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,…
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,—
“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.”
I am much impressed by the amount of work of this kind which is already being done in our schools.
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.
…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.
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.
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 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…
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;…
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!
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.
…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.
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.
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.
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.
Let me first repeat 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
great number of substantives, including many proper names…
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.
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 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.
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.
He really 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).
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.
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.
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;
…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.
 The P.U.S. was started in 1891.