OUR EDUCATION SYSTEM.
IS IT RIGHT OR WRONG?
ALLEGED SYSTEM OF CRAM.
THE SMART AND THE DULL
Poverty Bay Herald, 15 May 1906
I have a pet hate of Dr. Truby King. I don’t care if he founded Plunket, or got his face on a stamp, or got in Joseph Romanos’ Kiwi Heroes book. He’s a dick.
Sometimes I like to trawl old newspapers looking for the utterly ridiculous things he used to say. It reminds me to be continually viligant in the face of pronoucements by experts. They might wind up being right, but they need to be put through their paces and argued with first. Dr. King wasn’t much tested by the journalists of the day. His pronouncements were greeted as fact. Much to the detriment of commonsense.
Socrates was pretty good at putting so called experts through their paces in Athens 2400 years ago. Clearly it has been a problem of society for a long time. When the oracle at Delphi announced that there was none wiser than Socrates he astutely refused to believe it and went and interviewed people who were famed for being wise. After conducting countless interviews he was forced to conclude that he might actually be the wisest man in the world because he knew that he knew nothing while all the so-called experts claimed to know things but were infact largely ignorant. Like, I would suggest, Dr. Truby King.
In 1906 Dr. Truby King made a pronouncement on the evils of cram in the education system. The media slavishly took up the call and railed against cram. Dr. King was the Superintendant at Seacliff Lunatic Asylum and he liked to base his claims in the evidence of Seacliff. In this instance he continually referred to a young man and a young lady who had formerly been the dux of their respective schools but were now under his care.
The matter is taken up in the Otago Witness:
It is some years since people began to ask themselves, “what has become of our double firsts, of our gold medalists, of the young men and women who have won great honours at school and college, at the university and other exams? Why don’t we hear of them filling the big places of the earth?” Dr Truby King answered this question in his recent lecture. As a rule, they are found among the failures: the extreme cases become mentally diseased, neurapaths, insane. The others, having lived too fast on the mental side, pay the inevitable penalty of loss of vitality, energy and power on the physical.
Otago Witness, 6 June 1906
This comes from an article entitled SOME EVILS OF CRAM AND EXCESSIVE COMPETITION which begins,
Mrs F. E. Cotton delivered a lecture to kindergarten students, under the auspices of the Froebel Club, on the 17th inst,. on the subject “Some Evils of Cram and Excessive Competition.”
To kindergarten students? I would suggest that delivering lectures on the education system to four year olds would be a prime example of putting too much academic pressure on children, but nevermind. Mrs Cotton goes on,
Our age is an age of hurry, bustle and confusion…. We see this hurry everywhere. In the haste to be rich, which takes no account of the unwritten rights of others. In the haste to be notorious, which urges people to spend more that they can afford, and to be ever straining to be one better than every other person in the same business.
“The haste to be notorious”. This appears to be a very early commentary on rappers.
What follows is an extended simile about people being like oranges and how immature oranges can be squeezed too early and lose all their juice. I like a good over-extended simile/metaphor any day but once we get into teachers handling oranges and squeezing and juice I begin to feel slightly uncomfortable (or how about this: “these human flowers may develop under the hands of their human gardeners on strictly spiritual lines.” Blergh).
And let’s remember that Mrs Cotton is drawing her conclusions about New Zealand society in 1906: before electricity in homes, before radio, before TV, washing machines, refrigerators, cars. It is almost impossible to imagine someone living in the world of 1906 and complaining of the hustle, bustle and confusion, but I suppose it is all a matter of perspective. In fact, I find it perfectly possible to imagine Mrs Cotton’s railing against the modern world appearing as a letter to the editor or an opinion piece in a paper today. To be honest, I’m pretty sure I routinely whinge about the inherent greed and waste of capitalism, and the press to get ahead.
Let us get back to education and the evils of cramming. How can this terrible scourge of the education system be avoided?
It may be necessary to organise some plan by which candidates for these scholarships shall be subjected to some degree of supervision by competent medical men, so that the expanding minds of the children may not be given a strain beyond their capacity to bear.
There should be no homework in connection with the primary schools. The evil of this practice has been often commented upon.
Bush Advocate, 16 May, 1906
“Homework for primary school students” and “evil” seem an odd combination of terms. Commented upon by whom? Primary school students?
Every child should be weighed at school at least every three months, if possible every month, and if there is a great change in weight the teacher would have to seek the cause.
Poverty Bay Herald, 15 May, 1906
By now I was not so much enjoying the idiocy of King as I was being struck by the fact that the issues bothering New Zealand about education in 1906 were practically identical to the ones that bother us nowadays.
In fact, after the fever of decrying cram in schools had abated, the education journalism of the day returns quickly to the usual pattern of education reporting, which is of course that schools are failing us, and that students need to be taught better and work harder.
Just recently the Wellington Chamber of Commerce made a complaint… as to the incapacity of sixth standard boys to write legibly, and do ordinary arithmetic accurately.
The reporter goes on to examine these educational flaws. The deterioration in handwriting is explained not only by the demands of modernity for speed, but by the faddish tastes of the 1900s equivalent of the Ministry of Education:
The evil [of bad handwriting] has been accentuated by teachers requiring a change in style, and a few years ago upright writing became a craze on the part of directors of education with the result that many a lad spoilt his style.
Poor lads. They would have had to take the shame of the upright style with them to their graves.
We could blame excessive tests,
If properly graded that are of great service to the teacher, but when they are utlised for the purpose of relieving the teacher of actual teaching they become a snare and a curse.
Evening Post, 3 March, 1906
An overarching theme explaining poor results in many newspaper accounts is summarised here:
Still another speaker said that probably the poorness of the handwriting was due to the gradual enlargement of the syllabus until it was so full that masters were unable to make their pupils perfect.
Colonist, 14 September, 1906
Even when I was at primary school I had handwriting class. I was crap at it. I never, ever understood why my teachers were making such a big deal about letters having to be joined to other letters, and on an angle, and have nice loopy bits (there was definitely no craze for the upright style at my school). Interesting to see in the debate above that handwriting was considered a core part of the curriculum and that other, new-fangled parts of the syllabus were taking precious time away from it.
However, an unimpressed letter writer the following year will not have the blame for crappy results and poor handwriting laid at the door of the syllabus:
The size of our classes is undoubtedly a great evil, and it will indeed be quite impossible to do anything like justice to the children and give them the amount of individual attention they require until we have at least double the number of teachers that we have at present.
Nelson Evening Mail, 17 April, 1907
Ah, yes, the old classic: teacher-student ratio.
How about lack of funding and priorities?
That is merely a matter of pounds, shillings and pence. The colony spends less than one million annually on education and over three millions on drink.
Of course teachers probably account for at least one million of this three million.
So, to recap, students get too much/not enough school work and are working so hard/poorly they are going insane/not able to do simple sums due to a lack of/too much testing, and the syllabus/teachers/student-teacher ratio/funding is to blame.
Sounds about right. Nice to know that things have changed so much in the last 100 years.