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

What I said in my last letter with regard to the relation of the schools and the commonwealth I hold to be the first principle of a truly American education. From the primary school to the university, the first aim of the public schools should be the inculcation of such a liberalism of mind as shall ensure the perpetuity of an intelligent democracy. Liberalism, not vocationalism, must be the first word in all public education; it is for this that the schools are created, replacing the old apprenticings of youth (but an earlier form of vocational training) by an education designed not only to make good craftsmen, but wise citizens. This principle, I repeat, must never be forgotten by teachers or school officials or by the community, and the children themselves must be made to understand it from the beginning. Without such education democracy rides to its ruin.

But this is not to say that the school as an institution need rest with this attainment, or that the community, having provided for the one thing indispensable, need make no further effort. Fortunately, the material cost of liberalism is slight; it is not only the most important, it is the least costly element in our education. A teacher with the gift of understanding and a few good books are all the equipment that is necessary,–for there is eternal truth in the old definition of a college: a log with a student at one end and Mark Hopkins at the other. No community is too poor to afford liberal training; and few communities there are that cannot afford much in addition. Indeed, a community which is itself liberally trained will insist upon its schools giving much in addition.

It will insist, for one thing, that the local schools shall be representative and distinctive of the local community. In its broad fundamentals, state education must be uniform in content; but certainly there should never be such a systematization of it, from any center, as should preclude each community from finding the highest expression of its own needs and genius in its schools, or should hamper a teacher in developing new modes of securing the essential content. Local government is our first training for state government, and in order to be sound training it must be free. Freedom is equally essential in the local schools; they should never refuse guidance from above, but they should be slow indeed to permit dictation. Liberty and responsibility– these are only secured in their exercise.

In order to represent a community a school must respond to the community’s interests and guide its interests. Both of these are important–the response and the guidance.

The response, of course, will be to needs felt in the consciousness of the local public. Naturally–since man’s life is, after all, primarily still that of the Adam who digged and delved,–the material and practical needs of the community will be oftenest emphatic in the minds of its elders. Parents will perforce be thinking of the careers of their children, even when the children are still innocent of ambition; and from this thought will come a legitimate concern for the vocational side of schooling. Undoubtedly it should receive a wise response from the schools. In a community where manufacturing is a great interest, and in the inevitable course of events many of the youth are bound in time to replace their parents in the parents’ occupations, it is reasonable that the schools should give the young an understanding of the principles and aims of craftsmanship (which ought by no means to imply a specific apprenticeship to one narrow trade–surely beyond the rights of any public school). Similarly, in an agricultural community, a knowledge of nature and the love of it would be the best of introductions to life for those who were to become nature’s especial intimates. There is, besides, in every community a scattering of boys and girls gifted with a genius unrelated to the accident of their birthplace, and no school can afford to be without opportunities for the child who brings to the world an aptitude for art or science or invention, or for the one who is born with that zeal for mankind whose expression is the lives of saints and apostles. The local school should have for a prime object its own power of adaptation and change, not only to meet possible changes in the local industry (say, from cattle to corn, or agriculture to oil) but even more to suit itself to the genius by whose birth the community might be blessed. Schools ought not to represent systems through which human life is forced by mechanical pressure; they should rather be gardens in which the natural souls of men are fosteringly nurtured. In brief, the child, not the institution, is the true object of education.

But the child is not the only object of education, nor is the school capable of responding merely to the industrial needs of the community. Men’s education never really ceases while they continue to live and act; and their schooldays ought never to come to an end. I mean this quite literally. It is my entire belief that the school of the future will stand not merely for the years five to twenty, but one to three score and ten. I said that in its community the school should not merely respond to local interests, it should also guide them; it should discover for them and aid them to answer what they so often unconsciously and far more intensely desire. Here is where the teacher should be a true leader of society, a psychologist of no meager gifts and a citizen “primus inter pares.”

The Adam who digged and delved is, after all, but the “first Adam,” suffering the penalty of his natural weakness. But there is, in us all, a “last Adam,” who, as St. Paul says, is “a quickening spirit.” Not always is the last Adam a conscious soul; often, alas, life is such as to becloud and conceal his faculties. It is for the teachers–who are spiritual leaders if they are anything–to awaken and reveal this last Adam, and find for him, no matter what his years as to the flesh, in the schools, the opportunity of understanding and expression. Men and women and little children, along with schoolboys and schoolgirls, all should look to the public school as the fostering mother–alma mater–of their fuller life.

The thing is not difficult to imagine, and, I believe, would be not very difficult of realization. It could begin unpretentiously; arid once ‘started–granted understanding leadership,–the end would be achieved almost without resistance. Once get firmly centered in the mind of the community that the public school is not merely the temporary warden of youth, but is a part of the life of the community and of every individual in the community throughout his life, and the schools and the teaching profession alike will be transformed; while as for the state, it will be more firmly founded than ever in the truest of democracies.

Let me indicate the process I have in mind, mentioning first of all those needs which the schools can serve. These are the needs of those very faculties which it is the purpose of liberalism to cultivate; the need of the intellect, which is instruction in truth; the need of the imagination, which is images of beauty; the need of the moral nature, which is social understanding and sympathy, and, in a more intimate form, the desire for participation in all that is good and noble, for which the school should stand along with the church. Such are the needs of the “last Adam” when at length he makes his self-discovery,–needs which do not pertain to him as a private body, but as a public spirit and a sharer in humanity.

Ministration to such needs ought to begin with books, which are the records and perpetuators of the liberal gains of the human spirit. The circulatory system is not more essential to the health of the body, pumping red blood constantly to every wasting organ, than is the library to liberal culture. Every school should not only have a library, it should be a library; and every schoolmaster should be the librarian of his community, guiding the selection and advising in the use of books. Children, of course, should be habituated to the use of books from their first reading years, and they should have the satisfaction of their material and accessible presence. But the community, also, should look to the schoolhouse as the center of its reading interest,–open of afternoons and evenings to all comers, to the profit of all and the pride of all. Libraries are anchors of civilization and no community should be satisfied without firm anchorage.

Again, every school should be provided with an entertainment hall–simple in form, but dignified and beautiful, as simple things may be,–and, for outdoor weather, with a festal greensward. The love of beauty is native to all men, but taste needs cultivation, and cultivation means, most of all, opportunity to see the beautiful. Here again, the teacher should be the leader, devising constantly new forms of entertainment–music and dancing, exhibitions and lectures, pageantry and drama,–which the community should not only be offered for its appreciation, but in which it could find opportunity of expression (the straightest path to appreciation). Why, for example, should not every schoolhouse. city and country, be the possessor of its own cinema, giving what is good and lasting from this wonderful invention and thereby eradicating the cheap and sensational and often damnable “movie”? Even more, the beauty of rhythmic motion and dramatic imitation, which children naturally delight to give expression to and elders delight to contemplate, should draw youth and age together in a bond of lasting sympathy,–so that the whole community would turn to the school as surely as the flower turns to sunlight for the illumination of life. Certainly, were I the maker of the school calendar, it would be bright with red-letter days.

Finally there is the steadier and not less important response which the school could give to the social instincts of the community. Why should the schoolhouse not become the clubhouse of its neighborhood? Young folks and elders alike have numberless occasions for meeting in social groups, formally and informally. There should not be a sharp line of distinction between the affairs of youth and those of age; at least, in many matters the interests of life should be without this division. Further, youth will gain in maturity and judgment, as age in freshness and inspiration, from a close association, especially in public matters; and the schoolhouse is the proper place for bringing about this union. The old-time lyceum performed such a function, and performed it to the profit of a good Americanism. It will never return in the old form, but it may well be brought back, and should be brought back, in the newer form of the community clubhouse, which should surely be the schoolhouse. In it, or in connection with it, should be provided reading rooms and rest rooms, and club rooms, and debating rooms (all of which are functions that can be adapted to any set of four walls); and there should be provided also outdoor grounds for sports and greens for picnics, for the physical school should be not merely bricks and glass, but park and garden as well. All ages and sexes and conditions of life should find their way to the schoolyard, not once, but many times a year; and so, indeed, they would, once the idea were made vivid and the habit started, for the realization of all this is only a matter of a leader with the power to give vivid expression to the idea and the skill to give intelligent direction to the forming habit.

Could a school occupying the place in the life of the community which I have suggested be anything less than a fortress of democratic liberty and true popular sovereignty? It would cultivate intelligent thought through books and discourse; it would awaken and preserve the patriotism of its own community’s and of the nation’s ideals through a noble and native art; it would bring men and women and children together in a spirit of sympathy, playful or serious, without self-seeking, without private ambition. Finally, the institution itself, the school of the community, would stand physically and spiritually as the symbol of the higher life and nobler ideals of that community. Can it be doubted that in the presence of such a symbol the citizens would more clearly think through the issues of human life, individual and public, and would desire more ardently the best? And so I would say to my fellow teachers of Nebraska: Let us work with this ideal until Nebraska’s schools shall be like shining standards, like emblazoned banners, proclaiming what men live and labor for under the blue Nebraska skies!