The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Character and the Modern Press

by J. Saxon Mills, M.A.
Volume 7, 1896, pgs. 282-285

[John Saxon Mill, 1863-1929, was a Barrister at Law and journalist. He wrote for the "Echo" and then "The Daily News," and later was editor of the "Cape Times" during the South African War. His experience as editor gave him "a lasting interest in Imperial affairs," leading him to write several books on history. He married Grace "Daisy" Keeler in 1901 (five years after this article); they had four children.]

There is no sight more discouraging to the worker and believer in education than the display of journalistic literature upon our railway bookstalls and along our streets. Twenty-six years ago we formally inaugurated a system of public elementary education. A few years later we made it compulsory for every child in these kingdoms to learn to read and write. We are not perhaps justified in looking out for the general results and outward expression of this quarter of a century's educational labour upon the manners and tastes of the people. We find then that one of the most conspicuous features of the present time is the supply, in correspondence with the demand, of an ephemeral literature, perhaps the most useless and positively injurious which the world has ever seen. I have no desire, for obvious reasons, to enter into any detail of an individual sort. The class of literature to which I refer will be obvious to everybody. I mean that sort of paper, daily or weekly or monthly, which is conducted on purely commercial principles, and consists of isolated scraps of a sensational or scandalous or gossipy nature, each paper endeavouring to outbid its rivals by an intenser appeal to the gape and itch of an idle or prurient curiosity. Such papers propose to themselves no object of enlightenment or culture: they are bent simply upon hitting and indulging the vulgar taste, and therefore by an inevitable law upon accentuating and debasing it. There exist a large number of papers which, though not erring in a sensual way, are, I believe, in their general intellectual influence utterly noxious and poisonous. I refer to these scrappy scissor-made papers. I can conceive nothing more ingeniously calculated to destroy a taste for continuous reading, to make a person intolerant of those grades of interest necessary to any prolonged work of literary art than the persistent habit of reading such prints. People may be seen on all hands engrossed in them,--addling their brains by incessant streams of thin skilly [gruel], cultivating a morbid thirst by ceaseless nips of sensation, and inducing a sort of mental eczema--a prurigo irritans--by the application of a perpetual scratch. There is another class of paper whose bad influence runs over into the moral sphere. I was in a London tramcar a few months ago at a time when a cause celèbre was at its zenith of interest. The daily progress of the trial was reported in the fullest and least avoidable manner, and I remember noticing a man, who sat opposite myself, absorbed with a passionate fervour in the minute details of the evening report. I am not speaking, I hope, as a prig or pedant. I have no particular yearning for the day when everyone shall be found intent upon Homer or Shakespeare in the railway train or upon the seats of our public parks. But I do deliberately assert that a man had much better be doing nothing than imbibing the stuff of which most of our ephemeral literature consists--had far better be sitting in a wise passiveness, with mind and sense receptive of such spiritual influences as might visit him unbidden from the "oversoul" or the natural world around him. I am not sure, indeed, whether this capacity for letting the mind lie fallow,--giving it time to recover and gather to itself its own peculiar strength and virtue, so that, as the Greek said, we may be "wise with our own wisdom,"--is not quite as important as what we mean in the narrower sense by "self-culture." The mind has in itself resources of refreshment and purification which will operate spontaneously if we will not be perpetually forcing its conscious attention upon other people's words and ideas, and overwhelming it by weights of indigestible matter. To be wisely idle is a faculty which many of us are losing, thanks chiefly to the ubiquitous baits of the modern sensational press.

As I am dealing here with the more strictly educational influence of the journal, I will not dwell upon its more social and political effects. But we have recently seen during a series of war-scares what has been the influence and spirit of an important class of English papers. Everyone will remember how they fostered and intensified the public excitement,--how they squeezed from each situation, actual or imaginary, the last drop of saleable effect,--how they deliberately counteracted the efforts and wishes of all humane people and papers to allay the excitement and secure the preservation of peace. It has been said, not wholly without truth, that the commercial enterprise of English and French journalists nearly succeeded a year ago in plunging the two nations into war. I remember noticing with amusement upon a London bill the words, "War, not with France, but with ------," the blank eloquently appealing to the coppers and curiosity of a gullible public. Such papers acting as a permanent menace to peace and equanimity, and as the purveyors of the lowest sort of sensational entertainment, are a disgrace and a scandal to our civilization.

To return to the more educational view of the matter. I would say that in general the newspaper absorbs too large a share of the time and interest of our daily life. An article of Matthew Arnold's somewhat superfine scheme of culture was to read no newspapers. I do not say so. But I do say we read too many: that we cultivate too much a cacoethes legendí,--a habit of reading duplicate reports and criticisms of the same events,--accounts of innumerable matters that are really no conceivable concern of ours. The present hour, with its infinitude of trivialities, becomes, by dint of their undue embodiment in the daily press, disproportionately prominent. Life tends to lose its perspective and becomes a mere kaleidoscope of shifting and superficial trifles. The daily paper itself,--I am speaking of the best and indispensable sort,--grows more and more embarrassing in its incessant claim upon us. I was amused the other day to hear a man of education complaining, with some little exaggeration, but not without meaning, that his daily paper was rapidly ruining his business, causing him to neglect his family, and of course rendering anything of the nature of serious self-culture quite impossible. "But," said a friend, "can you not choose the subjects in which you are interested, and confine your newspaper reading to those?" "Impossible!" he groaned: "my interests are universal. I must read everything,--politics, religion, reviews, critiques, murders, suicides,--everything, and if by chance my paper remains unopened during the day, it haunts my sleep like a nightmare with the reproach of its chill and unsullied repose."

However, I am not for the "auszurottende journalistic" [eradication of journalism]. I simply say, that with regard to a certain class of journals, my only advice is, "Taste not, touch not, handle not," and, above all, buy not. That the determining end and object of newspaper reading is to keep ourselves in rational sympathy with the more important events and movements of the day,--not to save ourselves the trouble of observation and reflection, or to foster and indulge that incapacity for the "far niente" which may itself be regarded as an indolence of the most pernicious type.

How then can we reform the popular taste which determines the supply of this useless and wasteful print? Parents may do much by discouraging a liking for papers of a scrappy and sensational sort, by providing their children with books rather than papers, by defending their minds from injurious influences, at least as carefully as they protect their bodies from hurtful habits and unwholesome food. And generally, from the national point of view, we must attack the disease rather than the symptom. I have faith in technical education, in a man's learning some manual hobby,--carpentering, gardening or music,--in the cultivation of sports and studies which carry him into the fields and along the shores, and of course in all endeavours, by the supply of good books in schools and public libraries, to show what is the real use and reward of knowing how to read, and to induce an early love of that true seminal literature which is wisdom and truth and beauty.

Proofread by LNL, Nov. 2020