AmblesideOnline AO Parents' Review Articles AmblesideOnline.org

The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
______________________________________
Charlotte Mason and the Nation's Children

by H.W. Household
In Memoriam: Charlotte M. Mason
(London: PNEU)Volume 34 1923 pgs. 182-196


I do not suppose that a single one of those who are present in this hall needs to be reminded of the duty that we owe to our Foundress to make her teaching widely known; for the sake of those who shall come after us, for the sake of the Nation's children. But there are, I am afraid, among the many members of the P.N.E.U. who are not present here, some who do not fully share the faith and the enthusiasm that possess us. We heard at a recent meeting of the Executive Committee, with regret though not wholly with surprise, of the considerable number of members who fall out periodically by resignation—a number which happily is always very substantially exceeded by the number of new recruits.

Now it is quite certain that no parent who had ever felt Miss Mason's influence on heart or mind, could dream of withdrawing from the [Parents' National Educational] Union. Those who leave it have had but the slenderest connection with our cause. They have asked some friend, no doubt, how best they can provide a home education for their children, and they have been told to join the P.N.E.U. and to obtain an Ambleside teacher, if they can, and if they cannot, then, as the next best thing, to get the programmes and, so far as may be, to follow the methods, and all will be well. Of the larger, wider cause which the Union, learning from its Foundress, has at heart, the right education of the Nation's children, they know nothing.

It may be that if they did know they would say that it was not their concern. But, of course, it is their concern, and for two reasons. The first is gratitude, the second self-interest. If they observe the progress of their children, and compare the education which they are receiving, with the education which they had themselves, gratitude to the illustrious lady who worked such a revolution in methods and results, should move them to do what in them lies to extend such benefits to all. And their own interest as citizens points the same way. We do not want perpetual class war; we do not want to share the fate of Russia.

It is hardly possible to take up a paper without reading some indictment, usually unintelligent and biased, of our public education, inspired most frequently by a wish (perhaps in these days not wholly unnatural, though I think unwise) to reduce its cost. At the same time we read, and still more often hear, bitter complaints of the ignorance and folly of popular leaders, and of the credulity of those who follow them. The critics wonder what will become of industry, society, learning, art, religion. They shudder and predict ruin for a later generation, and hope that they themselves may just escape the day.

But it is futile to sit and wring our hands and play Cassandra, prophesying nothing but disaster. If things are going wrong, whose fault is it? Why, surely ours. No man or woman was ever yet a fool or ignorant by intention. Folly and ignorance are a consequence of lack of opportunity. It is for us to find the remedy. And there is only one. It is to educate. "Oh, but," replies the critic, "you have been doing that now for three or four generations at enormous cost, and look at the result. Those whom you teach to read do not read: those whom you train to think do not think."

Ladies and gentlemen, we may have taught children the mechanical art of reading, but until lately we have not shown them how to read books, nor have we put books, real books, within their reach whether in school or out of it. And assuredly under such conditions we shall never train anyone to think. Until a bare 20 years ago we spent ridiculously little on our public education, and yet even that little has borne fruit a hundredfold. It gave us a people who could win the war, if it has not yet shaped them for the more difficult life of Peace.

The great fault of our public education has been that it was conceived and administered on mean penurious lines. Many have never really believed in it. To this day there still are many sceptics. I do not suppose they would go the length of saying that the nation would fare better if its workers were uneducated, but they certainly would say that the best education for them is something very simple and, above all, very cheap. And then, forsooth, they complain of their ignorance, credulity, and folly. How should folk so educated know any better?

A hundred years ago even those who meant well did not understand the people's need, or the pathetic futility of an education that begins and ends in the crude elements of reading, writing, and arithmetic. Put some poor graded "reader" in the boy's hands. Can he get through half a dozen lines? If he can, it is well. Let him go. The State has done its duty, though he never reads again. That, for 60 or 70 years, was all that officially we aimed at doing.

And the teaching service—what was the philanthropist's ideal for that? Listen. I quote. "Under the monitorial system of Bell and Lancaster (they, remember, were philanthropists) schools containing as many as a thousand pupils might be taught at a cost of 5s. per head per annum by monitors who possessed the "advantage' (as Bell considered it) of knowing nothing which was beyond their pupils' comprehension" (The Teaching of English in England, [p.] 41, 42).

Five shillings per head for teachers, books, stationery, furniture, apparatus, heating, lighting, cleaning, and all extras! There was not much, be sure, for books. And that lack of books has inspired—no, I must not so degrade the word—has fatally obsessed the whole of the theory and practice of our public education. The philosophers who shaped the theory which underlay the methods accepted the impossible situation. There were no books. So be it. Primary education was a peculiar kind of education (one has never heard of any other) into which books did not enter. That postulate once granted, the rest follows.

You had to shape a teacher who could teach without books. He must be a good talker. He must be able to impart information and elicit answers; pour in and pump out. Truly an empirical philosophy, designed strictly to fit what was, and not what should have been. So your Herbartian doctrine (I quote from the preface to Home Education) "lays the stress of education—the preparation of knowledge in enticing morsels, presented in due order—upon the teacher."

And for the teacher, of course, training was far more important than education. That he had had a liberal education, and was a graduate in honours of an ancient university, would not admit him to the elementary school. He must be equipped with a hundred tricks of method that would enable him, without books, to keep children quiet and make them work. He must talk and question well, and use the blackboard ably. He must be able to hold attention; to make a large class move as one individual; to push all through a ridiculous and soul-destroying examination on the result of which his meagre pay depended. He must be a disciplinarian, with an air of command, and a strong right arm.

No wonder that graduates were warned off the primary school. As teaching there was largely a matter of tricks, it was the Certificate of the Board of Education that was the essential qualification. A degree would not serve. And this ridiculous anomaly still survives. It has become so much a matter of course that no one thinks to laugh. If they would, laughter might perhaps end it.

But until Miss Mason taught us how to do it nobody ever dreamed of giving a liberal education—the first stage of a liberal education—to the workers' children in the elementary school, of giving them just the same education, in the same way, and out of the same books, that we give our own children. It is indeed high time that we did so. Matthew Arnold justly said that "culture unites classes." But we have never given it play. Culture has been reserved for the children of the well-to-do. The children of the workers have had no access to it, save the tiny percentage who mount the narrow ladder, and are lost for ever to their class.

Because the workers in the days of their youth knew nothing of humane studies, many among them regard those studies with suspicion. They think that they provide an intellectual buttress for a social system ordered in favour of the well-to-do. They suspect the great books of antiquity, as they suspect history in general, of a bias in favour of a social and economic system which—or the present consequences of which—they detest. A liberal education for all is the crying need of the times. Never was it so necessary as it is now. The children who leave our elementary schools and pass into industry at the early age of fourteen will control the destiny of the country.

The questions which it will fall to them to decide are questions of a complexity unknown to earlier generations, and upon the decision hang tremendous consequences. A wrong decision over Catholic Emancipation or Irish Disestablishment, over Home Rule or Licensing Reform, did not involve as a consequence the collapse of credit, the ruin of industry, the death of millions, the disappearance of all the amenities and most of the machinery of civilised life. but all of those grim consequences may follow upon hasty and ill-judged decisions of the electorate to-day. And how shall people hope to form sound judgments upon the questions before them if they ignore history, and, with a gesture, sweep away the accumulated experience of mankind as worthless?

Herbart and his fellows shaped their philosophy of education to meet the conditions of the bookless school. They supplied a sanction for the procedure which the facts had forced upon the Training College. Although there are very many more books to-day than there used to be, they are still too often cheap "readers" so constructed as to demand no real effort of the child. The outlook and the methods of the Training College are much more liberal than they were, but the old idea that the child cannot work without the constant intervention of the teacher still underlies the system. The teacher must still talk endlessly. Inspectors, as he knows, will require it of him, and will judge him by his capacity to do so. Method is still all important. We start with the axiom, as Miss Mason says, that "what a child learns matters less than how he learns it," with the result that he is "in danger of receiving much teaching with little knowledge."

The child who has once tasted freedom knows the difference. I was talking a few weeks ago to the teacher-father of a little boy of 11, who had recently passed from an elementary school, taught under Miss Mason's methods, to a Secondary School. We were discussing the teaching of history. "My boy," said the father, "frets at the change. He says the master talks all the time, and will not let him get on." There you have it. Yet that master is a clever young man and an enthusiastic teacher who loves his subject. The Inspectors are full of his praise. He lectures very ably; but the lecture method is an utterly wrong method for young pupils, and a boy who has been accustomed to do his own work on the books is bored and irritated. He wants to get on.

Miss Mason's philosophy of education began at the opposite pole to that of her predecessors. She would not shape her theory to meet intolerable conditions. She went back to first principles. A bookless education was a contradiction in terms, and she would have none of it. If there were no books, no good books, to be had, in the elementary school, she could not help either school or teacher. That is why it was so long before she found her way there. It seemed so impossible to get the books. Then came that brave Drighlington experiment, for which we can never be too grateful to Mrs. Steinthal and Miss Ambler. The children had their opportunity, and they rose to it, as Miss Mason knew they would. Since then a hundred schools have shewn that in the Worker's child, even in the child of the slums, are latent the powers and tastes of our own children. There is no need of other and simpler books for them.

They will understand any book suitable to their age. There is no need for endless talk, for endless questioning, and irritating childish explanation of the obvious. They all stop the child from getting on with his work. "Given a book of literary quality suitable to their age, and children will know how to deal with it without elucidation." And what was suitable was to be by no means easy, for Miss Mason asked much of them. It was her way. The books are hard. But the more she asked, the more the children gave. And, though they never saw her, there were thousands who loved her, because she understood them and knew what they wanted. She had treated them as persons. She had respected them. They were in some way conscious of her high and gentle courtesy. Their outraged pride was soothed. They were her children, equal members of her world-wide school. The badge of inferiority had gone.

Their ability amazed their teachers, who had been brought up to think that as a class they were of inferior mentality; that they could do nothing without help, and would do nothing without something like compulsion. They were not prepared—we were none of us prepared—for Miss Mason's epoch-making discovery, the "great avidity for knowledge in children of all ages and of every class" for knowledge which is presented to them in more or less literary form. The children who were troublesome in our schools were simply not interested. And, after all, who are we that we should hold their interest, day in day out, through every lesson? Even if we were so completely masters of all subjects, and such adepts in the lecture method, that we could hold their interest, how would it better the children?

They would have made no effort; they would have done nothing for themselves. That way they receive much teaching with little knowledge. If they read for themselves without interruption, interest is great. If they read but once, and then must narrate, concentration is intense. You can see the children thinking. And what is read once and then narrated becomes a part of the child's knowledge, and is usable thenceforth. So treated the children make astounding progress. We have resorted to the play way quite unnecessarily, and made things easy far too long. The children rejoice in the hard work if you will let them do it. When a child of seven will take up The Children of the New Forest or Hans Andersen and read them at sight, as many of our children will (though it is a thing that you would not have dared to ask your top standard to do thirty years ago) what is the need of childish "readers" carefully arranged and written down to a level that does not exist unless by artificial means you make it.

The children of 9 and 10 in many of our elementary schools now read and love Shakespeare and Scott (the plays and books of course are chosen so as to illustrate the period of history under study); they love Plutarch and the tales of Greece and Rome; the great names of classical antiquity both in myth and history are already familiar to them. Are we not justified in saying that these children, when they are grown men and women, will love books, real books of worth, and will know how to use them? And we in Gloucestershire, at any rate, are happy in the knowledge that they will have access to such books, thanks to the far-sighted beneficence of the Carnegie Trustees. Charlotte Mason and Andrew Carnegie will be blessed as pious founders by after generations in many a country village.

But I talk too much and too often of Gloucestershire. I will leave my county for once and speak of a school that I have never seen.

In one of the last letters that Miss Mason wrote to me (it is undated but the enclosure which she forwarded bears date the 29th of last November) she sent for me to read a letter that she had received from the Head Master of a Boys' School in Middlesbrough. "I send you," she said, "a drop of cold water to taste and pass on. Those slum schools are miracles of grace are they not? They confirm us and cheer us in our work. The right note is struck I think."

This is the first opportunity that I have had to obey her, and pass on the refreshing draught. You shall judge whether the right note was struck.

"We are approaching the conclusion," says the writer, "of our third term's attempt to carry out P.N.E.U. methods, and whilst I know you already have some measure of the effect of these methods in Elementary Schools, I think further testimony will be of interest.

This is a slum school, 200 yards from the river and docks, surrounded by the lowest type of brothel, "doss' house, drinking bars, and farthest removed of any school in Middlesbrough from green fields and lanes.

Most of the children are unshod, ill-clad, under-fed, and live in overcrowded rooms—very often unfurnished—without conveniences for the ordinary decencies of life. There is an entire lack of discipline—mental, moral, physical—in the homes and surroundings.

In the schools there is much repression and excessive corporal punishment (I often wonder if you realise the tawdry soulless sham that passes for education in many urban schools) and this school was no exception.

The day I took charge (2nd May, 1921), there was an uproar in the street. A boy had been severely punished; another had slipped out of school, and roused the neighbourhood. A semi-drunken slut rushed into the school "to twist the-teacher's-neck.'

Daily squabbles with parents about punishments were taken by the staff as a matter of course.

Now teacher and scholar are bright and eager in their work. Irregularity and unpunctuality are reduced to a minimum and there is no corporal punishment. The work to the scholar is becoming a much more important thing than the teacher is. And there you have what is to me one of the most important features of the P.N.E.U. methods. They compel the teacher to study the child, in setting this task, and discovering the why of that failure: and with this study "all other graces follow in their proper places.'"

But I must go back to Gloucestershire. I cannot keep away, and I do not think that you really wish me to. Let me read what a little child of 6 years and 8 months old wrote a few weeks ago about "The Laurel Tree" after hearing Bulfinch [Age of Fable] read.



THE LAUREL TREE

December 1st, 1922.

Apollo the great god of the rays of the sun was one day walking in the valley and as he was walking along its banks he saw Cupid the little god of love sitting on a bank playing with his arrows and some of his arrows had points of gold and some of lead but they were all very small and to Apolo only looked like pretty Playthings and Apolo said of what use are those little arrows with mine I have just killed this big Serpent which lived in the caves at the bottom of the mountain Cupid did not like to hear his arrows made fun of so he left Apollo and flew away with them to the top of the mountain of Greece now just at this time the beautiful little girl of the river-god came walking th[r]ough the valley it was the spot she loved best on earth even the flowers which grew there seem to [k]now her and lift up there heads as she passed by she would clime mountain every morning to see the sun-god golden chiorareot rise and ride across the sky and would watch it sink to rest in the evning now just at this time little Cupid on the moutain above saw her coming and in a Playful mood shot a golden arow staight at her and in some way or other is made her afraid and she felt she must run away it was Cupids turn now so taking aim he shot golden arrow at Apolo and wounded him now just at thies time Apolo saw the little girl running as fast as she could th[r]ough the valley Apolo was charmed with her beauty and called to her to stop as she would not Apolo ran quickly after her she ran on and on till she felt too weary to go any farther she lay down and called to her father the river-god to help her the flowing stream at once passed over her and when Apollo came up to the place where he last saw her there was only a beautiful laurel tree with glossy green leaves Apollo always loved that tree it was all that left to him of Daphne for that was her name he wore its leaves as a crown and as they were ever green so was his love for lost Daphne ever fresh and bright.

Teacher's Note.

This child remembered the above story absolutely from memory without the slightest help of the teacher to assist in spelling a word.S.M.B.

And I have in mind a little country school of something under 50 children, with two teachers. For some years it had been on the border of inefficiency. There had been one incompetent teacher after another. The children could do nothing. In May 1921, the present master went there. He had been in one of our Parents' Union Schools before, as an Assistant, and he introduced the programmes and the methods. In a single year he had worked a revolution, in the village as well as in the school. All had become allies and educationists.

Last November he sent me the exercise books of two boys. "When I came here," he said, "I found that both boys were real bad characters, and they were under police supervision. A.B. (age 11) is the eldest of five children whose mother went to the Lunatic Asylum just before I came, and he has a wretched father. M.N. is one of a family of seven. His mother is in the Workhouse, and his sister 15 years old keeps the house going. Both fathers are farm hands."

I will read you two passages from A.B.'s book. I do not say they are wonderful; but remember the boy's history; they are wonderful for him. The first is an extract from a piece of composition written after a single reading from "Hereward the Wake," the second the closing paragraph of an original essay. Both were written last July within 15 months of that master going there.

"One day as Hereward was slowly driving his steed on a lonely road he heard sounds of pattering feet coming behind him. He looked, and as he came nearer he recognised him, it was Martin Lightfoot. He soon caught up Hereward. "What are you here for?' asked Hereward. "Because I am going to follow you,' said Martin. "Follow me? What can I do for thee?' said Hereward. "I can do something for you. I can read and write, speak French, Irish, and Danish and I will tell you all my secrets,' said Martin. "I ran away from the Monastery. So did you. I hated the Monks. So did you. And now I am with you I will live and die with thee,' said Martin."

The second passage closes a delightful essay of six pages on "Sunshine on Gloomy Days," "Tomorrow, Thursday, we shall be delighted and happy as anyone, for our mothers are coming to see the work that we do and the joy and happiness we get out of it. This is what the P.N.E.U. does for children who love it."

So these children actually enjoy their work. Yet many educationalists are still convinced that education must be an exacting and even repellent discipline, must be something so difficult and distasteful that the normal child will avoid it or escape from it whenever it can. That supposed necessity plays a large part in the argument for compulsory Latin; and, beyond question, it is largely responsible for our utter failure to train the intellect or cultivate the taste of so many of the boys who learn Latin at our Public Schools.

"Our English children," said the writer of "The English Secret," a brilliant article in the Literary Supplement of The Times some months ago. "Our English children are not consumed with anxiety to learn anything; least of all has it ever crossed their minds that they must learn English."

Well, poor souls, in many of our Preparatory and Public Schools they are hardly permitted to see English: that they might learn it has never been allowed to cross their minds. And when the writer says that our English children are not consumed with anxiety to learn anything, he is surely a witness, an unconscious witness, to the failure of the orthodox curriculum and methods. Of course they are not consumed with anxiety to learn, just because they may not learn English, and get knowledge, for which they are naturally eager, through the use of books that are literature; just because they must learn what they can neither use nor understand.

Let him go to one of the schools that are following Miss Mason's programmes, and see whether our English children are not consumed with anxiety to learn. Even Public School boys can delight in learning. Not many months ago I was told, in a house where I was staying, of two boys who had come home there from school after illness during term time—normal boys with normal schoolboy tastes. They had found their sisters, under an Ambleside teacher, using books the style and matter of which appealed to them, and voluntarily and without shadow of suggestion they joined their classes during the idle weeks. They had found a place where they could learn English, and through English many things that they wanted to know.

And it is interesting to note that in that village, as in a good many other villages in Gloucestershire, the labourer's child is using the same books, following the same programmes, as the squire's and the parson's. There is the first promise of a common school, a common culture, with its large fund of common interest. There is the "Liberal Education for All" that will give us an intelligent and thinking people.

I am convinced that we set too much store by the teaching of Latin and Greek. We make many boys learn Latin who would be much better employed in learning English. If the Elizabethans could have found in English all and more than all that can be found in Latin and Greek, can we believe that they, a-thirst like the Greeks themselves for knowledge and experience, would have tried to make boys spend priceless hours in learning the Latin that they would never use? Would they not have gone straight by the nearest road, the English road, for the thing they wanted—knowledge?

If a boy after his hard struggle with the language drops it before he has mastered it sufficiently to be able to read widely and with ease, what has he for his pains? He does not—eight of ten do not—enjoy anything he reads. The constant effort to make sense kills interest. The beauties of Virgil are beyond him. He reads so little, and finds it so hard to read, that he seldom gets the story. He retains nothing. He would have gained much more from a good translation in a fraction of the time. And in another fraction of the time what might he not have learned through English? The true reward of time and labour spent upon the classics—the power to read with ease and a full understanding, for surely that is the only adequate reward—can hardly be achieved by any but those who take an Honours course at the University. For the rest, time and labour have been largely wasted.

"Intellectual discipline" there may have been, and "real mental effort," but the boys have never caught the spirit of the Classics or drawn its real lesson from the tale of Greece and Rome. The beauty, the wisdom, the rich experience are unheeded. Voiced in English they would have made an irresistible appeal. Then all, and not merely a small section of a select class, would be able to enjoy them and to get some understanding of what the ancient world stood for, and the lessons which it has to teach. Culture, remember, unites classes. But the children of the Workers have never come in contact with culture, never tasted the humanities, except in those few elementary schools which Miss Mason has influenced. That is why Labour so often says that it has no time for culture. It must have time for culture, and it can only get it by beginning young. If we deny it the opportunity, and culture, in consequence, is pushed aside as unimportant, civilisation will be eclipsed once more, and we shall go down together into a dark age of barbarism and stark poverty, with its unimagined miseries.

Without culture Labour will never attain to a sympathetic imagination, or learn how human nature works. And without imagination it is impossible to handle wisely foreign or imperial affairs. He, for example, who would govern India must understand her; and he who would understand India must be able to think himself into another world of associations and ideas, far away from twentieth century Glasgow or Manchester or Birmingham, and the men and institutions and ways of thought with which he is familiar there. The stunted education which in our folly we offer to the children of the Workers, the common text-books, and the vain lecturing of half-educated teachers, will never wing them for such flights.

Without imagination it is not possible so much as to begin the search for truth. Each man is sure that he has it here and now. Humility, a consciousness of ignorance, must precede enlightenment. Sympathetic imagination, the capacity to understand people and ideas hitherto unfamiliar to us, are a part of the legacy of Greece, in which all men may have their share through the medium of a common education in the mother tongue—that liberal education for all which Charlotte Mason would have us give. What a solvent of class differences, of suspicions, antipathies, and misunderstandings, such an education would prove itself! How inevitably they are perpetuated by the class education of to-day!


Proofread by Leslie Noelani Laurio