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1871, fan. 3.
ANNALS OF EDUCATION.
WHAT BRANCHES SHOULD BE TAUGHT IN COMMON SCHOOLS ?
To most minds, this question is beset with difficulties. On the one hand, it seems highly desirable that the range of studies in our common or district schools, should be much more extended than it usually is. The instruction which the mass of our population receive, beyond that of the family, is obtained at these schools. In proof of this, if proof were necessary, it is sufficient to cite the fact so often adverted to, of a late legislature of one of our New England States, consisting of about 200 members, and embracing, without doubt, as full a proportion of learned men as our modern legislatures usually do, of whom it was ascertained that 180 received all, or nearly all, their instruction at the district schools. And if such is the fact in regard to legislative bodies, how is it with the whole community! And if our district schools are, in the result, the principal places of instruction, it seems highly desirable, to say the least, that the elements of something else should be taught in them, besides mere spelling, reading, writing, arithmetic, grammar, and geography.
On the other hand, it is argued that more branches are already introduced into our schools, than can be taught thoroughly; that the teachers are so overburdened with pupils of all ages, demanding variety of treatment, discipline and lessons, and furnished with such a variety of school books, that nothing can be done ; that instead of adding to the list of branches now required to be taught, it would not only be an act of mercy to both teacher and pupil, but a matter of economy to all concerned, to diminish the number, rather than increase it; and that
New Studies may be Introduced.
it is better, far better, to spell and read and write correctly, than by attempting a dozen branches, to acquire a thorough and practical knowledge of none. Our pupils' go through their grammars and geographies and histories and arithmetics, it is said, and yet know little more in reality on these very topics, than their fathers, who never studied them at all; while they are actually their inferiors, in point of reading and penmanship. Where then, it is asked, and certainly not without an appearance of reason, do we find proof of the importance of adding to a list, already too large, a multitude of new studies? We acknowledge the importance of the subjects and sciences you maintain ; we do not attempt to deny that it would be profitable and pleasurable to understand something of them all, but how can we?
This latter view of things has lately been advanced in some of our public papers, and pressed and defended with great sincerity and much ingenuity. Nor are we sure that the labors of Mr Brooks, of Hingham, and of others, to bring into public notice the Prussian system of Education, may not have contributed to bring out these essays. If it should prove so, we are not to be surprised at it. Indeed, it should be expected. If fifteen or twenty branches can be taught in the elementary schools of Prussia, it will much more readily be believed, by the mass of our citizens—by people we mean of plain common sense—that there are circumstances of society in Prussia, an absolute monarchy, which render the course practicable and feasible there, than that the same course, in this country, would be either feasible or possible.
What then can be done? Are the lessons of those who wish to improve our schools, and clevate the standard of education and instruction among us, to be overlooked or disregarded ; or, worse than this, are they to be set down as injurious ? Or, is there some way of reconciling two things, which, according to the statements we have just made, seem so obviously to clash with each other?
We believe the latter. We believe there is a way, by means of which, all that is said to be taught in the Prussian schools, – religion, reading, spelling, writing, music, mathematics, geography, history, natural history, natural philosophy, technology, politics, political economy, foreign modern languages, logical exercises, (including grammar) metaphysics, composition and declamation,-and much more, to wit: hygiene, physiology and psy. chology, unless indeed, these are comprehended under the general term natural history, can be taught, at least their elements, and without increased expense, except for female assistant teachers, in all our district schools. Perhaps we ought, however, to except the study of the foreign modern languages.
New Exercise in Defining.
Such an assumption—the assertion that we can teach even the elements of twenty or more different branches in a district school—will seem to many, so strange, not to say so utterly paradoxical, that it becomes our duty to state the methods by which such a result can be accomplished.
The truth is, that the elements of all these sciences, foreign languages and music excepted, may be taught by two or three simple exercises, in the most simple manner; and that too, without the usual array of hard names and tasks and books and apparatus.
The first of these exercises may be called spelling or defining; or spelling and defining; or, if the teacher or parent be not over fond of names, he need not call it either. It is enough, if the thing itself be understood ; the name is of but secondary importance.
They may be required to take their slates and pencils,—for these are instruments which we always deem indispensable to every pupil who has a place in our school room, and with which, if necessary, we always furnish them, at our own expense—and write down certain words which we shall mention. Sometimes the words are dictated to them slowly ; at others, they are required to transcribe them from a spelling book, a dictionary, or a reading book.—Perhaps we give them, at first, a lesson of twenty words.
These words, they are requested to study, by means of a dictionary, or any other aids they can procure, in such a way as to get the fullest idea they possibly can, of their meaning. They are not expected to commit them to memory; though if any pupils choose to do so, there can be no objection.
When the hour assigned for the purpose arrives, each word is taken up in its order, and conversed about. Every pupil is invited to ask questions, and speak his inind fully and freely. It is usually found that in the course of a single lesson, one or more words will lead to conversation involving geography or bistory ; others to facts in geology, mineralogy, chemistry, or physiology; others again to inathematics, or religion, or politics. And if these subjects should not be involved, all of them, in the first lessons, they and many more will be, in subsequent ones.-Of course, every lesson will, of necessity, teach spelling, defining, and writing; and if they are required to read, the authorities to whom they will soon learn occasionally to refer, will prove a reading exercise.
Those who have never tried it, can have little idea of the delight which most children take in these lessons. We say most children, but we have never yet known an exception. Nor is it
A Second New Exercise.
much more easy to those to whom the subject is wholly new, to conceive of the wide range of thought, and the variety of elementary ideas and facts which these conversational exercises, in the hands of an ingenious teacher, on twenty or twentyfive or thirty words,-simple ones, too,-may be made to involve.
The second exercise referred to, consists in incorporating or forming words into sentences. For this purpose, a lesson may be given out in the same way as the former, and should be written by each pupil on his slate, in the same manner. Then, either on the opposite side of the slate, or on paper, each word may be fitted or framed into some sentence, contrived by the pupil for the occasion ; no matter how simple. Most pupils will require a little showing at first, before they will know fully our meaning; but when that is once understood, the exercise will be found delightful, interesting and profitable,-none more so. It is, or may be, at one and the same time, a lesson in writing, spelling, reading, defining, arithmetic, grammar, geograpy, logic, &c. &c.; and above all, in composition. We have thus endeavored to show-in a very brief
way, true, but we hope we have been intelligible—that the elements of all the more important and necessary sciences may be taught by two simple exercises. We are aware that pupils will not become profound students in all of these branches, without pursuing them in a different manner afterward; but they will in this way, at least acquire the keys to all of them, and such a thirst for knowledge in general, that we may be pretty sure of their successful future progress. The greatest difficulty of success in these exercises would be the ignorant impatience of some parents; who, because their children were not going over and through a multitude of class books, would be apt to think nothing was doing. This is indeed a difficulty, at present almost insurmountable.
Some of our readers may require further illustrations of the mode of pursuing the foregoing exercises, though to us they seem so simple as to need none. For the benefit of those individuals, we propose to present a few such in future numbers.
Errors in Teaching Geography.
No person who is acquainted with the superficial method of elementary instruction common among us, should be surprised to find children, every where, greatly ignorant of geography, even the geography of the United States. It is not merely the oldest pupils of our common schools, those perhaps, who have been through' Woodbridge's or Olney's Geography, that is, have recited lessons from it—who often betray the most profound ignorance on the subject ; there are those who have been through higher schools, who are little wiser, in practice, than they. We met not long ago, with a manufacturer, in the country, who is generally esteemed intelligent—and who has been well'schooled' in human nature at least—who spoke of Virginia as a township merely; and this too, in a way which showed that he was as utterly ignorant of the geography of the Union we are so tenacious of maintaining, as was a boy in Boston whom we once met fresh from one of the public schools, who, on being asked, what lay next north of Boston, could not tell; and when told it was Charlestown, and asked what lay next to Charlestown, said he believed it was England. A respectable looking lady in a steamboat on Long Island Sound, lately, asked a friend of ours, in great gravity, whether there was any water on the opposite side of the island. And worse-much worse—than all this, we once met with a lady who had been previously employed for some time as an assistant in one of our most popular city schools, who asked a friend whether or not New Jersey was in Elizabethtown.
The truth is, that geography, as well as grammar, arithmetic, and most of the other branches of a common English education, are 'murdered,' rather than studied, in most of our schools. The best which is done is to commit to memory the words of the book, and point to places on the map, without either understanding the one, or getting any real ideas of the location of the other. By far the greater part of our pupils, however, not so much as even this is accomplished. The recitation is so imperfect, and the mapology so blundering, that no one could reasonably expect, in after life, any thing but ignorance. No one could expect a better knowledge of the nature of an island than that possessed by the lady we have mentioned, who was doubtful whether or not, it had water on two sides of it; or that of the teacher, who was uncertain whether New Jersey was in Elizabethtown, or Elizabethtown in New Jersey.