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An English Teacher in the United States by D. C. Macdonald


When I landed in Boston, in January, 1874, it was neither to "make my fortune" nor to hunt buffaloes or bears in the neighborhood of that classic city. Nevertheless, just to show my readers that there is a measure of truth in the prevalent impressions here of John Bull's general ignorance and apathy as to what is going on in America, I willingly admit that not till I had been a few days resident in Cambridge did the unpalatable fact fully dawn upon me that the country was undergoing the ordeal of "hard times"—a phrase, by the way, which I have had dinned into my ears almost incessantly as far back as I can remember. Besides, although I could not help knowing that the States have been peopled by Europeans, I was hardly prepared to find Americans proper—the descendants of Revolutionary ancestors—in such an appalling minority; and it certainly surprised me to find that Ireland and Germany were responsible for so large a proportion of the population. When I walked in the streets or visited the stores or public buildings disillusion trod close on my heels: I was constantly accosting, or being accosted by, persons of Irish or German or other foreign nationality, who, though displaying characteristics that somehow distinguished them from their countrymen in Europe, did not fall in with my ideal of the American people. I do not mean precisely that they fell short of that ideal, but simply that "the shoe wouldn't fit," to use a common expression. I began at last, in my bewilderment, to inquire whether there were any Yankees in or about Boston, anyhow; and thus it transpired that after a few days "prospecting" I finally transferred myself and my fortunes from Boston to old Cambridge, where, it is needless to say, I found plenty of the genuine American article that had been the object of my quest.

After some time—in the course of which I succeeded in making myself known to three or four of the college professors and tutors—I was told by one of them of a gentleman who, he thought, might be able to help me in obtaining employment. He is a man of genius and good-nature, and through him I got really useful introductions. From this time there were no external difficulties in my way, beyond those experienced by many other men around me who had been on the lookout for vacancies for months before I had become one of their anxious number. But differences of training and experience remained to constitute real and very serious obstacles, although—and let me say it here, as I shall have plenty of occasion to grumble further on—the chief deterring or exclusive influence I ever suffered from in Boston or Cambridge was that of a kindness so much in excess of my capacity to make fair returns that I had often to flinch from accepting it. Literary and professional men in those twin-cities come nearer, to my thinking, to Wieland's cosmopolites (Die Abderiten) than any other class of people I know.

But let us to school. I may as well say at once that I never at any time, while in the United States, commanded salaries (or incomes) equal to some I had received in England; and I am now more than ever convinced of the fact that England offers an unequalled field for a teacher of ability and perseverance, always provided that he is as competent an authority on cricket and boating as he is on Greek particles and the working of the differential calculus. I speak, of course, simply of the ordinary university graduate, who (like myself), not being from patrician ranks or Mammon-blessed, must hew out a position for himself without any aid from the patronage of influential friends or relatives. Given a moderate amount of classical and mathematical stock in trade, together with correct personal habits and fair capacity for imparting instruction, and an English teacher who adds to these qualifications some skill in the chief bodily pastimes, may go on his way in peace: he shall have his reward. Let me add, however, that if he is a man of ramshackle tendencies, the offices of drill-sergeant, cricket-referee and supervisor of table-etiquette which he has to combine with his ordinary tutorial duties will in time become so irksome—especially if it is his lot to fall upon inferior schools—that he will be disposed to sacrifice all his pecuniary advantages and chances of unlimited promotion for the sake of a little peace of mind and unhampered leisure.

My readers are not to suppose that my object is to institute a full comparison between the schools of England and the United States: I have not the wide experience of American schools that would justify me in attempting such a task. For instance, although I have made a careful study of the working methods and interior economy of the common schools of the three American cities in which I have exercised my vocation—namely, Boston, New York and Philadelphia—I have never taught in the public schools; and any survey of the educational facilities of the country that leaves them out would resemble a performance of Hamlet with the rôle of the prince omitted. Nevertheless, my brief sojourn here has been a chequered and, in some respects, an amusing one; and any one who chooses to hear my record of it may add as much salt as he pleases, for I promise to be perfectly frank in my utterances.

I obtained my first pupils by answering a newspaper advertisement—I have already named the three cities which my experience covers—and they consisted of two young ladies, aged respectively eighteen and twenty-two years. Their education had been thoroughly neglected, or, rather, they had idled away the golden chances of their youth, and now their ignorance, for ladies of their social standing, was astonishing. But mark the anomaly: had they been Englishwomen of the same rank and similarly uneducated, they would have been uncouth and ungrammatical in speech, awkward in manner and dowdy in dress. There is no people upon whom the transforming, refining effects of a thorough training are so marked—because, it must be confessed, the native soil so much needs cultivation—as upon the English people. But these girls were ladylike in manner, tastefully dressed, and their speech was entirely free from the barbarisms of an uneducated Englishwoman's language: I hasten to add, however, that I would sooner have the Englishwoman for a pupil. Two Englishwomen who required assistance from a private tutor would submit in patience to a prolonged course of laborious and irksome work, all unmindful of the doings of society and the absorbing interests of the hour, so long as the ultimate object was some day attained. My fair Americans were undoubtedly intelligent, and even spasmodically hard-working, but their impatience of sustained, systematic work, combined with—or rather caused by—their devotion to social pleasures, not one of which they would forego on any consideration, prevented them from reaping any appreciable benefit. I instance their case, not because it was the first or the only one of the kind that fell into my hands, but because it revealed to me at the outset a trait of the American character—especially of the women—which confronted me at every turn of the road afterward; namely, a want of repose—a defect which would seem to be largely accountable for the insensibility manifested by a great portion of the American young women of the middle classes to the fact that they have advantages at school such as their sisters in England would accept in an ecstasy of gratitude.

About the middle of my first summer I was advised to try one of the school "agencies" that abound in the larger cities, especially in New York; and I accordingly registered myself in the best-known and most widely-recommended office. Perhaps it may be of interest to the reader unversed in such matters to learn what are the conditions on which an agent undertakes to introduce an applicant to persons wishing a teacher. To begin, the teacher fills up a "form of application" by naming his qualifications and references, and affixing his signature to the contract between him and the agent, the terms of which are as follows: "Registration for one year, two dollars in advance; commission, four and a half per cent. of salary or income for one year only—board, when included in compensation, to be rated at two hundred dollars for the school-year. This commission is due as soon as the engagement is made." In the printed receipt which is handed the applicant there is a curt, business-like recapitulation of all the conditions, in which occurs the following memorandum: "I shall give you notice of vacancies as they occur which, in my judgment, seem suited to your wishes and qualifications." The italics are my own. An admirable loophole of retreat, truly: "in my judgment"! When a despondent candidate wakes up morning after morning for months to read in the newspapers over the signature of his agent such an advertisement as this: "Engagements for the fall term now being made. Many teachers wanted. Capable persons should not delay in coming forward,"—it is no doubt consoling to him to infer that had the "judgment" perceived him to be suited for any of these presumably numerous vacancies, he would certainly have had the judgment's dictum to that effect.

In the course of a year I received notices of two vacancies. One was the principalship of a boarding-school somewhere in West Virginia, in which I should have to realize what income I might from the payments for board at a rate prescribed by the patrons of the establishment. The difficulty with me in this case was that before I came near the question, "What are the chances of success in such an undertaking?" the previous question presented itself as even more difficult: "Where am I to get the money with which to make the attempt?" The other vacancy was a mastership in a school in Portland, Oregon. My health has always been robust, especially since my deliverance from the Centennial and solar fervors of 1875 and 1876, and therefore I had no desire to try the paradisiacal climate of the uttermost West; but, nevertheless, I wrote twice, at an interval of a month, to the address with which I had been furnished, and at last received a letter from a bishop's wife, intimating that "there must be some mistake: no vacancy had occurred in that institution for many months." Quis declarabit? A mistake or a myth?

Now, as no American will deny that there are a few things which are better managed in England than in the United States, I submit that the method of bringing teacher and employer into communication by means of a professional agent is one of these things. At all events, there is nothing equivocal about the English method. Let the reader judge for himself from the following details: (1) The registration-fee is one shilling, not eight (two dollars). (2) The commission—generally five per cent.—is payable, not as soon as an engagement is made, but at the end of the first half year of service, and provided only that there is to be a continuance of the engagement: surely a beneficent provision for the poor teacher. (3) One cannot travel very far in Britain: for ten dollars one can go from London to John O'Groat's. (4) Vacancies are announced by bulletin in the office as they occur, and a notification is sent by post to distant registered candidates: secrecy in regard to the whereabouts and emoluments of a position is quite unnecessary, because the principals who patronize—or, rather, hire—the agent will employ teachers only through him. (5) A teacher is never asked the contemptible question, "How much salary do you expect?" The amount of salary attached, together with a description of the duties of the position, is set down in the notification. (6) The agent is simply an introducer: he of course has to be satisfied, before the registration of the applicant, that the latter is really a teacher and a man of character, but beyond that the "judgment" part of the business is relegated to the principal who receives the application.

Reverting again to my first summer, I have a little incident to relate: One evening I was introduced to a middle-aged, sharp-looking little man, who, I was informed, was the principal of a flourishing college in a Western State—a college in a town, both of which he had himself founded. This gentleman and I managed to spend the evening together pleasantly enough, but my astonishment was great next morning when I received a letter from him offering me a situation in his establishment. I had an interview with him, and concluding from all the appearances that the location was a healthy and civilized one, the school a prosperous one, and himself an energetic, cultivated gentleman, I was on the point of accepting, when it suddenly occurred to me that in my anxiety to learn whether the position was desirable in other respects not a word had been said on the subject of salary. My expressing a wish to be enlightened upon this important particular produced an immediate hitch in the negotiations, but the practical upshot was that the greater part of my salary was to consist virtually of unreclaimed land! Since that magnificent occasion I have regarded with magnanimous forbearance requisitions emanating from that portion of the West.

At last, however, my answer to an advertisement was successful, and in September I was duly installed as teacher of the classics in a school of some fifty boys in one of the three cities I have mentioned. The following extract from the principal's letter of engagement will show what is naturally the chief difficulty an English teacher has to encounter in his search for an employer in the United States: "On the whole, I think the most favorably of you out of some forty applicants; the only fear I have arising from the well-known fact that American lads are so unlike those of the old country, and require different methods of discipline."

The salary, though a moderate one—not by a third equal to salaries in English schools of the same grade—was yet reasonable; and when it is added that it was a day-school; that there was held only one session of five hours, with a roomy interval for lunch, gymnastics and music; that each teacher had a large, well-furnished and cleanly-kept room to himself—a luxury which is rare in the best English schools; that each department was under the charge of a separate teacher, who was never required to step out of his own special walk—another school-virtue not common in English schools; that the principal fulfilled my ideal of a calm, judicious and discriminating headmaster,—it is no wonder that I began to congratulate myself upon having at last fallen upon a school that furnished a combination of what I consider the best features of both the English and Scotch schools, to the exclusion of all that is detestable and soul-harassing in either. "No more for me," I soliloquized, "of presiding magisterially at the odious dinner-table, at which not a whisper is tolerated, and even the irrepressible chuckle over some accident to the earthenware is accounted a crime; no more of solemn marching in procession on Sunday morning and evening to some fantastic, farcical 'High Church,' whose funereal-mummeries served only to mask the furtive deviltries of the brisker members of my charge; no more onsets at tea-time, when returned home with the boys from an exhausting walk, of infuriated farmers demanding vengeance for rifled orchards and shattered fences; no more morning calls from elderly maiden ladies in neighboring summer boarding-houses, reporting a hail of shot from ubiquitous catapults during the night-watches; no more sitting up o' nights, when on duty for the day, reading with the drones against the approaching Oxford or Cambridge 'local,' and rushing stealthily up stairs every now and then to pounce upon the perpetrators of hideous catcalls." All this I had escaped from, and more. And now what a contrast! Saturdays and Sundays were my own, and I could worship in the Hebrew or Mohammedan temple, just as I chose; and for the rest of the week I should have all day, after four hours' pleasant culling of Horatian and Homeric flowers, to devote to some abstruse study, perhaps local politics.

As if any one should expect perfection or perfect satisfaction (which is the same thing) in this wicked, cross-grained world! First of all, although it came last of all, it transpired toward the end of the year that the school was not paying, and the teachers (of whom there were by far too many) were warned that they would have to be satisfied with half salaries during the remainder of the school-year. This blow did not fall very heavily on any one but myself, as all the other teachers had engagements in other schools, as well as friends and relatives throughout the city. The boys were very fickle: a succession of bad averages on their weekly reports would send them off in high dudgeon to some other school; and though there were fresh accessions taking place from time to time, the frequent interchanging was injurious alike to the tone of the school and to the school exchequer. There were, too, one or two bad boys who should have been expelled, but whose expulsion would have lost to the school their independent sympathizers as well, and so would have seriously embarrassed the finances. An American principal with a bevy of "free and independent" youths to cater for is in an inconceivably different position from his English confrère, who is empowered to read his pupils' weekly letters to their parents and to send a policeman in pursuit of any runaway malcontent among them. From the moment an English boy leaves his father's house he is under the complete control of his principal, and consequently a ruinous veering about from school to school is effectually prevented, while the retention of a decidedly vicious boy would obviously be a most unprofitable policy. I have seen a rich English parent bring back his truant offspring to be soundly flogged in presence of his grinning schoolmates—an ugly spectacle, and now happily a rare one in England; but the reverse of the picture, though far less shocking, is by no means pleasantly suggestive. I have heard an American lady express her surprise to a principal, with unmistakable tartness in her tone, that her son, who was at once the idlest and most troublesome boy in his class, always brought home averages of sixty or seventy, "when young A——, who lives next us, and is considered quite a slow boy, receives ninety and over every time. Don't you think there must be some mistake, or—or unfairness—in the marking?"

Only ten of my sixteen boys had been in the school before that year, and of those ten only four had passed through the regular curriculum of the school from the primary department to the graduating class. Those four were notably the most advanced and the only thoroughly-grounded boys of the sixteen. A few of the others had attended nearly all the private schools in the city, while two of them had been oscillating between the public and private schools for years at their own sweet wills, and could never decide whether the commercial or classical department of the school in question was the one for which they were best fitted. It may well be understood, therefore, what a medley my classes presented, and how unlikely it was, in the face of all these drawbacks, that their acquirements should be above mediocrity. On the score of natural abilities, however—in quickness of perception, facility in generalization, readiness and coherence of expression, and clearness of head generally—it would not be at haphazard one could find an equal number of boys in any English school to match them.

As to the vexed subject of discipline, my experience leads me to say that, provided I was left to my own way, I would rather manage a class of twenty American boys than of twenty English. The common cry about Young America's disrespect for authority or worth seems to me to be founded on a misconception, when, indeed, it is anything but the wailing of ignorance or cant. I am strongly possessed of a belief that American children know intuitively where respect is really due, and that there they fully and unhesitatingly award it. I at least have found among them a more genuine, spontaneous sentiment of regard for their teachers than either in England or Scotland—a sentiment utterly free from the cringing submissiveness which too often passes muster in England as a juvenile virtue. However feared—and, accordingly, respected—an English teacher may be by his scholars, he is nevertheless an ogre to most of them—to the aristocrat a plebeian pedagogue to whom he must defer, just as, when he is a little older and sports a scarlet tunic, he must submit to the unlettered sergeant-major who teaches him his goose-step; to the rich parvenu more intolerable still, as the pruner of his obtrusive vulgarities of speech and manner, the index of his social inferiority and the standing menace to his innate rudeness, that is only intensified by his consciousness of wealth; to the poor man's son essentially a "schoolmaster"—a wielder of the ferule and a bloodless automaton, to whom, as Southey wrote,

The multiplication-table is his creed,
His paternoster and his decalogue;

to only the emancipated and discerning few what he really is at his best—their greatest earthly friend and benefactor. All I have seen of American schoolboys impresses me that the feeling which dictates their bearing toward their teachers is born of a clear-sighted and intuitive appreciation of superior knowledge, worth or experience, and not of conventional observance or necessity. It is generally said abroad that American children are unruly, forward and irreverent toward their parents and elders; and one reason assigned is that parents are careless of teaching their children the little ceremonies and graduated formalities of speech, "in which," as an English bishop recently alleged in an after-dinner speech, "there is embodied so much wholesome discipline that a careful attendance to the practice of them gives the young man or woman an advantage not offered by any other method of training." Spartan, but indigestible! A keener observer than the bishop—the heresiarch Thackeray—wrote in his Philip: "I never saw people on better terms with each other, more frank, affectionate and cordial, than the parents and the grown-up young folks in the United States;" and certain it is that the description is applicable to the intercourse between teachers and pupils.

The faults of the latter are aimlessness and impatience; and their misfortune—which is largely responsible for those faults—is that they are too soon allowed to plunge into the quagmire called by euphemism "society," and often whelmed in its sorry pleasures and petty ambitions—too soon, also, invested with the right to manage their own affairs and to choose their own associates, advisers, and even instructors; in a word, permitted to breathe the invigorating spirit of the Declaration of Independence before their constitutions are fitted for its reception. This may sound trite enough, but I see no other way of accounting for the intellectual—and, alas! moral—failure of so many of the brilliantly-gifted lads whom I have known and loved in these United States.

I might proceed to give a few illustrations of this resultless restlessness, this dissipation of the youthful forces, to which I have alluded; but there is one phase of my experience here which goes further to prove its prevalence and baneful effects than a thousand instances derived from my knowledge of boys in school or in the closer contact of private tuition. From time to time there appear in the "Instruction" column of the daily newspapers advertisements like the following: "Wanted, lessons in the evenings by a gentleman of neglected education;" "Wanted, lessons in grammar and conversation (sic) by a married couple." It was by answering such advertisements as these that I fell upon the most satisfactory portion of my labors in this country, and met with pupils of both sexes the memory of whom will be to me a source of pride as well as of pleasure as long as I live. Ladies and gentleman of good social standing they were, who, bitterly regretting neglected early opportunities, had the moral courage to "go to school"—with the wise meekness and receptiveness engendered in fine natures by ultimate self-disparagement—even when their avocations seemed to preclude the possibility of sustained and fruitful study. But when I contemplate a long array of such pupils (covering a period of three years)—from the young banker's clerk or embryo lawyer chagrined with himself because of the poor figure he cut at last week's party, and commendably determined to try and remedy his defects, to the mature business- or even professional-man, humiliated because his accomplished wife's every sentence made him feel ashamed of his squandered youth, and so constrained, at the eleventh hour, to employ a private tutor—it is difficult for me not to recognize that in a country where the children enjoy so many privileges, where they are taught regularly, systematically, patiently, conscientiously—where, in short, everything is taught, and everything is taught well—there must be some mistake in the exercise of the parental guardianship that creates and fosters the aimlessness and impatience which prevent so many of the children from reaping adequate benefit from their noble heritage.

One thing that occasioned me a good deal of trouble and anxiety in my first school was the system of "marking" for each lesson with a view to obtaining a weekly average standard. Not that I was unused to the method, but I had never before seen it pushed to such an extent nor pursued on exactly the same principle. A boy would be marked up by his various teachers in about a dozen subjects during the week, and on Friday a printed slip would be handed him showing his weekly average in each subject and in all the subjects taken together. An average of 95 per cent. was quite common; 80 was not in high favor; 70 was shaky, while 60 was quite bad. A quarter's experience of it convinced me that the thing was a piece of abominable red tape: I do not mean in theory, but in the results of its working in that particular case. I had seen boys and men in school and college in England and Scotland obtain "first-class honors" with a mark of 75, and I now marvelled how it happened that boys who had but a faint idea of what hard work really meant were able to produce such brilliant results, more especially when so much of their time and attention was devoted to the preparation of orations and dialogues, and even to the rehearsal of private theatricals (the principal would have gone crazy had any one presumed to call them by that name in his hearing) for the approaching "entertainment," two of which treats were offered "by the school" (a great deal in those three words) to the public during the year. I may mention that on these two occasions it was the part of the principal to ascend the stage during the entr'acte and read off from a paper he held in his hand a few particulars regarding those precious averages which seemed in the speaker's and hearers' minds to be exactly commensurate with the standing and progress of the pupils.

My marking made me for some time rather unpopular; and beginning at last to follow the time-honored injunction, "When you are in Rome do as the Romans do," I hoisted my boys from the sixties and seventies to the more plausible eighties and nineties. It was, no doubt, an unprincipled thing to do, but I soothed my outraged conscience with the thought that I was making a martyr of myself—that when the examination-week arrived the examiners' reports would confound me by exposing the difference between my paper and their gold. The examination-week did arrive, of course, and I found that I was to be myself the examiner of my classes. Let not the reader think that I would be pleasantly satiric when I say that not till then did I fully awake to the fruitful meaning of the expression, "American independence." And neither let him infer that I take such a school to be a representative American high-class school: I only say that it is a fair representative of a class of schools that is both numerous and popular in the cities I have named above. Here, indeed, was an application of the sui-juris principle that, though it certainly eased my feeling of apprehension and doubt as to the probable results of the examination, yet filled me with a vague sense of dissatisfaction. And the reason is not far to seek: my English training would naturally have the effect of making me look for a verdict on my work not to my own notebook, nor even to the principal's returns, but to some higher and extra-mural authority who should test the attainments of the pupils and the efficiency of the school by a searching and impartial examination.

In English middle-class schools the advent of the "Oxford and Cambridge Schools Examination Board" is regarded with no small anxiety by principals, masters and scholars alike. It marks an epoch in their lives, and is the only period of the year in which there is anything like a rapprochement between them, as if in the presence of some imminent crisis. The eccentric jackanapes who is by turns the butt and witling of the school stands for once consciously on equal terms with his principal, and can for once even "cheek" the school-bully with perfect impunity. All is excitement, anticipation, preparation and much consuming of midnight oil. Perhaps a very brief account, in conclusion, of the methods of procedure in these examinations may interest the reader; and in case he should think that my object in offering my sketch is to draw an invidious comparison between the English and American methods of examination, I refer him to an animated and interesting correspondence in the April issue of the Nation between President Eliot of Harvard and Professor Adams of Michigan University—a discussion in which the former gentleman enthusiastically claims for the English method a degree of excellence which the most ardent home advocates of the system—who know its working faults as well as its positive advantages—would hesitate to claim for it.

The English board holds two kinds of examinations: First, examinations of schools for the benefit of schools exclusively, and having no effect to admit individuals to the universities or to exempt them from subsequent examinations, whether at the universities or elsewhere; second, examinations of individuals for certificates which give exemption from the entrance-examinations at Oxford and Cambridge, from the earliest examinations of the university course, and from the preliminary examinations of certain professional bodies. The examinations cover thirty-four different and carefully-specified subjects (no candidate taking the whole), and on the average two hours are allowed for writing answers to the questions in each subject; the examinations last from eight to twelve days, and are held three times in the year; and the schedule of days, subjects and hours for each year is published nearly a year in advance. The decision of the board is upon the individual: "Has he passed a satisfactory examination in a sufficient number of subjects?" and the board takes no account whatever of the opinions and certificates of school-authorities concerning the individual. A printed report is annually made by the board, showing the name of each person who obtained a certificate, the subjects in which he satisfied the examiners, and the school from which he came. The examinations are conducted in writing for all the subjects, but for a few subjects oral examinations are superadded. The questions are printed; they are the same for every candidate in any given subject; and they are made public when the examinations are over. In order to secure uniformity of standard at the examinations, the results obtained at the different places of examination are compared by the central board of examiners. Each candidate pays a fee of two pounds, and from these fees each examiner is liberally paid for every day of service spent in setting questions, attending the examinations and looking over the answers of candidates.

There never was a method of examination without its drawbacks, and the chief weakness of the English system is that it tends to excite a spirit of rivalry which is apt to resort for aid to cramming processes. As yet, however, the examinations have been conducted in such a manner that the special "cramming-schools"—of which there are not a few—have very generally come to grief, even when they have had successes before the examiners for the civil service.

D. C. Macdonald.