The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Prizes in Foreign Schools.

by Mrs. A. Caumont, Author of "The Hanleys," etc.
Volume 4, 1893/94, pgs. 481-489

[Mary Caumont wrote Wilbourne Hall (a novel), Uncle Antony's Notebook (a collection of stories for children), A Dish of Matrimony, The Hanleys, or Wheels Within Wheels. The Westminster Review vol 129 wrote, "The Hanleys is, as its second title denotes, a rambling, complicated story, but it is pleasant and undoubtedly clever. One by one, the reader learns the story of every member of the Hanley family, and finds himself deeply interested in each. Both places and people are described with life-like fidelity, and on the subject of children Mrs. Caumont is irrestibly funny."]

"Non Scholae sed Vitae."--These four little words, which hint at preparation "not for school, but for life," are legible in gilt capitals above the portal of the Grammar School in a venerable German city. Every official document in connection with the same institution bears this motto. In fétes and processions, on high days and holidays, it flutters in the breeze from the folds of the great school-banner; and as a proof of the hold it has on the hearts of both parent and pupil, I may mention that we once "assisted" at a farewell supper given by two brothers, top-form scholars, to their masters. It was an unpretentious little banquet, at the lads' own home; and the invitation included only two or three of their favourite classmates, along with the most intimate friends of the family; yet the mother, whose anxious eye had superintended the boys' studies day after day through twelve long years, and whose thoughts and prayers had followed them from class to class, and from desk to playground--the loving, watchful mother, who had conned their tasks with them, who had blamed herself when they were in disgrace, and had been grateful every time they won approval,--her hands alone had arranged that pretty festive board; and she had not forgotten the centre-piece, the iced cake, bearing in raised characters the Stadt Gymnasium motto--"Non Scholae, sed Vitae!"

The principal object of every school ought to be a good preparation for life, just as life itself is the school to prepare us for Death; in other words, the greater Life to come!

Several of our best English schools have good old mottoes too, which, like their "birth register" and "baptismal certificate," can be produced at any time; but, alas! how many of our modern patent seminaries of learning are recommended to the public notice, not by any abstract principle, embodied in a sage watchword, or succinct axiom, but advertised unblushingly by the percentages to be won by the pupils, in pounds and guinea prizes!--

The consequence is that the classes are filled with two sorts of scholars; those who are "going in for prizes," and the apathetic, who are not.

A cunning father has been known to calculate how much profit he can realize out of his "prize-takers" at the Boys' and Girls' Intermediate Examinations, just as the gardener looks forward to the awards of his prize-takers among the roses and early potatoes at the next Agricultural Show, and considers whether he has "lost or gained by entering them at all this year."--

The bare idea of money-prizes in connection with schools is revolting to the Continental mind. Parent and pedagogue alike, promptly detect the demoralizing element in such juvenile competitions for filthy lucre. Travelling home from a part of Germany, where no license to beg, sell newspapers, or vend at all in the public streets is accorded to children, nor permission given to children to pursue any kind of commerce, we have been shocked more than once by the manner in which some thoughtless Englishmen will divert themselves along the quays and thoroughfares of our large cities by tossing coins, to be scrambled for by an eager throng of young ragamuffins. And yet it is only the same system as the twenty-guinea prize among so many school companions! The cases are analogous, and offend the educated German, French and Italian taste.

The fact that money-prizes have not already wrought more mischief among our English young-folk, and that the system has not yet exposed all its crude ugliness to the public view, is merely to be attributed to certain traits of character inherent in the youth of our own British Isles. Our boys and girls are not sordid, covetous, vain and deceitful by nature; but with such insidious opportunities before them, they might easily become so. Surely, if anything could crush out that generous magnanimity we love to find spontaneous in the youthful breast, it must be the self-absorption, and the eager calculation necessary for success as a professional prize-taker!

Unfortunately there are cases in which the parents cannot afford to keep the boy and girl at school, unless the latter rapidly refund the class-fees in the shape of "exhibitions," ten, twenty and forty pound prizes. These rewards are frequently the donation of some rich and kind-hearted patron of the respective educational establishments, who hope, doubtless, to benefit youthful talent, and encourage learning; but a little mature reflection might inspire a certain and more delicate method of exercising liberality.

In most German schools there are one or two pupils--not necessarily the most talented--whose widowed mother, or invalid father can ill-afford the school-fees, class-books and regulation stationery. Yet all is forthcoming on the appointed day, and "Ludwig" and "Elspeth" sit on the same forms with the children of the "Frau Generalin," and the "Herr Burgomeister," and enjoy the intercourse with their school friends all the better for being completely ignorant of the fact that a childless banker and a kind old maiden lady had each, on leaving the world, created so-called "Freistellen"--stipendiums--for their special benefit. There are numbers of such private endowments in every large town in Germany, scholarships, not to be won by competition.

In the public schools of Prussia no prizes are awarded as a rule: the prevailing opinion being that "virtue is its own reward." In each class a certain high-level standard of proficiency is required, and all are expected and helped to attain to that line; and those who distinguish themselves from the others in any way are only the two or three dunces, or persistently indolent and inattentive, who lag behind, and who are obliged to go over the identical same ground the following year, with younger children as classmates. The fear of finding one's self in such a discreditable position is a powerful incentive to work.

And yet "the school" in Germany is by no means a dull or prosaic institution. If compulsory, it is at the same time a sweetly-flavoured pill,--a pathway for the young, which has been so planed and smoothed by clever scientists in the art of teaching, so adorned and varied by a hundred entertaining devices, that it may well be styled "the royal road to learning." The scholars love their school: they are unconsciously flattered and proud to belong to the government institution which has been crowned with the greatest success. They full believe in it, they trust in it, and are perfectly satisfied to comply with its minutest rules and regulations, without thinking of prizes.

Yet, from another point of view, it may be regretted that no prizes are given for good conduct and diligence in the shape of books, medals or honour badges. The possession of a well-bound history or biography, or a good edition of standard poetry, becomes in after years a happy link, binding the affections of the middle-aged man or woman to the establishment within whose walls so much of their childhood was spent; reminding them in the midst of their business and domestic worries, of the day when their hearts were fresh and young, and the whole world was before them, and they were encouraged to go on valiantly at other tasks, and to strive bravely at overcoming Life's sterner difficulties.

It is a pleasant and re-assuring sight for the parents when their little lad returns home with his armful of laurels, won on "breaking-up day," and the youngster has gained self-respect, that quality so absolutely necessary for every wayfarer in Life's pilgrimage. [Ernest] Legouvé must have thought so when he described little Joseph's grandmother in his essay entitled L'Art d'être Grand' mère; and told how at the last the poor little "collegian" carried his school prize and laid it on her tomb.

There are, moreover, many well-meaning fathers and mothers who underrate their child's abilities and diligence until, thanks to a modest, harmless, premium, the poor little "misunderstood" has regained his legitimate rank in the domestic estimation.

In France, Switzerland and Italy public sentiment, far from discountenancing the custom of giving school premiums, has ever been favourable to this method of conferring well-deserved honour.

The "prize-giving day" is one of the greatest events of the year, in which every loyal burgess takes an interest; and no municipal edifice is considered too dignified for the celebration of so important a ceremony. In Bale the prizes used even to be distributed in the Cathedral. And in the days when Frankfort-on-Main was a "free city," the distribution of certificates and books to the pupils of the Gymnasium was a public act of no small importance. The Hall of the Emperors in the old historical municipal building known as "The Romer" was thrown open for the occasion; and the ceremony itself was known as the "Yearly Procession," from the fact that the pupils, headed by the town military, the Mayor and Corporation, marched in order, and formed an imposing " procession" from the School to the Town Hall.

A tourist who travelled from Germany to visit the last Paris Exhibition, declared that the sight which had perhaps interested him most was the presentation of the premiums to the pupils of the Ly&ceacute;e Janson, within the walls of the Trocadéro. On that occasion the hall was decorated with flags and evergreens; the band of the regiment supplied the music, speeches were made, and, finally, the rewards of "diligence and good behaviour" were bestowed on those who had won them by their exemplary conduct throughout the year. In what consisted these prizes? Certainly not in hard cash, nor in the banknotes of the Republic: nothing of that sort. The French are an extremely thrifty nation, and quite as practical as ourselves, yet they have their point d'honneur very keen on certain subjects; and we venture to assert that more than one Parisian would feel every bit as much affronted at the mere suggestion of money being handed out to his child in the midst of a public assembly--as he could were it an affair of soup or bread tickets for the family. For, to put it very plainly, as soon as cash begins to play a part in the "breaking-up day," the whole assumes an air of traffic. Happily, the prizes in Paris are of a description which the sourest cynic could never stigmatize as bribes; and which satisfy the young aspirant for academic honours, without tending to corrupt his morals, or render him the object of jealousy to his comrades: books and badges of merit, in addition to the most distinguished; the latter consisting of laurel wreaths, green or gold, of no intrinsic value whatever, yet unspeakably precious to the maternal eyes at home, and mementoes to the happy recipient himself.

One of the most unpedantic of pedagogues who ever breathed in French Switzerland had his own successful methods of maintaining discipline, and meting out justice in the form of rewards and punishments. Amiable by nature, conscientious in principle, gentle and firm in manner, he soon won a reputation in the Canton, which placed him in the category of men like [Thomas] Arnold of Rugby.

The details we find in the family letters of the peaceful pensionnat, which flourished at the foot of the Jura through the troublous years of the first Napoleon, are extremely touching, and refreshingly suggestive of sweet security and calm, and "busy-beelike" industry in the midst of warlike times. We learn that the greatest punishment was a fine, which went to swell the modest sum set apart for school-treats and charitable purposes. And we know that the chief reward took the form of a medal, which the recipient was permitted to wear on certain occasions. The latter lies on the table before us as we pen these lines, side by side with the miniature portrait of the instituteur himself. Strong and elegant, it is a worthy specimen of the engraver's art, as it flourished in those days in that particular corner of Switzerland. The design is a Maltese cross developed into a star, with the teacher's initials on one side, and the words "Application et progress" on the other. The ornament is still bright and intact as it was seventy years ago, when grasped and fondled by young fingers, which have long since grown wrinkled, withered away, and mouldered in the grave.

Prizes in the Continental schools are awarded with an amount of discrimination that would astonish some of our English boards of Masters. We heard lately an anecdote about a young Austrian, who happened to be the most talented and studious pupil of a well-known Paris Lycée, or public school. According to a quaint tradition, once every year--on the 10th of January, if we mistake not,--on the "féte Charlemagne," the pupils, each of whom has been head boy during the preceding year in the nine or ten different Lycées respectively throughout Paris, are invited to a public dinner given by the City in the "Lycée Charlemagne." Our friend, the Vienna lad, enjoyed this much sought-for privilege one year; and on the second occasion was duly qualified, as far as his class work and examination papers were concerned. But, when the féte day arrived, and the parents observed to the "proviseur" or head-master, "So our Eugène dines with ces messieurs at the Saint Charlemagne?" they were rather taken aback by the answer, "Alas, no, and for the simple reason that his behaviour in the playground has been rough and overbearing for the last few months. You see the object of the kind of education we give here is not to fit our lads to be coalheavers and railway-porters. The physical strength necessary for such a calling, your son possesses to an eminent degree, as well as a remarkable amount of information for his age. What he is wanting in, is just that gentleness, absolutely necessary to take part in to-day's banquet along with "those other gentlemen." This was a great disappointment to both Eugène and his parents; but all acknowledged the justice of recompensing "all-round merit," and not merely the cleverest and most pushing.

It is significant of the real pedagogical value of our money rewards in England, that so very little stress is laid on the heart-qualities as a necessary condition in the candidates! Who ever heard of a Twenty Pound Prize for good conduct? In our competitions the clever head, the retentive memory, the presence-of mind, are the important requisites; amiability of temper, self-sacrifice, patience and good-nature are quite at a discount.

And yet the training of the heart is the highest aim of every conscientious teacher!

Can there be a more hideous anomaly in the world than the case of a worthy couple, out of the middle class of society, who have set their hearts on pushing their boy and girl on, so as to ensure their occupying a higher position in life than themselves.

The young people go to the best schools to which their parents can afford to send them, acquire modern languages and the classics with such success that the good folk at home are excessively proud of their progress. The young intellects are being sharpened and polished, the young heads are being sumptuously furnished; but that is all. Their names figure in the newspapers, heading the list of competitors at the Final Examinations. "They have learned a lot of things, those two," the neighbours say. "They have obtained a huge bulk of information of all sorts, Latin, Greek, Mathematics, Astronomy, Logic, and Ethics!"

And yet some very essential items they have not acquired; delicacy of feeling, modesty and filial respect. For when George Henry and Isabella Maria arrive home, the former sneers at his father's notions about "poetic justice," "the religion of Comte," and the "school of the Impressionists;" whilst the latter alarms her mother every second day with her hints about "the new line" she meditates "striking out" for herself ere long.

"They're not much company for us, Martha," murmurs the old gentleman.

"No, dear," sighs forth the good lady. "I'm afraid they've been left too long in the forcing house, like those foreign vegetables of yours, and have all gone to heads."

The well-known Italian writer, Edmondo De Amicis, has given us, in his deeply-touching little work, entitled, "Cuore" (Heart), some beautiful sketches of the schoolboy's life in Italy. The reader is almost moved to tears with the account of the little fellow--one of those very "misunderstoods" we referred to above--who gained the second medal out of a class of fifty-four pupils for his "kindheartedness!"

From what one can hear and observe of the schools abroad, it would appear that in Italy the teacher aims generally at cultivating the attachment and affections of his pupils towards one another, himself, the parents, and "the Patria." In France, it is not so much the intrinsic value of the prize which stimulates the young "collègien's" ambition as the honour of gaining it. The Prussian school system admits only negative rewards: in other words, mild punishments, but no "prizes" or premiums. The tendency in our middle-class schools in Great Britain at the present day is to convert the class-room into a kind of educational race-course. For as the French say, "the English love of the chase asserts itself even in their seminaries."

Now this was not the case formerly when "gentle life" was gentler than it is to-day. It is really a refreshing novelty now to meet with a boy or girl who are not going in for something, and, consequently, not in a hurry. For such there might be a few more schools founded beyond the domain of mere competitive results, as well as out of the reach of the professional coach and crammer. As a certain old lady expressed it: "Less crammer and more grammar!"

Let the aim and end of such an educational establishment be not the sordid and short-lived success of the prize-taker of some famous local examination, admirably expressed in such mannish jargon as "a stiff exam" for a "pot o'money; " but, on the contrary, to awaken a genuine, lasting taste for literary and scientific subjects; to encourage a spirit of inquiry; to afford pleasure to others along life's pathway; and, finally, to set in a rich store of various and interesting information, as well as some graceful accomplishments with which to cheer the monotony of advanced middle life and declining old age. We know a fine old lady who lives on the shores of the Baltic, and who to-day, at the age of eighty-three, is as active as many a person twenty years her junior. "I learned early to knit," she said, "in order to have a pleasant pastime for my old age."

So let knowledge itself be associated in the minds of our younger scholars with something worth having--for itself--and not for any "prize" connected with it--something like deep wells of nectar with which to refresh themselves after the heat of the day.

Proofread by LNL, July, 2023