THE FUNCTION OF EDUCATION IN DEMOCRATIC SOCIETY
By Charles W. Eliot
THE FUNCTION OF EDUCATION IN DEMOCRATIC SOCIETY, from Charles William Eliot’s Educational Reforms: Essays and Addresses, New York, The Century Company, 1909, pp. 401-407.
Charles William Eliot （1834-1926）, American educationalist, president of Harvard University, 1869-1909. This is an address delivered before the Brooklyn Institute on October 2, 1897.
What the function of education shall be in a democracy will depend on what is meant by democratic education.
Too many of us think of education for the people as if it meant only learning to read, write, and cipher. Now, reading, writing, and simple ciphering are merely the tools by the diligent use of which a rational education is to be obtained through years of well-directed labor. They are not ends in themselves, but means to the great end of enjoying a rational existence. Under any civilized form of government, these arts ought to be acquired by every child by the time it is nine years of age. Competent teachers, or properly conducted schools, now teach reading, writing, and spelling simultaneously, so that the child writes every word it reads, and, of course, in writing spells the word. Ear, eye, and hand thus work together from the beginning in the acquisition of the arts of reading and writing. As to ciphering, most educational experts have become convinced that the amount of arithmetic which an educated person who is not some sort of computer needs to make use of is but small, and that real education should not be delayed or impaired for the sake of acquiring a skill in ciphering which will be of little use either to the child or to the adult. Reading, writing, and arithmetic, then, are not the goal of popular education.
The goal in all education, democratic or other, is always receding before the advancing contestant, as the top of a mountain seems to retreat before the climber, remoter and higher summits appearing successively as each apparent summit it reached. Nevertheless, the goal of the moment in education is always the acquisition of knowledge, the training of some permanent capacity for productiveness or enjoyment, and the development of character. Democratic education being a very new thing in the world, its attainable objects are not yet fully perceived. Plato taught that the laborious classes in a model commonwealth needed no education whatever. That seems an extraordinary opinion for a great philosopher to hold; but, while we wonder at it, let us recall that only one generation ago in some of our Southern States it was a crime to teach a member of the laborious class to read. In feudal society education was the privilege of some of the nobility and clergy, and was one source of the power of these two small classes. Universal education in Germany dates only from the Napoleonic wars; and its object has been to make freeman. In England the system of public instruction is but twenty-seven years old. Moreover the fundamental object of democratic education—to lift the whole population on a higher plane of intelligence, conduct, and happiness—has not yet been perfectly apprehended even in the United States. Too many of our own people think of popular education as if it were only a protection against dangerous superstitions, or a measure of police, or a means of increasing the national productiveness in the arts and trades. Our generation may, therefore, be excused if it has but an incomplete vision of the goal of education in a democracy.
I proceed to describe briefly the main elements of instruction and discipline in a democratic school. As soon as the easy use of what I have called the tools of education is acquired, and even while this familiarity is being gained, the capacity for productiveness and enjoyment should begin to be trained through the progressive acquisition of an elementary knowledge of the external world. The democratic school should begin early in the very first grades—the study of nature; and all its teachers should, therefore, be capable of teaching the elements of physical geography, meteorology, botany, and zoölogy, the whole forming in the child’s mind one harmonious sketch of its complex environment. This is a function of the primary-school teacher which our fathers never thought of, but which every passing year brings out more and more clearly as a prime function of every instructor of little children. Somewhat later in the child’s progress toward maturity the great sciences of chemistry and physics will find place in its course of systematic training. From the seventh or eighth year, according to the quality and capacity of the child, plane and solid geometry, the science of form, should find a place among the school studies, and some share of the child’s attention that great subject should claim for six or seven successive years. The process of making acquaintance with external nature through the elements of these various sciences should be interesting and enjoyable for every child. It should not be painful but delightful; and throughout the process the child’s skill in the arts of reading, writing, and ciphering should be steadily developed.
There is another part of every child’s environment with which he should early begin to make acquaintance, namely, the human part. The story of the human race should be gradually conveyed to the child’s mind from the time he begins to read with pleasure. This story should be conveyed quite as much through biography as through history; and with the descriptions of facts and real events should be entwined charming and uplifting products of the imagination. I cannot but think, however, that the wholly desirable imaginative literature for children remains, in large measure, to be written. The mythologies, Old Testament stories, fairy tales, and historical romances on which we are accustomed to feed the childish mind contain a great deal that is perverse, barbarous, or trivial; and to this infiltration into children’s minds, generation after generation, of immoral, cruel, or foolish ideas is probably to be attributed, in part, the slow ethical progress of the race. The common justification of our practice is that children do not apprehend the evil in the mental pictures with which we so rashly supply them. But what should we think of a mother who gave her child dirty milk or porridge, on the theory that the child would not assimilate the dirt? Should we be less careful of mental and moral food materials? It is, however, as undesirable as it is impossible to try to feed the minds of children only upon facts of observation or record. The immense product of the imagination in art and literature is a concrete fact with which every educated being should be made somewhat familiar, such products being a very real part of every individual’s actual environment.
Into the education of the great majority of children there enters as an important part their contribution to the daily labor of the household and the farm, or, at least, of the household. It is one of the serious consequences of the rapid concentration of population into cities and large towns, and of the minute division of labor which characterizes modern industries, that this wholesome part of education is less easily secured than it used to be when the greater part of the population was engaged in agriculture. Organized education must, therefore, supply in urban communities a good part of the manual and moral training which the coöperation of children in the work of father and mother affords in agricultural communities. Hence the great importance in any urban population of facilities for training children to accurate handwork, and for teaching them patience, forethought, and good judgment in productive labor.
Lastly, the school should teach every child, by precept, by example, and by every illustration its reading can supply, that the supreme attainment for any individual is vigor and loveliness of character. Industry, persistence, veracity in word and act, gentleness and disinterestedness should be made to thrive and blossom during school life in the hearts of the children who bring these virtues from their homes well started, and should be planted and tended in the less fortunate children. Furthermore, the pupils should be taught that what is virtue in one human being is virtue in any group of human beings, large or small—a village, a city or a nation; that the ethical principles which should govern an empire are precisely the same as those which should govern an individual; and that selfishness, greed, falseness, brutality, and ferocity are as hateful and degrading in a multitude as they are in a single savage.
The education thus outlined is what I think should be meant by democratic education. It exists to-day only among the most intelligent people, or in places singularly fortunate in regard to the organization of their schools; but though it be the somewhat distant ideal of democratic education, it is by no means an unattainable ideal. It is the reasonable aim of the public school in a thoughtful and ambitious democracy. It, of course, demands of a kind of teacher much above the elementary-school teacher of the present day, and it also requires a larger expenditure upon the public school than is at all customary as yet in this country. But that better kind of teacher and that larger expenditure are imperatively called for, if democratic institutions are to prosper, and to promote continuously the real welfare of the mass of the people. The standard of education should not be set at the now attained or the now attainable. It is the privilege of public education to press toward a mark remote.
function, the work that education is designed to do; the natural and proper action of education.
cipher, do sums in arithmetic. Reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic are called the 3 R’s.
rational, sensible; intelligent; having reason or understanding; not absurd or foolish.
simultaneously, all at the same time; all taking place at one time.
computer, a person whose duty requires a knowledge of figures and computing.
impaired, weakened; damaged.
popular education, education for the mass of people; democratic education.
of the moment, of the time that affords an opportunity; of the present.
Plato （427-347 B.C.）, the eminent Greek philosopher, made such a statement in his Republic.
laborious, laboring; doing unskilled labor.
model commonwealth, the body of people constituting a state or politically organized community that serves as an example for imitation. Plato’s Republic is an attempt at presenting such an organization.
extraordinary, beyond or out of the common order or method; not usual, customary, regular, or ordinary.
one generation ago. Around 1865 when the American Civil War ended. The average time in which children are ready to replace parents is reckoned at one third of a century or at thirty years as a time measure.
our Southern States, the southern states of the United States of America.
feudal society. In medieval Europe, society was based on the relation between vassal and superior arising from the holding of lands in feud.
clergy, the body of men set apart, by due ordination, to the service of God, in the Christian church, in distinction from the laity.
Napoleonic wars. The wars against the encroachments of Napoleon were fought in the years between 1799 and 1815.
twenty-seven years old, that is, since 1870.
meteorology, the science or the branch of physics treating of the atmosphere and its phenomena, especially its variations of heat and moisture, its winds and storms, and others.
entwined, twisted or wreathed together or around; included.
mythologies. Mythology treats of myths, which are stories, the origins of which are forgotten, that ostensibly relate historical events, which are usually of such character as to serve to some practice, belief, institution, or natural phenomenon. A myth may be a person or thing existing only in imagination, or whose actual existence is not verifiable. Here, the reference is to the myths of Greece and Rome, and those of the Teutonic tribes—to such stories as those of Zeus and his Olympian comrades.
Old Testament stories, stories from the Old Testament of the Bible, such as the story of the crossing of the Red Sea, that of the sun and moon standing still at the command of Joshua and others too numerous to relate.
fairy tales, as those given in Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales.
historical romances, those of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, of Charlemagne and his Twelve Peers, of Æneas and his wanderings and many others.
perverse, turned away from the right; willfully erring; wicked;perverted.
infiltration, penetrating gradually.
porridge, a food made by boiling some leguminous or farinaceous substance in water or milk to form a broth or thin pudding.
assimilate, absorb or appropriate as nourishment.
urban, of or pertaining to a city or town.
precept, any commandment, instruction, or order intended as a rule of action or conduct, especially a command respecting moral conduct.
industry, habitual diligence in any employment or pursuit; constant or close application or attention, especially to some business or enterprise;hard work.
veracity, that which is true; habitual observance of truth.
disinterestedness, freedom from selfish motive; not biased or prejudiced.
savage, an uncivilized person; a person of brutal cruelty or uncontrolled passions or barbarous ignorance.
now attained, that which we now have.
now attainable, that which we now can have, regardless as to whether we have it or have it not at the present.
- Are people educated when they have learned their three R’s?
- What is always the goal of the moment in education? Why only of the moment?
- Why has our generation an incomplete vision of the goal of education in a democracy?
- What are the main elements of instruction and discipline in a democratic school?
- Through what studies should a child make acquaintance with external nature?
- How should a child learn the story of the human race?
- Why must city schools provide handiwork?
- What ethical training should the school give?
- Why is popular education peculiarly essential in a democracy?