Practical Education in the Common Schools

“How shall we educate our pupils so as to fit them for the practical duties of life, such as farming and the various industrial pursuits?”

Swap computer science for farming and you’ve got a question that could have been asked — and has been — by any modern-day reader. But in fact, the question in the above quotation was posed in 1882, in a Century Magazine column called “Topics of the Time.”

The crux of the matter, according to the author and editor of the magazine Richard Watson Gilder, is the idea of "fit." He does go on to say, however, that “it is doubtful the public schools can attempt” preparing students for industrial or craft-based jobs.

The editor goes on to lament the lack of funds available (and the legislation required) to teach such skills, as well as the constant evolution and increasing complexity of the ways in which the “practical arts” are taught. Does this sound familiar? Nearly any parent who’s had trouble understanding, say, Common Core math could probably empathize. It would be quite impossible to focus on a particular “special or technical education,” declares Gilder, “even if skilled teachers could be obtained, which is equally out of the question.”

Ouch.

But then the article takes a turn, and Gilder argues that the best schools can aim to do is “train the intellect and develop the character of the pupils so that they shall be industrious, contented, and virtuous citizens.” This more abstract idea of education might, he thought, impart a sense of “mental and moral discipline” that would enable students to pursue any “honest calling.”

Gilder argues that schools should inculcate students with a sense of morality and a thirst for knowledge. English, geography, and math (and, to a slightly lesser extent music and art) are important, but they shouldn’t receive as much attention as history, civics, and government.

Gilder appears to support this argument by claiming that a distant and isolated farming life is no longer desirable. The day’s youth, instead, preferred to be in the towns and cities, even if it meant working in factories. It was not because this new industrial work was easier — quite the opposite — but because “mental resources” in rural areas were less stimulating. The key would be to introduce students to all that the agricultural life has to offer, to give future farmers more in-depth and scientific knowledge about their surroundings.

To do this, though, schools must add the “sciences of nature” to the list of important subjects, which would require “reforming the courses of study in our common schools.” After all, “We want to give our boys and girls a training that shall enable them not merely to make a living, but to find contentment and enjoyment in life.”

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