THE BASIS OF NATIONAL STRENGTH
A LIBERAL EDUCATION FROM A NATIONAL STANDPOINT KNOWLEDGE
WE have from time to time given some attention to the failure of our attempts to educate “The Average Boy,” and it may be useful to look into one or two fundamental principles upon which this question and others seem to me to depend. For if our conceptions of education are heterogeneous and incoherent, naturally, we shall have a tangle of examination schemes evolved to test our ill-conceived work.
Educationally, we are in a bad way. We were told some time ago, in Across the Bridges, of the rapid deterioration of the bright intelligent responsive schoolboy who has passed through the sixth and seventh standards. Why? we ask. Industrial unrest often reveals virtue, even heroism of a sort, in the working man, but a lamentable want of knowledge—lack of education; he appears to have little insight, imagination, or power of reflection. The tendency in his class is that “dangerous tendency which we must all do our best to resist” indicated by Mr. Burns at a public meeting some few years ago; “the spirit of the horde,” he said, “is being developed; and
whether it is in exhibitions, sports, or legislation, the individual is becoming less and less important and the mob more and more so.” And again, “the tendency of the present day in all modern movements is for great crowds to be brought together to see other people play; and that is extending not only to play, but to other fields of life.” Could the industrial movement of to-day be better diagnosed? Again we ask, Why? As for those young men from Public Schools who fail in the Dominions, enough has been said about them; but those other Public School men who succeed in a measure at outposts of the Empire because of the virtue that is in them, do they not fail sometimes in an equal measure for lack of the insight, imagination, intelligence, which come of knowledge? As for the people who stay at home, “educated” men and women, I write as an old woman who remembers how in the sixties and seventies “countenance” was much talked of; “an intelligent countenance,” “a fine countenance,” “a noble countenance,” were matters of daily comment. The word has dropped out of use; is it because the thing signified has dropped out of existence? Countenance is a manifestation of thought, feeling, intelligence; and it is none of these, but stolid indifference combined with physical well-being, that we read in many faces to-day.
If we have these grounds for discontent, education is no doubt the culprit at the bar, though there never was, I suppose, a more heroic and devoted body of teachers at work. They get for themselves the greater blessing of those who give; but the children suffer, poor little souls; “poured into like a bucket,” they receive without stint, and little comes of it. There is no lack of zeal on the part of the teaching profession, but there is a tendency amongst us to depreciate knowledge and to depreciate our scholars. Now, knowledge is the material of education, as flour is the material of bread; there are substitutes for knowledge,
no doubt, as there are for flour. Before the era of free meals I heard of a little girl in East London whose mother gave her a penny, to buy dinner for herself and her little sister, when the two set out for school. The child confided to her teacher that a ha’porth of aniseed drops “stays your stomach ” more than a halfpenny bun. Now, our schools are worked more or less upon aniseed drops—marks, prizes, scholarships, blue ribbons, all of which “stay the stomach ” of the boy who does not get the knowledge that he needs. That is the point. He needs knowledge as much as he needs bread and milk; his appetite for knowledge is as healthy as his appetite for his dinner; and an abundant regular supply at short intervals of various knowledge is a constitutional necessity for the growing youth as well as for the curious child; and yet we stay his hunger pangs upon “aniseed drops.”
We do worse. We say, “What is the good of knowledge? Give a boy professional instruction, whether he is to be a barrister or a bricklayer, and strike out from his curriculum Greek or geography, or whatever is not of utilitarian value. Teach him to play the game and handle the ropes of his calling, and you have done the best for him.” Now, here is a most mischievous fallacy, an assertion that a child is to be brought up for the uses of society only and not for his own uses. Here we get the answer to the repeated question that suggested itself in a survey of our educational condition. We launch children upon too arid and confined a life. Now personal delight, joy in living, is a chief object of education; Socrates conceived that knowledge is for pleasure, in the sense, not that knowledge is one source, but is the source of pleasure.
It is for their own sakes that children should get knowledge. The power to take a generous view of men and their motives, to see where the greatness of a given character lies, to have one’s judgment of present events
illustrated and corrected by historic and literary parallels, to have, indeed, the power of comprehensive judgment—these are admirable assets within the power of every one according to the measure of his mind; and these are not the only gains which knowledge affords. The person who can live upon his own intellectual resources and never know a dull hour (though anxious and sad hours will come) is indeed enviable in these days of intellectual inanition, when we depend upon spectacular entertainments pour passer le temps.*
If knowledge means so much to us, “What is knowledge?” the reader asks. We can give only a negative answer. Knowledge is not instruction, information, scholarship, a well-stored memory. It is passed, like the light of a torch, from mind to mind, and the flame can be kindled at original minds only. Thought, we know, breeds thought; it is as vital thought touches our minds that our ideas are vitalized, and out of our ideas comes our conduct of life. The case for reform hardly needs demonstration, but now we begin to see the way of reform. The direct and immediate impact of great minds upon his own mind is necessary to the education of a child. Most of us can get into touch with original minds chiefly through books; and if we want to know how far a school provides intellectual sustenance for its scholars, we may ask to see the list of books in reading during the current term. If the list be short, the scholar will not get enough mind-stuff; if the books are not various, his will not be an all-round development; if they are not original, but compiled at second hand, he will find no material in them for his intellectual growth. Again, if they are too easy and too direct, if they tell him straight away what he is to think, he will read, but be will not appropriate. Just as a man has to eat a good dinner in order that his physical energies may be stimulated to select and secrete that small portion which is vital to him, so must the intellectual
energies be stimulated to extract what the individual needs by a generous supply, and also by a way of presentation that is not obvious. We have the highest authority for the indirect method of teaching proper to literature, and especially to poetry. The parables of Christ remain dark sayings; but what is there more precious in the world’s store of knowledge?
How injurious then is our habit of depreciating children; we water their books down and drain them of literary flavour, because we wrongly suppose that children cannot understand what we understand ourselves; what is worse, we explain and we question. A few pedagogic maxims should help us, such as, “Do not explain” “Do not question,” “Let one reading of a passage suffice,” “ Require the pupil to relate the passage he has read.” The child must read to know; his teacher’s business is to see that he knows. All the acts of generalization, analysis, comparison, judgment, and so on, the mind performs for itself in the act of knowing. If we doubt this, we have only to try the effect of putting ourselves to sleep by relating silently and carefully, say, a chapter of Jane Austen or a chapter of the Bible, read once before going to bed. The degree of insight, the visualization, that comes with this sort of mental exercise is surprising.
As I have said, a child in his seventh year will relate The Pilgrim’s Progress, chapter by chapter, though he cannot read it, and some half-dozen other books of the best we can find for him. In his eighth or ninth year he works happily with a dozen books at a time, books of history, adventures, travels, poems. From his tenth to his twelfth year he reads considerable books of English and French history, seriously written, Shakespeare’s historical plays, North’s Plutarch’s Lives, and a dozen other worthy books. As he goes up the school, his reading becomes wider and more difficult, but every one knows the reading
proper at the ages of fifteen, seventeen, eighteen. The right books are given, but not enough of them. The reading dietary is too meagre for the making of a full man. A score of first-rate books should appear in the school curriculum term by term. The point that I insist upon, however, is that from his sixth year the child should be an “educated child” for his age, should love his lesson books, and enjoy a terminal examination on the books he has read. Children brought up largely on books compare favourably with those educated on a few books and many lectures; they have generous enthusiasms, keen sympathies, a wide outlook and sound judgment, because they are treated from the first as beings of “large discourse looking before and after.” They are persons of leisure too, with time for hobbies, because their work is easily done in the hours of morning school.
It is not necessary to speak of modern languages and mathematics, field work in natural history, handiwork, etc. Schools are pretty much agreed about the treatment of these subjects. As for Latin and Greek, the teaching of these and the possibility of getting in any work beyond these is a crucial question; but I think it is open to Public Schoolmasters to discover that, given boys who have read and thought, and who have maintained the habit of almost perfect attention that a child begins with, the necessary amount of work in the Classics may be done in a much shorter time, and that the mind of the pupil is the more alert because it is engaged in handling various subjects.
Perhaps, too, some enlightened Headmaster may come to distinguish between scholarship and knowledge—a distinction which practical men, like Napoleon, for example, have known how to draw. Probably there never was a life on which the ‘humanities’ exercised a more powerful influence; rarely has there been such an example of the power of the informed mind to conquer
the world. Napoleon is the final answer to the contention that a knowledge of books has no practical value, for there was, perhaps, no incident in his career that was not suggested, inspired, illustrated by some historical precedent, some literary apophthegm. He was, as we know, no scholar, but he read diligently, even in the midst of absorbing affairs, Homer, the Bible, the Koran, poetry, history, Plutarch.
Nations grow great upon books as truly as do individuals. We know how that heroic young Queen, Louisa of Prussia, perceived that the downfall of her country was not due to Napoleon alone, but also to national ignorance, and that if Prussia were to rise it must be through the study of history. So she set herself to work at the history of modern Europe during that sojourn at Memel, when she knew poverty as a peasant woman knows it. The disciples of Kant founded a league of virtue to arouse Prussian students to the duty of patriotism; Fichte knew how to issue a trumpet call; the nation became a nation of students, and the son of Queen Louisa established the German Empire! Alas, that an age should have come when the ‘humanities’ were proscribed on German soil—and humanity followed them into exile! A noble view of education was as righteousness exalting a nation; but, alas, we all know what universal havoc and disaster have proceeded from the debased and materialised theory of education promulgated at Munich.
The Danes, again, as we all know, owe their rise out of illiteracy to the Napoleonic impulse. After we had seized their battleships, by way of clipping the claws of Bonaparte, they set to work to make themselves the first farmers in Europe; this they have done in and through their schools and their continuation schools, where they get, not technical instruction, but a pretty wide course in history and literature. As for the Japanese revolution of some fifty years ago, history has little to show
of a finer quality; and this, again, was the work of a literary people. If we would not be left behind by the East and the West we must, as other nations have done, “add to our virtue, knowledge”; and we are still competent, as some of these are not, to mount from the bottom rung of the Apostolic educational ladder. It rests with us to add to our faith, virtue, and to our virtue, knowledge. It is an unheard of thing that the youth of a great nation should grow up without those ideals, slow enough in maturing, which are to be gathered for the most part from wide and wisely directed reading.
*to pass the time
 The Author owes to the Editor of The Times permission to reprint the chapters under this heading written in 1912; as also the happy titles of the several chapters and the general title.