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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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Character Versus Intellect at the Public School

by A Public School Master
Volume 18, 1907, pgs. 176-179


We are often asked why so little prestige attaches to intellectual attainments in Public Schools. The influence belongs so exclusively and, as it would seem, naturally to the athletes, that staffs of monitors or prefects are often recruited largely from among their class. The dignity of sixth form is artificially promoted by means of privileges and responsibilities, but if Free Trade and Natural Selection could be left to determine solely to whom the discipline of the school should be entrusted, under present circumstances the athlete would, in the majority of cases, prove to be the most fit. The causes which lead to these results are partly natural and partly due to an unhealthy feature of school life, and therefore removable. It is almost a truism, and yet it is necessary to state it, that so long as learning itself is not esteemed, the learned themselves will be held in low estimation.

We may grant that it is natural for boys, especially the younger boys, to admire the external and obvious qualities of bodily prowess before the more subtle attainments of intellect. But that they should set no store by these, nay that they should despise those who have them, is an unnatural as it is undesirable. And it is not too much to say that this morbid condition is largely, if not wholly, to be accounted for by the unsatisfactory state of the prevailing curriculum. It would almost seem that all parties are agreed about this. To say nothing of the adverse critics, who everywhere and at all times abound, the very defenders are now admitting it. Even Dr. Warre, hitherto one of the more unbending conservatives, admits that concessions must be made.

We must devise some system which will make the average boy—him that is possessed of no literary instincts, nor any innate enthusiasm for natural history or science—keen on what he does, and anxious to excel in it. Do not let us deceive ourselves here with fine phrases, and cause the unregenerate to scoff. We shall not work miracles merely by turning them on to science instead of classics. Some boys are incurably idle. They have deep-rooted distaste for anything which needs an effort of the brain. No changes of curricula would ever create in them any keenness or spontaneous activity. Whatever is given them to do they will have to be goaded through it. But these are, or ought to be, the exceptions. They need not be, as they almost appear to be now in our Public Schools, the majority. Changes in curriculum there must be, but there is less need of change in the subjects studied than in the method by which they are taught.

Our conservatism, nay our cynicism, in this respect is almost incredible. Numbers of masters, some of them good teachers in a way, have a contempt for the word Interest. "The things which naturally interest a boy," they say, "can take care of themselves; my business is to shape his intellect in such ways as will be neglected if he is left to himself." But strangely enough, they wholly ignore the fact that it is possible to create or stimulate a latent interest. To this want of insight, presumably, is due the indifference of the authorities towards some well-authenticated schemes of reform that are now current. It was long before the Mathematical Association gained recognition for the freer teaching of geometry without the fetters of the Euclidian method.

Recently the Classical Association sanctioned the recommendations of an influential committee (including some headmasters), as to the teaching of Greek. The line adopted was that the appreciation of Greek literature was the object to be aimed at, and grammatical details to be studied only so far as they are an indispensable preliminary to the further end. It was obviously designed as a moderate installment of reform, to conciliate the conservative scholar and modern reformer alike, perhaps incidentally to cut away the ground beneath the abolitionists in the compulsory Greek controversy by making the test a rational one.

But hitherto, despite a few scattered attempts, no effort has been made by headmasters as a whole to give the suggestion a fair trial. They have cynically ignored it, notwithstanding the fact that most of their names are to be found on the books of the Association. And if the main fault lies with the headmasters, the assistants are not free from blame. Or perhaps the blame attaches less to themselves than to their want of training. They keep to antiquated methods, not so much because they believe them to be the best, as because they know no other. Modern ideas have not yet entered into their mental horizon. This applies not only to the classics, but to the more modern subjects of history, English literature, geography, so frequently shelved or inadequately treated. Method, apparatus and conviction are all needed for the proper treatment of these. And, at present, they exist only in the slightest degree.

While these are undoubted obstacles to a true intellectual tone in the Public Schools, it must be remembered that certain inevitable disadvantages attach to them in comparison with the Day Schools of a corresponding standard. The Public Schools always contain a considerable proportion of boys who will not be dependent on their own efforts for a future living, and who know it. By reason of their position, these schools are more divorced from the daily life of the citizen world, with its constant discussion, its incessant circulation of topics, intellectual and of broad human interest, its competition and its rubbing of shoulders with persons of all degrees. These elements all stimulate the keenness which is prevalent in the great Grammar Schools of London, Leeds, Manchester, Birmingham and countless others, and their absence partly accounts for the Philistinism of the Public Schools. On the other hand, those who speak of character as the most important product of the school, and as the most valuable result of a Public School training, should also bear in mind that intellectual keenness is a part, and an important part, of character, which in modern times we cannot afford to neglect. We already hear of Public School boys beaten in the race by the pick of the Council Schools. Is their spiritual advantage so great that they can afford to be fined to that extent in respect of material interests?

It may even be doubted whether the "character" which the Public Schools make their chief boast is so unimpeachable a product. There is a civilising influence in home life which cannot be artificially produced elsewhere; nor is its loss entirely compensated by the training in self-reliance and discipline for which the boarding house and the individual system make themselves responsible. Besides, even those qualities can be, and are cultivated to no small extent by the great Day Schools, which are by no means lacking in "the Public School spirit," and where what is after all perhaps the more important element, "Public Spirit" in its wider meaning, is certainly to be found more abundantly. The difficulties in the way of everywhere adopting the Day School in preference to the Boarding system are at present, for geographical and other reasons, insuperable. But, unless we are much mistaken, the prestige of the Day Schools will, in the immediate future, increase as that of the Public schools declines, unless the latter brace themselves somewhat, and exhibit more than a half-hearted devotion to the things of intellect.


Proofread by Leslie Noelani Laurio, July 2008