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Why Teachers Should Organize

July 1, 1904 — 43rd Annual Meeting, National Education Association, Louisiana Purchase Exposition, St. Louis MO


The responsibility for changing existing conditions so as to make it possible for the public school to do its work rests with the people, the whole people. Any attempt on the part of the public to evade or shift this responsibility must result in weakening the public sense of civic responsibility and the capacity for civic duty, besides further isolating the public school from the people, to the detriment of both.
The sense of responsibility for the duties of citizen ship in a democracy is necessarily weak in a people so lately freed from monarchical rule as are the American people, ad who still retain in their educational, economic, and political systems so much of their monarchical inheritance, with growing tendencies for retaining and developing the essential weaknesses of that inheritance instead of overcoming them.
Practical experience in meeting the responsibilities of citizenship directly, not in evading or shifting them, is the prime need of the American people. However clever or cleverly disguised the schemes for relieving the public of these responsibilities by vicarious performance of them, or however appropriate those schemes in a monarchy, they have no place in a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, and such schemes must result in defeating their object; for to the extent that they obtain they destroy in a people the capacity for self-government.
If the American people cannot be made to realize and meet their responsibility to the public school, no self-appointed custodians of the public intelligence and conscience can do it for them. Horace Mann, speaking of the dependence of the prosperity of the schools on the public intelligence said:
The people will sustain no better schools and have no better education than they personally see the need of, and therefore the people are to be informed and elevated as a preliminary step toward elevating the schools.
Sometimes, in our impatience at the slowness with which the public moves in these matters, we are tempted to disregard this wise counsel.
The methods as well as the objects of teachers’ organization must be in harmony with the fundamental object of the public school in a democracy, to preserve an develop the democratic ideal. It is not enough that this ideal be realized in the administration of the schools and the methods of teaching, in all its relations to the public, the public school must conform to this ideal.
Nowhere in the United States today does the public school, as a branch of the public service, receive from the public either the moral or financial support needed to enable it properly to perform its important function in the social organism. The conditions which are militating most strongly against efficient teaching , and which existing organizations of the kind under discussion here are directing their energies toward changing briefly stated are the following:
1.     Greatly increased cost of living, together with constant demands for higher standards of scholarship and professional attainments and culture, to be met with practically stationary and wholly inadequate teachers’ salaries.
2.     Insecurity of tenure of office and lack of provision for old age.
3.     Overwork in overcrowded schoolrooms, exhausting both mind and body.
4.     And, lastly, lack of recognition of the teacher as an educator in the school system, due to the increased tendency toward “factoryizing education,” making the teacher an automaton, a mere factory hand, whose duty it is to carry out mechanically and unquestioningly the ideas and orders of those clothed with the authority of position, and who may or may not know the needs of the children or how to minister to them.
The individuality of the teacher and her power of initiative are thus destroyed, and the result is courses of study, regulations, and equipment which the teachers have had no voice in selecting, which often have no relation to the children’s needs, and which prove a hindrance instead of a help in teaching.
Dr. John Dewey, of the University of Chicago, in the Elementary School Teacher for December, 1903, says:
As to the teacher, if there is a single public school system I the United States where there is official and constitutional provision made for submitting questions of methods of discipline and teaching, and the questions of the curriculum, text-books, etc., to the discussion of those actually engaged in the work of teaching, that fact has escaped my notice. Indeed, the opposite situation is so common that it seems, as a rule to be absolutely taken for granted as the normal and final condition of affairs. The number of persons to whom any other course has occurred as desirable, or even possible — to say nothing of necessary — is apparently very limited. But until the public school system is organized in such a way that every teacher has some regular and representative way in which he or she can register judgment upon matters of educational importance, with the assurance that this judgment will somehow affect the school system, the assertion that the present system is not, from the internal standpoint, democratic seems to be justified. Either we come here upon some fixed and inherent limitation of the democratic principle, or else we find in this fact an obvious discrepancy between the conduct of the school and the conduct of social life — a discrepancy so great as to demand immediate and persistent effort at reform.
A few days ago Professor George F. James, dean of pedagogy of the State University of Minnesota, said to an audience of St. Paul teachers:
One hundred thousand teachers will this year quit an occupation which does not yield them a living wage. Scores and hundreds of schools are this day closed in the most prosperous sections of this country because the bare pittance offered will not attract teachers of any kind.
Professor James further maintained that school-teachers are not only underpaid, but that they are paid much less proportionately than they received eight years ago.
It is necessary that the public understand the effect which teaching under these conditions is having upon the education of the children.
A word, before closing, on the relations of the public school teachers and the public schools to the labor unions. As the professional organization furnishes the motive and ideal which shall determine the character and methods of the organized effort of teachers to secure better conditions for teaching, so is it the province of the educational agencies in a democracy to furnish the motive and ideal which shall determine the character and methods of the organization of its members for self-protection.
There is no possible conflict between the good of society and the good of its members, of which the industrial workers are the vast majority. The organization of these workers for mutual aid has shortened the hours of labor, raised and equalized the wages of men and women, and taken the children from the factories and workshops. These humanitarian achievements of the labor unions — and many others which space forbids enumerating — in raising the standard of living of the poorest and weakest members of society, are a service to society which for its own welfare it must recognize. More than this, by intelligent comprehension of the limitations of the labor unions and the causes of these limitations, by just, judicious, and helpful criticism and co-operation, society must aid them to feel the inspiration of higher ideals, and to find the better means to realize these ideals.
If there is one institution on which the responsibility to perform this service reset most heavily, it is the public school. If there is one body of public servants of whom the public has a right to expect the mental and moral equipment to face the labor question, and other issues vitally affecting the welfare of society and urgently pressing for ra rational an scientific solution, it is the public school teachers, whose special contribution to society is their own power to think, the moral courage to follow their convictions, and the training of citizens to think and to express thought in free and intelligent action.
The narrow conception of education which makes the mechanics of reading, and arithmetic, and other subjects, the end and aim of the schools, instead of a means to an end — which mistakes the accidental and incidental for the essential — produces the unthinking, mechanical mind in teacher and pupil, and prevents the public school as an institution, and the public-school teachers as a body, from becoming conscious of their relation to society and its problems, and from meeting their responsibilities. On the other hand, that teaching which is most scientific and rational gives the highest degree of power to think and select the most intelligent means of expressing thought in. every field of activity. The ideals and methods of the labor unions are in a measure a test of the efficiency of the schools and other educational agencies.
How shall the public school and the industrial workers, in their struggle to secure the rights of humanity thru a more just and equitable distribution of the products of their labor, meet their mutual responsibility to each other and to society?
Whether the work of co-ordinating these two great educational agencies, manual and mental labor, with each other and with the social organism, shall be accomplished thru the affiliation of the organizations of brain and manual workers is a mere matter of detail and method to be decided by the exigencies in each case. The essential thing is that the public-school teachers recognize the fact that their struggle to maintain the efficiency of the schools thru better conditions for themselves is a part of the same great struggle which the manual workers — often misunderstood and unaided — have been making for humanity thru their efforts to secure living conditions for themselves and their children; and that back of the unfavorable conditions of both is a common cause.
Two ideals are struggling for supremacy in American life today: one is the industrial ideal, dominating thru the supremacy of commercialism, which subordinates the worker to the product and the machine; the other, the ideal of democracy, the ideal of the educators, which places humanity above all machines, and demands that all activity shall be the expression of life. If this ideal of the educators cannot be carried over into the industrial field, then the ideal of industrialism will be carried over into the school. Those two ideals can no more continue to exist in American life than our nation could have continued half slave and half free. If the school cannot bring joy to the work of the world, the joy must go out of its own life, and work in the school as in the factory will become drudgery.
Viewed in this light, the duty and responsibility of the educators in the solution of the industrial question is one which must thrill and fascinate while it awes, for the very depth of the significance of life is shut up in this question. But the first requisite is to put aside all prejudice, all preconceived notions, all misinformation and half-information, and to take to this question what the educators have long recognized must be taken to scientific investigation in other fields. There may have been justification for failure to do this in the past, but we cannot face the responsibility of continued failure and maintain our title as thinkers and educators. When men organize and go out to kill, they go surrounded by pomp, display, and pageantry, under the inspiration of music and with the admiration of the throng. Not so the army of industrial toilers who have been fighting humanity’s battles, unhonored and unsung.
It will be well indeed if the teachers have the courage of their convictions and face all that the labor unions have faced with the same courage and perseverance.
Today, teachers of America, we stand at the parting of the ways: Democracy is not on trial, but America is.



Source: Woman’s “True” Profession: Voices from the History of Teaching, ed. Nancy Hoffman (Old Westbury, NY: The Feminist Press) 1981, pp. 290-295.