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“A Modern School”: Abraham Flexner Outlines Progressive Education

In the early 20th century, an impressive array of intellectuals, social critics, and grassroots activists came together to launch a progressive education movement that sought broad-based change in American educational practice. At the heart of the progressive program lay a pedagogy that emphasized flexibility and critical thinking. This was coupled with the belief that schools should establish organic relationships with their communities, that curricula should confront broad social issues, and that public-school administrators should provide educational opportunities for all children. Thoroughly infused with the reformist sensibilities of Progressive-era politics, progressive education essentially looked to schools for the political and social regeneration of the nation. In this 1916 essay, Abraham Flexner proposed an experimental school based on these ideas. In 1917, he founded the Lincoln School in New York, which embraced many of these disparate elements and prospered for more than three decades, gaining respect and influence.

As President [Charles William] Eliot [of Harvard] has so clearly pointed out in his paper in“The Changes Needed In American Secondary Education,” tradition still too largely determines both the substance and the purpose of current education. A certain amount of readjustment has indeed taken place; in some respects almost frantic efforts are making to force this or that modern subject into the course of study. But traditional methods and purposes are strong enough to maintain most of the traditional curriculum and to confuse the handling of material introduced in response to the pressure of the modern spirit. It is therefore still true that the bulk of the time and energy of our children at school is devoted to formal work developed by schoolmasters without close or constant reference to genuine individual or social need.

The subjects in question deal predominantly with words or abstractions, remote from use and experience; and they continue to be acquired by children because the race has formed the habit of acquiring them, or more accurately the habit of going through the form of acquiring them, rather than because they serve the real purposes of persons living to-day. Generally speaking, it may be safely affirmed that the subjects commonly taught, the time at which they are taught, the manner in which they are taught and the amounts taught are determined by tradition, not be a fresh and untrammeled consideration of living and present needs.

I am not forgetful of the fact that the moment a student takes fire in studying any subject, no matter how remote or abstract, it assumes a present reality for him. Thus, sometimes through the personality of the teacher, less often through the congeniality of the subject matter, Latin and algebra may seem as real to particular students as woodwork, Shakespeare, biology or current events. It still remains true, however, that these cases are highly exceptional; and that most children in the elementary and high schools struggle painfully and ineffectually to bring the subject matter of their studies within a world that is real and genuine for them. The best of them succeed fitfully; most of them never succeed at all.

It is perhaps worth while stopping long enough to show by figures the extent to which our current teaching fails. Complete statistics which would tell us how many of all the pupils who study Latin and algebra and geometry fail to master them do not exist. But we know that a large percentage of the better students of these subjects try the College Entrance Examinations, and that for these examinations many receive special drill, in addition to the regular teaching.

Now in the examinations held by the College Entrance Board in 1915, 76.6 per cent. of the candidates failed to make even a mark of 60 per cent., in the first six books of Virgil, every line of which they had presumably read and re-read; 69.7 per cent. of those examined in algebra from quadratics on failed to make as much as 60 per cent.; 42.4 per cent. failed to make 60 per cent. in plane geometry.

What would the record be if all who studied these subjects were examined by an impartial outside body? Probably some of those who fail do not do themselves justice; but as many—perhaps more—of the few who reach the really low mark of 60 per cent. do so by means of devices that represent stultification rather than intelligence. For nothing is commoner in the teaching of ancient languages and formal mathematics than drilling in arbitrary signs by means of which pupils determine mechanically what they should do, without intelligent insight into what they are doing.

It is, therefore, useless to inquire whether a knowledge of Latin and mathematics is valuable, because pupils do not get it; and it is equally beside the mark to ask whether the effort to obtain this knowledge is a valuable discipline, since failure is so widespread that the only habits acquired through failing to learn Latin or algebra are habits of slipshod work, of guessing and of mechanical application of formulae, not themselves understood.

A word should perhaps be said at this point by way of explaining why the Germans appear to succeed where we fail. There are two reasons; in the first place, the German gymnasium makes a ruthless selection. It rejects without compunction large numbers whom we in American endeavor to educate; and on the education of this picked minority it brings to bear such pressure as we can never hope to apply—family pressure, social pressure, official pressure. Under such circumstances, success is possible with small numbers; but the rising tide of opposition to the classical gymnasium and the development of modern schools with equivalent privileges show that even in Germany the traditional education is undermined.

But not only do American children as a class fail to gain either knowledge or power through the traditional curriculum—they spend an inordinately long time in failing. The period spent in school and college before students begin professional studies is longer in the United States than in any other western country. An economy of two or three years is urgently necessary. The Modern School must therefore not only find what students can really learn—it must feel itself required to solve its problem within a given number of years—the precise number being settled in advance on social, economic and professional grounds. Its problem may perhaps be formulated in these terms; how much education of a given type can a boy or girl get before reaching the age of, let us say, twenty, on the theory that at that age general opportunities automatically end.

A Modern Conception of Education

Before I undertake to do this, it is necessary to define education for the purposes of this sketch; and for obvious reasons this definition will be framed from a practical rather than from a philosophical point of view. All little children have certain common needs; but, beginning with adolescence, education is full of alternatives. The education planned for children who must leave school at fourteen necessarily differs in extent and thus in degree in content from that feasible for those who can remain, say two years longer, so as to acquire the rudiments of a vocation. Still different are the possibilities for children who have the good fortune to remain until they are eighteen or twenty, reasonably free during this lengthened period from the necessity of determining procedure by other than educational considerations. I assume that the Modern School of which we are now speaking contemplates liberal and general education in the sense last-mentioned. With regard to children who expect to enjoy such opportunities, what do we moderns mean when we speak of an educated man? How do we know and recognize an educated man in the modern sense? What can he do that an uneducated man—uneducated in the modern sense—cannot do?

I suggest that, in the first place, a man educated in the modern sense has mastered the fundamental tools of knowledge: he can read and write; he can spell the words he is in the habit of using; he can express himself clearly orally or in writing; he can figure correctly and with moderate facility within the limits of practical need; he knows something about the globe on which he lives. So far there is no difference between a man educated in the modern sense and a man educated in any other sense.

There is, however, a marked divergence at the next step. The education which we are criticizing is overwhelmingly formal and traditional. If objection is made to this or that study on the ground that it is useless or unsuitable, the answer comes that it “trains the mind” or has been valued for centuries.“Training the mind” in the sense in which the claim is thus made for algebra or ancient languages is an assumption none too well founded; traditional esteem is an insufficient offset to present and future uselessness.

A man educated in the modern sense will forego the somewhat doubtful mental discipline received from formal studies; he will be contentedly ignorant of things for learning which no better reason than tradition can be assigned. Instead, his education will be obtained from studies that serve real purposes. Its content, spirit, and aim will be realistic and genuine, not formal or traditional. Thus, the man educated in the modern sense will be trained to know, to care about and to understand the world he lives in, both the physical world and the social world. A firm grasp of the physical world means the capacity to note and to interpret phenomena; a firm grasp of the social world means a comprehension of and sympathy with current industry, current science, and current politics.

The extent to which history and literature of the past are utilized depends, not on what we call the historic value of this or that performance or classic, but on its actual pertinency to genuine need, interest, or capacity. In any case, the object in view would be to give children the knowledge they need to develop in them the power to handle themselves in our own world. Neither history nor what are called purely cultural claims would alone be regarded as compelling.

Even the progressive curricula of the present time are far from accepting the principle above formulated. For, though they include things that serve purposes, their eliminations are altogether too timid. They have occasionally dropped, occasionally curtailed what experience shows to be either unnecessary or hopelessly unsuitable. But they retain the bulk of the traditional course of study, and present it in traditional fashion, because an overwhelming case has not—so it is judged—yet been made against it. If, however, the standpoint which I have urged were adopted, the curriculum would contain only what can be shown to serve a purpose. The burden of proof would be on the subject, not on those who stand ready to eliminate it. If the subject serves a purpose, it is eligible to the curriculum; otherwise not. I need not stop at this juncture to show that “serving a purpose,” "useful,“ "genuine,” "realistic,“ and other descriptive terms are not synonymous with ”utilitarian,“ "materialistic,”"commercial," etc.,—for intellectual and spiritual purposes are genuine and valid, precisely as are physical, physiological and industrial purposes. That will become clear as we proceed.

The Aim: Intellectual Power

It follows from the way in which the child is made, and from constitution and appeal of modern society, that instruction in objects and in phenomena will at one time or another play a very prominent part in the Modern School. It is, however, clear that mere knowledge of phenomena, our mere ability to understand or to produce objects falls short of the ultimate purpose of a liberal education. Such knowledge and such ability indubitably have, as President Eliot’s paper pointed out, great value in themselves; and they imply such functioning of the senses as promises a rich fund of observation and experience. But in the end, if the Modern School is to be adequate to the need of modern life, this concrete training must produce sheer intellectual power. Abstract thinking has perhaps never before played so important a part in life as in this materialistic and scientific world of ours,—this world of railroads, automobiles, wireless telegraphy, and international relationships. Our problems involve indeed concrete data and present themselves in concrete forms; but, back of the concrete details, lie difficult and involved intellectual processes. Hence the realistic education we propose must eventuate in intellectual power.

We must not only cultivate the child’s interests, senses and practical skill, but we must train him to interpret what he thus gets to the end that he may not only be able to perceive and to do, but that he may know in intellectual terms the significance of what he has perceived and done. The Modern School would prove a disappointment, unless greater intellectual power is procurable on the basis of a realistic training than has been procured from formal education, which is prematurely intellectual, and to no slight extent a mere make-believe. . . .

What the Curriculum Omits

This necessarily brief and untechnical sketch will perhaps become more definite if I look at the curriculum from the standpoint of the omissions. Let us restate our guiding thesis: Modern education will include nothing simply because tradition recommends it or because its inutility has not been conclusively established. It proceeds in precisely the opposite way: It includes nothing for which an affirmative case cannot now be made out.

As has already been intimated, this method of approach would probably result in greatly reducing the time allowed to mathematics, and in decidedly changing the form of what is still retained. If, for example, only so much arithmetic is taught as people actually have occasion to use, the subject will shrink to modest proportions; and if this reduced amount is taught so as to serve real purposes, the teachers of science, industry, and domestic economy will do much of it incidentally. The same policy may be employed in dealing with algebra and geometry. What is taught, when it is taught, and how it is taught will in that event depend altogether on what is needed, and the form in which it is needed.

Precisely the same line of reasoning would be applied to English, history, and literature. For example: There has been a heated discussion for years on the subject of formal grammar, which has been defended, first, on the ground that it furnishes a valuable mental discipline; second, on the ground that it assists the correct use of language. It is passing strange how many ill-disciplined minds there are among those who have spent years being mentally disciplined, now in this subject, now in that. The Modern School would not hesitate to take the risk to mental discipline involved in dropping the study of formal grammar. It would, tentatively at least, also risk the consequences to correct speech involved in the same step. For such evidence as we possess points to the futility of formal grammar as an aid to correct speaking and writing. The study would be introduced later, only if a real need for it were felt,—and only in such amounts and at such periods as this need clearly required.

In respect to history and literature, a Modern School would have the courage not to go through the form of teaching children useless historic facts just because previous generations of children have learned and forgotten them; and also the courage not to read obsolete and uncongenial classics, simply because tradition has made this sort of acquaintance a kind of good form. We might thus produced a generation as ignorant of the name of the Licinian laws as we who have studied them are ignorant of their contents and significance: a generation that did not at school analyze Milton’s“Lycidias” or Burke’s speech as we did, who then and there vowed life-long hostility to both. But might there not be an offset if the generation in question really cared about the history and politics of, say, modern England or New York City, and read for sheer fun at one time or another and quite regardless of chronological order Homer, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Walter Scott, Stevenson, Kipling and Masefield?

Neither Latin nor Greek would be contained in the curriculum of the Modern School,—not, of course, because their literatures are less wonderful than they are reputed to be, but because their present position in the curriculum rests upon tradition and assumption. A positive case can be made out of neither.

The literary argument fails, because stumbling and blundering through a few patches of Latin classics do not establish a contact with Latin literature. Nor does present-day teaching result in a practical mastery of Latin useful for other purposes. Mature students who studied Latin through the high school, and perhaps to some extent in college, find it difficult or impossible to understand a Latin document encountered in, say, a course of history. If practical mastery is desired, more Latin can be learned in enormously less time by postponing the study until the student needs the language or wants it. At that stage he can learn more Latin in a few months than he would have succeeded in acquiring through four or five years or reluctant effort in youth.

Finally, the disciplinary argument fails, because“mental discipline” is not a real purpose; moreover, it would in any event constitute an argument against rather than for the study of Latin. I have quoted figures to show how egregiously we fail to teach Latin. These figures mean that instead of getting orderly training by solving difficulties in Latin translation or composition, pupils guess, fumble, receive surreptitious assistance or accept on faith the injunctions of teacher and grammar. The only discipline that most students could get from their classical studies is a discipline in doing things as they should not be done.

I should perhaps deal with yet another argument—viz., that Latin aids in securing a vigorous or graceful use of the mother tongue. Like the arguments previously considered, this is unsubstantiated opinion; no evidence has ever yet been presented. . . .

Possible Results

Would the proposed education educate? Many of the disagreeable features of education with which under existing circumstances children are compelled to wrestle would be eliminated. Would not the training substituted be soft-lacking in vigor, incapable of teaching the child to work against the grain? Again, is there not danger that a school constituted on the modern basis would be unsympathetic with ideals and hostile to spiritual activity?

Two questions are thus raised, (1) the question of discipline, moral and mental, (2) the question of interest or taste.

There is, I think, no harm to be apprehended on either score. The Modern School would“discipline the mind” in the only way in which the mind can be effectively disciplined—by energizing it through the doing of real tasks. The formal difficulties which the Modern School discards are educationally inferior to the genuine difficulties involved in science, industry, literature, and politics; for formal problems are not apt to evoke prolonged and resourceful effort. It is, indeed, absurd to invent formal difficulties for the professed purpose of discipline, when, within the limits of science, industry, literature, and politics, real problems abound. Method can be best acquired, and stands the best chance of being acquired, if real issues are presented. Are problems any the less problems because a boy attacks them with intelligence and zest? He does not attack them because they are easy, nor does he shrink from them because they are hard. He attacks them, if he has been wisely trained, because they challenge his powers. And in this attack he gets what the conventional school so generally fails to give—the energizing of his faculties, and a directive clue as to where he will find a congenial and effective object in life.

A word on the subject of what I have just called the “directive clue.” Our college graduates are in large numbers pathetically in the dark as to “what next.” Even the elective system has not enabled most of them to find themselves. The reason is clear. A formal education, devoted to “training the mind” and“culture” does little to connect capacity with opportunity or ambition. The more positive endowments, of course, assert themselves; but the more positive endowments are relatively scarce. In the absence of bent, social pressure determines a youth’s career in America, less frequently than in more tightly organized societies. But an education that from the start makes a genuine appeal will disclose, develop, and specialize interest. It will, in a word, give the individual a clue.

In this connection it may be fairly asked whether, in the end, it will not turn out that the Modern School practically eschews compulsion. Not at all. But it distinguishes. First of all, the interests of childhood, spontaneous or readily excitable, are of great educational significance: interests in life, objects, adventure, face—these the Modern School proposes to utilize and to develop in their natural season. Next, the capacities of childhood—for the learning of languages, for example—of these the Modern School proposes to make timely use with a view to remote contingencies. So far there is little need to speak of compulsion. Compulsion will be employed, however, to accomplish anything that needs to be accomplished by compulsion, provided that it can be accomplished by compulsion. Children can and, if necessary, must be compelled to spell and to learn the multiplication table, and anything else that serves a chosen purpose, near or remote; but they cannot be compelled to care about the “Faerie Queene,” and sheer compulsion applied to that end is wasted. If children cannot through skillful teaching be brought to care about the“Faerie Queene,” compulsory reading of a book or two is as futile a performance as can be imagined. The Modern School will not, therefore, eschew compulsion; but compulsion will be employed with intelligence and discrimination.

As to the second question—whether the Modern School would not be spiritually unsympathetic, the answer depends on the relation of genuine interests of a varied character to spiritual activity. It is, of course, obvious that, if the Modern School were limited to industrial or commercial activities, with just so much language, mathematics, and science as the effective prosecution of those activities requires, the higher potentialities of the child would remain undeveloped. But the Modern School proposes nothing of this kind. It undertakes a large and free handling of the phenomenal world, appealing in due course to the observational, the imaginative, and the reasoning capacities of the child; and in precisely the same spirit and with equal emphasis, it will utilize art, literature and music. Keeping always with in reach of the child’s genuine response should indeed make for, not against, the development of spiritual interests. Are science and such poetry as children can be brought to love more likely or less likely to stir the soul than formal grammar, algebra, or the literature selections that emanate from the people who supervise the college entrance examinations?

The education of the particular pupils who attend the Modern School might prove to be the least of the services rendered by the School. More important would perhaps be its influence in setting up positive as against dogmatic educational standards. We go on teaching this or that subject in this or that way for no better reason than that its ineffectiveness or harmfulness has not been established. Medicines were once generally and are still not infrequently prescribed on exactly the same basis. Modern teaching, like modern medicine, should be controlled by positive indications. The schools should teach Latin and algebra, if at all, just as the intelligent physician prescribes quinine, because it serves a purpose that he knows and can state. Nor will tact and insight and enthusiasm cease to be efficient virtues, simply because curriculum and teaching method are constant objects of scientific scrutiny.

In education, as in other realms, the inquiring spirit will be the productive spirit. There is an important though not very extensive body of educational literature of philosophical and inspirational character; but there is little of scientific quality. The scientific spirit is just beginning to creep into elementary and secondary schools; and progress is slow, because the conditions are unfavorable. The Modern School should be a laboratory from which would issue scientific studies of all kinds of educational problems—a laboratory, first of all, which would test and evaluate critically the fundamental propositions on which it is itself based, and the results as they are obtained.

The inauguration of the experiment discussed in this paper would be at first seriously hampered because of the lack of school paraphernalia adapted to its spirit and purposes. Text-books, apparatus, and methods would have to be worked out—contrived, tentatively employed, remodeled, tried elsewhere, and so on. In the end the implements thus fashioned would be an important factor in assisting the reorganization and reconstruction of other schools—schools that could adopt a demonstration, even though they could not have made the original experiment.

Finally, the Modern School seeking not only to train a particular group of children, but to influence educational practice, can be a seminary for the training of teachers, first its own, then others who will go out into service. The difficulty of recruiting a satisfactory staff to begin with must not be overlooked; for available teachers have been brought up and have taught on traditional lines. On the other hand, the spirit of revolt is rife; and teachers can be found whose efforts have already passed beyond conventional limits. With these the new enterprise would be started.

Source: Abraham Flexner, “A Modern School,” American Review of Reviews 53 (1916): 465–474.

See Also:"The Project Method": Child-Centeredness in Progressive Education