Auberon Herbert

State Education: a Help or Hindrance?




The philosophy of Voluntaryism is presented here with reference to education. In this essay, Auberon Herbert, after having expressed and motivated his critical views on state schooling, puts forward the proposal of letting every individual and group to set up schools and educational facilities on the basis of their moral and social views.
In this way variety is enhanced and, with it, the civilizing progress that is the cause and the effect of a rich plurality of forms of personal and social life.



For ten years we have been busy organizing national education. A vigorous use of bricks and mortar is not generally accompanied by a careful examination of first principles, but now that we have built our buildings and spent our millions of public money, and civilized our children in as speedy a fashion as that in which the great Frank christianized his soldiers, we may perhaps find time to ask a question which is waiting to be discussed by every nation that is free enough to think, whether a state education is or is not favorable to progress?

It may seem rash at first sight to attack an institution so newly created and so strong in the support which it receives. But there are some persons at all events whom one need not remind, that no external grandeur and influence, no hosts of worshipers can turn wrong principles into right principles, or prevent the discovery by those who are determined to see the truth at any cost that the principles are wrong. Sooner or later every institution has to answer the challenge, “Are you founded on justice? Are you for or against the liberty of men?” And to this challenge the answer must be simple and straightforward; it must not be in the nature of an outburst of indignation that such a question should be asked; or a mere plea of sentiment; or the putting forward of usefulness of another kind. These questions of justice and liberty stand first; they cannot take second rank behind any other considerations, and if in our hurry we throw them on one side, unconsidered and unanswered, in time they will find their revenge in the imperfections and failure of our work.

National education is a measure carried out in the supposed interest of the workmen and the lower middle class, and it is they especially – the men in whose behalf the institution exists – whom I wish to persuade that the inherent evils of the system more than counterbalance the conveniences belonging to it.

I would first of all remind them of that principle which many of us have learned to accept, that no man or class accepts the position of receiving favors without learning, in the end, that these favors become disadvantages. The small wealthy class which once ruled this country helped themselves to favors of many kinds. It would be easy to show that all these favors, whether they were laws in protection of corn, or laws favoring the entail of estates, creating sinecures, or limiting political power to themselves, have become in the due course of time unpleasant and dangerous burdens tied round their own necks. Now, is state education of the nature of a political favor?

It is necessary, if discussion is in any way to help us, to speak the truth in the plainest fashion, and therefore I have no hesitation in affirming that it is so. Whenever one set of people pay for what they do not use themselves, but what is used by another set of people, their payment is and must be of the nature of a favor, and does and must create a sort of dependence. All those of us who like living surrounded with a slight mental fog, and are not overanxious to see too clearly, may indignantly deny this; but if we honestly care to follow Dr. Johnson's advice, and clear our minds of cant, we shall perceive that the statement is true, and if true, ought to be frankly acknowledged. The one thing to be got rid of at any cost is cant, whether it be employed on behalf of the many or the few.

Now, what are the results of this particular favor? The most striking result is that the wealthier class think that it is their right and their duty to direct the education of the people. They deserve no blame. As long as they pay by rate and tax for a part of this education, they undoubtedly possess a corresponding right of direction. But having the right they use it; and in consequence the workman of today finds that he does not count for much in the education of his children. The richer classes, the disputing churches, the political organizers are too powerful for him. If he wishes to realize the fact for himself let him read over the names of those who make up the school boards of this country. Let him first count the ministers of all denominations, then of the merchants, manufacturers, and squires. There is something abnormal here.

These ministers and gentlemen do not place the workmen on committees to manage the education of their children. How, then, comes it about that they are directing the education of the workmen's children? The answer is plain. The workman is selling his birthright for the mess of pottage. Because he accepts the rate and tax paid by others, he must accept the intrusion of these others into his own home affairs – the management and education of his children.

Remember, I am not urging, as some do, the workmen to organize themselves into a separate class, and return only their own representatives as members of school boards; such action would not mend the unprofitable bargain. To take away money from other classes, and not to concede to them any direction in the spending of it, would be simply unjust – would be an unscrupulous use of voting power. No, the remedy must be looked for in another direction. It lies in the one real form of independence – the renunciation of all obligations. The course that will restore to the workmen a father's duties and responsibilities, between which and themselves the state has now stepped, is for them to reject all forced contributions from others, and to do their own work through their own voluntary combinations. Until that is done no workman has more, or has a claim to have more, than half rights over his own children. He is stripped of one-half of the thought, care, anxiety, affection, responsibility, and need of judgment which belong to other parents.

I used the expression, the forced contributions of the rich. There are some persons who hold that the more money you can extract by legislation from the richer classes for the benefit of the poorer classes the better are your arrangements. I entirely dissent from such a view. It is fatal to any clear perception of justice. Justice requires that you should not place the burdens of one man on the shoulders of another man, even though he is better able to bear them. In plainer words, that you should not make one set of men pay for what is used by another set of men. If this law be once disregarded it simply reduces politics to a universal scramble, in which the most selfish will have the most success. It turns might into right, and proclaims that each man may rightfully possess whatever he can vote into his pocket. Whoever is intent on justice must be as just to the rich man as to the poor man; and because so-called national education is not for the children of the rich man, it is simply not just to take by compulsion one penny from him. No columns of sophistry can alter this fact.

And yet, when once the obligation disappears, and the grace of free-giving is restored, it is a channel in which the money of the richer classes may most worthily flow. Whatever the faults are of our richer classes, there is no lack amongst them of generous giving. Take any newspaper and you will find that although by unwise legislation we are closing many of the great channels existing for their gifts, yet the quality persists. The endowment of colleges at one period, the endowment of grammar schools at another period, gifts to religious institutions, and the support given to that narrow, partial, vexatious, and official-minded system of education which prevailed up to 1870, are all evidence of what the richer people are ready to do as long as you do not withhold the opportunities.

It may, however, be said, “Do not rich gifts bring obligations, and with them their mischievous consequences?” It is plain that the most healthy state of education will exist when the workmen, dividing themselves into natural groups according to their own tastes and feelings, organize the education of their children without help, or need of help, from outside. But between obligatory and voluntary contributions there is the widest distinction. There is but slight moral hurt to the giver or receiver in the voluntary gift, provided only that the spirit on both sides be one of friendly equality. It is the forced contribution, bringing neither grace to the giver nor to the receiver, which has the evil savor about it, and brings the evil consequence. The contribution taken forcibly from the rich is justified on the ground that the thing to be provided is a necessity for which the poorer man cannot pay.

Thus the workman is placed in the odious position of putting forward the pauper's plea, and two statments equally deficient in truth are made for him: one, that book education is a necessity of life – a statement which for those who look for an exact meaning in words that are used is simply not true – and the other, that our people cannot provide it for themselves if left to do so in their own fashion.

I wish to push still further the question of how much real power the workman possesses over the education of his children. I maintain that, setting aside the interference of ministers, merchants, manufacturers, doctors, lawyers, and squires in his affairs, he has only the shadow and semblance of power, and that he never will possess anything more substantial under a political system. Let us see for what purposes political organization can be usefully applied. It is well adapted to those occasions when some definite reply has to be made to a simple question. Shall there be peace or war? Shall political power be extended to a certain class? Shall certain punishments follow certain crimes? Shall the form of government be republican or monarchical? Shall taxes be levied by direct or indirect taxation? These are all questions which can be fairly answered by yes or no, and on which every man enrolled in a party can fairly express his opinion if he has once decided to affirm or deny. But whenever you call upon part of the nation to administer some great institution the case becomes wholly different. Here all the various and personal views of men cannot be represented by a simple yes or no. A mixed mass of men, like a nation, can only administer by suppressing differences and disregarding convictions.

Take some simple instance. Suppose a town of 50,000 electors should elect a representative to assist in administering some large and complicated institution. Let us observe what happens. It is only possible to represent these 50,000 people, who will be of many different mental kinds and conditions, by some principle which readily commands their assent. It will probably be some principle which, from its connection with other matters, is already familiar to their mind – made familiar by preceding controversies. For example, the electors may be well represented on such questions as “Shall the institution be open or closed on Sundays? Shall it be open to women? Shall the people be obliged to support it by rate? and, When rate-supported, to make use of it?” But it will at once be seen that these are principles which do not specially apply to any one institution but to many institutions. They are principles of common political application – they are, in fact, external to the institution itself, and distinct from its own special principles and methods.

The effect then will be that the representative will be chosen on principles that are already familiar to the minds of the electors, and not on principles that peculiarly and specially affect the institution in question. Existing controversies will influence the minds of the electors, and the constituency will be divided according to the lines of existing party divisions. Both school boards and municipal government yield an example that popular elections must be fought out on simple and familiar questions. The existing political grooves are cut too deeply to allow of any escape from them.

“But,” it may be replied, “as intelligence increases, and certain great political questions which are always protruding themselves are definitely settled, the electorate may become capable of conducting their contests simply with regard to the principles which really belong to the matter itself.” Another difficulty arises here. Without discussing the possible settlement of these ever-recurring political questions, it ought to be remembered that, in the case of increased intelligence, we should have an increase in the number of different views affecting the principles and methods of the institution in question; and, as we should still have only one representative to represent us, it would be less possible for him than before to represent our individual convictions. If he represent A he cannot represent B, or C, or any of those that come after C; that is to say, if A, B, C, and the others are all thinking units, and therefore, do not accept submissively whatever is offered to them. He can only represent one section, and must leave other sections unrepresented. But as these individual differences are both the accompaniment and sign of increasing intelligence, this unhappy result follows, that the more intelligent a nation becomes, the greater pain it must suffer from a system which forces its various parts to think and act alike when they would naturally be thinking and acting differently.

“But if this is so, then there is no such thing possible as representation. If one person cannot represent many persons, then administration of all kinds fails equally in fulfilling a common purpose. All united effort therefore becomes impossible.”

No doubt effective personal representation is under any circumstances a matter of difficulty; but political organization admits only of the most imperfect form of it, voluntary organization of the most perfect. Under political organization you mix everybody together, like and unlike, and compel them to speak and act through the same representative; under voluntary organization like attracts like, and those who share the same views form groups and act together, leaving any dissident free to transfer his action and energy elsewhere. The consequence is that under voluntary systems there is continual progress, the constant development of new views, and the action necessary for their practical application; under political systems, immobility on the part of the administrators, discontented helplessness on the part of those for whom they administer.

“But still there remain certain things which, however much you may desire to respect personal differences, the state must administer; such, for example, as civil and criminal law, or the defense of the country.”

The reason why the nation should administer a system of law, or should provide for external defense, and yet abstain from interference in religion and education, will not be recognized until men study with more care the foundations on which the principle of liberty rests. Many persons talk as if the mere fact of men acting together as a nation gave them unlimited rights over each other; and that they might concede as much or as little liberty as they liked one to the other. The instinct of worship is still so strong upon us that, having nearly worn out our capacity for treating kings and such kind of persons as sacred, we are ready to invest a majority of our own selves with the same kind of reverence. Without perceiving how absurd is the contradiction in which we are involved, we are ready to assign to a mass of human being unlimited rights, while we acknowledge none for the individuals of whom the mass is made up.

We owe to Mr. Herbert Spencer – the truth of those writings the world will one day be more prepared to acknowledge, after it has traveled a certain number of times from Bismarckism to communism, and back from communism to Bismarckism – the one complete and defensible view as to the relations of the state and the individual. He holds that the great condition regulating human intercourse is the widest possible liberty for all. Happiness is the aim that we must suppose attached to human existence; and therefore each man must be free – within those limits which the like freedom of others imposes on him – to judge for himself in what consists his happiness.

As soon as this view is once clearly seen, we then see what the state has to do and from what it has to abstain. It has to make such arrangements as are necessary to ensure the enjoyment of this liberty by all, and to restrain aggressions upon it. Wherever it undertakes duties outside this special trust belonging to it, it is simply exaggerating the rights of some who make up the nation and diminishing the rights of others. Being itself the creature of liberty, that is to say, called into existence for the purposes of liberty, it becomes organized against its own end whenever it deprives men of the rights of free judgment and free action for the sake of other objects, however useful or desirable they may be.

It is on account of our continued failure to recognize this law of liberty that we still live, like the old border chieftains, in a state of mutual suspicion and terror. Far the larger amount of intolerance that exists in the world is the result of our own political arrangements, by which we compel ourselves to struggle, man against man, like beasts of different kinds bound together by a cord, each trying to destroy the other out of a sense of self-preservation. It is evident that the most fair-minded man must become intolerant if you place him in a position where he has only the unpleasant choice either to eat or be eaten, either to submit to his neighbor's views or force his own views upon his neighbor. Cut the cord, give us full freedom for differing amongst ourselves, and it at once becomes possible for a man to hold by his own convictions and yet be completely tolerant of what his neighbor says and does.

I come now to another great evil belonging to our system. The effort to provide for the education of children is a great moral and mental stimulus. It is the great natural opportunity of forethought and self-denial; it is the one daily lesson of unselfishness which men will learn when they will pay heed to none other. There is no factor that has played so large a part in the civilization of men as the slow formation in parents of those qualities which lead them to provide for their children. In this early care and forethought are probably to be found the roots of those things which we value so highly – affection, sympathy, and restraint of the graspings of self for the good of others. We may be uncertain about many of the agents that have helped to civilize men, but here we can hardly doubt.

What, then, is likely to be the effect when, heedless of the slow and painful influences under which character is formed, you intrude a huge all-powerful something, you call the state, between parents and children, and allow it to say to the former, “You need trouble yourself no more about the education of your children. There is no longer any occasion for that patience and unselfishness which you were beginning to acquire, and under the influence of which you were learning to forego the advantage of their labor, that they might get the advantage of education. We will give you henceforth free dispensation from all such painful efforts. You shall at once be made virtuous and unselfish by a special clause in our act. You shall be placed under legal obligations, under penalty and fine, to have all the proper feelings of a parent. Why toil by the slow irksome process of voluntary efforts and your own growing sense of right to do your duty, when we can do it so easily for you in five minutes? We will provide all for you – masters, standards, examinations, subjects, and hours. You need have no strong convictions, and need make no efforts of your own, as you did when you organized your chapels, your benefit societies, your trade societies, or your cooperative institutions. We are the brain that thinks; you are but the bone and muscles that are moved. Should you desire some occupation, we will throw you an old bare bone or two of theological dispute. You may settle for yourselves which dogmas of the religious bodies you prefer; and while you are fighting over these things our department shall see to the rest of you. Lastly, we will make no distinctions between you all. The good and the bad parent shall stand on the same footing, and our statutes shall assume with perfect impartiality that every parent intends to defraud his child, and can only be supplied with a conscience at the police court.”

This cynical assumption of the weakness and selfishness of parents, this disbelief in the power of better motives, this faith in the inspector and the policeman, can have but one result. Treat the people as unworthy of trust, and they will justify your expectation. Tell them that you do not expect them to possess a sense of responsibility, to think or act for themselves, withhold from them the most natural and the most important opportunities for such things, and in due time they will passively accept the mental and moral condition you have made for them. I repeat that the great natural duties are the great natural opportunities of improvement for all of us.

We can see every day how the wealthy man, who strips himself entirely of the care of his children, and leaves them wholly in the hands of tutors, governesses, and schoolmasters, how little his life is influenced by them, how little he ends by learning from them. Whereas to the man whose are much occupied with what is best for them, who is busied with the delicate problems which they are ever suggesting to him, they are a constant means of both moral and mental change. I repeat that no man's character, be he rich or poor, can afford the intrusion of a great power like the state between himself and his thoughts for his children.

Observe the corresponding effect in another of our great state institutions. The effect of the Poor Law – which undertakes the care in the last resort of the old and helpless – has been to break down to a great extent the family feelings and affections of our people. It is simply and solely on account of this great machine that our people, naturally so generous, recognize much less the duty of providing for an old parent than is the case either in France or in Germany. With us, each man unconsciously reasons, “Why should I do that which the state will do for me?” All such institutions possess a philanthropical outside, but inwardly they are full of moral helplessness and selfishness.

These, then, are the first charges that I bring against state education; that the forced payments taken from other classes place the workman under an obligation; that, in consequence, the upper and middle classes interfere in the education of his children; that under a political system there is no place for his personal views, but that practically the only course of action left open to him is to join one of the two parties who are already organized in opposition to each other, and record a vote in favor of one of them once in three years.

I do not mean to make the extreme statement that it is impossible to persuade either one party or both parties to adopt some educational reform, but I mean to say that one body acting for a whole country or a whole town can only pursue one method, and, therefore, must act to the exclusion of all views which are not in accordance with that one method; and that bodies which are organized for fighting purposes, and whose first great object is to defeat other great bodies nearly as powerful as themselves, are bound by the law of their own condition not to be easily moved by considerations which do not increase their fighting efficiency.

I have just touched upon the evils of uniformity in education; but there is more to say on the matter. At present we have one system of education applied to the whole of England. The local character of school boards deceives us, and makes us believe that some variety and freedom of action exist. In reality they have only the power to apply an established system. They must use the same class of teachers; they must submit to the same inspectors; the children must be prepared for the same examination, and pass in the same standards. There are some slight differences, but they are few and of little value.

Now, if any one wishes to realize the full mischief which this uniformity works, let him think of what would be the result of a uniform method being established everywhere – in religion, art, science, or any trade or profession. Let him remember that canon of Mr. Herbert Spencer, so pregnant with meaning, that progress is difference. Therefore, if you desire progress, you must not make it difficult for men to think and act differently; you must not dull their senses with routine or stamp their imagination with the official pattern of some great department. If you desire progress, you must remove all obstacles that impede for each man the exercise of his reasoning and imaginative faculties in his own way; and you must do nothing to lessen the rewards which he expects in return for his exertions. And in what does this reward consist? Often in the simple triumph of the truth of some opinion.

It is marvelous how much toil men will undergo for the sake of their ideas; how cheerfully they will devote life, strength, and enjoyment to the work of convincing others of the existence of some fact or the truth of some view. But if such forces are to be placed at the service of society, it must be on the condition that society should not throw artificial and almost insuperable obstacles in the way of those reformers who search for better methods. If, for example, a man holding new views about education can at once address himself to those in sympathy with him, can at once collect funds and proceed to try his experiment, he sees his goal in front of him, and labors in the expectation of obtaining some practical result to his labor. But if some great official system blocks the way, if he has to overcome the stolid resistance of a department, to persuade a political party, which has no sympathy with views holding out no promise of political advantage, to satisfy inspectors, whose eyes are trained to see perfection of only one kind, and who may summarily condemn his school as “inefficient,” and therefore disallowed by law, if in the meantime he is obliged by rates and taxes to support a system to which he is opposed, it becomes unlikely that his energy and confidence in his own views will be sufficient to inspire a successful resistance to such obstacles. It may be said that a great official department, if quickened by an active public opinion, will be ready to take up the ideas urged on it from outside. But there are reasons why this should not be so.

When a state department becomes charged with some great undertaking, there accumulates so much technical knowledge round its proceedings, that without much labor and favorable opportunities it becomes exceedingly difficult to criticize successfully its action. It is a serious study in itself to follow the minutes and the history of a great department, either like the Local Board or the Education Department. And if a discussion should arise, the same reason makes it difficult for the public to form a judgment in the matter. A great office which is attacked envelopes itself, like a cuttlefish, in a cloud of technical statements which successfully confuses the public, until its attention is drawn off in some other direction. It is for this reason, I think, that state departments escape so easily from all control, and that such astounding cases of recklessness and mismanagement come periodically to light, making a crash which startles everybody for the moment.

The history of our state departments is like that of some continental governments, unintelligent endurance through long periods on the part of the people, tempered by spasmodic outbursts of indignation and ineffectual reorganization of the institutions themselves. It must also be remembered that the manner in which new ideas produce the most favorable results is not by a system under which many persons are engaged in suggesting and inventing, and one person only in the work of practical application. Clearly the most progressive method is that whoever perceives new facts should possess free opportunities to apply and experiment upon them.

Add one more consideration. A great department must be by the law of its own condition unfavorable to new ideas. To make a change it must make a revolution. Our Education Department, for example, cannot issue an edict which applies to certain school boards and not to others. It knows and can know of no exceptions. Our bastard system of half-central half-local government is contrived with great ingenuity to render all such experiments impossible. If the center were completely autocratic (which Heaven forbid) it could try experiments as it chose; if the localities were independent, each could act for itself. At present our arrangements permit of only intolerable uniformity. Follow still further the awkward attempts of a department at improvement. Influenced by a long-continued public pressure, or moved by some new mind that has taken direction of it, it determines to introduce a change, and it issues in consequence a wholesale edict to its thousands of subordinates. But the conditions required for the successful application of a new idea are, that it should be only tentatively applied; that it should be applied by those persons who have some mental or moral affinity with it, who in applying it, work intelligently and with the grain, not mechanically and against the grain.

No wonder, therefore, that departments are so shy of new ideas, and by a sort of instinct become aware of their own unfitness to deal with them. If only one wishes to realize why officialism is what it is, let him imagine himself at the center of some great department which directs an operation in every part of the country. Whoever he was he must become possessed with the idea of perfect regularity and uniformity. His waking and sleeping thought would be the desire that each wheel should perform in its own place exactly the same rotation in the same time. His life would simply become intolerable to him if any of his thousands of wheels began to show signs of consciousness, and to make independent movements of their own.

But suppose that a man of fresh mind and personal energy were to be placed at the head of our Education Department who perceived the mischievous effect of uniformity, could not this official tendency be counteracted? It might for a short space of time, just as the muscles of a strong man can for some hours defeat the pull of gravitation, but gravitation wins in the end. Such changes would be only spasmodic; they would not be the natural outcome of the system, and therefore could not last. Moreover, for those who understand the value of liberty and of responsibility, it is needless to point out how utterly false the system must be which makes the nation depend upon the intelligence of a minister, and not upon the free movement of the different minds within itself.

I come now to another great evil which accompanies an official system. In granting public money for education you must either give it on the judgment of certain public officers, which exposes you to different standards of distribution and to personal caprice, or you must give it according to some such system of results as exists at present with us. Payment by results has the merit, as a system, of being simple, easy to administer, and fairly equal; but it necessarily restricts and vulgarizes our conceptions of education. It reduces everybody concerned, managers, teachers, pupils, to the one aim and object of satisfying certain regulations made for them, of considering success in passing standards and success in education as the same thing. It is one long unbroken grind.

From boyhood to manhood the teacher himself is undergoing examinations; for the rest of his life he is reproducing on others what he himself has gone through. It is needless to say that the higher aims of the teacher, methods of arousing the imagination and developing the reasoning powers, which only bear fruit slowly and cannot be tested by a yearly examination of an inspector – whose fly will be waiting at the school door during the few hours at the disposal of himself or his subordinate – new attempts to connect the meaning of what is being learned with life itself, and to create an interest in work for work's own sake instead of for the inspector's sake, above all, the personal influences of men who have chosen teaching as their vocation, because the real outcome of their nature is sympathy with the young, and have not been drilled into it through a series of examinations owing to some accident of early days, all these things must be laid aside as subordinate to the one great aim of driving large batches successfully through the standards and making large hauls of public money.

In our ignorant and unreasoning belief in examinations we have not perceived how fatal the system is to all original talent and strong personality in the teacher. Whether it be a professor at a university or a master in a board school, this modern exaggeration of the use of examinations makes it impossible for him to treat his subjects of teaching from that point of view which is real and living to himself, or to follow his own methods of influencing his pupils. In all cases he must subdue his strongest tastes and feelings, and recast and remodel himself until he is a sufficiently humble copy of the inspector or examiner, upon whose verdict his success depends. Any plan better fitted to reduce managers, teachers, and pupils to one level of commonplace and stupidity could scarcely be found. The state rules a great copybook, and the nation simply copies what it finds between the lines.

I cannot escape a few words on the much-vexed religious question. Under our present system the Nonconformists are putting a grievous strain upon their own principles. Whoever fairly faces the question must admit that the same set of arguments which condemns a national religion also condemns a national system of education. It is hard to pronounce sentence on the one and absolve the other. Does a national church compel some to support a system to which they are opposed? So does a national system of education. Does the one exalt the principle of majorities over the individual conscience? So does the other. Does a national church imply a distrust of the people, of their willingness to make sacrifices, of their capacity to manage their own affairs? So does a national system of education. Does the one chill and repress the higher meanings and produce formalism? So does the other.

But everywhere Nonconformists are being drawn into supporting the present school system, into obtaining popular influence by means of it, and, what is most inconsistent and undesirable, into using it as an instrument for spreading their own religious teaching. It is rapidly becoming their established church, and it will have, we may safely predict, the same narrowing effect upon their mind, it will beget the same inability to perceive the injustice of a political advantage, which the national church has had upon its supporters. Such a result is matter for much regret. First, because there is already but little steady adherence to principle in politics; and where a large body of influential men put themselves in a position which is inconsistent with the application of their own principles there is a sensible national deterioration. Second, if school boards are to be instruments of authoritatively teaching subjects of common dispute amongst us, such as the inspiration of the Bible and the performance of miracles, the struggle between the supporters of revealed religion and the different schools of free thought must be embittered. It is the question of political advantage and disadvantage which fans these disputes into red heat. Should this be the case, much of the better side of the present religious teaching will be lost sight of by a large part of the nation under the irritation of the political injustice, and its influence lost at a moment when its influence is specially wanted in shaping the new beliefs.

It may be said that secular education will prevent such antagonism, and that every year brings us nearer to the establishment of it. But secular education, even if it be the most just arrangement of trying to meet the injustice which a state system necessarily brings with it, is at best a miserable expedient. It is as if everybody agreed by common contract to tie up their right hand in doing a special piece of work in which they were most interested. Far healthier would it be for each section in the nation, from the Catholic to the materialist, to regain perfect freedom, and to do his best to place before children the scheme of life as he himself sees and feels it. If the common argument that such separate teaching will produce narrowness of mind and sectarian jealousy, is to be regarded, it should be carried a step further, and the children on Sundays should not be permitted to go to their own churches and chapels, but the state should provide a universal temple with ceremonies adapted for all. I confess, for my own part, that I prefer to see intensity of conviction, even if joined with some narrowness, to a state of moral and intellectual sleepiness, and children waiting to be fed with such scanty crumbs as fall from official tables.

It only wants an effort to shake off the thraldom of familiar ideas and to see with fresh eyes, and then the monstrous fact that all England is placing itself under official restraints as regards that which it cares most about, would be enough to show us that there must be something radically wrong in a system which necessarily carries with it such a disqualification.

“But what are we to do?” is the impatient exclamation of many persons who feel both the pretentions and the poverty-stricken character of our present system? “Could education be supplied without official assistance?” My answer is that it could; that the combining and cooperative power of our people would provide for this great want, as it is providing for their religious and social wants; that money is waiting to flow from some of the richer people, if so plain and good an outlet were left open – money which is at present doing harm by creating scholarships and increasing the power of examinations; that good citizenship essentially consists in those who have learned to value some gift of civilization, awakening the same sense in those who remain indifferent.

“But why did not education spread more quickly in the earlier part of the century?” No truly great thing grows like a mushroom. An intelligent value for education can only spread slowly like civilization itself. In our hurry to act we have not seen how much life and movement is sacrificed to make place for an official system. Those who administer such systems wish to get the flower ready-made without any process of growth. They do not recognize in the early and imperfect efforts the first stage of growth from which the better form will spring, but they wish to start at once with that which will satisfy their own rather prudish eyes. A certain uniform standard is fixed, and all that falls short of it is declared infamous.

Of course it is always possible to smear education, religion, or anything else over a country, as you might smear paint, by departments or boards, and in five years be able to glorify your great work and to cram your speeches with statistics of what you have done. Every autocrat with ideas in his head has done the same thing, but he has also left it to his successors to moralize over the results of his work. Education when still left to itself did spread, perhaps too rapidly, in the beginning of the century. Presented to the English people by Lancaster, it was received like a gospel of good news; and although many of the early schools were of exceedingly humble and imperfect form, yet the want was beginning to be felt, and the supply was following.

Then came the unwise, if well-intentioned, assistance of government. As usual, the political philanthropists could not endure to see a movement taking its own direction and shaping itself. As soon as the idea of government responsibility had taken root the evil was done. It is a mistake to suppose that government effort and individual effort can live side by side. The habits of mind which belong to each are so different that one must destroy the other. In the course of time there fell alike over everybody concerned the shadow of coming changes, and work which would have been done resolutely and manfully, if no idea of government interference had existed, remained undone, because the constant tendency of government to enlarge its operations was felt everywhere.

The history of our race shows us that men will not do things for themselves or for others if they once believe that such things can come without exertion on their own part. There is not sufficient motive. As long as the hope endures that the shoulders of some second person are available, who will offer his own shoulders for the burden? It must also be remembered that unless men are left to their own resources they do not know what is or what is not possible for them. If government half a century ago had provided us all with dinners and breakfasts, it would be the practice of our orators today to assume the impossibility of our providing for ourselves.

And now, leaving much unsaid, I must ask what practical steps should be taken by those workmen who suspect that state education is but a part of that coercive drill which one half the human race delights to inflict upon the other half. First of all get rid of compulsion. It has been made the instrument of endless petty persecutions. It is fatal to the free growth of an intelligent love of education; to that moral influence which those of us who have learned the value of education ought to be exerting over others; to a true respect of man for man; for each man's right to judge what is morally best for himself and for those entrusted to him. It is an attempt to make one of those shortcuts to progress which end by making the goal recede from us. It is an exaggerated idea – as exaggerated, ill considered, and probably as short-lived as some other ideas of the present moment – of the value of book education, founded on a rigid and official idea that home duties and labors must in all cases be put aside before the official requirements. It is a copy of a continental institution, taken from a nation that, living under a paternal government, has not yet learned to spell the letters of the word liberty.

The example of Germany and its highly organized state education is not alluring. In no country perhaps is there less respect of one class for the other class, or greater extremes of violent feeling. Where you subject people to strong official restraint, you seem fated to produce on the one side rigidity of thought and pedantry of feeling, on the other side those violent schemes against the possessions and the personal rights of the rich which we call socialism. Careful respect for the rights of others, vigorous and consistent defense of one's own rights, a deeply rooted love of freedom in thought, word, and action – these things are simply impossible wherever you entrust great powers to a government, and allow it to use them not simply within a sphere of strictly defined rights, but as supreme judge of what the momentary convenience requires.

Second, get rid of all dependence upon the central department. If you do not as yet perceive that public money cannot wisely, in any shape, be taken for education, still refuse the grant that the central department offers as a bribe for the acceptance of its mischievous interference. Until individual self-reliance has grown amongst us, let each town administer education in its own way. So, at least, we shall get local life and energy and variety thrown into the work, not the mere mechanical carrying out of regulations of two or three gentlemen sitting at their desks at Whitehall. But do not believe that you will get the highest results in this way. More freedom for action and experiment is wanted than you can get under any local board.

Accustom yourself to the idea that men will act better in voluntary groups than if forced into union by external power. Many boards acting freely in a town, and learning gradually to cooperate together to some extent and for some purposes, is what we should look forward to. Perhaps the best step in advance, and in preparation for a purely free system, is to obtain powers from Parliament under which any considerable number of electors, say from one-sixth to one-tenth, according to the size of the town, might elect, and pay their rate to, their own board. Under such a plan there would be imperfections and possible evasions; but it would cast off the swaddling clothes imposed by the Privy Council, and would give a life to the work which would far more than compensate for the loss of mechanical regularity.

It is always difficult to introduce freedom into a system that is founded on authority and officialism. You can only escape from anomalies and contradictions by being either rigidly despotic or completely free. But a little life and light are worth getting at almost any price, and will make us wish for more. The final step will be to render the rate purely voluntary, and to give full freedom and responsibility of action, for which the people will never be fit as long as they are persuaded to subject each other to official regulations under the much-abused name of self-government.


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