Henry F Harrington.

Our grammar schools: Why do they not furnish more and better material to our high schools? A lecture read before the Massachusetts Teachers Association, at Springfield, October 19th, 1867 online

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A Lecture Read Before the
Massachusetts Teachers f Association,
At Springfield, October 19th, 186 1 ?

Henry ^. Harrington





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AT SPRINGFIELD, October i9th, 1867,


Superintendent of Public Schools, New Bedford. Mass.





Our Grammar Schools: Why do they not furnish more and
better material to our High Schools ?




AT SPRINGFIELD, October ipth, 1867,


Superintendent of Public Schools, New Bedford, Mass.






Fellow Teachers of the Massachusetts Association :


When one undertakes an examination of the High

Schools of our State, that he may acquaint himself with
their condition and the measure of their usefulness, he ia

confronted, at the outset, by two striking facts.
y One is, that the number of scholars in that grade of schools
* is comparatively very small. For whereas, (using the sta-
2 tistics of some of the larger communities as the basis of com-


putation,) the average number of scholars of all the grades to
every thousand of the population is about one hundred and
forty, and the average number of Grammar scholars to the
same is sixty-hve, the corresponding average of High School

^ scholars to every thousand of the population is only seven.

i The second fact adverted to is, that the education of the
\1 great majority of the youth who are admitted to our High

\ Schools is found, when they are put upon the work of those
schools, to be poor and inadequate. The teachers of High
Schools, almost everywhere, when they converse on the sub-
ject, inveigh against the wretched mental furnishing of the
periodical increment of their schools. This very essay orig-
inated, in part, in a question put by a prominent High
School instructor, in my hearing, some time ago. Said he,
in accents of the deepest interest and concern, "Can we not
have, at the meeting of the Teachers' Association this year,
in some form or other, a consideration of the causes why the


material that comes to our High Schools from the Grammar
Schools, is so miserably incompetent for the studies of the
High School course?" It is not that the scholars in ques-
tion may not have passed the prescribed examination for
admission with credit to themselves, nor that that examina-
tion may not have been based on a high standard of require-
ment, according to current notions of high requirement.
Heaven help the teachers and scholars of those High Schools,
where the standard of fitness is so low, that even technical
excellence in the ordinary Grammar School branches is not
cared for ; so that the studies of those schools are only a
patch-work of elementary branches mixed up with ill-assorted
osophies and ologies, with which latter, few of the scholars
are competent to deal in any wise. Heaven help them, I
say, for they would seem to be beyond the reach of mortal
aid ! No, I am not emphasizing any failure of this description;
for it is one distinguishing feature of the case, that, like as
not, the more excellent a scholar may have been as to the
technical requisitions of his examination, the less qualified
will he be found, in some particulars, for an intelligent grasp
of the studies that may be assigned him. His defect may be
stated, in brief, to be a lack of sufficient mental development
to comprehend the subject matter of the new fields of study
that he is put upon in the High School, and too great igno-
rance of language to understand the phraseology of his new
text books. Language is the indispensable key to all intel-
ligent study and progress; and how muchsoever else the
Grammar Scholar may have learned, he is in general poorly
equipped with knowledge of the power and uses of language ;
and therefore is incompetent to get fairly on.

And I ask now, are these two fiacts irremediable, or can
we, if we be so minded, and sustained by the requisite
authority, substitute a new order of things?. The answer
to this question will constitute the substance of this essay.

I am ready to reply, and hope to convince you, that both
these defects, the former in part, the latter altogether, are the
direct consequences of a false system of action, and are
therefore so far of easy remedy. T insist that both result, to
the extent that I have indicated, from the strained and
pedantic standard of qualification for admission to the High
School which now almost invariably prevails. Change that
standard, and you will instantly accomplish a corresponding
change of results.

Jn the first place, I am quite sure that it is not a fact, as is
generally assumed, at least in all the considerable centers of
population, that few now enter the High Schools from the
Grammar Schools, because the necessities, the sordid interest,
or the indifference of the parents of the remainder, forces
them to leave study for remunerative work. This is true to
a large extent. But I believe .that at least a hundred per
cent, more than now enter the High Schools might be
readily induced to become members of them, if the condi-
tions of admission were what they ought to be; if they
were not artificially and arbitrarily repressive. It is in vain
to tell rne that the parents who now withdraw their children
from study at the close of the Grammar School course, are
well satisfied with that limit of education for them. I have
found that the parents of our scholars, in every phase of
society, wherever I have had opportunities of observation,
are actuated by an intense desire that their children should
enjoy the very highest fruits of our Public School System.
They 'feel a satisfaction, (of which pride is an element, as
well 'as a sense of benefit,) at being able to say that their
children have been members of the High School, that makes
many of the poor among them willing to undergo the sever-
est privations, if only that goal may be reached ; and
furthermore, there are few parents, at least of native ancestry,


who do not realize intensely, that it is to cut off their children
from opportunity in the very best, the crowning period of
their educational progress, to withdraw them from school
before they are from sixteen to seventeen years of age. And
by the common consent of educators, they ought to be
well nigh through the High School, as its studies are now
apportioned, at seventeen years of age. Why, I ask, do
they not enjoy corresponding opportunities?

In all localities where a well considered school organiza-
tion prevails, there is in existence an ideal system of gra-
dation, whereby a child who enters the Primary School at
five years of age is to graduate from the Grammar School
at thirteen or fourteen years of age; the classes being
expected to move forward in mass, on a scale of minimum
requirement, that will give average ability and application a
fair chance ; so that only in exceptional cases, where some
outright dullard or trifler* would plainly be injured by ad-
vancement, is any one to be kept down. This is the true
system. This alone can secure the greatest g*ood of the
greatest number. We have no moral right to cull out the
choice, highly gifted spirits from the several classes, and put
them rapidly forward, instituting repressive maximum ex-
aminations, that only such gifted spirits can encounter. Our
schools are for the children of the whole people, all the way
through. True, there must be stimuli to exertion. But let
them be derived from other sources than the interposition of
barriers impassible by the majority until after failure upon
failure, and a travel over and over the same track in hateful
repetition. According to the system of organization to* which
I have referred, the classes should be put regularly forward,
first through the Primary Schools, then up through the
allotted years of the Grammar Schools, and then, tested by a
sufficient, but not arbitrarily repressive ordeal, into the High
School. And under such circumstances, I believe, as I have

said, that at least as many again would attend the High
Schools as are found to join them now.

And why is it otherwise ? It is because of the artificial,
pedantic character of the examinations for admission to the
High Schools, which operates to modify the structure of the
Grammar Schools in the most vicious manner, and thereby
to keep the bulk of the scholars unduly back, so as to de-
prive them of the opportunity of High School instruction.
Take for illustration, the working of the Boston Grammar
Schools ; and I instance them particularly, not in any spirit
of invidious detraction* I trust that I shall not be accused
of that but because the school system of Boston is regarded
as standing at the head of the school organizations of the
State, and is the object of special inquiry and emulation ;
and because, moreover, the Boston Grammar Schools, on
account of their unusual size, exhibit in a very striking man-
ner, the vicious results of which I have spoken. We find
the most of those schools, comprising severally eight, ten,
twelve, fourteen and sixteen rooms, while nominally subdi-
vided into four classes, corresponding to the years allotted
to the Grammar School course, virtually if not confessedly
separated into as many, or nearly as many classes, as there
are rooms in the building. Passage from room to room of
all this number depends on the results of stated and rigid
examinations ; and the consequence is that the great major-
ity are kept down, until nearly or quite all their possible
school time is exhausted in the struggle upwards ; and that
perhaps, even before they have enjoyed the advantage of
membership in the highest class. The highest class in each
school embraces, from year to year, from the very nature of

*I wish to say, emphatically, that my criticism on the Boston Schools is to
be limited expressly to the points in question. In other regarda I rejoice to
acknowledge their preeminent merits.


the case, only the choice spirits of the school, such as have
proved themselves capable of undergoing with success the
peculiar training essential to prepare them for the ordeal of
admission to the High School. Thus the interests of the
school as a grand whole, are disregarded and sacrificed.
And we have these further results ; first, that in many if not
most instances, the ages of the second class, destined to re-
main two years in the school, will average about the same
with the ages of the first class, destined to remain only one
year in the school ; again, that the number to enjoy the full
honors of graduation is painfully small in comparison with
the average complement of the schools ; so that we had in
July last, thirty-five as the largest number to graduate from
any Boston Grammar School, although several of her Gram-
mar Schools have an average of from eight hundred to a
thousand scholars; and one school, in high repute, with an
average attendance of nearly nine hundred, graduated only
twenty-three. It is a related fact that the total admitted to
the Girls' High and Normal School from all the Grammar
Schools, for fourteen years, to 1866, was only fourteen hundred
and eighty-five ; and to the English High School for the same
period, only thirteen hundred and thirty-eight. This twenty
eight hundred and twenty-three, for fourteen years, to both
schools, gives an average of two hundred and one per an-
num, which is the whole number to which Boston has
afforded public High School instruction out of an average
attendance on the Grammar Schools of nearly twelve thou-
sand for the same number of years. We have this further
fact, that the average age of the girls when they graduate
from a Boston Grammar School, is sixteen years six months.
The average age of the boys, up to the present year, has
been about fifteen years six months. Thus, a good part of
those years of Boston youth, which are ordinarily expected
to be spent in the High Schools, is exhausted in the Gram-


mar Schools. And, with due allowance for difference of
circumstances, these lamentable results of the strained and
artificial examinations for admission to the High Schools of
Boston, may be asserted to attach more or less to most of the
school systems of the State at large. And it is a fair de-
duction, that if the scholars of the Grammar Schools were
moved forward systematically, according to a true organiza-
tion, rny premise would hold good, viz : that as many again
would be profitably enjoying the advantages of the High
Schools as are found to enter them now.

There is a second ground on which I base that premise,
comprised in a few casual but striking facts. Thus the
immber admitted to the English High School in Boston, by
a little extra attention, without any radical change of system,
has been positively doubled within three years ; and in an-
other of our cities, the substitution of symmetrical organ-
ization in lieu of little or no system, has placed in the first
classes of the Grammar schools, and in preparation for the
High School, full one hundred per cent, more scholars, at the
same comparative standard of attainment, than were ever in
those classes under similar circumstances, before.

But it may be said, "My Dear Sir, you are stultifying
yourself! You begin with the bold assumption that the in-
crement of our High Schools is, in 'some respects, poorly
cultured, and yet are complaining that the number of candi-
dates should be so small. Surely, if they are to manifest
so marked disability, the fewer that may present themselves,
the better."

Yes, if they are to manifest so marked disability. But
for the sake of the reputation dear old mother Massachu-
setts bears for discarding shams and conserving only solid
realities, let us reform the course of instruction in our
Grammar Schools, so that their graduates may no longer be


branded with such shames. This brings me to my second
point, viz : that the defects of which High School teachers
complain in the material furnished them, are the inevitable
consequences of a false standard of qualification for admis-
sion to the High School, that almost everywhere prevails.
The questions now annually prepared as tests of qualifica-
tion, bear about as close a relation to the rounded, juicy
comprehensive fruits of a genuine culture, as the fieshless
skeleton in an anatomical museum bears to the perfect, con-
scious organism of a living man ! So many problems in
Arithmetic, so many questions in the technics of Grammar,
so many from the innumerable details in most Geographies,
so many on the bald facts of History, and a number of
words to be spelled, culled from among the hardest to be
found in the pages of the Spelling Book or the Dictionary,
how meagre and fruitless they all are, as exponents of that
culture which enlarges and furnishes the mind, inspires it
with the power to think, confers a mastery over language,
that subtle, mysterious instrument of thought, and brings it
into communication with the facts and processes of the work-
ing, progressive world, in which it is soon to take its part I
High School examinations as now conducted, emphasize
and make imperative all that detailed lumber of the text
books, which, if useful to be learned at all, is so only to
serve as a stepping Itone to something broader and higher j
becoming worse than useless after the higher point has been
reached ; and therefore then to be dismissed into oblivion.

And they necessitate a rigid adherence by the teachers of
the Grammar Schools to the mere technics of the several
test studies, at the expense of all others; and of the vitality
and highest usefulness of those studies themselves. It is
in vain to inveigh against this ; it is inevitable. I defy a
teacher, however conscientious, before whom is forever loom-
ing up the apparition of an arbitrary ordeal by which his


whole efficiency is to be estimated, to do justice to himself or
his scholars. He were more than human to disregard its
cramping requisitions. Mr. Philbrick, the accomplished and
efficient Superintendent of the Boston Schools, to whose
enlightened suggestions we are all so much indebted, says in
one of his recent reports, (first putting on velvet slippers,
that he might not tread too heavily on anybody's pedal ex-
cressences,) "In connection with the annual reports on the
Girls' High and Normal School, tables have sometimes been
printed, showing the percentage of correct answers at the
examination for admission by the candidates from each
Grammar School. Their operation is attended with serious
evils. They show the relative rank of the examinees in
only about half of the studies prescribed for the First Class
of the Grammar Schools. The consequence is that the
Master who is bent on securing a high percentage on the
test studies, must either neglect the % non test branches or
overtask his pupils. On the other hand, a Master who aims
to carry out the spirit of the regulations and to teach all the
branches fairly and faithfully, may find himself placed low
down on the comparative scale." Here we get an insight to
the state of affairs, not in Boston alone but everywhere. It
is not the comparative tables to which Mr. Philbrick refers,
that are specially in fault. Masters of Grammar Schools
everywhere, are compelled to confine themselves rigidly to
the test studies, lest, by some flaw of preparation, their
scholars should fail of success at the examinations ; without
necessarily presupposing any spirit of competition for a very
high percentage. Elsewhere, with one slipper off, Mr. Phil-
brick writes : "Most teachers feel obliged not only to confine
themselves to the text books, but to teach every thing in
them ; or rather to require the pupils to learn every thing in
them. By this ill contrivance the best teachers are ham-
pered and cramped. They are constrained, against their


better judgment, to teach many things which they deem
useless, and to teach in a manner which they deem not the
best manner. Some are driven by it to perpetrate the two
grave educational offences of cramming and high pressure,
which generally go hand in hand." True, every word. But
no detailed programme of instruction will remedy the evil,
as Mr. Philbrick suggests. Programme or no programme,
so long as the character of examinations for admission to
the High Schools remains what it is, technical teaching,
cramming and high pressure will inevitably characterize
Grammar School instruction. For every question missed at
such an examination involves the loss of a certain number
of per cent, from the summing up, and proportionately perils
the result. And since it is uncertain-what questions may be
asked, what out of the way details may be called for, there-
fore every rule, problem, method and formulary in the
crowded Arithmetic, every definition, exception and rigma-
role in the lumbered Grammar, and all the insignificant
details jn the old style of Geographies, from "What is the
North fork of Musquash River?" all through to "Which
way is Bungtown from Sleepy Hollow ?" must be forced
into the minds of the candidates. There is no margin for
the operation of any intelligent principle of selection and
abbreviation, so as to make room for other important studies.
Mr. Philbrick says, moreover, that far too much time is
wasted on spelling in the upper classes of the Boston Gram-
mar Schools. But can he expect anything else, so long as
progress in spelling is to be tested by a list of the most dif-
ficult words in the spelling book, instead of by the correctness
of orthography exhibited by the examinees in their examina-
tion papers throughout?

Such are the consequences of the existing state of things.
So does it come about that scholars from schools taught by
men of comparatively narrow ability and loan acquirements,


are found to pass through the High School examinations,
year after year, with superior eclat to those from the schools
taught by men of depth of power and breadth of culture.
Because the former are willing slaves of the text books, to
deprive them of which, indeed, is to render them impotent;
while the latter would scorn to let the text book become
their master; and fretting against the shackles imposed on
them, and yielding to the inspiration of their nobler ideals,
sometimes break away from their constraints, and teach for
a while in freedom and joy, at the expense of the formal
technics and cumbrous details, so essential to nominal suc-
cess. There is nothing that the live, competent Grammar
School teachers so long for, as freedom ; freedom to be
themselves, and to teach according to their conscience and
their power.

Thus it is that our Grammar Schools, so excellent in most
respects, are in part mistaught; that the scholars are crammed
with much that is worse than useless, and deprived of
much that is needful to a well rounded culture. "I have
shown the proximate cause of the evil. There is a remoter
cause ; for our High School examinations have not become
what they are without anterior, shaping influences; and
those influences must be thoroughly considered, if we would
institute a radical cure for the evil. And to that point I
shall devote the remainder of this essay.

The root of the whole matter is this. There has prevailed
in Massachusetts, from time immemorial, a very false notion
as to what the object of study is, and also as to the relative
values of the studies usually pursued in our Grammar
Schools. Take, for instance, one from among the red
school-houses at the forks of the roads, fifty years ago, on
an examination day after the winter school. The grand,
paramount requisition of the Committee, as to the First
Class, is, that they shall be able to "do their sums." If they


show themselves quick at figures, if they can readily solve
any problem that may be given in Fractions, Rule of Three,
Interest and Square Root, the master's reputation is well
nigh established, however signally they may fail in every-
thing else. But if, when called up in Grammar, they can
promptly parse the knotty passage in Milton or Cowper, that
the Committee has spent half the previous night in carefully
selecting for the purpose of trying them, the appropriate rules
and definitions being reeled off memoriter without tripping,
and when exercised in spelling, succeed with such words
as Phthisic, Poignancy, Heresiarch, Synecdoche, Caterpillar,
Diaphragm, Epicycloid and the like, the master's fortune is
fairly made. It will add to his laurels, if the class are well
versed in the details of the Geography, and can read and
write pretty well. But these latter branches are com-
paratively immaterial. The test studies have been satisfac-
torily gone through with. The minds of the scholars have
been admirably drilled. The school is a splendid success !

Now those same scholars may not be able to take up a
passage in an unfamiliar book, especially if it be a didactic
treatise, or a dignified history or biography, without blunder-
ing at every other word. They may penetrate into the real
sense and sentiment of the passages they have been drilled
to parse no deeper than a baby in arms penetrates into the
meaning of the book that he is holding upside down. They
may be incompetent to write an ordinary letter of friendship
or business in a creditable way. They may have acquired
no habit whatever of making a practicable application of
what they have been learning to the everyday affairs of life.
As for the principles of natural science and the arts in their
relation to common things, they may be so ignorant of them,
as not to know how to explain a single process in ordinary
'household or business affairs. And as for a love of literature,
a longing to communicate with the master minds of the race


through their works, and loving glimpses into the glorious
world of ideas, such references are to their ears very much
like so much Greek to a Pawnee Indian. But what of all
this ? Can they not cypher and s'pell and parse ?

Now in all candor and honesty, has the ancient estimate
of the ends of culture, which turned out on society such
crude, ilJconditioned material, after years of golden opportu-

1 3

Online LibraryHenry F HarringtonOur grammar schools: Why do they not furnish more and better material to our high schools? A lecture read before the Massachusetts Teachers Association, at Springfield, October 19th, 1867 → online text (page 1 of 3)