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Big Town
Chapter Eleven


Chapter 11: The Educational Boom
          Twenty years ago the city’s public schools presented a distinctly unimpressive appearance. They stood four-square on the neighborhood corners – modest buildings of red brick, three stories high. Each floor, approached by a towering flight of wooden stairs contained nothing more elaborate than four high-ceiling classrooms opening on a dim and echoing central hallway. At the side of each building there was a graveled “recess” yard, quite bare except for a stone drinking trough served by firmly chained iron dippers.
          In the places where the old structures stood, today the eye is met by vast edifices of stone and terra cotta, surrounded by immaculate lawns, and adjoined by playing fields which provide every sport accommodation from sand piles to football gridirons. When one enters, it is to encounter still more startling differences. There are wide hallways lined with lockers for every student. There are spacious classrooms, libraries, and auditoriums with practically equipped stages. There are student kitchens with batteries of stoves, tables and sinks. There are cafeterias, clinics, gymnasiums and swimming pools, and elaborately equipped shops and laboratories.
          Several factors have conspired to bring about this astounding increase in material splendor. The first was a demand, arising from both educators and parents, that the standard curriculum of academic subjects based upon the three “R’s” be supplemented by an extensive array of more practical courses of a distinctly vocational nature. The second was a tremendous increase in avocational activities of many kinds, headed by sports and games and including many other interests to be pursued outside of actual class work.
          Finally there was the enactment of a state law making education compulsory up to eighteen years of age. There was, and still is, some objection to this on the theory that many a youngster can be loaded to his full mental capacity both academically and vocationally at twelve or fourteen years of age, and might be released at that time to engage in some remunerative pursuit. This argument, however, has stood little chance against an appeal to the taxpayer to insist that his child should have the full educational menu for which he was paying.
          As a result of these additions – to school activities and to the number of students – there was a crying need for bigger buildings, equipped with many more classrooms, and also with the auditoriums, laboratories and other features set forth above.
          Some idea of the extent of this building program and of the increased activities within and without the curriculum, may be obtained from a few figures as to their cost. In 1910, the city’s investment in lands, school buildings and equipment totaled $2,000,000. By 1930 it had swelled to nearly $12,000,000. During the same period bonded indebtedness had risen from $500,000 to about $8,000,000, and annual operating cost from $600,000 to $4,500,000. Since the number of students produced by compulsory attendance had only doubled during the same period, the annual costs per student had risen from $20 to $70 for grade schools, and from $57 to $162 for the high schools. More than half of the taxes collected by the city from its citizens today go to defray the expense of public education.
          Such a financial outlay, and such physical magnificence, naturally invite a consideration of the activities and methods now current in the schools, and of the observable results.
          Embarking upon such a consideration, one immediately perceives that affairs in the academic halls are in what may be quite safely described as a state of flux. This seems to be due principally to widely divergent schools of thought among the educator themselves. On the one hand stand those ultra-conservatives who feel that rigid adherence to routine study of the old-time academic courses is the only sure path to enlightenment, and who regard all of the progressive ideas and methods as frills and folderols. Opposed to them are those starry-eyed advanced thinkers who embrace with abandon each new theory bearing the progressive label, and who strongly favor throwing all of the older methods out of the window. Between these two embattled forces is a third minority group which is inclined to believe that there may be things of value in both the classic and progressive theories of education, and that such things might well be combined toward the end of better enlightening the city’s urchins. Each of these three groups impinges, from time to time, upon the youthful candidates for educational advancement – with results which shall be described herein.
          Generally, the ardent and moderate progressives hold sway in the elementary grades, while in the later grades conservatism is dominant, not only on account of the views of the older teachers themselves, but because of the necessity of cramming students, who aspire to collegiate careers with the facts essential for the passing of college entrance examinations.
          In the earlier grades the tendency is to do away to a very considerable extent with the classic methods of instruction. The alphabet is not memorized at first, nor are there extensive and painful drills in spelling. Reading is taught rather by methods which are largely of a conversational nature. A preliminary idea is suggested by the teacher, is expanded by the pupils, and its essential points written on the blackboard and read aloud. The students thus become acquainted with the written symbols for ideas which are both familiar and interesting; and as a consequence their ability to read develops with a speed which frequently amazes their elders.
          In mathematics there is also a new method of attack. No longer are there wearying repetitions of the multiplication tables. And addition, subtraction and division are taught, not through the arbitrary juggling of masses of arabic numerals, but though an objective consideration of the many immediate arithmetic problems which the children encounter in connection with their most active juvenile interests.
          The less elementary subjects of the early years, such as geography, history and the simpler forms of literature, are approached through a system of individual projects, in which each student is encouraged to pursue his own inclination for knowledge in the various required subjects by individual reference to the library and other sources of information. The teacher examines and criticizes the results of such research, and if necessary returns them for overhauling. As a result of this procedure, John, who is bursting with authentic information, no longer writhes in his seat while William stutters out the evidence of his ignorance. Rather, John is harvesting further knowledge; and William, instead of suffering public embarrassment, is having his somewhat slower footsteps redirected along the path of learning.
          This continues for six years, at the end of which the young candidate for enlightenment enters the junior high school. Here he follows a more or less standard course embracing English, arithmetic, geography, manual training and physical education.
          During this period he is invited to begin preparing himself for the sober business of making a living. His preceptors probe him thoroughly in order to discover his leanings toward any particular branch of industrial of commercial activity. Once a week he is treated to a “vocational guidance” period, in which representatives of various business concerns explain to him the simpler mysteries of their particular fields of income-producing endeavor.
          Beginning with his ninth year, or what used to be the freshman year in the old-fashioned high school, he is presented with still more elaborate opportunities to equip himself for economic independence. He may choose from a large array of distinct groups of courses – including college preparatory in general, engineering, cooperative industrial, full-time and cooperative commercial, and cooperative retail.
          Having had the urgency of selecting a means of livelihood thrust on him for the past two years, he usually feels inclined to select courses which will presumably prepare him toward that end. He discovers a wealth of such material – elements of retailing, business law, bookkeeping, stenography, typing, advertising, mechanical drawing, shop practice and mathematics, printing and a host of other trades. He is helped in his choice by the fact that all of these courses, being concrete, naturally appeal to him more strongly than do the relatively abstract and more difficult academic and cultural subjects.
          Nor is he hounded much by these latter. Even if he elects to take the “general” course, foregoing the advantages of the career-building commercial and industrial courses, he can achieve the glory of graduation with no academic credits other than English, simple arithmetic, and short courses in geography, “general” science and “general” history. He need concern himself not at all with algebra, geometry, physics, chemistry, biology, or such cultural fields as the world’s better literature, the drama, or the classic or modern languages. Instead, he may devote by far the greater part of his time to being initiated into the mysteries of selling shoes or dry-goods, building kitchen furniture, setting type, laying bricks or repairing automobiles.
          One might assume that, in view of the vastly expanding curriculum, the student would have little time for outside affairs. As a matter of fact nothing could be farther from the truth. Indeed, the list of extra-curricular activities is almost incredible.
          Once he has entered high school, the youthful seeker after knowledge may join one or more of some fifty school clubs, each of which is allotted a one-hour period during the regular school schedule, and is also active at other times. These clubs include in their memberships those devoted to chess, checkers, hiking, camp cooking, tap dancing, ballet dancing, dramatics, play reading, commerce, wrestling, boxing, athletic rules, tin-can model making, ship model making, handicraft, costume and travel. His attention will be invited to these various groups through the medium of weekly assemblies of the whole student body, at which the activities of the several clubs will be discussed. Or these assemblies may be devoted to building up “pep” for the impending football, basketball or baseball game, which he is expected to attend if he does not actually participate in the contest himself.
          All of the clubs listed above are held to be of a vocational or avocational nature. But there are other clubs, and many of them. Usually they make a gesture in the direction of conducting school assemblies or raising and lowering the flag. But their real raison d’etre is social activity. They give cake sales and plays, sell magazine subscriptions, cookbooks and hand-painted wastebaskets – all to the end of raising money to give frequent dances.
          So multitudinous are these social clubs that no boy or girl who enjoys any measure of popularity need languish at the family fireside engaged in academic study. Almost nightly, gayety is afoot in the form of a dance given by some club or other. While some of these affairs become a bit loose before the final curtain, they all enjoy general parental permission to attend, on account of an alleged propriety arising from their connection with the school.
          Journalism flourishes. A school paper is issued once a week. About forty boys engage in this activity, most of whom are needed to sell advertising space to the merchants. The others provide the copy, some of which displays real facility with the pen, but most of which is indifferently written propaganda for school activities, the whole seasoned plentifully with juvenile wisecracks. Teams of four boys each fare forth on the day of publication and attempt to swell circulation by selling copies to the students in the other high schools.
          But, of course, all other extra-curricular activities are overshadowed by athletics – football, basketball, baseball, track, swimming, golf and tennis. Competition in these sports is not only between the city schools, but with those of other cities sometimes hundreds of miles away.
          As in college athletics, football bulks as large as all the rest put together, and foots the bill for the whole athletic program. Early in September the school fields are crowded with aspiring athletes who are prepared to die for dear old Central High. There are head coaches and assistance coaches, elaborate drills, and the devising of complicated trick plays. For the larger games the university stadium is requisitioned, and thousands pour through the gates – twenty-five percent of them high school students, and the balance drawn from the general public. A sixty-piece uniformed student band parades noisily and discordantly before the game and between the halves. The press box contains special writers from the local papers and also from the papers published in the home town of the visiting team. Telegraph operators flash the details of victory or defeat over miles of specially leased wires.
          The season winds up in a blaze of glory of Thanksgiving Day with the traditional game between the two oldest high schools. Tickets are at a premium. Pandemonium reigns supreme.
          Before the opening of the season the high-school principal must examine the eligibility of every player, even going so far as to look up his birth record. He must submit a complete list of eligible players to the State Director of Athletics. And a special list of the players scheduled for any game must be supplied to the competing school three days before the fracas takes place. Arrangements must be made for out-of-town trips – usually by a faculty manager who accompanies the team on these forays, and while at home devotes at least half of his tie to other matters involving football.
          There are officials to be hired for each game, frequently at fees amounting to over two hundred dollars. Each game must start with a new fifteen-dollar ball. Each player on the team must start the season with approximately seventy dollars’ worth of pants, jerseys, headguards and shoes. There are ticket-takers to be hired, special police to handle the crowds, and buses for the athletes. And in a recent season one of the high schools paid fees of seventeen hundred dollars to cover injuries sustained by the players.
          Underneath all of this outward activity and expense, the student body seethes with a consuming interest which competes quite successfully with academic activities, and which does not subside until the Christmas holidays.
          Screened somewhat behind the welter of athletics, social affairs, club doings and other extracurricular activities, are the teachers. Some of them are old in service; others are but recently emerged from the cloisters themselves. They include the stiffest of conservatives, the most frantic progressives, and those devoted to the middle course. But whatever their persuasion as to the theories of education, all of them find some difficulty in teaching by any method and at the same time discharging the many other duties with which they are entrusted.
          Class hours suffer constant interruptions. While instruction is supposed to be under way, a constant stream of messengers pours in and out of the door – demanding students for special psychological examinations, rehearsals of plays and pageants, meetings of committees for the football rally. Questionnaires arrive, which must be filled out and returned to the principal’s office immediately.
          During study hours and in the afternoons the teacher acts as the supervisor of club activities, ticket-seller for the football game or the junior class carnival, vocational guide, and sensor of morals and dress. Evenings may be devoted to recreation, study or the perusal of the students’ test papers – unless there is a club dance to be chaperoned.
          Some years ago, the Parent-Teacher Association was formed. Its function was to effect a closer relationship between the school and the home, and thus to advance the ends of juvenile education.
          From the teachers’ point of view this undertaking has not been an unqualified success. In the majority of the groups which are presumed to be serving the schools, it seems that large numbers of ladies regard the association as an opportunity to impose their own ideas on the school system, regardless of the fact that most of them are entirely innocent of methods of education either old or new, or of the problems involved in school management. These ladies regularly interfere with curriculum, athletics and social affairs. When they band themselves together for any undertaking designed to raise money for the purchase of extra school furnishings as pianos, rugs, statuary and the like, it is usually discovered that when the affair actually gets under way the teachers and the student body are doing most if not all of the work. Furthermore, it is the custom of many of these ladies to express their critical views quite freely in their own homes and in the presence of their children, with results in school discipline which the teachers do not hold to be highly desirable.
          The net results of all these activities are to be observed in the graduates of the schools. And these results are characterized by the variations which might well be expected in view of the present state of education affairs.
          In the earlier grades children are taught to read much more quickly, and may thus advance more rapidly in other subjects. However, in those many cases where the most advanced progressives rule, thoroughness is not at a premium. As a result, not a few graduates are incapable of easy use of the dictionary, since they are but ill acquainted with the order of the alphabet. Similarly business men complain that many of the stenographers and clerks who come from the high schools know nothing of spelling, suspect nothing of grammar, and are guilty of the most startling errors in simple arithmetic. This view is also held by the heads of the commercial schools, who find that high-school graduates must often be given extensive extra instruction in these elementary subjects before they can be effectively taught the processes of business.
          The system of individual projects, employed after the three R’s have been covered in the lower grades, seems also to have produced varied results. When the teacher’s guidance has effected breadth as well as depth in the student’s research, his progress has been unquestionably superior to that obtained by old-time methods. But where such guidance has been lacking, parents complain of weird and wonderful gaps in the knowledge of their offspring. Thus one citizen discovered, to his considerable dismay, that while his son had done rather extensive reading in biography and science, he hadn’t the faintest idea where Denver was, or indeed what it was.
          In the field of vocational training, the results achieved so far seem to be scarcely more revolutionary. While some students enter the trades with a fair working knowledge, others seem to have pursued their vocational courses as the easiest paths to graduation. All of them suffer from the fact that commerce and industry, changing rapidly to meet changing conditions in the outer world, find both high-school methods and equipment obsolete. Some employers even hold that the results of high-school vocational training are outmoded impediments which must be removed before serious training may begin.
          The educators themselves have one outstanding complaint. They contend that compulsory education has crowded the schools with thousands of morons who have absorbed all of the academic and vocational training they can hold some time before their eighteenth years, and whose continued presence in the classroom and shop merely hinders the progress of other students who are capable of much further advancement. Yet these unfortunates must not only be retained in the schools, but must be passed along from grade to grade and eventually graduated, for the simple reason that room must be made for new thousands who are constantly being boosted upward from the lower grades.
          When the student’s choice of avocational club activities, wisely guided by the teacher, has been reflected real interest, there is an evident result in the development of self-confidence. When the same activities have been engaged in for mere idle recreation, there is to be observed, instead of true initiative and sound self-confidence, a regrettable cocksureness and a brassy and unfounded poise.
          It may be safely asserted that the marked emphasis placed on vocational training and the majority of extra-curricular activities produces in the graduates of the schools a safely standardized group-consciousness of those sterling qualities of citizenship which are so highly regarded by the leaders of thought and community life. If these same processes teach the city’s children the business of making a living rather than the business of living itself – if they do not promote a slow but gradually ripening acquaintance with the broader world of culture, if they preclude the opportunity for solitary thought and the true enriching of the mind – there at lease will be few citizens to lament that fact.
          Yet in spite of the confusion which seems to reign supreme throughout the schools, and of some of its current results, there are to be observed the seeds of promise. There is a new opportunity for the sound physical development of every child. There is a new freedom in the approach to academic education, as reflected in the individual project system, which may yet allow each child the unretarded and unhampered sweep of its own interest, initiative and native curiosity. Through certain of the extra-curricular activities there is a new chance for the development of differential and usually unsuspected bents of talent.
          What alone seems certain is that the value of the newer ideas in education, or the methods of applying them, are as yet little comprehended by anyone connected with their operation. But it seems probable that when they are understood and properly applied they will result to the very great advantage of generations of students yet unborn.

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