(1886) Alexander Crummell, “Common Sense in Common Schooling”

Alexander Crummell, The Greatness of Christ: and Other Sermons (New York: 1882)

On September 13, 1886, Alexander Crummell preached a sermon at his church, St. Luke’s Church in Washington, D.C. where he challenged many of the prevailing ideas about the importance of classical education.  His sermon is reprinted below.

That the soul should be without knowledge is not good.—Prov. 9: 12.

Tomorrow morning we shall witness the reopening of the public schools and the beginning of another year’s school session. As the training and instruction of our children is a matter of very great interest and importance, I am glad of the opportunity to say a few words upon the whole subject of Common School education.

I need not pause to explain the special significance of the text. It is so plain and apparent that even the youngest can readily take it in, and you, who are their elders, have years ago become familiar with its point and power.

It has had during the last few years a special and peculiar influence upon us as a people. Rarely in the history of man has any people, “sitting in the region and shadow of death” a people almost literally enveloped in darkness   rarely, I say, has any such people risen up from their Egyptian darkness with such a craving for light as the black race in this country.

It has been almost the repetition of the Homeric incident:

Dispel this gloom—the light of heaven restore—

Give me to see, and Ajax asks no more.

Almost universal ignorance was the mental condition of the race previous to emancipation. Out of millions of people, not more than 30,000 were allowed an acquaintance with letters. To day, hundreds of schools are in existence, and over a million of our children are receiving the elements of common school education.

The point of interest in this grand fact is that this intellectual receptivity was no tardy and reluctant faculty. Albeit an ignorant people, yet we did not need either to be goaded or even stimulated to intellectual desire. There was no need of any compulsory laws to force our children into the schools. No; the mental appetite of the Negro was like the resurrection of nature in the spring time of the far northern regions. To day, universal congelation and death prevail. Tomorrow, the icy bands of winter are broken and there is a sudden upheaval of dead, stolid rivers. The living waters rush from their silent beds and sweep away formidable barriers, and spread abroad over wide and extensive plains.

This craving of the appetite for letters and knowledge knows no abatement. Everywhere throughout the nation there still abides this singular and burning I aptitude of the black race for schools and learning.

I am proud of this vast and ardent desire of the race; for the brain of man is the very first instrument of human achievement. Given, a cultivated and elastic brain, and you have the possibility of a man, and, with other qualifications and conditions, the probability of almost a demigod. Take away the trained and cultivated intellect, and you get the likelihood of an animal, and, possibly, of a reptile.

But while I rejoice in the wide spread of lettered acquaintance among us, I cannot close my eyes to a great evil which has been simultaneous with the increase of our knowledge. This evil is becoming so alarming that I feel it a duty to call the attention of both parents and children to it. The evil itself I call Disproportion! It is that which we mean when we have an excess of somewhat that is pleasing, with a loss of what is convenient and substantial. We are all apt then to say that it is “too much of a good thing.” The like one-sidedness discovers itself among us in our common school education. Too many of our parents are ruining their children by this error.

They crave an excess of one kind of education, and at the same time neglect important elements of another and quite as important a kind. This sad fact suggests as a theme for consideration to day ” COMMON SENSE IN COMMON SCHOOLING.” The subject presents itself in the two topics, i. e., the excess and the defect in the training of our youth.

(I) Education as a system in our day divides itself into two sections, which are called, respectively, the higher and the lower. The former pertains to classical learning, i. e., Latin and Greek, Science, and Art, in which latter are included music, drawing, and painting. It is with regard to the higher education that I feel called upon to express my fears and to give my counsel.

I fear we are overdoing this matter of higher learning. Everywhere I go throughout the country I discover two or three very disagreeable and unhealthy facts. I see, first of all, (a) the vain ambition of very many mothers to over educate their daughters, and to give them training and culture unfitted for their position in society and unadapted to their prospects in life.  I see, likewise, too many men, forgetful of the occupations they held in society, anxious to shoot their sons suddenly, regardless of fitness, into literary characters and into professional life. This is the first evil. (b) Next to this I have observed an ambition among the youth of both sexes for aesthetical culture; an inordinate desire for the ornamental and elegant in education to the neglect of the solid and practical. And (c), thirdly, to a very large extent school children are educated in letters to a neglect of household industry. Scores of both boys and girls go to school. That is their life business and nothing else; but their parents, neglect their training in housework, and so they live in the streets, and during the first twelve or fourteen years of their life are given to play and pleasure. And (d), lastly, our boys and girls almost universally grow up without trades, looking forward, if they do look forward, many of them, to being servants and waiters; and many more, I am afraid, expecting to get a living by chance and hap-hazard

Doubtless some of you will say that the colored people are not the only people at fault in these respects; that the American people, in general, are running wild about the higher culture are neglecting trades and mechanism, and are leaving the more practical and laborious duties of life to foreigners. Grant that this is the case; but it only serves to strengthen the allegation I make that we, in common with American people, are running into an excessive ambition for the higher culture to the neglect of industrial arts and duties. I go into families. I ask parents what they are preparing their children for, and the answer I frequently receive is: “Oh, I am going to send my son to college to make him a lawyer, or the daughter is to go to the East or to Europe to be made an accomplished lady.” Not long ago I met an old acquaintance, and, while talking about the future of her children, I inquired: “What are you going to do with I will call him ‘Tom?” Tom is a little fellow about fourteen years old; by no means a genius; more anxious about tops and taffy and cigarettes than about his books; never likely, so far as I can see, to set the Potomac on fire. Her answer was that his father proposed sending him to college to make him a lawyer. On another occasion I was talking to a minister of the Gospel about his daughters, and he was anxious to send his two girls to Belgium to be educated for society! Not long ago an acquaintance of mine told me that his sons should never do the work he was doing. He was going to educate one to be a doctor, another to be a lawyer, and the third   he hoped to make a minister. I must give him the credit that when I had pointed out the danger of ruining his sons by this over education, and that this sudden rise from a humble condition might turn them into lazy and profligate spendthrifts, he listened to me, and I am glad to say he took my advice. He is now giving them his own trade, and I think they are likely to become quiet and industrious young men.

Let me not be misunderstood. I am not only not opposed to the higher culture, but I am exceedingly anxious for it. We must have a class of trained and superior men and women. We must have cultured, refined society. To live on a dead level of inferiority, or to be satisfied with the plane of uniform mediocrity, would be death to us as a people.

Moreover we need, and in our blood, the great molders and fashioners of thought among us. To delegate the thinking of the race to any other people would be to introduce intellectual stagnation in the race; and when thought declines then a people are sure to fall and fade away.

These, then, are the most sufficient reasons for a large introduction among us of the highest training and culture. But this is no reason or excuse for disproportion or extravagance. Culture is a great need; but the greater, wider need of the race is industry and practicality. We need especially multitudinous artisans, and productive toil, and the grand realizations of labor, or otherwise we can never get respect or power in the land.

And this leads me next to the other topic viz., the employments and occupations of industrial life. Here we encounter one of the most formidable difficulties of our civil life in this country. The state of things in this regard is an outrage upon humanity! And I protest, with all my might, against the mandate of the “Trades’ Unions,” which declare “You black people must be content with servant life!” I say that this race of ours should demand the right to enter every avenue of enterprise and activity white , men enter. They should cry out, too, against our exclusion from any of the trades and businesses of life. But with all this remember that no people can all, or even many of them, become lawyers, doctors, ministers, teachers, scholars! No people can get their living and build themselves up by refined style and glittering fashion or indulgence in bellelettres.

No people can live off of flowers, nor gain strength and robustness by devotion to art.

And it is just this false and artificial tendency which is ruining colored society almost everywhere in the United States. It is especially so in the large cities. The youth want to go to school until they are nineteen or twenty years of’ age. Meanwhile, the book idea so predominates that duty and industry are thrown into the shade. Mothers and fathers work hard to “sustain their children. After awhile the children look with contempt upon their unlettered, hard handed parents, and regard them as only born for use and slavish toil. Is this an exaggeration? Have you not seen some of those fine young ladies, whose mothers sweat and toil, for them in the wash tub or cook in the kitchen, boasting that they can’t hem a pocket handkerchief or cook a potato? Have not you seen some of these grand gentlemen who forget the humble parents who begot them, forget the humble employments of those parents, turn up their noses at the ordinary occupations of the poor race they belong to, and then begin the fantastic airs of millionaires, while they don’t own ground enough to bury themselves in?

You say, perchance, ” Such girls and boys are sillies,”‘ and that their brainless folly is no reason why the higher education should not be given in all the schools. It is just here I beg to differ with you. I maintain that parents should exercise discrimination in this matter: They have no right to waste time and expense upon incapable girls and boys. They have no right to raise up a whole regiment of pretentious and lazy fools to plague society and to ruin themselves. They have no right to send out into the world a lot of young men and women with heads crammed with Latin, Greek, and literature; with no heart to labor; with hands of baby softness; interested only in idleness, and given to profligacy and ruinous pleasure. And just this, in numerous cases, is the result of this ambitious system of education in this land. We are turning out annually from the public schools a host of fine scholars, but not a few of them lazy, inflated, senseless, sensual! Whole shoals of girls bating labor, slattern in habits, and at the same time bespangled with frippery, devoted to dress, and the easy prey of profligate men! And lots of young men utterly indifferent to the fortunes of their families and the interests of their race; not thoughtless and heedless, like foolish girls, but scores of them thoroughly unprincipled and profligate!

They live for to day, but the life they live is for sensual delight, and the culture they have gained is spent in skillful devices to administer to the lusts of the flesh. This I am constrained to say is the result of the higher education in well nigh half of the colored youth who graduate from high schools and colleges, and it is ruinous to our people.

You ask me the remedy for this great evil. My answer is by avoidance of the excess which I have pointed out and the adoption of the ordinary common school education. Shun disproportion. Hold on to the higher education, but use it only in fit and excep¬tional cases. If you have a son or a daughter burning with the desire for learning, give that child every possi¬ble opportunity. But you see the condition I present, viz., that it burns with intellectual desire. But how often is this the case? The difficulty in the matter is that parents themselves are to blame for the miscarriage of their children’s education. Everybody now a days is crazy about education. Fathers and mothers are anxious that their children should shine. However ordinary a boy or girl may be, the parents want them to be scholars. The boy may be a numbskull, the girl a poodle, The fond parent thinks the child a prodigy; stimulates its ambition, gives it indulgence, saves it from labor, keeps it at school almost to its majority, and then, at last, it finds out that the child has no special talent, dislikes labor, is eager for pleasure, dress, and display, is selfish and cruel to its parents, unable to earn its own living, and expects father and mother to drudge for its support and vanity. I am sure that you all know numerous cases of such failure and ruin.

And it all comes from a neglect of a few plain common sense rules which belong naturally to the subject of education.

Let me briefly set before you some of these rules:

First of all, secure for your children an acquaintance with reading, writing, arithmetic, and geography. When well grounded in these studies, which is ordinarily at 12 or 13, then ascertain whether your children are fitted for the higher branches. If you yourself are educated, form your own judgment; if not, get the advice of a well qualified friend, or the opinion of your minister, or take counsel of the child’s schoolmaster. If convinced that the child gives promise of superiority, keep it at school, give it the best opportunities, and labor hard to make your child a thorough scholar.

(2.) On the other hand, if you find your child has but ordinary capacity, take it from school and put it at an early day to work. If you don’t you will not only waste time but you are likely to raise up a miserable dolt or a lazy dandy. Such a child, brought up to fruitless inactivity, dawdling for years over unappreciated culture, will, likely as not, never want to work for his living, may turn out a gambler or a thief, and in the end may disgrace your name or break your heart. Don’t keep your children too long at school; don’t think too much about the book and so little about labor.  Remember that the end of all true education is to learn to do duty in life and to secure an honorable support and sustenance.

And here (3.) let me press upon you the importance of training your children in industrial habits at home during the period of their school life. Going to school should never prevent a girl from learning to sew, to cook, to sweep, bed making, and scrubbing the floor; nor a boy from using a hammer, cleaning the yard, bringing in coal, doing errands, working hard to help his mother, or to assist his father. Home work, work, more¬ over, is the natural antidote to the mental strain, and oftentimes the physical decline which, in these days, comes rom the excess of study, which is the abnormal feature of the present school system.

From labor health, from health contentment flows.

If you begin your child’s school life by the separation of books and learning front manual labor, then you begin his education with poison as the very first portion of his intelligent life! He had better a deal be ignorant and industrious than lettered and slothful, and, perchance, a beggar! Laziness and learning are as incongruous as a ” jewel in a swine’s snout,” and few things are so demoralizing to the young. Witness the large numbers of lettered youth and young men, fresh rom schools, academies, and colleges, who fill the jails and prisons of the country, and then think of the large and more skillful numbers outside who ought, in justice, to be companying with those within. Nothing is more contemptible than the crowds of these dandical “Clothes-bags,”—for they deserve no better title, one sees in our large cities, who have, indeed, the varnish of the schools and literature, but who lack common sense, full of vanity and pretense, poisoned with lust and whisky, and, while too proud and too lazy to work, get their living by vice and gambling.  This abuse of learning, however, is not confined to men.  Alas ! that t must be acknowledged, we have all over the land scores of cultured young women in whose eyes labor is a disgrace and degradation, who live lives of lazy cun¬ning or deception, or plunge determinedly into lust and harlotry. And the poor old fathers and mothers who toiled so painfully for their schooling, and hoped such great things for their daughters, have been cast down to misery and despair, or else have died broken hearted over their daughters’ shame and ruin. And in every such case how sad the reflection: ” O, that I had been wise with my child! O, that I had scouted her false notions about style and elegance ! O, that I had been more anxious to make her industrious and virtuous! Then all this anguish and distress would never have fallen upon me!” Such cases of folly have their les¬sons for all of us who are parents.  May Almighty God make us both wise in our generation, and prudent and discreet with our children.

The words I have spoken this day have sprung from two or three deep convictions which I am sure are thoroughly scriptural and true, and which, I think, may rightly close this discourse

1. The first of these is that children are neither toys nor playthings, such as are embroidery and jewels and trinkets. They are moral and spiritual beings, endowed with conscience and crowned with the principle of immortality. You may toy and play with your trinkets, but you are accountable to God for the soul, the life, the character, and the conduct of your child. Hence duty and responsibility are the two paramount considerations which are to be allied with the entire training of your children, whether at home or in their school life.

2. Children are trusts for the good and health of society and the commonwealth. The law don’t allow you to poison the air with filth and garbage, and for the simple reason that as a householder you are a trustee for your fellow creatures. But in the regards of your children you are, in a far higher sense, a trustee for your fellow creatures around you. What right have you to send forth from your threshold a senseless fool, full of learning it may be, but with no sense, no idea of responsibility for anybody, impudent to old people, a rowdy in God’s Church, a rioter, a gambler, a rake? Ought not the culture you have toiled to give him serve to make him modest, a mild mannered man, a stay to his humble toilsome parents, a useful man in society, a thrifty and productive citizen in the community? And was it not your duty, all his life long; to strive to realize such a large and high-souled being as the fruit of your family life and training?

Or, if perchance it is a girl, what right have you to send forth into the world a lazy, impertinent creature, bedecked and bejeweled indeed; full, perchance, of letters and accomplishments, but with no womanly shame; brazen with boldness; lazy as a sloth; and, yet, proud, pretentious, crazy for ruinous delights; swept away by animal desires; alien from domestic duties, and devoted to pleasure? Go to, now. Is this the fruit of your vineyard? When God and man, too, look that it should bring forth grapes, will you only thrust upon us such wild grapes?

You have no such right! You are a trustee for society, and you should take a pride in rearing up ornaments for society—“Sons,” as the psalmist describes them, “who may grow up as the young plants;” “daughters, as the polished corners of the temple.” Just such, I am proud to say, as I see in many of your own families in this church, whose children are intelligent, scholarly, and, at the same time, virtuous, modest, obedient, and industrious. God’s holy name be praised for such children, such parents, such godly families! May God, for Jesus’ sake, multiply them a hundred fold in all our communities!

3. Join to this, thirdly, the most solemn of all considerations, i. e., that your children are the servants of the most high God.  “All the souls are mine,” says the Almighty, God made them and sent them into the world. He it is who places living souls in the family, in human society, in the nation, in the church, for His own honor and glory. Not for mere pastime, for trifling, or for pleasure are human beings put amid the relations of life. We are all God’s property our children and ourselves for God’s service and. His praise. Beloved, accept this grand prerogative of your human existence; train your children for godly uses in this world; train their minds by proper schooling; their bodies by industry; their immortal souls by teaching, catechizing, and family devotion, so that they may glorify God in their bodies and their spirits; and then God will give you family order and success in this world; your children honor and blessing by the Holy Ghost; and everlasting light shall be the inheritance of your seed, and your seeds’ seed from generation to generation on earth; and glory, honor, and peace, at the last, in the Kingdom of Heaven above!