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The Next Thing in Education

September 1893 — Woman’s Building, World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago IL


In this day of multiplied facilities for education, a day when training begins with the kindergarten and ends in what is called “higher education” both for men and women, the thoughtful observer is constantly confronted by the question, Why are not the people educated? It is quite true that a great many people are; that very many more believe they are; and still more believe the day is coming when they are to be educated in the broad and liberal sense of the word. Our systems, founded upon the old scholastic idea, are generally considered satisfactory, and any failure that may be observed in results is attributed to the fact that, in particular cases, they have not yet had time or opportunity for successful operation. And yet, year after year, we are passing through the mills of our public schools and colleges multitudes of minds that come out like travelers who climb to the top of every high tower on their journey, because they will not come home without being able to say “they have done it.”

Apparently, too many of our students go through their course for no better reason than to say they have done it. There are grand and noble exceptions, but these are generally among those who do not care to say anything about it. The great majority, however, come forth in the mental condition of the man who laboriously climbs step by step of the tower, takes his bird’s-eye view of the field of learning, accepts the impressions made upon his mind by the vast picture and the vast mixture, and comes down to his own level again with no more real knowledge of that at which he has glanced than has the traveler who has taken a glimpse from the heights which he climbed because the guide book said this was “the thing to do.”

In every walk of life, among statesmen, men of business, and artisans, exists noble examples of exceptional profundity and reality of knowledge, but in the great average of so-called educated people of our own generation, we find the majority possessing very fragmentary interest in any of the subjects which, as students, was supposed to engage their attention. What they would have been without the so-called education, we can not judge, and it might be unfair to infer, but what they are no discriminating person, with a knowledge of what our systems claim, can fail to see. We can not ignore the fact that, for some reason, they have failed to attain their natural and possible development. 

Our educational theories, on paper and in text-books, are well nigh perfect; in actual operation why should they fail? Like a great machine, fed with the material of thought, the crank turns, the wheels go round, and the whole world is a-buzz with the work and noise, but the creature upon whom all this power is expended, is only in rare instances a truly educated man or woman. What, then, is the defect? If the machine is right, then the material with which it is fed must be defective. If the material is right, then the machine has every virtue except that of adaptation to the use for which it was intended.

Since the whole end and aim of education is to develop, not the ideal mental constitution, but the real mind, just as we find it–the real creature, just as he is, and since we can not change the human mind to make it fit the machine, the effort should be to adapt the educational process to suit the human mind. To what extent they are doing this is one of the great questions for teachers of the present day. To what extent–admitting that now in some particulars they fail — it may be possible to modify and adapt methods to the actual and genuine needs of human nature, is certainly a problem worthy of the earnest thought of the broadest and best cultured minds. In attempts at adaptation we have fallen into a process of analyzing the youthful human creature. Having discovered that he possesses mathematical capacity, we have supplied him with mathematical training and have in this department thrust upon him all, and sometimes more hard work than he can bear. Having found he possessed religious faculty we have emptied upon him the theologies and psychologies, and when we have supplied him in these and other directions we look for the educated man. Judge of our disappointment. We find the faculties, we find the modifications produced by the training, but we look in vain for the man. With all our multiplied facilities for producing a trained and disciplined nature, what we think we have a right to expect–but what we do not find–is a creature conscious of his own heritage, conscious of his kinship with all humanity, of his kingship over the universe, of his power to grapple with the world outside of himself and of his rightful dominance over both the life without and the grander life within. Instead, we find men weak where they should be most purposeful and brave. We find him the slave of the body, who should be able to make the body the servant of his soul. We find hands untrained to practical uses, minds unequal to grasping the common wants of existence, hearts in which the high ideals of character and strong impulses toward true usefulness are overswept by that consideration for self that makes one’s own interests seem the very center of the universe of God.

The day needs giants; it produces pygmies. It needs men to fight; it produces men to run. It needs women with minds broad enough to think and hearts large enough to love. It needs motherhood that, while it bends protectingly over the cradle of its own child, reaches out a mother heart to all the suffering childhood of the race. It needs the capacity for heroism; it yields the tendency to cowardice. In the midst of learning ignorance triumphs, vice rules and sensualism thrives; and all this not because of education, but in spite of it. And when we consider that our schools in their lower grades, our kindergartens and our primary and Sunday-schools take the infant mind before the tendency to vice has had any chance for development, and that the next higher grades take them on through successive years without being able to prevent such results as those mentioned above, we naturally feel that at the very outset, our educational system must be wrong. However it may be suited to the ideal conditions it can not be adapted to the average human creature, taken exactly as he is. The lack, which begins at the very basis of our so-called intelligent discipline, runs through the whole, in constantly increasing ratio. Brain is stimulated, and heart and soul are left to starve, and nothing is more neglected than the cunning of the hand. Even where some attempt is made at the training of the whole nature, it is done without recognition of the infinite variety in the human mind. Processes ought to be adapted, not only to the universal, but to the individual need. It does not follow that the universal need is necessarily or invariable unlike the individual need, or that individual needs are always identical, but any system of education that gives for a great variety of minds precisely the same course of training is sure to be, for a majority of those minds, a pitiful and conspicuous failure.

What then? Shall we have a separate school for every child? Shall we have a special teacher for each mind? That would probably be impossible, but we certainly should have so small a number of pupils under each teacher that she (and we are taking it for granted that the teachers of little children will largely be women) may be able to study the whole nature of every little one committed to her care. She should be not only in communication, but in real communion with the mother; should know the child’s mental and moral inheritance, and, in as far as her own watchful care and the help of the family physician may enable her to do so, she should understand its physical constitution. She should acquaint herself with the temperament, the habits, the degree of affection, and the little germs of spiritual insight and inspiration, all of which go to make up the nature of the little creature in her charge. If she be the true teacher, she should combine the threefold duties of mother, instructor and physician for the young life unfolding in her care. If she has not the heart to love the child and to let the child love her, and so to lay foundation for the larger loving, that, by and by, shall outreach and take in the whole humanity of God, then we will not say she has mistaken her calling, but her own process of education has been defective and she has much to learn.

Such threefold development for heart, hand and brain of the little child makes preparation for the next higher steps of educational work. Whatever form the training may assume, the individuality of the human soul should be kept inviolate. That individuality betrays itself in many ways, by emotion and sentiment, by quickness or dullness of perception, and above all, by preferences and dislikes. These minute indications as to just what elements of spirit and mind have entered into the nature of the child, are the little delicate fibers that show the texture of the human soul with which we have to deal. The child learns too soon to draw in and hide the frail, sensitive tendrils that indicate that the life of the soul-plant is feeling its way toward the light of God.

In the primary school the teacher (and sometimes in the cradle the mother who is, whether she would have it so or not, the child’s first teacher) begins the process of training by which the little one is made to do as others do, to say what others say, and to conceal the fact that it has any inward life or impulses that are not the same as those of other children.

Instead of being able to read the God-given signs as to what the infant nature really requires, we give it instead an arbitrary supply, based upon what we think it ought to need, and then marvel that it does not thrive upon its unnatural diet. We have not supplied what it craved but that which, from our preconceived notion, we thought it ought to want.

This process of applying our rule and line to the mind goes farther and bears harder upon the student with every succeeding year, until long before the so-called education is completed three-quarters of the students have lost the consciousness that they ever cared, or ever could have cared, for anything except that which the class supplied. To be what the class is, to do what the class does, to be satisfied with knowing what the class knows, to have lost the sense of the value of the thing to be gained and to measure by false standards, comes to be the rule until the conceit of knowledge takes the place of the modesty of conscious ignorance, and the student becomes a drop in the annual outpouring stream of so-called teachers, many of whom, in the highest sense, have never been genuine students at all.

Searching for causes of such results, we can not fail to see that much of this dead sameness of intellectual character is due to our habit of educating in masses. We make an Arab feast of our knowledge. A dish is prepared that contains something that might be strengthening for each partaker. With hands more or less clean, students select their savory morsels from the sop. As in the Arab family, for old and young, for the babe in arms and the strong man from his field of toil, the provision is the same; so in all our class work we have the sameness of provision with almost as great disparity of capacity and need. If, out of the whole mental “mess of pottage,” that can be taken which builds the student up in true wisdom and knowledge, it is fortunate; but if nothing is assimilated on which the mind can truly thrive, no fault is found with the provision, nor is resultant ignorance considered to be specially worth of blame.

The evil effects of educating in masses, or in classes, is sufficiently apparent to cause us to consider the question whether there is any possible remedy, whether there could be a substitution of individual for general training, or a combination of the two, that would produce a better result. That student is losing ground as an individual who comes to be considered, or to consider himself, as simply a factor of a class. If the general teaching must be that which is applicable to the entire class, there should also be provision for instruction that could be adapted to the individual need, and as great effort as is made to adapt class work to the general need should be made in the special direction also. But the objection arises that the modern teacher is not able to work in both directions in the time allotted for student life. We are very well aware that we have not yet passed the stage where the value of the teacher’s work is measured by the number of hours in which he is engaged in the class-room. Trustees, as a whole, pay for the professor’s full time, and expect it to be fully employed. Neither are the educators many of whom would know what to do if simply let loose among students and left free to make their best impressions upon the minds of the young.

To many teachers the mind of youth is in reality an unexplored region, and until we have a change in this respect, and learn that the knowledge of books is only the beginning of wisdom, and that the true knowledge must include also that of the living book–the student intrusted to our care — we have scarcely learned the alphabet of true education.

The day will come, though it may be long in coming, when every institution of learning will have — besides its technical teachers, its lecturers and its conductors of recitations — one man or one woman, or as many men and women as are needed, whose special province it will be to study the individual temperament, to discover native tendencies, tastes and capacities of the mind, and whose knowledge will be true wisdom in the sense that they will know not only how to ascertain, but how to supply real needs.

That cramping and stifling of natural tastes, which is now so marked a feature of school training, will be replaced by the cultivation of every good natural ability, and the suppression of only that which in itself is evil. Quite too often even in this latter day the restraint is put upon the natural powers, simply because their development calls for extra labor and special trouble, or because these powers indicate training in lines of work not being attempted by the class.

Let the routine work continue to be done and, if necessary, in the routine fashion; but let every institution have on its faculty one soul, at least, whose province is not to crush, but to cultivate and develop individual traits of mind and character. Such an instructor must not be ignorant of books, but that intricate book, the human heart, should be his special study and he should know not only what human beings are, but should be able to help them to grow into what God meant them to be. Such a man with a large and sympathetic heart, that can be hospitable to boyhood as it is, will do more toward the molding of genuine manhood than can a dozen professors of the ordinary type. One such woman in every institution for the education of girls, holds really the future destiny of those girls in her hands, for her life among them could have but one dominant desire–that of helping them to be the thing God meant. Practically living out that desire she becomes, not the restraint and destroyer of their natural vitality of thought and feeling, but the guide and director of all their native forces into every beautiful field of learning, and into the highest type of development possible for woman under present limitations to attain.

Whether we recognize the fact or not, there is not a phase of our social or national life that is unaffected by the lack of proper development or individuality. The whole tendency of our civilization has been in the direction of making people as nearly as possible like other people. Characters of marked individuality are relegated to the class of so-called cranks. To be above the dead level of general sentiment and attainment is to be in decidedly bad form. This work of taking out of people the characteristics placed in them by nature, and making them over into the convenient and conventional types that think as others think, and do what others do, has marked our civilization from its earlier stages, and the more civilized we become the more pronounced are the results. Among these results are great loss of spiritual and mental vitality. It is time to call a halt, to change our methods, or to supplement them by methods of individual training. The beginning of such a work will mark an educational era, the inception of which should not be longer delayed.


It only remains for the womanhood of this day, entering upon that broader, deeper motherhood, which makes of its heart a bulwark against whatever evils threaten the young, to enter upon the study of childhood with half the energy and half the time she devotes in other directions, for this problem of individual education to find the first step in its solution, which first step, logically followed, will open all the rest. For it is woman alone through whom this change, as well as all changes requiring exercise of peculiar instinct and peculiar power, must come. In her ordinary efforts for the world’s betterment she counts too much upon outside aid, and too little upon her innate ability. She forgets the true measure of her power.

In most of her undertakings she instinctively guards against trespassing upon purely masculine fields, and shrinks from the opposition and disapproval of men. In this field of the study of childhood she has undisputed sway. By and by, as his life moves toward manhood, the father may claim his boy, but on all formative processes, that make that young manhood worth the father’s desiring, the mother has unquestioned control. To know her child’s real inward life, his inherited tendencies, tastes, habits, temperament, temptations, aspirations, as she knows the outward facts of his existence, is not only her sacred privilege but her high obligation. To know herself in order that she may know her child, to know the processes and methods of instruction that educators offer, and to judge for herself whether they are suited to her own child’s nature is a task worthy of her noblest powers. We are busy with our provisions that the next generation of mothers shall be a generation that has a college training, a man’s knowledge of books. Only those of us who knew what it was to knock, and then to plead and then to batter at the brazen doors of prejudice that shut us out of college, while we clamored vainly for our right to the knowledge that was denied, know how rightly to estimate, rightly to encourage, rightly to rejoice that our coming mothers may enter freely as they will. But the world’s childhood should not wait for that next generation to rear its children by the help of better knowledge of books. The living book is open to the mother of today. The child is here, its young life asking for bread upon which it can grow bravely up to the full stature of the perfect man. It asks for fish caught in our widespread nets of true knowledge, for fish in whose mouths shall be found the coin which they will need for the tax that life makes on every soul. How much of the hardness of heart think you in the manhood of today, how much of the slimy dishonor of our political life, how much of the wriggling inconsistency of character that marks men in high places, how much of the hiss and sting that awaits the highest endeavor and the noblest aspirations are due to the fact of a persistent diet of serpents and of stones? What then would we have? First, that women, mothers especially, who are becoming students of everything else under the sun, become students of childhood and students of every system, scheme, plan and practice for the development of the body, mind and character of the child. It is not more vital that the students of today shall make good mothers than that the mothers of today shall make students. It is the one thing of universal interest to the present, of universal importance to the future of the individual, of the nation, of the race, that the women of today accept as their divine responsibility the childhood of today. If it were not that the world is sated with societies, one might plead for the advantage, in every village of the land, of organized study of everything that pertains to the outward and inward welfare of the young. There is already a psychological movement in this direction which must necessarily be limited in its scope. We need something broader, more general. A children’s building in every large center of our land, including all that this one of the Exposition has, and much that this has not, should be the one result of such interest as such a society would arouse.

Any number of women united with the purpose to know for themselves whatever things are being taught to their own children, beginning with the kindergarten and the multiplication table, would not only find their own minds quickened and alert, but be in a condition to discriminate as to the value of instruction and its adaptation to real needs, but moving on step by step with the child, could, by no greater exercise of their matured powers than they make in other directions, often secure the college education denied to so many of us in our youth.

Not least among the advantages of such study would be the fact that the wide separation which the college life and the student too often make between the heart of mother and son might be avoided. The lad no longer leaves his mother behind because he enters fields of knowledge where she may never hope to go, because he is now finding his place among the stars, and she, from the threshold of home, can only hope to catch a glimmer of his light in the multitudinous sparkle of the sky.

I am not unmindful of the objections that arise to the mind already accustomed to the idea of seeing even their own children grow up and out and away into a life the mother can only follow and share through her affections, her prayers. “There is no time for study,” they say; but the Shakespeare Club and Browning Club, and the social world and the Missionary Society, and the Daughters of the Revolution and the household, and the father of the children — there is time for all; and yet how the flavor of it all turns to ashes on the lips when the boy, our boy, comes to belong to the world or to the wine, or to the life that is not life but death, and so is no more our own. In the bitterness of such hours mothers speak the truth, if the anguish is not too deep for any speech. “No one knew him as I knew him,” they say; “he ought to have had this influence and that guidance and that help along the way which no one supplied because no one understood him as his mother did.” And that utterance is the very truth of God concerning the motherhood and childhood of today. No one knows them as we know them, and no one should and no one can, and, knowing through our hearts what they are and what they need, it is for us to so strengthen the life of knowledge and of thought that we shall walk beside them all the way, strengthening all influences that may avail for their good, that the true education may result in such citizens and patriots, such men and women, as we shall be proud to call our daughters and our sons. We plead, therefore, for the education of every child in accordance with his individual nature and needs, and for the education of the mother of today that she may be able to secure this individual teaching for the child who in the tomorrow shall become the best interpreter and the highest expression of her possibilities and powers.



Source: The Congress of Women Held in the Woman’s Building, World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, U.S.A., 1893, ed. Mary Kavanaugh Oldham Eagle (Chicago: Monarch Book Company) 1894, pp. 637-642.