The following article in the Crimson series of studies in secondary schools was written by Howard T. Smith, Executive Secretary of the Secondary Education Board.
In the problem of transition from secondary school to college doubtless the most important element is the adjustment of the individual to a new environment, a different routine, and in most cases a greater freedom of decision and action. The latter is likely to be regarded as a liberation from a more restricted past rather than as an opportunity and a responsibility for a permanently satisfying future. I would emphasize this the more because I have neither space nor qualification to elaborate upon it. My contribution to the discussion is better confined to another element, the relation between the curriculum of secondary and of higher education, which I believe to be a consideration second only to the personal equation.
During the past two years I have been associated with some fifty teachers and administrators engaged in a study of the aims and the curricula of secondary education. Although the majority of this group are members of faculties of secondary schools, representatives of elementary and of higher education are also participating. I write with this background; but any opinions which I venture to express are personal and do not involved my colleagues in the present project of the Secondary Education Board.
Much as we rightly insist that the needs of the individual should be paramount in education, a system is unavoidable if we are to deal with large numbers. There is some justification for dividing formal education into different periods or levels; but it must be borne in mind that there are no exact boundaries traced for each by nature. For convenience we set arbitrary division points; in reality the levels are separated by twilight zones which vary in extent with individual development. For this reason, if for no other, cooperation between those responsible for successive levels is most important, as has already been pointed out in the discussion conducted by the CRIMSON.
We cannot approach the subject of secondary education simply from the viewpoint of preparation for college. Indeed secondary schools are often criticized because they degenerate into cramming institutions for entrance examinations. Rather the secondary period should afford the pupil an opportunity during the early years to discover under guidance his particular aptitudes, to acquire such a factual knowledge as is essential for his future development, to gain some acquaintance and initial facility with the tools of learning. Intelligent thinking requires imagination and a capacity for abstract reasoning; but it is no less nobly based on ability to command or to discover facts, to evaluate them, and to perceive their relations.
It may be urged that in the very process of improving the opportunities which the secondary school places before him the student will master the fundamentals of sufficient subject fields to make him actually prepared for college. But the college naturally does not leave this to chance or theory. The college does not wish and is not equipped to do secondary school work. The candidate must prove his attainment through the content of the subject. Difficulty arises from the circumstance that we are so highly departmentalized both in school and in college. It is not always easy for the secondary teacher to remember that he is teaching whole boys and girls, not subjects! The college teacher, in deciding where the division shall be made between secondary and collegiate work in his department, may not be keenly aware of the problems of secondary teaching in this very field, much less of the relations between the several fields represented in the curriculum of the secondary school. Probably everyone will agree that specialization,--the only answer which the adult mind can make to the complexity and range of modern civilization,--has no place in the secondary school. But it is less easy to agree on what constitutes specialization in this or that subject field.
Without attempting to discuss the details of the curriculum study to which I have referred, I will only remark that we have first considered a six-year secondary curriculum sub-divided into two period characterized by somewhat different trends. The first three years are exploratory. The pupil is brought into touch with all the major fields of learning; but his attention is not confined to the acquisition of facts and disciplines to the neglect of the appreciative side of his personality. During the later years there is a gradual change of emphasis. The pupil has been led to try himself out in different subjects, to attack similar and diverse problems in different media. The teacher has had an opportunity to study the pupil. It is too early for specialization, but not too early to seek more coherence and purpose in the individual's program than commonly obtains, to make the last three years less a collection of courses for Old Plan points or New Plan finals and more a consistent and progressive plan, guarded for breadth but related to the interests and aptitudes which have been revealed during the exploratory years.
Last Three Years
I am convinced that the detailed college entrance requirements should not operate to hamper or restrict the first three years of the secondary course. The term "exploratory" is not to connote superficiality; the secondary school should be as interested as the college in thoroughness and quality. During the last three years there is especial need for mutual understanding between secondary school and college. In my opinion this is a concern of departmental faculties as much as of headmasters, deans, and chairmen of committees on admission. These closing years of the secondary period should afford opportunity for concentration of the individual's courses about a core-curriculum reflecting his particular needs and aspiration. This does not mean free election nor radical restriction of the total number of courses. A reduction of one or possibly of two courses out of the fifteen carried in some schools (several even now have no more than thirteen) would afford sufficient hours for all the concentration that is desirable. It is much more a matter of organization of material within subject fields and of attitude on the part of teacher and pupil.
In certain subjects, such as the languages, achievement is inherently cumulative. If the necessary structural elements are mastered in the early years, continued practice and broadening of vocabulary brings added power for those who have capacity for linguistic study. In other instances, where we have been accustomed to think in terms of different divisions,--Algebra, Geometry, or Physics, Biology,--there must be more conscious effort to bring out the common elements and underlying principles and to establish continuity between courses in the same field. Again, even with a homogenous group of student in a course of concentration the instructor must not assume the attitude of the specialist. He is teaching for mastery; but he is not endeavoring to develop mathematical prodigies nor biological experts nor classical scholars. He is utilizing the educative values inherent in his subject as stimuli to the increase of intellectual power. He is not making technical details an end in themselves, but is guiding the pupils in the discovery and re-discovery of principles which recur in different aspects and in other connections. Finally, as opportunity presents itself, he directs attention to points of contact with other subject fields and enables his pupils to perceive through concrete examples the relation between the different departments of learning. Concentration will be impossible without continuity; it will be out of proportion unless correlation be maintained between subject fields.
If the objectives which I have mentioned are worth realizing,--and I believe this to be the case for the prospective college Freshman as well as for his non-academic classmate,--the attitude and interest of the college are of great importance at this juncture. There is need for earlier identification of those pupils who will probably profit by the type of training offered by the college, of greater flexibility in the arrangement of their programs of study for this period, of such cooperation that the last two years of the secondary course and the freshman year in college may be viewed together and planned as successive sections of a whole that is consistent, though subject to modification by the selection of alternatives.