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A TALK WITH TEACHERS OF ENGLISH ON COLLEGE
ENTRANCE REQUIREMENTS At a conference of ministers, an excited parson exclaimed, “We men of God should live with one foot on earth, and the other pointed toward Heaven.” Whatever we teachers of English may think regarding the propriety of the metaphor, we must agree that, so long as we are bound down by present conditions, it is inspiring to meet occasionally, to take a look upward at ideals. One of those harassing present conditions we all have in mind. Not that we men and women who teach English are grumblers or shirks; on the whole we are known to be cheerful and hard-working, with too high a spirit to admit to others that we have a grievance. But beneath the joy and courage with which we face the day's work is the somber consciousness of a dreadful bugbear—the college requirements in English. Let teachers of English meet, any time, anywhere, and this grievance will out.
Dissatisfaction with the prescribed list of books is widespread. Of the reports sent last year to the New England Association of Teachers of English, from one hundred teachers, very few commended all the books; and the only books against which no objections were offered were The merchant of Venice, Julius Cæsar, and The ancient mariner. Eighteen teachers were opposed to Carlyle's Essay on Burns for the purpose of high-school study. Many wished to substitute one of Webster's speeches for the Speech on conciliation with America, and to replace Milton's Minor poems by Paradise lost. The truth is that each teacher of English, if he be worth the name, discovers that certain of the prescribed books are not adapted to the interests and stage of development of his particular classes. He knows of other books which he individually—not any other man, or the fictitious average teacher of English, but he himselfcan make of greater value to his particular pupils than certain of the prescribed works. And he says, with logic convincing at least to his fellow workmen, “Having found from five years' experience that my classes thrive better on the Warren Hastings essay than on any of the others, why should I conform to the requirement of a body of men who know nothing of me or of my classes?" Ask any teacher if the list is thoroly commendable; ask yourself the same question. There is but one answer. To select a fixed list that will commend itself, in its entirety, to the judgment of even a majority of teachers is manifestly impossible.
Surely then, to outweigh this grave objection, this general dissatisfaction, the required list must have a high object which it worthily serves. Suppose we consider for a moment what that object is and how well it is served.
First, then, what is the purpose of the required list? We may assume for the moment that those who have fixed the requirement best know its purpose. The Committee on Entrance Requirements say they hope to secure “sympathetic and comprehensive appreciation of the writings of great thinkers: and the power to use language in a clear, logical, convincing, and agreeable manner." i Is this the demand? No wonder you wriggle in your seats.
The Committee of Ten are less sanguine. They subordinate everything to two objects: “ (1) to enable the pupil to understand the expressed thoughts of others and give expression to thoughts of his own; (2) to cultivate a taste for reading, to give the pupil some acquaintance with good literature, and to furnish him with the means of extending that acquaintance.”. 2
The purpose of the examination at Harvard is to test the boy's ability rather than his knowledge of facts. First of all, the boy must know how to spell, to punctuate, and to form sentences; he is expected also to have some idea of paragraph structure. This, then, is the object of the required list as it is used at Harvard,—“first and last to test the boy's ability
' Report of the Committee on Entrance Requirements, p. 13. * Report of the Committee of Ten, p. 86.
to say what he has thought and felt, and not to test his knowledge of the facts contained in the list of prescribed books.” 3
These quotations give an idea—a vague one, to be sure, yet the most definite idea available—of the objects sought by those who prescribe the books. How well does the means serve the end ?
As regards the Harvard ideal, you and I must admit that the very best we have done with the prescribed list-I mean taking us as a whole-has far from satisfied the powers that live and move and have their complaints at Cambridge. Of six or seven hundred candidates for admission to Harvard College in 1902, only four per cent. received a commendable grade in the English examination; that is to say, ninety-six per cent. fell below the grade of B. In 1903, in the opinion of the Harvard examiners, twenty-eight per cent. of the applicants were “illiterate"; their work was " seriously deficient in punctuation, sentence-structure, spelling, and the use of paragraphs.”
The complaint is not all within the walls of the university. Business men tell us that the work we do in high schools at present is unpractical. They find few stenographers who can spell, and few boys who can write correct letters in application for a position. Is this aim far from idealism? Perhaps so; still, if a man says, “ I want an education which shall keep a good coat on my son's back," we may call his view narrow, but shall we say that he has no right to demand such an education? In his school days, the study of English meant reading, spelling, grammar, and we cannot deny that greater efficiency was secured in those respects than now. Whatever adornment the old education lacked, it had a real foundation.
Perhaps it is presumptuous for you and me to ask where the fault lies, for there is a weather-beaten, decrepit reply that gives all the fault to the secondary schools, which have long been accustomed to receive the dictum and the censure of the university as vassals submit to a feudal lord. But since higher institutions have taken upon themselves to prescribe for the ills of lower schools, they must share the responsibility in the results. Is their remedy efficient?
: School review, 12:331, May, 1904, Mr. John G. Hart.
Let us ask first what has been the effect of the prescribed list of books in cultivating a taste for good literature. Dr. Howells says, “The study of literature in our schools cools the pleasure which might otherwise be taken in it out of school. It ought never to be forgotten that literature can only be enjoyed in perfect freedom.” True, but as that very freedom is destroyed by the prescribed system, you have a right to ask that Dr. Howells and the rest at least cea 32 condemning you, because you fail to make an enforced task thoroly delightful.
The university says to you, “ Here is a list of books. You must teach them whether you like them or not. You must have your pupils analyze them, all of them, and then we will give an examination.”
And what have you left to say to the pupil but this: “Here is a list of books. You are required to pick them to pieces, and enjoy them, all of them. When you have spent the allotted time on them, you will have an examination.” The medicine is indeed well-suited, not to its purpose, but for deadening the nerves of sympathy and enthusiasm. No wonder you ask in bewilderment, "Shall I teach literature, or prepare my classes for the impending examination?”
Some of you, I know well, are so enthusiastic that you throw off the bonds for the moment; and your pupils, caught unawares, forget the prescribed task and the examination. They enjoy literature, really enjoy literature, in spite of the devices of uniform requirement committees. But in such cases—we may as well be frank with each other—success comes because we are bound by no prescribed method, because we refuse to be rushed into the folly of placing analysis before synthesis, because we disregard those books prepared for examination purposes, and disfigured with foot-notes “ like little dogs barking at the text”; yes, more than all that, we succeed because, without trying to cover the prescribed literary field, we boldly venture outside to more fertile places ; because, finally, we have lost sight of the goal—the examination. The tendency of the required list and the dread examina
• William Dean Howells, in Harper's monthly for November, 1903.
tion is to misguide the teacher and to kill, not "to cultivate, a taste for reading.” There are so many books, that you are obliged to rush thru them; you forget that Macbeth is a play! And when you are criticised for not reading it aloud, you point to the long list of required books, and reply, “ lack of time.” You feel so keenly the discrepancy between the enjoyment of literature and the desires of some examining board that, after teaching a book as you think it should be taught, you feel obliged to teach it again with reference to what you think some board of examiners may expect. The more conscientious you are, the more liable you are to teach the book to death. All this you do under the plan which aims to secure “sympathetic and comprehensive appreciation of the writings of great thinkers”!
Is it not a marvel that men who accept interest as greatest word in Education," and who recognize the advantages of the elective principle, should refuse to apply either to the question of prescribed books? Can you cultivate interest in literature by forcing boys to read Carlyle's Essay on Burns? Perhaps you have the skill to do it with your particular classes. But Mr. Allan Abbott found that of 333 boys, from many schools in all parts of the country, 43.5 per cent. had read and disliked the Essay on Burns. On the other hand only 4 per cent. disliked Macbeth and Julius Casar; and 53 per cent. were so enthusiastic over Ivanhoe that they wished to read it again. If the object in prescribing critical essays is, as has been said, to kill two birds with one stone—the essayist and his subject—truly the teacher of English is right who claims for the plan a large measure of success, for to many boys both the essayist and his subject are dead.
You recall that boy in your class who, as Dr. Jekyll, took the critical essays in the classroom; as Mr. Hyde, he read Hearst's American on the street. Why? Because the required set of books had no wholesome influence on his voluntary reading; because, instead of cultivating a taste for literature thru first appealing to the boy's interests and then
• Cf. Committee of the New England Association of Teachers of English, School review, 12:340, May, 1904.