The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

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


A Fable in Bricks and Mortar.

By G. K. Chesterton.
Volume 15, 1904, pg. 178-180

Once upon a time there were four brothers. They lived in the misty morning of the earth, and as they speared their mammoths or piled their rude huts, they discussed the modern spirit in science and education. One of them was a Professor -- he professed some branch of physical science which I have forgotten. The second of these rude heroes painted in water-colours, and would make the old cavern ring, and startle the flapping eagles with his barbaric yell of Art for Art's sake! The third was a Politician, and had a vote all to himself -- the others taking no interest in the phenomenon. But the fourth had a curious profession which I really find it impossible to describe. It was, so to speak, something between a shepherd and a literary agent, with a sort of touch of the hotel proprietor. He was not exactly a surveyor, and yet one could not say that he was altogether a clergyman. He was a very vague person, generally speaking, and took a long time to do anything, and a still longer time not to do. And when the Professor, with his scientific method, and the Artist, with his quick eye, and the Politician, with his efficiency, complained of his vagueness, he would say: Vagueness is the touch of the infinite upon the edges of the soul; and he would add: Thus we see that Doubt is the most striking of all the arguments for Faith. And they changed the subject.

But, as I say, they argued for the most part about education, and how they would bring up children. And one night they drank so much brown mead round the fire, that they quarreled -- taunting each other with inexperience. And they became so angry that they all married next morning. And when it came to pass that they had children of their own, they reminded each other of the educational theories. And they agreed that each should build a magnificent house, constructed solely with a view to education -- a vast and splendid nursery. This house, said the man of science, must be a microcosm. It must present to the children within it a kind of summary, or picture, of the universe outside, in which they will have to live. It is, as it were, a camera obscura.

I should say, rather, said the Artist, like an impressionist sketch, which leaves out by instinct that which is unimportant.

Well, I only know, said the Politician, that when you did an impressionist sketch of me, you left out the back of my head.

They had a month to build their houses in, and the Professor had finished his first. It had beautiful, artistic wall papers, covered with magnified animalculae (which are really very decorative); and the kind old Professor would amuse their meals by explaining which animals were present in which form of sustenance. On some points, however, he was strict. No child was allowed to refer to sunrise or sunset, especially in the presence of his little sisters. The motto of the house was: All facts are valuable. This was written over the front door, in letters of gold, and elsewhere about the palatial building; facts worth absorbing were inscribed in some rich marbles or many-coloured mosaics, as Frogs have no hair, or There is a Milk Shop in Praed Street, or No Camel can work miracles.

The Politician's house was completed next, and was in working order long before the rest. The order was, indeed, alarmingly working. Everything was done by machinery, as if it were a factory for making children, instead of a home for training them. The division of labour was everywhere; there were specialists for everything. There were Bread Nurses to cut the bread, and Jam Nurses to spread the jam, and Soap Nurses (with certificates) to wash the children's hands, and Pocket Handkerchief Nurses (with letters after their names) to wipe the children's noses. So that when the Artist's house was finished it was something of a relief. His house I will not describe, for it was really beautiful, and it is harder to describe beautiful things even than to make them.

And now these three, having finished their work, looked about them and began to get anxious about the fourth brother, who was still pottering about with bricks and mortar on the first story, or else more frequently standing in the middle of the road, with his legs wide apart, looking up at it with the face of a seraph. One could not say altogether that he was lazy, nor that he was busy; but he always seemed very much interested in his house, and the house never seemed to get any further. Weeks passed, and then months, and then years; and the scaffolding was still up and the boards still bare and the owner still superintending matters with the air of Napoleon at Austerlitz. He smoked his pipe resolutely in the road, and consumed milk, ale, and sandwiches hurriedly in the garden, but the house did not grow. His children did grow. In one naked room they played with tin soldiers all over the floor; in another they drew chalk pictures all over the walls. They slung a hammock from the window to the apple tree. They made a nest in the hornbeam, and all meals of their lives were picnics. And day and night they fought each other with pillows, or wooden swords, about what the house ought to look like when it was finished.

And at the end of the fourth year the other three brothers came to see him in a body, with lowering faces. After a stern silence, the Professor said, wagging his finger: Simeon (I think his name was Simeon, or else James, or something akin to both of them) Simeon, you are a fraud. You are an idle and irresponsible fraud. Because you are too lazy and too fond of ale and tobacco to finish your house, you let your children grow up like brutes.

Then Simeon's eyes flamed suddenly like two swords drawn in an instant. Brutes! he cried. You say my children are brutes! One answer would be to fling you out of the door; a better one is to ask you to look at them. They are better to look at than the others. They are more graceful; they are more generous; they can sing and tell stories. They love birds and beasts, and heroic memories; and they have hope in their eyes. What are the others? The dull children of knowledge; the morbid children of beauty; the cowardly children of government. If mine are brutes, shall we say yours are vegetables? Why are we happier and stronger and more in love with life? Because our house is not finished. Why can we play better and dance better? Because our house is not finished. You say the house must be a microcosm -- a picture of the world. This is what the real world is: an unfinished house, a thing incomplete, chaotic, uncomfortable, promising, gloriously habitable. We are living the ancient life of men. And it is life in an unfinished house; not death in a finished one.

He asked them to stop to tea, but as it was to be served on a somewhat insecure part of the roof, they made a few thoughtful remarks about rain and went on their way.

* By permission of the Editor of The Daily News, from a brochure for raising a fund to provide Christmas festivities for the children London slums.

Typed by Angela, March, 2023; Proofread by LNL, June, 2023