Link to Ferris Homepage

Ferris Library for Information, Technology, and Education

Teachers Institute Speech


I want to have it distinctly understood that I appear before you today as an educational exhorter. I haven't a new thing to say to you; I haven't anything to tear down. I just want to present two or three very old notions and exhort you to their observance.

If I were to organize an educational system, I would make for its center health- h-e-a-l-t-h, health. I ask teacher to care as much about health as the great industrial institutions of this country care about health. If you will do that much there will be important changes in the United States in a comparatively short time. Our great factories today are today houses of glass. What for? Light, light, and more light. They are so built that they can have air. The industrial world has found out that it pays in dollars and cents to have light and air, and of course any industrial institution that has light and air has all other sanitary provisions.

Many of our school buildings, viewed in the light of what has already been said, are unfit for the use of our boys and girls. You say, "What can we do about it?" You can do everything. It is about time school masters and schoolmaams came to realize the power they possess. You can do almost any wise thing if you have a mind to, or rather, if you want to.

Tonight I make the appeal for air and sunlight. In Michigan we have a state sanatorium for tuberculosis patients. This sanatorium is full of patients, every single case a well-defined case of tuberculosis. They are sleeping out of doors, living out of doors, playing out of doors, working a little out of doors- everything out of doors except dressing and undressing; on account of the peculiar usages here in America, particularly in sanatoriums, they are obliged to dress indoors. The same restrictions are not placed on people who are well as on people who are ill. We know that the only means by which we can help these people is to have them live out of doors. Well, what under haven has Michigan and other states in the Union against people who don't have tuberculosis? I want you to answer that question. My state is going to stamp out tuberculosis, that is, kill tuberculosis, get rid of it somehow. I ask our officials to take hold of the educational machinery of my state and see if they cannot do something to get well men and women to live as they ought to live with reference to air and sunshine. Now, you yourselves don't do it. You don't believe in fresh air, you don't want fresh air, you won't have fresh air; you won't live out of doors, you don't want to get out of doors, and consequently what hope is there?

Microbes do not thrive out of doors; they don't sit up in the trees nor on the brick or stone walls. They are indoors. Every cold, every case of pneumonia, is an indoor disease. Let us come a little closer to our subject. What can you people do with the present school-houses? You cannot have them condemned and torn down; you cannot build new buildings in order to have air and sunshine. You can take out the lower or upper sash, and put in a cotton-cloth screen for the entire year. You will use more fuel possibly, but you will have fresh air and better air, less sickness, and teach a few boys and girls how to live and have health instead of tuberculosis or any other disease. Will you do it? No, the majority of you won't.

And what else can you teachers do? On every sunshiny day, on every fair day, in the rural and village school, you can take your boys and girls out of doors and conduct out of doors every class that can be conducted successfully out of doors. I dare you to do it. There has never been a schoolroom built to equal God's schoolroom. I would much rather have the boys and girls out of doors, now and then glancing at a bird in a tree or a squirrel scampering around, than observing a curtain when it falls down inside.

I go further, I plead on behalf of medical inspection. I hold that every American child, when he enters the schoolroom, has the right, if the state is going to demand what it does, to have just as good teeth as modern science can give him; he has a right to have a pair of eyes just as good and efficient as modern science can give him; he has the right to have just as sound ears as modern science can give him; just as good a throat and nasal cavities as modern science can give him; just as good as a body as modern science can give him. You agree with me, don't you? Is there any possibility of disagreement? You see then what I mean by health in the schoolroom. In five years, you can perceptibly improve conditions through your own efforts along the lines I have suggested, without state aid. It is up to you. By the way, the people will respond. They will listen to you.

We have in this country a tremendous school equipment, costing millions and millions of dollars, and for whom? Your traditional is, for the boys and girls of a certain age. Talk about superstition- I haven't any language whereby I can describe my contempt for this answer. And what has it done? It has paralyzed the majority of people, so that, when a man whose hair is like mine speaks about getting an education, he is told that he is too old. When a man or woman is too old to learn, there is only one thing I can suggest. He should take a shovel and pick, go to the family cemetery, where I hope he has bought a lot, dig a grave, get into it, and stay there.

In our democracy, public schools should be for all of the people all of the time. We now use them less than 50 per cent of the time. The remainder of the time they are idle. City schools should be open six nights a week and six days in the week. There are many schoolmasters who think that the people would not take advantage of these privileges.

I love the flag. I like to hear folks talk about it; but I have always had a profound admiration for the people who carry the flag. I want to say that one of the highest forms of patriotism in this country consists in carrying out the idea I have suggested, of giving all of the people in this country an opportunity to acquire the fundamentals of an education, and especially an opportunity to learn to speak and write English. Oh, what a gigantic influence it would have on the solution of industrial problems, on the solution of national preparedness!

One other thing; don't forget the few fundamentals we have taught in the public schools ever since they were organized. After all, teach a few things so that they will stick. Isn't it humiliating to hear the graduate of a college or university say: "Oh yes, I have been out of college five years; I cannot read my Virgil, I cannot read my Cicero, it is all gone." Or, "I once knew a little something of geometry, but it has vanished: I knew something of chemistry, but it is gone." Don't mention it again as long as you live. What is the use of advertising your foolishness? Don't take particular pains to mention it. I am not afraid of any of those fellows. I am afraid of the fellow who has learned something that has stayed with him. There is E.A. Strong, professor of physical sciences, State Normal College, Ypsilanti, Michigan, who is now nearing his eightieth year. He has taught science all his life. If a Ypsilanti girl tomorrow should say, "Doctor, I am puzzled a little with that passage in Virgil," he would read it as though he had only learned it yesterday. He mastered the classics at Union College. I am not arguing as to whether you should teach the classics or not, but whatever you do teach, teach it so that it will stick. The greatest teacher I ever had was Herman Kruse. He covered plane geometry in just forty weeks, but in some of the high schools in Michigan the period is sixteen weeks. Every theorem was presented in the form of a problem. No textbook was used. Every student presented his own solution. I would like to find a Kruse student in the United States who today does not know his geometry. I know plane geometry and I have not taught the subject in twenty years. Somebody says, "Do you teach geometry that way in your own school?" No, because I am compelled to cover a certain amount of ground in a certain number of units of time. Why so? Many of my students enter colleges and universities, and I must meet the requirements of these institutions.

Please do not think lightly of my appeal for health, my appeal for all the people, my appeal for thoroughness.

Source: "Speech to Teachers' Institute." National Education Association, Addresses and Proceedings. (New York: NEA, 1916), 976.