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PRINCIPAL ISAAC THOMAS, HIGH SCHOOL, BURLINGTON, VT.
EVERAL months ago there appeared in one of the
leading New York weeklies an article, repeating the charge, long ago grown familiar, that the graduates of the schools and colleges do not use good English in either their written or oral speech, and laying the responsibility for the defect upon the schools. I am not concerned to defend the
schools and am even willing to admit that the charge might be graver than it is and still be true. I believe, however, that everything considered, two other things are also true : (1) that the graduates of school and college speak and write as good English as anybody has reasonably a right to expect, and (2) that the attempt of the schools in English teaching is, many times, foolish. Upon the truth of these two propositions I desire to say something.
Good English, stripped to its necessities, ought to be correct in spelling and grammatical form, and ought to express the thought intended, clearly, precisely, and with a fair degree of coherence and force. Very likely other qualities are desirable in good English and yet who would not be satisfied, not to say gratified, if his speech, written and oral, were always spelled correctly, put according to the rules of grammar, and always expressed the thought in mind exactly, without ambiguity, and with proper coherence and force? On the other hand, I may have included, already, too many qualities among those necessary to good English, though I confess myself unable to see how any one of them could be left out and the English still be good. However that may be, here is a clearly defined task for the schools and colleges to perform and a perfectly definite attainment for students to set before themselves. Is the task reasonable, the attainment possible? Let us see.
The correct spelling of the greater part of the ordinary working vocabulary of the college student can be, and generally is, learned by the average boy before he reaches the high school, so that there, as afterwards in college and in life, he needs only to learn how to spell the new words that come into his vocabulary as he progresses in his work. This he not only ought to do but ought to be expected to do; but to expect him to be able to know how to spell, off-hand, words which never in any way come into his world is preposterous, and to insist on this as a task, is little less than a waste of time.
The learning of correct grammatical form in English is quite another and more difficult task. Yet here again, all the simple, everyday forms of speech can be learned correctly by the average boy of fourteen years, the high school age, and many of the simpler rules of grammar may be well enough understood and assimilated to be of real service to him in correcting his own speech, something he begins to be interested in doing about this time. He will generally be helped in this by his high school work so that, by the time he is ready for college, his speech will be free from all the grosser errors in grammatical construction. And when one remembers how one reads daily in the newspapers, and daily hears in the speech, even of people that pass for educated, error upon error in grammar, there is begotten a disposition to be slow in condemning the mistakes of the college fledgeling. Moreover, the fact that the study of English grammar is analytical, and not, to any extent, inflectional or concordant, makes it a task of much greater difficulty for younger pupils and has an important bearing on the whole subject.
When we pass beyond spelling and grammar and come to the clear, precise, coherent and forcible use of English the difficulties begin to thicken, for to use that sort of English means to think clearly, precisely, coherently and forcibly, and that kind of thinking is done, now as ever, only by the few. I am well aware that the very attempt to use English, as described above, helps to make the thought clear and precise ; yet' the clear thought must come before the clear language, and clear and precise thinking is not only beyond the reach of the great majority of human beings, but is the result of a long and laborious process, even with those capable of it. To expect, therefore, good English from immature students, even when reduced to its minimum requirement, is, to put it with extreme mildness, unreasonable ; to demand it is futile.
But difficulties in subject are not the only ones in the way of obtaining satisfactory results in the English of school and college students, and in any question of educational product the teacher must always be considered. For while the saying, “ like teacher, like school,” is not strictly true, there is much truth in it. And here one, especially one who is himself a teacher, comes at once upon delicate ground. But I am not criticizing nor theorizing, only trying to state fairly a condition, and in such an attempt it seems to me most unfair to all concerned, and most foolish, to blink facts. Be, therefore, as tender as we will of our own professional feelings the ugly fact remains that we, as a body, are not well prepared to teach good English–understanding the definition of good English to be as given above-not excepting teachers in the college and university. Let me state the fact a little more in detail. In all schools below the high school very few of the teachers have more than such education and training as the high school gives, and very many not even as much as that. Besides, a large number of them, perhaps a majority, come from homes where the use of good English is not habitual, and much of their own school training-almost the only corrective applied to their speechhas been received under the same conditions as those under which the children they are teaching are placed, the whole system thus moving round in a vicious circle only occasionally broken into. So unfortunate, indeed, is much of the teaching of English in the grades that homes in which there is a generally habitual use of good English are not only not helped by the school, but are obliged to be on their guard against it.
Those teachers who have had a high school training have had further opportunity to correct their English--and we of the high school know how slight that opportunity was—for there, most of the teachers had had some sort of college training and had become somewhat more careful of their · English. But even in the high school, according to a very high authority, “a great * many teachers do not use good English at all.” This is a very serious indictment, indeed, for it means that, in common with all other high school pupils, those who expect to
* The Teaching of English, Carpenter, Baker and Scott, p. 231.
become teachers in the grades, are, in their English, looking for bread and receiving a stone. Nor is the indictment less serious because it is not made specially against the teachers of English in the high schools, for it cannot be too often repeated that every teacher is a teacher of English whether he will or not, and cannot shield himself behind the excuse that teaching English is not his business. But the indictment does not stop at the high school, it reaches also the college instructor. For, as I have said just above, nearly all high school teachers are college graduates, and if they in their four years work in college have not learned to be careful of their English, have not taken pains to correct the habit of speech in which they were bred, their college instructors must be greatly to blame. And though one comes to the conclusion with reluctance and almost with bated breath, there is hardly room for doubt that the indictment against high school teachers, quoted above, can be made with equal justice against college instructors. If, then, the instructors of the teachers do not use good English, what hope is there for those taught by the teachers? Or, in other words, if those that lead the blind be blind, what shall they both do but fall into the ditch?
In the condition thus outlined there is one amelioration, and it ought, in justice, to be mentioned. It lies in the fact that teachers by teaching tend to become more and more conscious of their defects in the vernacular in which all their work has to be done, and are driven by that consciousness, to remedy them as far as they are able. As, therefore, they become experienced, both their written and oral speech improve and become much better than could rightfully be expected from the teaching they suffered. Against this, however, must be set the further fact that so many teachers do not remain long enough in the service to make the correction of their “salad days'” defects, when their “judgment was green,” of any value worth considering.
But the difficulties of obtaining good results in English lie not alone in the subject and the teacher; the pupil has also to be considered. To me, one of the most incomprehensible things in educational discussions, for the past fifteen years or more, has been the neglect of the chief element in education,
the boy himself, with all his limitations of inheritance, birth and social surroundings. Apparently those discussions have assumed that the only thing to be settled was the course of study which might be as comprehensive and as varied as the wit of man could make it, and that the enthusiastic teacher and the eager pupil would accomplish all the rest. But facts cannot be ignored in that way without somebody's coming to grief, and for a long time a cry against an overcrowded and unpractical curriculum has been going up. What are the facts as regards the boy? In parentage he is almost everything, and so mixed that even his own ancestors would have difficulty in recognizing him. He is all nationalities; sometimes American for many generations, sometimes in nothing except the fact that he was born on American soil; sometimes American one generation or two removed from birth in a foreign country, and sometimes a recently arrived immigrant. He is thus, in his language, all degrees of nearness to the idioms of his mother tongue with all that that implies of difficulty in mastering the new language; and, more,important still, in his race heritage of ideas, his way of looking at things, is a stranger in a strange land. Besides, all these grades and variations must be taken together in the school, so that what would be comparatively simple in segregated groups becomes complex and difficult in the mass, especially when pervaded and enveloped, as all our American education is, by an atmosphere of haste that enfeebles every effort to do good work.
But the boy is not only of every nationality, he is also of every social class and condition from the submerged tenth to the Four Hundred. His language, therefore, has every variety of grammatical construction, picturesqueness and force; the short, sharp slang of the gamin, the languorous, affected, pseudo-elegant talk of the parvenu, and the well-chosen, felicitous English of the educated. As in the case of his nationality here, too, his class heritage of ideas and prejudices, and the view-point of his social condition, increase natural disinclination to the entrance and assimilation of new ideas and new ways, and thus render his progress in the new language much slower and more difficult. And again, the mass system