The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
The School According to Ruskin

by Mr. J. L. Paton
Volume 12, 1901, pgs. 545-557

"I do not care as a rule that children should learn either reading or writing. There are very few people in this world who get any good by either. Broadly and practically, whatever foolish people read, does them harm; whatever they write, does other people harm, and nothing can ever prevent this, for a fool attracts folly as decayed meat attracts flies, and distils and assimilates it, no matter out of what book."

What makes or mars a man is the use he makes of his leisure; not how he behaves at his work so much as how he behaves in his hours of recreation, when he is his own master and can choose for himself.

The next meeting took place at 5 p.m., at 40, Great Cumberland Place, W. (by kind permission of Mrs. C. Oppenheim). Chairman, The Right Hon. The Earl of Verulam.

Mr. J. L. Paton (Headmaster of University College School) read his paper on The School According to Ruskin.

We all know Ruskin as the interpreter of the beautiful in nature and art. We know him as the moral reformer who never spared in his rebukes the more fashionable vices of his day. We know him as the prophet of social well-being and social co-operation as opposed to the current political economy of universal scramble, laissez-faire, and devil-take-the-hindmost.

We do not know so much as we should of Ruskin as a teacher of teachers. Yet, sooner or later, the influence of every great man must be felt in the schools, and felt there, probably more fruitfully than anywhere else. As the philosophers of Greece, in describing their ideal state, usually ended in describing an ideal education, so, sooner or later, every great thinker must address himself to the problem of child-training, whether it be Plato in ancient days or Goethe in modern times, whether it be Rousseau and the Encyclopaedists, or religious reformers like Luther and Wesley, or scientific thinkers like Huxley and Herbert Spencer.

Grown-up men and women, to whom they first address themselves, they find more or less case-hardened and impervious to ideas--what they are that they remain. "Alte Schälke werden nicht fromm,"[***] as Luther said, and sooner or later, these philosophers find that they must turn to the children for the realisation of those ideals which they conceive for the future of the race. They must begin at the beginning. To improve the stock they must foster the germ. To educate the race they must train the children. What the children are being made to-day, that the race will be thirty years hence. Into the undiscovered country of this new century, with all that it has of weal or woe, "the little child shall lead us."

Now, John Ruskin had far more direct acquaintance with education than most of the world thinkers I have mentioned. He was actually for many years a teacher, as Professor of Fine Art at Oxford, and one of his literary projects was to write a complete series of manuals in natural history and art, for the use of St. George's schools. Five of these manuals were actually completed. Geology (his favourite science) and art were treated in Elementary Drawing and Deucalion. Botany was treated in Proserpina, with a text utterly regardless of any but the most popular names and of all microscopic observation. "Children," said Ruskin, "should be taught the beauty of plants as they grow and their culinary uses when gathered." He never thought much of a botanist who was not at the same time a gardener. Zoology was treated in Love's Meinie, Crystallography in the Ethics of the Dust.

It was at first my design in this paper to treat of Ruskin's educational ideas on these lines, to try and formulate his ideal programme, to body forth his ideal school, his ideal schoolboy and his ideal treatment of the several subjects. But when I found that, in describing his ideal schoolmaster, I should have to tell you in Ruskin's words that "No one is fit to be the head of a children's school who is not both by nature and attention a beautiful speaker"--I thought it wise to change my tactics and treat the subject on other lines, considering, in the first place, the criticisms which Ruskin makes on our present educational system, and next, the application of his principles to this system--first, the diagnosis, second, the cure. In point of fact, I think the subject is more fruitful when treated in this way. After all, the schools of St. George never existed except on paper, and Ruskin always deals rather with broad principles than details of method and application; his views are general and philosophic, not technical and scholastic, and, as such, they are far more stimulating, far-reaching, and eventually more practical, in their effect. In a word, his teaching is seminal and--

Each elemental seed has a fiery force from the skies
As much as earthly limbs and gross allay
Of mortal members subject to decay,
Blunt not the beams of heaven and edge of day.

His diagnosis of education as he found it is about as unfavourable as his diagnosis of our existing social conditions, and just as scathing and vigorous in its expression.

"Modern education," says he, "for the most part signifies giving people the faculty of thinking wrong on every conceivable subject of importance to them."

Ah! but, you will say, "Ruskin was writing of thirty or forty years ago, and things have moved since then in England. Have we not secured for each child, at any rate, a grounding? Have we not ensured that every child, except the gipsy child and the imbecile or cripple learn, at any rate, the three R's?"

Now, you could not possibly mention anything that was more of a red rag to Ruskin than these same three R's of which we boast so much.

"I do not care as a rule that children should learn either reading or writing. There are very few people in this world who get any good by either. Broadly and practically, whatever foolish people read, does them harm; whatever they write, does other people harm, and nothing can ever prevent this, for a fool attracts folly as decayed meat attracts flies, and distils and assimilates it, no matter out of what book."

So much for reading and writing. Arithmetic rouses his special ire. He makes a dead set against it. He says children's time should never be wasted, nor their heads troubled with it. The importance at present attached to it is mere folly, the folly of avarice, springing from the notion that every boy is to become first a banker's clerk and then a banker.

Now it is not my business here to air my own opinions. I am here to expound John Ruskin, but I am sure I am representing not only my own opinions but those of everyone here when I say that we cannot honestly say we agree in this wholesale denunciation.

If some people overeat themselves for dinner, or if others use the strength afforded by dinner to stab policemen and break open safes, it doesn't follow that we ought to suppress dinner-eating in toto and anathematise all those who cater for it.

And reading, writing and arithmetic have become to everyone as much a matter of daily necessity as dinner itself. Imagine the impossibility, for instance, of regulating matters in a railway station or a public park if you couldn't count on everyone being able to read the rules and notices, to distinguish a third class carriage from a first, to read the name of the station where he has to get out, and recognise the number of the platform from which the train will start for Yarmouth.

But we may look at the great truth which lies at the back of these somewhat unqualified diatribes, and that truth is this. These three R's are in themselves not education, nor are they knowledge, still less are they wisdom. They are instruments and nothing more--the tools whereby we may promote the purposes of education and may acquire knowledge and wisdom; but whereby also we may forward the purposes of roguery, dishonesty and lust. "Teach a man how to make a lock," said Samuel Morley, "and you teach him at the same time how to pick a lock, unless you are teaching the higher motive which restrains." Teach a fool how to read, write and reckon correctly, and you make him ten times more dangerous a fool than he was before. We may learn therefore from Ruskin to put these three R's at any rate in their proper place, and consider them not as an end in themselves but a means to an end.

Again, consider that these three R's--though they put a certain strain upon the mind, and consequently strengthen the mind in the process of acquiring them--rapidly become merely a form of automatic or mechanical action. We read, write and reckon just in the same habitual routine way as we dress ourselves and drink our morning coffee--without any effect whatever upon our inner consciousness, without evoking any sort of thought. A good instance was cited not long since by Professor Earl Barnes:--"I was struck in passing through the Central Electric Railway with a man in the lift going down. He was at least three-quarters drunk, he sat opposite the advertisements and he passed the time in reading aloud to the whole company the various puffs. Now he was a man who had been wound up through a period of years in elementary education and had formed the reading habit, and so read."

Further, it is healthy for us to judge whether our self-satisfaction over our hitherto performance is really justified by the fruits it has produced. "The development of humanity in England," John Ruskin declares, "has resulted in physical ugliness, envy, cowardice, and selfishness, instead of what by a conceivably humane, but hitherto unexampled, education might be attempted of physical beauty, humility, courage and affection." Humiliating words these, yet capable, I fear, of proof, word for word. For "physical ugliness" we need only look at our underground railway, our 'buses, with their liberal largess of mud, and those rows of monotonous and featureless barracks which we pathetically strive to dignify by such titles as "terrace," "avenue," "mansions," "villas," or even "gardens" and parks."

Look at the disgust for school which is so characteristic at any rate of English boys, and the consequent waste of money and of effort when all we have taught is flung pell-mell to the winds. Look at our most successful newspapers--those mirrors of ourselves which we unfold every morning on our breakfast table. Look at our shops and the sort of things and the sort of statements which draw the coy copper out of our English pockets. Look at the advertisements which line our chief railway routes and nauseate our streets. Look at our fashion-plates, male and female, and what, with strange irony, we speak of as "good society." Look at our most successful commercial institutions, the only businesses which never know a bad time being those which pander to our lowest appetites. Look at our boasted Imperial nation, breeding its rickety and purblind offspring in over-crowded rookeries and squalid slums. Look at those fearful statistics of juvenile crime which M. Fouillet has put before us in his recent article on "L'école et la Presse" in theRevue des deux Mondes. Look at these things and say frankly if it is not high time that some prophet like John Ruskin should diagnose this disease, and cry aloud and spare not till we set ourselves in downright earnest to mend it.

But let me not pass on satisfied with having put before you merely the negative part of his message. Negation is never more than half the truth. Here is what Ruskin says about the true way to read:--"You must read for the nourishment of your mind precisely under the moral laws which regulate your eating for the nourishment of your body. That is to say, you must not eat for the pleasure of eating, nor read for the pleasure of reading. But if you manage yourself rightly, you will intensely enjoy your dinner and your book. This law holds to the minutest particular, with this difference only, that the vices and virtues of reading are more harmful on the one side and higher on the other, as the soul is more precious than the body. Gluttonous reading is a worse vice than gluttonous eating; filthy and foul reading a much more loathsome habit than filthy eating. Epicurism in books is much more difficult of attainment than epicurism in meat, but plain and virtuous reading the most entirely pleasurable." (Fors Clavigera, Letter 1xi.)

So all are to read Scott--"every word of him"--and Shakespeare and Dante. Such reading, as Emerson says, "brings us out of our egg-shell existence into the great dome, we see the zenith over and the nadir under us. Instead of the tanks and buckets of knowledge to which we are daily confined, we come down to the shore of the sea and dip our hands in its miraculous waves."

This brings me to the second and more hopeful part of what I have to say--the Cure.

The cure, says Ruskin, must start from the man himself. The school should be the great assay of the young human souls--it should try them and discover what substance they are of, what are their powers for useful, serviceable work, and regulate the treatment of them according to their constitution and capacity.

Therefore we must have trial schools, or, as he elsewhere calls them, searching and discovery schools, to find what each boy and girl is best fitted for. The great course of our modern so-called system of education, is that we are most of us thinking, not what we are to do, but what we are to get. The English parent "seeks not that education which is best in itself, but that which shall keep a good coat on my son's back; shall enable him to ring with confidence at double-belled doors; which shall ultimately result in the establishment of a double-belled door to his own house; in a word, shall lead to 'advancement in life.' This we pray for on bent knees, and this is all we pray for."

These low aims of respectability as the be-all and the end-all here of earthly bliss, are not really to be great in life, in life itself, but in its trappings. They mean that we get more salary, a bigger balance at the bank, more clothes, more top-hats per annum, more courses to our dinner and consequently more visits from the doctor--a place, if all goes well, in the Royal Court Blue Book, and possibly even in Who's Who; more, in a word, of the fripperies and vanities of life, but less of life itself, the life which is more than raiment--less of that oversoul which makes life great and worthy.

We have, indeed, strangely misused that phrase "advancement in life." "He only is truly advancing in life whose heart is getting softer, whose blood warmer, whose brain quicker, whose spirit is entering into living peace. And the men who have this life in them are the true lords and kings of the earth--they and they only." This is the life for which the school should train.

The first condition of this true education, according to Ruskin, is that it train to useful work. He is as stern as the Jewish Rabbi in teaching handwork both for boys and girls. Boys are to plough; girls are to sew--all girls are to sew. Sewing machines are strictly tabooed. This is the secret of true happiness--that we should be serviceable to others. "In all other paths by which that happiness is pursued, there is disappointment or destruction." And this for all classes. A man is not necessarily educated because he can read Latin and write English, and behave himself in a drawing room. The peasant of Oberammergau, the Ayrshire cottar, may be a more educated man than he because his life is bearing its helpful and effective part in the world's great harmony. This is the lesson which Pestalozzi learned at Stanz. "I believe an immense gain in the bodily health and happiness of the upper classes would follow on their steadily endeavouring, however clumsily, to make the physical exertion they now necessarily exert in amusements, definitely serviceable. It would be far better, for instance, that a gentleman should mow his own fields, than ride over other people's."

So determined was Ruskin in this matter, so thoroughly did he believe in humble, helpful work as a basis of true religion, that he made it a condition of entry into the St. George's Guild. The third article runs, "I will labour, with such strength and opportunity as God gives me, for my own daily bread; and all that my hand finds to do, I will do it with my might." The curious intrusion of pseudo--"gentility" into the highest educational aims in the average British mind is well instanced by a story of Miss Frances Power Cobbe's school-days, as told in her Reminiscences. When the girls came home to dinner on Ash Wednesday, there was always salt fish at one end of the table and roast mutton at the other. "And now, my dears, you may have which you like, roast mutton or fish; but if you have the fish, it will be better for your souls and better for your figures."

This brings us right up against the prejudice of all genteel folk against dirty work. Do you mean to tell us, we say, that we are to degrade ourselves by doing dirty work? "Why yes, my most genteel sir, and my most dainty madame, most certainly I do," John Ruskin would reply, "Only you will not find any work dirty or degrading so long as it is useful or necessary; for myself, I never painted better than after I had scrubbed down the stairs of a small hotel in the Alps which happened to need some soap and water badly."

The fact is that Ruskin here places his finger upon one of the sore spots of our civilisation. What means this perennial difficulty of domestic service, this drift from country to town with all its attendant evils both for town and country? It all arises from the idea that hard manual work, done in the sweat of one's brow, is degrading because it is not genteel. We deserve all that we are getting. We have called the maid-servant "slavy" because she did the drudgery of the house, and now we have no right to resent it if she finds she can learn the typewriter, play the fine lady too, and bids us look for our "slavy" elsewhere. And this is due to the false conception of gentility,--from the fact that work, handwork, is not yet sufficiently identified with education and culture. We don't mind doing the dirty work when we are camping out, or when we are on a yachting expedition; but the very thought of such a thing in London would contaminate our minds, and make our neighbours pull down their blinds in horror.

I remember very well how, when I was a new boy in Shrewsbury school, we were called together by Mr. A. H. Gilkes, the present headmaster of Dulwich. The school was shortly to be moved into new buildings outside the town, and Mr. Gilkes put it to us boys that we might make our own cricket field. The governing body was poor, old boys were building the chapel, the school could not do without a cricket ground, the obvious thing was we should make it for ourselves. I remember how the mathematical master went up and marked the levels and we, after enrolling ourselves under various big fellows as "gangers," looped up our trousers in true navvy style, and worked away with spade and barrow till the whole field was levelled. I look back on that as one of the most valuable lessons that I learned at my old school of Shrewsbury. Ever since I have felt a sublime contempt for the man in the Gospel who had to confess "I cannot dig." A similar case, not approved of by the authorities, will be found in Peter Kropotkin's Memoirs of a Revolutionist, vol. i.

From the point of view of Ruskin, the most hopeful thing in our modern education would undoubtedly be the development of manual training, Sloyd hand and eye training, technical schools, dairy schools and so on. [sloyd is cardboard cutting.]

The next requisite of school-training, according to Ruskin, is nature.

A visitor who called at Rydal Mount during Wordsworth's life-time, on being shown into the poet's library, asked, "And this, I suppose, is your master's study?" "Well," said the housekeeper, "this is where the master keeps his books, but he does studying mostwise out of doors."

Ruskin would have our children do at least half their study out of doors. To every school there should be attached a garden, and half the time should be spent in it. This is the way Socrates taught, and the gentle Izaac Walton. On this one could say much, but in London it is just so much beating of the air. We have Kindergartens and "Kinder" in plenty, but only rarely a "garten." [kinder means child; garten means garden.]

I confine myself to some practical suggestions, based on what is already done in many London schools.

(1) London schools cannot have gardens, but they can have a few potted plants, and the care of these may be assigned to different children of the class in rotation.
(2) If a military corps has its regimental pet, there is no reason why a school should not have a few pet animals, cared for in the same way under supervision. A few such live pets are better than a dead Zoo. [or, dead zoological specimens.]
(3) The County Council has taken pains to provide botanical gardens in public parks. It lies with schoolmasters to make the utmost use of them, so that we may get more. The best place to study botany is the garden or the hedgerow.
(4) We cannot, I fear, teach boys to plough, to ride and to sail in the parks, but we are organising school games in them for Board school boys and getting thereby the same kind of training for them which a Public school boy gets. We might carry this out more fully.
(5) The country outing should not be a mere occasional treat, but a regular part of our school training and provided as such.

Lastly, if London is shorn of almost all its natural features, still no one has taught us the beauty of the common-place things as Ruskin has. The very grass weed speaks to us with a new spiritual voice when we have read Ruskin's description of it in Modern Painters.

I come next to the cultivation of a taste for the beautiful. One of the great characteristics of Ruskin's teaching is his insistence on the morality of taste. Current opinion said, "Character is one thing, taste is another. Tell me not what a man likes, but what he does." "Not so," said Ruskin: "tell me what a man likes and I will tell you what he is." We Philistine Englishmen are too prone to treat taste as a secondary thing altogether--desirable it may be, but superfluous. Ruskin maintained that taste was an index of character. What makes or mars a man is the use he makes of his leisure; not how he behaves at his work so much as how he behaves in his hours of recreation, when he is his own master and can choose for himself. And it is just this choosing for oneself that we call taste. Good taste is "the instantaneous preference of the noble thing to the ignoble." Taste can be trained; but it is trained rather indirectly than directly, rather subconsciously than consciously. You cannot be too careful how you decorate your schools and classrooms.

"Hitherto it has been so difficult to give all the education we wanted to our children, that we have been obliged to do it, if at all, with cheap furniture and bare walls, and supposed that boys learned best when they sat on hard forms and had nothing but blank plaster about and above them whereupon to employ their spare attention; also that it was as well they should be accustomed to rough and ugly conditions of things by way of preparing them for the hardships of life, and partly that there might be least possible damage done to floors and forms in the event of their becoming, during the master's absence, the fields or instruments of battle.

"I believe the notion of fixing the attention by keeping the room empty is a wholly mistaken one. It is just in the emptiest room that the mind wanders most: it gets restless, like a bird, for want of a perch, and casts about for any possible means of getting out and away. And even if it be fixed by an effort of the business at hand, that business becomes itself repulsive more than it need be, by the vileness of its associations."

Direct education of taste is impossible: it must be "by indirection." We can make conditions such that it can grow and be strong. We all know how much has been done in recent years to Ruskinise our schools in this respect. The time is now past when an educational writer could describe the English classroom as a "region of asceticism," and say, "we should be as much surprised at the appearance of a picture in it, as if we ran across a Madonna of Raphael in a Baptist chapel." London schools are, so far as I have seen them, the very antithesis of those "barren walls" which Ruskin described forty years ago; but many country schools still decorate their walls, in default of something better, with advertisements of "Carter's Little Liver Pills," and similar terrors. And some of the best schools in England make the great mistake of massing together their art treasures in special museums, seldom visited, instead of spreading them lavishly over the whole space available where no boy could help seeing them day after day.

Another criticism I would venture. It is a mistake always to have the same picture in the same place; it begins to be taken for granted and loses its effect: a "general post" now and again stimulates interest. There should be plenty of colour. Childhood wants colour in its life and, if it doesn't find it provided, may seek it in undesirable ways. Engravings are good, but coloured prints are better, so they be good. Again, I would submit that a human skeleton, or, still worse, a diagram of man's internal anatomy--the sort of flayed Bartholomew one often sees, does not minister to a sense of beauty, nor does the figure of the rhinoceros or alligator.

Above all, let there be less of the chart and more of the picture. The living history of Ruskin's five cities, which sum up the history of Western civilization--Athens, Rome, Venice, Florence, London--let it be figured in large, bright frescoes by foremost painters of the day, so that the child has joy in beholding them. It is this joy in beautiful things which distinguishes man from the brutes. It is the perversion of this joy which degrades and debases him. Just as freedom is for all, just as education in its narrower sense is for all, so let education in its wider sense be for all; not for those who can pay, as the Chancellor of the Exchequer said in his unregenerate days; let art be for all. The constant presence of objects of beauty, and their constant though unconscious influence remains, when weary grammar rules and unfructifying dates have lapsed into the limbo of oblivion. When a child has lived in such surroundings,

"Great thoughts, great feelings come to him
Like instincts, unawares."

What I have said of painting should be said with fully as much emphasis of music. Nothing is so un-Ruskinian in the recent history of English education as the outcry over pianos in Board Schools some twelve years ago. "Work and make music," said the spirit to Socrates, and Ruskin would have our school halls, like the halls of Zion, "all jubilant with song."

Music is a great moral hygienic and, as you have seen, it is the sense of the paramount importance of character that runs like a thread through all John Ruskin's teaching on education. The end of education is not knowledge, not examinations, but manhood and womanhood. And this building up of character is, he says, greatly determined before ever a child comes to school, in the first speechless years. [Compare The Subconscious Self, by Dr. Louis Waldstein, p. 53 ff.] Quiet, order, beauty, peace, soft voices, loving faces, are elements of education which leave permanent marks, and "the most important question about a man's education is what patience had his mother or sister with him." And then he dwells on his own mother. It took her once three weeks to get an accent right, but, had it taken her three years, she would have done it. Think of No. 5, John Street. What permanent marks are left on the children whose home is there?

These are the lines on which we school mistresses and masters must continue the work, if we are to attain the highest. Character is not a matter only for the Sunday school,--no one can rationally suppose that one hour at Sunday school is going to countervail the steady and accumulating influence of the five or six days of week-school. It is not a matter of any method, any nostrum, or specific--it is a matter of our personal character. Not what we do so much, not what we say, but what we are in ourselves, that our influence is, and there one leaves it; but that is the crux of the whole question, and no apparatus or system matters much in comparison with it.

What this influence--the true education--should be has never, perhaps, been more nobly and finally expressed than in Ruskin's definition of education (if I may so call it) with which I close. "Education is not teaching the youth of England the shapes of letters and their tricks of numbers, and then leaving them to turn their arithmetic to roguery and their literature to lust. Rather, it is the leading of human souls to what is best, and making what is best out of them; and the final results of the education I want you to give your children will be, in a few words, this--they will know what it is to see the sky, they will know what it is to breathe it, and they will know, best of all, what it is to behave under it, as in the presence of a Father who is in heaven."

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Proofread by Leslie Noelani Laurio, June 2009