I should say at the outset, however, that I shall not attempt to justify to this audience the introduction of vocational subjects into the elementary and secondary curriculums. I shall take it for granted that you have already made up your minds upon this matter. I shall not take your time in an attempt to persuade you that agriculture ought to be taught in the rural schools, or manual training and domestic science in all schools. I am personally convinced of the value of such work and I shall take it for granted that you are likewise convinced.
My task to-day, then, is of another type. I wish to discuss with you some of the implications of this matter of utility in respect of the work that every elementary school is doing and always must do, no matter how much hand work or vocational material it may introduce. My problem, in other words, concerns the ordinary subject-matter of the curriculum,—reading and writing and arithmetic, geography and grammar and history,—those things which, like the poor, are always with us, but which we seem a little ashamed to talk about in public. Truly, from reading the educational journals and hearing educational discussion to-day, the layman might well infer that what we term the “useful” education and the education that is now offered by the average school are as far apart as the two poles. We are all familiar with the statement that the elementary curriculum is eminently adapted to produce clerks and accountants, but very poorly adapted to furnish recruits for any other department of life. The high school is criticized on the ground that it prepares for college and consequently for the professions, but that it is totally inadequate to the needs of the average citizen. Now it would be futile to deny that there is some truth in both these assertions, but I do not hesitate to affirm that both are grossly exaggerated, and that the curriculum of to-day, with all its imperfections, does not justify so sweeping a denunciation. I wish to point out some of the respects in which these charges are fallacious, and, in so doing, perhaps, to suggest some possible remedies for the defects that every one will acknowledge.
In the first place, let me make myself perfectly clear upon what I mean by the word “useful.” What, after all, is the “useful” study in our schools? What do men find to be the useful thing in their lives? The most natural answer to this question is that the useful things are those that enable us to meet effectively the conditions of life,—or, to use a phrase that is perfectly clear to us all, the things that help us in getting a living. The vast majority of men and women in this world measure all values by this standard, for most of us are, to use the expressive slang of the day, “up against” this problem, and “up against” it so hard and so constantly that we interpret everything in the greatly foreshortened perspective of immediate necessity. Most of us in this room are confronting this problem of making a living. At any rate, I am confronting it, and consequently I may lay claim to some of the authority that comes from experience.