The Great Enemy of Mankind.
Mankind has many special enemies; but the greatest, the most comprehensive, enemy of all is the hoofless, hornless, tailless, depersonified devil of ignorance. A poet writing in this locality has epitomised the position in three quatrains.
Ancestral man scarce stood erect,
Low-browed and hairy, Nature’s slave;
His puny powers of no effect,
He gorged on carrion in a cave.
And now man soars aloft on wings,
Holds converse o’er ten thousand miles,
A million ships his sustenance brings,
A hundred arts his ease beguiles.
Ancestral man was fierce and dull,
Stark torture was his daily toy,
But now the wheel has circled full -
Man shares his fellows’ grief and joy.
The countless steps in that great ascent have been achieved by gradually acquired knowledge, with its mental and moral by-products, understanding and sympathy. Knowledge is of course the antidote to the bane of ignorance. Ancestral man was naked and often cold till he learned that warmth could be secured by wearing the skins of beasts, to be followed later by the plaiting of mats, and still later by the weaving of cloth. He devoured his food raw till he learned, by rubbing one stick upon another, to produce fire. He lived in caves and borrows till he learned to make tents of hides, or huts of mud and osiers or of blocks of ice. But the arts and relaxations of life in northern lands did not arise till, to clothing, cooking, and housing, he added the great boon of artificial light. As Charles Lamb whimsically suggests, our forefathers, lying around churlishly in the dark, had no temptation to cultivate wit or humour when it would have been necessary to feel the face of your neighbour in order to find out if he was smiling; and he concludes that jokes came in with candles. It ought to be added that the fashioning and decorating of weapons of war and the chase and utensils of domestic use also benefited by the introduction of the fir candle and the oil lamp.
The Noble Calling of Teacher.
It is the business of the teacher to abate or entirely to remove the multifarious disabilities imposed upon man by his ignorance of the laws, facts, and forces by which he is surrounded, and there can be no nobler or more useful calling.
But thus to enlarge our survey of the scope of teaching, to take all knowledge for our province, as Bacon said he had done, would be to extend our thesis beyond what would, for this occasion, be practical limits. Every mother who initiates her daughter into a little turn of housewifery, every workman who gives a lesson, be it only by performing a cast of his calling before the eyes of a tyro at the trade, would in that sense be a teacher. Let me say at once, also, that I have no desire to make school education technical, industrial, or even commercial, except in so far as the general education which all men and women equally require may be and ought to be of service in the specialised callings of life.
The other day, in connection with the centenary celebrations of the birth of Louis Pasteur, we were reminded afresh of Huxley’s saying that Pasteur by his discoveries had in a few years’ time saved as much money as would have covered the whole indemnity paid by France to Germany for the war of 1870-71. I refer to that, not with the object of emphasising the value of chemistry as a special study, but only by way of showing that if one branch of one science can be of so much value to the world, it follows that ignorance of that as of other sciences must have its counterpart of disastrous loss. It is not from ignorance of such matters as Pasteur studied that the world is most likely to suffer. Pasteur’s researches affected diseases in cattle, sheep, fowls, vines, and silkworms, and the souring of wine and beer. We may he sure that any discoveries affecting trade, and in no way connected with politics, will be promptly accepted and applied. We need have no fear that discoveries having an immediate and obvious commercial value will, on any large scale, be wasted upon an unreceptive world. [On a revision, I am not so sure of this. There was the idea of the synthetic dyes, rejected in Britain, the country of its origin, and taken up with success in Germany. And there is the French intensive cultivation, still neglected in Britain. The claim is at least relatively true. - J. L.] But there are, nevertheless, realms of knowledge, the discoveries in which would be of at least equal value, which are not at all generally explored or their safe and certain principles turned to account in practice.
Reading the Basis.
I am to confine my attention to the humanities.
The basis of all education is reading. The laboratory demonstration is founded, oftener that, not, upon a lesson which the demonstrator has previously read. The oral lesson in class is usually an exposition either of the actual printed lesson before the class, or it will embody the results of the teacher’s own reading. In efficient teaching the teacher will use the fruits of much reading cognate to the subject in hand. The teacher who is, as the saying has it, only one lesson ahead of the pupil will not, in my view, be much of a teacher.
My first complaint against the education of to-day is that it does not teach young people to read with understanding and delight, or even with ordinary fluency; in short, to love reading. For thirty-five years I have had to read proofs as a corrector to the press, both north and south of the Tweed, my copyholders being boys and girls supposed to be of rather special intelligence. The reading was best in Aberdeen, tending in some instances to be too rapid and declamatory. This was during the eighties. Going to Manchester in the early nineties, I found it not quite so distinct or so ready. The pronunciation was more accurate, when you heard it, though, with changing copyholders, there were some who muttered and mumbled and stuttered and stumbled, evidently not enjoying the job at all. Returning north, I found reading uncouth in Peterhead, though not without animation. Going to Yorkshire in 1908, I found it not so good as it had been in Lancashire a dozen years earlier, but better than in Peterhead. In Turriff it is worst of all - least intelligently understanding and most barbarous in accent, though one minds the accent less than the lack of understanding.
As regards the understanding, so necessary to clean type-setting, the truth is I spend my days in a struggle with dirty proofs, the result of inability on the part of the compositor to recognise the identity of common words in fairly plain handwriting, mostly my own. It is so bad that if one’s vigilance be relaxed, some wholly unexpected and incomprehensible error is sure to pass. If half a sentence is left out, its omission is not detected till the proof is read, which means that no attempt is made to follow and apprehend the chain of reasoning.
Spelling and Pronunciation.
Certain simple words are habitually mis-spelt, time after time. Among these are such words as ‘briny,’ which, by one young person after another and by the same person again and again, is rendered ‘brimy’; ‘identify,’ which regularly appears as ‘indentify’; ‘would have been’ for ‘would have been,’ ‘hundreth’ and ‘lenth’ for ‘hundredth’ and ‘length,’ ‘smock’ for ‘smoke,’ ‘accidently,’ ‘franticly,’ ‘strageticly’ (for ‘strategically’!), ‘pattren,’ and ‘alright,’ which are all wrong in accordance with the wrong pronunciation. A word as spelt is an ideograph, a picture of the idea, with its etymology, affinities, and evolution preserved; and if you have not the right spelling you have not got the picture. The vicious circle is that words are wrongly spelt because they are wrongly pronounced, and they are wrongly pronounced because they are wrongly spelt. It is the wrong spelling that comes first with what may be called book words, as apart from the simple words a child uses before it learns to read. The person who writes ‘sep e rate,’ as so many do, can have no idea of the root word ‘p a rity,’ as in comparative and disparate.
In my experience as a printer, prepositions, copulatives, and the passive particles ‘has’ and ‘have’ are altered in defiance both of the written copy and the requirements of sense in the sentence. A dictionary kept at hand is worn foul with frequent consultation, English being apparently found to be, many times in a day, an unknown tongue.
This tells its own tale as to the lack of reading; but the neglect of reading is made obvious in other ways. The assumption that children will not read for pleasure is reflected in the schoolbooks. The everyday labour of the savage, hunting, becomes the sport of the civilised man; and, reversing this, in school nowadays you use as lesson-books the novels of Sir Walter Scott and the plays of Shakespeare, which we sat up to read for pleasure at nights after our lessons were done. We used to buy single plays of Shakespeare, Massinger, Ben Jonson, ‘The Gamester,’ ‘The Rivals,’ ‘The School for Scandal,’ and the plays of more modern dramatists - all in the penny reprints of William Dicks. The print was small; but the appetite was avid. I still retain, after some wandering, ‘The Shaughraun,’ ‘The Octoroon,’ ‘A New Way to Pay Old Debts,’ and ‘Rob Roy,’ as relics of those days of our later school time or early years of apprenticeship.
Youthful Omnivorous Reading.
A local teacher complained one day that not one boy in his class knew anything about Hannibal on being questioned. In my schooldays most of the boys of my class at the age of ten to twelve were accustomed to read and discuss with enthusiasm a book entitled ‘The Wars of the Carthaginians,’ in which, of course, Hannibal was the central figure. It was one of the volumes in the old Cottage Library, published by Milner & Sowerby, of Halifax, many of which formed the subjects of our schoolboy and school-girl talk. Books we all read then were ‘The Wolf of Badenoch,’ ‘The Scottish Chiefs,’ ‘St. Clair of the Isles,’ ‘Gulliver,’ ‘Tales of a Grand-father,’ ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin,’ and the ‘Arabian Nights.’ These in addition to a heavy weekly crop of ‘penny dreadfuls’ such as The Boys of England, The Young Men of Great Britain, The Sons of Britannia, The Boys’ Standard, and serials in numbers, such as ‘Jack Harkaway,’ ‘Tom Floremall,’ and ‘Tom Wildrake.’ These we bought and lent to each other, not without abundant comparing of notes, and vocal efforts in the art of dramatic and graphic narration ourselves. My recollection of these serials is that they were well written, that the proprieties were observed, that villainy was always punished and virtue duly rewarded. They could have done us nothing but good, and the reading itself was a mental exercise.
We were all boys fond of a lark, and did not mew overmuch in the house. In fact, our reading inclined us to adventures by flood and field, without any Boy Scout paraphernalia or tutelage. We were free agents, and if the freedom was sometimes abused, there was the less of the Jessie Ann about us.
Of myself as of my own children I can say we had read all the novels of Scott before we had gone very far into our teens. (Disparaging remarks are sometimes made about the tales written in the period of Scott’s decline, such as ‘Count Robert of Paris.’ I can only say that I enjoyed this story of the Varangian Guard and the Court of Constantinople so much that it made me turn as a youth to Gibbon’s ‘Decline and Fall’ for the history of the place and period.) To have such books given us as studies, as lessons, would have seemed to us as laughable as it would have been to bribe us to eat sweets. As a boy I had a stouter appetite for print and more aptitude for assimilation than I have now. There were in our house two big volumes of small print in double columns called ‘Chambers’s Information for the People,’ and I read these pretty well from cover to cover, including articles on Metallurgy, Mining, Arboriculture and Horticulture, Farming and Live Stock, Printing, even on the Clan Tartans; and I learned the first nine or ten rules of Algebra, only to forget them again because they were useless to me and in themselves quite uninteresting. On the other hand, I have not forgotten about the agricultural improvers, Mechi, Jethro Tull, and ‘Turnip’ Townshend, because their work is useful to us all and in itself interesting.
At the age of fourteen I found myself one of some half-a-dozen apprentices in an Aberdeen printing office, most of us from humble homes, but all of us reading such books as Plutarch’s Lives, Macaulay’s Essays and Lays, with, as the years went on, Mill’s ‘Political Economy,’ Henry George’s ‘Progress and Poverty,’ Spencer’s ‘Study of Sociology,’ and presently a volume of essays by Prof. Bain, including an essay on ‘The Art of Study.’
It was a time of much discussion of anti-theological science, and the reviews were full of articles by such men as Huxley, Tyndall, Grant Allen, St. George Mivart, Herbert Spencer, and Frederic Harrison. We boys in our teens read such books as Darwin’s ‘Origin of Species’ and ‘Descent of Man,’ Oscar Schmidt’s ‘Doctrine of Descent and Darwinism,’ and the Nature books of John Burroughs. Of these youths one is now a retired colonel, having risen rapidly from the ranks; another is a minister of the gospel in Canada; three are master printers; and one is or was the Liberal member of Parliament for Bedford-Leigh in Lancashire.
What of To-Day?
Is such reading being done by the young men of to-day? I see no signs of it. It was an excellent training for citizenship, as apart from obsequious climbing and gradgrind getting on. The climber works for self. The good citizen seeks his advantage in the general wellbeing. But now at the end of the school year one hears parental complaints about the poor pass in English. The blame is put upon the teachers. It is the business of the teacher to make silk purses out of sows’ ears - if he (or she) can. But obviously this possibility is greatly limited by the quality of the lugs available. Given a good standard of intelligence, the pupil needs only direction and the run of the text-books in order to absorb all sorts of learning. On the other hand, there is a certain brute-beast recalcitrance, cool unconcern, or sheer stupidity – sometimes the attitude is a blend of all three - upon which exposition and reiteration are expended in vain, producing little effect beyond a feeling of annoyance in the teacher. Parents who give their children no help or encouragement, who have forgotten the rules or lessons themselves, or perhaps never knew them, who maintain a home atmosphere that is inimical to books and reading, who regard all reading as a waste of time, expect the teacher to undo the effects of their own heathenish materialism, and this during a few hours of the day on five days of the week.
English as a language cannot be taught. You may teach the grammar; but the learning of a language in its length and breadth is a matter of years of delighted reading.
It is not reasonable to expect that teachers can make much of the English of pupils who come from households where there is no feeling for books and language, or indeed for education as a whole. A teacher can tell what sort of home a pupil comes from. The child from a commercial domestic atmosphere, where all the little talk there is relates to business and bargains and chattels and prudence, and not taking risks, and having an eye to the main chance, is as a rule a slow, recalcitrant scholar, except perhaps in arithmetic, the tendency of which is, naturally, in accord with his peculiar genius.
The child from a home in which the humanities have something of a look in - books, music, cheerful human chat and plenty of it - is apt to be friendly with his teacher, interested in his lessons, and, even with quite moderate parts, will get on with the work of the class with cheerful readiness and some show of progress.
When one hears complaints of alleged bad teaching one is very sorry, first of all, for the teachers who have to struggle with invincible stupidity, almost without hope; for even if the average youngster is taught certain things, and learns them, they are forgotten in a year or two after leaving school. People who do not read and discuss soon lapse into barbarism. As the Roman saying has it, ‘Life without literature is death’ (Vita sine literis mors est). One need not claim that teachers have done their best, or even that their best would be good enough if they had done it. But preachers and teachers and writers need encouragement to do their best, and there is no encouragement from a blank wall of stupidity. The ineffable Spooner once intended to address a rural meeting as ‘sons of toil,’ but, with his trick of reversing, he called them ‘tons of soil.’ Anyone who has addressed a rustic audience indoors on a week-night, must have felt that Mr. Spooner’s inverted description was not entirely inappropriate. The ‘soil’ may be all right for some kinds of seed; but when we find a typical rural centre showing a bad educational record year after year, it is impossible to resist the feeling that the fault lies, not with the teachers, but with pupils, parents, and the general atmosphere as regards the things of the mind.
Inimical Atmosphere Generally.
One town I know was known of old as Grabtillum and as Porkopolis. We do not associate brilliant intellectuality with grabbing and with swine. A community does not as a rule have it both ways, though we may cultivate material prosperity and still give our leisure to the finer things of life. Manchester – ‘the modern Athens,’ as Gladstone called it - is one of the most intellectual cities in Europe, and this expresses itself in its abounding and brilliant and independent Press, in much political discussion, in a school of drama, in lectures, a literary quarterly, and the best music out of London. By music, Sir Charles and Lady Hallé lived in honour and dignity there for many years. A Londoner writing in a Sunday paper described how, as he stood one day in a Manchester bookseller’s shop, he witnessed a railway cart draw up to the door with a load of copies of Lord Morley’s ‘Recollections,’ when that book was still comparatively new. On his surprised inquiry, he was told that this was only one of several consignments they had had of that hook, which sells at 24s. for the two tall volumes. The business men of Manchester have the reputation of being the keenest and brainiest of all men of business, yet this critic could ask with some show of reason, ‘Is there any other town in the world where the doors would, so to say, have to be taken off the hinges to receive repeated consignments of a book dealing with high politics and literature?’
The other day a local Tory was complaining about the extreme addiction to sport on the part of the young people. I mentioned that I had hoped something from the re-starting of the Mutual Improvement Association after the awakening caused by the war; that a Literary Society started in a neighbouring small town 25 years ago was still going strong; that the ‘best people’ - clergy, lawyers, business men, doctors, and bankers - took the most active part in its work; that largely-attended meetings were held, speakers being often brought from a distance; and that it was considered ‘the thing’ to belong to ‘the Literary.’ But here, I said, ‘the heads of the town’ play bowls in the summer time and billiards and cards in the winter, and pass the door of the ‘Mutual’ on their way up to the Club. The young men follow suit. It is the frivolous seniors who make the frivolous juniors. We cannot give all our time to business and unlettered pleasure, and expect to be cultivated folk and to have brilliant boys and girls.
The atmosphere of country life is inimical to learning. It ought not to be, but it is. A local farmer who reads Pater and Buckle, and has a room expressly built for the housing of books, once said, ‘What is there for a body to do in the country in the winter nichts but read?’ But he is a rara avis. In the country the emphasis is put, not upon what a man is or knows, but upon what he has. As I want nothing for nothing, and am not likely to get anything for nothing if I wanted it, I have no motive to adopt this sycophantic attitude, even if I were willing to do so. What need anyone care how much a man has if he is dull and unpleasant to meet? And what need anyone care how little a man has if he be keenly intelligent, companionable, easily lighted up, and possessed of great universality of interest.
PART TWO NEXT MONTH
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