to a Greek word meaning “leisure” and that leisure, for all active and healthy human beings, signifies not the opportunity for idleness, but the opportunity for self-initiated and self-directed activity. We may call this activity, play or sport or dreaming or invention, but wherever (as in all these things it does) it signifies physical or mental action of a spontaneous sort no sane judge of human nature can doubt that it is a part of a hale and normal life, and no true teacher can wish for a school system which fails to recognize the right of these free activities along with the need for the disciplinary ones of the class room.

The fact for first emphasis in our consciousness is that the school years represent a time of life–the one great time of life, we are prone to say as retrospectively we survey it. There is a Puritanical cant in the not uncommon talk about education as forming “a preparation for life” and of the school years ending in a “commencement”–as if the pupil were indeed a pupa, hatching into an existence worth having only when his school days were at an end. Along with this goes the mature person’s notion that he is “supporting” the schools, as, in a sort, eleemosynary incubators of citizens. Both of these notions should be reversed. The infant in the primary is already a citizen, doing citizen’s work. and therein doing a part of his life work; his position in society is just as dignified and honest and profitable as is that of merchant, farmer, mechanic, or judge, and he is entitled to entire respect for what he does. Your youngster has all the natural marks of homo sapiens; he is engaged in the proper duties of homo civilis; to him belong, therefore, the full rights of man and citizen, returns along with obligations. It is mere pedagogic Calvinism to look upon childhood as corrupted with some natural damnation which schooling must purify out; rather, the congregation of American citizenship has room for every age and condition, and would be decrepit without all–and most decrepit were infancy rare.

School years, then, represent citizens’ life and school work is citizens’ duty; and schools are no more public charities than are court houses or department stores. We all know this, upon reflection, but we do not always talk as if we were bearing it in mind. And the consequences of bearing it in mind should be significant. First, they should keep–public and teacher alike–lively in consciousness the fact that the school child has rights of his own; and second, the fact that it is not wholly yours to define these rights, that the child himself has something to say about it.

It is the second part of my proposition that is important in the saying (for voices enough proclaim the rights of children). What I mean is this. Childhood and youth, as a life period, has its own desires and its own satisfactions, just as has any other period of life. Infants, for example, love rattles and gurglings and heels kicking the free air; boys of ten are full of device, directed to the reformation of the world by the simple instrumentalities of jack knives, string, and chalk, and our back yards are the scenes of many Utopias; their elders of fifteen or thereabouts, are fired by high imaginings to which their material environment offers but the most trivial response, so that they live in unseen politics, which we name their ambitions. We, their sedate elders (and note “sedate,” from sedere, to sit), having heels weighted to earth, and having our own ideas about orderliness in the back yard, and having in the mill of experience, found more chaff than meal in our ambitions–we look back ‘upon these affairs of younger years and dub them puerilities. Wisdom is ours, we say, and we propose to give the profit of it, willy-nilly, to the oncoming generation.

This is wrong from both the youngster’s point of view and our own. For he, in order that his soul may be his own, and that is to say in order that it may be a freeman’s soul, must explore it for himself, and very much in his own way. The variety that is in man is beyond measure wonderful, but like variety elsewhere in nature it must have opportunity of unconstrained growth in order that its character and possibilities be made apparent. Gardening is a capital means for training and intensifying the known fruitfulness of known plants; but gardening, when the crop is exclusively in mind, bends to order and uniformity and trim compactness. Society, with its laws and fashions and institutions, is all to the gardener’s ideal; it grows what it wishes and eradicates what it wishes (all within limits), and produces uniformity and order and like-mindedness of man with man. Certainly this must and should be the case if we are to have institutional states and the thing we call civilization. But certainly, too, we must not overlook, in our anxiety to train aright, the complementary need for the spontaneous off-shooting of human ideals–originality, invention, all that makes for that other thing we believe in, along with our belief in order and civilization, which we call human progress. Human progress is always in the hands of the coming generation. It is always the outcome of some variation in human appetite, and of some factor in which the younger contradicts the elder mind of man. This fact alone, should keep us loth to bind the fancy of youth beyond stringent necessity.

Of course there is necessity for some restriction. I am not urging an unlimited indulgence, at home or in school. I have not forgotten (and, being a teacher, am little likely to forget) that study is the first duty of the schoolboy; that that duty is a social duty; and that its observance is his good citizenship. I believe all this; but I also believe that, outside the study hours–and there should be an ample outside–there should be encouragement of independence, there should be freedom from useless advice, and above all that the youngster has a right to his own spiritual privacy. Each man’s soul is his own, we say–and we should mean this of man, female or male, youth or patriarch. Only so meaning can we be democrats in the one true and worthy sense–swhich is not that sense which would reduce all men to a level of likeness, like the eggs in an incubator, but that sense which would have an ever-living faith in the possibilities of human nature to discover human good.

But I must distinguish. I have been making my convictions as to the right of youth to live his own life, in freedom and respect, the core of my letter. All along I have had a covert fear lest my reader should be confusing it with a pedagogic doctrine much in vogue nowadays for which I have only distrust. I refer to the extension of the biological phenomena of recapitulation, extended beyond embryology into a theory of conscious life. The development of the human embryo does indeed recapitulate, as it were formally, certain striking features of animal evolution. But to apply the principle of this development to the whole conscious life of man, and in particular to the growth of mind from childhood through youth is overpowering absurdity. As ordinarily so expanded the theory takes the form of a conception of serially emerging instincts, each coming to a sudden and dangerous florescence, and each, upon its appearance, to be indulged and condoned and doctored until the stage of danger has been passed. In other words, the youth’s instincts and aptitudes are looked upon about as are measles and mumps and other “children’s diseases,” as best met by exposure at the proper age and an immunizing recovery. In practice the whole notion resolves into a theory of special license. Youth is to be given a permit to sow various crops of wild oats, with the idea that a properly indulged experience of savagery and whatnot will bring an eventual absolution from contamination. I put the matter strongly because I have no call to dwell upon it; excepting to say that the older type of educational theory, which insisted that duty begins with even childish understandings, is far healthier and saner and everlastingly truer to human nature. My own theory, that the child is a citizen, is akin to the older theory; for citizenship always implies duties. It involves rights, too, and I would yield to none in conceding to the youngster what rightfully belongs to his years. But the intelligent granting of such rights can never be based upon a notion of license, such as the recapitulation theory has introduced into modern educational ideas. True citizenship rests upon the recognition of “fair play,” and children themselves are ever showing us how vivid the idea of fair play is with them. This is their certificate of humanity, and gives the lasting lie to the notion that they must live through a progressive animality in order to become men.

But I have yet to make one important point. Children and youths have a right to live their own lives in their own way, subject (as all of us are subject), to the general restriction of good citizenship. With this right go duties, and I should say that of them all the youngster’s first duty is the duty of happiness. I do not mean by this that he should be selfishly indulgent; I do not mean that his own way should be the only way for him; nor do I mean that the pleasant and pleasures should be his ideal. But I do mean that in the social gift, the gift to the life of the state and to the morale of the community, which the life of youth brings, the element of greatest immediate value is the cheery-mindedness of youth. There is naught more beautiful in the world than the brightness of childhood, at play upon the green, lost in imaginings, musical in spontaneous gaiety. So also with youth’s elder years; all the world loves a lover, not because he is a lover, but because he is young; and the years of youth are the years of many charming loves, for the mind’s emprize and the soul’s courage as well as for the charms of body and the graces of expression which make so great a part of our world’s illumination. Let us not ask that youth express itself as age expresses itself, nor that it be judged by the standards of sober years; for there would be but a drab life to be lived if the color and freshness of upspringing fancy were rooted out. Doubtless youth’s joyousness possesses for us no tangible economic value; on the other hand, its freedom of privilege is a part of our material work to provide; but is there, in all that we do materially, a single endeavor which brings to life as a whole so much of unalloyed good as does the sunny beauty of the life of youth?