This article is from Woman’s Day magazine, August 1938. It was written by Rose Wilder Lane (daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder) about her “adopted” sons, and she is very critical of compulsory education and its deleterious effects on a young person’s motivation and industriousness. It is a little too full of that prideful American “virtue” of rugged individualism, so it needs to be read with the reminder “What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?” (I Corinthians 4:7). In spite of the provocative title, it’s not an anti-college treatise. Instead, it’s an interesting lament that the young people of today (1938!) know little of the hardship that forged the steel of character that inspired those who worked to build our nation. It’s also a good reminder to not coddle our children, particularly our sons when they need to learn important lessons from their own trials.
In the 1930s, Lane took in two young boys, brothers who had been left to their own devices during the hardships of the Great Depression. She draws on her experiences as their adoptive mother to lend currency to her opinions here, but her overall point is that people require the experience of working for a goal in order to appreciate the goal itself. This point of view dovetails with her firm opinion that capitalism, and the free marketplace, were the best values for American culture.
We were so poor that I had only one year in High School, and no hope of college. I felt handicapped, and later my life centered in a determination to give my children every advantage I had missed. Last year my older boy graduated from High School and I could have sent him to college. I did not do it.
Why? Precisely because I want him to have every advantage.
I believer there was a time when parents wisely made sacrifices to send sons and daughters to college. Times were harder then, and schooling was difficult to get. Children walked miles to learn to read and write; Lincoln was a hero because he taught himself, without even a slate. High grades were demanded and admired, low grades were a shame hard to bear. From primer to college degree, schooling was a privilege which the student must earn by hard mental work and good behavior. To be expelled from school was the extreme punishment, far worse than whipping.
We all know how completely this has changed. Schooling is no longer and eagerly desired privilege; it is compulsory. If the child does not go to school, the truant officer will compel him. The child knows he must stay in school until he is sixteen years old. He knows that after he has spent the required number of hours in classrooms, he will be given the number of units required by universities. He supposes he will go to university or college, because he would like to be an electrical engineer.
by Alfred Eisenstaedt, “Mining Town, Pennsylvania, April 1943″
Perhaps I am dumber than most parents. I knew all these facts, and I knew that my boys knew them. Yet for years their school records troubled and baffled me. Semester after semester they brought home passing grades.They were unashamed of a low grade, uninterested in a high one. IN vain I tried to spur them to ambition. They listened amiably and agreed to get higher grades next time. “Sure,” they said. “It’ll be a cinch.” Six weeks later they might say, “Gee, I’m sorry. I forgot.” Or they might bring home a top grade and listen to my delighted praise. Next time the grade in that subject would be medium or lower. I could no understand it. They had excellent minds. They were fine youngsters, honest, healthy and merry; they were boys to be proud of. And I lay awake nights worried by my failure to awaken in them energy, ambition and earnestness. Nothing they did was well done. In their home tasks there was always an element of the slipshod, of careless irresponsibility, of “Oh well, that’s good enough.” They never had the deep satisfaction of doing a distasteful job thoroughly, of conquering themselves and their work.
Perhaps they are too young, I thought. Then I remembered boys I knew forty years ago. The thirteen-year-old who sawed, split and hauled wood to pay his school-tuition, and daily trudged four miles and back, doing his farm chores in dark mornings and nights; he is now a great lawyer. I remembered the fourteen-year-old who, when his father died, supported the family and sent younger brothers through school and college. I remembered the algebra, Latin, and German that I studied diligently in spare time when I was working sixteen hours a day, seven days a week, at a telegraph key.
The young today are far happier, healthier, more widely informed about a vastly larger world than we were, but they lack a solidity of character that we had. My boys, too, lacked initiative. Constantly I told them that they must be supporting themselves when they were twenty, and they thought this was reasonable. But in the meantime, whatever they wanted, they did nothing to get it. They had too little money, and accepted that fact; they did not “get out and hustle,” as we used to say, and do. When jobs offered, they took them, but they did not see work that needed doing, and thus create jobs for themselves. They did not run under their own power. They always needed a push, a direction, like a good six-year-old. Fruitlessly I tried to prod them into original and vigorous action.
The older boy was a High School junior, athletic, popular, good-looking, intelligent, and wholly occupied in his school’s extra-curricular activities, when one ay he brought me a grade card showing one solitary high grade. “There you are,” he said, and a curiosity which must have been vaguely in his mind for years at least expressed itself. He remarked, “I don’t know what you want it for. They’ll give me the unit anyway.”
Suddenly, in his mildly wondering eyes, I saw the whole extent of my stupidity. All the years of my effort to awaken in him ambition, initiative and effort had made no sense whatever to him, because in fact there was no sense in it.
Words are powerless against fact, and in his life the fact was that there existed no reason why he should around his energies. He had to go to school; he could not alter that. He had to stay ten years in school; no effort of his could shorten the time. Being normally bright, he would be given sixteen units when his High School years ended; no effort was required to get them. More than sixteen units were not needed for entrance into a university. Nothing whatever, that he could possibly see, was to be gained by his own exertions or lost by not using them.
Who, in such circumstances, would be active, energetic, ambitious? Which of us parents, if compelled to follow a prescribed routine for ten years, would drive himself unnecessarily to harder work, more self-discipline, initiative, originality, self-reliance? Which of us, during those ten years, would become more enterprising, more energetic, more muscular in mind and character? I know I wouldn’t.
But nothing like that will happen to us. We all know that actual living is no inescapable routine. Our lives are a constant struggle to get what we want and keep it. Life itself is a battle. Bare survival in a hostile universe demands alertness, courage, energy, inventiveness and indomitable will. We struggle to survive amid storms, pestilence, drought and earthquake, against the resistance of the vegetable world and the onslaughts of insects and the rust, mildew and decay of all material necessities.. The mere existence of human life on this planet is a triumph of the individual’s terrific will to survive.
Every inch of human progress has been made by some man’s super-human effort. Think of the price paid in mind and body for glazed dishes, for the sewing-machine, for machine-woven cloth, for the steam engine, the steam boat, window-glass, the oil lamp and the oil stove, the telegraph, telephone, electric lights. The list is endless today, and infinite in the future, so long as man’s energy attacks our environment and changes it.
We must go forward against stupendous obstacles, or slide back. Even in theory not one of us can remain passive and be given food for mind and spirit, except in those societies, doomed to stagnation, where all individuals are like ants or bees, slaves to The State. Our American revolution, which freed individuals from The State, released that energy of individuals which has made us the richest and happiest people on earth.
Here was my boy, a poor boy of the working class. I looked at him–tall, robustly healthy, wearing warm clothes, shirt, collar, necktie, shoes; eating meat, butter, ice-cream, pie, as a matter of course; going to movies and ball-games and the neighboring towns and cities, driving (not without grievance) an aged jalopy; spending nine months a year in school and ready to feel himself a victim of injustice if he did not spend four more years in college. Anywhere else on earth a boy of his social class would be small, puny, under-nourished; he would have been sent to work long ago; his clothes would mark him as one of the lower classes, and if he owned fine leather shoes, shirt, collar, necktie, he would jealously preserve them for grand occasions; he would live on bread and cheese, with meat perhaps on a fest day; he would no more dream of owning a car than my boy dreams of a million-dollar yacht, and the idea of going to college would never enter his mind.
What has given my boys such riches? A hundred years ago Americans were no richer than Europeans. Even thirty years ago there was no such wealth in the world as my boy enjoys. All these good things came from the terrific effort each of us made, to escape from privations, to get what we desperately needed and then what we wanted. Would my boy carry on that struggle, so that his children and their children would have more and more good things, as unimaginable to him now as telephones, cares, movies, radios, were to me at his age?
I know now that the best of my life was its hardship. Isn’t it true of all of us–the millions of us who for years have been carrying our country through these hard times? Struggling out of poverty developed in us an invaluable strength. Having conquered so much, we know we are stronger than adversity. We do not give way to despair now; we met despair when we were young and we know it for the spur it is. We are not hopeless, for we have been without hope before, yet we lived, we kept on fighting, somehow we beat a way through solid walls and got what we could not hope for but were determined to have. And if we have lost that now, we still have inner strength that we can rely upon.
When I started to school, I was up against the hazards of actual living. To get to school at all, two miles in winter’s snows, was a feat in itself. If I did not get there, that was my loss; no one else was concerned except my parents. If I did not thoroughly learn my lessons, that was my disgrace. I studied hard and behaved well, or I was stood in a corner and jeered at by my companions. Before I reached the Fifth Reader, there was iron in my soul, a weapon with which to meet the world later.
My boy had been cheated of that advantage. He had been segregated from hazards, as if in an army or a jail. Nothing had called upon his last reserves of energy. He could not study intensely through a summer and skip a grade, as I did more than once to save time and money; only so many hours in a classroom will get a unit. For ten years, he had been utterly unable to change his environment, whether he liked it or not. He had no experience in actual life, where he must depend upon his own efforts, where bare survival may exhaust his last ounce of determination and creative energy, where success demands fierce resolution, self-discipline, concentration, and where it is a man’s business to attack his environment and change it.
He said he had to have a university degree, to be an engineer. If I couldn’t send him, he couldn’t go, and then he couldn’t be an engineer. As to what he would do, he had no notion. He said, discouraged, “You can’t get a job at anything, nowadays.”
Well, would I have done any better, with no more life-experience? It was impossible to get a job when I got one, in the panic of 1907. I got a job because I would have starved if I hadn’t; I was hungry when I forced myself into an office and created a life-saving clerk’s job at $2.50 for a seven-day week of twelve hours a day, and in spare time I taught myself to telegraph, in spite of the operators hounding me away from the wires. My boy was just as good stuff; the only thing wrong was that he had not had my advantages.
For a whole year I said to him, “If you go to college, you must go.” I tried to make him realize that a man must get what he wants by his own efforts. But the fact of his life was that he could do nothing about it. He was as helpless in the school routine as a grain of wheat in the elevator is helpless to change the endless belts. He graduated, and I said, “All right, now go to college, if you can.”
It was cruel, but the more atrocious cruelty that we inflict upon our children is in depriving them of hardship, in keeping them helpless in school until they must go into the battle of living without experience of it. I would not give my boy four more years of that weakening protection. If his life is to be any good at all he must be a clean, hard fighter, conquering himself and circumstances. A man must compel his world to give him what he wants. Men always have done this; human beings might have lived as meekly as the animals, but we do not; we change the face of the globe and build our civilizations. Boys like mine, standing up to the Goliath and refusing to be licked, have made the whole human world and created everything valuable that we have.
“I guess I’ll have to get a job,” he said uncertainly.
“I guess you will,” I said.
He left home to look for one, and I let him go. For ninety-seven days and nights I did not hear a word from him. Times were getting harder. He had no special skill, no training, no experience, almost no money. I did not know where he was, and I knew his few dollars must be gone. Winter was coming and still I did not hear from him.
At last a telegram came from a remote town unknown to me. “Am radio expert in largest garage here. Chose this town because it had no radio expert. Company bought me tools and equipment. Doing well and intend to go to university next year. Love.”
How he did it I do not know. He was no radio expert when he left me but I do not doubt that he is a good one now. I learned typing in the same way, on pure bluff and nerve, having got a telegrapher’s job that I could not hold without typing and I do not doubt that he will get his university degree. He has an advantage now, more valuable, I think, than any that money could buy; nobody is giving him what he wants, he is getting what he wants. He is running under his own power.