The Purpose of Education

So young men of all kinds were hearing of a “service” which did not mean being a sailor or a soldier, a doctor or a minister, the only professions in which the word “service” had heretofore had a meaning! Thus began to be spread abroad the idea that “a service” was owed to the country in peace, and that this could only be rendered satisfactorily when every citizen took an interest in good government.

As girls went in those days, I suppose my own education was fairly typical, and I confess with some shame that at the age of twenty, when asked by an Englishwoman how our government functioned, I was as completely floored as if she had asked me to describe the political events on the moon! I had heard the men in the family mention political happenings, but it was not a subject of general or frequent conversation in our presence.

Women did not vote and were not expected to be interested. Besides there was something dark and sinister about politics, and it was more respectable not to know politicians or political methods too well. Business might necessitate some dealings with these rather inferior and nefarious beings, but the general attitude of the righteous was like that of a high-minded and upright citizen of New York City who once remarked to me that a certain political organization was undoubtedly corrupt, but he preferred (tho belonging to an opposite political party) to keep this wicked organization in power as “you paid for what you wanted and were sure to get it, whereas reform administrations were not so reliable in this ability to ‘deliver the goods’!”

I do not think I am unfair in saying that in most secondary schools, at least, the teachers of American history in those days laid more emphasis on the battle of Bunker Hill than they did on the obligations of citizenship which the children before them would soon be assuming. And this was largely because they could not teach what they did not understand, and few of them knew or cared what these obligations might be.

Gradually a change has come about. More young men and more young women (since the latter have had the vote) are doing political work. And even if they do not hold political office they have felt the need to understand their own government. In our schools are now given courses in civics, government, economics, current events. Very few children are as ignorant as I was. But there still remains a vast amount to be done before we accomplish our first objective-informed and intelligent citizens, and, secondly, bring about the realization that we are all responsible for the trend of thought and the action of our times.

How shall we arrive at these objectives? We think of course of history as a first means of information. Not the history which is a mere recital of facts, dates, wars, and kings, but a study of the life and growth of other nations, in which we follow the general moral, intellectual, and economic development through the ages, noting what brought about the rise and fall of nations and what were the lasting contributions of peoples now passed away to the development of the human family and the world as a whole.

Then we come down to our own history, observing the characteristics and the backgrounds of the people who founded our nation and those who have come to us since; the circumstances of pioneer life and the rapid industrial development. We trace the reasons for present-day attitudes of mind and for the establishment of customs and points of view which make up the rather elusive and yet unmistakable thing known as the “American spirit.” We study the men in our history who have really made a constructive contribution, and those who have held us back, in order that we may know what qualities of mind and heart formed the characters which have left a mark on their time.

Gradually from this study certain facts emerge. A nation must have leaders, men who have the power to see a little farther, to imagine a little better life than the present. But if this vision is to be fulfilled, it must also have a vast army of men and women capable of understanding and following these leaders intelligently. These citizens must understand their government from the smallest election district to the highest administrative office. It must be no closed book to them, and each one must carry his own particular responsibility or the whole army will lag.

I would have our children visit national shrines, know why we love and respect certain men of the past. I would have them see how government departments are run and what are their duties, how courts function, what juries are, what a legislative body is and what it does. I would have them learn how we conduct our relationships with the rest of the world and what are our contacts with other nations. The child seeing and understanding these things will begin to envisage the varied pattern of the life of a great nation such as ours and how his own life and environment fit into the pattern and where his own usefulness may lie.

It is not, however, only in the courses bearing directly on history and government that citizenship can be taught. The child taking Latin and mathematics is also learning invaluable lessons in citizenship. The power of concentration and accuracy which these studies develop will later mean a man or woman able to understand and analyze a difficult situation. For example, arithmetic is necessary to a later understanding of economic questions. As citizens economic problems will often claim our attention, and the power to understand them is essential to wise solutions.

There are many questions today between capital and labor in our own country, and for that matter in the other countries of the world, which are drawing us closer and affecting our home conditions more and more each year. Mathematics and humanity are strangely intertwined, and an ability to understand both is essential to well-balanced decisions in questions of this kind. From the point of view of character-building, the harder these subjects are to master the greater will be the sense of self-mastery and perseverance developed.

The other school contacts-social activities and athletics-develop team play, cooperation, and thought and consideration for others. These are all essentials in good citizenship.

The practical side of good citizenship is developed most successfully in school because in miniature one is living in a society, and the conditions and problems of the larger society are more easily reproduced and met and solved. To accomplish this, however, presupposes a high grade of teaching, a teacher who not only teaches a subject but is always conscious of the relation of the subject to the larger purpose of learning to live.

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