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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."
Thring as an Educationalist

by P. H. Bagenal, Esq., H.M.I.
Volume 12, 1901, pgs. 25-36

"[Young boys] come to be taught how to live, to be prepared to meet the trials of life, to find out that, as they must some day act alone on their own responsibility, it is well to begin to know how to do so. The preparation, then, is a preparation for the general habits of life hereafter. They are to be trained, first of all, to study. They do not understand as yet how to do it, and clearly, therefore, are not likely to do it under less favourable circumstances than trained men require in order to study."

Edward Thring was born in Somersetshire, in 1821, the son of a landowner, who was also a clergyman. He was one of five brothers, all of whom made their mark in life. His father was a man of strong character, but hard, unbending will, administering his domestic affairs more on the principles of an Eastern Pasha, than of a western Englishman.

Thring's first school was a private one at Ilminster, not very far from his home, where he found such experiences as may be paralleled by those of the good Lord Shaftesbury. "It was my memories," he used to say, "of that school and its severities which first made me long to try if I could not make the life of small boys at school happier and brighter." After three years at Ilminster, Thring went to Eton on the foundation, and remained till he was captain of the school. In those days Eton was what would now be called a barrack school, and the educational experience of Thring, in what was then known as "Long Chamber," no doubt supplied to him in after life the object lesson of "how not to do it," as well as suggestions for the scholastic reform he was destined to carry out.

Here is a sketch given in after life by Thring of his Eton experiences:--"Not five-and-twenty (now fifty-five) years ago, with open gates up to eight o'clock at night all year round, and sentinels set the winter through, as regularly as in the trenches before Sebastopol, to warn us of the coming master, the boys of the finest foundation in the world starved their way up to the university. Whistle or hiss marked the approach of friend or foe. Rough and ready was the life they led. Cruel, at times, the suffering and wrong; wild the profligacy. For, after eight o'clock at night, no prying eye came near till the following morning; no one lived in the same building; cries of joy or pain were equally unheard and, excepting a code of laws of their own, there was no help or redress for anyone. Many can recollect this."

No wonder Thring said afterwards that "a mob of boys cannot be educated."

When Thring was at Eton, in 1833, there were only nine masters to 570 boys in the Upper School. There was no pretence of giving individual training to boys. The food was bad, and the attendance nil. In a word, it was his own acute knowledge of what was defective at Eton that kindled in him the desire to make school life better. Love for the place, and antagonism to the system as he had known it (of course it is greatly changed now), was his permanent after-feeling for his old school.

Captain of Eton, Thring went up to King's College, Cambridge, as a scholar, and after a distinguished university career, took orders, and accepted a Curacy at Gloucester. Speaking of his career as a teacher, in after years, he said:--"But the curate life was the foundation of it all in practice. Never shall I forget it, with its teaching work, almost daily, in National Schools. Everything I most value of teaching thought, and teaching practice, and teaching experience, came from that. Never shall I forget those schools in the suburbs of Gloucester, and their little class-room, with its solemn problem, no more difficult one in the world: how on earth the Cambridge honour man, with his success and his brain-world, was to get at the minds of those little labourers' sons, with their unfurnished heads, and no time to give. They had to be got at or--I had failed. They tried all my patience, called every power into play, and visited me with much searchings of heart if they did not do well. Never shall I cease to be grateful to those impracticable, other-world boys, and that world of theirs which had to be got into. There I learnt the great secret of St. Augustine's golden key, which, though it be of gold, is useless unless it fits the wards of the lock. And I found the wards I had to fit, the wards of my lock which had to be opened, the minds of those little street boys, very queer and tortuous affairs; and I had to set about cutting and chipping myself in every way to try and make myself into the wooden key, however common it might look, the merit of fitting the lock, and unlocking the minds, and opening the shut chambers of the heart."

Thring was appointed Head Master of Uppingham in 1853, at the age of 32. He had in the same year married a German lady, who had been trained to high educational ideals, and who, throughout his career, proved everything to him in the trials he had to face.

From the outset, Thring took up his work, not as a means but an end; not as a stepping-stone to ease and retirement, but as a life-purpose evidently cherished for years, viz., the building up of a public school upon lines clearly visible to his own mind. And it was a splendid field for the energies and intellect of an able man. To influence school life in England is to leave your mark, for better or worse, upon a stream of boys who will hereafter represent the highest social and intellectual forces of the kingdom. Such a work may even profoundly modify national character through the thoughts and actions of future leaders of men. And Thring began his work with a full knowledge of what was wanted, and a fixed conception of how to do it, and, moreover, with a strong conviction of his ability to carry it through. He was both the man-who-knew-what and the man-who-knew-how.

Uppingham is a small market town in Rutlandshire, 500 feet above the level of the sea, endowed with a fine, bracing, dry climate. The school had been founded as "a faire free Grammar School," in 1584, by Archdeacon Johnson. The endowment furnished a stipend of £150 a year to the Head Master, to which was added an antiquated house. A single assistant on the foundation, an under master and an "inefficient writing instructor" constituted his working staff in 1853. Needless to say, his scholars were represented by only some two or three dozen boys of the neighbourhood. These were the materials out of which Thring built up the Uppingham of to-day, with its twelve boarding-houses, 50 masters, 400 boys, fine hall, library, chapel, and all the equipment for a first-class mental, moral, and physical education. How all this was done, and at what expenditure of money, brain-fag, worry, and work, it is not my purpose here to describe. I must refer you to the recent life of Thring, written by Mr. G. R. Parkin, for details. [Edward Thring, Headmaster of Uppington School, Life, Diary and Letters, by George Parkin]

What I want to do to-day is to examine briefly the principles on which this great educational life work was constructed. I may, perhaps, help to inspire us all with a little of the zeal and energy of one of the great schoolmasters that England has produced, one of whose formative influences upon the present generation are probably not adequately appreciated. I am just going to set down in Thring's own words the main principles of his action.

Englishmen of the upper classes send away their children from home to be educated by strangers. No theory which does not distinctly recognize this fact to begin with is of any value in England. No practice which does not thoroughly and fairly meet this fact ought to find acceptance from the practical English mind. Children leave home to go to school. In theory they are sent to a place which is better than home, to be under men who train better than fathers and mothers. This is a large demand--a place better than home; men better than father and mother as trainers. Of course, one obvious "better" is at once seen. The children require lessons and skilled teaching, and few homes can give this. But whole nations--Germany, for instance--bring skilled teaching with reach of all homes. The English school in all instances started in early days as a local school, and has been pushed out of this by the judgment of the English people. This teaching want, therefore, clearly can have little to do with the present fact. England has not chosen to have its education carried on at home, but deliberately prefers, when it can be had, a boarding school. Accordingly, the mere teaching does not satisfy the better-than-home claim. For the teaching might be had and the home kept. The difference between merely teaching, and teaching and training, is simply immeasurable. The introduction of the training element at once makes a different world. This different world, if it is truly adapted to its purpose, demands, indeed, to begin with, everything that the other does, with the addition of everything necessary to provide for the whole life of every boy in and out of doors on the best training principles. I will simplify every school question to get rid at once of the idea that the actual teaching and knowledge part of the matter is the main thing from the English point of view. The decision has been made and is a fact. The wealthy English neither bring teaching to their houses, which they might do, nor go into towns for it, which they might do, nor found schools on this plan, which they might do. As a fact beyond dispute, Englishmen of the upper and middle classes send their children from home, and the reason they are sent from home is not the teaching. This at once brings us to the necessary conditions of a boarding-school as a place of training. It must be better than home. But every boy comes from a home, and a thousand families do not want, if they understand their wants, 10 per cent. of their 1,000 boys to be turned out brilliant knowledge-caskets and prize-winners, while 90 per cent. take their chance. The class list does not satisfy the training demand for each boy at all--every boy who leaves home ought to go to a better-than-home place. That was the general principle of Thring's educational theory. Let us see how he worked it out.

In the preface to a book, called Education and School, which Thring wrote in 1864, he remarked that there are some elementary questions in practical education which must be settled before any settled agreement or disagreement can be arrived at. For example: Is it the business of a school to teach and train every boy, or is it enough to offer knowledge which only the clever and hard-working boys take and digest? I need hardly say that the first proposition was firmly held by Thring. Over and over again he laid down that education meant the best training for all the young with a view to their after life. "Education is training for true life." "The object of school training is twofold--first, the training of life; secondly the training of the intellect and body. First, the setting the impulses on the right track; secondly, the training the instrumental powers rightly."

Thring held that all the ordinary requirements for good teaching and good life are capable of being stated with as much certainty as the requirements of any other piece of mechanism--such as a ship. "Unless a ship is seaworthy," he was fond of saying, "what is the use of the captain being good?' In the same way, he held that no school is safe in which certain facts of construction are disregarded--however good the Head Master may be.

In a school, therefore, it is of the utmost importance that the whole government and machinery should, in its minutest particulars, do its work in perfect truth and perfect freedom.

It follows, then, that no falseness in the government, no falseness in the working plan, in or out of school, can make boys true. Whatever is professed must be done.

If a school profess to teach, then every boy must have his share of teaching. There must be no knowledge-scramble, or the untruth will make itself felt.

If a school professes to train, then every boy must be really known, his wants supplied, his character consulted, or the untruth will make itself felt.

If a school professes to board boys, then every boy must find proper food, and proper lodging, and no meanness, or the untruth will make itself felt.

A sufficient number of masters, variety of occupation, a feeling of being known and cared for, a spot free from intrusion, however small, are necessities in a good school; and the want of these or of any of the other real requirements for training and teaching properly, is a sort of acted falsehood; for that which is professed is not done.

No men living can teach and train properly if they are without the machinery for doing so.

Men are of more value than walls; so the most important constructive facts in a great school are,
(1) That there shall be a permanent staff of masters, with their incomes depending on their work.
(2) That these masters shall not have more boys to deal with than each can attend to individually.
(3) That the boys shall not be forced to herd together in large rooms, but each have a sanctum of his own.
(4) That the boys shall be boarded in a proper way, that is, that all the domestic treatment shall fairly recognize their station in life.
(5) That the boys shall be trusted, and free to do anything that a wise father would wish his son to do.

On these five things, according to Thring, depend the true rank of any school. A great school, great in principle, will not fail in any of the above-mentioned points. A great school will not have its masters birds of passage. A great school will not have too few masters. A great school will not be a barrack. A great school will not deal in a niggardly way. A great school will not be a prison.

I now proceed to summarize Thring's views on all these points:--

(1) First, then, the masters must not be birds of passage. This arises from the character of their work. Their work is twofold. They have to teach, and they have the entire government and management of the boys. Certainly, if teaching is the instinct, the gift, the interesting pleasure, or the indifferent matter that it is often thought to be, birds of passage can do it well enough. But what is teaching? Teaching is a lifelong learning how to deal with human minds. As infinite as the human mind is in its variety ought the resources of teachers to be. The more stupid the pupils, the more skill is required to make them learn. And thus it comes to pass that whilst the mere possession of knowledge is enough to teach advanced classes, if it is right to profane the word by calling pouring knowledge into troughs teaching, the teaching little boys and stupid boys and low classes well is a thing of wonderful skill. Not that there is not room for skill as great in the higher classes, but the absence of it is not so self-evident. And knowledge is a thing that can be measured and ticketed; skill is not, and therefore makes but little show. Hence, young men come from the great knowledge shops of the Universities with their honours, their learning, and their intellectual sword-play, and scorn low classes, being ignorant of the variety of the human mind, ignorant of the exquisite skill and subtle simplicity wanted to meet the twistings and windings and resistance of uncultivated humanity. They have got hold of a lump of knowledge, and go about with glorious effrontery, pushing it into every keyhole, and are angry that the locks will not open.

(2) The next point in a great school is the necessity that the boys shall not outnumber the masters on a disproportionate scale. The fact of there being too few masters utterly undermines the school life, and causes a fearful waste of the living material. This affects the school both in its teaching and in its morale. It is clear at once that too great a number of boys to one master is fatal to teaching, because it becomes an impossibility to attend to individuals, to explain, to inspirit, or in any way to find out their special needs, and adapt the knowledge given to these. But this alone is worthy of the name of teaching.

(3) The third point is the necessity of a sanctum or small study for each boy. Boys are sent to school to be trained. This is important. They are not trained men exercising powers already practised, but learners. They come to be taught how to live, to be prepared to meet the trials of life, to find out that, as they must some day act alone on their own responsibility, it is well to begin to know how to do so. The preparation, then, is a preparation for the general habits of life hereafter. They are to be trained, first of all, to study. They do not understand as yet how to do it, and clearly, therefore, are not likely to do it under less favourable circumstances than trained men require in order to study. What, then, do men require who have been trained to intellectual work? They require, above all things, quiet, a place without disturbance, where there shall be as little as possible to draw off attention or distract the mind. And this is after repugnance to study has been overcome, when the worker knows how to work, and is eager to do it. If this is necessary for the trained man, it is a thousandfold more necessary for the poor boy who has everything to learn, who does not know even how to work. How needful it is for the little exile from home, with strange new life amongst strangers round about him for the first time, to have a spot, however small, which shall be his own, where he shall be safe with his books and his letters, where he can think and weep, if need be, or rejoice, unmolested, and escape for a season out of the press of life about him and the strange hardness of a new existence into a little world of his own, a quasi-home, to find breathing space and gather strength before he comes out again. Nowhere on earth is six or eight feet square more valuable than at school, the little bit which is a boy's own, the rock which the waves do not cover. Such things as these just form the square table instead of the long one, which by its mere shape and framework alters all life. No great school will force the boys to congregate together.

(4) The next position, that a great school will not be niggardly, needs no proof, but yet requires to be stated. As a matter of fact, the behaviour of any body of men depends very much on how they are treated. But this is not the whole question. A school ought not only to accept a given state of behaviour, but to train it; to train boys to do right. No possible perversion of idea can make mean and niggardly treatment a training for right. For instance, if a school does not give the boys proper food, the getting fresh and better food becomes one of the necessities of life, not merely a matter of greediness. But if the school turns the attention of the boys strongly on to food in this way, there can be but little power to restrain them from illicit things. These things may appear at first sight matters of comfort, but they are matters of morality. The deceit, greediness, and drinking that find entrance in consequence are grievously wrong in the boys who give way to temptation, but to create temptation is a fearful thing in the power which ought to guard against it.

(5) The last point that will never be neglected in a great school is the necessity of trusting the boys, and allowing them liberty to do anything that a wise father would wish his son to do. Under a right system there cannot be any doubt about the matter. One thing is certain, there is no real halting-place between perfect truth in the system with trust as regards the boys and complete and constant supervision, walled play-grounds, bolts and bars. In other words, it is safer to trust much than to trust little, and there must either be complete prison rule or a wise trust. The reason is simple. One of the strongest motives for good is the consciousness of having a character to lose. As soon as anyone sees that his superior does not believe in his character, and only trusts him to a certain point, he is tempted to trespass a little further if convenient, as he runs no risk of losing his character by doing so.

Such, then, were Thring's first principles of public school teaching and training.

The merit which Thring would have most distinctly claimed for his work at Uppingham was its painstaking adaptation of structure to training purposes. To this he attached supreme importance. The "almighty wall" was, as has been said, the phrase into which, after his manner, he condensed his view of the vital nature of this question of school structure: "Whatever men may say or think, the almighty wall is, after all, the supreme and final arbiter of schools. I mean, no living power in the world can overcome the dead, unfeeling, everlasting pressure of the permanent structure, of the permanent conditions under which work has to be done. Every now and then a man can be found to say honestly--

          'Stone walls do not a prison make,
          Nor iron bars a cage,'

--but men are not trained to freedom inside a prison. The prison will have its due. Slowly, but surely, the immovable, unless demolished, determines the shape of all inside it. Never rest till you have got the almighty wall on your side, and not against you. Never rest till you have got all the fixed machinery for work, the best possible. The waste in a teacher's workshop is the lives of men."

The individual study for each lad; the individual cubicle in the dormitory; the house, limited to 30 boys, with its separate grounds and domestic arrangements; the chapel and large schoolroom for a common school life; adequate appliances for manual employment, for amusement or recreation leisure hours; all these entered into his idea of the "almighty wall"; his belief that nothing should be left to be done by masters which could be accomplished by the ordinary structure of school buildings and appliances.

Out of this central idea, as he often said, Uppingham had grown by a natural process of evolution. Here are some more of Thring's axioms:--"There is a large percentage of temptation, criminality, and idleness in the great schools--a moral miasma--generated by known causes, and as certainly to be got rid of even by mere mechanical improvements--a little moral drainage--as the average sickness of a squalid district.

"Bullying is fostered by harshness in masters, and by forcing boys to herd together in promiscuous masses.

"Lying is fostered by general class rules which take no cognizance of ability of the individual to keep them, and they cannot do so when each boy is not sufficiently well known for his master to understand, sympathize with, and feel for him.

"Idleness is fostered when there are so many boys to each master, that it becomes a chance when it will be detected and a certainty that no special and intelligent teaching and help will be given, or indeed can be given, to the individual when in difficulty.

"Rebellion and insubordination are fostered when, from the same causes, many boys who are either backward or want ability find no care bestowed on them, are obnoxious to arbitrary punishments, have nothing to interest them or give them self-respect, and learn, in consequence, to look upon their masters as natural enemies.

"Sensuality is fostered when these and like boys, from the same causes, are launched into an ungoverned society without any healthy interest, anything higher than the body to care for (the mental part being unmixed bitterness), thrown on their own resources, often exposed to scorn in school, whilst the numbers and confusion give every hope of escaping detection.

"The atmosphere of schools is, in consequence, in all their out-of-the-way regions thick with falsehood and wrong; no more necessary, however, than a fog on an undrained field when the country round is clear, but considered necessary by the old-fashioned farmer because it has always been so."

Thring's whole teaching life was a protest against rule-mongering and its dry-as-dust methods. He dreamed of breaking through the monotony of the teacher's life, the treadmill round of mere preparation for the examiner, which is so apt to dry up and narrow mind and spirit in both teacher and taught.

In one of his school papers, he is at pains to distinguish between the true and living teacher and the machine teacher, or, as he calls him, the hammerer:--

"The teacher deals with latent powers; the hammerer hammers in a given task.

"The teacher considers the worse the material the greater the skill in working it; the hammerer hammers at the nail, and charges the material with the result.

"The teach knows his subject to be infinite, and is always learning himself to put old things in a new form; the hammerer thinks he knows his subject, and that the pupil ought to know it too.

"The teacher loves his work, and every day finds fresh reason to love it; the hammerer hammers at his work, and finds it more irksome every day.

"The teacher thinks nothing done till the food he gives his pupils is digested and craved for; the hammerer thinks everything done when he has hammered at the nail a given time.

"The teacher encourages; the hammerer punishes.

"The teacher has faith in great principles; the hammerer is the slave of little vexations.

"The teacher is a boy amongst boys in heart, in judgment a man; the hammerer has the hardness of a man, with the want of thought of a boy.

"The teacher meets the young on their own ground and from their own point of view; the hammerer stands above them and makes laws.

"The teacher in punishing considers what is best, not what is deserved; the hammerer applies a fixed penalty.

"The teacher deals in exhortation and hope; the hammerer in truisms and lamentation.

"The teacher is animated by a high and true ideal towards which he is ever working, to which he is ever finding some response, even in apparent failures; the hammerer's ideal is a shallow dream of selfish success, the non-realization of which leaves him apathetic and querulous in his work, sceptical of goodness, hardened in his own opinions, and closed against improvement.

"The teacher, as he believes in his principles and rules, earnestly strives to be the best example of them himself.

"Unpunctuality makes authority grating.
Little changes make authority contemptible.
Little interferences make it hateful.

"Pouring out knowledge is not teaching.
Hearing lessons is not teaching.
Hammering a task in is not teaching.
Lecturing clearly is not teaching.
No mere applying of knowledge is teaching.

"Teaching is getting at the heart and mind, so that the learner begins to value learning, and to believe learning possible in his own case."

"The two main facts on which Uppingham School was built up are very simple, and easily stated.

"They are these two truths: Firstly, the necessity in a true school that every boy, be he clever or stupid, must have proper individual attention paid to him. If he has not, the boy who has not, so far as he is neglected, is not at school. Secondly, that proper machinery for work, proper tools of all sorts, are at least necessary in making a boy take a given shape as in making a deal box.

"Out of these two axioms the present School of Uppingham has grown by a necessary process of reasoning and practical business." (Life and Letters of Edward Thring, Vol. 1, page 68).

I have known a good many Uppingham men, and I am happy to think some of my own name have been at the School. If the true reward of a schoolmaster is in the lives and true work of his pupils, and in their devotion to the cause of principles, then Thring made a deep mark on the boys who passed through his hands. In the Chapel School lately I read his simple epitaph, and with that I will conclude:--

"In grateful Remembrance of
Edward Thring,
Whose Writings animated the Art
And whose Life enriched the Work
of Teaching.
Honour the Work, and the Work will
Honour you.

Proofread May 2011, LNL