Education as Living

by Randolph Bourne

From The New Republic, August 5, 1916, pp. 10-12.

Here is a humane vision, now almost a century old, of a truly public school, one serving all the members of a complex community. It stands in stark contrast to the present-day dogmas of “education reform”—lifeless learning in the service of national power and the global market.

What is the current broadening of the public school—the bringing in of gymnasiums and pools, shops and gardens, dramatics and organized play—but a new effort to realize the school as more a life and less an institution? Are we not getting a little restless over the resemblance of our schools to penitentiaries, reformatories, orphan asylums, rather than to free and joyous communities? A school system whose object was little more than to abolish illiteracy and prepare the more fortunate for college was bound to fall an easy prey to the mechanical organizer. Education in this country has been one-sidedly professionalized. The machinery was developed before the moving ideals were worked out. Professional educators have worked too much for a logical system rather than an experimental adjustment to the life needs of individual children. We have achieved a democratic education in the sense that common schooling is practically within the reach of everyone. But a democratic education, in the sense of giving equal opportunities to each child of finding in the school that life and training which he peculiarly needs, has still to be generally worked for. The problem of American education is now to transform an institution into a life.

Let us not deny the value of that emphasis on administration. The slow progress from the diffuse district school to the well organized state system represents the welding of a powerful instrument for a future democracy to use. Centralized and efficient administration is indispensable for insuring educational benefits to all. But there is a danger that we shall create capable administrators faster than we create imaginative educators. It is so easy to forget that this tightening of the machinery is only in order that the product may be finer and richer. Unless it does so result in more creative life it will be a detriment rather than a good. For it is too easy to make the running of the machine, the juggling with schedules and promotions and curricula and courses and credits, the end. To institutionalize a social function is always the line of least resistance.

We are becoming used to the impressive schoolhouses that tower over the unkempt and fragile houses of our American towns. The school already overshadows the church. If this means that the school is the most important place in the community, then it is a hopeful sign. But if its slightly forbidding bulk means simply that there is another institution to put people through a uniform process, or indeed through any kind of process, then we are no further along. The educators of the last generation, whether from false ideas of democracy or from administrative convenience or necessity, imposed deadly uniformities of subject matter and method on the children in the schools. They assumed that a uniform process would give uniform results. But children are infinitely varied in temperament and capacity and interests. So the uniform process gave the most wildly heterogeneous results. And the present unrest arises from our amazed dissatisfaction that so admirable and long-continued a public-school education should have left the masses of children so little stimulated and trained.

The pseudo-science of education under which most of us were brought up assumed that children were empty vessels to be filled by knowledge. Teachers and parents still feel that to cut down an arithmetic hour to forty-five minutes is to deprive the child of a fourth of his education. But children are not empty vessels, nor arc they automatic machines which can be wound up and set funning on a track by the teacher. They are pushing wills and desires and curiosities. They are living, growing things, and they need nothing so much as a place where they can grow. They live as wholes far more than older people do, and they cannot be made to become minds and minds alone for four or five hours a day—that is, without stultification. The school forgets that we are only accidentally intellectual, that our other impulses are far more imperious. Because a teacher can secure outward order, it does not mean that she has harmonized the child’s personality. She has not the least clue to riot or apathy or delusion that may be going on inside him. She may easily become a drill-sergeant, but she must not think that she has thereby become an educational scientist.

To become that she will have to think of the school as a place where children spend their time living not as artificially segregated minds but as human things. She would have to judge their activities in terms of an interesting life. And that involves good health, play, sport, constructive work, talk, questioning, exercise, friendship, personal expression, as well as reading and learning. A place where children really lived would be a place that gave opportunities for all these activities to just the extent that children were individually capable of expressing themselves. Children want to be busy together, they want to try their hand at tools and materials, they want to find out what older people do and watch them at it. They have to flounder about and have an sorts of experiences before they touch their spring of interest and face their real direction. All their education is really acquired in the same random way that the baby learns to control his movements and respond to his environment. No matter how the school tries to organize their learning, and feed it to them in graduated doses, this way of trial and error is really the one by which they will learn. You have no way of guaranteeing that they will learn what you think you are teaching them. What you can do is to put them in a controlled environment where they will most frequently strike the electric contact of curiosity and response, and get experiences that thrill with meaning for them.

Life in its lowest terms is a matter of passing the time. It would be well if educators would more often remember this. If they did, would they not examine more carefully the life which they provide for growing youth? College and high school life is reasonably antiseptic, it is not oppressive, it is not particularly arbitrary or shabby. But compared abstractly with what might be a good life, given the interests and outlook and needed training of youth, would it not seem a little sorry? Is it not a travesty, except for the few, on a really stimulating and creative way of spending time? Suppose educators seriously measured their schools by this standard of the good life. Suppose we really tried to carry out the principle that the secret of life is to pass time worthily.

Most of this current educational interest is another stab at the age long problem of making education synonymous with living. We are rediscovering the fact that we learn only as we desire, as we seek to understand or as we are busy. We are trying to make the school a place where children cannot escape doing these things. We see now that education has grown up in this country in a separate institutional compartment, jealously apart from the rest of the community life. It has developed its own technique, its own professional spirit. Its outlines are cold and logical. It is far the best ordered of our institutions. Its morale is the nearest thing we have to compulsory military service. There is something remote and antiseptic about even our best schools. They contrast strangely with the color and confusion of the rest of our American life. The bare c1assrooms, the stiff seats, the austere absence of beauty, suggest a hospital where painful if necessary intellectual operations are going on. Additions of gymnasiums and shops and studios to such a school will do little to set the current of life flowing again. The whole school must be loosened up, the stiff forms made flexible, children thought of as individuals and not as "classes." Thus new activities must be woven into a genuine child-community life. These things must be the contacts with experience that waken and focus children’s interests. They must be opportunities for spontaneous living.

The school constantly encroaches on the home. It provides play and work opportunities that even well-to-do homes cannot provide. It must take over too the free and comradely atmosphere of the homes and the streets where children play. Let teachers face the fact that they cannot teach masses of children anything with the assurance that they will really assimilate it. What they can do is to fill the school with all kinds of typical experiences, and see that children are exposed to them. They can see that children have a chance to dabble in them, touch tools and growing things, read books, draw, swim, play and sing. Let the teacher cleverly supervise and coordinate, see that the children’s interests are drawn out, and that what they do contributes toward their growth. In the last analysis, each child will have to educate himself up to his capacity. He can only educate himself by living. The school will be: the place where he lives most worthily.

Our best American public schools are already in sight of such an ideal Americans need more than anything to learn how to live. This is the first business of education.

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