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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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On Spencer's "Education."

by T. G. Rooper, M.A.
Volume 10, 1899, pg. 617


A book that is written for a particular time, if it be written by a great author, often becomes a book for all time. Few will deny that Herbert Spencer is one of the most considerable of the famous series of English thinkers, and although not everyone accepts his principles of philosophy, yet even those who differ from him will perhaps admit, with Lord Beaconsfield, that we should be grateful to any philosopher, however much we may disagree with him.

Herbert Spencer's treatise on education should unquestionably be studied by everyone who pretends to make an enquiry into this most intricate and difficult, and I may even say tedious subject. I call it tedious because I cannot deny that the elevated thoughts on which all of it depends hardly serve to raise to the level of a high argument the petty details which must needs make up the present round of child life. The incidents of the nursery day by day must needs seem trivial, unless parents and tutors are something of prophets and can see the future through the present, the fulfilment in the promise, and the hope of the empire in the success of their training.

It is most important to bear in mind in the outset, that Spencer does not claim to be writing a detailed treatise upon education. His aim is to state a few general principles and to notice a few methods in illustration of them (p. 89). The reason why it is so important to bear this fact in mind is because it is only so that the reader can avoid the common error of hunting in vain for what is not in the book and never intended to be there, and thus allowing his disappointment to make him overlook the valuable suggestions which it really contains.

A book that is written to meet the wants of a particular time is unavoidably limited by the special circumstances of that time. When Spencer was writing this book, and looked around at the general state of culture in England, when he regarded the average type of graduate put forth annually in hundreds by the universities, he would not fail to be struck by gaps in their studies. Natural Science was without any devotees, there was no History School, and the German language--the key to all serious study--was seldom mastered. There was not one Science master at Harrow School in my time.

Spencer had no idea of revolutionizing the educational arrangements of his day; for, as a philosopher, he stated clearly enough that systems are not made but grow. Sound ideas require time for fulfilment. They may be sown broadcast, but the minds of men do not work in a single season like the soil of a field. Ideas have not only to be understood but they have also to be reconciled with previously existing ideas, and adapted to the mental furniture of the current generation. The human whole--mind, body, spirit--however we divide it up, is seen to be far too complex to play tricks with. Old experience, which is part of a working system, may be more effective than sound ideas that, being new, are not yet worked into a system. The nature of the required changes must be explained in the first instance, but means for carrying them out can only be discovered with patience and by taking plenty of time.

In Spencer's first chapter he discusses what knowledge is most worth, and gives the first place to science. I think that since he was writing in days when the science that was acted on in daily life was almost mediaeval in its character owing to the general ignorance of the advance of learning, he was justified in giving a very prominent place to Natural Science. He saw that the kind of education that was given both to boys and girls tended rather to the acquisition of accomplishments than to power to accomplish. When he says a mother is mourning over a first-born that has sun under scarlet fever, which might not have been so serious a complaint if the offspring's health had not been enfeebled by over-study, it is small consolation to her that she can read Dante in the original.

He saw that industry of all kinds, whether agricultural or manufacturing, was becoming more and more dependent upon the study of science. He saw that the result of the struggle for existence among nations was resting more and more upon the amount of science which each of them applied to the affairs of daily life. He points out that the ability of a nation to hold its own against other nations depends on the skilled activity of its units.

He saw the appalling infant mortality, nearly half the babies born in some districts dying in their first year; he saw the weak and sickly survivals that lived to be a burden rather than an aid to the state, and then he insisted on the need for some widely-spread study of the science of health, and the structure and maintenance of the human body.

Science in those days was thought to be irreligious, or at least drawing men away from religion. Spencer maintains that true science is essentially religious. Devotion to science is a tacit worship. It is sad, he says, to see men learned and critical over the Homeric poetry and pass by without a glance that grand epic written by the finger of God upon the strata of the earth. Devotion to science is not a mere lip-homage, but a homage expressed in actions, not a mere professed respect, but a respect proved by the sacrifice of time, thought, and labour. Only the genuine man of science can truly know how utterly beyond human conception is the universal power of which nature, life, and thought are manifestations. Thus Spencer asks, What knowledge is most worth? and answers--Science. Science is needed for maintenance of life and health; science is needed for gaining a livelihood; science is needed for the due discharge of parental functions; science is needed for the discharge of the citizen's duties. It is science that saves religion from becoming mere enthusiasm or degrading superstition; it is science that directs the intellect into profitable studies, and it is science that rescues morality from becoming mere conventional behaviour. Education has four aspects--physical, intellectual, moral, and religious--some study of science is necessary for each.

I have said Spencer's "Education" was written for a special time. Perhaps in these days it is no longer necessary to make such an elaborate defence for science, but I am quite sure that when the book was written Spencer's language was not too strong. Science was tabooed in most of the schools and frowned upon in innumerable pulpits. We may be grateful to Spencer for his advocacy of science as an indispensable part of education.

In respect of moral training I think his attitude is equally satisfactory. As he wishes to make intellectual education less bookish, and to cause more attention to be paid to the art of applying knowledge, so he would make moral training less conventional. He would have the moral law an inner and not an outward necessity. It must be a spirit of growing up within and not merely imposed from without. It grows from within when you constantly cultivate good feeling in the child and encourage acts according to them. It grows from without when moral conduct is the result of threats, bribes, and ill-considered arbitrary punishment. After spending her own youth in playing pieces on the piano, in fancy needlework, in reading story books and novels, and in party going, a woman knows nothing of the nature of the emotions of her children. She thinks some are wholly bad which is not true of any one of them, and that some are good, however far they may be carried, which is also not true of any one of them. Ignorant of the basis of feeling upon which moral life must be built, she knows nothing of the effects produced on it by this or that treatment. It is the same with fathers: acting on the caprice of the moment, or false principles adopted without examination, they alienate their sons, drive them into rebellion by harshness, and ruin them and their families. Better some knowledge which would tend to put an end to this than exclusive attention to Greek plays. They study of literature and art should be built upon a foundation of science, or else education is like the craft of a gardener, who, in aiming to produce a big flower, starves the plant. Education certainly involves sound discipline, and discipline is born of firmness, but firmness is often confused with sternness, and parents have often been stern and even harsh and cruel, with the impression that they were maintaining discipline. Mere discipline, mere external laws do not produce morality. Many a gentle boy and girl have followed the primrose way to the everlasting bonfire through such ignorant mismanagement. Their parents have succeeded in making them dread not wrong-doing but punishment. I think that some theological systems, parodies rather than examples of Christian teaching, have supported this mistaken treatment. At any rate, when Spencer wrote, it was still worth while to lay great stress upon the distinction, old as recorded time, between enslaving the spirit of a child and guiding him into good feeling; between the fear of hell and the love of heaven; between the dread of the consequences of wrong-doing and the affection for the higher life; between the spirit of Wordsworth's ode to duty, and of Calvinism.

Education must be non-coercive. As Bishop Dupanloup said:--"I will respect human liberty in the youngest child." Multiplied restrictions are to be avoided. The aim is to arrange the child's occupations so as to thwart his will as little, not as much as possible. Aimless asceticism is as evil not a virtue. Spontaneous activity must be directed not cherished. Co-ordinate and organize the child's impulses with fear and trembling, dreading suppression, and fearing, like a clumsy pruner, to cull off a vigorous shoot, instead of merely repressing exuberant growth. Watch and attend on nature; do not substitute by natural what is suited to the age and disposition of the child. Encourage the child to seek and follow advice rather than to replace his will be your own. Let your aim be self development in the child through wise directed habits and occupations rather than superinducing an alien mind. Spencer guards himself against the idea that he supposes for one moment that you can produce a child of nature by leaving a child to be brought up by nature as though he advocated entire laissez-faire. To assist nature there is no need to unduly interfere with nature. Because you do not swaddle a baby in yards of winding cloth you need not therefore let him roll off a cot on to the floor and injure his spine. By harsh training the child may be mastered, but in the end, when the youth has to leave home and enter on the responsibilities of life, the only useful part of his moral training is that which has led to self-mastery. If the spirit of the relation between the child and his parents and guardians is one of antagonism, if the parent looks on the child as always naughty and the child on the parent as always morose, the present life is miserable, and the future almost desperate. Encourage the child to aim at small conquests, and take delight in small triumphs. Set before boys some generous purpose to achieve and live for. Let childhood ripen in the child, and be as much as may be his helper, adviser, and experienced friend, rather than a despot or tyrannical autocrat.

If right conduct in the moral training, and the pursuit of knowledge in the intellectual, are made habitually repugnant, there will be a prevailing tendency to discontinue both as soon as parental constraint comes to its inevitable conclusion.

It may be that at the present time there is not much need to insist upon it, that in the main the process of his education must be pleasurable to the child, or else it will probably be a failure; but when Spencer wrote this fact needed emphasizing.

As regards methods of teaching, Spencer did yeoman service to the cause of education in reiterating the value of Pestalozzi's principles, and restating them in the clearest way. Exercise the limbs and the senses before burthening the memory, substitute experiment and observation, and manual training for rote work. Deal with concrete objects before abstract even in number and geometry. Take the child out of doors and let nature enter inside the schoolroom. Take notice that there are mental powers in the child, but that they do not become active all at once, but in a certain order. Study that order and follow it. The powers of the mind are developed by use. Search out appropriate exercises and study the individual child and his peculiarities. Sympathy with the child's difficulties and tact in dealing with them are essential. Above all, knowledge of books must not be pursued without the training of hand and eye, nor without the practice of drawing, painting, and constructing objects in paper, cardboard and the like; because handwork more than any other enables the child to feel what it can do of itself. "I made it," is ever a feeling of triumph, and gives a sense of power to do and confidence in self. This kind of work develops courage to attack difficulties, patience in fighting with them, and perseverance through failure.

It would seem to me doubtful whether the history of civilization throws much light upon plans for educational systems as Spencer supposes. It seems to me that modern researches leave us less certainty than prevailed some time back, as to the precise course of this history; and, although the embryo seems to follow in abbreviated stages, the development of the race to which it belongs, and I see little but a fanciful analogy in supposing that the mind of the child must progress on the same lines as the intellectual expansion of mankind. This, however, is a minor matter, and critics of Spencer attach, I think, too much importance to the discussion.

Lastly, I come to Spencer's chapter on moral education, I think in this part of his book there is a certain clumsiness, natural to a philosopher, and "one who has no children." but in spite of this the chapter deserves the approbation of all members of the P.N.E.U. for one bold and remarkable statement.

The end of education is to prepare the young for the duties of life. Then, says Spencer, is it not surprising that not an hour should be devoted to preparation for the gravest of all responsibilities, the management of a family, whether as bearing on the happiness of parents themselves, or whether as affecting the character and lives of their children and remote descendants; we must admit that a knowledge of the right methods of juvenile culture--physical, intellectual, and moral--is a knowledge of extreme importance. This topic should be the final one in the course of instruction passed through by each man and woman. The subject which involves all other subjects and therefore the subject in which education should culminate, is the theory and practice of education. This view of education is surely at the root of the principles of the P.N.E.U. For this reason the members of the Union should deal respectfully with Spencer's book, even though they differ on certain points.

Educational systems, Spencer is well aware, and emphasizes the fact, like political constitutions are not made but grow. Improvement must needs be slow, but however slow, improvement implies the use of means, and among the means is discussion. The Parents' Union is the most important society for stimulating such discussion, and should be grateful to Spencer for insisting on the importance of discussion. Undoubtedly many people hold that what demands much discussion is not much worth discussing. Discussion is rather to aid us in avoiding mistakes than to elaborate some uniform scheme of education. Few will deny that it is worth while to hold up an ideal of family discipline. Ideals, if rational, are in their nature unattained but not exactly unattainable, and they are indispensable beacon lights or guides. We cannot cease from war in our time, but the ideal of Universal Peace is still the highest ideal of international law.

Moral discipline, says Spencer, should be based upon natural consequences. Let parents see that their children experience the true consequences of their conduct, neither warding them off nor intensifying them. I always fee that natural consequences as a base for discipline is inadequate. The examples that Spencer gives cover too little ground.

If a child is unpunctual let him suffer for his unpunctuality. He may, however, be late for school and punctual for the school-feast. A child may learn not to play with fire by a slight burning of the finger from an awkward use of a lucifer match, but he may burn the house down and himself in it, so that there is no child to discipline. If a small boy slides down the banisters, are you to warn him and then leave him till he falls off and breaks his arm or leg, or worse? The natural consequence seems to me to catch him half way down in such a convenient position and then----. The natural consequence is too often out of all proportion to the offence. Spencer, however, is conscious of this, for he admits that a three-years' urchin playing with an open razor cannot be allowed to learn by the discipline of consequences.

I feel that Spencer is adopting an often useful device for a particular fault or class of faults, and raising it to the dignity of a general principle, with almost comic effect. I think, however, that even if the device could be carried out consistently it would be insufficient. It seems to me that there is no really moral principle involved in it, and that the idea is contrary, or at least inconsistent with Spencer's own view that moral conduct must be conscious and not superimposed; that the child must learn to take a pleasure in the right conduct, and to be averse to the wrong. If parents give wise orders their children ought to be glad to obey them because they love their parents. This is an ideal. Parents cannot always give wise orders. Who is wise enough for these things? Children cannot always avoid testiness, irritability, restlessness, and the like.

But, after all, Spencer seems to me to have been rather opposing the principle of severe punishment than insisting overmuch on his own recipe. He is absolutely true to human nature when he remarks that harsh and unsympathetic treatment makes children harsh and unsympathetic in after life. He was opposing and rightly, excess of control, over-regulation, and hot-house virtue. The child must not be allowed to think that what passes for right conduct is nothing else but his parents' arbitrary will. There is all the difference between enforcing what is right and setting up the idea that what is right is merely what you enforce.

Spencer rightly objects to the style--"How dare you disobey me?" "I'll make you do it, sir." "I'll teach you who is master." A skilful parent or guardian can secure a spontaneous conformity to parental wishes, leading to self-control, by means of which obedience is secured without needless cross and harsh demonstrations of authority. Mould the will, do not break it; make children obedient, but not submissive; give boys gradually greater and greater responsibility. What unwise parents call giving their sons liberty and freedom from constraint, wiser parents will show to be imposing on them increased responsibility for self, which is a saving of trouble to parent and increase of trouble to child, little as he thinks so unless taught.

To sum up, I have endeavoured to show that Herbert Spencer's book on Education is worth your study. Do not look for what is not there, namely, a complete system of education, but rather profit by what is written. Much of it is consistent with common sense--the need for science, the inadequacy of the mediaeval quadrivium, the need for pleasurable labour in learning, the need for moulding rather than breaking the spirit of children, the counterblast to a repressive system which once prevailed. Lastly, he is most to be approved for his approval of Pestalozzi. Do not lay too much stress on punishment by natural consequences, nor the idea that the education of the individual must follow the development of cultivation in the human race. These are really minor matters. On the other hand, as you believe in the principles of the Parents' National Educational Union, at least respect Spencer for boldly placing the goal of all education in the being properly qualified to undertake parental responsibility.