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

In the letters which hitherto I have written I have been concerned with the work which the schools have to do, the education which it should be theirs to impart, and the great task which is set for them in the realization of public welfare. The schools exist for the sake of the commonwealth, for the bettering of men’s lives, and should be constantly adapted and adapting themselves to this great purpose. Of this, as fundamental, we who are teachers must never allow ourselves to lose sight: otherwise we fail in our profession.

And there is an especial and insidious danger of becoming blinded to the great end of education to which teachers more than others are liable. This is the institutionalized aspect of the public school, most in danger of misleading its own officials, who are the teachers. Like every other great public institution, the public schools tend toward bureaucratic organization, and hence towards a system which constantly threatens (for this is the nature of bureaucracy) to forget or lose its purpose in the effort to preserve its outward forms. Schools–grade, grammar, high, college,–interlocking and superposed like a vast and complex edifice, inevitably stress and strain their many members into rigid and mechanical structures; only the most alert intelligence can keep this edifice from defeating its inner design, which is, and must ever be, the cultivation of mind and character. Hence it is that teachers, and all other school officials, must be always on their guard against the evils of ungiving systematization in the institution itself–the outer and evil counterpart of that bureaucracy of mind which we call pedantry. Let us, above all, be not pedants of the “school system!”

I say this by way of caution, for there is no disposition to evil to which teachers are so peculiarly liable as in the disposition to become slaves to their “system.” Routine is always easier than invention, and in schools, where some routine is imperative, the unslacking temptation is for the teacher to jog on in a deep-rutted habit. Of course (to save our dignities) we like to call the habit-making process “administrative work”–but this is self-camouflage; most of what goes as school administration, from the university down, is nothing more than clerk’s slavery; it all goes in the direction of regulation, and that means straight toward the tomb of what is vital and promising in the great task of bringing forth conscious life. There is an anecdote (which I trust is not true) of a certain superintendent of schools to the effect that he boasted that if given the grade to which a child in his schools belonged he could tell at any hour of the school day what pages of what book were open before it. This seems to me horrible and monstrous. It is the goose-step of the mental drill, and in its consequence can only be even more ruinous than is its military model. I cannot believe this tale to be true, but its mere currency in the community shows the existence of the ideal. Men flatter themselves by calling it educational “efficiency,” whereas it is in truth neither educational nor efficient, but only the dismal clanking of fetters. Teachers know (how many of them have not cried out against it) that they are ever repeatedly being hobbled in coils of red tape–official in many cases, but also often self-imposed,–magnified under the name of system; but teachers know also that a slothful yielding to this is, for weak mortals, vastly easier than the preservation of that true energy of instruction which comes only from the life of ideas. In the last resort as in the first, the work of teaching is a work of the mind bent upon discovery.

System in public schools is necessary (this goes without saying), but there is nothing sacrosanct about its forms (and this needs saying). For example, there is a reflection of nature in the hierarchy of our school “grades,”–primary, intermediate, grammar, high, college, graduate–formidable enough when set out in order! And the nature which is reflected is the nature of the growing minds and bodies of children; that is the fact which gives its whole meaning to such a system. The grades are, so to speak, coefficients or functions of these minds and bodies, varied by rather than varying the natural development of intelligence and desire. If I may change my figure, the school system should be conceived, not as a mold into which plastic human material is to be poured and rigidly cast, but as like the many-chambered shell of the nautilus, of which each apartment is the creation of the growing life of the voyager, captain of the craft.

Probably the very worst feature of our systematizing tendency is the reduction of educational “standards” to a kind of deadly arithmetic. What I refer to is the use of percentage gradings as tests of advancement, the equation of subjects in the form of number-hour courses and credits, and the giving of diplomas and certificates on the basis of purely numerical records. Certainly I understand that something of this is necessary; but, at all events in the higher grades, the method has reached the level of the grotesque. University students go about seeking “credit hours,” when they should be interested in learning; they forget that what is of value to them must be an education, and they rush pell-mell after the degree. Too rapidly this same method (with its ruin of ideals) is pressing downward; already it has seized upon the high school, and, if my information is not at fault, is even now invading the grades. Clearly arithmetization is a menace, and the sooner teachers set themselves against its encroachments the safer will be the future of real learning and the truer the fundamental patriotism of the schools. Americans rightly proclaim as a national characteristic the spirit of individual independence and individual initiative–the power of a man to look out for himself; but assuredly there is no better method for destroying this spirit and its powers than an educational system deprived of inner life and reduced to an outer numbering. When the final meaning of going to school is a mathematical computation, plus a badge, who will prize its gifts or what state will profit by them?

Along with the evil of exaggerated numberings goes servility to texts and methods. Both of these evils–the text-book and the method–grow with the size and solidity of the school organization. Again I would say that I do not wish to refuse merit or necessity to that from which the evil use is prone to come; I should not reject text-books nor do away with methods of teaching. These things are not themselves bad. What is bad about them is their misuse, and that comes by way of imperatives and regulations. Take the text-book. In some states there is by law state-wide use of the same book or series of books in all the schools of the state–an intolerable opportunity for graft, as well as a denial of all rights of independent judgment on the part of the teacher. It stands to reason–and it is the fact,–that the utility of a text-book varies with the person who uses it, and that for persons of differing powers differing books are often to be preferred. The real guard against misuse of such means is the teacher who can teach without any text-book, and who never regards the book in any other light than as a secondary help in the task of teaching. Indeed, of what consequence is the teacher if he have not the gift of imparting knowledge from his own possession of it? Which must also be by his own best self-discovered methods. I remember, twenty years ago, how students in teachers’ colleges used to be canting the phrase “apperception mass” (brought with not a few other pedagogic evils out of Germany), thinking that it was a kind of open sesame to a mode of teaching without labor and of learning without consciousness. Today, “socialization,” “motivization,” and I know not what other polysyllables, are twisted off the pedagogic tongue with the same old facility. As a matter of fact, most of this is just showy jargon. All such methods resolve in plain English to the one and only true method of teaching, and that is to find an interested teacher able to interest a pupil: interest means willing work, work means understanding, and understanding means the advancement of that learning which is precious in life. An honest school official, discovering an honest teacher, will drop pedantic apparatus and, with easy conscience, bid him go to his task–the true way of which it is for the teacher to find.

But I have still a third bone to pick with the system- makers, and this is their substitution of the “accrediting” for the “examination” method of advancing students. This grew not unnaturally out of the point-credit system; for where the subjects studied vary in many directions, it is obviously difficult to agree upon the matter of examinations, while it is relatively easy to make clerical computations of number-records. But because it was easy of growth is no reason why the method is beneficial in operation; and in my opinion it is distinctly the reverse.

It is not that I wish to hold an unqualified brief for the examination. For a teacher whose pupils are constantly under eye, with day to day contact, they need not be necessary. Of course, where the classes are very large, examinations cannot be dispensed with, and probably even for the small class there is a certain invigorating bracing-up as a result of the test. But it is not of examinations within the class room that I am thinking; these are a feature of method, and should be the teacher’s own affair. Very different is the case with “entrance examinations.” In passing from one school or from one teacher to another, the surest mode of getting acquainted is the examination which shows both parties–teacher and pupil–what is to be expected of one another. No one with long experience in teaching can doubt that time and effort are both constantly thrown to the winds as a result of the wrong placing of students, growing out of the accrediting method. This is naturally most an evil in the university, and in particular in the relation of the university to the “accredited” high schools. Instead of bringing these schools into touch with the university the accrediting system puts them out of touch with what is real and vigorous in college ideals–and that is the body of learning which the college aims to impart and which the entrance examination served (even if feebly) to define.

I do not mean to say that examinations (in many ways crude devices) are panaceas for the ills which beset system. But they do have this merit: that they focus attention upon matter and not upon manner, upon inner attainment and not upon outer credits–they stand for the same kind of difference as that between character and reputation. And in doing this they point the way to the kind of medicine or sanitation which should immunize the school system from its own dangers and lead to the preservation of educational health. This is the constant interchange of ideas and points of view as between teachers, among themselves, and between teachers and pupils through variety of relation. It is again the old problem of securing human contact, individual with individual, mind with mind, as the real foundation of the birth and life of the humane spirit. As to how this can be brought about, I can at least make a suggestion.

My suggestion is of this nature. Among colleges there is rapidly growing in favor what is called the exchange professorship. This means that for a term or a year a teacher changes places with a colleague in some other institution. Each of the exchanging professors meets new professional associates and a new style of student, while the students are given the benefit of a fresh point of view in the familiar subject. Such exchanges are made not merely as between the institutions of our several states, but, between teachers from foreign countries–Frenchmen, Spaniards, Japanese, lecturing in the United States and American professors lecturing in the schools of these countries. Such a system has its counterpart in the rotation of teachers in the grades, in teaching by substitute teachers, and from another angle in the lesser permanency with which secondary school teachers are employed, all good in so far as these produce variety of personal contact. Professional impermanency is not in itself good, of course; but is there any reason why the university method of exchange teaching should not be carried down into the schools below, once the teacher comes to his own in his career?

Possibly a simpler step toward the same sound end would be the adoption of the English plan of “visiting examiners,” according to which examinations that mark important transitions in the school course (what we call graduations) are given by teachers brought from neighboring schools for the purpose. Inevitably a teacher who knows that those whom he is training are to be tried out by a colleague having different methods of teaching feels a certain healthy toning up of his own work; he is kept upon his mettle, and thinks of his teaching not in terms of the judgment rendered by students knowing nothing of his subject except what he gives, but in terms of the mature judgment of a fellow teacher. Certainly such a plan would be of vast benefit to our universities, and if carried down into high school grades it would eventually out-value every device of official inspection.

The reason is simple. Teaching is a personal art, not a matter of apparatus, method, system, machinery. It thrives where the teachers have living responsibilities and are aware of their responsibilities, alike to their pupils and to the great inheritance of human civilization, which it is theirs to guard through its untarnished transmission to posterity.