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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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Some Radical Questions

by Mrs. Dowson, L.R.C.P., L.R.C. S., I.
Volume 10, no. 2, 1899, pgs. 69-


The Higher Education is carried on, we are told, in High Schools and Colleges. For an outsider to cast any slur upon the High Process within those walls is an act of rashness hardly to be justified even by success.

Nevertheless--outsider though I be--I shall venture to ask, for the purpose of this discussion, whether certain facts do not give ground for a suspicion that there are trifling or perhaps important defects in some portions of the august system to which we are just now committed. It may be that all schools except one or two are quite perfect; but I will ask you to consider my statement of these facts and say whether they do not suggest that one or two, or possibly more schools may still be capable of improvement. If I go beyond this mild way of putting things, I beg you will ascribe my error to an impetuous temper and what the newspapers call "the heated atmosphere of debate."

Looking at the educational product--our educated young people--it seems to me that there are times when it acts as if unarmed against dangers met with in social life, in a manner for which education may fairly be held to some degree responsible. I will try to show that very simple means would suffice to turn out many young people better trained in important respects than they seem to be just now; and, for the purpose of this discussion, I will throw the odium of not using those means, or some equivalent means, on their schools.

To make things livelier, I will take the extreme position of the cabby in Punch--was he a cabby?--who said to some offensive person, "Call yourself a man! I've seen a better man than you made out o' tea-leaves." And I will suggest that, given a few educational tea-leaves, for instance, two or three dialogues after the manner of Plato, a bicycle, and half-a-dozen Aesop's Fables, with fitting argument, application, practical testing and plenty of time, young people might be sent into the world less inefficient than they are after being ground in the otherwise admirable Higher Mill just now in vogue.

I must beg leave to confine my discussion to intellectual education, and mainly to the Higher Education of girls.

The young women of the day seem unskillful in the use of words and of the mechanical things of every-day life, untrained and inefficient in face of the character, the drift and the dangers of human thinking, opinion, knowledge and speculation. I have chosen my educational tea-leaves to meet these points.

Let us look at one of those leaves--a Socratic Dialogue. You know the sort of thing, but you will forgive me for feebly illustrating the way it begins. It is something like this:--"Good morning, Chrysus. What a beautiful cloak you are wearing! Is it your own?" "Certainly, Socrates, it is my own." "This is very fortunate for you, Chryses. Will you tell me how it became your own?" "With pleasure. It is the simplest matter in the world: I bought and paid for it, giving its value in good money." "I am very stupid, Chryses; bear with me when I ask what is the value of such a thing, and how you know that you may justly buy it and make it your own." Then poor Chryses wades into his bog of words until he is brought to a full stop in it, having to confess that he doesn't know what value is, what wages mean, what justice entails, what man himself, is, how any one man can own anything, and whether the cloak is his, or some other body's, or nobody's, or everybody's. At last Socrates picks him up and leads him to try to find out the true meaning of the words he uses with such a light heart and an empty head, teaches him, in fact, that he ought to learn to speak like a man and not like a parrot.

This kind of thing was really done in Athens--once upon a time--and anybody who does it in London to-day will find as much parrot-talk as ever and considerably less patience. I appeal to your experience of young people to support me. I ask you--Do they display such mastery over words and their meaning, such intelligence about ordinary conceptions, as would bring them comfortably through a conversation with Socrates? If not, why not? I grant that everyday words have their special difficulties, but surely that is all the more reason for dealing carefully with them, seeing that they have to be used more than any other words in everyday life. A large number of them have many meanings, and this is one of the most important differences between the common stock of language and the particular stock of some art of science. It is very much harder to speak accurately in ordinary words than in technical ones: technical terms may have only one meaning apiece and are therefore easy to manage; but people need to be trained in the use of ordinary language, they need to acquire a knowledge of it vagueness and ambiguity just because its more important words are patient of many meanings and fruitful in errors of interpretation. The training is also in different ways immensely valuable. Maurice says that Socrates thought he acquired in it more real knowledge than in all other studies put together; but besides this it calls out faculty and power better, perhaps, than any other form of mental gymnastic that the wit of man has devised.

Such words as Will, and Right, and Law, and Cause, may be employed as educational instruments for drawing out the invaluable power of making accurate distinctions among things superficially resembling one another; in the process the instruments themselves lose clumsiness, and for the hand that has been trained in using them become the most precise and delicate of tools. We all know this; but the way in which our young people speak and write looks as if the lessons of experience had been lost upon those responsible for their education. The old blunders are made over and over again; the old snares catch new victims as if blunders and snares had never been known before. We must all have heard foolish things said, for instance, about laws of nature, as if they were enactments made by a lawgiver instead of being, as they are, either convenient summaries of what we have so far found out in our short experience and with our budding powers, or else assumptions made by us about what we have found out, and quite incapable of scientific proof. We must also have heard foolish things about cause, especially about the cause of ourselves and of the world. Aristotle knew more about cause than most young people seem to know nowadays, with all the advantage there is in coming after Aristotle; yet it is easy to teach what Aristotle knew in a way that will help one to lay hold of it once for all.

Let us suppose that you are teaching me, and that you begin by asking me the cause of this paper of mine. I may say that my will to make it is its cause. You will reply that in that way I am certainly a cause of it, but not the only cause. You will then lead me on to find out that the idea of what it is to be has been one of its causes, and the purpose which I wish it to fulfill, another; the pen, ink, words, and so on, being a fourth variety of cause. All these, according to Aristotle, are causes of my paper; he would have called the pen and ink and so on, material causes, my idea the shaping or formal cause, my purpose the end, or final cause, and myself operating as my will and power to make the manuscript, its efficient cause.

Those who have been taken through some such mental exercise as this, and helped, bit by bit, to apply the knowledge and the power of drawing distinctions which it brings, are usually unable to talk the nonsense about causation that many educated people talk now; they are driven to think more carefully, more particularly, not only about causes but about many other things; and they are to a great extent protected against certain forms of attack upon truth to which not a few others may succumb. It is in this way that the art of distinguishing among many meanings of a common word may be learnt; it is in this way too that people may acquire the habit of guarding themselves against a very frequent source of intellectual trouble--the trick of using a word in different senses in the course of one train of reasoning; of attacking the cause, for instance, when either final or efficient, as if it were only material; of speaking of law in nature as if it were the inflexible act of an inflexible will, when we should know, perfectly well, that in connection with nature the word has not, and cannot have, the legislative meaning at all.

It is for want of training in the accurate and critical use of words, for want of knowledge of their different meanings, that many false opinions find a welcome among educated people which could not hold their ground for a moment did not this state of things give them their opportunity and their support. There is a pressing need for the Socratic tea-leaf both for training natural powers and producing a stock of incorporated knowledge.

Then there is the Bicycle. I wonder how many girls approach a bicycle or a new railway-carriage handle with their natural intelligence properly cultivated and an acquired and orderly method of going to work. A bit of mechanism is a sort of book. Its rods and screws and wheels and chains are so many mechanical words and sentences arranged to carry out the purpose and convey the meaning of the man who made the machine. It has a meaning which is his, and every one of its parts has a meaning in reference to every other and to the whole. What Hegel taught us about the right way to read a book applies to a machine of any kind. We must go humbly to them all, trying to enter into the idea they express and the purpose with which they are planned, trying to get a good grip of the meaning and purpose of every part in relation to the rest. When we have done this, but not before, we are in a position to use a book or a machine intelligently. We may criticise it, we may accept or reject its aid, we may end it or mend it rationally and well; and we are in possession of a method which will form part of our habit of life in dealing with all like things we may come across.

A bicycle is one side of a Socratic Dialogue in steel and india-rubber; it is an educational engine which may be used to compel young people, in an agreeable fashion, to think, and to work out their thinking by practical application step by step, with manifest results of kind welcome to the heart and impressive to the memory and imagination.

The method of Mr. Squeers, although a little crude in form, is the method of a right education: "W-I-N-D-E-R-S, winders! go and clean 'em." It is true that the connection between spelling "winders" and "cleaning 'em" is arbitrary--the link being the self-seeking will of Mr. Squeers--but the principle holds good that what is put into the intellectual hand or mouth must be worked up into the intellectual structure by active co-operation if it is to go to the making of an effective human being. It is just as futile and harmful to lay hold of a lump of knowledge, as Thring called it, and not make intellectual body of it, as it is to revel in compassionate feelings and not work them out in kindly acts, or to swallow beef and bread and not turn them into brains. It is wrong and ridiculous for teachers to spend themselves in preparing lumps that will barely stick beyond the examination period: it is ridiculous because it is so futile; it is wrong because it encourages pretentious sham and delusions of power and knowledge, while hindering the effort to win both for one's own self, the only kind of effort by which true knowledge can be acquired and power be drawn out. Surely we all know--for the educators themselves have told us--that not in the stucco-work of mere instruction but in skillful help to self-building stone by stone; not in plastering on lump after lump of knowledge compacted by other people but in teaching the intelligent use of words and things and thoughts together, must we expect to see improvement in the educational art and in its product. The educators themselves have told us this: it can hardly be with their good will if in our High Schools and Colleges much time and pains are spent on stucco and little of either on the better work they praise.

I come now to the third matter in which I think young people show conspicuous defect. It is to my mind of immense importance, because in the present state of things it has deplorable effects upon some of the very best of them, upon those who think seriously and try to act rightly; and for the purpose of meeting this defect I present my Aesop's Fables as sample educational tools.

Our young women nowadays are nothing if not enquiring and reflective; if they are capable of thinking, they are almost constrained to thinking; their social life is full of claims for thoughtful attention, full of schemes and parties calling for their adhesion. I believe there never was a time when women generally were so much mixed up in the conflict of opinion, never a time when so may of the best of them were acutely conscious of their responsibility in relation to the mental outlook, to the view they take and may come to take of life and its meaning, and of the interpretation of their experience. The result is perplexing; I do not think we need call it sad, or even very depressing, although it has features which, if they were to be permanent, would make angels weep. They are not likely to be permanent; they are better looked upon as temporary and incidental, perhaps inevitably incidental to a period of swift change and imperfect adjustment to change.

I am sure I may safely appeal for your support in the opinion that our girls are not as well prepared to meet the nineteenth and twentieth century strain as they might be. They seem either very little acquainted with previous thought and work or strangely unaware of its value; they certainly do not reap all the advantage from it that others before them have reaped in their time; they seem not to have been introduced, at least for any practical purpose, to the heritage which the striving and suffering of the past have prepared. So, apparently, each enterprising one begins for herself this striving and suffering all over again; each goes to work as if no ground had ever been cleared; and we have before us the spectacle of old mistakes, exploded fallacies, discarded systems--the odds and ends of the world's rubbish heap--doing duty as new things, or at least good things, and welcomed as they were welcomed before they had been swept aside.

Of course it is impossible to make everybody wise; but surely we are entitled to urge that everybody capable of some approach to wisdom should have a fair chance so far as it can be given. We are not going too far if we demand that our girls should have the advantage of their position in history, since the world is, as a matter of fact, in possession of knowledge which largely simplifies the problem of right reasoning, and sets plainly out most of the weaknesses, the tricks and snares it has when it goes wrong. We are not going too far in asking that they shall at least have the opportunity of profiting by the fact that there exists among us a knowledge of the results of thinking in this way or in that--a sort of organised experience of our race--which may sometimes keep people from wasting themselves in running down blind alleys and against dead walls; and keep them too, sometimes, from falling over precipices from the bottom of which there is a very difficult return.

It is as easy to teach some of these things as to teach Latin declensions or the counties of England; and they are not nearly so easy to forget. I will take one of my fables and use it in an illustration. I will take the fable of the 'Bundle of Sticks.' There are the separate sticks, and there is the bundle of which they are parts; and of course, although the sticks are just the same as if they had not been tied together, the bundle, as the instructive father in the fable points out, is much stronger than all the sticks. We compare this bundle with such a whole thing as a heap of stones or sand, and having made our experiments and learned their meaning thoroughly we go on in the same practical way to learn about other kinds of parts and wholes. We pick out, let us say, three sticks, and try how we can make them into a whole thing that is not a bundle and not a heap; we make a triangle--with a little help the ends are fixed together--then we discuss triangles and their ways, and we reach the knowledge that the stick-parts in a triangle-whole are different in their relation to each other and to the whole from the stone-parts in a heap or the stick-parts in a bundle-whole. It is possible to give names that will be remembered in the connection with the facts. We may talk of unit-parts in a sum (the child has learned, probably, some arithmetic) and element-parts or pieces in a pattern or system. Then we may go on to another sort of parts and whole: the parts are arms and legs and so on, the whole is Jack's or Jill's own little body. These parts are neither mere units nor mere pieces, they are members, live members of a body-whole without which they would lose their sense and meaning. If a child gets into its head these different sorts of parts and wholes in a practical way, taking real possession of the conception and its meaning, it acquires a potent engine of critical interpretation. We know that men have been divided in the past and are divided now, in thought and action, into two opposing schools; there are those who interpret the world chiefly if not entirely, as made up of units and pieces formed into groups or systems and held together only by contract or convenience; and there are those who interpret it as made up into wholes that advance more and more into developing bodies of which the parts, whether they are human beings or protoplasmic cells, are organically related members, having their life and meaning fulfilled in the life and meaning of the body to which they belong. Out of the former school come atomists, individualists and anarchists, moral, economical, and political; out of the latter, men for whom a nation is greater than the sum of its people, law and order conditions for the exercise of the freedom to do right, a general consensus of belief weighty beyond any corresponding number of private judgments, and reciprocal co-operation the secret of well-being. This is, of course, the view held by Hegel, and in a less developed form by Plato and Aristotle, and it is in these times made widely approved through biological science and research.

A great deal of the mischief one sees done by this kind of thing is due, no doubt, to reaction from an excessive use of authority, and the repression of a perfectly right development in personal life; but I think we may fairly say that the reaction would be less dangerous if in the course of education truths endorsed by an enormous consensus of belief and practice were brought home to the minds of our girls in their proper value and weight, and the reason for their value and weight were made a personal conviction embraced through understanding the principles on which it is based.

This is an age of unrest--everybody is telling us so--but it is not the first age of unrest, and the brains of our children are not one scrap better than the brains of the young Athenians, if they are as good, which is not proven. All the new things have an old history, and some of them are old things; yet we let our young people set sail over a sea of mental and moral troubles without giving them the chart which our forefathers have prepared. It is said that it is impossible to invent a new religious heresy. I can vouch for it, that in a long and friendly intercourse with clever girls--and men and women too--I have found among them many heresies, ingenious, beguiling, pernicious, held with vigour and sometimes with enthusiasm, but never one that was new--never one that has not been seen through long ago and disposed of by a consensus of expert knowledge against it.

You will probably bear me out when I say that in discussing the problems of modern life with these girls they are usually surprised to find that the guiding principles by which many of their perplexities may be unraveled are to be obtained from Aristotle, or Aquinas, or St. Paul, or Swedenborg, or some other great thinker of the past. Such men were at times brought so far into the heart of things as to find there truths applicable not only to the society of their own day, but to the most developed form, the most complicated aspect that human life and experience can present. It is part of my business to teach Legal Medicine to medical students, and I have therefore to deal with many speculative and practical puzzles. It is to the great thinkers of the past that I look for help: it is in the deposit of truth which has been confirmed and unfolded by the wise in all ages that I find principles applicable to the most modern of our problems, the newest of our dangers and our difficulties. Our girls have but a poor opinion of these great men: they attach small importance to the consensus that has proclaimed the value of their gifts to us who follow them. The verdict wrought out in a world's living and thinking goes for nothing with these beginners in that world; in their own bits of lives and with their own bits of mind they set themselves to thrash out everything for themselves. They learn, I am sure, heaps of mathematics and geography and languages, but they cannot detect the known tricks of reasoning; they have not learnt how to think well, nor how thinking has always gone right or wrong since thinking began. They do not interpret human life as a whole, nor their own life as rightly found in that of the whole: they face intellectual and moral danger like rustics in a mob, and see things, not as those should see them who stand at the vantage point of time, but as in some self-originated scheme of fantasy. They are strangely blind of that eye which, as Plato says, "is more precious than ten thousand bodily eyes, for by it alone is truth perceived."

To illustrate this I will recall to your minds a fact with which most of us have lately become acquainted through the newspapers. I myself became acquainted with it some time ago in connection with an enquiry carried on by the Society for Psychical Research. I mean the fact that there are people both here and in America who believe in the doctrines and accept the theories of what is oddly misnamed "Christian Science." I have chosen this subject to illustrate my contention about the defects in modern education, because it is one of a class of similar systems, and because training in good reasoning and in the power to detect bad reasoning is all that is needed to protect any fairly intelligent person against being led into a mistaken estimate of its value.

Christian science has a history of deep significance, reaching far beyond this present century. Like most modern systems of this kind, whether nominally Christian or not, it has its root in that tendency of the human mind which found its highest un-Christian and therefore distorted expression in Neoplatonism. It has the cardinal, the inevitable defects of all its kind, but it has others due to the peculiarities of its construction and character. The source of the attractiveness it has for some people does not lie, I think, as much as usual in the perennial charm of a reaction from popular materialism; it lies rather in the more or less successful practice of what is called mental healing, mind-cure, idea-suggestion, and so on. This it is, I think, which makes many people accept its metaphysical and religious doctrines. Yet the practice has been followed successfully, though often unconsciously, in all times and places: it belongs to the ordinary and extraordinary operation of man in the complex relations of his psycho-physical existence. It has been linked with almost every kind of opinion, false and true; and it has been adopted by medical practitioners of every kind, from the priests of Ancient Egypt to the orthodox doctors in the London and Paris of today. If people knew this, and if they knew how to detect mistakes and fallacies in reasoning, they would see that no amount of successful practice--even if it were much greater than it is, and I may add, much more free from serious dangers than it is--could prove the truth of any particular set of opinions connected with it. No opinion can be proved in such a way. If I were to say to you, for instance, "Sound is carried by a vibratory movement of the ethereal medium, and in proof of this I will speak to you through a telephone," you would know that I was talking nonsense; you would know that it is possible to speak through a telephone and hold any sort of speculative opinion about it; you would know that my theory might or might not be correct--it is, of course, incorrect--but that my speaking through the telephone could not possibly show that it was either the one or the other. You would consider my theory on its merits; you would test it by methods applicable to it on its merits, and not by my ability to do something which could be done by people who held quite different theories from mine. Taking the metaphysics and religion of Christian Science on their merits, we find, of course, appropriate and fatal tests.

There is a much-read little book in which a great man tells us enough about three subjects to enable anybody to criticise destructively the doctrines of Christian Science: these subjects are Manicheeism, Neoplatonism, and Christianity; and they are all intimately concerned with Christian Science. In this year of grace this little book completes fifteen centuries of its existence; it has been translated into the language of every civilised nation upon earth, and it is sold in every shop in London at prices ranging from ninepence to --say--half-a-sovereign.

Even if it is too much to ask that our girls should have been brought by education to the point of understanding in their later years this classic work, it is not too much to ask that they should be able to see through a piece of bad reasoning like that of a passage which I will give you from Mrs. Eddy's book:--

"The metaphysics of Christian Science, like the rules of mathematics, prove the rule by inversion. For example: there is no pain in truth, and no truth in pain; no nerve in Mind, and no mind in nerve; no matter in Mind, and no mind in matter; no matter in Life, and no life in matter." I need hardly say that this method is not a method by which anything of this sort can possibly be proved. One might as well say that as there is no bread in yeast, there is no yeast in bread, and that since there no coops in chickens we need never look for chickens in coops; and one might even set out to prove that because there is no Christian Science in sense there is no sense in Christian Science. My contention is surely fair enough, that intelligent people who have been educated should have been protected in the process of their education against the possibility of being led away by reasoning so transparently bad as this. We are told that the aim of education is the wise person, but it seems that the educators of today have no time to set children on the way to become wise; the educators of today are obliged to hurry up and turn out crowds of young creatures loaded with knowledge for the satisfaction of Examiners and Employers, and the Government and Society, and Mrs. Grundy and each other. The educator of today cannot educate because he is too busy instructing--at least, so most of him says. The world cries out for instruction , and time is fleeting, and he must do what the world demands, against his own wish, against his judgment, often against his conscience too. "The science of education," says Oscar Browning, "is still far in advance of the art": there is not time for art to catch up science, for practice to work out theory. It often seems more immediately profitable to plaster lumps of knowledge over a child than to lead him on to take knowledge to himself and grow and strengthen by the work; moreover, if Boards and parents will have lumps of knowledge, and prefer children to be like caddises; if they hold in esteem these poor things stuck over with tags and rags and scraps that do not really belong to them and are sure to fall off before long; if they set no store by the wise persons whom the educator pines to produce, there seems little be done--just now. Only when the making of caddises becomes visibly unprofitable will the value of the wise persons have a chance of being found out by the Examining Boards.

I have made a frank avowal of my own opinions about the present state of the art of education--about its practical method and its results. For the purpose of this discussion I beg leave now to withdraw formally my personal judgment, and to put before you four unanswered questions--

1. Do our girls usually and in proportion to their natural gifts show an understanding of words and their meaning which would carry them well through a talk with Socrates?

2. Do they usually and in proportion to their natural gifts show that they know how to deal with mechanical things in a rational way?

3. Do they usually and in proportion to their natural gifts show ability to detect bad reasoning, and a knowledge of the history of thought and of our inheritance of tested truth?

4. If they do not thus show these three kinds of efficiency, who or what should be blamed?