My very dear Brothers,
Some years ago there were introduced into a number of our Houses2 certain public Competitions or Contests, carried out by children3 attending our schools, in the presence of a number of the most important personages of the locality where this custom was established.
These Contests consist in having the students recite from memory whatever they have learned during the school year and present before the assembly their workbooks of writing, arithmetic, and spelling, replying to the various questions addressed to them, whether it be on Christian doctrine or reading, spelling, writing, or arithmetic. Finally, the sessions end with a prize distribution to those among the students who are judged to have so merited.
Such, at the beginning, were the Competitions, which simply had as their objective that the students give an exact account of each section of our teaching.
If these Contests had remained within reasonable bounds, they would have been simply praiseworthy and completely in accord with the spirit of our Institute. But as is often the case in most practices that have been established to obtain some benefit, they soon lose their initial purpose and frequently degenerate into an abuse. So it is with these Competitions and Contests, simple as they are in principle and potentially so beneficial to both teachers and students, but they have become injurious to both, as our observations on this topic will prove.
The subject matter foreign to our lessons that has been introduced into these Contests has quickly changed the nature and the benefits that could have been expected. Simple demonstrations that aimed only at producing a praiseworthy emulation among the children in their mastery of each part of our teaching have become a kind of stage presentation, more an imposition on the students and on their fathers and mothers, with the incentive of some praise or flattering reward than something of any real advantage to the children.
These Competitions, however, have quickly acquired a certain celebrity, as a result of which it was soon concluded that accustoming students to these kinds of Contests was an excellent way of instructing them, a method that offered all the advantages that could be proposed for the education of youth. As a result, some persons who are enthusiastic supporters of education have put down substantial sums of money for the prizes intended for those among the students who distinguished themselves by their talents. Among the parish priests, several were convinced by these Contests of the results that could be produced through our schools and have seized the opportunity to enhance the reputation of the schools and to disseminate books appropriate for spreading education through families, thus combatting so many bad works found among people today.
At these public meetings, patrons of Christian Schools and founders4 of these new establishments sometimes find themselves witnesses, along with the parish priests, of the great good that is brought about through their generosity. For their part, the Brothers also have wished by these means to prove to those interested in the instruction of children and in the public good that they are fulfilling the duties of their state and at the same time proving the usefulness of their teaching.
But in spite of the utility of these public Competitions and the praiseworthy motives that led to their establishment, we believe, all the same, that we should make some comments on the supposed advantages espoused by those in favor of these Contests. We will oppose them by showing the real abuses that result, in order to allow you to judge the matter justly and impartially.
1) First of all, it is said that
through these Contests a certain natural shyness proper to the age of the children is
dissipated. Secondly, the idea is to encourage a general competitiveness among the
students by the prospect of some praise and public awards at the end of the year to the
most deserving among them. This is the kind of motivation considered appropriate to
sharpen up lazy or indolent children while inspiring with a new ardor those who enjoy
concentration and work. The end result is that all make progress.
2) There is a desire to recognize the founders of the schools publicly and to express praise for their zeal on behalf of education by demonstrating the results produced by their devoted support with regard to a whole multitude of children who, lacking such support, would for the most part grow up in ignorance of their duties toward God, their parents, their superiors, and society in general.
3) It is said that schools take on a greater importance and have a tendency to proliferate as they attract the confidence of the local authorities. Parents have more confidence in them, and this makes them more careful about sending their children to school, and finally, the children themselves have a deeper love for the Christian and civic instruction given in the schools.
4) There is a desire to accord teachers the degree of esteem that is merited by their zeal, their talents, and the results of their work by placing them in a kind of necessity of carrying out their functions worthily by presenting students in these Contests who do them credit. It has been suggested that a worthy desire is aroused among the teachers for each one to distinguish himself through his class. Certainly, some of these effects have resulted from these kinds of Competitions.
5) It has been suggested that giving children this opportunity to appear in public arouses in all those who are endowed with the right dispositions the desire to surpass one another and by these means to have a kind of awakening emerge by this sharp stimulus among several who are naturally disposed to a type of inertia.
6) There is a desire to reward achievement by presenting to the students a goal that can be both a reward for their past efforts and an efficient vehicle for the future.
7) It is proposed, finally, that children will gain a certain assurance in their manners, ease in their whole exterior, facility in self-expression, and courage to express themselves in public. Such different ends have undoubtedly been proposed for these annual public Contests. While it cannot be denied that certain of these expectations have been met, we are forced to admit from experience that in several other aspects they have degenerated into various kinds of abuses.
These abuses can be considered from two different viewpoints, one concerning the students and the other, the Teachers.5 Simply setting out both of them will show clearly that they have produced some good but have also brought about a greater evil.
In order to make known the abuses that these public Contests have created with respect to children, I will set out two propositions that will prove that these Competitions expose the Teachers to neglect an essential part of their duty and that the education of those admitted to these competitions with their emulation prizes is not very solid.