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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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Public School Boys

by M. MacEacharn.
Volume 14, 1903, pgs. 460-468


Note: paragraph headings were added by proofreader for coherence.


The interest nowadays taken in matters of education—quite irrespective of the Education Bill—may be looked upon as an evidence of the altruistic tendencies of the age, for not only parents, but the majority of cultured people are anxious to pass on to the next generation that which shall lead it to realise its highest possibilities. The cause of education is an effort to move the world nearer to the sun, even although our course frequently seems more drawn towards the moon. The increasing interest of the world in education is creating much questioning and sifting of ideas and systems, and naturally, the public schools are under the fire of public opinion, both to their glory and detriment. It is easy to attack and easy to find something to attack if we go about looking for vulnerable spots; yet discontent is the precursor of reform. The best of our educational systems is far from perfect. We are all groping—groping for fuller knowledge of the child mind, and groping how best to give the child that which at each stage he most requires.


Public School Has Merits [Public school refers to boarding school]

Among the richer classes in England, not to have been at a public school marks a man as a peculiar product of civilisation and handicaps him socially. A man may be manly, and may have found his own level without having been to school, but most probably not—that is the attitude of the world. Yet when one asks, "What did you learn at school?" the answer generally received is "Nothing." The obvious reason of such an answer is that the best part of public school education is, on the boy's part, unconscious. In no other way could the sense of corporate life and realisation of its obligations be so well brought home. The centre of many a home soon learns that he is only an insignificant part of a great whole; the miniature Peer Gynts issued yearly from luxurious homes can no longer rule a world of their own by caprice or whim, but must submit to a reign of law. What excellent discipline it is for boys accustomed to be addressed as "Sir" by deferential grooms and footmen (one of our English ways that astonished Taine not a little), and to be treated with undue respect by their fathers' tenants, to find that the tables are turned and that now they have to say "Sir" to someone, and that no longer does every labourer they meet touch his hat. At school, a boy finds his own level. Swagger is crushed, and success depends on personal merit alone; to be the son of a duke or millionaire is rather a hindrance to success than otherwise. Birth and money have both to be lived down. The code of etiquette, too, which prescribes, for example, whether trousers should be turned up or not on certain occasions, or whether a particular button should be fastened or unfastened, is not one of the least beneficial influences of public school life, for it teaches discipline in little things and draws a line between individuality and eccentricity. Men who, like R.L. Stevenson, could wear a velvet coat in Piccadilly, are not public school men.

Manliness, independence, a sense of justice and of social obligation are virtues to possess which one might well risk something, yet certain elements of character have little chance of development at a public school, and one of these is sympathy for the helpless and weak. Lack of sympathy is a primitive characteristic of the boy because it is the outcome of experience and suffering; but where boys congregate in large numbers, the helpless and weak suffer even when there is no positive brutality. It is good for a boy to learn to hold his own; but all boys are not capable of doing so. We know what Anthony Trollope suffered at school. He was able to give a voice to his sufferings, but others have suffered equally, in silence, who no doubt were capable of much if only they had had their chance—sensitive natures, unable, perhaps from physical causes, to enter into the riotous exuberance of the life around, shrinking from noise and roughness, and gradually coming to believe in their own insignificance or worthlessness because of the contempt with which they have been treated. Probably few of these boys ever regain sufficient self-confidence to do much in the world. "That one man should die ignorant, who had capacity for knowledge, this I call a tragedy" [Carlyle]; that one boy should leave school without having learned that which he had capacity for learning is also a tragedy, for the wasted time can never be recalled.


Public Schools Teaches Conformity

Of course, public schools have improved since Trollope's time, and as the conditions of school life improve, so does boy nature; but it is still the nature of primitive boyhood to exult in its strength and triumph over the weak, and because this is so, boys should not be given the opportunity of exercising their superior powers as often as they are, for many boys are sent to a public school who are quite unfitted for the life. Why then are they sent? Simply because every other boy goes and a boy must not be allowed to grow up unlike others. The development of individuality and opportunity for self-expression are not what parents want, apparently; it is enough if a boy is like his fellows. Boys are sent to school to take their chance or go without, and as going without is the simplest and pleasantest thing to do, most boys, having unformed ideals, leave school lamentably ignorant, and what is worse, content to be ignorant. The indifference of the English boy to learning is one of his most striking differences from the Scotch boy, who looks upon learning as a valuable thing worth striving after. Thring, advising a father, recommended him to "Vividly impress the ethics of education. First, that it is valuable; secondly, that each boy can certainly get it; that the denial of these propositions, the worst evil the neglect of the great schools has brought on England, was at the root of most non-learning." [Life and Letters of Edward Thring.—G. R. Parkin]

To the average boy, learning is a thing to be shunned and avoided when possible without getting into a scrape; he goes to school to play games, and if possible get a "blue"; and perhaps to try for a scholarship if anything can be gained by it otherwise impossible.


Classics in Dead Languages Are Not For Everyone

It was hardly correct for Thring to say, however, that all boys can certainly get education, for the education they can get may not be what they need. Thring believed so staunchly in the virtues of the classics [in their original languages] that he made the mistake of thinking they were adapted to the needs of the many, instead of to the few who have a talent for languages combined with an early developed sense of the beautiful; and he believed this in spite of the average boy's herculean powers of resistance to classical learning, and the consequent waste of time.


School Boys Require Stimulating Entertainment to Avoid Boredom

When boys come home for holiday what household is not deranged? How to amuse the boys is a problem that besets every mother. Is it not a proof of mental inanition that boys should require to have amusement found for them by parents? "A boy should never be absolutely inactive, and employment should be given him indoors, especially mechanical work," says Froebel in his Education of Man, meaning, of course, that boys should find amusement in employment. But how are holidays generally spent? In merely passing time. I have seen boys sit down to play "Beggar my Neighbour" before breakfast during holidays. Considering that a fourth of the year is spent in holidays, is it wise to let boys look upon them as interludes to be devoted to self-indulgence and amusement, or let boys associate home with loafing?

Now, if education were adapted to the needs of the boy, holidays would be a time of freedom for self-expression; idleness would be an altogether foreign state, and the day would never be long enough to give out all that is within him. It is not the normal boy's nature to be idle; only circumstances make him so. Modelling, carpentering, drawing, painting, and gardening are only a few of the occupations boys turn to naturally if they have opportunity, material and encouragement. It is also natural for boys to delight in history, romance and legend, but books are tabooed at a public school, and even Sir Walter Scott is so little read that his novels are frequently given as holiday tasks. Sir Walter would hardly have felt flattered had he known he would never be viewed in the light of a task-master, but I have known boys return to school unable to get through Ivanhoe or The Talisman [before their vacation ended]. Imagination has little room for development when so much of life is absorbed in bodily activity, and in manoeuvering to get through the day with the least possible expenditure of labour.


Games In Moderation

No one was more alive to the importance of games than Thring, yet he said, "I don't want the cricket to get too powerful in the school here, and to be worshipped and made the end of life for a considerable portion of the school." In what public school are games not an end of life for a considerable number of the boys? Yet we must remember that human nature tends to run to extremes, and that moderation is the result only of a well-trained mind; and besides, indifference to games is worse than excess of enthusiasm, except in the case of specially gifted boys.


School Boys Indifferent to the Wonders of Nature

Indifference to games is rare, but how universal is the indifference of the schoolboy to the beauties and wonders of the world in which he lives. Ruskin truly said that "most English youths would have more pleasure in looking at a locomotive than at a swallow," and lamented the passing away of the love of Englishmen for trees, flowers and birds. Even when he loves the country, is it not astonishing how ignorant the average Englishman is of the simplest facts of natural history? To know the names and habits of birds and insects, the names of wild flowers, the natural history of their own locality or estate, is rare amongst Englishmen, in spite of White of Selborne having lived and left an example of what one observant man of leisure may do for the delight and advancement of the world. Is not this ignorance the result of the want of stimulus given to any desire for knowledge of natural history in boyhood? "I hold it to be an unquestioned fact," says Warde Fowler, "that the directions of children's attention to natural objects is one of the most valuable processes in education. When these children, or at least the boys among them, go away to their respective schools, they will find themselves in the grip of a system of compulsory game-playing which will effectually prevent any attempt at patient observation. There is doubtless very much to be said for this system, if it be applied, like a strong remedy, with real discriminating care; but the fact is beyond question that it is doing a great deal to destroy some of the Englishman's most valuable habits and characteristics, and, among others, his acuteness of observation, in which, in his natural state, he excels all other nationalities." An unobservant man, in whatever capacity of life, can never fully exercise his faculties, for habits of observation quicken the mind unconsciously, and are a never-failing source of delight. To the observant, the world can never be small or dull.


School Boys Don't Know Their Own Language

Then again, is not the boy's ignorance of his own language a reproach to our public schools? To go from the simple to the complex, from the known to the unknown, are pedagogic axioms entirely ignored in public school education. Boys are construing Latin and Greek without any mind in the task, long before they have even an elementary knowledge of English, and it is a marvel that parents have so long acquiesced in this. The hours spent in translating dead languages would be of value if the boys learned the languages, but one has only to ask the meaning of a simple Latin or Greek quotation to find out how little learning is carried away from school. A distinguished politician recently apologised for a Latin quotation, saying it only remained to him "as a brilliant oasis in the barren desert of an Eton education." Thring advocated the classics because of the knowledge they give us of the heathen world; because they are the perfection of language and of art; and because they are the best training for thought-expression;—all of which is true from the point of view of a highly-evolved mind.


Classics: Too Much Too Soon

But what is true for a highly-evolved mind is not true for an underdeveloped mind, and if we desire to help the boy we must not ignore his point of view. First, we know that boys learn very little history from all the classics they do at school; secondly, because the classics are the perfection of art and of language is one of the reasons why they are not fitted for at least the younger boys, for models of perfection are meaningless to an immature mind. We do not put Botticellis or the works of Shakespeare in our nurseries; we realise that nursery rhymes are of more educational value. Yet we send boys of nine or ten to a preparatory school expecting them to appreciate the masterpieces of literature; for if they do not appreciate, how can they profit? And so, by giving boys what they do not want and what they are not ready for, habits of scamped work and idling begin. We ought to remember that things, not words, appeal to the boy up to the age of twelve, and that the beauty of words and language convey as little to him as sound to the deaf. Forcing is not training; neither is giving the mind that which it cannot assimilate.

Classical training is said to be literary training, yet nothing could have been more severe on the literary education of public schools than the remarks of many eminent educationalists at the last session of the British Association. Professor Hartog, it will be remembered, said the inarticulateness of the English schoolboy was notorious, and that it was preposterous to suppose that a boy would learn more English by translating the Catiline orations of the De Senectute than from a critical study of Burke's Essay on the Sublime. Professor Minchin read a paper on "The Neglect of English Grammar," in which he said that the teaching of reading, spelling, and English grammar had disappeared from English schools for what were termed "the better classes." "Practically, a boy had to learn these subjects in the nursery or not at all; the preparatory schools did not teach them."

When we consider what "nursery" English generally is, can we wonder at the illiterateness of the average Englishman? Where vocabulary is limited, so are ideas, for words and ideas react on each other. An awakened intelligence does not rest until the right words are found to convey ideas, nor until words that are heard convey ideas. Written English composition and much viva voce teaching are the best methods of improving language-expression, and the best way of suggesting and drawing out ideas. Translation does not imply deep thought, nor is a scholar necessarily a thinker.


Schools Have Improved, But There's Still Need To Do Better

It is hopeful for the future that public schools have improved so much within the last fifty years. In Thring's time at Eton the dormitories contained neither washstands nor basins, and the lower boys had to fetch the water from an outside pump. "This wild college life was certainly a very different type from the sneak-as-you please, but never-wet-your-feet existence of the private school, and it was the better of the two, for freedom is better than slavery; but alas for the waste and ruin in the future, the wretchedness, and coarseness, and idleness at the time which it brought on the majority of those cast into its whirl. It was not training, for training does not mean some boys turning out well in spite of disadvantages, a bit more than farming means the growth of grass and corn in spite of not draining and bad ploughing . . .

"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." [Life and Letters of Edward Thring.—G. R. Parkin]


Education Should Be Based On Scientific Principles

Thring achieved a great work because he based education on principles. What we want now is that public school education should be based on scientific as well as on moral principles; that it should realise the evolutionary aspect of mind. In order to do this, every school would require a trained staff of teachers, students of biology and psychology, as well as of their special branch of knowledge. Not otherwise will the mind of the average boy reach its highest possibilities. Boys' minds are not jars, more or less cracked, into which knowledge can be poured at the will of the master; they are organisms which take in what they have power of assimilating and reject what is unsuitable. Education is a science and ought to be pursued by scientific methods. We realise that all plants do not flourish in the same atmosphere or soil and cultivate vegetation accordingly; yet we treat growing human beings as if they were more uniform in type than the produce of the fields.


Schools Dull Eager Minds

It is not desirable, nor would it be wise, to make school life a bed of roses, but in dealing with mind, the psychological truth ought to be remembered that the intellectual faculties go wool-gathering unless stimulated by the emotion of interest. Facts must be faced, and it is a fact that the average boy does not learn at a public school. Is it only because he is mentally lazy? That would be strange, for before he went to school, or rather, to be prepared for school, that boy was a zealous seeker after knowledge, revealing to the most learned that there are more things in heaven or earth than are dreamt of in their philosophy. How often too are teachers of young children sadly disappointed in the school results of a pupil who gave promise of much!

The inquiring attitude of mind comes to a stand-still because the boy is forced into the world of abstract things, while yet he desires to live in the concrete. He is given dates and names to learn when he is only ready for the great myths and legends of the world's history. He is given the capitals and rivers of Europe to learn by heart when they can convey nothing but sound to his ears. And so he soon begins to look upon knowledge as dull and objectless. He asks for bread and we give him a stone, and, because stones are not good to eat, he loses his appetite, and parents cannot understand why their clever child has only turned out to be an average boy.


The Importance of Teaching History

We hear complaints from masters that already the curriculum is overcrowded and that education is becoming scrappy because too much is attempted. The problem of the limitations of time tries every ardent teacher—so much must be left out that is useful and almost necessary. But there should be no two opinions about giving boys a thorough teaching of English, and at least an elementary knowledge of one or two of the natural sciences for cultivating habits of observation and power to think. I would plead strenuously, too, for a fuller teaching of history on the broad lines laid down by Professor Bury recently at Cambridge, for reasons that one might go on enumerating indefinitely. History appeals to almost every side of the moral and intellectual man. History develops imagination, and is the best possible means of training the power of reasoning by inductive methods; it widens the attitude of mind towards the world; it leads to interest in the study of languages, literature, religion, architecture, archaeology, physical and political geography, and everything touching the life of man; the study of history develops a love of truth and justice, and toleration for others; it gives one a sense of the eternal flux of things and teaches one the importance of even little acts. Taught by a competent master, with the aid of pictures and occasional excursions to places of interest and to museums, history cannot fail to quicken the mind of the dullest.

School is preparation for life; but until every boy has a fair chance given him, it can hardly be called a true preparation.

[Discussion is invited.—Ed.]



Proofread by Leslie Noelani Laurio, November 2008