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An essay by Timothy Titcomb

American Public Education

Title:     American Public Education
Author: Timothy Titcomb [More Titles by Titcomb]

"Keen are the pangs
Advancement often brings. To be secure,
Be humble. To be happy, be content." JAMES HURDIS.

"For not that which men covet most is best;
Nor that thing worst which men do most refuse.
But fittest is that each contented rest
With that they hold." SPENSER.

"Men have different spheres. It is for some to evolve great moral truths, as the Heavens evolve stars, to guide the sailor on the sea and the traveller on the desert; and it is for some, like the sailor and the traveller, simply to be guided."--BEECHER.

A venerable gentleman who once occupied a prominent position in a leading New England college, was remarking recently upon the difficulty which he experienced in obtaining servants who would attend to their duties. He had just dismissed a girl of sixteen, who was so much "above her business" as to be intolerable. The girl's father, who was an Englishman, called upon him for an explanation. The employer told his story, every word of which the father received without question, and then remarked, with considerable vehemence: "_It is all owing to those cursed public schools_." The father retired, and the old professor sat down and thought about it; and the result of his thinking did not differ materially from that of the father. It was not, of course, that there was any thing in the studies pursued which had tended to unfit the girl for her duties. It was very possible indeed for the girl to have been a better servant in consequence of her intelligence. There was nothing in English grammar or the multiplication table to produce insubordination and discontent. There was nothing in the whole case that tended to condemn public schools, as such; but it was the spirit inculcated by the teachers of public schools, which had spoiled this girl for her place, and which has spoiled, and is still spoiling, thousands of others.

Let us look for a moment into the influence of such a motto as the following, written over a school-house door--always before the eyes of the pupils, and always alluded to by school committees and visitors who are invited to "make a few remarks":

_"Nothing is impossible to him who wills."_

This abominable lie is placed before a room full of children and youth, of widely varying capacities, and great diversity of circumstances. They are called upon to look at it, and believe in it. Suppose a girl of humble mental abilities and humble circumstances looks at this motto, and says: "I 'will' be a lady. I 'will' be independent. I 'will' be subject to no man's or woman's bidding." Under these circumstances, the girl's father, who is poor, removes her from school, and tells her that she must earn her living. Now I ask what kind of a spirit she can carry into her service, except that of surly and impudent discontent? She has been associating in school, perhaps, with girls whom she is to serve in the family she enters. Has she not been made unfit for her place by the influences of the public school? Have not her comfort and her happiness been spoiled by those influences? Is her reluctant service of any value to those who pay her the wages of her labor?

It is safe, at least, to make the proposition that public schools are a curse to all the youth whom they unfit for their proper places in the world. It is the favorite theory of teachers that every man can make of himself any thing that he really chooses to make. They resort to this theory to rouse the ambition of their more sluggish pupils, and thus get more study out of them. I have known entire schools instructed to aim at the highest places in society, and the most exalted offices of life. I have known enthusiastic old fools who made it their principal business to go from school to school, and talk such stuff to the pupils as would tend to unfit every one of humble circumstances and slender possibilities for the life that lay before him. The fact is persistently ignored, in many of these schools, established emphatically for the education of the people, that the majority of the places in this world are subordinate and low places. Every boy and girl is taught to "be something" in the world, which would be very well if being "something" were being what God intended they should be; but when being "something" involves the transformation of what God intended should be a respectable shoemaker into a very indifferent and a very slow minister of the Gospel, the harmful and even the ridiculous character of the instruction becomes apparent.

There are two classes of evil results attending the inculcation of these favorite doctrines of the school teachers--first, the unfitting of men and women for humble places; and, second, the impulsion of men of feeble power into high places, for the duties of which they have neither natural nor acquired fitness. There are no longer any American girls who go out to service in families. They went into mills from the chamber and the kitchen, but now they have left the mills, and their places are filled by Scotch and Irish girls. Why is this? Is it because that among the American girls there are none of poverty, and of humble powers? Is it because they are not wanted? Or is it because they have become unfitted for such services as these, and feel above them? Is it not because they have become possessed of notions that would render them uncomfortable in family service, and render any family they might serve uncomfortable? An American servant, who good-naturedly accepts her condition, and knows and loves her place, who is willing to acknowledge that she has a mistress, and who enters into her department of the family life as a harmonious and happy member, may exist, but I do not know her. People have ceased inquiring for American servants. They would like them, generally, because they are intelligent and Protestant, but they cannot get them because they are unwilling to accept service, and the obligations and conditions it imposes. Where all the American girls are, I do not know. I can remember the time when thrifty farmers, mechanics, and tradesmen took wives from the kitchens of gentlemen where they were employed,--good, intelligent, self-respectful women they were, too--who became modest mistresses of thrifty families afterward;--but that is all done with now. Under the present mode of education, nobody is fitted for a low place, and everybody is taught to look for a high one.

If we go into a school exhibition, our ears are deafened by declamation addressed to ambition. The boys have sought out from literature every stirring appeal to effort, and every extravagant promise of reward. The compositions of the girls are of the same general tone. We hear of "infinite yearnings," from the lips of girls who do not know enough to make a pudding, and of being polished "after the similitude of a palace" from those who do not comprehend the commonest duties of life. Every thing is on the high-pressure principle. The boys, all of them, have the general idea that every thing that is necessary to become great men is to try for it; and each one supposes it possible for him to become Governor of the State, or President of the Union. The idea of being educated to fill a humble office in life is hardly thought of, and every bumpkin who has a memory sufficient for the words repeats the stanza:--

"Lives of great men all remind us We can make our lives sublime, And departing, leave behind us Footprints on the sands of time."

There is a fine ring to this familiar quatrain of Mr. Longfellow, but it is nothing more than a musical cheat. It sounds like truth, but it is a lie. The lives of great men all remind us that they have made their own memory sublime, but they do not assure us at all that we can leave footprints like theirs behind us. If you do not believe it, go to the cemetery yonder. There they lie--ten thousand upturned faces--ten thousand breathless bosoms. There was a time when fire flashed in those vacant orbits, and warm ambitions pulsed in those bosoms. Dreams of fame and power once haunted those hollows skulls. Those little piles of bones that once were feet ran swiftly and determinedly through forty, fifty, sixty, seventy years of life; but where are the prints they left? "He lived--he died--he was buried"--is all that the headstone tells us. We move among the monuments, we see the sculpture, but no voice comes to us to say that the sleepers are remembered for any thing they ever did. Natural affection pays its tribute to its departed object, a generation passes by, the stone grows gray, and the man has ceased to be, and is to the world as if he had never lived. Why is it that no more have left a name behind them? Simply because they were not endowed by their Maker with the power to do it, and because the offices of life are mainly humble, requiring only humble powers for their fulfilment. The cemeteries of one hundred years hence will be like those of to-day. Of all those now in the schools of this country, dreaming of fame, not one in twenty thousand will be heard of then,--not one in twenty thousand will have left a footprint behind him.

Now I believe that a school, in order to be a good one, should be one that will fit men and women, in the best way, for the humble positions that the great mass of them must necessarily occupy in life. It is not necessary that boys and girls be taught any less than they are taught now. They should receive more practical knowledge than they do now, without a doubt, and less of that which is simply ornamental, but they cannot know too much. An intelligent gardener is better than a clod-hopper, and an educated nurse is better than an ignorant one; but if the gardener and the nurse have been spoiled for their business and their condition, by the sentiments which they have imbibed with their knowledge, they are made uncomfortable to themselves, and to those whom they serve. I do not care how much knowledge a man may have acquired in school, that school has been a curse to him if its influence has been to make him unhappy in his place, and to fill him with futile ambitions.

The country has great reason to lament the effect of the kind of instruction upon which I have remarked. The universal greed for office is nothing but an indication of the appetite for distinction which has been diligently fed from childhood. It is astonishing to see the rush for office on the occasion of the change of a State or National Administration. Men will leave quiet and remunerative employments, and subject themselves to mean humiliations, simply to get their names into a newspaper, and to achieve a little official importance and social distinction. This desire for distinction seems to run through the whole social body, as a kind of moral scrofula, developing itself in various ways, according to circumstances and peculiarities of constitution. The consequence is that politics have become the pursuit of small men, and we no longer have an opportunity to put the best men into office. The scramble for place among fools is so great and so successful, that men of dignity and modesty retire from the field in disgust. Everybody wants to "be something," and in order to be something, everybody must leave his proper place in the world, and assume a position which God never intended he should fill. Look in upon a State legislature once, and you will find sufficient illustration of my meaning. Not one man in five of the whole number possesses the first qualification for making the laws of a State, and half of them never read the constitution of the country. I mean no contempt for the good, honest men of whom our State legislatures are principally composed, but I wish simply to say that there is nothing in their quality of mind, habits of thought, intellectual power, or style of pursuits that fits them for the great and momentous functions of legislation. They are there, a set of "nobodies," mainly for the purpose of becoming "somebodies," and not for any object connected with the good of the State.

Somehow, all the students in all our schools get the idea, that a man in order to be "somebody" must be in public life. Now think of the fact that the millions attending school in this country have in some way acquired this idea, and that only one in every one thousand of these is either needed in public life, or can win success there. Let this fact be realized, and it is easy to see that the nine hundred and ninety-nine will feel that they are somehow cheated out of their birthright. They desired to be in public life, and be "somebody," but they are not, and so their life grows tame and tasteless to them. They are disappointed. The men solace themselves with a petty justice's commission, or a town office of some kind, and the women--some of them--talk about "woman's rights," and make themselves notorious and ridiculous at public meetings. I think women have rights which they do not at present enjoy, but I have very little confidence in the motives of their petticoated champions, who court mobs, delight in notoriety, and glory in their opportunity to burst away from private life, and be recognized by the public as "somebodies." I insist on this:--that private and even obscure life is the normal condition of the great multitude of men and women in this world; and that, to serve this private life, public life is instituted. Public life has no legitimate significance save I as it is related to the service of private life. It requires peculiar talents and peculiar education, and brings with it peculiar trials; and the man best fitted for it would be the last man confidently to assert his fitness for it.

Thousands seek to become "somebodies" through the avenues of professional life; and so professional life is full of "nobodies." The pulpit is crowded with goodish "nobodies"--men who have no power--no unction--no mission. They strain their brains to write common-places, and wear themselves out repeating the rant of their sect and the cant of their schools. The bar is cursed with "nobodies" as much as the pulpit. The lawyers are few; the pettifoggers are many. The bar, more than any other medium, is that through which the ambitious youth of the country seek to attain political eminence. Thousands go into the study of law, not so much for the sake of the profession, as for the sake of the advantages it is supposed to give them for political preferment. An ambitious boy who has taken it into his head to be "somebody," always studies law; and as soon as he is "admitted to the bar" he is ready to begin his political scheming. Multitudes of lawyers are a disgrace to their profession, and a curse to their country. They lack the brains necessary to make them respectable, and the morals requisite for good neighborhood. They live on quarrels, and breed them that they may live. They have spoiled themselves for private life, and they spoil the private life around them. As for the medical profession, I tremble to think how many enter it because they have neither piety enough for preaching, nor brains enough to practice law. When I think of the great army of little men that is yearly commissioned to go forth into the world with a case of sharp knives in one hand, and a magazine of drugs in the other, I heave a sigh for the human race. Especially is all this lamentable when we remember that it involves the spoiling of thousands of good farmers and mechanics, to make poor professional men, while those who would make good professional men are obliged to attend to the simple duties of life, and submit to preaching that neither feeds nor stimulates them, and medicine that kills or fails to cure them.

There must be something radically wrong in our educational system, when youth are generally unfitted for the station which they are to occupy, or are forced into professions for which they have no natural fitness. The truth is that the stuff talked to boys and girls alike, about "aiming high," and the assurances given them, indiscriminately, that they can be any thing that they choose to become, are essential nuisances. Our children all go to the public schools. They are all taught these things. They all go out into the world with high notions, and find it impossible to content themselves with their lot. They had hoped to realize in life that which had been promised them in school, but all their dreams have faded, and left them disappointed and unhappy. They envy those whom they have been taught to consider above them, and learn to count their own lives a failure. Girls starve in a mean poverty, or do worse, because they are too proud to work in a chamber, or go into a shop. American servants are obsolete, all common employments are at a discount, the professions are crowded to overflowing, the country throngs with demagogues, and a general discontent with a humble lot prevails, simply because the youth of America have had the idea drilled into them that to be in private life, in whatever condition, is to be, in some sense, a "nobody." It is possible that the schools are not exclusively to blame for this state of things, and that our political harangues, and even our political institutions, have something to do with it.

What we greatly need in this country is the inculcation of soberer views of life. Boys and girls are bred to discontent. Everybody is after a high place, and nearly everybody fails to get one; and, failing, loses heart, temper, and content. The multitude dress beyond their means, and live beyond their necessities, to keep up a show of being what they are not. Farmers' daughters do not love to become farmers' wives, and even their fathers and mothers stimulate their ambition to exchange their station for one which stands higher in the world's estimation. Humble employments are held in contempt, and humble powers are everywhere making high employments contemptible. Our children need to be educated to fill, in Christian humility, the subordinate offices of life which they must fill, and taught to respect humble callings, and to beautify and glorify them by lives of contented and glad industry. When public schools accomplish an end so desirable as this, they will fulfil their mission, and they will not before. I seriously doubt whether one school in a hundred, public or private, comprehends its duty in this particular. They fail to inculcate the idea that the majority of the offices of life are humble, that the powers of the majority of the youth which they contain have relation to those offices, that no man is respectable when he is out of his place, and that half of the unhappiness of the world grows out of the fact, that, from distorted views of life, men are in places where they do not belong. Let us have this thing altogether reformed.


[The end]
Timothy Titcomb's essay: American Public Education