AmblesideOnline AO Parents' Review Articles

The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Edward Thring

by M. MacEacharn
Volume 14, 1903, pgs. 815-823

Edward Thring is one of those great spirits whose life is a source of faith, of inspiration, of light, and of life itself to whoever will think upon it. "To be a life has long been my prayer" (A Memory of Edward Thring. J. H. Skrine): these words are Thring's own, and thousands can testify to the fulfilment of that prayer. A great intellect Thring undoubtedly had, but it is an irresistible force of character which discriminates him as a man. No one could read his "Life" [Life and Letters of Edward Thring, Parkin (MacMillan and Co.)] without being deeply impressed by the grandeur of his personality, just as no one who was fortunate enough to come into contact with him in his lifetime but felt that here was no common man.

Thring was a practical idealist. He not only saw, but he did. In the field of Education, there have been many thinkers who have deemed their dreams sufficient to justify their existence—Rousseau for instance. Pestalozzi did endeavour to carry out his ideals, but his incapacity to deal with the hard facts of life caused much waste of power. In carrying out his ideals, Thring never lost sight of the material with which he had to deal. A cheerful combativeness was one of his most obvious characteristics—a combativeness which was not the result of an aggressive spirit, but rather of that clearer vision which saw what ought to be done, and could be done, and a determination that, therefore, it should be done. With faith in his work, and in himself as an instrument of God, he fought ignorance, prejudice, narrow-mindedness, and every hindrance to the mental and moral growth of boyhood which existed as a sine quá non of school life before his time. Every parent who sends a boy to a public school owes a debt of gratitude to him for all he did to improve the conditions of public school life.

Tennyson might well have been thinking of Thring when he wrote:—

"And because right is right to follow right
Were wisdom in the scorn of consequence."

Thring was apparently not a student of pedagogical literature, and for this reason, a few comparisons between him and some of the great men who were his forerunners in educational reform are interesting.

Thring, like Pestalozzi and Froebel, believed he was doing God's work, and therefore that every child had an equal right to have every opportunity of development given him.

"The path of Nature," says Pestalozzi, "which brings out the powers of men must be open and plain; and human education to true peace-giving wisdom must be simple and available for all."

"Be it my effort to give men to themselves," said Froebel.

"Every boy, be he clever or stupid, must have proper individual attention paid to him," said Thring, in his direct English way.

Thring also insisted on the importance of the youngest and stupidest having the most skill in teaching—a self-evident truth utterly disregarded by most English parents. But Plato might have opened our eyes if we had read his words: "In every work the beginning is the most important part, especially in dealing with anything young and tender." And as early as the sixteenth century in our own country, Mulcaster, an educationalist of no little importance, said: "The first ground-work would be laid by the best workman." [Quick's Educational Reformers (Longmans, Green & Co.)]

Thring has a great deal to say on observation, the power so little cultivated in the ordinary book-learning which is miscalled education. "All power begins by loving observation . . . The first advance on unconscious absorption of material of thought is the implanting a habit of observation: that is, of unconsciously gathering material of thought . . . Observation is only a better name for patient well-directed work, a name for learning to see by getting close, and waiting on that which is worthy of being known . . . Observation, work, love, these are the masters of the world . . . There can be no thought till there has been observation. There can be no observation without work. Accurate observation of little things makes the accurate observer. Accurate observation of very little things makes the very accurate observer. The very accurate observer becomes the master of many facts old and new: the master of many facts old and new, each in its place, has all that teaching can do to make him a great man . . . The end and crown of all true work is an accuracy which observes everything, and lets nothing escape, a power of observation animated by a true love for what it undertakes to investigate, and able through love to discover subtler truth than other people . . . And observation and accuracy ought first to be as the joy of the explorer to the curious child, who should be made to see in every word he speaks, and every common thing he sets eyes on, endless surprises and novelties at every turn, of unexpected pleasure and new delight." (The Theory and Practice of Teaching).

In Joseph Payne's summing-up of the teaching of Pestalozzi, he says, "All education (including instruction) must be grounded on the learner's own observation (Auschanung) at first hand—on his own personal experience. This is the true basis of all his knowledge . . . That which the learner has gained by his own observation (Auschanung) and which, as a part of his personal experience, is incorporated with his mind, he knows and can describe in his own words. His competency to do this is the measure of the accuracy of his observation, and consequently of his knowledge." (Quoted in Quick's Educational Reformers).

On the subject of observation, Froebel says, "Our conversation is poor because it is not the result of a life rich in creating and seeing inwardly and outwardly, because our words lack the contemplation of the things which they indicate." (The Education of Man).

Rabelais, Mr. Quick tells us, was the first to advocate the training of the powers of observation. Thring aptly described himself as a "radical conservative," using the words in a political sense—in educational matters, as well as political, he was also a "radical conservative." He was a reformer in everything relating to the environment of the public school boy; he was a reformer inasmuch as he based his work on religious and moral principles, and in making the training of character not only possible, but the chief end of education; but, in regard to the classics, he was as much influenced by the ideals of the Renaissance as nine years at Eton and life at an English university could have made him, besides being a brilliant classical scholar himself. He would have all education revolve round the classics, as the proper study for mankind. We may differ from him on this point, however, and yet believe in him as a great educationalist; but one cannot but wonder that the idea did not strike him that the inability of the human boy to absorb classical learning might be owing to the fact that classical learning was not what the average boy-mind required; for Thring himself says, "It is really useless for many boys to expect to be able to attain to any great proficiency in Greek and Latin, they have been neglected too long." And again, he says, "There is very little want of the ability in boys naturally, but there is a great want of willingness, an ingrained antagonism to learning, and dread of it, and, very often, utter incapacity for self-teaching." When Thring became headmaster of Uppingham, in 1853, the school buildings consisted only of an ancient master's house and a schoolroom. The school was simply a grammar school, founded in 1584, and was controlled by twenty-four governors—country gentlemen, with all the limitations of their class as it was fifty years ago, who opposed all Thring's schemes of reform as only the bigoted and ignorant can. The scheme of reform seems simple enough—the making true principles the basis of school-life. The principles were the sacredness of the individual life, and the necessity of proper school machinery. Simple truths which every good master now accepts as self-evident were, when Thring gave expression to them, treated as impracticable by those who could and ought to have helped to carry them out.

One can imagine how much importunate enthusiasm must have disturbed the inert governors, who, no doubt, looked upon his schemes as an outburst of quixotic youth. Even now one's indignation is aroused in thinking of those men who withheld the help they had power to give, increased the difficulties of a difficult life, and caused Thring to add the burden of debt to the load he had already taken upon himself. Yet, in spite of apparently overwhelming obstacles, in a few years, Uppingham could boast of six schoolhouses, a large new schoolroom, a chapel, and a gymnasium (the first in any English public school)—a rapidity of growth unheard of in school annals. Each boy was provided with a separate cubicle and study, for Thring had Eton reminiscences of the disastrous effects, morally and mentally, as well as physically, of herding boys like cattle in large "dormitories" and "chambers." Thring stated with 25 boys; in 1869 he had more than 300.

Thring has had, perhaps, more practical experience of teaching than any other educational writer, and, for this reason, his writings ought to have a special value for us. He ought also to appeal to us because he is so essentially English.

What a different thing school life would be if every master realised, as Thring, that mere intellectual training ought not to be the aim of education. Do not all children go to school with the preconceived idea that they are sent merely to learn lessons from books, and to play games? Why is the ideal of character-training not given more prominence? Thring had the great power of awakening in the boys' hearts enthusiasm for the good, and hence it came to be said that having been to Uppingham was, in after life, a guarantee of good character. What praise could be higher? How insignificant in comparison are long records of prizes and scholarships. Thring opened the minds of his boys to what are the important things of life.

In Education and School, he says, "Intellect is only the highest instrument man possesses, the hand of the soul answering to the hand of the body. Money is a great power as an instrument, but it is justly considered vulgar to be purse-proud. Bodily strength was a very great power, and is still in some degree; yet to live for the body only is to live the life of a beast. So also intellectual strength is a great power, but to live for the intellect only is, as far as it is possible, to be a devil, not a man . . . "Hence it comes to pass that, although both bodily and intellectual strength are needed for work, and trained to work, and are the instruments by which the class rank of individuals and nations is attained, they do not ultimately decide the fate of their possessors. They are nothing more than instruments, capable of abuse as well as use, and the start gained by them only continues to profit so long as the true governing power, man's true self, that power by which love and hate exist irrespective of strength and knowledge, directs these instruments and this start to a right end. This power is supreme, it is the source from which all actions in their effect return. This power is life, and life, as far as it is true, does make perfect. True life makes all its instruments perfect, and puts all to a good use. Both body and intellect, guided by right love and right hate, can do wonderful and lasting things . . . The true life-power then must be the object, if it can be attained, both of men and of nations . . . For there is no natural progress towards perfection . . . True education is nothing less than bringing everything that men have learnt from God, or from experience, to bear first upon the moral and spiritual being by means of a well governed society and healthy discipline, so that it should love and hate aright, and through this, secondly, making the body and intellect perfect, as instruments necessary for carrying on the work of earthly progress; training the character, the intellect, the body, each through the means adapted to each."

On the distinction between knowledge and training, Thring says, "For it does not follow, even if the ultimate object of the educated man is knowledge, that therefore the object of his preparation is knowledge . . . The true object of education is strength of mind and character, and any process that conduces to give this kind of strength is true, even though little knowledge is gained by it. A weak mind filled with facts collected from others, is not the end proposed . . . In a word, nothing can be said before the distinction between the strong mind and the stuffed mind, between the training and cram, is thoroughly recognized and decided."

Thring realized fully the necessity of opportunity for self-activity when he said, "To bring a number of boys together without taking care that there is plenty of occupation, and something to interest different dispositions and tastes, is not training, whatever it may be; and it is creating much evil, whatever else it may be. As great a variety as possible becomes a necessity in a great school. Healthy moral life very much depends on it."

In these days of sentimentalism, is which want of discipline is leading us we know not whither, it is a relief to find that one man, and he a great man, has had the courage to express vigorous views on the question of punishment. "As a fact," Thring says, "a great school from time to time receives all the evil of the worst English homes, as well as all the good of the best. What is to be done with it? The boys are sent to be trained; the angelic theory obviously will not work.

"The efficacy of all punishment depends, first, on the certainty of its being inflicted; secondly, on its being speedy . . .

"Protracted feeling, instead of sharpness, is wanted in dealing with a sin . . .

"The faults which principally call for the rod are discipline faults, not wilfull faults."

Nothing could be more reasonable than Thring's view on punishment; yet, because he inflicted corporal punishment on one or two boys for a breach of discipline (they had returned late after the holidays), a storm of indignation from irate parents burst upon his head, and, fanned by a scurrilous press, literally swept from one end of England to the other. It blew over in time, but not without having caused much pain and annoyance to a just man, who knew that right was on his side.

Although Thring believed strongly in the necessity of corporal punishment for the maintenance of that discipline which is a "preliminary condition for the free unfolding of our noblest capacities," he went on further, but believed that, "the true way to the head is through the heart."

"What then is the right way of attaining higher life, since whip-power fails? The most complete definition of the right way in, the winning love by love."

It has been said that we should never read the biographies of our heroes and heroines—presumably because we shall find so much that is ordinary in them. But why despise people for being like ourselves? All life is at once ordinary and extraordinary. Is light less wonderful because it comes every day? Is a great man less great because he eats bread and butter? Nothing keeps us in a comfortable state of mediocrity so much as a complacent belief in the ordinariness of our own lives. A humble self-confidence is half the secret of all great work.

It is from Thring's diary, long excerpts from which are in the Life and Letters,* that we learn best to know and love the man himself. His intense humanity cannot but appeal to all who have felt and suffered. The occasional fits of despondency, the pleasure in small things, the delight at a word of recognition or proof that his labour was not in vain, the self-accusations, all testify to the thoughts and feelings he had in common with us all. Yet the dominant note throughout is the strength of his faith and confidence in the triumph of right. Debt is the burden on many a page.

"But anything for freedom from debt and slavery," he says in one place, adding characteristically, "anything, i.e., but give up the work."

An indefatigable worker to the end, no one could be better qualified to bring home to us the all-importance of hard work.

"One learns by experience how different it is being able to do a thing once and many times; to walk one or thirty miles without stopping. Much of the secret of life turns on this; it is endurance, God-given endurance, not intellect, which does great things."

Thring had great distrust of public inspection and examination in education.

"If education and training are the true aim of mankind, and power in a man's self the prize of life; then no superstition ever ate into a healthy national life organism more fatal than the cult of the examiner."

Thring had the greatest reverence for womanhood and the highest ideals of woman's place in the world. "If the world is to get better education, the women must do it," he says.

Women teachers owe a debt of gratitude to him for the helpful interest he took in their work, an interest which he showed by inviting the first Conference of Headmistresses of High Schools to meet at Uppingham, in 1887.

Mr. Skrine, who has given us one of the most delightful examples of biographical writing ever written, thus defines Thring's—we might say, transcendental—attitude towards women: "His sense of the superiority, we will not say of the passive, but the non-militant excellences, culminated in his reverence for womanhood and the womanly genius, his mystical expression of which will be remembered by all who have heard him talk of 'the great and last revelation of the gentleness and loveliness of true life,' that 'all life on earth, men and women alike, is to be cleansed and glorified into the supreme excellence of womanly perfection, and that glorified humanity is the Bride of Christ.' "

"The be a life has long been my prayer." [?] Is not one of the secrets to greatness the power to give life—the power to rouse us to activity, to quicken our souls, to open our eyes to see and our ears to hear, to thrill us with love for the Right and hatred for the Wrong?

Viewed by this standard Edward Thring is one of the greatest of men.

* Life and Letters of Edward Thring, Parkin.

Proofread by Leslie Noelani Laurio, August 2008