The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Ruskin on Education

read by Mrs. Firth
Volume 11, 1900, pgs. 520-533

"Ruskin on Education" is a very large subject, and, of course, only a small part of it can be dealt with on the present occasion. He was a very early advocate of compulsory education, of hand labour, of technical instruction, and of the teaching of natural history: he has left a detailed account of his own education, and an ideal scheme of education for his ideal Society of St. George. He did much actual teaching in his life, besides that of his books and his Oxford lectures; he was always ready to share his mental gains, he taught people to see, he knew how to excite interest and enthusiasm, and travellers especially in Florence, Venice, and Amiens, owe much to his guidance. Some persons are offended by being told in his books about these places that if they do not honestly admire such and such a picture, or fresco, they had better go shopping or otherwise divert themselves, for the essential faculty of enjoying good art is wanting in them; while others feel that he may be right, and try to form their taste on what he declares to be works of noble art.

It is not, then, to be expected that I should present his views in completeness, or that I should give Ruskin revised, or Ruskin criticized, but rather some of his most characteristic and leading utterances, the selection, no doubt, half-unconsciously influenced by the feelings of a friend, not an antagonist.

It is quite easy for anyone who tries, and even without much trying, to find numerous superficial inconsistencies in his statements, petulancy in many of his protests, exaggerated ways of putting things, arising from his own vehement perception, and absolute (often aggressive) candour--fanciful and fantastic passages, which are really a little paradoxical play, never intended to be taken with utter seriousness. He adds to the sternness of a moralist the sensitiveness of a true artist, whose perception of beauty is accompanied by an equally keen perception of ugliness. To him, our squalid streets, dustheaps for children's playground, hideous buildings, smoke-laden air, and polluted streams, are produced by diabolic agency; no language is too strong for his reprobation of the men who tolerate them, and he asserts fine art to be impossible in such a country. Can we not understand how the thoughts of the poet-seer recoiled from these realities, how they turned again and again to a remedy, to ideal education in pure air, to beautiful opportunities for happy children of all classes, even to the details of graceful dancing, seemly dress, and gladness of song?

"Education, briefly, is the leading of human souls to what is best, and making what is best out of them: and these two objects are always attainable together, and by the same means; the training which makes men happiest in themselves also makes them most serviceable to other."

Many years ago John Ruskin wrote this, and combated the prevalent idea that erudition was education, and so early as 1862 he urged that every child should be imperatively taught in Government training schools, together with other minor pieces of knowledge, with the best skill of teaching that the country could produce, the following three things:--

(a) The laws of health, and the exercises enjoined by them.
(b) Habits of gentleness and justice.
(c) The calling by which he is to live.

Connected with these training schools were to be Government workshops, where any man, woman, boy or girl, out of employment, should be given work--if incapable through ignorance, taught, if through sickness, tended--if objecting to work, set to the more painful forms of necessary toil.

A few years later he writes, "It should be part of my scheme of physical education that every youth should learn to do something finely or thoroughly with his hands, so as to let him know what touch meant, and what stout craftsmanship meant: and to inform him of many things besides, which no man can learn but by some severely accurate discipline in doing." There were no Arts and Crafts then! No technical schools or classes! He goes on to say the result would be, amongst other things, the increase of innocent domestic price and pleasure, and the extinction of a great deal of vulgar upholstery and other mean handicraft.

He declares that he himself is more set on teaching healthful industry than anything else as the beginning of all redemption. In dwelling on education of a noble kind, he write, of "true and refined scholarship of which the essential foundation is to be skill in some useful labour."

Again, "The character of men depends more on their occupations than on any teaching we can give them. The employment forms the habits of body and mind, and these are the constitution of the man.  Employment is the half and the primal half of education--it is the warp of it; and the fineness or the endurance of all subsequently woven pattern depends wholly on its straightness and strength. The real and noblest function of labour is not to be reformatory, but formatory."

A point that Ruskin urges very strongly is that all measures of reformation are effective in exact proportion to their timeliness. We are too much accustomed to allow conditions of life to exist which make health impossible, and to build infirmaries for a few of the victims of these conditions: and to allow people to be drawn into crime by irresistible temptation which we might have removed: "we leave the most splendid material in child nature to wander neglected about the streets until it has become rotten, the degree in which we feel prompted to take in interest in it." On this point of timeliness, prevention being better than cure, one is reminded of a passage in an interesting book, by a recent writer, about the lowest stratum of London life. Tilda, the heroine, is raised by her contact with a higher nature, but falls back again, to her own despair. "I'm in the gutter," she says pitifully, "I can't git out. Why didn't yer catch me when I was a kid?"

"It is a marvel to me," writes Ruskin, "How the race resists, at least in its childhood, influences of ill-regulated birth, poisoned food, poisoned air, and soul neglect. I often see faces of children through the black dust of St. Giles (London) which through all their pale and corrupt misery recall the old "Non Angli," [non angli, sed angeli--St. Gregory said, made upon meeting children from England in the slave market at Rome--'not Angles, but Angels.'] and recall it, not by their beauty, but by their sweetness of expression, even though signed already with trace and cloud of the coming life, a life so bitter that it would make the curse of the 137th Psalm true upon our modern Babylon, though we were to read it thus: 'Happy shall thy children be, if one taketh and dasheth them against the stones.'"

Ruskin has always urged the teaching of natural history. "I hope," he says, "to see some day natural history assume a principal place in our simplest codes of school instruction, so that our peasant children may be taught the nature and uses of the herbs that grow in their meadows, and may take interest in observing and cherishing, rather than in hunting or killing, the harmless animals of their country." Drawing is to be taught in this and other connections to help and fix observation. "In the degree in which we delight in the life of any creature, we can see it--no otherwise." He says, "For one man who is fitted for the study of words, fifty are fitted for the study of things, and were intended to have a perpetual, simple and religious delight in watching the processes and admiring the creatures of the natural universe." And again, "I have reached only by thirty years of labour the conception of a system of Education in Natural History, the realization of which can only be many a year after I am at rest."

He writes: "All education must be moral first: intellectual secondarily. It may be a question how long and to what extent boys and girls of fine race may be allowed to run in the paddock before they are broken; but assuredly, the sooner they are put to such work as they are able for, the better." He dwells much on Wordsworth's line--

          "We live by admiration, hope, and love."

"These are to be taught by the study of beautiful Nature, the sight and history of noble persons, and the setting forth of noble objects of action."

He thus expands them:--"Admiration--the power of discerning and taking delight in what is beautiful in visible form, and lovely in human character; and necessarily striving to produce what is beautiful in form, and to become what is lovely in character. Hope--the recognition by true foresight of better things to be reached hereafter, whether by ourselves or others, necessarily issuing in the straightforward and undisappointable effort to advance according to our proper power, the gaining of them.  Love--both of family and neighbour, faithful and satisfied."

"When," he asks, "do you suppose the education of a child begins?  At six months old it can answer smile with smile, and impatience with impatience. It can observe, enjoy, and suffer, acutely and in a measure, intelligently. Do you suppose it makes no difference to it that the order of the house is perfect and quiet, the faces of its father and mother full of peace, their soft voices familiar to its ear, and even those of strangers, loving; or that it is tossed from arm to arm, among hard or reckless, or vain-minded persons, in the gloom of a vicious household, or the confusion of a gay one? The moral disposition is, I doubt not, greatly determined in those first speechless years. I believe especially that quiet, and the withdrawal of objects likely to distract, by amusing the child, so as to let it fix its attention undisturbed on every visible least thing in its domain, is essential to the formation of some of the best powers of thought." He attributes Scott's perceptiveness and memory to this quietude of his home, and we shall see something of the same influence as we come to John Ruskin's own education.

He fully describes it:--At four years old he had no toys, but had to find his own amusement; his Aunt at Croydon, "pitying this monastic poverty, bought a radiant Punch and Judy all dressed in scarlet and gold, that would dance tied to the leg of a chair;" his mother was obliged to accept them, but afterwards quietly told him it was not right that he should have them, and he never saw them again. He had a bunch of keys to play with as long as he was capable only of pleasure in what glittered and jingled. As he grew older he had a cart and a ball, and when he was five or six, two boxes of well-cut wooden bricks.

He writes; "With these moderate, but I still think entirely sufficient possessions, and being always summarily whipped if I cried, did not do as I was bid, or tumbled on the stairs, I soon attained serene and secure methods of life and motion, and could pass my days contentedly in tracing the squares of comparing the colours of my carpet, or counting the bricks in the opposite houses; with rapturous intervals of excitement during the filling of the water cart through its leathern pipe from the dripping iron post at the pavement edge, or the still more admirable proceedings of the turncock when he turned and turned till a fountain sprang up in the middle of the street."

But the carpet, and patterns in dresses, bed covers or wall papers, were his chief resource, and his attention was soon so accurate that when at three and a half he was taken to have his portrait painted by Mr. Northcote, he had not been ten minutes alone with him before he asked why he had holes in his carpet. It was at this time that the painter enquired what he would like in the distance of this picture, and the child answered "boo hills."

His father had so much confidence in the mother's judgment that he did not venture to help, much less to cross her; he used to tell him a story sometimes, and in the evening he read aloud the Waverly novels, while the child sat in a little recess with a table in front of it like an idol in a niche, the mother knitting. Mr. Ruskin, senior, was a man of true literary taste and perception, and his reading aloud was remarkably good and sympathetic.

The mother early began a severe course of Bible work with her son, and read alternate verses with him, watching every intonation of his voice and correcting the false ones. They read two or three chapters a day straight on, the first thing after breakfast, no interruption allowed from servants of visitors, visitings or excursions except when actually travelling. He gives a list of the chapters he had to learn by heart, and he had also to commit to memory "the whole body of the fine old Scottish paraphrases, which are good, melodious, and forceful verse, to which, together with the Bible itself," he owed the first cultivation of his ear in sound.

He writes: "Though I owe not a little to the teaching of many people, the maternal installation of my mind in that property of chapters I count very confidently the most precious, and on the whole the one essential part of all my education, for the chapters became, indeed, strictly conclusive and protective to me in all modes of thought, and the body of divinity they contain acceptable through all fear or doubt, nor through any fear or doubt or fault have I ever lost my loyalty to them, nor betrayed the first command in the one I was made to repeat oftenest--'Let not Mercy and Truth forsake thee.' "

The boy grew up in an atmosphere of peace, he heard no angry word, saw no offended glances, no trouble or disorder in the household. Next to this quite priceless gift of peace, he received perfect understanding of the natures of obedience and Faith; he obeyed word or lifted finger of father or mother simply as a ship her helm; not only without idea of resistance, but receiving the direction as a part of his own life, a force or helpful law as necessary to him in every moral action as the law of gravity in leaping. And his practice in Faith was soon complete; nothing was ever promised him that was not given, nothing ever threatened him that was not inflicted, nothing ever told him that was not true. Peace, obedience, and faith, these three for chief good, next to these the habit of fixed attention with both eyes and mind. Lastly, an extreme perfection of cake, wine, comfits, &c., and by fine preparation of what food was given him.

But he was too solitary, too sheltered from endurance and without due social discipline for the teaching of good manners. His mother was shy, and the couple lived a life of great retirement. Also his powers of independent judgment and action were entirely undeveloped. He writes: "Children should have their times of being off duty, like soldiers, and whence once the obedience if required is certain, the little creature should be very early put for periods of practice in complete command of itself, set on the bare-backed horse of its own will, and left to break it by its own strength." His further verdict on his own education was that it was at once too formal and too luxurious, leaving his character, at the most important moment for its construction, cramped indeed but not disciplined, and only by protection innocent, instead of by practice virtuous.

He was taken to see ruined abbeys and castles, and noble cathedrals when his father made tours through half the English counties for orders for his firm; no gentleman's or nobleman's house of interest which could be seen was left unvisited, and when the boy was old enough to care for what he himself delighted in, his father, who had a quite infallible natural judgment in painting, never allowed him to look for an instant at a bad picture.

Later the boy went abroad with his parents, posting leisurely, and seeing beautiful places with intense enjoyment, gaining first impressions which were to be deepened in all his future life.

He writes on one occasion, when reviewing his early years, that we scarcely ever, in our study of education, ask this most essential of all questions about a man, what patience had his mother or sister with him, that most men are apt to forget it themselves, that it is only by deliberate effort that he can recall the long morning hours of toil--toil on both sides equal--by which year after year his mother forced him to learn the Scotch paraphrases and chapters of the Bible. "I recollect" (he writes) "a struggle between us of about three weeks concerning the accent of the 'of' in the lines--

          'Shall any following spring revive
          The ashes of the urn?' "

--I insisting, partly in childish obstinacy, and partly in true instinct for rhythm (being wholly careless on the subject both of urns and their contents) on reciting it, 'The ashes of the urn.' It was not, I say, till after three weeks' labour that my mother got the accent laid upon the 'ashes' to her mind. But had it taken three years she would have done it, having once undertaken to do it."

Ruskin, in later life, not only gave teaching, but, as we all know, books, pictures, minerals, and educational help of all kinds. He was willing to forego the exercise of his own faculty and pleasure in painting, that he might bring others to see what he rejoiced in, and to understand what he had deciphered, whether they were working men, little school girls, struggling artists, or individual friends; and his condition of companionship in his Society of St. George is, that after we have done as much manual work as will earn our food, we all of us discipline ourselves, our children, and anyone else willing to be taught, in all the branches of honourable knowledge and graceful art attainable by us. His ideal society was to be entirely devoted, first to the manual labour of cultivating pure land and guiding streams to places needed, and together with manual labour, and much by its means, to carry on the thoughtful labour of true education in themselves and others, to learn and teach all fair arts and sweet order and obedience of life, and to educate the children entrusted to their schools in such practical arts and patient obedience, but not at all necessarily in either arithmetic, writing, or reading.

Before entering on Ruskin's ideal scheme of education for the children of St. George's Schools, it is necessary to explain that he founded the Company or Guild of St. George because he could not bear to see degradation and wretchedness without making some effort to relieve it. "How are we to live?" he asks. "Surely not in multitudinous misery. Do you think the Maker of the world intended all but one in a thousand of His creatures to live in these dark streets, and the one triumphant over the rest to go forth alone into the green fields?" And again, at the time of the Commune in Paris, "Alas! of these divided races, of whom one was appointed to guide and teach the other, which has indeed sinned deepest--the unteaching or the untaught?--which are now guiltiest--those who perish or those who forget?"

So his plan was this: To possess land, to cultivate it by hand labour, possibly to redeem some, and to leave some uncultivated for the security and preservation of wild creatures and wild flowers, to have on the land well-housed men and women, and schools for the education of their children. The laws and regulations for this education are all that concern us now, and I must, in a few words, dismiss the subject of the Guild. Its members, or Companions as they were called, are few. The Master gave £7,000 for its work, they contributed some £700 approximately, he gave a choice Museum to Sheffield, and some of his friends made donations of land. The society never seemed to accomplish much in agriculture, there were failures over which it was easy for outsiders to make merry, and there were some few ill-judging persons who caricatured the Master's teaching by their exaggerations or misunderstanding, and so brought it into discredit. As has been well said of such persons, they "spoil the beauty which depends upon proportion." Many of the wise and strong whom the Master thought would join our ranks and stand shoulder to shoulder in his work for the redemption of their fellows, held aloof, and though he kept on his way with generally indomitable will, and stern rather than glad hopefulness, his work was not made easy, and it must often have been done in disappointment and heaviness of heart. Though Browning is no doubt right in saying, "'tis not what man Does which exalts him, but what man Would do," it is still sad to think how little help Ruskin had in this special scheme.

However, failures are easily estimated. It is less easy to estimate the good done in countless homes by his appeals for a higher standard of duty and culture, and to judge how far the future may justify his ideal. Some coming brightness may shine with "the radiance his deed was the germ of."

"We will train," he wrote, "as many British children as we can in healthy, brave and kindly life, to every one of whom shall be done true justice and dealt fair opportunity of advancement, or what else may be good for them. Justice in granting to every human being due aid in the development of such faculties as it possesses for action and enjoyment--primarily for useful action, as all enjoyment must arise out of that, either for happy energy or rightly complacent and exulting rest. Due aid, let the rough ground remain rough, properly looked after and cared for, it will be of best service so, but spare no labour on the good, or on what has in it the capacity of good."

He said that we must accept contentedly infinite difference in original nature and capacity, and that right education would make this manifest. Not by competitive examinations. Sternly, no! but under absolute prohibition of all violent and strained effort, specially of envious or anxious effort, in every exercise of body and mind. The best powers of the youths were to be developed in each without competition, though they would have to pass crucial but not severe examinations, attesting clearly to themselves and to other people, not the utmost they can do, but that they can do some things accurately and well, with clear and happy certainty that there are many things they will never be able to do. He is clear that healthy working will always depend on total exclusion of competition. Every child should be measured by its own standard, trained to its own duty, and rewarded by its just praise. It is the effort that deserves praise, not the success, nor is it a question for any student whether he is cleverer than others or duller, but whether he has done the best he could with the gifts he has. He deplores the madness of the modern cram and examination system, because all men are not equal, the fact being that every child is born with an accurately defined and absolutely limited capacity; by competition he may paralyze or pervert his faculties, but cannot stretch them a line; and the entire grace, happiness, and virtue of his life depend on his contentment in doing what he can dutifully, superiority to be used for the help of others, inferiority to be no ground of mortification. He would fain see engraved in marble over the door of every school, and the gate of every college, the words, "Let nothing be done through strife or vain glory." "Prizes and honours are meant by heaven to be the proper rewards of a man's consistent and kindly life, not of a youth's temporary and selfish exertion." Dulness also in his scheme is not to be disturbed by provocations or plagued by punishments. The virtue of humility is to be taught to a child chiefly by gentleness to its failures. "I have seen," he writes, "my old clerical master beating his son Tom hard over the head with the edge of a grammar because Tom could not construe a Latin verse, when the Rev. gentleman ought only with extreme tenderness and pitifulness to have explained to Tom that he was not Thomas the Rhymer. But the master should be swift to recognize the special faculties of children no less than their weaknesses, and it is his quite highest and most noble function to discern these and prevent their discouragement or effacement in the vulgar press for a common prize."

Though the children in St. George's Schools are not to be taught to read unless they like, it seems to be taken for granted that the majority of them will like, for the are to learn Latin, boys and girls both, natural history, the history of five cities, and elementary music. Their minds are to be stored with what has been beautifully and bravely done, and they are to learn by heart not less than 500 lines of such poetry as would always be helpful and strengthening to them. They are to learn beautiful writing and beautiful speaking, and to listen, if they are interested, to good reading aloud, and good music. And none must fail to learn gentleness to all brute creatures, accuracy of observation and of statement, finished courtesy to each other, the laws of honour, and the habit of truth.

Our farmers' children, with our own, are to be "enabled to know the meaning of the words, Beauty, Courtesy, Compassion, Gladness, Religion," and each of these subjects is taken up separately.

We may pause on one of them--Gladness. Ruskin long before had written: " The last and worst thing that can be said of a nation is that it has made its young girls sad and weary." And later he says: "All literature, art and science are vain, and worse, if they do not enable you to be glad, and glad justly." He considers "cheerfulness inseparable from good breeding, debonnairte, disciplined in courtesy, and the exercises which develop animal power and spirit."

He dwells much on frankness, and says: "There is no fear for any child who is frank with its father and mother." We may see throughout, his confidence in the unspoiled tendencies of children to be consistent with his words: "I trust in the nobleness of human nature, in the majesty of its faculties, the fullness of its mercy, and the joy of its love" So much the more scathing are his reproaches to those who should help their development and do not. So much the more solemn his warnings. He writes: "The whole period of youth is one essentially of formation, edification, instruction, I use the words with their weight in them; intaking of stores, establishment in vital habits, hopes and faiths. There is not an hour of it but is trembling with destinies--not a moment of which, once past, the appointed work can ever be done again, or the neglected blow struck on the cold iron. Take your vase of Venice glass out of the furnace, and strew chaff over it in its transparent heat, and recover that to its clearness and rubied glory when the north wind has blown upon it: but do not think to strew chaff over the child fresh from God's presence and to bring the heavenly colours back to him--at least in this world."

"A child should not need to choose between right and wrong. It should not be capable of wrong; it should not conceive of wrong. Obedient as bark to helm, not by sudden strain or effort, but in the freedom of its bright course of constant life; true with an undistinguished, painless, unboastful truth, in a crystalline household world of truth; gentle, through daily entreatings of gentleness and honourable trusts, and pretty prides of child-fellowship in offices of good; strong, not in bitter and doubtful contest with temptation, but in peace of heart and armour of habitual right, from which temptation falls like thawing hail; self-commanding, not in sick restraint of mean appetites and covetious thoughts, but in vital joy of unluxurious life, and contentment in narrow possession, wisely esteemed."

It is the fashion amongst certain advocates of the advanced education of women, to smile at and despise the Sesame and Lilies type of woman, but I think they do not take the book as a whole. Ruskin combats the idea that woman is the shadow and attendant image of her lord, owing him a thoughtless--a servile obedience, and supported altogether in her weakness by the pre-eminence of his fortitude.

He had shewn how the first use of education was to enable us to consult with the wisest and greatest men on all points of earnest difficulty,--to use books rightly. Then he uses them to shew how Shakespeare, Sir Walter Scott, Dante, the Greeks, Chaucer and Spenser represent women, and altogether Ruskin's ideal girl in Sesame and Lilies is a very lofty and gracious creature; it may have been old-fashioned in him to consider her in relation to a lover and to a husband; we were not accustomed at the time the book was written, to regard her as an independent wage-earner, and his prescribed course of education for her is not exactly that required by some of our modern needs. Yet, what precisely is it? By physical training and exercise to give splendour of activity and delicate strength--to make her so happy that her countenance will be full of sweet records, to fill and temper her mind with knowledge and thoughts which tend to confirm its natural instincts of justice and refine its natural tact of love. She is not to be turned into a dictionary, she is to read history with sympathy and bright imagination. She is to have access to noble books, good art, the finest models, the same advantages that are given to her brothers. She also is to learn that courage and truth are pillars of her being. She also is to have not only noble teaching, but noble teachers, and the help of wild and fair nature. She is also to learn care for the untaught and neglected.

"Oh! Ye women of England," he says, "do not think your own children can be brought into their true fold of rest while these are scattered on the hills as sheep having no shepherd," and he appeals for the downtrodden and miserable, "far away among the moorlands and the rocks--far in the darkness of the terrible streets."

Would a girl so trained be unfitted for right independence? It need not be assumed that she is quite ignorant of--say arithmetic, or quite incapable of learning it. Would she be unable to take up gardening, cooking, sick-nursing, the teaching of gymnastics, or any of the useful arts which in his later teaching Ruskin insists on? Might she not grow into a quite valuable factory inspector, or a wise and sympathetic poor-law guardian?

Ruskin says that boys are "either to ride or sail, to have horse and dog friends, to have their ears boxed, and heartily too, the first time they shy a stone at a sparrow, but the father and mother are to put up (and thank God for the blessed persecution) with his rat and rabbit, and every conceivable form of vermin a boy likes to bring into the house." He looks forward to the time when an Eton boy's mind will be "as sensitive to falseness in policy, as his ear to falseness in prosody"; and on moral questions he remarks, "no advice, no exposure will be of use, until the right relation exists again between the father and the mother and their son," which he thus describes: "To deserve his confidence, to keep it as the chief treasure committed in trust to them by God: to be the father his strength, the mother his sanctification, and both his chosen refuge, through all weakness, evil, danger and amazement of his young life."

Along all lines of thought for the education of others, is there not a parallel consciousness that we must educate ourselves? On how much Ruskin helps to this, we cannot now dwell. I will only say that one of the articles of St. George's Vow or Creed is this:--"I will strive to raise my own body and soul daily into higher powers of duty and happiness: not in rivalship or contention with others, but for the help, delight and honour of others, and for the joy and peace of my own life."

Proofread May 2011, LNL