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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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"Robinson Crusoe" in Education

by T.G. Rooper
Volume 14, no. 6, June 1903, pgs. 401-412


Daniel Defoe, one of the greatest influences in the history of Great Britain, and also in the history of educational ideas, is almost unrecognized by English historians. He is not mentioned in Green's popular history, and Macaulay, who devoted an essay to the honest tinker, as he calls John Bunyan, has unfortunately passed over the author of Robinson Crusoe. Yet Defoe is worthy of the attention both of the historian and the philosopher.

Defoe published his famous narrative towards the end of his life, in the year 1719. Of course he had experienced, like most great novelists, much trouble in finding a publisher. One, William Taylor, however, undertook the publication with small belief in its success, and gave the author ten pounds for the material. However, the novel succeeded, and was so popular that even the poor widow saved her mites from her starvation income to buy a copy. It was at once translated into French, and the French version was translated into German, in which country three editions were demanded in the first year of the publication of the translation. Defoe's whole life had been a preparation for writing this extraordinary work.

The father of Defoe was a well-to-do butcher in London, named Foe, a sturdy Noncomformist, who intended his son to be a Nonconformist minister, and with that intention sent him to a famous school at Newington Green. The young Foe, however, was of a practical and undertaking turn of mind and little loved a contemplative life, hence, instead of a minister, he became a busy hosier, but he combined business with a keen interest in the religious and political struggles of the time. Charles II had quite failed to reconcile the opposite parties in his kingdom; and his successor, James II, commenced a policy which could only end in the restoration of the Catholic party to power and supremacy. Religious and political freedom were threatened, or, at any rate, thought to be, and in those days these things were dear to the English trading classes. Foe, one of the most earnest of his party, took sides with Monmouth and fought at Bath and Bristol. As a consequence of Sedgmoor, he had, along with his betters, to fly the country, but not without leaving behind him a treatise in which the High Church party found few compliments for themselves. He wandered in Spain, Germany, and France, living nobody knows how, but on his return, he ennobled his name, if not himself, by the French addition of "de," and called himself "DeFoe."

James II and his advisors had sense enough to divide the two parties opposed to them—the Anglicans and the Presbyterians—judiciously setting them by the ears.

Defoe saw through this manoeuvre and endeavoured to unite these enemies by directing their attention to the common cause—English freedom. He wrote two pamphlets in which he spared neither party, and as a natural consequence he found favour with neither, and was excommunicated even by his own body. Meanwhile a change of importance took place in England. William III of Orange, who had married the King's eldest Protestant daughter, saw a chance of dethroning his father-in-law in the interest of the Untied States of the Netherlands, and the Protestant cause. Landing in 1688, in Torbay, he soon effected the glorious revolution which changed the course of the history of the world. Parliament declared the throne vacant, and elected William and Mary in place of James, and among the staunchest adherents of the new regime was Daniel Defoe.

Unfortunately, Defoe's absorption in politics caused him to neglect his business in the stocking trade, and so he became bankrupt in London, and had to take refuge in Bristol. For fear of arrest, he dared only show himself on Sundays, and then he appeared among the grave Bristol merchants in laced costume, and with his rapier at his side, so that he was dubbed the "Sunday Gentleman." At this time he wrote one of his most remarkable books called An Essay on Projects, a book far in advance of the time. He advocated a new system of Banking, an improvement in the King's Highways, a reform of laws against Usury, a system of Insurance Companies, a system of Savings' Banks, and a king of Charity Organization Society to protect the Commonwealth against undeserved calamities of the individual member, and the establishment of Lunatic Asylums in which kind treatment should replace barbarous force. He also had schemes for the education of girls. He also proposed the establishment of an English Academy, on the lines of the French one, anticipating our contemporary history, and, of course, he proposed an amendment of the law dealing with Bankruptcies. What effect this book had on his countrymen I do not know, but it was one of the influences tending to the Independence of the United States, for B. Franklin wrote:—"I discovered in my father's library an old book, yellow with age, Defoe's Essay on Projects, a book full of novel and illuminating ideas, which had so great an influence upon me that it changed my whole system of philosophy and morality. The chief events of my life and the share which I have taken in the revolution in my country are to a certain extent due to the perusal of the Essay on Projects in my youth."

This was a remarkable work for Defoe to write at the age of twenty-six, and shows the advantage of foreign travel to a keen wit. The book brought him under the notice of the King, and he received certain favours which enabled him to pay his debts. This he did, not in accordance with his proposed usury laws, but in full.

Defoe now dropped the stocking business and devoted himself to pamphleteering. In 1701 he published The True-born Englishman, some doggerel verses in which in a more or less humorous way he defended the allegiance to the Dutch King on the English throne, on the ground that the English were a mongrel race and owed their superiority to the crossing of their breed. Some 80,000 copies were sold in a few days and it became a popular street melody.

Naturally the King was grateful, and Defoe's advice was found so useful, especially in financial schemes, that he was admitted to audiences unannounced. His old friends, too, began to think they had made a mistake in casting him off, and acquaintance with him once more rose to a premium. But Defoe sees to have not understood the art of feathering his own nest, or anyone else's, and his good fortune was of short duration. William's unlucky fall from his horse ended his life, and Defoe's position at court. Anne, the second daughter of James II, ascended the throne, and the Whigs lost power in favour of the Tories and the High Church party, who at once set to work to uproot the hated dissent. Christian charity thundered against Noncomformity in every pulpit and the Dissenting Chapels were surpressed with scorn.

At this juncture Defoe wrote a most remarkable work, entitled "The Shortest Way with Dissenters," in which he offered them the choice between Conformity with the Anglican Church or the gallows. To this day people dispute whether he wrote in earnest or in irony. It is said that a Cambridge don wrote to thank him supporting the Church party and declared that next to the Bible this pamphlet was the most precious he had ever read.

The book was published anonymously, but as soon as the author's name was declared, the indignation of authorities knew no bounds. He had experience how to hide himself. A price was set on his head. The masses, however, would not reveal his concealment, but when the printer and publisher were arraigned, Defoe gave himself up to justice to save innocent men. He was condemned as a disturber of the public peace to seven year's imprisonment, to the pillory, and to pay a fine of £800.

On his appearance in the pillory in July, 1703, the populace gave him a demonstration so honourable and enthusiastic that the authorities thought it better not to repeat the intended disgrace. The people cheered him to the echo and sang a hymn which he had written in prison, scattering flowers in his path, and decrying his judge and the Anglican party. His popularity with the people now stood high, and he occupied his time in prison by editing a review, a paper for the people, which afterwards was imitated by Steele and Addison in the Tatler and the Spectator. In a sense, therefore, Defoe is the originator of the British public press.

He was only kept in prison for two years, and on his release, the ministry of the day employed his talents to their own advantage. He was despatched on various diplomatic missions to the Continent.

In 1705, he was chosen to negotiate the details of the Union between English and Scottish legislatures. The adjustment was a matter of extreme delicacy, as the Scotch wished to preserve all that was of chief consequence in their nationality, and though the English did not wish to destroy it, the task of smoothing over difficulties required just that adroitness, sympathy, tact and amiability, which Defoe seemed to possess.

Defoe's efforts were successful, and when in 1709 he wrote an account of his transaction, his popularity never stood higher. He hoped to live in retirement and peace, composing a treatise on the History of Trade.

But national affairs soon drew forth from retreat. Queen Anne was nearing her end. In Scotland the adherents of the Stewarts were anxious to upset the Protestant succession established in William III's time, and the Queen herself had scruples about the passing over of her half-brother, son of James II, by his second wife Mary of Est, now living in Lorraine under the name of Chevalier St. George, a Catholic.

Sentiment, which is ever one of the strongest forces in politics, was working in high places, and notably with the Queen herself, and some of her ministers on this side the border, as well as across the Tweed.

Again English religious and political freedom was in jeopardy, and again Defoe, with his ever-ready pen, championed his old cause. He again flooded England with sheets defending the Protestant succession and supporting the House of Hanover, and Sophia, the daughter of the unhappy Elizabeth, child of James I.

Again, Defoe, in 1713, found himself in prison. Queen Anne died in 1714. Sophia had died two months earlier, on the 18th of June. George Louis ascended the British throne and showed favour to all supporters of his cause, Defoe excepted. More brilliant men like Swift, Dryden, Addison, and Bolingbroke, ate his cake, and after one last effort called an "Appeal to Honour and Justice," he finally gave up politics and confined himself to literature. He wrote The Family Instructor and a very smaller books on family life, and then electrified the world by his The Life and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, published in 1719. This was followed up by more or less well-known books, The Adventures of Captain Singleton, Moll Flanders, Captain Jack, History of the Plague, Roxanne, The English Merchant and Captain Carleton.

Accumulating therewith a small capital, he handed the money over to his son on condition that the latter supported him in his declining years. The son proved ungrateful and neglected his father, who died heartbroken and in poverty, in 1731, at the age of 71.

The idea of the plot of Robinson Crusoe is said by some to have been based upon the adventures of Alexander Selkirk on the island of Juan Fernandez; others think he was more influenced by the story of a Spanish sailor, Peter Serrano, who was wrecked and lived a miserable life on an island in the Carribean Sea, in the latter half of the sixteenth century, and whose adventures were written in Spanish by Garcilasso de la Vega, and translated into English in 1688, but, after all, in any great work of art, the materials—the bricks and mortar—out of which it is composed are matters of minor interest compared with the design of the artist.

Crusoe was written towards the end of a long and restless life, spent ever in the forefront of high and great affairs. Defoe cast a look backwards and saw a dreary journey behind him, yet not without its emotions, not without evidence of the finger of God. After experiencing such strange vicissitudes, well might it seem to him that civilization was a failure. Well might Defoe picture in his mind the reconstruction of society from its base.

In those days woman was not yet emancipated and counted for little. Defoe commences with a solitary man in a lonely island. There is no Mrs. Crusoe, and it is interesting to bear in mind that in the most famous of the imitations of Robinson Crusoe—namely, the Swiss Family Robinson and Masterman Ready—the family replaces the solitary hero.

Sick of society, in which Defoe had found little happiness, he yearned for solitude like the Psalmist: "Oh, that I had the wings of a dove, then I would flee away and be at rest!" Defoe pictured to himself a man beyond the pale of civilization and all he saw involved in it—

"Envy and calumny and hate and pain,
And that unrest which men miscall delight,
Can touch him not and torture not again."
from Adonais, by Percy Bysse Shelley

But the island hermit is not alone in the spirit. He had thoughts which led him, now undisturbed by the slow stain of the world, to a more elevated frame of mind than he could find in society.

"Knowledge and truth and virtue were his theme,
And thoughts the most dear to him were lofty hopes of Divine Liberty."
from Shelley

Robinson Crusoe saves from the wreck a Bible, which his sad life on the island leads him to appreciate. Just as Defoe describes his hero as cut off from social and political life, so he thinks of him as free from ecclesiastical controversy. As Crusoe bit by bit fights Nature and subdues her, so his spirit wins her way to religion by aid of the Bible without human intervention. "I gave humble and hearty hanks that God had been pleased to discover to me even that it was possible I might be happy in this solitary condition than I should have been in society and in all the pleasures of the world; that He could fully make up to me the deficiencies of my solitary state and the want of human society by His presence and the communications of His grace to my soul. It was now that I began sensibly to feel how much more happy this life I now led was, with all its miserable circumstances, than the wicked, cursed, abominable life I led all the past part of my days. And now I changed both my sorrows and my joys; my very desires altered; my affections changed their gusts, and my delights were perfectly new from what they were at my first coming. I never opened the Bible or shut it but my very soul within me blessed God for directing my friend in England, without any order of mine, to pack it up among my goods. Thus I lived mighty comfortably, my mind being entirely composed by resigning to the will of God, and throwing myself wholly upon the disposal of His providence. This made my life better than sociable, for when I began to regret the want of conversation, I would ask myself whether this conversing mutually with my own thoughts, and, as I hope I may say, with even God Himself, by ejaculation, was not better than the utmost enjoyment of human society in the world."

Defoe was clearly individualist rather than socialist. If you overlook this passage you cannot understand the drift of Robinson Crusoe. He has a philosophy both of Church and State. But who does not remember the masterly treatment of detail in Crusoe's life on the island, the psychological truth of the development of his character, the naturalness of the narrative, each event following as if it could not be other than true? And his parrot, his cat and his goat form the nucleus of an association, which is successively increased by the addition of Friday and the English and the Spanish sailors, till the arrival of a venerable priest, who orders spiritual affairs in the island in quite other than contemporary fashion, with patience and toleration and universal love of the neighbour. After the storm, a calm, and this idyllic picture profoundly affected contemporary thought. But if the individualistic and protestant and contemplative spirit pervading the book partly helps to account for the success which it met with, we must not forget the other side, the spirit of adventure which was abroad even more than in the days of Elizabeth. Many a bold youth rejected easy life at home for foreign enterprise.

"God help me! save I take my part
Of danger on the roaring sea.
A devil rises in my heart,
Far worse than death to me."
from The Sailor Boy by Tennyson

Indeed, the book appealed to all the leading movements of the day: to the politician who was sick of political strife, the religious-minded who were sick of ecclesiastical wranglings, , and to the men of action to whom the world was their oyster and with their knife they would open it. On every page was writ large the lesson—"Help yourself and God will help you." In foreign countries Robinson Crusoe appealed most to the thinkers on education, and especially to Rousseau, who writes: "If one could but conceive a situation in which all the natural wants of man would be displayed in a manner adapted to the understanding of a child, and wherein the means of satisfying those wants are gradually discovered with the same ease and simplicity, it would be in a just and lively description of such a state that we should first exercise his thoughts. I see the imagination of the philosopher already take fire. Impetuous genius, give yourself no trouble; such a situation is already described, and I may say without any impeachment of your talents, much better than you could describe it yourself; at least with more exactness and simplicity. Since we must have books, there is one already which in my opinion affords a complete treatise on natural education. This book shall be the first which Emilius shall read. In this indeed for a long time will his whole library consist, and it will always hold a distinguished place among others. It will afford us the text to which all our conversations on the objects of natural science will serve only as a comment. It will serve us as a guide during our progress to a state of reason, and will even afterwards give us constant pleasure unless our taste be actually vitiated. You ask impatiently, what is the title of this wonderful book? Is it Aristotle or Plato or Buffon? No: it is Robinson Crusoe."

These are remarkable words, and while they seem near exaggeration to an Englishman, they have often been accepted as literally true on the Continent. Though Rousseau extracted more philosophy out of Robinson Crusoe than Defoe perhaps ever intended, it does not follow that the philosophy is not there. Defoe, and Rousseau after him, proceeded on lines which are the opposite of natural, though Rousseau calls them natural education. How can society be built up out of a single man? There is no such thing as a man making society. Because society makes the man. Still less can a child be educated in isolation, because mankind is the educator of its members. Nevertheless Defoe and Rousseau were not blind to these facts. They acted on a scientific principle. It is well occasionally, for the sake of clearness, to abstract some particular part of a whole and study that part by itself as you may study one of the colours in the rainbow. So we may study a particular theme or movement in a piece of music, a particular character in a play, a single organ in the human frame, or a special aspect of man in society; as, for instance, the so-called economic man in political economy—that interesting abstraction of humanity who lives only to produce and exchange produce on the easiest terms for himself. Defoe and Rousseau have both been blamed for ignoring what they both ignored intentionally and for a purpose, taking pains to make their procedure clear, but as usual, being made to say the opposite of what they did say, like most original writers. "Such a situation," says Rousseau, "is, I confess, very different from that of man in a state of society. Very probably, it will never be that of Emilius, but others. The most certain method for him to raise himself above vulgar prejudices and to form his judgement on the actual relations of things, is to take on himself the character of such a solitary adventurer and to judge of everything about him, as a man in such circumstances would, by its real utility."

The German philanthropist school of educators seized upon Robinson Crusoe as just the book they wanted. Campe prepared an edition in which the tale was much moralised and watered down, and the chief lesson that Defoe intended, namely, the religious influence of solitude and hardship accompanied by Bible reading, is overlooked. But yet Campe's book was much used. Robinson Crusoe, however transmuted, always bore the stamp of one idea which Rousseau impressed upon his generation, that education is self-development under judicious guidance. In the hands of teachers in the school of Herbart, and Ziller, Robinson Crusoe became a school book.

Herbart himself regarded it rather as a book indispensable for private reading. He thought, indeed, the moral obtruded itself unduly. He pointed out that even children like to be their own critics, and when the villain of the piece commits his atrocities, or the hero performs exalted deeds, the child does not want to have the villainy of the one or the virtue of the other pointed out to him by his elders. He thinks, however, that after eight years old, a child prefers to read books in which the heroes are grown men, or at least youths, and that milk-and-water tales about children are insults to boys who ever look beyond their own age and wish to read about men. But Herbart dealt with higher education, and the application of his ideas to elementary education was carried out by Ziller.

Ziller laid stress upon two principles in education, the one of which has been elaborated by H. Spencer in his book on Education, and the other is receiving much attention in these days when premature specialisation of study threatens seriously to cripple education. The first principle is that the stages of the education of a child must proceed step by step along the lines by which the human races has raised itself from barbarism to civilisation. As Lessing puts it, "Education gives a man nothing he could not get of himself, only it gives him results quicker and on easier terms than he could get them without education." Education should aim at hastening and developing self-development. The other principle is that of concentration or connectedness. Education does not consist in a loose aggregate of disconnected studies, language, history, geography, arithmetic and the like. On the contrary, in each stage or class there must be some centre around which the various studies are grouped. Not only so, but each separate study must be connected with this central study by numerous threads of thought and illustration. The time table must be so arranged that various subjects of study form a connected whole.

Bearing in mind these two principles, Ziller finds Robinson Crusoe exactly suited to the thoughts and ideas which belong to a child in his second years school, i.e., eight years old, and around this book and in connection with it he grouped all the studies of the children in that class. He followed up the suggestion which Rousseau made most faithfully. The teacher will discuss with his class all matters of general information in connection with Crusoe, on the one hand, and the neighbourhood of the school on the other. As opportunity permits, the class must be taken to see with their eyes what raising corn is, for Crusoe raised corn; what building is, for Crusoe built a house for himself; what ship-building is, for Crusoe constructed a canoe. Even arithmetic can be taken in connection with the book, for a calendar can be compiled on the lines of Crusoe's, the duration of his voyages can be reckoned and also of or how many days he suffered from sea sickness. In music, sea songs may prevail, and in drawing the children can make tents, boats, tables, axes and other tools of simple outline.

It is possible that a whole year of Robinson Crusoe and nothing but Robinson Crusoe might prove tedious to the versatile and mercurial minds of children, at any rate,, English children. But it does not follow that a method which is not successful in the hands of one teacher, will be equally a failure when pursued by others.

Let us be thankful to all those who try to discover principles, and who, when they have discovered them, endeavour to work them out consistently to their logical conclusions. Failure proves as much as success in a long series of experiments.

There are two points which the Herbartians insist on that are of primary importance. First, all new matter that is presented to the child's mind should be connected with ideas and information already there, and secondly, mental training does not consist in pursuing a number of disconnected studies in science, language or mathematics. The proposal to take Robinson Crusoe as a text-book for general knowledge during the second year of the school life of a child, seems to me comparable with the excellent plan which prevailed at Oxford for many years, according to which all the studies which a man in preparation for taking his degree were grouped around Aristotle's Ethics and Plato's Republic. The modern tendency is to substitute for classical writings some recent text-book. In my view the older plan was the better, for there is always something more inspiring and stimulating in the book of a genius than in the compilations of bookworms, such as those who write text-books for children and adults.

Whether Rousseau and Ziller may not have pushed a good principle too far, I am not certain, but that the text of Robinson Crusoe is infinitely more amusing and character-forming than most of the literature which is drilled daily into the mouths of young children of this generation, I have no doubt whatever. Defoe's influence has never died out in England, and his successors are Marryat, Mayne Reid, Ballantyne, and Henty. No country in the world has a better literature for boys than our own, and this fact, which is of overwhelming importance, is the result of Defoe's Robinson Crusoe. Nothing, not even football, will do more to maintain and extend the dominion of the Anglo-Saxon than the spirit of Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, which may be summed up in this piece of advise: "Never look to others to do for you what you can do for yourself."



Proofread by Leslie Noelani Laurio, November 2008