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The Demands of the Times upon Our Schools


by William H. Kilpatrick - 1921

In this essay, Kilpatrick contends that schools must consciously assume an important part in the attempt to effect a better state of civilization, and must determine their aims and consequent procedure in consistency with this duty.

The subject of this article has been chosen to illustrate, and to present indirectly the very important point of view that education, if it is to meet its full duty, must order itself in relation to the social group as a whole. The position to be combatted is the tendency to treat education, actually if not intentionally, as if it were purely or mainly to prepare certain pupils to get on well in the world. Many an actual school does, in fact, so influence its pupils that henceforth they are concerned in selfish and partisan fashion primarily for the welfare of themselves alone, or, at most, of a small part of the total social group. The position here assumed is that our schools must consciously assume an important part in the attempt to effect a better state of civilization, and must determine their aims and consequent procedure in consistency with this duty.


What, then, is demanded? In particular, what demands arise from the present critical state of the world's affairs? How shall we estimate and judge this serious tide in affairs in order to get from it the best of guidance?


Truly, the present is a most momentous period in the world's history. When we consider how much is happening, into how few years the events are compressed, what results flow from them, how far-reaching is their influence, when we think of these things, the effect on the imagination is overwhelming. A decade ago, as we read or studied history, our thoughts at times dwelt musingly upon those interesting periods of the remote past that stand out in such relief. Our own times seemed so prosaic, so uneventful, that we perhaps envied the dwellers in that past the opportunity they had to witness those mighty events and share in moulding and shaping their outcomes. Our day will, in time, be judged no less interesting and no less momentous than those. The French Revolution may rival the present in the intensity of some of its moments, but in the extent of the regions influenced our day is far greater. More is now happening, events move more quickly, more has been at stake than perhaps ever before.


And of particular concern to us is the fact that the part played by books and thoughts is greater than ever before. Larger numbers of people now read. The conscious study of society is far more general, and the interchange of views is greatly facilitated. If any one objects that the widespread reading and thinking today are but the “little learning” that carries danger in its train, we need neither admit nor deny, but only point out that if it be so, then the greater is the demand upon us to bring up a rising generation which is able to cope with the situation.


The thought is worth developing. In 1815 the Congress of Vienna took every conceivable precaution to determine for subsequent generations the paths that civilization should thereafter follow. They chose a path that represented reaction rather than progress, and what was the result? In answering, note that a generation is reckoned at 33 years. Add a half generation to 1815, and we reach the revolutionary period of 1830-32. Add the full generation, and revolutions again come, those of 1848. What does it mean? The movements of history are complex; but are we not forced to conclude at least this much, that no settlement of any great social question can afford to overlook the rising generation? When the half-grown boys of 1815 came to maturity they took matters ruthlessly into their own hands and overturned governments that a half generation before had been restored with so much care. In 1848, history again repeated itself.


Do we, in looking forward, face a future of revolutions? That changes will come, great and far reaching, no one can doubt. What these changes shall be and whether they shall come by revolution or in orderly fashion depend in large measure upon the character of the successive generations. Education, as the name for all moulding influences, is the great determining factor of character; it is our only hope for order. We dare not leave this matter to chance. Conscious education must lend its every aid. The result may depend upon what we today decide to do. In proportion as the present grows bigger with possibilities, and as thought and character become increasing factors in shaping affairs, in just such proportion does our responsibility increase.


What is the situation confronting us? What do we see as we look over the world? The aftermath of the greatest war in history, millions upon millions killed, billions upon billions of property destroyed, new-made nations starving and quarreling as they starve, Russia in chaos, and other parts of the world little better off. Everywhere international suspicions, fears, selfishness, and, in too many cases, despair. If we look into the domestic affairs of our country, we find a like welter of unrest, strikes, threats, bitter partisanship, industrial warfare, class hatreds. Wherever we may look, at home or abroad, the future seems dark.


But let us look beneath the surface of this most discouraging situation, and see if more deeply moving tendencies may not furnish guidance. What is the characteristic feature of the period in which we live? Is there anything to distinguish it from preceding periods? The answer seems clear: our generation is distinguished by the growth of tested thought, and its application to the affairs of men. Other periods have thought, and thought acutely, but the characteristic features of our time are found in the tendency to test suggested thought in as objective a fashion as possible, in the accumulation of thought so tested, and in the disposition to apply this thought to improving the affairs of men.


Three far-reaching tendencies co-exist with this modern characteristic and receive greatly added impetus from it; namely, a tendency to criticize our social institutions, a tendency toward the aggregation of men in larger and larger units and their integration in ever closer relationships, and a democratic tendency. It is not suggested that criticism is a modern phenomenon. It is far otherwise. What is claimed is that modern criticism finds its chief support in the growth and application of tested thought. There is a seeming inevitability and relentlessness in the onward sweep of modern science that gives credence and acceptability to its criticisms. The successes of science make it bold; no region is exempt from its search. The faith that was once yielded unquestioningly to the church or to the Bible is now being transferred to science, and more and more our institutions are subjected to criticism. So long as tradition told us what to think, conservatism held sway. Science introduces conscious questioning, and the disposition to change grows apace. The strength of this critical tendency is not yet at its height. We may confidently expect a stronger and more penetrating criticism to make a yet more inclusive scrutiny of human institutions and a yet more radical tendency to change things in accordance with criticism. Whether we approve or not, whether it be a Frankenstein or not, the spirit of criticism is loose in the modern world.


The second tendency is toward the aggregation of men in ever growing units and the integration of mankind in ever more numerous relationships. That this aggregation and integration grow out of the application of tested thought to the affairs of men needs no demonstration. To use the term “industrial revolution” almost of itself suffices to prove the contention. The point here insisted upon is that the process of aggregation still continues, and in such a way as to carry integration constantly with it. Before science had revolutionized our industry each community lived largely in self-sufficiency. What was eaten was grown in great measure immediately at hand, what was worn was made of materials produced nearby. The customary life of the majority of mankind was lived in small areas. As tested thought was applied to production, however, affairs changed. Home and shop industries gave way to the factory. More men were brought together in one organization, raw materials were brought from greater distances, and the products were sold over wider areas. Cities sprang into being. Transportation facilities have kept pace. Ever growing cities are joined in ever closer relationships with ever increasing areas. Aggregation and integration are thus practical correlatives. Nor is the end in sight. Every improvement in means of production, transportation, and communication but increases the tendency. As never before, we are members of one society. The evening speech of a prime minister is read by the whole world the next morning. A murder in southern Europe involves the whole world in war. A crop failure in a remote corner of the world threatens hunger for the poor of Europe. More and larger aggregations, closer and more numerous integrations; the entire world hangs together as a whole in a degree never known before. And again the end is not in sight. The process is endless unless civilization begins to die.


The third tendency, that towards democracy, is not so easy either to define or to explain, but its forward sweep cannot be questioned. Whatever else it may mean, it includes at least this: that the world and its resources and all human institutions exist for the sake of men, that men, not a few chosen and set apart, but all men, may live as well as possible. A tendency this was called, and properly so, for it is still far from realization; but a tendency it is, definite and pronounced. Whatever the Great War may have been in its inception, it came to be a question of democracy. Only on this basis could our side prolong the war; for the lack of this basis our enemy collapsed. And still again the end is not in sight; democracy will not stay its stride till many matters be set straight. Nor will the end then come, for it is an infinite world in which we live, and the spirit of human justice will ever find work lying at its hand.


As these three great social tendencies have received strength and impetus from the growth and application of tested thought, so do all, working together in their turn, lead to two conclusions especially significant for us.


The first is that authoritarianism in the affairs of men wanes to its death. The time was when kings held sway by a “divine right,” about which their subjects were held to have no choice. Governmental control and its authentication were alike external. In recent times government increasingly derives its powers from the consent of the governed. External authority yields to internal authority. So with learning and knowledge; the time was when the ipse dixit of some master, the decree of some council or ecclesiastical potentate, the letter of the biblical text, sufficed to fix the doctrine. It is yet so with many. It is being more and more observed, however, that authority, formerly external and superimposed, is becoming internal and is deriving its just power from the internal process of its efficient working. Criticisms and democracy allow no resting place for authoritarianism as such. The internal authority derived from efficient working is the authority which alone can stand the test. It is the realm of morals that is now being called upon to yield its external authoritarian sway. To many of us the prospect is dismaying. But whether we like it or not the time is fast passing when an external authoritarianism of morals can be relied upon to give effective guidance or control to those who stand most in need of it. Already a new generation that came to maturity during the war is asking why and why not, and will not be silenced by the traditional answers. What is worse, they are in large numbers answering their questions by denying any sort of authority, internal as well as external. The external authority of church or book has been in the past the reliance of many in questions of morals. But these external authorities have, for the many, passed beyond recall. For these, if morals are not to descend to a mere temporary expediency, some other basis must be found and found quickly. Herein, we who educate face a distressing situation. The downfall of authoritarianism elsewhere, most of us stand ready to approve; but what to do in the matter of morals constitutes one of our most serious problems.


More significant, if possible, is the second conclusion from the far-reaching tendencies discussed earlier; namely, that change is inherent in the very process of civilization, and, so far as it concerns human institutions, practically all embracing. It is only too true that many among us have been hoping and praying that affairs will at last quiet down and let civilization catch its breath. It is not improbable that the war has acted temporarily to hasten the process of change; but, taking centuries together, change will never cease. On the contrary it will almost certainly become increasingly rapid. What, do you ask, can be the justification for so disquieting a prophecy? Consider the facts. Civilization takes its character from, or better finds its character in, the fabric of human achievement known to us as tools, machines, and the like, and the correlative customs, institutions, and systems of thought. See what the single invention of the steam engine has done to change the affairs of men, or the telegraph, or the germ theory of disease. Every first class invention makes far-reaching demands for changes in human behavior and relationships. The increasing aggregation of human affairs hastens the spread of change. More first class inventions have been made in the past two hundred years than in the two thousand years before. We have every reason to expect, unless civilization goes to pieces, that the next two hundred years will show even more invention, because thought begets thought, and tested thought begets fruitful thought. If this be so, more change will come, and so ad infinitum. As inevitably as civilization continues to exist and thought continues to be itself, just so inevitably will changes come. We face, then, a world of inherent and unending change. What the changes will be, whither they will carry us, we know not. The only thing we can assert with certainty is that we face rapidly changing forces which are shaping an unknown future.


In view of all the foregoing, what shall we say are the special demands made upon us who teach? What characteristics are especially needed to enable the rising generation to meet its problems and difficulties? Some things can be named at once.


Among many changes that are to come, some will come about apart from our special efforts to bring them, perhaps even in spite of efforts to prevent their coming; others we can bring or not, as we like, and according to the fashion we choose. Change is inevitable but progress is contingent. It is, then, exceedingly important that the rising generation believe in orderly processes of capitalizing change rather than in violent and catastrophic measures. The road to revolution, if often traveled, can but lead to the death of civilization.


As the world faces many great and unknown changes it is possible that we, by taking thought, can prepare our youth specifically to meet that unknown situation. We must prepare them to adapt themselves, when the time shall come, to that unknown and shifting world. We must then, as far as we can, make our young people adaptable, capable of easy and intelligent adjustment. It is methods of investigation they must be taught, not specific solutions. That they shall think and not what they shall think must be our aim.


Since dependence is no longer to be placed merely upon authoritarian ethics inculcated by blind habit, we must seek an intelligent moralization. Moral habits? Yes. But moral principles as well. On no other basis can we expect our young people to adjust themselves morally to that ever-shifting world. If they do not have the “why” as well as the “what” of morals, they will not clearly recognize the moral demand in the changed aspect of affairs. To give them habituation only is to invite moral anarchy. This is indeed a great responsibility. The time once was when the school could say to the church, this matter of morals belongs to you, but, for good or ill, that day has passed. It is to the school that society must look, and we can only meet our duty by building an intelligent moralization.


A fourth problem, perhaps less pressing than the preceding, is the demand that none of our youth receive only trade training. Trade training is needed, and it must be provided, but our working people need something more. We must have artisans who understand the “why” of what they do. Else they cannot cooperate consciously in what they do, and, more to the immediate point, they will be unable to adjust themselves to the shifting demands of new processes. Intelligent our workmen must be, for their own sakes as well as for the sake of their work. But even more, our workmen of all classes and grades, in common with all others, if there are to remain any who do not work, must be intelligent citizens. Anything else is dangerous to the welfare of society. No mere trade training. A more pernicious doctrine than that of merely trade training is not preached.


But the principles given in our analysis yield yet other guidance. Consider our international situation. The unending process of aggregation and integration has a very definite lesson for us. An inclusive integration is absolutely essential unless civilization is to fail. A round world was bound in time to return upon itself. As the seven petty kingdoms of England could not continue separate, but must unite in time into one inclusive kingdom, as the clans of Scotland could not forever continue in mutual warfare, but must unite to form one country, as in our country the thirteen original states could not walk independent paths, but must form, first the confederation, then a union, and finally make of this an indestructible union, so the same processes of integration are bringing the nations of the world together. Granted the continuance of the aggregation and integration, now steadily increasing, the time was bound to come when the multiplicity of mutual relationships would demand the joint intelligent solution of common problems. If nations are already so bound together that the assassination of one man in an obscure corner lights a fire that spreads over the whole world, if these things can happen, it would seem that the time has already come when some inclusive organization shall make such things impossible.


And what do these things mean for the teacher? They mean that we must build world-mindedness in our children, the ability to see the world of humanity and not merely the people of our one single nation. It means further a positive world patriotism, an unselfishness in dealing with the mutual affairs of our countries. I am not saying that we should no longer love our respective countries. Far from it. But I do mean to decry a selfish patriotism that lets the immediate and apparent good of country outweigh considerations of right and justice and good will to men. The patriotic rivalry I would advocate is a rivalry to excel in helping mankind, and not rivalry in the exploitation of backward nations. The world-mindedness, we would build, must see the practical and moral impossibility of an exclusive national sovereignty. It was on this rock that Prussia came so near wrecking the civilization of the world.


Such a conception of world-mindedness means for our country, as also for other countries, a new history, a new geography, and new civics. It must be a history that unites and not one that separates. It must be a geography that teaches respect for other nations, that sees the whole world mutually interdependent. It must be civics that brings home to the individual his duties and possibilities in relation to others, and the like duties and possibilities of his nation in relation to other nations. The task is great, the schools cannot do all, but we can at least do our part to make the spirit of human brotherhood permeate the work of instruction.


We may also, from our analysis, get light on the domestic situation. In matters industrial, the tendency to aggregation has far outrun the spirit of democracy. So far, our organization has considered only, or mainly, the money outcome; we have too often forgotten the element of humanity. These men who work in factories are not merely producers or money makers, they are also men with passions like our own. We have been prone to forget this, and have left democracy out of account in our industrial affairs. If our analysis is valid, we may be sure that in some way, somehow, the spirit of democracy must enter also the industrial realm. We cannot say what specific form this will take, we do not know, possibly no one has as yet even conceived a suitable plan, but this we can rely upon; unless the worker lives in his work as well as from his work we are going to have unrest forever. And this holds of all kinds of workers. We must live in our work as well as from our work.


What is then demanded of the school? That it build in its pupils breadth of view in social and economic matters, an unselfish outlook, a sense of responsibility for improving affairs, and such an ability to think as will keep our pupils, grown to maturity, from being the prey of demagogues. Regard for these things should permeate all our teaching. Every time one of us faces a class our aim should be to lead our students to a firmer grip on such attitudes. The school must provide opportunities for cultivating breadth of view, the sense of responsibility, and the ability to weigh arguments in social and economic matters. Practice in these is necessary to build them firmly. The very manner of conducting the class will have no small part in the matter. The unselfish attitude will prove difficult to attain, but a sense of fair play in life's affairs can be built up at least within certain limits.


The school we have inherited has come down to us from a remote past when education was mainly designed on the one hand, to inculcate docility and on the other to impart bare knowledge or skill. These things no longer satisfy. The duty of the school is now as large as is the life of the child who is to live in the democratic society of the future. It is our part to see that the ideals and attitudes necessary for that democratic life enter into the very innermost souls of our young people. In no other way can we meet the demand of the times upon our schools. In preparation for that unknown and changing future, books and examinations are not sufficient. Ideals and attitudes are immensely more important. Among these, three ideals especially stand out as worthy of our every endeavor, unselfishness, adaptability, responsibility.



Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 22 Number 2, 1921, p. 127-136
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 3988, Date Accessed: 1/22/2022 9:29:45 PM

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