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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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The Educational Ideal of the Seventeenth Century.

by Frederick J. Snell
Volume 2, no. 2, 1891/92, pg. 429-434


The most celebrated educationalist of the seventeenth century was unquestionably John Amos Comenius, and it is with his name that the proposals hereafter to be criticised are chiefly identified. There seem, however, to have been other avatars of the divinity which presides over education, and it is certain, unless appearances are deceptive, that Comenius' ideas were not in any exclusive sense his own. They belonged to the age, and were, so to speak, "in the air." The Pole may indeed have been first in point of time, but that is a trivial matter considering that his English compeers, the one by implication, the other in set terms, disown any indebtedness to him. In stating that his inclination does not lead him to search what modern Januas and Didactics have projected, Milton certainly sets up a claim to originality, and, to banish all doubts on the subject, proceeds to describe his observations as the "burnishing of many contemplative years." Lord Herbert, of Cherbury--for he is the other reformer I am thinking of--alludes to Comenius, but in rather a distant tone, and it is not likely that he would have gone out of his way to incorporate in his memoirs a scheme of education which he did not believe, in all essentials, peculiar and personal. Else there is nothing strange, for the phenomenon of educational theory may often be accounted for thus:--

One of the most general characteristics of men of genius is a certain wilfulness. The tendency betrays itself at an early age, and the embryonic great man insists, among other things, on taking his education into his own hands--not disdaining perhaps the assistance of others, but acting on the whole in conformity with his own opinion of what is best. In attempting to mould himself he of course succeeds, but it is inevitable that he should have made mistakes. These, on a retrospect, etch themselves on his mature judgment as with a corrosive acid, and the temptation to indite an essay on education--"um der Jugend die Umwege zu ersparen, auf deren er sich selbst verirrte" (Goethe)--is strong and almost irresistible. Or the man of genius is tormented by no "compunctious visitings"--he has an unshaken trust in his own ideals, and the publication is due to nothing more than a magnanimous desire to benefit the race. This was obviously the case with Milton. Lord Herbert, though perhaps no less persuaded of his own infallibility, restricts his beneficent design nominally to his posterity.

The similarity of the methods they suggest is to be explained partly by the fact of the evils and defects from which they revolt being the same, and partly by the free and unprejudiced mind with which they go back to first principles. And here we touch on what is in truth the prime significance of all such compositions--that they compel us to distinguish the proper aims of education, from which it is only a step to inquire into the efficacy of contemporary modes for attaining them. A system which has been long in vogue, though in itself a meaningless symbol, the relic of a bygone age, or only a partial application of the original scheme, receives as it were the consecration of usage, and peole are prepared to find in it all manner of virtues, which exist more in their imagination than in the object of their regard. Milton is proof against this species of idolatry, and accordingly he begins his essay with a flourish of trumpets and a lively fusillade on traditional forms. Lord Herbert, with a quiet cynicism, assumes the incompetence of mankind.

There must have been something gravely wrong in the teaching of Milton's day; otherwise his Letter to Master Samuel Hartlib would be an impertinence. As it is, it barely escapes the imputation. There is a strong feeling on the part of most men against needless and officious interference with the established order. But I must not digress. What then is the accusation which Milton has to bring against the style of education preferred by his age and country? "First," he says, "we do amiss to spend seven or eight years merely in scraping together so much miserable Latin and Greek as might be learned otherwise easily and delightfully in one year." There are other counts in the indictment, but we may pause here, for this is the gravamen. Observe, Milton does not desire the proscription of Greek and Latin; what he objects to is the large (as he thinks unnecessarily large) space taken up by grammar and philology to the exclusion of other subjects. And in this he does not lack support. Mr. Ruskin, for instance, with appalling severity speaks of grammar, logic, and rhetoric as "studies utterly unworthy of the serious labour of men, and necessarily rendering those employed on them incapable of high thoughts and noble emotion"; and for the "debasing effects" of philology he refers us to a grammarian's notes on a great poet. In the East, under the empire of the Moguls, Arabian seems to have been the educational counterpart of Greek, and the illustrious Aurangzíb complained that he had been set to learn a language which it takes twelve years to become master of. This he regarded as a criminal waste of time, and like Mr. Ruskin he found it "debasing" to be employed on that dry and dismal task.

Now, of course, if any one can discover a short cut to learning, the discovery will be hailed by all sensible persons as pure gain. But this is just the difficulty. Milton relied on what may be termed an adaptation of the old method. "If," he says, "after some preparatory grounds of speech by their certain forms got into memory they were led to the praxis hereof in a chosen short book lessoned thoroughly to them, they might then proceed to learn the substance of good things and arts in due order, which would bring the whole language quickly into their power." But, alas! we have known cases where "preparatory grounds" and their "praxis" have both been put into operation, and yet the pupil irresolute, glum, or wholly at a loss to unravel his text. Apparently, however, Milton does not anticipate this happy consummation until the contents of that, and perchance other volumes, have been fully exploited. Such a process might be vulgarly described as "putting the cart before the horse," but what he means is that in the later stage the teacher is to dwell on the historical or scientific import, not on the grammatical details. Although grammar is to be thus treated as secondary and subsidiary, Milton is confident that the intelligent apprehension of the language will be helped rather than hindered by attention being paid to the subject-matter. Only let patience have her perfect work, and then, wondrous transformation! our pupil's sense, instructed in the facts, will irradiate with its white light the obscurest page, chasing all the shadows, and penetrating to the jots and tittles, nay, the very infusoria of knowledge! But lest the apparatus, however excellent in theory, should break down in the working, it may be as well to state in what way others have experimented with the subject. These, as a rule, have followed one of two courses, either ignoring grammar altogether, or treating it as an after-study. Thus, Cowley, one of our best neo-Latin poets, tells us: "My masters could never prevail on me by any persuasions or encouragements to learn without book the common rules of grammar, in which they dispensed with me alone, because they found that I made shift to do the usual exercises out of my own head and observation." Again, Gibbon informs us that his method in learning Greek was as follows: first he acquired, through reading, a knowledge of the meaning of words, and then had recourse to a grammar to discover the philosophical construction of the language, which he compares to examining the map of a country over which we have already travelled.

Taking it for granted, however, that his plan has proved effectual, we will next see to what use Milton proposes to put the time saved. A magnificent vision bursts on us. The course is to begin with grammar; then some moral work, like Cebes' "Tabula," is to be read to the pupils. At the same time they are to be taught the rules of arithmetic, and, soon after, the elements of geometry. Agriculture next, geography, astronomy, physiology, trigonometry, fortification, architecture, engineering, navigation, meteorology, mineralogy, botany, biology, medicine, ethics, economics, politics, jurisprudence, theology, history, logic, rhetoric, and poetry. Their physical exercises are to be fencing, wrestling, and riding. This ample programme, which less ardent spirits would deem sufficient for two or three lives, is to be got through between the ages of twelve and twenty-one.

Did we not know that Milton was deficient in the sense of humour, we might be tempted to suspect an elaborate jest. Perceiving the futility of this solution, we may fall back on the explanation that the whole thing is a romance setting forth what Milton would do if he were vicegerent of the universe, or if men in the gross were less palpable clods than it has pleased Providence to make them. This latter account is certainly the more plausible. The treatise oscillates, as it were, between the reason and the imagination, between the real and the ideal. It has affinities on the one hand with More's "Utopia," on the other with Locke's "Essay on Education," with which it has been often bound, and which is severely practical. Milton, it cannot be denied, is intoxicated somewhat with his own enthusiasm. He has lost his chart, and from the moorings of common-sense has been borne on the wave of lyrical exuberance to the coast of the lotos-eaters, to a contented hallucination. Towards the conclusion of the essay he seems to realise--a point about which others less gifted than himself have long since made up their minds--that he has pitched the standard rather high for the possibilities of poor human nature. But whether from a genuine faith, or merely from a love of consistency, he continues sanguine to the last.

After this it may seem rather a forlorn proceeding to attempt a vindication of Milton. There is, however, something to be said for him. The "Letter"--the very title bespeaks it--is essentially a fugitive piece. It bears indubitable marks of being written in haste. If Milton, for a time, could have laid by his manuscript and have entered on the revision in a calmer, more judicial mood, he might have shaped his course differently. Even now, in one passage, there is a manifest attempt at orientation. One of his proposals is, that the scholars should "ride out in companies with prudent and staid guides to all the quarters of the land, learning and observing all places of strength, all commodities of building, of soil for towns and tillage, harbours and ports for trade. Sometimes taking sea as far as to our navy, to learn there also what they can in the practical knowledge of sailing and sea-fight." Then he adds, "These ways would try all their peculiar gifts of nature, and if there were any secret excellence, would give it fair opportunity to advance itself by." This surely is the best, if not the sole, excuse for the encyclopaedic pedagogy which Milton advocates. But he fails to notice that general information, at any rate in the first instance, can only be purchased at the expense of thoroughness. Locke, on the other hand, recognises the fact and accepts the condition. "Something of them" (i.e., metaphysics, natural philosophy, mathematics, &c.), he observes, "is to be taught him, but it is only to open the door that he may look in, and, as it were, begin an acquaintance, but not to dwell there. . . ."

What Milton contemplated was the formation of a consummate scholar or an ideal member of parliament. Economically, society was not then in the high state of development to which it has since attained. In those days there was no sharp line of demarcation between the soldier and the civilian. A man might be appointed to a command at sea without any previous knowledge of navigation; and there was at one time some thought of making Milton himself adjutant-general under Sir William Waller. The progress of science has now rendered such things impossible. Division of labour has come to be accepted as a necessary principle, not only in the lower, but also in the higher walks of life. In so far, then, as the essay has been tinctured by the customs and exigencies of the age, it is obsolete, but for that very reason it was the more pointed and reasonable at the time of its production.

In conclusion, the sort of education which Milton desiderates can never be reduced to a system. It may suit individuals, men like John Stuart Mill and women like Caroline Frances Cornwallis, but a private school which adopted it would infallibly turn out prigs; while our public schools, under the incubus of utilitarian discipline, would soon degenerate into commercial academies.


Typed by Pamela Hicks, Feb 2013