The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Training in English Schools.

by Dr. Gow
Volume 13, 1902, pgs. 518-525

[Dr. James Gow (1854-1923) was headmaster of Nottingham High School from 1885-1901, and of Westminster from 1901-1919. He wrote books on math history, English, and classics. He and his wife Gertrude had three children, including A.S.F. Gow, his oldest, age 16 at the writing of this article, who earned fame as a classical scholar.]

At 5 p.m., at 33, Cavendish Square (by kind permission of Mrs. Symes Thompson). Chairman: E. SYMES THOMPSON, ESQ., M.D.

THE CHAIRMAN, in welcoming the very large audience, spoke very warmly of the P.N.E.U., and, after a short speech, introduced DR GOW, Headmaster of Westminster School, who read his paper on Training in English Schools.

I observed with particular interest in reading through the manifesto of the Parents' Union the following words:--"Special stress is laid on the use of the word Education in its widest sense, not as meaning instruction only, but the development of the whole nature, on the underlying principle that 'Character is everything.'" These are wise words, and I wish in this paper to reinforce them by calling your attention to some aspects of education as it is practised in English schools today.

I quite agree that "character is everything." There are abundant instances in which character has triumphed over superior brains and knowledge, or in which it has at least made the best of defeat. All the same, it strikes me that this maxim, "character is everything," is one which lends itself a good deal to "cant", by which I mean the unintelligent repetition of a formula to cover feeble or false or confused thinking. Or, if that is sometimes too harsh a judgment, I will say that this maxim lends itself easily to fallacy in thinking, and to misunderstanding in conversation. Character is so many-sided a thing, so all-pervading an influence, that it is difficult to grasp the whole of it at once, and one may think very justly about it in one aspect while forgetting that it has others, and two persons may argue very cogently about it without noticing that they are looking at it from different points of view, and have not quite the same things in mind. Consider in how many senses the word "gentleman," or the word "self respect," is employed by different people--how many ideals there are of "gentleman" or "self respect"--and you will see what I mean when I say that the larger word "character" lends itself to fallacy and misunderstanding.

Let me give you one or two examples of the way in which error may arise from contemplating character from a limited point of view.

It is said, and said truly as I think, that of all forms of athletics, rowing is the best, because of its enormous influence on the character. The oarsman in an eight has practically no opportunities of personal distinction. He undergoes toil, sometimes even torture, in a cause which is that of the whole crew and the whole club. If he wins, he shares the triumph with his fellows; if he loses, he cannot blame anybody else, because he has no means of knowing whether the other men worked less hard than himself. You will allow that the man who gives his very best to the common cause, without regarding whether other people shirk or not, and without looking for any personal glory, is a man of noble character. Yet no man can be educated entirely, and some men cannot be educated at all, through rowing. Again, the advocates of cricket say, and say truly, that this game develops judgment and the power of command in a captain, obedience in the other members of a team, pluck and perseverance in everybody; and these are qualities necessary to our ideal man, yet no man can be educated entirely, and some men, e.g., a near sighted man, cannot be educated at all, through cricket.

I have chosen these examples for a reason which will appear presently. My point for the moment is merely this, that character is a combination of many qualities, mostly moral but not wholly so, and that when you propose to direct education to the development of character, you should have a very clear idea of what you mean by character, and should take care that you do not favour one quality at the expense of another equally necessary. You may, for instance, easily foster obedience at the expense of charity. Moreover, what you do must be done swiftly and surely, for the time during which a child's character is plastic is certainly short, and the good you do in one hour may be undone by something that happens in the next.

I doubt if I can give a definition of character that would satisfy an acute reasoner, but I feel that I am not entitled to say what I am going to say, unless I state at least what is in my mind when I speak of character. I mean by character a high sense of duty. If you ask me what I mean by duty, I shall refer you in the first instance to the enumeration of duties given in the Church Catechism. You may perhaps say, "But in the Catechism the definition of my duty to my neighbour ends up with the words, 'and to do my duty in that state of life unto which it shall please God to call me,' so that duty is here defined by duty, and the difficulty is not solved." There is, in truth, a verbal defect here, but let us substitute for the last clause, "to do strenuously whatever I undertake to do, and not to know when I am beaten." With this alteration I think the list of duties given in the Catechism is quite sufficient to make the description of character as "a high sense of duty" an instructive definition. The list errs perhaps both by excess and by defect, but it surely covers the larger part of what you or anybody means by character.* And that is quite sufficient for my purpose, for I do not propose to go into details and to propound to you an elaborate scheme of education for the formation of character. To tell you the truth, education seems to me something like diet. What it should consist of is pretty well known. The difficulty is to find forms that are both palatable and digestible. And logical schemes of education are very apt to fail through overlooking some part of this difficulty, as happened to the celebrated Mr. Day, the author of Sandford and Merton. He, you remember, brought up a young girl to be his ideal wife, but omitted to make her fond of him, with the result that when her education was complete and the wedding was at hand, she ran away with somebody else.

* [This definition of character was received with favour by the meeting, and it seems to me to be practically the only sense in which character can be said to be the product, or at least the laudible product, of education. But I doubt if, to the ordinary casual talker, character has any connection with duty at all. He would probably accept rather John Stuart Mill's account (quoted in the New English Dictionary, from Mill On Liberty, p. 108):--"A person whose desires and impulses are his own--are the expression of his own nature as it has been developed and modified by his own culture--is said to have a character. One whose desires and impulses are not his own, has no character, no more than a steam engine has a character." In this interpretation, character is much the same thing as what phrenologists call "individuality"; but I never heard anybody maintain that the public schools fostered "individuality," and I am concerned now only with character in the sense in which I believe the schools understand it.]

But to return, I was asking you to accept from me "a high sense of duty" as a working definition of character, and the definition which is most constantly present to my mind. If you will agree to that, I will come now to what I want to say about our English schools.

It is commonly said by writers on education and on the reform of education, that our great public schools are the admiration of the world for this reason, that they train the character and are not mere knowledge shops. I am not here to deny this proposition, but it is sometimes used in what I have called a "canting" way, to stifle discussion, and then it seems to me, in my irritation, to be arguable. I should like to have heard the late Mr. [Cecil] Rhodes and Lord [Horatio] Nelson, and all the Scotchmen who helped to make our Indian Empire--I should like to have heard these great men, nurtured in little grammar schools, say where they got their character from. They might have had something forcible to say on small schools or home influences. Usually, however, and on the present occasion in particular, I am quite ready to agree that the English public school system does train the character, and is expressly designed to do so. The criticism that I wish to make is that the training of character which they give is defective, and happens to be defective precisely at the point which is most important just now for the welfare of the nation. It seems to me that in our public schools, and through their example in other schools too, the training of character is left too much to the discipline of the house and the playing fields, and too little stress is laid on the discipline of the classroom, which might be, and ought to be, as potent as the other. I want to put to you, calmly and philosophically, the thought that Mr. Kipling has lately expressed in firece and violent language, and I say that we have given too much attention to the moral effect of organised play and esprit de corps and too little to the moral effect of work and individual effort. To my mind the character, or sense of duty, in a man is imperfectly developed if, when he undertakes a task, or a trade, or a profession, he does not put his whole heart into it, learn all there is to know about it, give nothing but his best work, and feel always dissatisfied that he cannot give better. More especially is this necessary when a man is employed in the service of the nation, as the very flower of our youth is to an ever increasing degree. Then is the time when the lesson of the classroom should be combined with the lesson of the boat or the playing field, and a man should be spurred to extra exertion by the thought that he is working for the credit of his country and the advancement of the commonweal. Is that feeling universal among our public officials? Is the standard of duty in the service of the State, manned now almost entirely from the public schools, higher than it would be in private undertakings of the same kind? There is an impression abroad that it is not so high, but I have no right, from a limited experience, to make that accusation. What I do think is that it ought to be higher, and is not, and yet it would be if the training of character given in the schools were as good in effect as it is in intention. I think that we train boys too much to look to the approbation of their fellows, and not enough to look to the approbation of their own consciences. To put in slovenly or insufficient work, not to equip oneself as well as one can for work that one may be called upon to perform--this ought to be regarded as a sort of dishonesty anywhere, and as downright treachery when one holds a position of trust. On this side, the character must be trained in the classroom, and it is a grave mistake to overlook the moral value of mental exercises.

But you will say to me, "You are a schoolmaster and a headmaster to boot. If you see a defect, it is your business to remedy it where you can. If your boys do not work enough, make them. Why do you come here to find fault with the schools?" That is fair question, and I do not mean to shirk it. I appeal to you because the schools, I think, have been pushed by forces over which they have no control, into a fix from which they cannot extricate themselves. If you come to think of it, you will see that the great vogue of the boarding school in England is an affair of the last fifty years or so, and is directly due to the railway system. A century ago, when travelling was tedious and expensive, boys went, as a rule, to the nearest school, and the sons of rich and poor, gentle and simple, sat on the same bench and learnt the same lessons with great mutual advantage. But when railways multiplied and travelling became rapid and cheap, a man could send his son to any school he chose, and the result is that the schools are now part of the social system, repeating with considerable exactness the same strata that are noticeable in society in large, and subject to the same obscure but potent influences. That is a phenomenon which is almost peculiar to England. In so aristocratic a country as Germany, the schools are almost as democratic as the churches, and educational questions are discussed there in the light of pure reason and without any reservations in favour of the upper classes. But here, where the schools reflect all the prejudices and ambitions of society, and considerable reform of educational ideals cannot come from schoolmasters in the first instance, still less from the Government, but most proceed from an alteration in the tone of society, that is to say, of the parents, who are the real constituents of the schools. The headmasters of England notice more closely and regret more keenly than anybody the defects of our educational system; but so long as most parents would sooner see their boys in the eleven [first string on the cricket team] than at the top of their forms, the headmasters can do little to alter the established system. For, after all, a headmaster--and here is another peculiarity of our country--a headmaster, however much he may be of an idealist, is bound to be a man of business, and his success is gauged entirely by the size of his business. Woe to him if his school falls off in numbers. The very qualities which ought to make him successful may cause his ruin, and therefore, though his opinions may be courageous, his action must be cautious and tentative.

Moreover, there is another grave difficulty which, though it presents quite a different obstacle, yet impedes the schools in much the same way. There are many people, and those in high places, who do not value learning at all; and there are many who, though they value learning, do so only up to a certain point, namely, up to the standard of some examination. And here is another radically false ideal, foisted on the schools without their consent and without their fault. It arose, I suppose, from the fact that boarding schools are secluded in different parts of the country, and while nobody knows more than one of them, everybody is aware of the influences to which they are all exposed. At any rate, a curious superstition has somehow arisen that, though a schoolmaster may certify as to a boy's moral conduct, he is not to be believed when he certifies that a boy knows such or such pieces of bookwork. That must be ascertained by examination; and since every University and every profession thinks itself as good as every other, all the Universities and all the professions must needs have their own ideas of what a boy ought to know before he is permitted to study something quite different under their supervision. The schools are consequently beset by an incredible multitude of examinations which prescribe a certain minimum of knowledge, with the result that this minimum is very generally regarded as the aim and end of learning, and a young man will neither learn anything that is not required for an examination nor learn any more when his examinations are over.

I say, then, in brief, that English schools, though they have a high and true ideal of education, are defective in attaching too little weight to the formative power of hard work, and that this fault has been forced upon them by influences of which nobody could see the effect, and which they cannot now resist without the aid of a strong and enlightened public opinion. It is because I think that this society may well be the nucleus of such a public opinion that I ask you to ponder these facts. I appeal to you, in the first place, to cultivate in the home that sense of pleasure in intellectual effort and that pride in first rate work which has for many years been on the wane. Secondly, attack the useless incubus of examinations. Examinations are useful when it is necessary to select the cleverest men by competition, but pass examinations, which merely set a minimum standard, are now becoming a nuisance and a danger, and a schoolmaster's certificate should be substituted for them. We allow a doctor to certify that a person is sane or free from infection, and therefore fit to be at large. In a few years all schoolmasters will be trained, and will have given public guarantees of efficiency. Why should they not then be allowed to certify that a boy can translate Caesar and knows two books of Euclid? If that were permitted, new responsibilities and new ideals would gather round the teacher, and he would teach in quite a different way from what he does at present. When that result is attained, there will be many more suggestions that I can make to you, but which I defer for the present.


MR. ROOPER, H.M.I., moved a vote of thanks to Dr. Gow, saying what a delight the paper would be to Miss Mason, who when she originally founded the Union had always hoped that the time would arrive when the headmasters of our large schools would recognise that reforms were necessary, and that the initiation of such reforms must come from a body of educated and thoughtful parents such as the Union would create.

The vote of thanks was seconded by MRS. GLOVER, and carried unanimously.

At 8 p.m., at 50, Porchester Terrace, W., MRS. FRANKLIN was "At Home" to ex students of the House of Education, country members of the P.N.E.U., and members of the Committee.

Typed by rhapsidee, Aug 2020; Proofread by LNL, Aug 2020