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12/26/03


Home______Hughes Mearns

Readers have been curious about the verse in the sidebar ("As I was walking up the stair I met a man who wasn't there."), so this will provide a sketch of its author, William Hughes Mearns (1875-1965). An educator, Mearns wrote two books, Creative Youth (1925), and Creative Power (1929), which influenced a generation of scholars in the field of education, particularly on the teaching of writing in American pubic schools.

English teacher, writer, and head of the Lincoln School ( Teachers' College at Columbia University), Mearns made Lincoln School a laboratory for Dewey's ideas on progressive education.

The great progressive educator and philosopher, John Dewey, also at Columbia, urged personal, creative self- expression in children, which strongly influenced public school curriculum for decades.

For Lincoln School students, Mearns emphasized self-expression rather than grammatical correctness. Out the door went penmanship and spelling. In came what Mearns called creative writing. Mearns saw the teacher as guide, not instructor. Writing, he said, is "an outward expression of instinctive insight [that] must be summoned from the vasty deep of our mysterious selves. Therefore, it cannot be taught; indeed, it cannot even be summoned; it can only be permitted."

Hughes Mearns developed a "theory of permittings" for the child as a natural creative artist needing little instruction. "The child is a genuine primitive," said Mearns. "He needs little or no instruction."

Of such thinking, historian Laurence Cremin observes, "And thus was born at least one of the several caricatures of progressive education." Cremin sees Mearns as confusing planlessness with spontaneity and chaos with education.

This seems to be the majority view of Mearns among current academics in the field of education. John Dewey consistently warned his followers against confusing child-centered education with the abandonment of intellectual standards and the assumption that anything children think or do is correct. Many progressive educators chose to ignore Dewey's warnings against mindless forms of child-centeredness.

Whatever. Written in 1899, the sidebar verse, "Antigonish," suggests that Mearns missed his calling as the founder of a modern metaphysical school of light poetry. Here is another by him:

As I was sitting in my chair,
I knew the bottom wasn't there,
Nor legs nor back, but I just sat,
Ignoring little things like that.

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