Charles Francis Adams.

The public library and the common schools: three papers on educational topics online

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EsTES ANi> Lauiuat, No. 301 Washington Street.



As a rule anything worth publishing at all should, I
think, explain itself, and stand in no need of a preface.
In the present case, however, I feel that some apology is
necessary for my — a mere amateur — offering to specialists
these discussions of matters relating to their calling. I
can only say that for quite a number of years now I have
been actively concerned in the management of the Common
Schools and Public Library of Quincy. Whether the ob-
servation and experience thus locally obtained are likely
to prove of any general interest, 1 do not care to discuss ;
meanwhile, as I may now claim a speedy discharge from
work of this description, on the ground of having done
my full share, I prefer, for my own satisfaction, to put ou
file some evidence of my ten years' participation in it.

Quincy, August 1, 1879.




OF QuiNCY, Mass., and read to them on the 19th of May,


As the result of a conversation I some time since had with our
School Superintendent, Mr. Parker, and at his suggestion, I pro-
pose this afternoon to say a few words to you about books and
reading ; on the use, to come directly to the point, which could be
made of the PubUc Library of the town in connection with the
school system in general, and more particularly with the High and
upper-grade Grammar Schools. I say '■'•could be made" inten-
tionally, for I am very sure that use is not now made ; and why it
is not made is a question which, in my double capacitj^ of a mem-
ber of the School Committee and a trustee of the Public Library,
I have during the last few 3'ears puzzled over a good deal.

You are all teachers in the common schools of the town of
Quincy, and I very freely acknowledge that I think your course as
such, especially of late, has been marked by a good deal of zeal,
by a consciousness of progress, and a sincere desire to accompUsh
good results. I am disposed neither to find fault with you nor with
our schools, — as schools go. I should like, however, to ask you
this simple question : — Did it ever, after all, occur to you, what is
the gi'cat end and object of all this common school sj-stem ? — Why
do we get all these children together, and labor over them so
assiduously year after year ? — Now, it may well be that it never sug-
gested itself in that way to .you, but I think it maj^ safely be
asserted that the one best possible result of a common-school edu-
cation, — its great end and aim, — should be to prepare the
children of the community for the far greater work of educating

Now, in education, as in ahnost everything else, there is a


strong tendency among those engaged in its routine work to mistake
the means for the end. I am always struck with this in going into
the average public school. It was especially the case in the schools
of this town fom* 3'ears ago. Arithmetic, grammar, spelling,
geograph}^, and history were taught, as if to be able to answer the
questions in the text-books was the great end of all education. It
was instruction through a perpetual sj'stem of conundrums. The
child was made to learn some queer definition in words, or some
disagreeable puzzle in figures, as if it was in itself an acquisition of
value, — something to be kept and hoarded lilve silver dollars, as
being a hand}' thing to have in the house. The result was that the
scholars acquu-ed with immense difficulty something which they
forgot with equal ease ; and, when the^'^ left our grammar schools,
the}' had what people are pleased to call the rudiments of educa-
tion, and 3'et not one in twent}^ of them could sit down and write an
ordinary letter, in a legible hand, with ideas clearly expressed, and
in words correctl}' spelled ; and the proportion of those who left
school with either the ability or deske to further educate them-
selves was scarcely greater.

Perhaps you ma^' think this an exaggeration on m}^ part. If you
do, I can only refer j'ou to the examination papers of the candi-
dates for admission during any year to om* High School. I have
had occasion to go over many sets of them, and I assm'e 3'ou they
warrant the conclusion I have drawn.

Going a step further and following the scholar out into grown-up*
life, I fancy that a comparison of experiences would show that
scarce^ one out of twenty of those who leave our schools ever fur-
ther educate themselves in an}' gi'eat degree, outside, of coiu'se, of
any special trade or calling through which the}' earn a li%'ing. The
reason of this, I would now suggest, is obvious enough ; and it is
not the fault of the scholar. It is the fault of a system which
brings a community up in the idea that a poor knowledge of the
rudiments of reading, writing, and arithmetic constitutes in itself
an education. Now, on the contrary, it seems to me that the true
object of all your labors as real teachers, if indeed you are such, —
the great end of the common-school system, is something more
than to teach children to read ; it should, if it is to accomplish its
full mission, also impart to them a love of reading.

A man or woman whom a whole chilcUiood spent m the common
schools has made able to stumble through a newspaper, or labor
through a few trashy books, is scarcely better off than one who
cannot read at all. Indeed, I doubt if he or she is as well off, for
it has long been observed that a very small degree of book knowl-
edge almost universal!}' takes a depraved shape. The animal will
come out. The man who can barely spell out his newspaper con-
fines his spelUng in nine cases out of ten to those highly seasoned
portions of it which relate to acts of violence, and especially to
mui'dcrs. Among those who make a profession of journaUsm this
is a perfectly well known fact ; and any one who doubts it may
satisfy himself on the subject almost any day by a few words of
inquir}^ at a news-stand. Mr. Souther, in this town, I fanc}^, could
impart to any of j^ou, who happen to be curious, a considerable
amount of information under this head. A little learning is pro-
verbially a dangerous thing ; and the less the learning the greater
the danger.

Let us recur, then, to my cardinal proposition, that the great end
of all school education is to make people able to educate them-
selves. You start them ; that is all the best teacher can do.
Whether he is called a professor and lectures to great classes of
grown men at a university, or is a country school-master who ham-
mers rudiments into children, he can do no more than this ; but this
ever}' teacher, if he chooses, can do. How very few do it though !
Not one out of ten ; — scarcely one out of twenty. It is here our
system fails.

I do not know that what I am about to suggest has ever been
attempted anj'where, but I feel gi-eat confidence that it would suc-
ceed ; therefore, I would like to see it attempted in Quincy.
Having started the child by means of what we call a common-
school course, — -having, as it were, le arned it to walk, — the pro-
cess of fm'ther self-education is to begin. The great means of self-
education is through books — through much readmg of books. But
just here there is in our S3'stem of instruction a missing link. In
our schools we teach children to read ; — we do not teach them how
to read. That, the one all-important thing, — the great connect-
ing link between school-education and self-education, — between
means and end, — that one Unk we make no effort to supply. As


long as we do not make an effort to supply it, our school system in
its result is and will remain miserably deficient. For now, be it
remembered, the child of the poorest man in Quinc}' — the off-
spring of our paupers even — has an access as free as the son of a
miUionnaire, or the student of Harvard College, to what is, for prac-
tical general use, a perfect hbrary. The old daj's of intellectual
famine for the masses are over, and plenty reigns. Yet, though the
school and the library stand on our main street side by side, there
is, so to speak, no bridge leading from the one to the other. As
far as I can judge we teach our children the mechanical part of
reading, and then we turn them loose to take their chances. If the
child has naturally an inquiring or imaginative mind, it perchance
may work its way unaided through the traps and pitfalls of
literature ; but the chances seem to me to be terribly against it.
It is so ver}' eas}", and so very pleasant too, to read only books
which lead to nothing, — light and interesting and exciting books,
and the more exciting the better, — that it is almost as difficult to
wean ourself from it as from the habit of chewing tobacco to excess,
or of smoking the whole time, or of depending for stimulus on tea
or coffee or spirits. Yet here, — on the threshold of this vast
field, you might even call it this wilderness of general literature,
full as it is of holes and bogs and pitfalls all covered over with
poisonous plants, — here it is that our common-school system brings
our children, and, having brought them there, it leaves them to go
on or not, just as they please ; or, if the}^ do go on, thej^ are to find
their own way or to lobse it, as it may chance.

I think this is all wrong. Our educational system stops just
where its assistance might be made invaluable, — just where it
passes out of the mechanical and touches the individual, — just
where instruction ceases to be drudgery and becomes a source of
pleasure. Now, I do not propose for myself any such task as an
attempted radical reform of education. Each man has his own
work to do, and that is not mine. What I do want to suggest to
3'ou Grammar School teachers is that it is in the power of each one
of 3'ou to introduce a great spu'it of improvement into j'our own
schools, and at the same time the greatest pleasure and interest a
true teacher can have into your own lives.

You know it is said that poets are born, not made ; and the same


is true of teachers. For myself, I don't thinlc I could teach ; — if
I had to take m}^ choice I would rather break stones in the high-
wa}' ; and yet other and better men than I would rather teach than
do anj'thing else. There is Dr. Dinuuock at the Academy', for
instance. He found his place in life, and a gi'cat one too, only
when he got behind the master's desk. He was born to teach boj's,
and, with much happiness to himself and them, he is fulfilling his
destin}'. But, though I never could teach myself, I can see clearly
enough that the one thing which makes the true teacher and which
distinguishes him from the mechanical pedagogue, which any man
may become, is the faculty of interesting himself in the single
pupil, — seeing, watching, aiding the development of the individual
mind. I never tried it, but I know just what it must be from my
own experience in other matters. I have a place here in town, for
instance, upon wliich I live ; and there I not only grow fields of
corn and carrots, but also a great many trees. Now, m}' fields of
corn or carrots are to me what a mechanical pedagogue's school is
to him. I like to see them well ordered and planted in even rows,
all growing exactly alike, and producing for each crop so many
bushels of corn or caiTots to the acre, one carrot being pretty nearly
the same as another ; — and then, when the Autumn comes and the
farming term closes, I prepare my land, as the pedagogue does his
school-room, for the next crop; — and the last is over and gone.
It is not so, however, with my trees. The}' are to me just what
his pupOs are to the born school-master, — to Dr. Dim mock, for
instance ; in each one I take an individual interest. I watch them
year after year, and see them grow and shoot out and develop.
Now let me apply my simile. You are, all of you, I hope, and if
you are not j'ou at least believe j'ourselves to be, born teachers,
and not mechanical jDcdagogues ; so, of course, your schools ought
to be to you, not mere fields in which 3-ou turn out regular crops of
human cabbages and potatoes, but they should be plantations also
in which yon raise a few trees, at least, in the individual growth of
which you take a master's interest. This feeling and this only it
is which can make a teacher's life ennobling, — the finding out
among his pupils those who have in them the material of superior
men and women, and then nurturing them and aiding in their de-
velopment, and making of them something which, but for their


teacher, the}' never would have been. These pupils are to their
teacher what my oak trees are to me ; — but for me those trees
would have died in the acorn, probabh', — at most the}' would have
been mere scrub bushes ; — but now through me, — whoU}' owing to
my intervention and care, — they are gi'owing and developing, and
there are among them those which some day, a hundred j'ears, per-
haps, after my children are all dead of old age, will be noble
oaks. Then no one will know that I ever lived, much less trouble
himself to think that to me those trees owed theu' liA-es, — 3'et it is
so none the less, and those are my trees no matter how much I am
dead and forgotten. So of your scholars. If 3'ou, during your
lives as teachers, can, among all 3'our mass of pupils, find out and
develop through j'our own personal contact onl}^ a few, — saj' half-
a-dozen, — remarkable men and women, who but for yoii and your
observation and watchfulness and guidance would have lived and
died not knowing what they could do, then, if 3'ou do nothing more
than this, 3'ou have done an immense work in life.

This dealing with the individual and not with the class, is, there-
fore, the one gi'Ccit pleasure of the true schoolteacher's life. It can
only be done in one wa}', — 3'ou have to furnish the individual mind
the nutriment it wants, and, at the same time, gently du'ect it in
the way it should go. In other words, if the teacher is going to
give himself the intense enjo3Tnent and pleasure of doing this work,
he cannot stop at the border of that wilderness of literature of
which I was just now speaking, but he has got to take the pupil by
the hand and enter into it with him ; — he must be more than his
pedagogue, he must be his guide, philosopher and friend. And so
the teacher, with the scholar's hand in his, comes at last to the
doors of the Public Library.

AVhen he gets there, however, he will probably find liimself
almost as much in need of an instructor as his own pupils ; and
here at last I come to the immediate subject on which I want to talk
to 3'ou. I wish to sa3'' something of the books and reading of
children, — of the general introduction into hterature which, if 3-ou
choose, 3'ou are able to give 3'oui' scholars, and which, if 3'ou do
give it to them, is worth more than all the knowledge contained in
all the text-books that ever were printed. To 3-our whole schools,
if you onl3' want to, 3'ou can give an elcmcntar3' training as


readers, and if in this matter you once set them going in the way
they should go, j'ou need not fear that they will ever depart
from it.

Now, in the first place, let me suppose that you want to start
your schools in general on certain courses of reading, — courses
which would interest and improve you, probabl}', hardlj' less than
3'our scholars, — how would 3'ou go about it? — Through individual
scholars, of coiirse. You would run your eye down 30m' rows of
desks and pick out the occupants of two or three, and with them
3'ou would start the flock. Human beings are alwa3-s and every -
where lilce sheep, in that the3' will go where the bell-wether
leads. Picking out the two or three, then, you turn to the shelves
of the libraiy. And now 3-ou 3-om-selves are to be put to the test.
You have dared to leave the safe, narrow rut in which the peda-
gogue travels, and 3'ou have ventured into the fields with your
pupils behind 3-ou, — do you know the wa3^ here ? — can 3'ou dis-
tinguish the film gTound from the bogg3^ mu-e ? — the good sound
wood from the worthless parasite? — If you can, you are indeecl fit
to be teachers. I hope 3'ou all can, and in that case the sugges-
tions I have to make will be little better than wasted ; but if, as I
suspect, we none of us know an3^ too much, what I am about to
say may be of some use. In the first place, then, in tr3ing to
inoculate children with a health3' love of good reading, — for this
is what we are talking of, the inoculation of childi'en with a taste
for good, miscellaneous reading, — in attempting that, the first
thing to be borne in mind is, that children are not grown people.

There are few things more melanchol3' than to reflect on the
"amount of useless labor which good, honest, conscientious men and
women have incm-red, and the amount of real suffering they have
inflicted on poor little children through the disregard of this one
obvious fact. "V\Tien I was 3-oung, I remember, m3' father, from a
conscientious feeling, I suppose, that he ought to do something
positive for m3' mental and moral good and general aesthetic culti-
vation, made me learn Pope's Messiah b3' heart, and a number of
other masterpieces of the same character. He might just as well
have tried to feed a sucking bab3" on roast beef and Scotch ale !
Without understanding a word of it, I learned the Messiah b3'rote,
and I have hated it, and its .luthor too, from that da3' to this, and


I hate them now. So, also, I remember well when I was a boy of
from ten to fourteen, — for I was a considerable devourer of books,
being incited to read Hume's History of England, and Robertson's
Charles V., and Gibbon's Rome even, and I am not sure I might
not add Mitford's Greece. I can't now say it was time thrown
away ; but it was almost that. The first thing in trj-ing to stimu-
late a love of reading is to be careful not to create disgust by trj^-
ing to do too much. The gi'eat masterpieces of hmnan research,
and eloquence, and fanc}"^ are to bo3'S pure nuisances. The}' can't
imderstand them ; they can't appreciate them, if they do. "VYhen
they have grown up to them and are ready for them, thej^ will come
to them of their own accord. Meanwhile you can't well begin too
low down. The intellectual lilve the physical food of children can't
well be too sunple, provided only it is healthy and nourishing.

Not that I for a moment pretend that I could now suggest a
successful course of grammar-school literature myself. The in-
tellectual nutriment which children like those j'ou have in charge
are fitted to digest and assimilate must be found out thi'ough a long
course of observation and experiment. I think I could tell 5'ou
what a boy in the upper classes of the Academy would probably
like ; but if I were to undertake to lay out courses of reading for
the scholars of our grammar schools, it would certainly soon become
very clear that I did not know what I was talking about. I am
very sure I should not give them the books they now read ; but I am
scarcely less sm"e the}^ would not read the books I would give them.
Nothing but actual trial, and a prolonged trial at that, will bring us
any results worth having in this respect ; and that trial is only
possible through you.

But, in a very general way, let us suppose that we are beginning
on the new sj^stem and that j-our school is studj'ing history and
geograph}^, — we will take those two branches and see what we
could do in connection with them to introduce your scholars into
general literature. History' opens up the whole broad field of his-
torical works and also of biography, — it is closel}' connected
with fiction too, and poetry ; geography' at once suggests the
hbrary of travels. Now, Ave find that of all forms of literature
there is not one which in popularity can compare with fiction.
From the cradle to the grave, men and women love story -tolling.



What is more, it is well they do ; a good novel is a gopd, thing,
and a love for good novels is a health}^ taste ; 3-et ther^i^ no
striking episode in history which has not been made the basis of
some good work of fiction. Onl}' it is necessary- for you to find
that work out, and to put it in the hands of your scholars ; they
cannot find it out unaided.

Next in popularity' to works of fiction are travels. A good,
graphic book of travel and adventure captivates almost every one,
no matter what the age. After travels comes biograph}" ; an}' girl
will read the stor}- of Mar}', Queen of Scots ; any bo}' the life of
Paul Jones. Now, here is our starting-point, and these fundamental
facts we cannot ignore and 3'et succeed ; human beings have to be
interested and amused, and they do not love to be bored, — and
children least of all are an exception to the rule. If, then, we can
iustnict and improve them while we are interesting and amusing
them, we are securing the result we want in the natm'al and easy
way. There is no forcing. And this is exactlj^ what any well-
infonned and older person can do for any child. They can, in
the hue of education, put it in the way of instruction through amuse-

Take for instance geography, and suppose your class is studying
the map of Africa ; — the whole gTeat field of African exploration
and adventiu'e is at once opened up to j'ou and your scholars.
Turn to the catalogTie of our Pubhc Library and see what a
field of interesting investigations is spread out, fii'st for 3'ourself
and then for them. Here are a hundred volumes, and you want
to look them all over to see which to put in the hands of j'our se-
lected pupils, which are long and dull, and which are compact and
stiiTing, — which are adapted to boys and which to girls, — and.
how you will get your scholars started in them. Once get them
going, and the map will cease to be a map and become a pictm'e
full of hfe and adventure, not only to them, but to you. You will
follow with them Livingstone and Stanley and Baker ; and the
Pyramids will become reahties to them as the}' read of Moses and
the Pharaohs, and of Cleopatra and Hannibal. The recitation then
becomes a lecture in which the pupils tell all they have found out
in the books they have read, and in which the teacher can suggest
the reading of yet other books ; while the mass of the scholars,


from merely listening to the few, are stimulated to themselves learn
something of all these interesting tilings.

So of our own country'- and its geogTaphy. The field of reading
which would charm and interest any ordinary boy or girl in tliis
connection is almost unlimited, but they cannot find it out. They
need guidance. What active-minded boy, for instance, but would
thoroughly enjoy portions at least of Parkman's Discover}^ of the
Great West, or his Pioneers of France in the New World, or his
Cahfornia Trail? — And yet how many of you have ever glanced
into one of those absorbing books yourselves ? — Nor are they long
either ; in each case one moderate-sized volume tells the whole

Mark Twain, even, would here come in through his " Roughing
It," and Ross Browne through his "Apache Country." Once en-
tered upon, however, it would not be easy to exhaust the list. The
story of Mexico and Peru, — Cortez and Pizarro, — the voj^ages of
Columbus and the adventures of De Soto, — they have been told in
fiction and in history, and it is to-day a terrible shame to us and to
our whole school system that we teach American history, and 3'et
don't know how to make the study of American history as inter-
esting to our children as a novel.

But, after all, as I have akeady said, when you come to miscel-
laneous reading you cannot lay down general rules applicable to all
cases ; you have got to try experiments and watch them as the}'
progress. To induce some of you to try these experiments has
been my object in thus meeting you to-daj'. I beheve 3'^ou would
find that so doing would lend a new life, a new interest, a new
significance to your profession.

When the catalogue of the Public Library was pulDlished a 3'ear
ago, I caused one copy of it to be specially bound for the use of

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Online LibraryCharles Francis AdamsThe public library and the common schools: three papers on educational topics → online text (page 1 of 5)