Review of Truancy and Non-attendance in the Chicago Schools by Edith Abbott and Sophinisba P. Breckenridge.


Truancy and Non-attendance in the Chicago Schools by Edith Abbott and Sophonisba P. Breckenridge. University of Chicago Press. 472 pp. Price: $2.00; by mail of the Survey $2.16.

The present volume is a continuation of the study by the same authors of the effects of poverty and lacking community intelligence in Chicago, which bears so heavily and unjustifiably upon large classes of children. The earlier studies are those of the Housing Problem in Chicago, which appeared in the American Journal of Sociology, Vol. XVII, and those upon the Delinquent Child and the Home, published by the Russell Sage Foundation, 1912. Closely associated with these as a source and inspiration of this study are Florence Kelley's reports as factory inspector in Illinois.

In the first and shorter part of the book, the authors trace the history of the development in Illinois of the sentiment and demand for free and compulsory (terms which still sound strange together) education. It is a story competently told with adequate documentation, not essentially different from that which could be presented for most parts of the country during the same periods. It cannot be read without a sense of the profound difference between the attitudes of the political and social historian on the one hand and that of the social reformer and administrator on the other. From the standpoint of the past, each one of our institutions and each advance in their development is an achievement that fills the reader with satisfaction. From the standpoint of the reform and the future, we regard them with disapproving eyes as always conceived at first with too niggardly an estimate of their uses and too slight a recognition of their functions. Free education came somewhat as grudgingly, almost as a gift. It was not so much with a sense of responsibility as with that of generosity that the state contemplated its schools and the children who attended them. It is not easy to induce either and individual or a community to admit that, instead of having been a benefactor, he or they have been unfaithful stewards. This in not the only instance in our more recent history in which this change of attitude has been necessary to our social advance. Especially has the condition of the immigrant in the American city and country suffered from this ego-centric predicament of ours. Having conferred such privileges upon him by receiving him into our midst, by what right can we be accused of having exploited him? It is easier to correct the false perspectives of our vices than those of our virtues. With this task it is the second part of the volume is concerned.

Here the plot thickens. We see that the child's education and child labor are inextricably entangled with each other, that the state cannot give, much less compel, the one without very carefully restricting the other. And this again involves a shift in moral attitude difficult to make. It is an attitude most admirably brought out in the quotation from the decision of Sir James Fitzjames Stephens in the case of a little English girl to whom the school authorities sought to give her slight modicum of education when her home claimed the support of her wages. Sir James said, "She has been discharging the honorable duty of helping her parents, and, for my own part, before I held that these facts did not afford a reasonable excuse for her non-attendance at school, I should require to see the very plainest words tot he contrary in the act. I might add that there is nothing that I should read with greater reluctance in any act of Parliament that that a child was bound to postpone the direct necessity of her family to the advantage of getting a little more education for herself." As the learned and moral judge took away from her the only schooling she could ever get in her life and sent her out to service, he patted her on the head and told her what a good child she was to prefer helping her parents to getting this insignificance piece of education.

In the same frame of mind, the community of Illinois and more especially of the great city of Chicago has too frequently considered the meager wage which an untrained twelve- to sixteen-year-old child could get in industry of more worth than the education with which the state has undertaken to endow all its children. It is profoundly depressing to realize that matters of such great moment as the social and intellectual training of the next generation are thwarted by attitudes of mind so seemingly harmless and even trivial that people cannot be got to consider them. If the community could only have been induced to regard the few years of schooling that were compulsory as priceless to the children, if they could only have therefore viewed the housing, food, the labor and health of the child from the standpoint of their bearing on this priceless education, how vastly different would have been the history not only of the schools in our whole country, but the life of the children in hundreds of thousands of families. Because the American community has been able to combine a somewhat grandiloquent attitude toward its whole system of public education with a somewhat contemptuous attitude towards schoolmasters and especially school-mistresses and towards the content of the required curriculum of the elementary school, it has never seriously faced the meaning of education to its children or considered the waste involved in destroying by impossible social conditions what it has expensively given in the school room.

It is this picture which is drawn in this study of truancy and non-attendance in the Chicago schools. The losses that result from the system of transfers are very considerable. There are others due to the utterly antiquated and stupid system of keeping and using the records. Still more serious are the losses from non-attendance due to the failure of the schools to face frankly the social problem that is involved in all public education. The employment of visiting teachers would increase the value of what the schools give, by enormous percentages. But even the business sense of the the American community does not rise to so simple an application of its own methods. An admirable parental school brings about excellent results, but the community does not follow up these results into the homes from which these boys come to see what steps it could take to secure returns upon its great expense or to combat the causes of truancy at their source; for truancy has proved to be the expression not of boyish depravity but of broken-down homes. It is safe to assume that the average citizen of Chicago thinks that the truant officer is chasing mis-

(370)-chievous, unruly boys. The parental school is as much or even more needed for boys between the ages of fourteen and sixteen, but the slight enabling legislation cannot be obtained.

The schools should unquestionably have all children between these two years; but the community does not raise the age limit, though the results which are obtained at huge expense are reduced by the fact that children leave without completing even the minimum of the elementary course, and though the change of our whole system of industry has revolutionized the method of training those who enter it.

The accomplishment of this book is to take public schooling out of its antiquated and still somewhat academic atmosphere, and out of the outworn but persistent habits and concepts of the earlier American community, to present it in the light of the social background in which it belongs today, and compel the reader to realize that the education of the children of our great cities demands consistent thinking and courageous following up of its implications and honest common sense in administration.

Geo. H. Mead


No notes

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