This is a special time of year - the beginning of school. For teachers on all levels, school bells signify a renewal of professional commitment, a feature perhaps shared by few other professions. For students, school is democracy - open doors and opportunities - even though the first days illustrate both ecstasy and anguish, which soon level off to an even keel of emotions. And for parents, school is perceived as an integral part of their children's growth and entrance into society.
Of course, there have been variations on this theme over the years. In colonial times formal schooling was basically for the well-to-do, except in New England where the religious emphasis on reading the Bible prompted the establishment of public facilities. Moreover, the role model for children in the era was often harsh (recall the portrait of the stern schoolmaster), geared to the assumption that little ones were simply miniature adults.
By the 19th century public schooling spread, not so much for educational reasons as social ones. In fact, bright children were not well received. ''If a child exhibits any symptoms of precocity,'' read an 1851 educational tract, ''it should be taken from books and permitted ... such amusements as will give rest to the mind and health and vigor to the body.'' The vast tides of immigration promoted the specter of a society torn by ethnic tensions; in this setting, public education would serve to inculcate Americanism, especially through the study of George Washington's virtues. ''The holy influence which Washington's name and character will exert upon the world is doubtless incalculable,'' according to an 1831 text. ''While human society lasts they will never cease to shed their blessings on mankind.'' Public schooling also ensured a work force disciplined to the routine of an increasingly industrial world. At the same time , the schoolmarm's replacement of the schoolmaster suggested a move in the direction of what educator Horace Mann described as ''loving tenderness.''
Progressive educational ideas permeated the 20th century. The child learned more, John Dewey wrote in ''The School and Society'' (1899), in real life activities that permit him ''to see within his daily work all there is in it of large and human significance.'' But Dewey drew the wrath of traditionalists, who feared that liberating the school was synonymous with license, lazy students, and coddling. Pleasure and learning were antithetical: ''In laying itself out to make things pleasant for the learner, it makes them too easy,'' read one critique, ''and does not make sufficient demand upon attention.''
Manifest in all these educational currents was the enormous difficulty in measuring student progress. For colonials, the yardstick was often negative, the extent of the ''devil'' in the child; in the 19th century, it was the virtue inculcated by patriotic texts.
For many educators school is not so much a tangible end result as it is a special adventure of the mind. ''What do you do when you read,'' begins the foreword from a 1936 edition of the Elson-Gray ''Basic Reader'' (Grade 6). ''You listen to another person through your eyes and with your mind. The author of a story has been through thrilling adventures; he has seen wonderful sights; he has learned fascinating things through careful study; he has thought out an interesting story. He wants you to see, feel, hear, and wonder just as he has. He uses words to bring you his message. Your eyes are the gateway through which words reach your mind, and your mind must work to understand the message.''
The elusive and varying contours of that human mind make for the joy of teaching and learning. Like fingerprints, each student is special - from the unmotivated youngster who begins to show just the slightest enthusiasm for a subject to the gifted student who combines knowledge with a toleration for classmates.
And so it is a special time of the year - the beginning of school.