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The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
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Educational Disappointments

by T.N. Hart-Smith
Volume 10, 1899, pg. 360


We are all of us, whether teachers or learners--and we are all, I hope, in a real sense learners--from certain points of view, only too conscious of disappointment. I propose to deal first with some of the more obvious grounds for this feeling, and then speak about education in its broader aspects, in order to indicate other vague grounds for dis-satisfaction with the state of thought and practice now existing.

It is clearly impossible in the limits of a short paper to enter closely into details, for education is a vast subject, and there are endless ways of considering the subject. You may treat of it as a branch of history, of philosophy or science; you may consider its theories and ideals; you may discuss its methods; or again, you may look at its concrete results, at what I may call the educational product. I fancy this last is the point of view we are all most inclined to assume. Education in its final issue must be a personal matter, and it is difficult to get away from the personal experience in discussing it. We enjoy a retrospect of our school days from the serene heights of maturer years, with their memories of youth, both agreeable and otherwise; we think of what happened to ourselves, and, no doubt, find much that might have been better, if only things had been different--in some cases we sadly whisper, "if we had been different." As a rule at all events, the stock-in-trade with which most Englishmen embark on the consideration of educational questions is the effect on themselves of the teaching they may have had, or not had, to use an Irish sort of expression. This is very natural, but apt to mislead. I want to ask you to look broadly at education as a whole, to consider whether the complaints I shall adduce are just, and how far they may be remedied by closer attention to first principles.

The main causes for disappointment are, broadly speaking, threefold. There are those which are due to the nature of the subject, and especially its English character. There are those which arise from want of faith in the value of education, as a good thing for every man apart from all considerations of £. s. d. And there are those which are due to fallacious reasoning, and want of clear ideas as to the true aim of education.

Firstly, then, we all feel how sadly educational terms of all kinds need defining. Many persons, and I confess I am one, are abashed by the vagueness of all talk about educational matters. A character in an old novel says, "Here comes the bore of all bores! His subject has neither beginning, middle nor end. It is Education!" I hardly dare to hope that I shall escape this verdict. We feel with disappointment how indefinite are the popular notions on the subject of education. For instance, what do we mean by primary education, or secondary, or technical, about which we hear so much just now? Or if it be asked what is meant by a university, and what is its true function, should we find any sort of agreement? What do we mean again by Education itself, and what are its aims? There is need on all sides of clearer thinking, more system, more definite conception of what it is we want.

The Greeks of old knew far better what they were about, in their desire to meet the very different conditions of their age. Their ruling idea was that a due proportion or harmony should be created between all the relations of a man's life and nature. The result of this harmony was virtue or goodness, terms more akin to bravery than to our sense of their meaning. The end to be reached was goodness of soul and strength of body. Does not this sound strange in its simplicity? Their great philosopher, Aristotle, tells us further, that "Some men hold that men become good by nature, others by training, others by instruction. The part that is due to nature obviously does not depend upon us, but is imparted by certain divine causes to the truly fortunate." Another writer, I think Plutarch, tells us that "Nature without instruction is blind; instruction without nature, helpless; training without both, aimless." And by training I suppose he means bodily exercise. There is a calm sense about such statements which appears in striking contrast with the eager cramming, the passion for athletic records, the dim hopes of an era of universal knowledge, which are manifest features amidst the educational turmoil of to-day.

Another point is the difficulty in all education of promising any given result. All efforts are hindered by the fact that education in the best sense is not merely a slow process, but also a venturesome process. In an excellent paper I heard read by the Senior Censor of Christ Church College, Oxford, he says, "With all their splendid courage in imperial ways, Englishmen seem in other respects a somewhat timid race. They do not like to do what they cannot see the end of; they will venture a great deal for an object of which they are certain of the value, but they are shy of running any great risk on the chance of a gain the greatness of which they cannot fully appraise beforehand. It is this very largely which makes them apathetic in the cause of education. A number of things may have to be taught of which the immediate value is slight or even imperceptible...... Minds differ endlessly in texture and affinity and power of response..... in education, more perhaps than in anything else, a venture must be made for an end that is not clear." It is obvious that with the best system and methods education can never be wholly free from disappointments of this kind. To the individual it must be to a certain extent a sort of speculation.

There is a second set of causes which all who value the cause of education must bitterly lament. How little faith seems to exist in the minds of vast numbers of people as to its value! I doubt whether most persons really think, even in this nineteenth century, that all men ought to be educated, simply because they are men; but the truth has been formulated for more than 300 years. More would probably subscribe to the Greek idea that all men should be educated, because the state needs the best of each man's powers, the best citizens and servants. This idea leads to similar results, but it loses sight of the value of each man's individuality, and tends to make him only a unit in a great whole. Perhaps the Greeks failed to reach the highest human development, because they lost sight of the supreme importance of individual liberty. The individual was nothing in himself: the poor slave (and the slaves often formed the great majority) was not regarded as having any rights at all, so that all education was the citizen's privilege. I fear we have not yet got rid of this notion that education is somehow a privilege of the few.

Of course it costs money, but if it is paid for, it must have a value, and so it seems a duty to wish to see it widely extended. Now let me ask you if that is the prevalent feeling.

We can divide men roughly into two classes, those who have had a good education of some sort, and those who have not had any but the most elementary teaching. The former class, arguing of course from the experience they have had, may be said to know generally what education means, but not to be at all clear as to the exact good it has done them. They think of their school days as a time when they did as little as they could without inconvenience, and they imagine that the good they have gained, or the knowledge they have acquired, has come to them in spite of rather than owing to the education they paid for. Can there be anything more disappointing than to hear such persons ask, as you often may, what is the good of educating people? What is the good, they mean, of giving them what I have had? They cannot afford it, and it is not worth very much after all. You see they have no faith in the value of the article, and only think of it as a sort of tax on social position, and I would protest above all on the inference that follows. It is said that education only teaches a man to be discontented with his lot in life, and to despise humble pursuits.

The there are those--and they are the great majority, I fear--who do not know what education means; they regard it as a general term for book-learning, as something impractical and expensive beyond their reach. They think they are fair scholars if they can read and write: if they can spell decently and add up a column of figures, this is quite enough to set them up above their neighbours, and if their knowledge is more extended than this they are apt to be disappointed if it does not bring them better wages, or pleasanter work, with some advantage in social position. Education, in fact, is regarded as a sort of fairy that will open the door to rank and comfort, no matter who the man may be or what his capacity. This is the companion picture to the ideas I have just criticised. It must lead to grievous disappointment.

The truth is that men do not clearly think what education ought to give them, or what they can fairly get by it. We all naturally want to get on in life; we should all like to better our positions, to be sure of a competency now and enough to live upon in old age. But these desires are common to human nature at all times. They are not a new feature. It is capacity that enables a man to rise. What education does effect is this. It gives him to tools to work with, provides opportunities for showing his capacity, sharpens and improves his natural gifts. "Instruction without nature is helpless." I want to insist on this view of education, that it is the bringing out of each man's natural gifts.

There is far too great a tendency in this country to regard, the word "educated" as a synonym for "well-to-do." Why should it be thought absurd for a man in a humble station, engaged, perhaps, in menial occupations, to have the gifts he has received made the most of, to be instructed so that he may do his work well and with intelligence, and, of course, to have the opportunity of bettering himself too, if he has the capacity? Education in the true sense and humble rank are surely not incompatible. It must be a false view of education which leads to the notion that it unfits a man for doing small things well. It is the exact opposite of the truth, and is responsible for very much that we all lament. It is the uneducated man and ignorant man that despises little things, and supposes it matters not whether they are done well or ill. We can never dispense with honest workers in the very humblest lines, for they are the backbone of our social life. "Trifles make perfection, but perfection is no trifle."

But, perhaps you say this is fanciful. Education after all is not of much use for menial services--a man can tend the sheep or drive the horses by the light of nature. Education gives us knowledge, brain-power, enables us to work with our heads, and not our hands only. Knowledge is power, and power is what we seek.

Well, I could quarrel with much of this, but I am not going to discuss the comparative merits of head and hand labour. But this brings me to the third sort of disappointment, prevalent fallacies and false aims. Knowledge, remember, by itself is not power. It must be knowledge in the right place and rightly directed. There must be the capacity behind it and character to guide it. Character is power, if you like: capacity, of course, is power--knowledge adds enormously to these powers. That is why we do believe in education, in bringing out the natural powers. But, knowledge by itself is not power, any more than gold in the mine is power, or than ships are power without men in them. They may be turned into vast power, if rightly directed, not else.

Again, education cannot give brains, though it may sharpen those we have. What it can give is knowledge, which is of little use unless you have from nature the brains to use it. I fear we are apt to be misled by the wonderful advance in modern days of scientific discovery. Knowledge does appear to be a vast mass of plain facts, which will do much for us without any deep grasp of principles. But there cannot be a greater mistake. It is at last beginning to be recognised that there is more need than ever of mental discipline, as a prior condition for any right use of scientific facts, and of brain power to grasp the principles. I remember a well-known farmer in a country village saying he did not see the good of teaching the children to read and write, for soon there would be no boys to tend the cattle and drive the carts. This was back in the seventies. A few years later he spoke very differently, and was asked why. "Because," he said, "I find that the men who have had a little schooling do far less harm to my valuable machinery." There is no position in life in which intelligence is not more necessary in these days than ever, and we act very foolishly if we do not strive to spread knowledge widely, and give every man the best training he can receive. It is not simply a question of pouring in facts. You may have seen the Bishop of London's words on this subject:--"We are bringing up a generation to suppose that all the child has to do is to sit still like a pitcher under a pump, while an expert hand pours in the proper amount of material for it to hold. The idea prevailing at the beginning of the century was that we should read a good book, master its contents, and then think and talk it over, making its ideas the subject of discussion with others. No system surely could be better, yet the process is, I fear, declining. We give better technical education, and develop people better on special lines, but I always wonder if we can keep our eyes sufficiently fixed on the desirability of creating a robust temper of mind a genuine desire for knowledge."

Closely akin to all this is the marked growth of utilitarian views regarding education. There is a danger of our taking a narrow view of science, and degrading its practical values; there is also a tendency to ask too much of purely technical instruction. Let me give you two quotations. Sir a Belkie, in an address to the students of Mason College, Birmingham, says:--"There can be no more pernicious doctrine than that which would measure the commercial value of science by its immediate practical usefulness . . . I by no means wish to undervalue the importance of technical instruction . . . But it is not by mere technical instruction that we shall maintain and extend the industrial and commercial greatness of this country." And I find the Countess of Warwick saying recently at Leamington, "It is the object of technical schools to lay a groundwork in the fundamental sciences at the most critical period in a child's life, the period between the completing of elementary education and the entry into active life. The essence of technical education is to bring the brain and the hands into co-operation. Whatever occupation in life a person may be called on to fill will be better carried on the greater intelligence brought to bear on it. It is the aim of technical education to educate people into their positions, and not out of them."

I think the point is clear that we are in danger of getting very false notions in our eager pursuit of knowledge of all kinds, as to what knowledge itself is and what can be done with it. The old Greek said that the essence of knowledge was to know yourself: and he was not far wrong.

Here, then are three main causes for disappointment regarding education:--(1) the inevitable vagueness of the subject, its want of any precise nomenclature, and the uncertain and even speculative character of its results; (2) the lamentable want of belief in education generally as a good thing in itself apart from what it may bring a man; (3) fallacious ideas and aims, accepted without reflection. All these tend to disappointment.

I desire now, if I can, to try to lead you on to first principles. Until more agreement is reached on this question, we shall never do justice to education, nor give it its true place in every human life. But you will pardon me if I indulge in theory at first. Englishmen are not fond of theory, and so are apt to treat any subject like education, which must rest on theory, in rather a casual way. They admit that some sort of education cannot be dispensed with, but do not closely scrutinise the kind adopted. We take our education, it has been said, much as we take our political constitution. It is there; it has grown up with us, and it works well on the whole. No doubt it might be improved, but if we were to begin to remodel it on abstract principles, we should get into a sad mess. It is time enough to set about reforms when the shoe pinches. So it is with educational questions; we look askance on theory and wait. But we may wait too long. "Sound practice," we are told, "is not possible without sound theory, and sound theory is only sound practice conscious of itself, knowing what it is doing and why it does it." We cannot afford to go on as we have done. There are times when the old bottles burst, and no new wine can be poured into them. The present is one of these times. I will not labour the point, but our old educational bottles have burst, and we cannot help ourselves; we must try to attack the whole subject of education, and understand it, and before all things come to some agreement as to the nature and principles of a true education.

I suppose we shall all agree that education is a comprehensive term for a vast process--a process necessarily slow in yielding its results, and somewhat venturesome and uncertain, according to the quality of mind and character. And it is a process lasting throughout the whole course of life, for we never cease to learn, and one affecting not the intellect only, but the whole nature of the person educated. Such at any rate should be our ideal. We should wish every man to make the best of himself or his powers, to be fitted to adapt himself to change of want or circumstance, to find interest in things around him. He should be equipped with such knowledge as he can carry or has the means and time to acquire. He should be able to think for himself to some purpose and have all his faculties, bodily, mental, moral, in good working order. Such a man will at all events never fail to earn a livelihood.

But I suspect many of you think this pretty enough, but unpractical. Does it not forget the drudgery of life, the struggle and toil, by which a man has to win his bread and cheese, and face whatever comes? For my part I believe that we make our lives infinitely worse than they need be, less healthy, less useful, less happy, because ignorance and incapacity prevail, which might be removed: because education in any true sense is the privilege of the few, instead of being what it surely might be, a sort of leaven running through the whole community. I am eager to insist on a broad view of what education is, bringing out all the faculties, training the boy or man to do his work of course, and to do it well, because his intelligence is engaged in it, and he can take a pride in it: not to be, like so many, a mere machine, with little power except to go through a fixed process mechanically. Every man has his hours of leisure, I suppose: then how will he use them? He has mental faculties: then what will he think about? He has passions and affections too, I presume a moral nature and a rational soul: are these not worth considering? So that you will observe that education in a true survey must include not only knowledge and training for the mind, but exercise--gymnastics and athletics--for the body, and religion for the soul.

How many people--so-called educated people--have interests outside their daily work? Now men need healthy interests for leisure time. Leisure well spent is the best aid to vigorous work; leisure ill spent means ruin. Physical exercises do much here. But bodily pursuits lead to over-exertion, and youth alone can enjoy them fully. We need intellectual interests, otherwise we get bored. Men take to gambling, drinking, and so forth, not because they are wicked, but because they are bored. The world offers endless interests and attractions. How rarely do we find a man who has an eye for its beauties, who loves nature, loves to study some question for itself, social, political, physical. After all these are the world's happy men, and generally its successful ones, and often benefactors of mankind. Education should surely help to create these tastes and give new interests to life. "Cultivate universality of taste, enlarge your tastes that you may enlarge your hearts as well as your pleasures, feel all that is beautiful, love all that is good."

Again, look at the conditions of labour. How cruel is the system that turns many a man out of work through no fault of his own! He is trained to do one kind of work, and the trade shifts or the fashion alters, and he is stranded: his employment leaves him and he has no resource, no second string, as we say, to his bow; he must starve. This is the result of a narrow training for a single trade: a mere cog in a huge wheel. If this is education, it is a dismal failure, and yet it is just what we do with thousands every day. Modern conditions tend to make us all now like cogs in a vast revolving wheel. If we do not find a remedy, if we forget that man is man, we are on the road to a great social upheaval, and education in the true sense is the only remedy. Do not let any man be a one-cog person--it us misery.

Again, look at our children and the education we give them. We teach them certain elementary matters and on the whole teach them well, up to the age of twelve or thirteen: then they drop it all, and in a few years it is a memory, and little else in most cases.

I have left the moral side, but there is a moral aspect of necessity in all this. Perhaps you saw the other day a speech by the Bishop of London, in which he quoted the remarks made to him by a prominent man of business regarding the clerks in his office.

"I always notice," he said, "that, as a general rule, an Englishman, whatever he is doing, puts down his pen when the clock strikes for closing, and is off; he seems to have no interest in his work, he seldom gives it a thought out of hours, he talks of nothing else but athletics in spare moments. But if I engage a German--and I often do--he will never go till he has finished what he is about; he often produces next day some suggestion or plan of improvement. He is keen to understand and get at the bottom of things."

Please do not imagine that I wish to depreciate English education on its moral side--I believe it is its best side--nor do I wish to imply that the English character is weak in a sense of duty or the moral virtues--far from it; but I do say that an education that fails to teach the heart and character, and make a man love his work and his profession or trade, has missed a great deal and is disappointing.

Does such an ideal help us, or is this too only another disappointment? Bearing in mind the three requisites, that an ideal education must be continuous, all-embracing, stimulating--intellectually and morally, we are at once met by difficulties. There are only a few years of life which we can devote wholly to education; it is only in boyhood that the receptive powers are quick and the mind pliable. We cannot be always at school. It is clear that the formal education we receive must be supplemented by self-culture. Little children ask if it is a true story you tell them. If that natural love of truth has not been crushed, every man will seek opportunities of self-culture. "The schools cannot teach all there is to learn, nor can all men be school-men; routine education must always be supplemented and often replaced by self-training. Clearness of thought and independence of judgment are to be gained only by special and definite training, reading, thinking and discussing. The only education anybody really obtains is that which he gains himself." I believe one of the most hopeful signs of the present day is the widespread demand amongst thoughtful men for Continuation Schools, Technical Classes, Free Libraries, and other aids and means to self-culture. It is easy to fear that what is sought is either what will make for £. s. d., or else novels and light reading; but in all education what we have to do is to create opportunities, in order that the best may come to the front. We must remember that no system of education ever was, or ever will be, perfect; no one system will ever act on all men equally, or draw forth all a man's powers--one man's meat is another man's poison. Therefore make the best of the system given, and try to supplement its deficiencies. After all no system is anything but a sort of scaffolding. The teacher is the builder: the bricks and mortar are men. No system can teach, it only makes good teaching possible. Education is a human relation--man to man--each acting and reacting on the other, and this action never can cease while life lasts. Or take a different metaphor. In youth we sow the seed. It grows and springs rapidly--we train and prune the young seedling. But growth does not cease. The tree must fight its way and find its sustenance; bear storm and tempest, cold and heat, and if it is to be strong, vigorous and fruitful, there must be constant care taken, help given, and fresh nourishment supplied to the roots. But of course all this is general and must be applied particularly, as circumstances permit. Many a boy has to begin earning at thirteen or fourteen. Let it not be supposed that he has done with education because he has reached the sixth standard. Technical training should be placed within his reach, and continuation classes open to him. Another remains at school till he is sixteen, and then he has to receive special instruction for business or professional life. He has received a higher class of teaching which we call secondary, but his education is in no sense complete. The value of what he has received depends largely on the sense it has given him of incompleteness, of the need for more, of the method by which more may be obtained. Another remains even longer at school, proceeds to one of the universities--that is sometimes called "finishing" his education. But if there is one thing the university does teach us, it is the vastness of the field of knowledge and the smallness of our own attainments. Self-culture becomes a necessity and a delight. Let us at least realise the need of such continuity as is possible, and lose no opportunity of so regarding education--so regarding it for ourselves as to seek to provide for it. This makes good citizens and saves us cruel disappointments.

The ideal of education, that it should be all-embracing, affecting the whole man, is the second requisite in our theory. Do not suppose that I am advocating any kind of universalism. There have been great men who have said that universal knowledge must be organised, and that all must share in it. I believe that every human being should be educated; but I suppose, to-day, no one would dream of making any man a sort of walking encyclopoedia of knowledge, a Jack-of-all-trades and master of none. Still this idea has borne fruit. It has led to broad views as to the basis of education; it is the parent of the Infant School; it has led indirectly to the education of women. It has taught us the universal character of the human faculty and the need of trying to seize upon and educate all those faculties, until we can find in each individual those in which his special powers lie. The application of all this lies in protesting against education being directed to the brain only. Mere memory work is very barren; thinking is not the sole mode of acquiring knowledge. And here, I think, we must admit that great improvements have been effected, if much remains to be done. It has been recognised of late that the hand and eye need training as well as the brain. In our large schools we see gymnasia and carpenter's shops, and every provision for regular physical training. The value of school games for fitting boys and girls for the strain of life cannot be exaggerated. There is something done also--too little, I fear--to encourage the faculty of observation. We all learn by seeing far more quickly and surely than by hearing. A good teacher will always have his blackboard and diagram handy. Science in any true sense cannot be taught without reference to nature. I do not know anything more delightful, more health-giving than to study living nature--not to pore over dread matter in the laboratory or dissecting-room, but to be taught to read also the lessons of its life and habits. These, I fear, are almost truisms, but they need repeating. It is melancholy to find how little our children in towns know of natural objects--the sea, stream and woodland, cloud and sunset, birds and insects. We must endeavour to supply the deficiency and not let them grow up ignorant of God's handiwork.

I should like also to dwell on the essentials of a full education on the intellectual side, but I will only, repeat that formal education can only be very partial. It takes years even to learn a trade or business thoroughly. Intellectually education is disappointing if it does not produce the craving to learn more. Some kinds of teaching, as I have read somewhere, are like inoculation or vaccination: they give you the disease mildly to prevent your having it badly! I think we ought to educate in a different spirit, that the pupil may in some direction or other have the disease of craving for knowledge very badly indeed.

But I leave this, because I want to press upon you the need of appealing through education to the moral faculty, the ethical purpose of any true education. What after all is the supreme end of education? We do not want experts or specialists; we do not merely want good citizens; state servants of high excellence. We want men and women of high principle; good citizens, but with individual independence, useful, virtuous and strong. A great philosopher has said, "Our brains are not the wisest part of us." We want those who are alive to their responsibilities, able to see that it is not doing the little thing that is beneath their dignity, but doing it badly; a greater thing to set a good example than to rule kingdoms. If we have to train the brain, we have also to shape the character. Instruction must be accompanied by discipline.

And now, lastly, how can we stimulate. Remember that no two men are quite alike, and no receipt can be given which will produce the result required. Stimulus is, of course, in the first instance the work of the teacher, the sure outcome of any enthusiasm he genuinely possesses, any thorough knowledge, any depth of soul and character visible in him. But it is not given to many men to have the power to stimulate different minds. This is the debt we owe to the heroes of education--to men like Dr. Arnold--and to many noble spirits who have followed their lead. I suspect much want of faith in education, much disappointment, is due to the absence of any such an inspiring influence in many a life. The poet tells us that the proper study of mankind is man. I will apply this, not in his sense. If we wish to stimulate all our faculties, we must study what men have thought and said and done. The more closely and directly we fix our eyes on utility, the smaller will be our reward. We must not train our boys on scientific or technical lines before they have imbibed something of the history of their country, have read something of the writers and heroes of other times, have learnt to write and think correctly, and have been taught the meaning of duty and virtue by the light of good examples. To put this in a word--no true stimulus can dispense with discipline--discipline of mind and character. We must teach first how to work, and then what to work at; and in the long run no education can fail to be disappointing, which does not teach "self-reverence, self-knowledge, self-control."

T. N. Hart-Smith.