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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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Individualism in Education

by T. G. Rooper, H. M. I.
Volume 11, 1900, pgs. 228-231


"A boy should learn at school the value of doing as others do, where nothing of consequence is involved in conventional practice. He should also learn to respect the individual opinions of others while maintaining his own, and learn the limits between willful and rational opposition."

"For even in the case of these highly gifted children, one of the best lessons that they can possibly learn is the use and value of what is average, and we have to help them so to develop their special gift, that they may not, by a mistaken reliance on their one talent, become foolish in matters where what is ordinary and usual is of far greater importance than what is exceptional."


There is, perhaps, a not uncommon feeling that the older type of school in its curriculum did too little to provide for individual tastes, and there is also a feeling that class teaching is overdone. Children passing through large schools in large groups or classes lose, it is thought, their individuality, and, therefore, rather the opposite type of teaching should be aimed at, namely, that no two children should follow the same routine, and that individual teaching rather than class teaching should be the rule. Every individual bent of the child's mind should be sought out with scrupulous care and developed in the way that is most characteristic of him. Let children grow up all good, if possible, but at any rate let no two be quite alike. It is not the school, nor the class, nor the subject of instructions, but the individual child that the teacher is really concerned with. So much stress is laid on individuality by some writers.

What, then, is want of individuality? Is it when a person is not easily distinguishable from his companions? A hundred workhouse boys, for instance, are hardly to be distinguished one from another, at any rate, by a stranger. When we speak of want of individuality in a boy, do we mean that he is one of a number all alike, resembling pebbles on a beach, "the unnumbered pebbles by the surges idly chafed?" When we regard each pebble as a separate and handy thing for throwing at a mark, we think of it also as wanting in characteristic shape since all alike are ground down by the surge to forms more or less spherical, and one stone is as good as another for our purpose. Are we, then, to find fault with a boy for wanting individuality because he acts and talks exactly like a hundred others, each as complete in their own way as himself? Or are we again to talk of a boy as wanting individuality because in thought and action he is so much assimilated to his parents or teachers, that his being seems merged in them and his thoughts seem mere repetition of theirs? Do we not say that an object has the greatest individuality when it is most unlike its own kind, say a crow with whitish feathers? We certainly say that an old apple tree has individuality, when in its twisted, gnarled and irregular stems and branches its own particular past history may be easily read.

Do we, however, speak of individuality in a boy who is quite unlike others, say, wears long hair and plays with a doll, or who doesn't see any use in a pocket knife? Or do we, after all, rather call that individuality when a boy does the same as others only in a different way, either better or worse? If the last view is true, then any character, however individual, has much in it that is common to it and others, and is not, therefore, an isolated human unit. When we complain of a school routine, that it tends to destroy individuality, we mean, probably, that it turns out boys all alike, whether of high quality, or of average capacity, or of a low tone. In such a case we ask are they all alike, because they all assimilate the tone and teaching of the school? But if a boy has been brought up at home and is quite unlike average boys in important particulars, should we say that he has a marked individuality?

I think it no paradox to say that a boy goes to school to get rid of individuality, namely, that kind which is stamped upon him by home life in being unlike other boys. In losing, however, one kind of individuality which is apt to be either anti-social or unserviceable, or at least what Dr. Johnson called "not clubbable," he really gains a new personality which ought to be the old one not abolished, but modified and intensified and improved.

If a boy takes with him to school no sense of individual responsibility, and if he is in none of his thoughts or actions other than imitative, subservient, receptive and obedient, the character he will acquire at school will be just that which stamps the average boy at that school, good or bad as it may be. If he brings to school a feeling of responsibility and obeys and imitates with intelligence and reflection, his intercourse with boys and masters will not form a new and merely average character, nor will it abolish his old individuality, but rather enhance it.

A boy should learn at school the value of doing as others do, where nothing of consequence is involved in conventional practice. He should also learn to respect the individual opinions of others while maintaining his own, and learn the limits between willful and rational opposition. That which is awkward, boorish, graceless or shy and eccentric should disappear under the influence of converse with other boys.

But the old-fashioned grammar school performed its work badly. The ways of the scholars were often unworthy of a gentleman, the course of studies was the same for all boys alike, and took no account of the varied occupations of life or the varied endowments of boys. After sixteen, most boys must, in these days, learn to make up their mind whether they will pursue a more literary or a more scientific training, and whether they intend to adopt a practical career or lead a life of study, and their instruction should (within limits) be varied accordingly. But a boy must learn to do as others do in many matters. How can the individuality of a boy then be respected at school? Judging from these considerations, it will be admitted that a negative answer must be given to the question, "Can you make a boy most himself by leaving him alone and giving him particular private tuition?" Individuality is better developed at school than at home, and no child can grow up strong in mind and body without interference.

Then comes the question, when should interference be recommended and how far should it extend? Every one can see the harm of false control, but all education implies control, and, in some form, compulsion. The reason why many people object to compulsory religions, compulsory morality and compulsory learning, is that such religion, virtue and learning can hardly be distinguished in reality and practice from the absence of them; yet no society can really exist without compulsion in some form. In a pack of wolves or wild animals with social instincts, the members who fail in their duty are destroyed by the rest, and, in more complex human associations, compulsion in some form or other is inevitably exercised. Yet freedom is often spoken of as a "natural" thing.

Poets seem to yearn after a freedom with which, in their fancy, they invest nature. "Follow nature," they seem to say, "she alone is free." Wordsworth wrote:--

          How does the meadow flower its bloom unfold?
          Because the lovely little flower is free
          Down is its root, and in that freedom bold;
          And so the grandeur of the forest tree
          Comes not by casting in a formal mould,
          But from its own divine vitality.

Students of science, on the other hand, differ here from poets. What most impresses and often oppresses them is the prevalence of law in nature, and the whole progress of learning tends to force upon us the fact that, in nature, there is nothing capricious and nothing arbitrary or mutable. The wind which seemed so long to have a "liberal charter" is now, after years of patient research, known to blow in obedience to regular laws. It is only imperfect knowledge that leads us to think that growth of living matter is uncontrolled. The results of vitality are a compromise between internal and external forces. Neither child nor flower can grow up free from external force, but, of course, the force must be suited to its needs. For there is a principle in the application of compulsion to human beings. There is a state of man which is neither slavery nor anarchy. It is wild nature that really lives in slavery, however free it may appear to poets. The principle for men is that, so far as possible, the compulsion must be directed to setting free energy for good, which without it is impeded or wasted.

In each particular case it is impossible to say without much consideration whether compulsion is necessary or not. In itself, compulsion is not an evil. The mistaken application of it is most injurious. What makes compulsion unpopular is its abuse and not its use. Even in a game of football, if the boys do not compel each other to "play the game," they will get no game at all and no pleasure in their aimless scrimmage.

It is easy to see that compulsion which prevents an immediate evil may, after a time, give rise to a crop of others, and that the evil may be increased by the remedy. The law, for instance, by which public houses are closed on compulsion at a certain hour seems to have worked very well. The reason is because it only exercises a little unobjectionable force in urging every alehouse politician and club-man in the direction he is really not unwilling to go, namely home, in decent time. It is asserted, however--probably with truth--that if, without abolishing the demand for what is sold in public houses, you abolish public houses altogether, your compulsory measure would lead to an immense consumption in private houses, clubs, and the like; compulsion works well in one case and not in another. Again, the English people like to rest on the seventh day and machinery is therefore, by lying idle, often taxed or mulcted [extorted] of one seventh of its use. Few people, however, object to the law which prohibits manufacture and trading on Sundays. The nation secures a day of rest by this compulsion. What would, however, be the effect of compelling every one to go to church according to an old statute? The evil would far outweigh the good. Uniform practice in such a matter is another question.

All civilized nations now most wisely insist on all children attending school. The attendance at school is a matter of discipline, and it is an indispensable part of the training of the ordinary family. Except in rare cases, the family training which is the basis of all education needs the supplement of a good school where the motives and movements of human life may play upon the child's growing organism more freely than they can in the narrow sphere of home, and yet not without some check. The methods of instruction and the course of the studies, however, remained too long stereotyped, the successful scholar becoming in the next generation the school teacher, and repeating over again, with no significant alteration, precisely the same routine which had answered his purpose in spite of the fact that manufacture, trade, and even professions keep on changing to suit the growing complexity of modern life. An Elizabethan curriculum consisting of ancient languages is imperfectly adapted to the time in which we live, and yet the vis inertia that has to be overcome before any important alteration can be made is so great, that probably private schools will be the first to inaugurate them. Probably in the end the efforts of private schoolmasters will create an opinion so favorable to a new type of school, that the old grammar school routine will be seriously modified, and, in time, a boy's career at school will be very unlike the excessive book cram at a German gymnasium on the one hand, or the one-sided physical development of a mere athlete, such as characterizes the rather low aims of some English public schools. "How," said George Kingsley to the South Sea Islander, "do you make your living?" "Oh we! we play games." More clearly than before, it is seen to be the teacher's business to seek out the natural endowments of each boy, but inasmuch as in most cases these are of an average type, a common education and routine is both possible and desirable. The demand to have one teacher for one child is as false in theory as impracticable. We have, however, to be keenly alive to the exceptional types, and deal with these prudently.

For even in the case of these highly gifted children, one of the best lessons that they can possibly learn is the use and value of what is average, and we have to help them so to develop their special gift, that they may not, by a mistaken reliance on their one talent, become foolish in matters where what is ordinary and usual is of far greater importance than what is exceptional. School should offer the average boy opportunities of measuring himself with those whose talents are far beyond his own, and, at the same time, it must enable the boys of exceptional talent and aspirations to develop themselves prudently, and to live in society with their fellow fools and their fellow brutes, for these are, after all, their brothers with whom they will have to get on in after years, or else pass their lives as many men of genius have done, in perpetual discontent and misery. School must, however, not exaggerate the average qualities of average boys. An injurious influence was formerly exercised by the first class English public schools in that they made the average boy think too little of his powers and the clever boy too much. "Modesty" said Jesting Jowett, "is only a virtue in youth," and perhaps even this excessive belief in one's self does more good than harm. At any rate "a mixture of a lie doth ever add pleasure." But the feeling engendered by the Homeric treatment of the rank and file compared with the Hectors, Achilles, and Ajaxes worked badly on the careers of the ordinary boys. They felt themselves one of a genus, a specimen, a black ant on a forest ant heap or a sombre clad sparrow amid the thieves of the harvest. They became shorn of their individuality. Their spirit of self-assertion was unduly depressed. They started to face the world in despair of their own powers. School life, instead of making them many and self-reliant, made them tame and wanting in forgetive power.

While, then, there is a growing demand that individuality may be more respected, on the other hand, some say the crop of individualism in modern life is too heavy and that the spirit of Rousseau, while destroying obedience to traditional practices and conventional customs, has replaced it with a love of disobedience for its own sake. It has been said that old-fashioned behaviour and principles which had some admixture of sound sense have been replaced by sophistical and fallacious statements which have none.

Undoubtedly, the hardest task of the educator is to help a growing youth to know himself, for that involves a wide knowledge of others. A boy has to learn to play his part with others, and not to live in solitude. He has to learn that the great organic communities with and in which he has to live and work, the state, the church, the army, or other professions, are not mere aggregates of individuals, each getting something for himself which alone determines his association with the others like political parties. He has to learn that great organic associations depend on the due expansion of the individual will; and that each member must learn to understand himself and others by expanding each his own will until it embraces the wills of others, and thus to become a member of a corporate and, in the ecclesiastical phrase, a mystical union.

There is, however, a type of individualism which is the purest vulgarity. "Who," says [Henri Frederic?] Amiel, "has not been repelled by the conduct of the young men standing at the corners of the village green on Sunday evenings? The starlight is superb. The night is peace, harmony, and fragrance. The youths howl breakdown songs, purposely out of tune and harsh, they grin and make coarse or brutal remarks and jests on passer by. Why all this? It is instinct. It is the imperious need of self-assertion. It is the feeling they must assert themselves to be what they are; they must oppose themselves as such to every one else; they must set themselves in contrast sharp and clear with all around, with nature, with poetry, with order, with society, with harmony, with the adoration which raises us to God. It is I, I, I, before all; I by opposition, I by vulgarity, by contortion of face, by coarse chaff, by impertinent caprice, by independence and self-sovereignty, by exultant spontaneity, I for myself, a self-sufficient, invincible monad, outside, not inside God's creation, It is I as Satan tempted Adam, I as the centre of all, I to be as God."

This conduct is a gross and coarse caricature of man's most precious privilege to be himself; it is the abuse of personal responsibility, it is the nightmare of the conception of freedom. Yet these young musicians of Bremen, the ass, the cock, and the dog may learn wisdom in time. Let them alone, let them continue their base concert till its repulsiveness appalls even themselves. The sense of shame must grow up from within. Better this individuality than none at all. For it is certain that modern thought often does tend to the practical suppression of individuality. Materialism and socialism both overlook and misunderstand the true value of human personality and efface it, the one in the sum of natural facts, the other in society.

As there is a danger of sacrificing the whole for a part, as when a child is momentarily indulged, regardless of his whole career, or when the majesty of the law is unvindicated owing to favour in a special case, so there is danger of sacrificing a part for the whole, as when a boy at school with a special taste finds no opportunity of pursuing it because it lies outside the routine of school. What is inconsistent with the bond of union that holds any society together must be got rid of, but the wisest may easily confuse what is with what is not essential, hence the reformer is easily excommunicated or martyred, and man has ever behaved most shamefully to those who have served him best.

To develop individuality, boys ought to have some time alone, and some place where they can follow their own thoughts. Amiel remarks finely, "In the depths of self leave some room for the vague, undecided and mysterious; leave a corner of the land uncultivated where chance seeds may grow as the wind conveys them; leave a few branches to shelter strange birds; leave an altar unascribed where there is a place for a strange god. Allow some novel thoughts to grow without much criticism. If the soil is of the right sort and well cultivated, bad seeds will not take root, and only what is good will flourish there."

The greatest difficulty of the teacher is to possess the tact and skill to know how much fallow time to leave his scholars. This inner hidden individual life must not be choked and destroyed by exigencies of social organization. Character is suppressed if the individual is made a mere instrument of the body or community to which he belongs. The true social aim is to frame a society, such that each member governs himself, hard as it is to establish this type of government. The Latin people, it is said, cannot establish self-government nor accept truth as a whole. They seek miracles and objects of faith and worship at Lourdes and elsewhere. They petrify abstractions and never penetrate into the inner sanctuary of the heart where ideas are not yet fashioned apart and completely defined. Instead of seeking truth, they build a fort round an accepted position and defend it from attacks of critical enquiry. Their daily life is determined exclusively by custom, tradition and convention, however contrary to reason and sound criticism. It was this conventionality that Rousseau undermined, but the Latin people still dread individual responsibility for themselves and do not train their children to it. "The English family," it is well maintained by Amiel, "is the opposite of this. Each member has his place and fills it in an orderly way. Each has his duty and the rights of each are respected; children are happy, smiling and trusting, and yet discreet. They know they are loved, but they do not presume on this. English mothers practice a firm impersonal rule which is the base of all law. Children feel they have rights and are not obeying arbitrary and capricious commands. Dieu et mon droit ['God and my right'] is a principle imbibed by Englishmen with their mother's milk."

If, then, the English family is so good a type of a social community, cannot we imagine, according to Froebel's views, a school which shall be designed as an extension of it rather than a substitute. Such an institution would aim at a position between the old-fashioned school and family life. It would be wider than the family circle, but the masters would not be out of relation to the boys when not instructing them, nor mere companions in games. The masters and boys would have common occupations in farm and garden and workshop, and in expeditions for surveying, science studies, and practical handwork and military training. The boys would not be left too much to themselves, nor subjected to the degrading espionage of the pitiful pion of the French schools. In such a school there will be a place for both sexes, and the brutalities of Tom Brown's experience will be avoided, while the effeminacy of a smug boarding house will be equally absent. Hard and rough work, out of doors occupations, in the way of music, literature, recitations, readings, play-acting, and the like, will cultivate refinement. We want nothing soft, and yet nothing brutal or brutish.

We can imagine a school in the country, where hardihood of life can be cultivated amid fresh air, open windows and cold water, where life is simple and varied, and the evils of excessive subdivision of labour are avoided.

The effect of a one-sided education is obvious. We have excessive division of labour, distributing life into sharply divided states of toil and amusement; work without pleasure in it, and amusement without intellect. We have a vast heap of human misery which we pity and cannot alleviate; we have abolished slavery in word, but there are masses of men who are not yet free and cannot develop their individual capacities.

We can imagine a school where the masters lead a common life with the boys, dressed like them for practical activity in the field, and not in black cloth gowns or cassocks, working at gardening or ploughing, directing the boys at work with them, where the child is not isolated from the society of adults out of lesson time, and where adults find a real and not a pretence or toy occupation in utilizing the child's force as far as it goes in work which is useful for the establishment. We can imagine that time at this school will not divide itself into sharply cut sections of work and play, hated restraint followed by lawless relaxation, but, rather, consist of interchange of occupation, continuous but varied, some lighter, some severer, some taxing muscle, some brain.

We can imagine that, in such a school, there would be established a collective corporate life, in which, however juvenile, each member would learn self-reliance and individual responsibility. The life would call out spontaneous activity, and not merely depend on drill, hurry, force and uniformity. Each man will be a law unto himself and no man's slave, but he will not, on that account, obey his own arbitrary will and caprice. His law will be based upon the will of all, which is his own will expanded till it comprehends the will of others. "Each on himself relied as on his arm alone the moment lay of victory." The transition from such a school to life would not then be felt as passing from a condition of restraint to freedom, but rather from freedom to greater freedom, a transition which actually and really implies passing from a state of restraint to greater restraint, from less need of self-control to greater need of it, from few chances of offence to many chances.

In such a school, the idea of liberty which grows up in the mind will not be absence of restraint and order, not unorder, not anarchy, not false individualism, not disregard of others, not absence of external control, but, rather, constant consideration of others, and constant adjustment of the relation of self to other people. The virtue that here grows up will be not negative, as of those who are good because they are constrained to be good by force external to themselves, but active virtue, such as springs from having lived in a society where good lives are led and where a good life has been led, thanks to the environment of a well organized community.

Reform in education must be slow. It must be a compromise between past and present.

New types of schools want the prestige and distinction that invest older schools. All honour to those who, in faith, make trial of new movements and face the future without a craven shrinking before risk, and do not take timid refuge in the shelter of the imposing and magnificent, but attenuated and moth-eaten, garments of the past.


Proofread June 2011, LNL