The influences that make and mould character are many and very different. Some are planned directly from their training worth. Others seem to come like the salt air from the ocean, unplanned by us, almost imperceptible sometimes, yet exerting immense power upon character. Some influence character for good, and others for bad.
One of the most potent of all influences in making character is the street. The great majority of children, even in Christian lands, grow up in the street. That is to say, not literally in the street, though thousands do, literally, weather permitting. But they are allowed to grow up as they happen to. They simply go, and grow as the impulse seizes them, with practically no guiding nor restraint.
It is surprising to the startling point how many children of Christian homes, or at least church homes, of not-poor homes, as well as of those below that grade, are allowed to drift. There's a simple, striking phrase in Proverbs that is aptly descriptive, "the child left to itself;" (Pro_29:15 <http://www.crossbooks.com/verse.asp?ref=Pr+29:15>.) That tells the story of the great majority of children in city and country alike.
More children are trained in this weedy, shiftless school than in any other. And it is a real training in its influence, a trainingless untrained training that always gets results. It makes character. The child grows up with no fixed standards. He is undisciplined mentally and morally. The training is a huge process of absorption, with only chance to decide what shall be absorbed. Chance plays its own sweet will with them. Utter lack of training controls their lives from the earliest moment.
One can think of no word, to decide the results mentally and morally, so expressive as the word "weeds." They grow; that's in the nature, to grow; but just like a bunch of weeds, vigorous, rank, disordered, and affecting in a bad way both the soil, and all after attempts at cultivation.
And if there do come up out of this street-school some strong characters it is in spite of the school. It shows the marvellous vitality of the human being. But the handicap suffered affects the whole career. This school is training more children than any other. And its graduates are affecting the whole life of Church and nation immensely. That the results are not worse than they are merely shows what an immense amount of preservative salt has been put into the lump of the human race.
But the results are worse than anybody, even the most thoughtful, realize. Maybe in some far future time some historian will be keen enough (more likely not) to point out that it was the school system—the street-school systemless system—that led to the downfall of the American Republic.
In sharp contrast with this is the great common school system of our country. It is the chief counteractant of the street-school so far as it is counteracted. It supplies a big lump of salt to keep things sweet. The school is one of the greatest moulders of good character, from the poorly graded, or ungraded district school, up, through our remarkable public-school system, to the college and university. The influence here in the moulding of character is inestimable.
And the Church, with its Sabbath School department, is one of the greatest of all moulding and training factors. Its power in past centuries has been enormous, and is still beyond calculation; though so many agencies to which the Church gave birth have swung off into independent action, and are put above their mother by some in the influence they are thought to exert. But the Church to-day, with all the current criticism of its methods and work, is exerting an influence in the moulding of the child far beyond any power of expression. Its influence in training and moulding character is vastly more than statistics can suggest, and clear beyond the organic expression of its life.