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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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A Theory of Education

by the Rev. H. Belcher, LL.D., Rector of S. Michael's, Lewes
Volume 11, 1900, pgs. 755-762


Educational methods depend upon either the principle of Culture, of Training, or of Useful Accomplishment.

There is nowhere in ancient writings any sustained and reasoned discourse on education. The writings of Plato and of his disciple, Xenophon, supply in the Republic, the Cyropaedia, and Oiconomicos, a very clear presentment of what shrewd and capable men thought of the matter. To shoot straight, to ride fearlessly, to tell the truth, to live much in the open air, to abhor drunkeness, and to respect parents, are the main features of Xenophon's scheme for education. He says that the Persians actually pursued this plan of education, so far as it is a plan, and got excellent results from it. He does not claim for his own country-men, the Greeks, that this plan or scheme of life was also theirs. To claim for the Greeks a love of truth would be to import romance into the region of fact. Of the Greeks it seems to be true, that the being found out in fraud and falsehood was unpardonable.

This scheme or rudimentary plan of education excludes women and girls from its purview, and makes no provision for the poor. Shooting and riding and telling the truth have been for centuries the privileges of the prosperous and wealthy. The poor in those ancient societies consisted of "mean whites" and slaves: of whom the former had lost their rights by sinking into the residuum of social life; while the latter had not attained legal rights, nor any equivalent of them.

There is, indeed, in the Greek literature a practical scheme of experimental education put forth by Xenophon, but it is scarcely of general application. It is the case where a man of mature age, having married a young woman and finding her deficient in knowledge of domestic economy, sets himself to rectify this want of information. It is a pretty little treatise. We get no hint of the result.

According to the best known scheme of education--that of Plato, the general idea is Culture, not Training; certainly not Useful Accomplishment. His main contention is that the soul is neither created nor destroyed so far as we control the process, but that to feed or to starve it, to nourish or poison it, rests with us. He contends that no teacher can hold his own, much less make any headway against the influence of society at large. It is not of much use having recourse to sophists, or philosophers, or the leaders of public opinion to aid the young in moulding their minds, because the voice of the people in the camp and in the theatre, in the law court and in the common assembly is, as against isolated efforts, quite irresistible. So according to Plato education is one and indivisible, it must be the same for all, in every condition of free life.

"The eye of the soul" is not, as some "professors of education" think, turned to the light by its own action; it is not created or destroyed by education, but it must be turned towards the light, because it has an intrinsic capacity for that light. What was the light towards which the eye of the Greek soul was turned? Certainly not Useful Accomplishment of Training; for they knew no language but their own, had no books, knew little of science in any detail, did not appreciate the value of perspective in drawing, and had no knowledge of mathematics except within easy and well-defined limits. Upon what then did they proceed? Taking the Platonic Socrates and Plato as our guides, the first element we meet is Religious Instruction.

Religion with Plato is psychical; that is: the religion of the soul. Religion naturally in theory falls into two departments, the Hebrew-Christian department, and the Hellenic-Buddhist department. The former looks chiefly to the worship, attributes and work of the Almighty, subsidiarily to the action and scope of the soul. The latter to the soul, subsidiarily towards Almighty God. The immortality of the soul is, on the philosophic side, a Greek notion, and a whole dialogue of Plato is devoted to establishing and enforcing this idea. This hope of immortality is reproduced by Cicero in two of his well-known dialogues and was current generally in enlightened circles for some centuries prior to Christianity, moulding, no doubt, Jewish thought among Jews of the Dispersion generally. This, then, is the first doctrine according to the scheme.

The second detail is Music; not music as we know it, but as the Greek gentleman understood it. The literature of the time was chanted to a plain song; the Iliad and the Odyssey were so handled. The lyrics of the Plays, such as the Ode to the Clouds of Aristophanes and the Hoopoe song, were recited or chanted to the tune of strings or pipes. Hence music comprising anything that the Tuneful Nine would countenance: everything from the laughter of Thalia to the solemn recitation of Calliope came within this elastic scope. Every Greek gentleman, like the English, French, Spanish and Italian gentlemen of the period of the Renascence, could touch with effect the theorbo, the gittern, the lyre. The pipe, flute, and clarinet fall into disfavour because they distort the face in playing and make a man lose dignity.

Athletics constitute the third element; either set exercises in the gymnasia, or outdoor field sports, hunting and shooting. The inter-provincial system of games raised athletics to national importance; to win at the Olympia conferred a distinction of the very highest rank, and carried with it very substantial privileges. Nothing more incentive of athletic proficiency could have been devised.

The fourth detail of education was Mathematics. This subject comprised arithmetic and geometry, astronomy and harmonics. The arithmetic is generally elementary and notional, the geometry confined to exact measurements in this direction and that. As regards the system followed, it was chiefly oral, with calculating tables; the well-known system of making calculations with beads on rigid wires all set in a rectangular frame is Greek. The system of notation also was of such a character as to make long calculations altogether impossible by reason of their literary intricacy.

On this slender stock of materials, Plato proceeds to construct his system of preparation of a man for the work of his life; but first of all, he struck out poetry from his scheme as being quite inconsistent with true religion and morality. He does this on the general ground that poetry is a false presentation of phenomena, that are themselves feeble representations of the true!

But every reformer such as Plato was sure to be an iconoclast in some direction. Hebrews, Moslems, Puritanical Christians in England have hated with the intensest hatred, pictorial, fictile and glyptic work of all kinds; they have delighted in hewing down carved work with axes and hammers. Other Puritans of the North British type have entertained the same feeling with regard to harmonies of sound, vocal or instrumental.

Plato, however, approved of hymns and would have them married to some simple air or melody. I am unable to gauge what attitude he would have assumed towards the novel. Of the kinds we know, those of the allegorical type such as Pilgrim's Progress, those of the comedy of manners such as Vanity Fair, those of adventure such as Rob Roy, those of bucolic or georgic life such as Silas Marner--I think he may have allowed them all a place; but novels of problems, of passion, of introspection, of psychological details, these, I fancy, he would have rejected. There does not exist a really prominent and unquestioned piece of work of this last class, so I do not mention any names.

Science in the restricted sense of its meaning then current, was purely abstract. It had no bearing on life, Macaulay thinks. It certainly had no burden laid upon it, either to increase and multiply luxuries, nor to cure the diseases prosperity brings in its train. But as a means to an end, astronomy, the science of numbers, and the measurement of distances make a fine discipline, and in this way go to constitute a good citizen--in mind and body.

For the Platonic experiment of education had for its object the making of good citizens, and nothing else. "It is," he said, "upon progress in knowledge that the good of man depends." So, to further and enhance this good, the first step of the educator is to discover what kind of studies and practice will produce the men who are to save society. Consequently, the whole object of education with him should be justice. Fortunately, or unfortunately, justice is a notion that he does not attempt to define. There exists no definition of justice that is likely to be satisfactory, because the notion is an elementary notion, and cannot be expressed in terms simpler than itself. But, as everyone has a general notion of the signification of the word, and as all civilized nations have tribunals for the interpretation and administration of justice, there is no necessity for a definition.

In order that the good citizen shall have full and free opportunity, the Platonic scheme of education brought in women on the same basis as men. He argues for the enfranchisement of women on the curious ground that there is no aptitude of mind or action in which women are so prominent, as that men have not done better. He includes cookery, music, dancing, and house management in his list of things, in which women might be thought to excel, yet in these things men have done better; so there is no mission or sphere which in his view may be particularly called women's work, hence, there seems to be no reason why women should be educated in any way different from men. Hence, he would expose them to absolutely the same discipline, and among other things they are to be trained in athletics and drilled for soldiers. He thinks that their exclusion from the military calling is inconsistent with justice, on the general ground that women should share all the political burdens of men, if they get all the political privileges! Hence, Greek girls should be trained in the use of the spear, the bow, the sword, and learn to ride.

He did not approach this question from the side of democracy, for he hated democracy, as many men having lived in democracies do. On the same general ground of the commonweal and of justice, he taught that marriage should be under State regulation and control. He held that this most important of social contracts should not be determined by social ambition, by avarice, by pique, by accident--in a word, by the most contemptible impulses and motives of life. Nor did he include in his scheme of training in justice the notion of courtship, in which, on the one side, the dominant co-efficients are insincerity, adulation and cajolery, on the other credulity, jealousy, caprice and petty tyranny; the passion of which these emotions are the sign, being the very passion a wise education would extirpate at all costs!

Now this position of Plato's was highly paradoxical as opinion then was, because all the high-bred, wealthy Greek women, though free, were much immured, kept to their own quarter of a house, very seldom saw their husband's guests, rarely appeared in public, and never took part in any public action whatever. The State, while it made some provision for the education of boys, made none whatever for that of girls, who were left for the little training they received to the services of accomplished slaves. Plato was intensely aristocratic and a great gentleman, very wealthy, very highly born, a man of absolute leisure. It is not to a man of this kind that one looks for the utterance of great paradoxes, political or otherwise!

But, as his notion of justice entailed unrestricted freedom from convention; and as you cannot have a just people without making full provision that everyone without distinction of sex is trained towards justice, so it is clear the conventional bonds of womanhood, whether imposed by themselves or laid upon them by others, should be snapped and cast aside if we are to have an absolutely free and just people.

Freedom, however, with the Greek did not mean individualism. A free Greek was bound by his position to take immediate part in public affairs. Opinion did not allow him to consult his own profit, or pleasure, or convenience to the damage of his neighbours. The Greek elector, for instance, was bound to go to the ballot box, under pain of disenfranchisement or some such penalty. That idleness and selfishness which leaves votes unrecorded and offices unfilled in our modern democracies, was, by the Greeks of the best period, so far despised that a man whom the Americans call a mugwump, the Greeks called an idiot; he was supposed to refrain from political duties because in his head there were generally apartments to let unfurnished.

On the same general ground of justice, the classification of society was carried out, the teacher of religion and morality--that is, of justice, being in this system the highest caste, then the guardian or military, then the merchants, then the handicraftsmen, and in each case the distinctive stamp in it is made without reference to sex.

Well, then, what are the results of all this experimental teaching?

Zeller pointed out some time ago the remarkable similtude of the Medieval Society to the Platonic Theory. Medieval Society seems to present an exemplification of the Platonic Theory, so far as that system of life admits. The Greeks had neither the money, means, or inclination to make experiments in education; neither have the British people done so. That is, we have at no time conducted any training or culture on purely scientific principles. I doubt whether it is possible in our social order; at any rate, the attempt has not been made. But Plato's ideas were sown broadcast and sank into many minds in many countries. Consequently, there has been an extraordinary verification of a philosophical ideal.

In the first place, Plato was the head of a group of Greeks which produced a profound spiritual revolution, and the Church of God in Europe seized hold of the spirit of this movement and continued it.

Secondly, man fell more into the different orders of industry, enterprise, soldiering, and the priesthood, as slavery gradually disappeared.

Thirdly, the shock of barbarism that shattered the empire broke up ancient conventions, and, among other things, broke the bonds of women.

The Teutonic women accompanied their husbands to the battlefield, and either conquered or died with them. The fact that Mrs. Cronje was captured at Paardeberg with her husband is, in its own way, a fragmentary witness to ancient custom. [The Battle of Paardeberg, Boer War, 1900] It is a well-known fact that at the Battle of Aix, Marius exterminated two Teutonic clans, men, women and children, hundreds of miles away from their native fields.

Hence the extraordinary prominence in obedience to the Platonic idea given in our still partially feudalized society to the priesthood and the law. The Lord Chancellor is an offshoot of the episcopate, and everyone knows that, with us, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Lord Chancellor are the chief subjects of the Crown, not being of the Blood Royal.

Hence, too, in the Middle Ages, the predominant positions assumed by women, the great abbesses, the Châtelaines, the Queen Regents, the Professors (for at one time the Italian universities swarmed with women professors), the warriors; women like Philippa of Hainault, Jane de Montfort, Lady de Manny, Margaret of Anjou, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Black Agnes of Dunbar, and many others, a fact which did not render the appearance on the scene of Jeanne d'Arc as something special or phenomenal. Add to this the fact that marriage in the cultured or leisured classes was under the control of guardians, feudal or sub-feudatory, of which we retain a reminiscence in the case of our wards in Chancery. Take also into consideration that vast areas of land were common land; that there was hardly any private property in land of the nature of freehold, and that absolute property in land in Europe is a matter of recent growth and development. Taking all this into consideration, it will appear that this ancient set of dialogues talked out amidst the chirping of cicadas under the Plane tree on Peiraean Road, or by the babbling water of Ilissus had had far-reaching effects; effects that are not likely to be exhausted in our day!


Proofread May 2011, LNL