Project Canterbury

Memories of a Great Schoolmaster: Dr. Henry A. Coit
by James P. Conover

Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Co., 1906.

An American Boys' School--What It Should Be
By Henry A. Coit, D.D.

[Reprinted from The Forum of September, 1891, by permission of the publishers.]

I HAVE been asked to write an article on a great American school, I suppose because I have spent most of my life in school work and because whatever I know about schools is rather a matter of experience than of theory. It would be bad taste to enlarge on one's own work, and too much in the way of glorifying one's self, unless indeed I owned to manifold mistakes and failures, and acknowledged (what would be the simple truth) that what I have seen accomplished as the result of my own plans and labors is inexpressibly below my aims and ideals. Perhaps, therefore, the best course to take will be to allow the imagination a little scope and to portray what a great American school, such as one longs to see, ought to be--what, at least, those who are engaged in educational work ought to aim at; and certainly a high aim is better than a low one, and it is a help to our human weakness to keep before us the noblest ideal.

In what I am about to say, I am sure of the sympathy and concurrence of loyal, disinterested, high-minded Christian men engaged in the same work. We are all one, and our work is one, and we enter into no rivalry or vulgar competition with one another. We have essentially the same end, and we wish one another God-speed, not only in newspapers and on public occasions, but in our secret hearts and in our haunts of retirement. True men, who are not seeking selfish interests or personal ethos, have no thought or wish to increase by the losses or discomfiture of their brethren. The work in which they are engaged is of the highest, and they gladly recognize their fellow workers, and desire to have part in no other provocation than "to love and good works."

We have a great system of common schools throughout the country, which engage the attention and interest--I may add, which awaken the anxiety--of large-hearted, thoughtful Americans; but my subject is apart from these. I am concerned with such schools only as belong to the secondary class, which are preparatory to a university course, whether classical or scientific, and which profess also to give to boys who are designed for business such beginning of sound mental training and knowledge of letters that they need not be classed hereafter with the uninformed and illiterate. The school is American in the strictest sense of the word, on American soil, under American institutions, for American needs, and not an imitation, however good, of what cannot be reproduced on this side of the Atlantic--a great English public school. We cannot have Rugby, or Eton, or Harrow here, if we would. And certainly no one who understands our society, and the special character of our civilization, would wish for such transplanting. This is not saying that we are above learning from England, or Germany, or any other nation, what is best in its educational work, or that we are starting out for ourselves regardless of the rich harvests of the past. Our danger as a nation is from self-confidence and satisfaction in beginnings which are at best only a promise and foundation for the future. But neither the great English public school nor the German gymnasium would suit us here. We have our own conditions to meet and provide for, which belong to ourselves as Americans, as well as those which are common to men in every country, age, and generation.

The ideal is one not easy of attainment, and there are opposing forces at work in our American social life, which make it peculiarly difficult. Average human nature must be surmounted and directed in every age, if we would reach a high standard of excellence, whether intellectual or moral; but we have our own special barriers and drawbacks, and these will be briefly indicated as I go on.

We want first to make men. Such schools as I have in mind take charge of the daily life of the boys committed to them, of their sleeping, eating, arrangement of hours for study and exercise, and are therefore, in a certain degree, responsible for their physical well-being. The sanum corpus, if not the most important, is certainly the first object, and this head comprises most of the details of mere living---the simple yet generous and varied diet, the sufficiency of rest and recreation, the careful provision for bathing, and for fresh air and well-distributed light, in the rooms occupied by the boys, as well as such special arrangements as are required by our variable climate, with its extremes of heat and cold. Our boys are the men of the future. They must have bodily health and vigor to begin with, and all their physical powers unimpaired and in good working order. For men should be manly, and while a puny, delicate man may have the truest manliness and a burly, self-indulgent animal of the same genus have little or none, a sound, healthy body in a boy goes far to insure his manliness and freedom from the tendency to abnormal precocious vice. Great care will be taken, therefore, to encourage and cultivate such exercises as are instrumental in producing a sound body. The playing fields, ball courts, tennis grounds, and gymnasium will receive the same attention and oversight as the school-room. The severity of the winter, the wet cheerlessness of the early spring, will be mitigated by an ample provision for exercise under reasonable shelter. The authorities of the school will aim so to strengthen and develop a boy's physique that he will not easily take cold, or suffer from a little exposure, or notice a trifling discomfort, or be subject to the sick headaches which are usually the penalty of an overloaded stomach. There is a great furore for competitive games at present throughout the country, and this creates an exaggerated and undue interest in their results. Whatever the example set by some of our young collegians, the ideal school will hold in check this monopoly of youthful energy. There will be great caution in allowing contests with athletic clubs from other schools. No set of boys will be permitted to quit their work in term-time to play match games in other places away from the school. Whatever introduces a professional clement or incites betting will be discountenanced and repressed. In a large school it is quite possible to organize clubs sufficient to create and sustain the interest which comes from a healthy competition. What the prevailing games are is a matter of less account, provided there is reasonableness in their management, and all forms of cheating and loud coarseness are discouraged, and good temper and perfect fairness preside. Some games, however, have better associations than others. In the writer's judgment and experience, cricket is the best game to encourage in such a school as I am imagining. In itself it is no more English than it is American. When Americans play it, it becomes an American game, just as golden-rod, if adopted by general consent, would become the national flower, although it grows freely in certain parts of Great Britain. The educational results of cricket are better than of most other games in promoting those moral qualities which belong to a right notion of manliness. But details of this sort may be safely left to the responsible heads of the school, who will be wisely indifferent to the means used, if the desired end is reached, and the playground becomes a spring of healthy animal life as well as an out-of-doors training in noble manners. Nothing is to be slighted in the discipline of boyhood; and those who are rude and evil-speaking, mean and tricky, in their sports, will be sure to show the same traits elsewhere, both at school and at home. It is a great gain for any boy to learn early to bear defeat gracefully, and to scorn an advantage won by the sacrifice of truth, courtesy, and honor.

Along with this subject comes the necessity of contending with the self-indulgence of our day, a necessity sure to make the school and its authorities unpopular with a large class of the community. For the fathers as well as the mothers do, very many of them, think that love is best shown by feeding, that their sons should have no stint of sweets and other gratifications of the palate, and that their pockets should be well lined with spending money, so that they may be enabled, by the aid of the confectioner and his fellows, to support the hardships of school life. One of the greatest practical difficulties in the way of securing a high-bred manliness among our boys will arise from this vital mistake of parents whose own habits are undisciplined, and who little realize that thus to pamper and indulge the animal nature is to weaken the will-power of their offspring for moral ends, and to sow seed of which the ripened harvest is the incapacity of resisting any inordinate desire. Never let it be forgotten that there can be no manliness worth the name until the boy learns to say a strong "no" to himself and his own propensities, as well as to the lawless solicitations of self-indulgent, unprincipled companions. Whatever we do for mental training and equipment, our work is a failure in proportion as our boys fail in the attainment of these first principles of a healthy manliness.

But a school is mainly occupied with the preparation and training of the mental powers.

These must be exercised, instructed, developed. "Doce, disce, aut discede." "The studies pursued, the methods of teaching, the regulations adopted, are chiefly valuable in so far as they tend to produce certain habits," in so far as they are instrumental in the discipline of memory, reason, imagination, and the perceptive faculties. Not one youth in ten thousand will turn out an Admirable Crichton, and this is not to be regretted; but ninety-nine in a hundred can be made intelligent men with an appreciation of knowledge, a lively sense of their own ignorance, and the purpose to do something themselves to lessen it. The exercise of the memory has been unduly disparaged. There has been a great reaction from the old system of learning by rote and making memory the essential factor in scholastic success; but on the other hand a well-trained, accurate memory is almost indispensable to the acquisition of knowledge, and there is a good deal of cant in much that is said and written about the cultivation of the perceptive and reasoning powers. A child must receive most of his rudimentary instruction on trust. The main point is to give him the best and most available formulae, the clearest and most definite rules and principles, to exercise a wise discretion in the first processes of education, and to form those habits of attention and accuracy without which the work of the teacher, at any period of school-life, will be practically abortive. We cannot improve upon Quintilian's precept, "Non ut intelligere possit, sed ne omnino non intelligere non possit, curandum." It is not only necessary that the child shall understand, but that it shall not be possible for him not to understand.

Our danger at present seems to arise from an overestimate of the youthful capacity and a consequent multiplication of the subjects pursued. Our best colleges and scientific schools are continually raising their standards of admission. The preparation for the freshman class covers a wider range of subjects and becomes increasingly technical, and this leads to a corresponding enlargement of the school course, and to some risk of cramming, and to an arbitrary limitation in boys' minds of what it is worth while to attain in a particular branch of study. The average boy cannot pursue eight or ten different studies at the same time with advantage. The effort to cover so much ground tends, in the majority of cases, to superficial scholarship and to making the college examination the final end of the school work. The highly accomplished, enthusiastic, inspiring teacher is rare. The art of imparting knowledge is a gift as well as an art. We cannot make the exceptionally able teacher and the exceptionally bright and recipient scholar our standards of comparison, any more than we can exact from our serviceable carriage-horses the time and action of a famous racer. Language and mathematics are the two great means of mental discipline, as much so now as in the days of Bacon. No boy will be less fitted for scientific research, will be a less able electrician or civil engineer, because he is a good Latin scholar and well trained in the reasoning processes of plane geometry. It is a popular error that "all things are to be learned at once; not first one thing, then another; not one well, but many badly." The boys sent to such a school as we are aiming at will, most of them, be imperfectly trained in the rudiments of English, will seldom read or spell correctly, will have but a smattering of geography, little or no history, perhaps a small stock of nursery French, but no acquaintance with the great names of English literature, will know more of the writings of Jules Verne than of Walter Scott, and yet will be bright and well disposed enough to accomplish a fair amount of good work, if wisely and kindly dealt with, and if patience and judgment are used in their guidance.

There is so much which can barely be indicated in the compass of an article like this that in treating of scholarship I will limit myself to two points: the end proposed, and the methods taken. The end is the culture of the intellect. The fallacy which underlies most popular talk about education assumes that utility is the end, meaning by "utility" what helps to prepare one for some temporal calling, some art or business, profession or work, directly resulting from the studies pursued; and we must be prepared in advocating a given study to make clear this connection. Now, in our ideal school, the cultivation of the intellect is itself the end, and nothing is accounted more practical than to "impart vigor, beauty, and grasp to the intellectual portion of our nature." This settles the question as to the value of what are called classical studies. These become unpopular in an age the drift of which is materialistic, and in a society whose tendency is to make wealth the summum bonum, and to disparage pursuits which do not lead directly to its accumulation. But those who aspire to teach should have a wider range of mental vision than their pupils. It is not worth while to discuss the value of the Greek language as a means of intellectual culture with a man who has never read a line of Homer. "Thought and speech are inseparable." We mean by "letters" or "literature" the expression of thought in language, and by "thought" is meant "the ideas, feelings, views, reasonings, and other operations of the human mind." It is a mistake to suppose that botany or biology is an eminently practical study, and certainly exclusive devotion to such a study may incapacitate one for what is of all things most practical, namely, historical reasoning. For when one faculty of the mind is inordinately used and developed, the result is very like the excessive development of some member or organ of the body. In a school we aim at the orderly harmonious development of all the mental powers. After a boy has mastered the initial difficulties of reading and writing in his own language, the range and direction of his future studies will depend upon this effort to train and discipline the intellect. The result of such training under favorable circumstances will prepare him to "fill any post with credit, and to master any subject with facility."

As to methods, these will vary with teachers. Mr. Thring lays great stress upon "articulation," but none too much, if it is to be made impossible for the child not to understand. Attention and accuracy are the essentials of any successful method. The constant effort to secure these will govern the arrangement of hours, the length and succession of lessons, and manifold other details. A master's freedom from selfish vanity, his perfect fairness, simple truthfulness, and unaffected kindness will secure the confidence of his boys, and he will claim to lead and instruct them rather as being somewhat in advance of themselves, than as being ex officio master of the whole range of human knowledge. The ethos of the class-room will go far to determine the ethos of the school. As a minor point the management of the voice should not be overlooked. A harsh, shrill, or muffled tone of voice is trying to young as to older hearers. Drawling, muttering, habitual colloquialisms, are to be greatly avoided. The teacher belongs to the educated class, and should not speak in the speech of this or that city or provincial town.

I have said the school is American and to train American citizens. This means that our boys should grow up with a loyal devotion to their native land, an intelligent interest in its geography, history, and resources, and a great idea of the noble possibilities before it. It implies the inculcation of their responsibility and obligations as Americans, which cannot be neglected and ignored without moral failure. It should be set before a boy as a paramount duty, to serve his country and advance its highest welfare, not by an arrogant assertion of its superiority in all companies and places, but by the settled purpose to become a worthy example of what an American should be, whose patent of nobility, whatever his social claims, comes first from his manhood and his character. The follies of some of our countrymen abroad should kindle in the better educated among us the strenuous purpose to shun similar mistakes, and to honor our country by modest self-possession and avoidance of ostentatious expenditure. Our school will be American, above all, in its spirit, in refusing to worship wealth and to be dazzled by display, in awarding its honors to the diligent and the deserving, and in respecting the obsolete virtues of frugality and plain living. The habit of loyalty--of loyal thought, and speech, and action--is a great blessing to a boy, and it is essential to the formation of that most beautiful of all things, the character of a true gentleman.

The majority of right-minded parents are more anxious that their boys should be gentlemen than scholars or successful business men. Assuredly it will be uppermost in the minds of those who direct our ideal school that the throng of unripened youth intrusted to their care should find in the associations of the place that which will

"Subdue them somewhat to that gentleness Which, when it weds with manhood, makes a man."

The discipline of the school will be largely influenced by this idea: to deal with all the boys as if they were or were meant to be gentlemen; to take their word until in any case they are found untrustworthy; to countenance no espionage, no underhand method of detecting the authors of disorder; so to govern by the law of truth that the most deceitful may be shamed into speaking and doing it. Nothing should be more sternly repressed than cheating in the preparation of lessons and in written examinations. The public opinion among boys is apt to be very lax in these matters, but you can never make a true gentleman out of a boy who habitually cheats in his classes and in the school-room. It is, perhaps, the greatest trial in this work to maintain even-handed justice, to treat the coarse-minded, dishonorable boy whom you know to be such, with perfect fairness and consideration; to say and do nothing rude or unkind, although in the youthful company around you many are without refinement of feeling, and return your forbearance with ingratitude. The men who have these arduous duties in hand must be themselves gentlemen, not only in outward seeming, but in grain, in their instincts and habits, in the power of self-repression and self-control.

If it is almost a true definition of a gentleman that he is one who never inflicts pain, then we shall have our hands full in the endeavor to instill into our thoughtless, self-indulgent charge a delicate consideration for the feelings of others, the grace of invariable courtesy to women, the habits of self-forgetfulness, respect for age, regard for another's rights, and tender care for the feeble and helpless and for the brute creation. This is in our ideal, and if those who share in the work of the school illustrate in some degree the character portrayed, many of their boys will reflect their tone, and not only will help to keep down the base among them, but also will learn

"High thought, and amiable words,
And courtliness, and the desire of fame,
And love of truth, and all that makes a man."

For, after all, character is of infinitely greater account than acquirements, and our school aims at forming or helping to form strong and noble characters. How can this end be best reached? Certainly no one, young or old, can be called good who disobeys his conscience, and goodness is better than greatness, if greatness is merely the power to hold the mastery of one's fellows. Goodness often is greatness, and the "first principle of a man's ethical life is to reverence his conscience as his king." There is an absolute standard of Right and Wrong which rules the universe, and to this the conscience in every child bears witness. And the training of conscience is the highest part of education, a training which is twofold: subjective, by keeping the springs of action clear of evil habits and influences from without which pervert and blind the moral sense; and objective, by bringing the "Light which lighteth every man" as near the boy's heart as we can, until duty rules him, and "every pulse beats true to airs divine." How is this end to be accomplished in view of the widespreading imperfection of our home life, the tremendous disorganizing force of early self-indulgence, and the inversion of the true objects of life which a child is quick to discover in those around him before he can draw all the baneful inferences which such examples suggest?

The fact of religious teaching in our school is taken for granted. It is needless to say that this should never be proclaimed as one of the advantages of the place, as a species of advertisement or recommendation. The life of a great school is like the life of an individual. What is best and most precious shuns publicity, and is harmed and degraded by notoriety. There is less temptation, perhaps, to profess a religious motive nowadays, when many a father who may send his boy to such a school has lost his own faith as a Christian, supposing he ever had any to lose, or if he has not lost it altogether is still grievously affected by the tone of much popular literature, and is inclined to think that Christianity is somehow on its trial, and that the Book in which his mother sought the light and consolations of Heaven has been found out, so to speak, in these days of unchartered criticism, and deposed from its authority over human thought and conduct.

We have nothing to do here with religious controversy, and our point is not to prove what has been proven a thousand times, or to refute what has been a thousand times refuted. We are faced with the great question, how to lead our boys to obey conscience and to put their duty uppermost, feeling that whenever this is achieved the best issue of all is reached, and that finis coronobit opus.

There are two effective instruments at hand in our school to be used for this end: personal influence, and law. I. The influence of the living teacher, enforcing by example and every persuasive tender art the truth to be inculcated, is essential in the first place. Didactics is all but worthless with average human beings. Witness the fruitlessness of much well-meant and fairly good preaching. The mere tone of the voice, the expressive look, the loving pressure of the hand, if these reveal a heart deeply convinced of that truth of faith or duty which one longs to impress upon his charge, will do more for good than lectures, however forcible, or those commonplaces of morals which no one would dispute or deny. Simple, unfeigned goodness and the "confidence of a certain faith" upon which it is founded are the mainsprings of a healthy, uplifting, personal influence. The very air a boy breathes in such a place should be helpful from the absence of profane and vicious elements, and the concurrence, more or less manifest, of all who have a right to be listened to and obeyed. This is sufficient under this head, and indicates the multitude of "humble cares and delicate fears" which will make up the daily life of teachers who realize their responsibility and are earnestly set to fulfill it. II. Nothing can be begun without influence, and surely nothing can be completed without law. Influence is needed and desirable in order to bring about the willing recognition of law--of submission and obedience to the highest authority. This makes every detail of school-life important as helping to form habits, the habits which find their strength, as years increase and reason develops, in the faith which we call the Christian faith, and in Him who is its Author and Finisher.

I have arrived at the raison d'etre of such a school as this loved country of ours, with its widely various social life and the numerous elements of menace and disintegration fermenting within it, seems to me to require. Practical men, so-called, if any such glance over these roughly-drawn outlines, may smile at an ideal of which they see no visible illustration, and think it "too good for human nature's daily food," and that a lower aim is wiser, as easier to reach, and not wasting energy and efforts which are sure to be defeated. But,

"Many a time
Victor from vanquished issues at the last,
And overthrows from being overthrown,"

and there is a true parallel here between the life of a school and the life of a man. The highest standard of right and wrong is the only befitting one for a very imperfect human being to make his own. "Sic itur ad astro." and only so. Whoever takes in hand this great work of education must take it in all its parts and with all its overwhelming responsibilities. The whole man is made up of body, soul, and spirit, and that education is mutilated and inadequate which takes no notice of one part--and that the most important part--of our threefold nature. I will sum up in another's words what my own experience of many years has more and more assured me and verified, what this American nation needs above all things to learn, and what it should be the ardent desire and effort of those who bear the honored name of teachers to set forth and apply.

"You may, indeed, offer an education without a religious creed, and you may offer all the material of knowledge, but without a creed you have not the natural recipient of education. Religion gives the power of receiving education; it provides that seriousness and weight in the young mind, which knows how to lay hold of the resources to the enjoyment of which it is admitted. ... In works of fiction there is a moment which makes the character: the creator of the work of art who wields all the resources of moral description, of sentiment and imagery, may have striven with his idea in vain; he buffets the air with words, and loads the ground of the drama with structures of scenes or conversations, but for all that, the character is not yet drawn, and he has that in his mind which is not expressed. His effort is to strike it out, and to shape it, and it will not come into shape; but a moment brings it out, and the person stands before you. That ideal in the world of school creation is the Creed. At once a school becomes something else; something it gains of an end above nature, of a supernatural end of its own work. The rank of all work is raised, and the scholar is raised with his work. The school belongs to the ages that are past, and is part of the chain of forts and defenses of Christianity."

Project Canterbury