Review of The Decroly Class by A. Hamaide
This volume is an admirable account of one of the "new schools" aiming to reform education which has attracted considerable attention. Dr. Decroly began, like Montessori, with abnormal children and gradually came to include a scheme for the entire field of elementary education.
Teaching is an art, and when an innovator starts a new departure he is apparently guided by his more or less inarticulate feeling for certain values and for practices that will realize these. Later on there is a desire to appear reasonable to others and the result is usually a more or less completely formulated "system." The new practice is then defended be-cause it is in accord with the "laws of psychology," whereupon the traditional fixity against which revolt has been staged is replaced by a new fixity which acquires the essential qualities of the older absolutism. The short vogue of Montessori seems to be thus explained. Embodying certain very clever and valuable devices, the influence on education has been relatively small because the program could not be conceived as a free,
( 314) vital, and modest experiment. It claimed to be based on a rigid set of fixed principles, and the same can be said of the Decroly method, or any other comparable one. The difficulty lies in the fact that the fixity concerns a different system in each case. They cannot all be right; it may be that they are all wrong.
No one can read the account of Dr. Decroly's work without a feeling of admiration, not only for his enthusiasm and insight, but also for his results. He employed a flexible curriculum. He emphasized the primary concern with the "here and now." He introduced coeducation in a land where it was frowned upon. He abolished the straight lines of immovable seats, which for Belgium was an innovation. He introduced parent-teachers' associations, which to them was strange and new, and he reformed discipline in a land where the military pattern had long obtained.
Nevertheless, one has reservations. The program is based on the "fundamental needs of the child." It rests upon the theory of instincts. Moreover, they are home-made instincts, manufactured, as always, to meet a condition. There are mainly four: feeding himself, protecting himself from want, defending himself against his enemies, and answering his need for work. Now it is possible to get all the curriculum of the school under these four, and if they be combined with the three strictly separated processes, observation, association, and expression, all the subjects in the curriculum are readmitted. This is held to prove that the classification is sound.
The walrus said that it was time to talk of shoes and ships and sealing-wax and cabbages and kings. If the reader doubts it, let him try and he will find it possible to organize the entire curriculum on the basis of the above topics of conversation suggested by the wise and versatile sea mammal. Shoes would involve leather, cloth and rubber, which would lead you quickly to the western plains, the stockyards, the cotton fields and mills, and the rubber forests, from which you could go to rubber tires and the science of pneumatics. As for ships, they lead back to the canoe and include submarines, to say nothing of antarctic explorers. Any classification is true if one reads into the terms a wide content.
The fundamental instincts of men are too indefinite to encourage dogmatism_ Some solid foundation might be found for a curriculum if the mores of one's people and the social demands were taken as the point of departure. Children like to know what adults are doing, and are interested in the apparatus of civilization. It is almost ludicrous to find the love of a toy steam-engine explained as the satisfying of a need for trans-
( 315) -portation which the child feels. The division into observation, association, and expression seems rigid, artificial, and unnecessary.
The above criticisms are not against the work of the Decroly School but against the attempt to generalize from the admirable and praiseworthy work of a gifted group, and to hold out a warning that the theoretical foundation must be laboriously constructed.
The new schools are many, and should be encouraged by every forward-looking soul, but the cause which they have at heart would be advanced much more quickly if they could begin and remain frankly experimental, tentative, and too modest to attempt a fixed system.
UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO