From the Archive — From the October 2016 issue

Class Struggle

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I n every city there is a district which is called “tough” — a district which decent people, afraid of insult or theft, shun in both daylight and darkness. It is there that the overworked police grow callous to the everlasting complaints and brawls. In one such community, by the grace of a country whose proud boast is a free education to all, is a public school. And in this public school are teachers who daily work against the heavy odds of vice and miserable ignorance which have been piling up year after year or generation after generation. But vice and ignorance are not the only odds against them; there is also the lack of understanding and interest of the state.

When most persons think of teaching they have a mental picture of little boys and girls sitting in straight rows and listening attentively to a very proper and very precise teacher. Every little boy and every little girl has a clean face; each blouse and dress is immaculate. This is the picture I actually had during my “practice” teaching days. They were quite adorable — those children in that second grade, twenty-five of them! Every one left home each morning with a mother’s kiss, a fresh handkerchief, and an admonition to be good, and they were good, very good.

But I look at my class today and sigh. There are forty-three in the room; a few are absent. Thanks to the vigilance of the school nurse, they are not physically dirty, although their clothes are often filthy and ill smelling. They do not leave home in the morning with a parental kiss, but more often with a curse or a blow, and no breakfast.

It is in the daily routine of the classroom work that the teacher comes in intimate contact with some of the causes which lie behind the ways and manners of the street. She has to work and struggle with a deeply rooted weed. It must be dealt with in its entirety before anything better can be expected to flourish. Refusing to recognize the complete situation is a menace to the general welfare of the country and unfair to the children themselves.

Nowhere in the “course of study” is any arrangement made for this uprooting. It is not on the schedule. Courses of study are uniform, alike in every school, regardless of surrounding conditions. There seems to be a general belief that all are cut to one pattern — socially, mentally, morally — for the state expects and demands from them the same results in the same length of time.

One day a mother was sent for. Her son had been playing truant for weeks. When she faced him in the principal’s office she was venomous. He had been bad — evil company night after night. She had hardly caught a glimpse of him in all that time. He looked haggard from lack of sleep and proper nourishment. She leaned down and removed one of her heavy shoes, and with its stout heel she hammered her young son upon the head until she was stopped by an outraged, frantic audience.

“Don’t hit that boy on the head. You could hit him where it would do no serious harm, but on the head — don’t!” the gentle vice principal urged, commanded.

She shrugged her shoulders, twisted her mouth in contempt at the silly notion. “I have been hitting him on the head all of his life and it ain’t hurt him yet.”

Some of the physical punishments given to these children are shocking in their primitive ferocity, for the parents will kick, bite, beat their miserable boy or girl until they themselves are physically exhausted and the child cut and bleeding. Children treated so are of course combative and hard to manage.

Harsh punishments lie behind the street, but more pernicious in its influence is the fact that nothing is kept from the children. There is nothing too sordid, too foul for them. They know more than most men and women who go through well-rounded lives without knowing and are happier for their ignorance.


From “The Teacher and the Taught,” which appeared in the March 1922 issue of Harper’s Magazine. The complete essay — along with the magazine’s entire 166-year archive — is available online at harpers.org/fromthearchive.

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