A Philosophy of Education Book 2 Chapter 1

Theory Applied

LIBERAL EDUCATION IN ELEMENTARY SCHOOLS

I NEED not waste time in attempting to convince the reader of what we all know, that a liberal education is, like justice, religion, liberty, fresh air, the natural birthright of every child. Neither need we discuss the scope of such an education. We are aware that good life implies cultivated intelligence, that, according to the Platonic axiom, ‘Knowledge is virtue,’ even though there be many exceptions to the rule. Educated teachers are not slow to perceive the part the Humanities play in a worthy scheme of education, but they are faced by enormous difficulties which are admirably summed up in a recent work,—[1]
          “The tragedy of modern education has been the prolonged failure of Humanism to secure conditions under which its purpose might be realised for the people at large.”
It is because we (of the Parents’ Union School) have succeeded in offering Humanism under such conditions that we believe the great problem of education is at last solved. We are able to offer the Humanities (in the mother tongue) to large classes of children from illiterate homes in such a way that the teaching is received with delight and freely assimilated. One swallow does not make a summer, we all know, but the experience of
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one school shows that it is possible to carry out a pretty full literary programme joyously and without effort while including all the usual school activities. Wireless telegraphy was, so to speak, in the air before the first Marconi message was sent, but that first wireless message made it possible for any passenger on board a Channel steamer to send such a message. Just so, the experiment in the Drighlington School (Yorkshire) placed the conditions for a humanistic education at the service of any teacher. I am much impressed by the amount of work of this kind which is already being done in our schools. I heard the other day of a man whose whole life had been elevated by a single inspiring (poetic) sentence which he heard as a schoolboy; we have been told that the ‘man in the street’ cannot resist a row of books; we are told, too, that the War has made us a nation of readers, both at home and in the trenches, readers largely of the best books in poetry and history; is there no credit due to the schools for these things? But teachers are not satisfied; their reach is greater than their grasp and they are more aware of the sordid lives about them, of the “dull, unfeeling, barren ignorance” which prevails, than of any success they have yet attained. Therefore they fret under the time limitations which seem to make it impossible to do anything worth while in such vast subjects as History and Literature, for example.
          I wonder does this uneasiness point to a fact which we are slow to realise,—that the requirements of the mind are very much like those of the body? Both require as conditions of health,—activity, variety, rest and, above all, food. There has been some tendency among us to offer gymnastics, whether intellectual or physical, by way of a square meal of knowledge, which is as if one were to invite a boy to Swedish Drill by way of his dinner; and that wretched misnomer ‘education’ is partly to blame.
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Now, potency, not property, is the characteristic of mind. A child is able to deal with much knowledge, but he possesses none worth speaking of; yet we set to work to give him that potency which he already possesses rather than the knowledge which he lacks; we train his reason, cultivate his judgment, exercise this and the other faculty, which we have no more to do with than with the digestive processes of a healthy child; we know that the more we meddle with these the worse for the child; but what if the devitalisation we notice in so many of our young people, keen about games but dead to things of the mind, is due to the processes carried on in our schools, to our plausible and pleasant ways of picturing, eliciting, demonstrating, illustrating, summarising, doing all those things for children which they are born with the potency to do for themselves? No doubt we do give intellectual food, but too little of it; let us have courage and we shall be surprised, as we are now and then, at the amount of intellectual strong meat almost any child will take at a meal and digest at his leisure.
          Perhaps the first thing for us to do is to get a just perception of what I may call the relativity of knowledge and the mind. The mind receives knowledge, not in order that it may know, but in order that it may grow, in breadth and depth, in sound judgment and magnanimity; but in order to grow, it must know.
          The fact is that we are handicapped, not so much by the three or four difficulties I have already indicated, as by certain errors of judgment, forms of depreciation, which none of us escape because they are universal. We as teachers depreciate ourselves and our office; we do not realise that in the nature of things the teacher has a prophetic power of appeal and inspiration, that his part is not the weariful task of spoon-feeding with pap-meat, but the delightful commerce of equal minds where his is the part of guide, philosopher and friend. The friction
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of wills which makes school work harassing ceases to a surprising degree when we deal with the children, mind to mind, through the medium of knowledge.
          Next, we depreciate children, even though most teachers lay down their lives for their charges with amazing devotion. We have been so long taught to regard children as products of education and environment, that we fail to realise that from the first they are persons; and, as Carlyle has well said,—
Now, potency, not property, is the characteristic of mind. A child is able to deal with much knowledge, but he possesses none worth speaking of; yet we set to work to give him that potency which he already possesses rather than the knowledge which he lacks; we train his reason, cultivate his judgment, exercise this and the other faculty, which we have no more to do with than with the digestive processes of a healthy child; we know that the more we meddle with these the worse for the child; but what if the devitalisation we notice in so many of our young people, keen about games but dead to things of the mind, is due to the processes carried on in our schools, to our plausible and pleasant ways of picturing, eliciting, demonstrating, illustrating, summarising, doing all those things for children which they are born with the potency to do for themselves? No doubt we do give intellectual food, but too little of it; let us have courage and we shall be surprised, as we are now and then, at the amount of intellectual strong meat almost any child will take at a meal and digest at his leisure.
          Perhaps the first thing for us to do is to get a just perception of what I may call the relativity of knowledge and the mind. The mind receives knowledge, not in order that it may know, but in order that it may grow, in breadth and depth, in sound judgment and magnanimity; but in order to grow, it must know.
          The fact is that we are handicapped, not so much by the three or four difficulties I have already indicated, as by certain errors of judgment, forms of depreciation, which none of us escape because they are universal. We as teachers depreciate ourselves and our office; we do not realise that in the nature of things the teacher has a prophetic power of appeal and inspiration, that his part is not the weariful task of spoon-feeding with pap-meat, but the delightful commerce of equal minds where his is the part of guide, philosopher and friend. The friction
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of wills which makes school work harassing ceases to a surprising degree when we deal with the children, mind to mind, through the medium of knowledge.
          Next, we depreciate children, even though most teachers lay down their lives for their charges with amazing devotion. We have been so long taught to regard children as products of education and environment, that we fail to realise that from the first they are persons; and, as Carlyle has well said,—

          “The mystery of a person, indeed, is ever divine, to him that has a sense for the godlike.”
We must either reverence or despise children; and while we regard them as incomplete and undeveloped beings who will one day arrive at the completeness of man, rather than as weak and ignorant persons, whose ignorance we must inform and whose weakness we must support, but whose potentialities are as great as our own, we cannot do otherwise than despise children, however kindly and even tenderly we commit the offence.
          As soon as he gets words with which to communicate with us, a child lets us know that he thinks with surprising clearness and directness, that he sees with a closeness of observation that we have long lost, that he enjoys and that he sorrows with an intensity we have ceased to experience, that he loves with an abandon and a confidence which, alas, we do not share, that he imagines with a fecundity no artist among us can approach that he acquires intellectual knowledge and mechanical skill at a rate so amazing, that, could the infant’s rate of progress be kept up to manhood, he would surely appropriate the whole field of knowledge in a single lifetime! (It is worth while in this connection to re-read the early chapters of David Copperfield.)
          I am considering a child as he is, and am not tracing him, either with Wordsworth, to the heights above, or, with the evolutionist, to the depths below; because a
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person is a mystery, that is, we cannot explain him or account for him, but must accept him as he is. This wonder of personality does not cease, does not disappear, when a child goes to school; he is still ‘all there’ in quite another sense from that of the vulgar catch-word. But we begin to lose the way to his mind from the day that he enters the schoolroom; the reason for this is, we have embraced the belief that ‘knowledge is sensation,’ that a child knows what he sees and handles rather than what he conceives in his mind and figures in his thoughts. I labour this point because our faith in a child’s spiritual, i.e., intellectual educability is one of our chief assets. Having brought ourselves face to face with the wonder of mind in children, we begin to see that knowledge is the aliment of the mind as food is that of the body. In the days before the War, a lifetime ago it seems, our insular contempt for knowledge was a by-word; except for a schoolmaster or other thinker here and there, nobody took knowledge seriously; we announced boldly that it did not matter what a child learned but only how he learned it. As for mere ‘book-learning,’ for that we had a fine contempt! But we have changed all that. We are beginning to suspect that ignorance is our national stumbling-block, a chief cause of those difficulties at home which hinder our efforts abroad. For ignorance there is only one cure, and that is, knowledge; his school is the seat of knowledge for a child, and whatever else his teachers do for him, first of all they must sustain him with knowledge, not in homeopathic doses, but in regular, generous servings. If we ask, what is knowledge?—there is no neat and ready answer at hand. Matthew Arnold, we know, classifies all knowledge under three heads,—the knowledge of God, divinity, the knowledge of man, known as the ‘humanities’ and the knowledge of the physical world, science, and that is enough to go on with. But I should
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like to question this division and to class all three parts of knowledge under the head of Humanism, which should include all knowledge that makes a direct appeal to the mind through the channel of literary form; now, the substance of Divinity is contained in one of the three great literatures of the world, and Science, in France if not usually in England, is embodied in a beautiful and poetic literature of great clarity, precision and grace. Is it not then allowable to include all knowledge of which literature is a proper medium under the head of ‘Humanism’? One thing at any rate we know with certainty, that no teaching, no information becomes knowledge to any of us until the individual mind has acted upon it, translated it, transformed, absorbed it, to reappear, like our bodily food, in forms of vitality. Therefore, teaching, talk and tale, however lucid or fascinating, effect nothing until self-activity be set up; that is, self-education is the only possible education; the rest is mere veneer laid on the surface of a child’s nature.
          I have endeavoured to call your attention to a certain undervaluing of children and undervaluing of knowledge which seem to me to mar our twentieth century ideal of education, fine as that is. If we realise that the mind and knowledge are like two members of a ball and socket joint, two limbs of a pair of scissors, fitted to each other, necessary to each other and acting only in concert, we shall understand that our function as teachers is to supply children with the rations of knowledge which they require; and that the rest, character and conduct, efficiency and ability, and, that finest quality of the citizen, magnanimity, take care of themselves. “But how?” cries the teacher, whose life is spent in the labour of Sisyphus. I think we have chanced on a way that, at any rate, works to admiration, the principles and practice of which I am anxious to bring before you.
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          Let me first repeat[2] a few of the results that have been made good by thousands of children, and within the last few years by many Council Schools throughout the country:—
          The children, not the teachers, are the responsible persons; they do the work by self-effort.
          The teachers give the uplift of their sympathy in the work and where necessary elucidate, sum up or enlarge, but the actual work is done by the scholars.
          These read in a term from one thousand to between two and three thousand pages, according to age and class, in a large number of set books; the quantity set for each lesson allows of only a single reading.
          The reading is tested by narration, or by writing on a test passage.        No revision is attempted when the terminal examination is at hand; because too much ground has been covered to allow of any ‘looking up.’
          What the children have read they know, and write on any part of it with ease and fluency, in vigorous English. They usually spell well.
         During the examinations, which last a week, the children cover say from twenty to sixty sheets of Cambridge paper, according to age and class; but if ten times as many questions were set on the work studied most likely they would cover ten times as much paper.
          It rarely happens that all the children in a class are not able to answer all the questions set in such subjects as history, literature, citizenship, geography, science. But here differences manifest themselves; some children do better in history, some in science, some in arithmetic, others in literature; some, again, write copious answers and a few write sparsely; but practically all know the answers to the set questions. In the course of an examination they deal freely with a
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great number of substantives, including many proper names; I once had the names used by a child of ten in an examination paper counted; there were well over a hundred, of which these are the ‘A’s’—
          Africa, Alsace-Lorraine, Abdomen, Antigonons, Antennæ, Aphis, Antwerp, Alder, America, Amsterdam, Austria-Hungary, Ann Boleyn, Antarctic, Atlantic;
and these are the ‘M’s,’—
          Megalopolis, Maximilian, Milan, Martin Luther, Mary of the Netherlands, Messina, Macedonia, Magna Charta, Magnet, Malta, Metz, Mediterranean, Mary Queen of Scots, Treaty of Madrid;
and upon all these subjects the children wrote as freely and fully as if they were writing to an absent sister about a new family of kittens!
          The children write with perfect understanding as far as they go and there is rarely a ‘howler’ in hundreds of sets of papers. They have an enviable power of getting at the gist of a book or subject. Sometimes they are asked to write verses about a personage or an event; the result is not remarkable by way of poetry, but sums up a good deal of thoughtful reading in a delightful way; for example,—the reading of King Lear is gathered in twelve lines on ‘Cordelia,’—

                   CORDELIA
                   Nobliest lady, doomed to slaughter,
                   An unlov’d, unpitied daughter,
                   Though Cordelia thou may’st be,
                   “Love’s ” the fittest name for thee;
                   If love doth not, maid, bestow
                   Scorn for scorn, and “no” for “no,”
                   If love loves through scorn and spite,
                   If love clings to truth and right,
                   If love’s pure, maid, as thou art,
                   If love has a faithful heart,
                   Thou art then the same as love;
                   Come from God’s own realms above!
                                      M. K, C. 10 10/12 Form II.
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          A life of Livingstone (read in connection with the Geography of Africa) is thus epitomised,—

                   LIVINGSTONE
                   “The whole of Africa is desert bare,
                   Except around the coast.” So people said,
                   And thought of that great continent no more.
                   “The smoke of thousand villages I’ve seen!”
                   So cried a man. He knew no more. His words
                   Sank down into one heart there to remain.
                   The man who heard rose up and gave his all:
                   Into the dark unknown he went alone.
                  What terrors did he face? The native’s hate,
                   The fever, tetse-fly and loneliness.
                   But to the people there he brought great Light.
                   Who was this man, the son of some great lord?
                   Not so. He was a simple Scottish lad
                   Who learnt to follow duty’s path.
                   His name Was Livingstone, he will not be forgot.
                                      E. P. (15.) Form IV.

          And here is a rendering of Plutarch’s Life of Pericles by a girl of fourteen in Form IV,—
                   Oh! land, whose beauty and unrivalled fame;
                   Lies dead, obscure in Time’s great dusty vault.
                   Not so in memory, for truly here,
                   Each and alike look up and do revear
                   Those heroes of the hidden past. Plato,
                   Who’s understanding reached the wide world’s end;
                   Aristides, that just and noble man.
                   And last, not least, the great wise Pericles
                   Who’s socialistic views and clever ways
                   For governing the rich and poor alike
                   Were to be envied. In his eyes must Greece
                   Live for ever as the home of beauty.
                   So to the Gods great marble shrines he made,
                   Temples and theatres did he erect;
                   So that the beauty of his beloved Greece
                   Might live for ever. And now when seeing
                   What is left of all those wondrous sights
                   We think not of the works themselves
                   But rather of the man who had them built.
                                      J. F.
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          One wonders is ‘socialistic’ used for democratic; any way, the notion is original. There is little to be said for the technique of the verses but I think the reader will agree that each set shows thoughtful appreciation of some part of the term’s reading. The verses are uncorrected.
          Much use is made according to this method of the years from 6 to 8, during which children must learn to read and write; they get at the same time, however, a good deal of consecutive knowledge of history and geography, tale and fable, some of which at the end of the term they dictate in answer to questions and their answers form well-expressed little essays on the subjects they deal with.
          The time appropriated in the time-table at this stage to the teaching of some half-dozen more or less literary subjects such as Scripture, and the subjects I have indicated, is largely spent by the teachers in reading, say, two or three paragraphs at a time from some one of the set books, which children, here and there in the class, narrate. The teacher reads with the intention that the children shall know, and therefore, with distinctness, force, and careful enunciation; it is a mere matter of sympathy, though of course it is the author and not himself, whom the teacher is careful to produce. This practice, of the teacher reading aloud and the class narrating, is necessarily continued through all the classes of an elementary school, because some of the books used are rather costly and only one copy is furnished. I wonder does this habit of listening with close attention to what is read aloud tend to equalise the children of the ‘uneducated’ with those of the educated classes? Certainly, the work of the two is surprisingly equal. By the way, there is no selection of subjects, passages or episodes on the ground of interest. The best available book is chosen and read through in the course, it may be, of two or three years.
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Let me add that the appeal of these principles and this method is not to the clever child only but to the average and even to the ‘backward’ child; indeed we have had several marked successes with backward children. Just as we all partake of that banquet which is ‘Shakespeare’ according to our needs and desires, so do the children behave at the ample board set before them; there is enough to satisfy the keenest intelligence while the dullest child is sustained through his own willing effort. This scheme of fairly wide and successful intellectual work is carried out in the same or less time than is occupied in the usual efforts in the same directions; there are no revisions, no evening preparations (because far more work is done by the children in ordinary school-time than under ordinary school methods, when the child is too often a listener only): no note-taking, because none are necessary, the children having the matter in their books and knowing where to find it; and as there is no cramming or working up of subjects there is much time to spare for vocational and other work of the kind.
         Such an education as I am urging should act as a social lever also; everyone is much occupied with problems concerning amelioration of life for our ‘poorer classes’ but do we sufficiently consider that, given a better education, the problems of decent living will for the most part be solved by the people themselves?
          Like all great ventures of life this that I propose is a venture of faith, faith in the saving power of knowledge and in the assimilative power of children. Its efficacy depends upon the fact that it is in the nature of things, that is, in the nature of knowledge and in the nature of children. Bring the two together in ways that are sanctioned by the laws of mind and, to use a figure, a chemical combination takes place and a new product appears, a person of character and intelligence, an admirable citizen whose own life is too full and
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rich for him to be an uneasy member of society.
          Education is part and parcel of religion and every enthusiastic teacher knows that he is obeying the precept, —‘feed my lambs’–feed with all those things which are good and wholesome for the spirit of a man; and, before all and including all, with the knowledge of God.
          I have ventured to speak of the laws of mind, or spirit, but indeed we can only make guesses here and there and follow with diffidence such light as we get from the teachings of the wise and from general experience; general experience, because peculiar experience is apt to be misleading; therefore, when I learned that long tried principles and methods were capable of application to the whole of a class of forty children in the school of a mining village, I felt assured that we were following laws whose observance results in education of a satisfying kind.
          The mind requires sustenance as does the body, that it may increase and be strong; so much everybody knows. A long time ago it was perceived that the pabulum given in schools was of the wrong sort; Grammar rules, lists of names and dates and places,—the whole stock in trade of the earlier schoolmaster—was found to be matter which the minds of children reject: and, because we were wise enough to see that the mind functions for its own nourishment whether in rejecting or receiving, we changed our tactics, following, so we thought, the lead of the children. We did well, and therefore are prepared, if necessary, to do better. What, then, if our whole educational equipment, our illustrations, elucidations, questionings, our illimitable patience in getting a point into the children, were all based on the false assumption of the immature, which we take to connote the imperfect, incomplete minds of children? “I think I could understand, Mummy, if you did not explain quite so much,”—is this the inarticulate cry of the school child to-day? He really
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is capable of much more than he gets credit for, but we go the wrong way about getting his capable mind into action.
                   We err when we allow our admirable teaching to intervene between children and the knowledge their minds demand. The desire for knowledge (curiosity) is the chief agent in education: but this desire may be made powerless like an unused limb by encouraging other desires to intervene, such as the desire for place (emulation), for prizes (avarice), for power (ambition), for praise (vanity). But I am told that marks, places and prizes (except for attendance) do not figure largely in Elementary Schools, therefore the love of knowledge for its own sake is likely to have a freer course in these schools than in others.
          That children are born persons,—is the first article of the educational credo which I am concerned to advance; this implies that they come to us with power of attention, avidity for knowledge, clearness of thought, nice discrimination in books even before they can read, and the power of dealing with many subjects.
                   Practical teachers will say, guarantee to us the attention of our scholars and we will guarantee their progress in what Colet calls ‘good literature.’ I have already explained[3] how I came to a solution of this puzzling problem,—how to secure attention. Let me add again that the principles and methods I have indicated are especially suitable for large classes; what is called the ‘sympathy of numbers’ stimulates the class, and the work goes with added impetus: each child is eager to take part in narration or to do written work well. By the way, only short test answers are required in writing, so that the labour of correction is minimised.
          To two further points I must invite attention; the
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choice of books and the character of the terminal examinations. I do not know better how to describe the sort of books that children’s minds will consent to deal with than by saying that they must be literary in character. A child of seven or eight will narrate a difficult passage from The Pilgrim’s Progress, say, with extraordinary zest and insight; but I doubt if he or his elders would retain anything from that excellent work, Dr. Smiles’s Self-Help! The completeness with which hundreds of children reject the wrong book is a curious and instructive experience, not less so than the avidity and joy with which they drain the right book to the dregs; children’s requirements in the matter seem to be quantity, quality and variety: but the question of books is one of much delicacy and difficulty. After the experience of over a quarter of a century[4] in selecting the lesson books proper to children of all ages, we still make mistakes, and the next examination paper discovers the error! Children cannot answer questions set on the wrong book; and the difficulty of selection is increased by the fact that what they like in books is no more a guide than what they like in food.
          The moment has come to try the great cause of Education v. Civilisation, with the result, let us hope, that the latter will retire to her proper sphere of service in the amelioration of life and will not intrude on the higher functions of inspiration and direction which belong to Education. Both Civilisation and Education are the handmaids of Religion, but, each in its place, and the one may not thrust herself into the office of the other. It is a gain, any way, that we are within sight of giving to all members of the working classes notwithstanding their limited opportunities that stability of mind and magnanimity of character which are the proper outcome and the unfailing test of a Liberal Education; also
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choice of books and the character of the terminal examinations. I do not know better how to describe the sort of books that children’s minds will consent to deal with than by saying that they must be literary in character. A child of seven or eight will narrate a difficult passage from The Pilgrim’s Progress, say, with extraordinary zest and insight; but I doubt if he or his elders would retain anything from that excellent work, Dr. Smiles’s Self-Help! The completeness with which hundreds of children reject the wrong book is a curious and instructive experience, not less so than the avidity and joy with which they drain the right book to the dregs; children’s requirements in the matter seem to be quantity, quality and variety: but the question of books is one of much delicacy and difficulty. After the experience of over a quarter of a century[4] in selecting the lesson books proper to children of all ages, we still make mistakes, and the next examination paper discovers the error! Children cannot answer questions set on the wrong book; and the difficulty of selection is increased by the fact that what they like in books is no more a guide than what they like in food.
          The moment has come to try the great cause of Education v. Civilisation, with the result, let us hope, that the latter will retire to her proper sphere of service in the amelioration of life and will not intrude on the higher functions of inspiration and direction which belong to Education. Both Civilisation and Education are the handmaids of Religion, but, each in its place, and the one may not thrust herself into the office of the other. It is a gain, any way, that we are within sight of giving to all members of the working classes notwithstanding their limited opportunities that stability of mind and magnanimity of character which are the proper outcome and the unfailing test of a Liberal Education; also
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it is to the good that “the grand elementary principle of pleasure” should be discovered in unexpected places, in what is too often the drudgery of the schoolroom. Milton’s ideal of a “complete and generous education” meets our occasions;—“that which fits a man to perform justly, skilfully and magnanimously all the offices both private and public of peace and war”; and perhaps it remains for our generation to prove that this ideal is open to and necessary for persons of all sorts and conditions. It has been well said that,—
          “Just as there is only one kind of truth common to us all, so there is only one education common to us all. In the case of the education of the people the only question is: How is this common education to be developed under the circumstances of simple conditions of life and large masses of people? That this should be accomplished is the decisive mark of all real education.”
The writer (Eucken) offers no solution of this problem: and it remains with the reader to determine each with himself whether that solution which I here propose is or is not worth a trial.


[1] Citizens to Be, by Miss M. L. V. Hughes.

[2] cf. “Introduction.”

[3] pp. 13 to 15.

[4] The P.U.S. was started in 1891.

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