The School's Responsibility for Developing the Controls of Conduct

W. C. Bagley
1908 The Elementary School Teacher  
Not long ago I read a newspaper anecdote that will, I think, make clear the character of the problem that I wish to discuss with you. I do not know whether this anecdote is a record of an actual occurrence or merely a bit of imaginative space-filling. In either case, however, it will serve my purpose. It had reference to the long list of railroad accidents that was just then horrifying the country, and it told the story of a young telegraph operator who had been brought to trial on the charge
more » ... ial on the charge of criminal negligence. It appeared from the evidence that a serious disaster had occurred as a direct result of this young man's failure to perform the duty that had been assigned him, and it further appeared that his failure was due to no other factor than that which, for want of a more definite term, we call "carelessness." The attorney for the defense sought to establish the young man's good character by the testimony of a number of men and women who had been the defendant's teachers when he was a boy at school. He called one of these teachers to the witness stand and asked him this question: "What kind of a boy was the defendant?" And the witness replied that he had been a very good boy-diligent in his studies, never mischievous, and always companionable with his fellow-pupils and popular 1A lecture delivered before the College of Education, The University of Chicago, November 2r, 1907. 349 This content downloaded from on February 12, 2018 16:06:33 PM All use subject to University of Chicago Press Terms and Conditions ( 350 THE ELEMENTARY SCHOOL TEACHER with his instructors. As the witness gave his testimony, the face of the defendant brightened and his attorney smiled hopefully. But when the defense had completed the direct examination and the prosecuting attorney began the cross-questioning, the bright looks vanished and the smile was changed to a frown. For, after repeating the question of his colleague and receiving the same answer, the prosecuting attorney suddenly turned upon the witness and asked: "Was this young man a careless boy at school? Was he what you would call a careless pupil?" And the witness, after an awkward hesitation, finally admitted that the boy had been a little careless, but was, withal, a good boy and an exemplary pupil. "But," persisted the attorney, "what did you do to change him in this respect? Having recognized his carelessness, what did you do to break up his bad habits and replace them with better habits ?" And the witness, reluctantly and with not a little confusion, was finally compelled to answer, "Nothing !" Now, as I have intimated, this little anecdote may be purely imaginative, but it certainly raises a possible question with regard to the functions and responsibilities of education that cannot be brushed to one side as irrelevant and impractical. After all, what is education for? We have advanced far beyond the point where we thought of education as chiefly concerned with the acquisition of knowledge--with the cramming of the mind with facts and theories and laws and principles. We have got beyond the primitive conception of education as the process by means of which youth is endowed with certain "earmarks" of culture. We have left these inadequate conceptions behind, and have gradually come to the much broader view that education must fit the child for life and work and service and production in a complex social environment to the demands of which nature has very imperfectly adapted him. Social efficiency, formulated though it may be in diverse ways, is becoming the conscious aim of all educational effort. As a result of this development, education is coming to its own as a human institution. As one writer has intimated, it has attained to its majority and is coming into its kingdom. And as in individuals, so in institutions, the first sign of approaching maturity is a hypertrophied self-consciousness. Like the adolescent youth, education is filled with a deep sense of its power, a yearning to know and test its function, an analytic impulse which leads it to unravel its mysteries, and to organize its efforts with foresight and intelligence toward the goal that it seeks to attain. And with these longings and strivings and yearnings, if I may continue the metaphor, is mingled now and then an undertone of foreboding, as if the task that lay before it were too stupendous for its powers; as if the problem that had been set it for solution-by far the most intricate and complicated that any human institution has yet attempted-were much too intricate and complicated for any human institution to solve. And so we find, now and then, an expression of pessimism, just as we find a marked tendency toward pessimism in individual adolescence--a tendency to distrust the power that education possesses, a temptation to repudiate nurture and hark back to nature, to discount the forces of the environment and magnify those of heredity, to take but a half-hearted hope in the school while we await, as patiently as we can, the arrival of the superman. There can be no doubt that just such reflections upon the worth and efficiency of school training as that expressed by the prosecuting attorney of my anecdote contribute no small share to whatever pessimism one may feel. In what measure must the school hold itself responsible for the failure of its products to meet the demands imposed by social and industrial conditions? It would seem perfectly obvious that the effort of the teacher is quite without value unless, in some way or another, it modifies the conduct of his pupils. If those who come to me for instruction and training act in no way more effectively after they leave me than they would have acted had they never come under my influence, my work as a teacher must be adjudged a failure. Certainly if they act less effectively, my work is more than a failure -it is a catastrophe. And furthermore the fact that I could not foresee the results, the fact that I did my duty as I saw it, might mitigate the blame, but it could in no way mitigate the This content downloaded from 186.
doi:10.1086/453734 fatcat:bkaqjvajiba67micphfg3dom7q