A LIBERAL EDUCATION IN SECONDARY SCHOOLS
MIGHTY is the power of persistent advertisement.
‘Pelmanism’ [memory training system] is bringing an indictment against secondary education. Half a million souls, Judges and Generals, Admirals and Barristers, are protesting that they have not been educated.
“Pay the schoolmaster well and you will get education” is the panacea of the moment, and so we get in one neighbourhood a village schoolmaster with a salary of £350 and a house, and a singularly able curate, an Oxford man, with a wife and family and no house who flourishes on £150 a year! Work, however, is more than wages, and this exclusive stress on high salaries is a tacit under valuing of teachers. Most of us know of fine educational work being done with little inducement in the way of either pay or praise. The real drawback to a teacher’s work and the stumbling-block in the way of a liberal education is the monotonous drudgery of teaching continually what no one wants to learn.
… the President of the British Association complained that education was uninteresting alike to pupils, teachers and parents. That is why we are always learning and never knowing, and why teachers exert themselves to invent a ‘Play Way,’ why handicrafts, ‘Eurhythmics’ and the like are offered, not as adjuncts to, but as substitutes for, education, why our Public Schools are exhorted to change their ways and our lesser private schools are threatened with extinction.
And with all this the intelligence and devotion, the enthusiasm and self-sacrificing zeal of teachers generally is amazing. They realise that education is, not merely an interest, but a passion; and this is true not only of the heads and the staffs of great schools but of those hundreds of little private schools scattered over the country.
It is easy to condemn the schools, but the fact is, a human being is born with a desire to know much about an enormous number of subjects. How is the school time table to get them all in or an adequate treatment of any one of them? Then, boys (and girls too) offer a resisting medium of extraordinary density. Every boy ‘resists in a mulish way’ attempts to teach him, not only dead languages and higher mathematics, but literature and science and every subject the master labours at; with the average boy a gallon of teaching produces scarce a gill of learning, and what is the master to do? It is something to know, however, that behind all this ‘mulishness’ there is avidity for knowledge, not so much for the right sort (every sort is the right sort), but put in the right way, and we cannot say that every way is the right way.
…I know that no persons are more open to conviction on reasonable grounds than are many distinguished Headmasters and Mistresses; may they, if convinced, have the courage of their convictions!
The initial difficulty is the enormous field of knowledge to which a child ought to be introduced in right of his human nature and of those “first born affinities” which he lives to make good. First and chiefest is the knowledge of God, to be got at most directly through the Bible; then comes the knowledge of man, to be got through history, literature, art, civics, ethics, biography, the drama, and languages; and lastly, so much knowledge of the universe as shall explain to some extent the phenomena we are familiar with and give a naming acquaintance at any rate with birds and flowers, stars and stones; nor can this knowledge of the universe be carried far in any direction without the ordering of mathematics. The programme is immense and school life is limited.
What is knowledge? some one will say, and there is no pat, neatly-framed answer to be given; only this we can assert,—Knowledge is that which we know; and the learner knows only by a definite act of knowing which he performs for himself. But appalling incuria blocks the way. Boys and girls do not want to know; therefore they do not know; and their future intellectual requirements will be satisfied by bridge at night and golf by day.
It has come to us of the Parents’ Union School to discover great avidity for knowledge in children of all ages and of every class, together with an equally remarkable power of attention, retention, and intellectual reaction upon the pabulum consumed. The power which comes into play in the first place is, of course, attention, and every child of any age, even the so-called ‘backward’ child seems to have unlimited power of attention which acts without mark, prize, place, praise or blame. This fact clearly recognised opens great possibilities to the teacher; though his first impulse be to deny statements which seem to him sweeping and absurd.
After over a quarter of a century of experiment on a wide scale and consequent research, we have discovered what children are able to know and desire to know; what their minds will act upon in the ways of judgment and imagination; what they are incapable of knowing; and under what conditions knowledge must be offered to them. We do not want a ‘play-way,’ nor need we substitute arts and crafts or eurhythmics or even ‘rugger’ and the swimming bath, as things that boys take to, whereas learning goes against the grain. Physical and mechanical training are necessary for the up-bringing of the young, but let us regard them for the moment as training rather than education,—which ought to concern itself with things of the mind.
…we have made a rather strange discovery,—that the mind refuses to know anything except what reaches it in more or less literary form. It is not surprising that this should be true of children and persons accustomed to a literary atmosphere but that it should be so of ignorant children of the slums points to a curious fact in the behaviour of mind. Persons can ‘get up’ the driest of pulverised text-books and enough mathematics for some public examination; but these attainments do not appear to touch the region of mind.
Of Natural Science, too, we have to learn that the way into the secrets of nature is not through the barbed wire entanglements of science as she is taught but through field work or other immediate channel, illustrated and illuminated by books of literary value.
The mind is a crucible which brings enormous power to act on what is put into it but has no power to distil from sand and sawdust the pure essence of ideas. So much for the manner of food which that organism (if I may be allowed the figure) called the mind requires for its daily subsistence. How various this sustenance must be I have already indicated and we remember how urgently Dr. Arnold insisted on ‘very various reading’ in the three parts of knowledge, knowledge of God, of man, and of the universe.
Most teachers know the dreariness of piles of exercises into which no stray note of personality has escaped. Now there is a natural provision against this mere skimming of the ground by the educational plough. Give children the sort of knowledge that they are fitted to assimilate, served in a literary medium, and they will pay great attention.
…but here we have a word of ancient wisdom for our guidance; “The mind can know nothing except what it can express in the form of an answer to a question put by the mind to itself.” Observe, not a question put by an outsider, but, put by the mind to itself.
If we want to tell the substance of a conversation, a sermon, a lecture, we ‘go over it in our minds’ first and the mind puts its question to itself, the same question over and over again, no more than,—What next?—and lo, we have it, the whole thing complete!
Let the child…tell what he has read in whole or in part on the instant, and again, in an examination paper months later.
Here we get the mind forces which must act continuously in education,-—attention, assimilation, narration, retention, reproduction. But what of reason, judgment, imagination, discrimination, all the corps of ‘faculties’ in whose behoof the teacher has hitherto laboured? These take care of themselves and play as naturally and involuntarily upon the knowledge we receive with attention and fix by narration as do the digestive organs upon duly masticated food-stuff for the body. We must feed the mind as the body fitly and freely; and the less we meddle with the digestive processes in the one as in the other the more healthy the life we shall sustain.
Given a book of literary quality suitable to their age and children will know how to deal with it without elucidation. Of course they will not be able to answer questions because questions are an impertinence which we all resent, but they will tell you the whole thing with little touches of individual personality in the narrative.
Let the boy read and he knows, that is, if he must tell again what he has read.
This, of telling again, sounds very simple but it is really a magical creative process by means of which the narrator sees what he has conceived, so definite and so impressive is the act of narrating that which has been read only once. I dwell on the single reading because, let me repeat, it is impossible to fix attention on that which we have heard before and know we shall hear again.
Treat children in this reasonable way, mind to mind; not so much the mind of the teacher to that of the child,—that would be to exercise undue influence—but the minds of a score of thinkers who meet the children, mind to mind, in their several books, the teacher performing the graceful office of presenting the one enthusiastic mind to the other. In this way children cover an incredible amount of ground in the time at their disposal.
So shall we cease to present motives of self interest and personal advantage as incentives to public action; we shall touch springs of poetry, of heroism, to which all natures have the habit of rising;
We must give wide reading in the lower forms, reading that everybody has read, and we must so compress our classical and mathematical work in the higher Forms that much history and ‘English’ may be included.
Probably it will be found possible to give the old training which has produced such notable results, but to make it an inclusive not an exclusive education, to take in the books which everyone should know, the pictures everyone should be familiar with, the history, the travel, in which we should all be at home, some understanding of the phenomena which come before us all. Once we give up the notion that education is a development of the ‘faculties’ to be accomplished by the teacher, and realize that it is on the contrary an appropriation of wide knowledge which the pupil must get for himself,…
We must keep that to which we have attained and add to it the wide reading of a liberal education.
The implicit charge against the schools is that they try each in its own way to find a substitute for the saving grace of knowledge. Academic success and knowledge are not the same thing and many excellent schools fail to give their pupils delight in the latter for its own sake or to bring them in touch with the sort of knowledge that influences character and conduct. The slow, imperceptible, sinking-in of high ideals is the gain that a good school should yield its pupils.
We offer children knowledge for its own sake and our pupils discover that ‘studies serve for delight.’ We do not give our best attention to brilliant children, it is not necessary; these work well on their own account and so do the average and even the dull pupils. Historical characters become real to them and a fairly wide historical field comes under their purview; they do not grow up in crass ignorance of the history of foreign countries;
Therefore, many books are necessary, and each is read consecutively so that the knowledge acquired is not scrappy and insecure. I know that teachers enjoy the work set term by term fully as much as do the children and that a schoolroom life in which there is no monotony, no dulness, little or no idleness or inattention, does away with the necessity to make games the paramount interest of the school—to make them indeed a stern necessity rather than a joyous relaxation.
The introduction of the methods I advocate has a curious effect on a whole family.
The whole household thinks of and figures to itself great things, for nothing is so catching as knowledge and that fine temper of mind that knowledge brings with it. Children so taught are delightful companions because they have large interests and worthy thoughts; they have much to talk about and such casual talk benefits society. The fine sense, like an atmosphere, of things worth knowing and worth living for, this it is which produces magnanimous citizens, and we feel that Milton was right in claiming magnanimity as the proper outcome of education.
I have no doubt that some of my readers are interested in the work we are doing in Elementary schools,—a work the more astonishing because children who have little vocabulary to begin with, no trace of literary background, show themselves able to hear or read a work of literary value and after a single reading to narrate pages with spirit and accuracy, not hedging at the longest names nor muddling complicated statements. This was a revelation to us, and it signifies that a literary education is open to all, not after tedious and laborious preparation, but immediately. The people wait only for the right books to be put into their hands and the right method to be employed.
“Conversational readiness becomes a characteristic. A quarter of a century of these methods with all the children of England and the strong silent Englishman should be a rare bird!” A schoolmaster remarks that his big boys are now eager to speak at some length—a thing new in his experience. Consider what an asset this should be to a country whose safety will depend more and more upon the power in the middle classes of clear and conclusive speech. Oral composition is the habit of the school from the age of six to eighteen. “Children of ten who read Shakespeare” is the heading of an article in a local newspaper which sent a reporter to investigate the P.N.E.U.
We do not invite Heads of schools to take up work lightly, which implies a sound knowledge of certain principles and as faithful a practice. The easy tolerance which holds smilingly that everything is as good as everything else, that one educational doctrine is as good as another, that, in fact, a mixture of all such doctrines gives pretty safe results,—this sort of complacent attitude produces lukewarm effort and disappointing progress. I feel strongly that to attempt to work this method without a firm adherence to the few principles laid down would be not only idle but disastrous. “Oh, we could do anything with books like those,” said a master; he tried the books and failed conspicuously because he ignored the principles. We teachers are really modest and diffident and are not prepared to say that we are more capable of handling a subject than is a carefully chosen author who writes especially upon that subject. “Yes, but,” says a young and able teacher, “we know better how to reach the minds of children than does the most eloquent author speaking through the dull pages of a book.” This is a contention of which we have finally disposed. We have shown that the mass of knowledge, evoking vivid imagination and sound judgment, acquired in a term from the proper books, is many times as great, many times more thoroughly visualised by the scholars, than had they waited upon the words of the most able and effective teacher. This is why we insist upon the use of books. It is not that teachers are not eminently capable but because information does not become knowledge unless a child perform the ‘act of knowing’ without the intervention of another personality.
It is our part to see to it that books take root in the homes of our scholars and we must make parents understand that it is impossible to give a liberal education to children who have not a due provision of very various books.
We are, perhaps, opposed to oral lessons or lectures except by way of occasional review or introduction. For actual education children must do their own work out of their own books under the sympathetic guidance of an intelligent teacher.
“there are books and text-books,” and the day is at hand when we shall all see that the latter are of no educational value. We rarely use text-books in the Parents’ Union School but confine ourselves as far as possible to works with the imaginative grasp, the touch of originality, which distinguish a book from a text-book.
The knowledge of God is the principal knowledge, and no teaching of the Bible which does not further that knowledge is of religious value. Therefore the children read, or if they are too young to read for themselves the teacher reads to them, a passage of varying length covering an incident or some definite teaching. If there are remarks to be made about local geography or local custom, the teacher makes them before the passage has been read, emphasizing briefly but reverently any spiritual or moral truth; the children narrate what has been read after the reading; they do this with curious accuracy and yet with some originality, conveying the spiritual teaching which the teacher has indicated. Now this is no parrot-exercise, but is the result of such an assimilation of the passage that it has become a part of the young scholar. It is only by trying the method oneself on such an incident, for example, as the visit of Nicodemus or the talk with the woman of Samaria, that we realise the wonderful clearness with which each incident is brought out, the fullness of meaning with which every phrase is invested by such personal effort.
Next in order to religious knowledge, history is the pivot upon which our curriculum turns. History is the rich pasture of the mind—which increases upon the knowledge of men and events and, more than all, upon the sense of nationhood, the proper corrective of the intolerable individualism of modern education.
Literature is hardly a distinct subject, so closely is it associated with history, whether general or English; and whether it be contemporary or merely illustrative; and it is astonishing how much sound learning children acquire when the thought of an age is made to synchronise with its political and social developments.
Let me repeat that what is called ‘composition’ is an inevitable consequence of this free yet exact use of books and requires no special attention until the pupil is old enough to take naturally a critical interest in the use of words. Civics takes place as a separate subject, but it is so closely bound up with literature and history on the one hand and with ethics, or, what we call every-day morals, on the other, that the division of subjects is only nominal.
I have already shown [in Ch 10] what we do, for example, in the way of affording children familiar acquaintance with great music and great pictures.
In drawing, the scholars work very freely in colour from natural figures and objects and draw scenes visualised in the term’s reading. We do not teach drawing as a means of self-expression; the scholars express, not themselves, but what they can see and what they conceive.
I have already gone into the teaching of languages; the habit of fixed attention and ready narration which the P.U.S. pupils acquire should be of value in this branch of work,
We must learn what we desire to know.
We are apt to work for one thing in the hope that we shall get another and a very different thing; we don’t. If we work for public examinations, the questions in which must be of a narrow academic cast, we get a narrow, accurate, somewhat sterile type of mind. We reap as we have sown.
The future of England depends largely upon Secondary schools; let the Heads of these lay out a liberal field of study and astonishingly fair things will grow in that garden of mind in which we are invited to sow the seeds of all knowledge.
…that they should do this for the nation’s sake.
It is this vitality of many minds that we aim at securing and entreat educational workers and thinkers to join in forming a common body of thought which shall make England great in art no doubt, and also great in life.
This is the way to make great men and not by petty efforts to form character in this direction or in that. Let us take it to ourselves that great character comes out of great thoughts, and that great thought must be initiated by great thinkers; then we shall have a definite aim in education. Thinking and not doing is the source of character.