School and Society

Chapter 6: The Psychology of Occupations

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By occupation is not meant any kind of "busy work" or exercises that may be given to a child in order to keep him out of mischief or idleness when seated at his desk. By occupation I mean a mode of activity on the part of the child which reproduces, or runs parallel to, some form of work carried on in social life. In the University Elementary School these occupations are represented by the shopwork with wood and tools; by cooking, sewing, and by the textile work herewith reported upon.

The fundamental point in the psychology of an occupation is that it maintains a balance between the intellectual and the practical phases of experience. As an occupation it is active or motor; it finds expression through the physical organs — the eyes, hands, etc. But it also involves continual observation of materials, and continual planning and reflection, in order that the practical or executive side may be successfully carried on. Occupation as thus conceived must, therefore, be carefully distinguished from work which educates primarily for a trade. It differs because its end is in itself; in the growth that comes from the

(132) continual interplay of ideas and their embodiment in action, not in external utility.

It is possible to carry on this type of work in other than trade schools, so that the entire emphasis falls upon the manual or physical side. In such cases the work is reduced to a mere routine or custom, and its educational value is lost. This is the inevitable tendency wherever, in manual training for instance, the mastery of certain tools, or the production of certain objects, is made the primary end, and the child is not given, wherever possible, intellectual responsibility for selecting the materials and instruments that are most fit, and given an opportunity to think out his own model and plan of work, led to perceive his own errors, and find out how to correct them-that is, of course, within the range of his capacities. So far as the external results held in view, rather than the mental and moral states and growth involved in the process of reaching the result, the work may be called manual, but cannot rightly be termed an occupation. Of course the tendency of all mere habit, routine, or custom is to result in what is unconscious and mechanical. That of occupation is to put the maximum of consciousness into whatever is done.

This enables us to interpret the stress laid (a) upon personal experimenting, planning, and reinventing in connection with the textile work. and (b)

(133) its parallelism with lines of historical development. The first requires the child to be mentally quick and alert at every point in order that he may do the outward work properly. The second enriches and deepens the work performed by saturating it with values suggested from the social life which it recapitulates.

Occupations, so considered, furnish the ideal occasions for both sense-training and discipline in thought. The weakness of ordinary lessons in observation, calculated to train the senses, is that they have no outlet beyond themselves, and hence no necessary motive. Now, in the natural life of the individual and the race there is always a reason for sense-observation. There is always some need, coming from an end to be reached, that makes one look about to discover and discriminate whatever will assist him. Normal sensations operate as clues, as aids, as stimuli, in directing activity in what has to be done; they are not ends in themselves. Separated from real needs and motives, sense-training becomes a mere gymnastic and easily degenerates into acquiring what are hardly more than mere knacks or tricks in observation, or else mere excitement of the sense organs.

The same principle applies in normal thinking. It also does not occur for its own sake, nor end in itself. It arises from the need of meeting some

(134) difficulty, in reflecting upon the best way of overcoming it, and thus leads to planning, to projecting mentally the result to be reached, and deciding upon the steps necessary and their serial order. This concrete logic of action long precedes the logic of pure speculation or abstract investigation, and through the mental habits that it forms is the best of preparations for the latter.

Another educational point upon which the psychology of occupations throws helpful light is the place of interest in school work. One of the objections regularly brought against giving in school work any large or positive place to the child's interest is the impossibility on such a basis of proper selection. The child, it is said, has all kinds of interests, good, bad, and indifferent. It is necessary to decide between the interests that are really important and those that are trivial; between those that are helpful and those that are harmful; between those that are transitory or mark immediate excitement, and those which endure and are permanently influential. It would seem as if we had to go beyond interest to get any basis for using interest.

Now, there can be no doubt that occupation work possesses a strong interest for the child. A glance into any school where such work is carried on will give sufficient evidence of this fact. Outside of the school, a large portion of the children's

(135) plays are simply more or less miniature and haphazard attempts at reproducing social occupations.

There are certain reasons for believing that the type of interest which springs up along with these occupations is of a thoroughly healthy, permanent, and really educative sort; and that by giving a larger place to occupations we should secure an excellent, perhaps the very best, way of making an appeal to the child's spontaneous interest, and yet have, at the same time, some guaranty that we are not dealing with what is merely pleasure-giving, exciting, or transient.

In the first place, every interest grows out of some instinct or some habit that in turn is finally based upon an original instinct. It does not follow that all instincts are of equal value, or that we do not inherit many instincts which need transformation, rather than satisfaction, in order to be useful in life. But the instincts which find their conscious outlet and expression in occupation are bound to be of an exceedingly fundamental and permanent type. The activities of life are of necessity directed to bringing the materials and forces of nature under the control of our purposes; of making them tributary to ends of life. Men have had to work in order to live. In and through their work they have mastered nature, they have protected and enriched the condition of their own life, they have been awakened to the sense of their own powers —

(136) have been led to invent, to plan, and to rejoice in the acquisition of skill. In a rough way, all occupations may be classified as gathering about man's fundamental relations to the world in which he lives through getting food to maintain life; securing clothing and shelter to protect and ornament it, and thus, finally, to provide a permanent home in which all the higher and more spiritual interests may center. It is hardly unreasonable to suppose that interests which have such a history behind them must be of the worthy sort.

However, these interests as they develop in the child not only recapitulate past important activities of the race, but reproduce those of the child's present environment. He continually sees his elders engaged in such pursuits. He daily has to do with things which are the results of just such occupations. He comes in contact with facts that have no meaning, except in reference to them. Take these things out of the present social life and see how little would remain-and this not only on the material side, but as regards intellectual, aesthetic, and moral activities, for these are largely and necessarily bound up with occupations. The child's instinctive interests in this direction are, therefore, constantly reinforced by what he sees, feels, and hears going on around him. Suggestions along this line are continually coming to him; motives are awakened; his energies are stirred to

(137) action. Again, it is not unreasonable to suppose that interests which are touched so constantly, and on so many sides, belong to the worthy and enduring type.

In the third place, one of the objections made against the principle of interest in education is that it tends to disintegration of mental economy by constantly stirring up the child in this way or that, destroying continuity and thoroughness. But an occupation (such as the textile one herewith reported on) is of necessity a continuous thing. It lasts, not only for days, but for months and years. It represents, not a stirring of isolated and superficial energies, but rather a steady, continuous organization of power along certain general lines. The same is true, of course, of any other form of occupation, such as shopwork with tools, or as cooking. The occupations articulate a vast variety of impulses, otherwise separate and spasmodic, into a consistent skeleton with a firm backbone. It may well be doubted whether, wholly apart from some such regular and progressive modes of action, extending as cores throughout the entire school, it would be permanently safe to give the principle of "interest" any large place in school work


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