Chapter XV: Play and Work in the Curriculum - 2. Available Occupations

A bare catalogue of the list of activities which have already found their way into schools indicates what a rich field is at hand. There is work with paper, cardboard, wood, leather, cloth, yarns, clay and sand, and the metals, with and without tools. Processes employed are folding, cutting, pricking, measuring, molding, modeling, pattern-making, heating and cooling, and the operations characteristic of such tools as the hammer, saw, file, etc. Outdoor excursions, gardening, cooking, sewing, printing, book-binding, weaving, painting, drawing, singing, dramatization, story-telling, reading and writing as active pursuits with social aims (not as mere exercises for acquiring skill for future use), in addition to a countless variety of plays and games, designate some of the modes of occupation.

The problem of the educator is to engage pupils in these activities in such ways that while manual skill and technical efficiency are gained and immediate satisfaction found in the work, together with preparation for later usefulness, these things shall be subordinated to education—that is, to intellectual results and the forming of a socialized disposition. What does this principle signify?

In the first place, the principle rules out certain practices. Activities which follow definite prescription and dictation or which reproduce without modification ready-made models, may give muscular dexterity, but they do not require the perception and elaboration of ends, nor (what is the same thing in other words) do they permit the use of judgment in selecting and adapting means. Not merely manual training specifically so-called but many traditional kindergarten exercises have erred here. Moreover, opportunity for making mistakes is an incidental requirement. Not because mistakes are ever desirable, but because overzeal to select material and appliances which forbid a chance for mistakes to occur, restricts initiative, reduces judgment to a minimum, and compels the use of methods which are so remote from the complex situations of life that the power gained is of little availability. It is quite true that children tend to exaggerate their powers of execution and to select projects that are beyond them. But limitation of capacity is one of the things which has to be learned; like other things, it is learned through the experience of consequences. The danger that children undertaking too complex projects will simply muddle and mess, and produce not merely crude results (which is a minor matter) but acquire crude standards (which is an important matter) is great. But it is the fault of the teacher if the pupil does not perceive in due season the inadequacy of his performances, and thereby receive a stimulus to attempt exercises which will perfect his powers. Meantime it is more important to keep alive a creative and constructive attitude than to secure an external perfection by engaging the pupil's action in too minute and too closely regulated pieces of work. Accuracy and finish of detail can be insisted upon in such portions of a complex work as are within the pupil's capacity.

Unconscious suspicion of native experience and consequent overdoing of external control are shown quite as much in the material supplied as in the matter of the teacher's orders. The fear of raw material is shown in laboratory, manual training shop, Froebelian kindergarten, and Montessori house of childhood. The demand is for materials which have already been subjected to the perfecting work of mind: a demand which shows itself in the subject matter of active occupations quite as well as in academic book learning. That such material will control the pupil's operations so as to prevent errors is true. The notion that a pupil operating with such material will somehow absorb the intelligence that went originally to its shaping is fallacious. Only by starting with crude material and subjecting it to purposeful handling will he gain the intelligence embodied in finished material. In practice, overemphasis upon formed material leads to an exaggeration of mathematical qualities, since intellect finds its profit in physical things from matters of size, form, and proportion and the relations that flow from them. But these are known only when their perception is a fruit of acting upon purposes which require attention to them. The more human the purpose, or the more it approximates the ends which appeal in daily experience, the more real the knowledge. When the purpose of the activity is restricted to ascertaining these qualities, the resulting knowledge is only technical.

To say that active occupations should be concerned primarily with wholes is another statement of the same principle. Wholes for purposes of education are not, however, physical affairs. Intellectually the existence of a whole depends upon a concern or interest; it is qualitative, the completeness of appeal made by a situation. Exaggerated devotion to formation of efficient skill irrespective of present purpose always shows itself in devising exercises isolated from a purpose. Laboratory work is made to consist of tasks of accurate measurement with a view to acquiring knowledge of the fundamental units of physics, irrespective of contact with the problems which make these units important; or of operations designed to afford facility in the manipulation of experimental apparatus. The technique is acquired independently of the purposes of discovery and testing which alone give it meaning. Kindergarten employments are calculated to give information regarding cubes, spheres, etc., and to form certain habits of manipulation of material (for everything must always be done "just so"), the absence of more vital purposes being supposedly compensated for by the alleged symbolism of the material used. Manual training is reduced to a series of ordered assignments calculated to secure the mastery of one tool after another and technical ability in the various elements of construction—like the different joints. It is argued that pupils must know how to use tools before they attack actual making,—assuming that pupils cannot learn how in the process of making. Pestalozzi's just insistence upon the active use of the senses, as a substitute for memorizing words, left behind it in practice schemes for "object lessons" intended to acquaint pupils with all the qualities of selected objects. The error is the same: in all these cases it is assumed that before objects can be intelligently used, their properties must be known. In fact, the senses are normally used in the course of intelligent (that is, purposeful) use of things, since the qualities perceived are factors to be reckoned with in accomplishment. Witness the different attitude of a boy in making, say, a kite, with respect to the grain and other properties of wood, the matter of size, angles, and proportion of parts, to the attitude of a pupil who has an object-lesson on a piece of wood, where the sole function of wood and its properties is to serve as subject matter for the lesson.

The failure to realize that the functional development of a situation alone constitutes a 'whole' for the purpose of mind is the cause of the false notions which have prevailed in instruction concerning the simple and the complex. For the person approaching a subject, the simple thing is his purpose—the use he desires to make of material, tool, or technical process, no matter how complicated the process of execution may be. The unity of the purpose, with the concentration upon details which it entails, confers simplicity upon the elements which have to be reckoned with in the course of action. It furnishes each with a single meaning according to its service in carrying on the whole enterprise. After one has gone through the process, the constituent qualities and relations are elements, each possessed with a definite meaning of its own. The false notion referred to takes the standpoint of the expert, the one for whom elements exist; isolates them from purposeful action, and presents them to beginners as the "simple" things.

But it is time for a positive statement. Aside from the fact that active occupations represent things to do, not studies, their educational significance consists in the fact that they may typify social situations. Men's fundamental common concerns center about food, shelter, clothing, household furnishings, and the appliances connected with production, exchange, and consumption. Representing both the necessities of life and the adornments with which the necessities have been clothed, they tap instincts at a deep level; they are saturated with facts and principles having a social quality.

To charge that the various activities of gardening, weaving, construction in wood, manipulation of metals, cooking, etc., which carry over these fundamental human concerns into school resources, have a merely bread and butter value is to miss their point. If the mass of mankind has usually found in its industrial occupations nothing but evils which had to be endured for the sake of maintaining existence, the fault is not in the occupations, but in the conditions under which they are carried on. The continually increasing importance of economic factors in contemporary life makes it the more needed that education should reveal their scientific content and their social value. For in schools, occupations are not carried on for pecuniary gain but for their own content. Freed from extraneous associations and from the pressure of wage-earning, they supply modes of experience which are intrinsically valuable; they are truly liberalizing in quality.

Gardening, for example, need not be taught either for the sake of preparing future gardeners, or as an agreeable way of passing time. It affords an avenue of approach to knowledge of the place farming and horticulture have had in the history of the race and which they occupy in present social organization. Carried on in an environment educationally controlled, they are means for making a study of the facts of growth, the chemistry of soil, the rôle of light, air, and moisture, injurious and helpful animal life, etc. There is nothing in the elementary study of botany which cannot be introduced in a vital way in connection with caring for the growth of seeds. Instead of the subject matter belonging to a peculiar study called botany, it will then belong to life, and will find, moreover, its natural correlations with the facts of soil, animal life, and human relations. As students grow mature, they will perceive problems of interest which may be pursued for the sake of discovery, independent of the original direct interest in gardening—problems connected with the germination and nutrition of plants, the reproduction of fruits, etc., thus making a transition to deliberate intellectual investigations.

The illustration is intended to apply, of course, to other school occupations,—wood-working, cooking, and on through the list. It is pertinent to note that in the history of the race the sciences grew gradually out from useful social occupations. Physics developed slowly out of the use of tools and machines; the important branch of physics known as mechanics testifies in its name to its original associations. The lever, wheel, inclined plane, etc., were among the first great intellectual discoveries of mankind, and they are none the less intellectual because they occurred in the course of seeking for means of accomplishing practical ends. The great advance of electrical science in the last generation was closely associated, as effect and as cause, with application of electric agencies to means of communication, transportation, lighting of cities and houses, and more economical production of goods. These are social ends, moreover, and if they are too closely associated with notions of private profit, it is not because of anything in them, but because they have been deflected to private uses:—a fact which puts upon the school the responsibility of restoring their connection, in the mind of the coming generation, with public scientific and social interests. In like ways, chemistry grew out of processes of dying, bleaching, metal working, etc., and in recent times has found innumerable new uses in industry.

Mathematics is now a highly abstract science; geometry, however, means literally earth-measuring: the practical use of number in counting to keep track of things and in measuring is even more important to-day than in the times when it was invented for these purposes. Such considerations (which could be duplicated in the history of any science) are not arguments for a recapitulation of the history of the race or for dwelling long in the early rule of thumb stage. But they indicate the possibilities—greater to-day than ever before—of using active occupations as opportunities for scientific study. The opportunities are just as great on the social side, whether we look at the life of collective humanity in its past or in its future. The most direct road for elementary students into civics and economics is found in consideration of the place and office of industrial occupations in social life. Even for older students, the social sciences would be less abstract and formal if they were dealt with less as sciences (less as formulated bodies of knowledge) and more in their direct social-matter as that is found in the daily life of the social groups in which the student shares.

Connection of occupations with the method of science is at least as close as with its subject matter. The ages when scientific progress was slow were the ages when learned men had contempt for the material and processes of everyday life, especially for those concerned with manual pursuits. Consequently they strove to develop knowledge out of general principles—almost out of their heads—by logical reasonings. It seems as absurd that learning should come from action on and with physical things, like dropping acid on a stone to see what would happen, as that it should come from sticking an awl with waxed thread through a piece of leather. But the rise of experimental methods proved that, given control of conditions, the latter operation is more typical of the right way of knowledge than isolated logical reasonings. Experiment developed in the seventeenth and succeeding centuries and became the authorized way of knowing when men's interests were centered in the question of control of nature for human uses. The active occupations in which appliances are brought to bear upon physical things with the intention of effecting useful changes is the most vital introduction to the experimental method.