“The boy problem,” says J. J. Kimball, “is fundamentally not a personal problem nor a problem of intellectuality; not a moral problem, nor a psychological problem, though it may be all these,—but is, first of all, a biological problem.” The instinct for activity is not new at the age of twelve, but it does take on new forms of expression. Some of these will begin and end with the gang period; some will persist through life, as work or as recreation. But during this especially active period, probably the most spontaneously active period of existence, there must be laid the foundations of all the more important interests of adult life.
There is a time for boys to learn to swim, hunt, fish, build huts, make boats, gather collections, play ball, love nature, work; or by neglect of this time, to lack interest in142 both work and play for the rest of their lives. There is a time also for learning the social arts and the social virtues. If this time passes with these lessons unlearned, it becomes highly improbable that they ever will be learned at all.
So far, then, as education is a biological question, it tends to resolve itself into the problem of utilizing the boy’s instinctive interests as a basis for his formal training. This is especially true of his moral education. We take the boy at an impressionable age, an age during which he is probably more plastic than at any other time of life, either before or after. We can lead him through the group life of the gang, while the social instincts are being born and fashioned, into a social life of the highest ideals and devotion; or on the other hand, we may make him an unsocial or an anti-social being for life. The gang is a natural and a necessary stage in normal development. Carefully watched and wisely controlled, it is both the most natural and the least expensive instrument that we can employ to help our sons143 through one of the most critical periods of their lives. Nine tenths of the gang’s activities depend on primitive instinctive impulses, which cannot be suppressed, and which need only to be sanely guided to carry the boy along the path which nature has marked out and bring him out at the end a useful citizen and a good man. The men who have been most successful in handling boys, men like Arnold of Rugby, Judge Lindsay and William R. George, are precisely the men who have appealed most powerfully to those boyish impulses.
Of all the gang-nurtured social virtues, loyalty and its allies stand easily first. The gang, indeed, exists only because of the loyalty of its members to one another. Without this mutual loyalty there could be no gangs. All the great leaders and successful trainers of boys use the lever of loyalty in reaching and holding their boys. Note the words of Judge Lindsay with Harry. “Judge! Judge! If you let me go, I’ll never get you into trouble again!” “I had him. It was the voice of loyalty. I have used144 that appeal to loyalty hundreds of times since in our work with boys and it is almost infallibly successful.” If we study the secret of the power of William R. George, we find him using the same strong lever. He trusts boys; he appeals to their loyalty; and he wins the toughest boys, with whom many others have failed.
This gang loyalty, however, is by no means a loyalty to individuals only; it is a loyalty also to ideals. The boy refuses to “squeal” under pressure, partly to shield his fellows, but still more because squealing is contrary to the boys’ moral code. He joins the tribal wars, partly because, like the good barbarian he is, he loves his neighbor and hates his enemy, but quite as much because certain fightings are demanded by the gang’s standard of honor. The moral education of the gang from the outside, therefore, consists, in part, of a deft substitution of the best ideals of the grown-up world in place of the crude standards of youth. But it must be deftly done and always, at any price, without violence to the immemorial code of Boyville.
145 Forgetting this, many an honest and zealous parent and teacher does irreparable harm when he finds the boy’s moral code at variance with the man’s. Unquestionably, for example, all good citizens, if adult, ought to inform the proper authorities of any violations of law and order, and to use their best efforts to bring offenders to justice. That we do not always take the trouble to do this, is an important reason why we are so badly governed. But the boy’s code is precisely opposite. The good citizen of Boyville will shield the offender, and persistently refuse information to the authorities. It is far better to let boyish offenses go unpunished than to encourage boys to violate their native moral instincts; and all great schoolmasters have acted on this principle.
Less gifted teachers are often sorely tempted to listen to tell-taleing. It is often the quickest way to solve deep mysteries. Is it not better, however, to remain ignorant and suffer, rather than receive information from the boys’ traitor? Three out of four of our boys admire the loyal playmate, and despise146 the traitor. When the teacher listens to volunteer assistants, she loses the good will of all the loyalists. From that day on, she has enlisted with the minority, who are the traitors and outcasts among their playmates.
The fond mamma is, naturally, the chief sinner in this regard. It often happens that dear Charlie comes in from his play and says, “Johnnie hit me.” Mamma says, “I will attend to that matter,” and she volunteers to go over and give Johnnie’s mamma a free lecture on how to raise children. Charlie enjoys the excitement, and reports to his mother the next quarrel which he starts. If Charlie’s mother had said, “Charlie, it takes two to make a quarrel, and when you get into trouble it is more manly for you to settle the matter without coming to me,” his whole career of life might have been happier and better. Too often the mother’s encouragement makes a decent and manly boy into a tell-tale and a coward, and so cuts him off from one of the great educative influences of life.
For the explanation why only three in every four boys are in gangs, instead of four147 in every four, is largely that the fourth boy is one whom the gang will not have. Some boys, of course, are solitary by nature,—sensitive, retiring boys who do not care for the rough life of the gang, but prefer to play alone, with one companion, or with girls. Some, too, grow up in isolated neighborhoods where there are few other boys of the same age. These lose, perforce, the education that comes in the gang. But the rest who stay out of the gang, stay out for the gang’s good. They have been trained, often against their nature, to do violence to the gang’s standard of honor. They fail to pass through the normal development of human males; they lack a fundamental virtue and their fellows will not trust them, boy or man.
In the gang, then, we find the natural time and place for the somewhat sudden birth and development of that spirit of loyalty which is the foundation of most of our social relations. We must, in short, look upon the gang as nature’s special training-school for the social virtues. Only by associating himself with other boys can any youth learn the148 knack of getting on with his fellow men; acquire and practice coöperation, self-sacrifice, loyalty, fidelity, team play; and in general prepare himself to become the politician, the business man, the efficient citizen of a democracy. Nature, we must believe, has given the boy the gang instincts for the sake of making easy for him the practice of the gang virtues. It may well be questioned whether any association of state or church or neighborhood or school or order has had a greater influence over the lives of most of us men than had the dozen or so of boys who were our intimate companions between the ages of twelve and fifteen.
We must not forget that the instinctive vices of the gang tend largely to be self-limiting, so that the boy, even if left entirely alone, would outgrow most of his faults. Not so with the gang virtues. The impulses to loyalty, fidelity, coöperation, self-sacrifice, justice, which are at the basis of gang psychology, are powerfully reinforced, as we have already seen, by nearly all the typical gang activities.
149 Even collective stealing is a lesson in coöperation. Thieving expeditions are often definitely planned; one boy watches while the others steal; one engages the attention of the storekeeper while another annexes his property; one member of the gang plagues the victim to get chased, and then the rest loot his goods. Most especially, however, in the group games of the gang do we find the most convenient tool for teaching many of the most essential social qualities. “In playing group games,” says Joseph Lee, “morality is being born and the social man, man the politician, man the citizen; and it is my belief that in most instances this political or social man will get himself thoroughly and successfully born in no other way.”
The steady pressure of gang life on the side of the social virtues appears strikingly in the rules and customs of the organizations.
“Put me out,” reports one youth, “because I said one fellow didn’t have spunk to play the leader.” “Put a boy out of the gang for fighting when he didn’t need to.” “Put a fellow out once for fighting with150 another boy. The other fellow was in the right.” “Never allow a big fellow to pick on a little one. We were against smoking.” “Had to be at work when he comes into the gang; must pay his dues.” “All stand up for a fellow in trouble.” “Help each other out if we get into trouble.” “If anybody picked on one of our fellows, we would fight them.” “If a fellow didn’t divvy up, we started fighting with him.” “Put a fellow out because he wouldn’t take his share of expense.” “A fellow wouldn’t share up, so we fought him.” “Put three out for bossing and running the place.” “No fellow ever told on us. One fellow was caught. He stayed in Charles Street jail three months before the rest of us were caught.”
Or consider the following unwritten laws of various gangs as a preparation for a law-abiding life. “If there was a dispute, leader settled it. If two fellows were fighting for a thing, he took it away from them and gave it to another fellow. In playing dice, chuck the fellow out who made the dispute.” “I was leader. Would settle disputes. Would151 say whether it was right or not.” “Quarrel for five or ten minutes, and then ask N. to settle it. We would be satisfied with what he would say.” “The officers would most always settle the disputes. Talk it over, get circumstances, then settle it.” “One of the bigger boys would settle it. They would stop the fighting.” “If we had disputes, we would vote on it. One who would get majority, to him we would leave it go.” “Get a fellow who could keep things to himself.” “If he knew enough to keep still, let him come in.” “If he was a good guy and round the corner every night, after a while let him in if he was not a squealer.”
A “squealer,” be it observed, is one who, being caught in an escapade, tells on the rest to save his own skin.
Disloyalty is the one unforgivable offense in boyish eyes, the one crime which inevitably leads to expulsion from the gang. “If he went against us, call him a back-biter. Chuck him out.” “Put a fellow out for squealing on them.” “Put him out because he would run off when needed to fight.”
152 Among twenty-one boys who had been expelled from their gangs, eleven were put out for disloyalty, three for fighting in bad causes, and but one each for all other reasons. There is no other institution on earth that can take its place beside the boys’ gang for the cultivation of unswerving loyalty to the group.
Close beside loyalty and fidelity, come the related virtues of obedience, self-sacrifice, and coöperation. The boy who will not obey the captain cannot play with the group. Baseball and football are impossible without coöperation, and they demand constant self-sacrifice of the individual to the team. The gang fight, brutal and useless as it commonly is, also calls for the highest devotion. It is fought, not for personal ends but for the honor of the gang. Often the fight is to redress the wrongs of another member of the gang; not infrequently it is on behalf of a younger brother of some member. In the great battle between C—— and E—— in which nearly a thousand boys took part, the casus belli was the wrongs of the little153 C—— lads on whom the E—— gangs had been “picking” beyond custom.
After all, there is nothing finer in all our human history than the loyalty of men to comrade and chief, to regiment and king and country, and their obedience even unto death. The Old Guard at Waterloo, the Spartans at Thermopylæ, the Boy on the Burning Deck, the Roman Guard at Pompeii, Horatius, Arnold von Winkelried,—who of us was not brought up on these stories? The manly virtues are instinctive in proper men, but men first learn their practice in the gang.
Almost every activity of the gang is a lesson in coöperation. Not only the group games and the fighting, but the peaceful tribal occupations,—the hunting, fishing, exploring, hut-building, swimming, skating,—all have to be done more or less in common. Tact, adaptability, skill in getting on with one’s fellows, are among the minor virtues of the gang. So, too, is the spirit of democracy, for the gang is as little snobbish as any human group. It puts a premium154 also on strength of body, while most of its typical activities involve wholesome physical exercise which most boys would hardly undertake alone.
Last, but by no means least, of the gang virtues comes courage. Now courage and self-reliance are partly a matter of habit. One simply gets accustomed to danger, and so meets it without fear, knowing that he can take care of himself. Baseball and football are both brave games. The boy who is afraid to get his shins kicked, or to stand up to bat against a swift pitcher, has no place in either. Fighting often demands high courage, especially in group fight, where one cannot stop to pick an opponent of his own size but must stand his ground against all comers, little and big. Then there are also the “stunts” and “dares” which the members of the gang give one another. These also are a constant incentive to bravery. The coward is a social outcast who has no place in the gang; but the timid boy stands to have his timidity shamed and practiced out of him. For the naturally brave boy in155 the gang, courage soon becomes a fixed habit.
Considerations such as the foregoing are rapidly bringing about in the minds of educators, social workers and enlightened parents a radical alteration of opinion with regard to the nature and influence of boys’ gangs. The time was when it was the nearly universal opinion that all gangs are bad and should be broken up as quickly as possible. This opinion, it must be admitted, is still that of a considerable majority of persons.
Of recent years, however, we are coming to see that this older attitude is not only false but futile. Man is a social animal, the social spirit in him has had a very long history, and the fundamental social virtues which support the complex structure of our modern civilization have been built into man’s nature through thousands of generations. The little boy is an extreme individualist; somewhere he must be born again into the world of social coöperation. For the beginning of this new life, the gang seems to be the natural156 place. It is through the gang and by means of the gang that the modern educator and the modern parent will train the growing boy to his part in the collective life of the community.