Activity and Passivity of the Educator

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By Elisabeth Burns Ferm.

BEFORE touching on the two vital and important attributes of the educator, i. e., Activity and Passivity, it may be well to define what I mean when I refer to education and the educator.

When I speak of education I trust you will not confuse it with pedagogy.

Education may sometimes include pedagogy—for example, when a child asks for some point of information— but pedagogy, as I see it, does not include education.

Education is that which has to do with unfolding, revealing and objectifying the inner life, the interior qualities, of the individual.

The educator is one who is able to recognize, assure and interpret to the individual the desires and impulses that move him to action; knowing that within and above the endeavor there is the effort of the real, the true self to express and manifest itself.

The educator holds, as it were, the mirror, so that the individual may see how his act reflects his thought and his thought reflects his act. That thought and action are indivisibly, inseparably one—helping the individual to realize this, consciously, by holding him responsible for every word and act.

I accept the declaration of Froebel that the tendency of every living thing is to unfold its essence. And that it is the destiny of man to become self-conscious—to know himself. That man, to know himself, must make himself objective to himself.

If I am able to make this quite clear to you, you will, at least, be able to follow and understand me, even though you may not agree with me.

The educator is the one who understands what education consists of and can aid the child in ways and means thereto.

The endeavor of the pedagogue is to make and leave an impression on the child. The pedagogue is interested in the history of human affairs, but not in the affairs of the humans who form the class room. Indeed, the less the humans express of themselves and their relations, the more successful and satisfactory is the relation between teacher and pupil. The teacher is a custodian of past events, past achievements.

The educator is the very antithesis of the pedagogue. The educator deals with and interprets to the child his present experience; the relation of the present moment. present hour and present day to the child's life. First— because the child cannot conceive or realize more than is contained in the present. And, secondly, because the educator knows that the present includes the past and indicates and foreshadows the future.

The educator may refer to the past and future—to confirm the present experience and to reveal the continuity of life experiences, but never, in true education, is the past or future allowed to influence or govern the now, the here of the child's daily living experiences.

Froebel has well expressed this in declaring that every life is particular and unique in itself, and that no life, not even the life of Jesus, can be taken for an example.

The true educator knows that there never was anything more than there is now, and that there never will be anything more than there is now. That the present moment holds all that there is of life. In it is contained the past and the future.

If I have succeeded in introducing my educator to you, as one who is living in the present, with the experiences of the past summed up as realization, consciousness, I shall be able to demonstrate the two important attributes, which, I venture to say, either make or unmake the educator.

If I were asked which attribute I considered the greater, I should unhesitatingly say Passivity.

Therefore I shall treat of passivity first.

Try not to confound inability to control a situation— neglect to seize the moment—indifference to the outcome —timidity of action—or any other form of weakness that you can recall or imagine, with passivity.

Passivity, as I conceive it, is a conscious keeping off of hands, a conscious letting alone. There is no passivity unless the educator has an understanding of the particular child whom he is striving to educate; unless he can recognize and follow the purpose and outcome of that particular child's acts.

The professed frtends and believers in passivity are often the ones who discredit it and hold it up to ridicule.

I once visited the home of a friend who had married and was the mother of two children. The flat irons were left on the floor. So the children, almost every day, would fit their feet into them and slide along the highly polished, waxed floors. The father and mother were distressed by the noise they made and the damage to the floor. They could take no action, however, because they had committed themselves to the idea of passivity in education. I suggested that the rational thing to do was to put the flat irons in the cupboard or on a shelf. If the children showed by word or act that the flat irons were a positive need in their development, then they might with some reasonableness "take them out or down again. The children were using them as they would use any old thing which might be lying about. On another occasion I visited the home of a woman who published and edited an educational magazine. She was another victim to the idea of passivity. She had sent for me. She was distracted. The coffee mill had been negligently left on the sitting-room table. When I put in an appearance the coffee beans were scattered over the rug and the coffee mill was thrown to one side. The child seemed to have no further use nor interest in them. In a scattered, unrelated way he was tugging and pulling at other things in the room. The mother was lying on the couch, overcome—as she expressed it—by the condition of things. Instead of being overcome by the condition, she was too limp, too negative—too weak to deal with the condition. She was on the verge of hysterics and kept on assuring me that she didn't want me to do anything but just sit with her.

I told her I would sit with her after I had put the coffee mill in its place and brushed up the coffee beans. She wondered if it would interfere with the child's development if the coffee mill were put away. I took it upon myself to assure her that he was too busy to miss it and that I did not believe he would pine after it, if it was put away.

Froebel might have said, with Whitman, that his word would do just as much harm as good to men.

The word passivity has given an excuse to those who would be excused.

In everything that has to do with the individual's inner life—with self-expression—the educator should follow the child.

The educator may commend the child's self-expression, but may not condemn it; may recognize his selfexpression, but may not criticize it. May encourage the child's self-expression, but may not interfere with it.

Such a relation between child and adult calls out and fosters the creative power in the individual, a power latent in all human beings.

Such an attitude calls for a wide and deep understanding.

It is easy enough to passively follow the child, as long as his expressions are agreeable to the educator and in no way clash with the preconceived ideas and sensibilities of the adult. But to be able to recognize that every act of the child is necessitated from within, is extremely difficult. And yet, every true and earnest educator knows— even when he fails to practice it—that the safest and sanest thing is to let the child do the thing he wishes to do and then let him reap the harvest he has sown.

I do not want the harvest to be misconstrued with allowing the child to jump from the Flat Iron Building, to fall down from a precipice, or be run over. If a child should thoughtlessly or willfully place himself in a dangerous position, the human—as well as the rational— thing would be to save the child from too serious consequences. I simply mean that the child should be allowed to endure all that he is capable of enduring. That he should face all that he has intentionally or unintentionally created, excited or provoked.

When we find such passivity, in ourselves or others, we know that it is grounded in the highest rationalism, the deepest humanity and truest consideration for the development of individual consciousness.

Such passivity is the goal of every true educator. Every educator is striving toward it as an idealistic stage of educational development.

Letting alone may look like passivity. Non-interference may look like passivity. But, to my mind, there is no true passivity unless the educator is consciously striving to aid the child to attain knowledge of himself through and by means of the child's own acts and experiences.

Letting the child do the things he desires to do—because the adult feels that the child has the right, as an individual, to do it—is not the passivity of the educator.

Letting the child do what he wants to do is the relation of individual to individual. The educator's relation is more interior than that.

In education the child must be allowed to do the thing he wants to do, because he has the right to do it, plus the understanding of why he wants to do it, why he is so actuated.

You may ask me in what tangible, concrete form that plus quality expresses itself. My answer to that will and must prove unsatisfactory to those who have not thought deeply and seriously on the question of education. Many years of experience with children have forced me to the conclusion that before the relation of adult and child can become an educational one, it must be psychically established. And I know of no material agency by which the psychic is demonstrated to the child's consciousness —which I allow is wholly physical—unless you will concede that the tone of the voice, the stroke of the hand, the expression of the face are palpable, tangible means by which that inner relation may manifest itself. Whether your mind can or can not concede that such a relation is fundamental to education, I still maintain that the psychic quality must exist in order to make the relation real and enduring, fitted to weather the storm and stress of their intercourse and association, as child and educator.

Because of the psychic relation the educator can have order restored out of the most chaotic condition. JDur doubting friends may insist that there must be something in the attitude of the education, something physical to overrule a disorderly state of condition. Well, let them experiment with young children and watch the result.

Has my reader ever tried to affect a loving manner towards the children, when you were internally disturbed and wholly out of touch with them? Or have you assumed a commanding attitude, when there was neither ability nor power to maintain the position? Well, if you have, you also remember how you tried to wheedle the child, by soft words and affected smiles, into complying— without success—and how, in the other case, you blustered and fumed, and still the child remained fixed, unchanged.

Children, like all simple, undeveloped natures, have a way of exposing artifice and sham. They are not mentally developed enough to imagine what may or may not happen to them, if they refuse to yield. They deal with the actual situation which, when such methods are used, is essentially weak and untenable.

On the other hand, if the educator is at one—spiritually —with the child, the most discordant and inharmonious condition can be changed into one that is orderly and harmonious, by the child himself.

For example one child may through his invasiveness and general interference with the activities of others create a confusion and uproar which are difficult to control. The excitement is too great to get down to a cause. Almost everyone has a grievance. Whatever event or incident created the condition, the tumult makes it impossible to find out. The thing for the educator to recognize is, that they are out of relation with one another; that they are decentralized as individuals. The educator must help them to regain consciousness of themselves and the consciousness of their relation to one another.

For example—a room has fifteen or twenty children in it. They are all busy doing things in their different ways. So many activities create a great deal of noise. One boy is sliding a chair along the floor. He does not see the other boy, who has just stepped forward. In a minute there is a collision. The boy has been struck by the chair. According to his temperament he may either cry or try to strike the boy whose chair struck him. The misunderstanding develops into a grievance; other children are involved. Friends become enemies. The strong and brave are fighting out their claims; the weaker ones are venting their feelings by spitting, making faces at each other and calling names. The mob is ruling; something must be done to restore a free condition, in which all may have a chance to express themselves. What shall that something be ? Read the riot act ? Punish the aggressive ones ? Become one of the mob, too ? Hardly! The needed thing is, for the educator to be able to see what elements are lacking in that human gathering and try to restore them by calling them out of the children. The children are scattered mentally. Their human association is disturbed. They are simply reflecting their own disturbed state to one another. Every discordant tone vibrates so long that it serves to increase and heighten the irritability of the one who produced it. Now is the time for the educator to summon to the rescue all the tranquility and composure of spirit that he possesses. His inner serenity must be manifested outwardly. Tranquil where the child is disturbed; quiet where the child is noisy. When the educator is well centred within, he creates an atmosphere in which all begin to breathe and live in as human beings. In less time than it takes to tell it, the mob has quelled itself and peace is restored. Once more a free society is established. The children feel the situation, but they do not understand it; they are contrite and ashamed of themselves. This result has been evolved from the inner attitude of the educator and the inner response of the children.

Such experiences cannot be trumped up. They are true indicators of the soundness of the educational relation.

After such an experience there is always a deeper and more sympathetic relation. They have struggled through something. They have sounded the depths in one another. They have touched bottom. They have had an experience together. They have had a realization together. They feel the unity of human life.

I have especially dwelt on the passive quality of the educator, because it is the most difficult relation for educators generally, and because it is particularly so for myself. It is well known that we attribute the highest quality to the thing which we possess the least of.

I am extolling passivity, at the same time praying that some day I, too, may develop a truer and wider consciousness of passivity in relation to education.

So let me once more emphasize that the passivity of the educator has to do with all that relates to individual self expression, self activity.

The activity of the educator must objectify itself by the latter manifesting himself as a creative, self active member of the little society in which he finds himself as an individual. And also, through the consciousness with which he is able to reveal and reflect the social basis, upon. which they must all stand. The child is ignorant of any law or principle which binds or relates him to his playmate. When he finds himself in a trying situation with another child—whom he is not able to thrash or intimidate—he will suggest a compromise or will make a concession himself, which will put him in possession of the thing he is after.

The child's understanding of things is proportioned to his experiences. He is very jealous about his own rights, his own possessions. He senses might as right. He does not scruple to invade the rights of others, to carry off their possessions. Although he resents any invasion of his rights, he does not know how to maintain a position against such invasion.

The educator, understanding why the child is actuated to leave his home, why he is actuated to form a social relation with other humans, must emphasize and accentuate the principles which bind und unite all forms of human association.

I believe that the child leaves his home to experience himself as an individual. To experience himself as an individual he must associate with other individuals. The condition for such an experience must be founded on equality and equity. To realize equality and equity he must have the conditions which will objectify those principles.

The child's natural opportunity, for instance, may consist of space, chairs, tables, materials to work with; in fact, everything in the place is common property; all having equal rights; all having equal responsibilities.

Zealously and jealously these opportunities are watched by the educator; the principle of equality and equity is to be called out through their use. For instance, a child finds that he is the first arrival in the morning. He looks about him and naturally concludes that his right is only bounded by the limitations of the place. He may use, as he chooses, the opportunities which the place offers. He starts a line of cars, which takes in every chair in the room. Another child enters. The new comer may not allow himself to think that he has any right or claim to a chair, because he sees them all utilized. The educator knows, however, that before long that utilization will change into monopoly and then a conflict will ensue. Another child arrives. The chairs suggest a train to him. He demands some of the chairs, or he attempts to take them. The one in possession in great wrath defends his property and beats off the new-comer. If the monopolizer is physically strong enough to keep the new claimant off, he will, possibly, be left in possession.

This is a situation that calls for the activity of the educator.

"Philip, why did Jakey hit you?"

"I wanted some chairs."

"Did you ask Jakey for them?"

"No! I took one."

"Perhaps Jakey does not understand you. Go and tell Jakey that you want some of the chairs."

Philip goes to Jakey, but Jakey is watching things now. He is so inflated by his former success that he answers Philip with a blow. Philip doesn't feel like insisting on getting chairs, so he is about to give it up. Now is the educator's opportunity to emphasize Philip's right, as against Jakey's might.

"Jakey, why are you not willing to let Philip take some chairs ?"

"I had them first. I want to use them," is the reply.

Jakey is told that he has the right to use everything in the room as long as no one else wishes to use it. But just as soon as Philip feels that he, too, wishes to make a train of cars with the chairs, Jakey can no longer control all of them.

Sometimes the dispute may arise over the use of something—say a swing—of which there is only one. A certain child may like to use it more than the others, or want to control it and prevent the others from using it. A complaint is made that Sarah won't let Gussie swing. After Sarah has given her reasons—which usually go back to the fact that she was there first and she has not finished using it—Sarah is told that the others are not obliged to wait for her will and pleasure. That the only way to be fair to one another, when there is only one swing and others desire to use it, is for them to come to some agreement as to how long each one shall use it; that the mere getting of a thing first does not give one the right to control it. Sarah is told that she must relinquish the swing, if she is not willing to use it with the others. If Sarah refuses to share or relinquish the swing, she must be put off.

The simple, crude, physical consciousness conceives success as the just, the right cause. Success excites admiration; it indicates power. And power is the greatest thing that the physical consciousness can comprehend. Power to the simple mind implies life. Defeat, on the other hand, produces just the opposite effect. It suggests weakness, and weakness implies death. There is no tangible, palpable way of demonstrating the right of a thing, if it is followed by non-success. It may call out pity, but the cause is questioned. It excites fear and distrust. The physical consciousness is afraid of being involved in it. The cause is finally deserted. The educator, knowing this fact, must be careful in objectifying a principle in such a manner that the crude, simple state of the child's mind may be able to entertain it. The child is instinctively right when he unites himself with the successful side and shrinks from the defeated cause.

Success should follow that which is true and just; what is false and wrong should suffer defeat.

I sometimes think that the reason why success does not follow the right is in a great measure due to our early impressions and conclusions. For instance, a strong child has usurped the place of a weaker one. The weaker one is tearfully submitting, or, at the most, he may try to kick the usurper. That failing, he may resort to faces and calling names. There seems to be no idea in their minds that there is any right. Everything is measured by might. The educator must take an active part in such an experience. An indignant protest from the educator against the physical domination on the one hand, and the meak submission on the other, will have its effect. Tyrant and slave are equally surprised. They have never heard the submissive one reproached before. The submissive one has never been treated before as a social offender. The educator insists that the right thing for the submissive one is to resume and keep the place which the tyrant usurped from him. This attitude creates a new order of things. A revolution takes place in custom and thought. Right enthroned, might dethroned. The one who maintains and defends the new order is recognized as the strongest one in the room. Strength—not used to subjugate the weak, but to help the weak to become strong in action, and the physically strong to develop a more honorable and human relation to their playmates.

In closing I should say that in everything which has to do with the social experiences of the child the educator is actively leading. The educator is the only one in that little community who has had social experiences. And as our idea of equality and equity was evolved from our social experiences, the child knows nothing of them. He has had no social experiences. The idea of justice does not have to be imposed on the child; he responds to it and holds himself close to the condition or place in which it is accentuated. If I have not made clear to you how those attributes of the educator help and aid the child in his development of self-consciousness, I gladly refer you to Froebel's "Education of Man" and trust that his words may convince you.

  • Elisabeth Burns Ferm, “Activity and Passivity of the Educator,” Mother Earth 2, no. 1 (March 1907): 25-36.