True and False Education
Some years ago I visited the University of El Azhar at Cairo, the most famous seat of learning in
the Mohammedan world. On the stone floor of the vast mosque, some under the roof and some
in the open air, I saw the professors in their turbans and gowns sitting each at the foot of his
column and surrounded by his group of students; and all of them, teachers and taught, were
swaying back and forth, reading aloud in sing-song from books which they held close to their
eyes and which swayed up and down with them. I believe that the book was invariably the
Koran, but, to judge from the sound, each individual was reading a different passage. I had tried
to read the Koran in an English translation, and had formed a very poor opinion of it, and hence I
looked with amazement upon this venerable travesty of an education.
For the past thousand years, from the ends of Islam, from India, Arabia, Turkestan, the
Philippines and Central Africa, young men have journeyed painfully and strenuously to this
far-famed centre of light in search of instruction. I smiled with gentle contempt upon the absurd
assemblage. How superior I was to them -- I, who had been brought up in a country where they
knew what an education ought to be.
It is a good thing sometimes at moments of supreme complacency to examine into the facts upon
which it is based. What was the history of my own school and college days? Had I not spent the
better part of nine years in studying two dead languages, which at the end of that period I could
neither read nor write nor speak? I began to have some misgivings, and to feel a certain degree
of fellow-feeling for the groups of Koran-chanters. We were not so different after all, for the
dead hand of monk and dervish lies still upon Occident and Orient alike. We were really all in
the same boat, and the Universities of Berlin and Oxford and Chicago are none of them yet quite
free from the superstitions of Damascus and Bagdad.
We owe the monstrous delusion that language forms the main part of education to the monastic
students of the Middle Ages. All that was worth knowing was then contained in the Greek and
Latin classics and Scriptures, and it was natural to confuse the medium of information with the
learning itself. The Greek and Latin languages were then windows in the house of knowledge.
Since that time all the treasures of that house have been brought out into the open air, but still
many of us continue to climb through the windows, and in the operation we forget what we came
for, lost in a sort of pseudo-science of window-climbing.
The study of words is not education. It is the letter that killeth but the spirit giveth life, and it is
the worship of the letter that deforms education east and west; it is the dry-rot of the book
exalted above the thought and the thing. The monks of old, shut up in their libraries and far away
from the real life of the times -- well might they spend years in decorating parchment scrolls
with their beautiful flourishes, but they are no guides for us to-day.
A man may know many languages and yet not be educated. I used to live in Alexandria, the most
polyglot city of the world, where every child born in the large foreign colony is heir to six or
eight languages, for Arabic, French, Italian, Greek, English, German, Turkish, Armenian,
Berberine, Spanish -- all of these and others too -- are in common use. And yet it is a city of little
education, and few of these linguistic prodigies are well educated. I recall one acquaintance of
mine, a foreign merchant, who was equally at home in half-a-dozen tongues, but whose horizon
was strictly limited by his business and his daily newspaper.
To know a foreign language is a desirable accomplishment if we have occasion to use it, but it is
not education. It comes rather under the head of valuable information. Just so it is useful to learn
the names of the streets of the city in which we intend to live, but it is a waste of time to study a
plan of St. Petersburg if we never intend to go there. Education begins at home.
And we have an exaggerated idea too of the educational importance of our own language. When
a boy in the spelling class says "d--e--d, dead," we correct him and make him insert an
unnecessary (and really harmful) "a." It is plain that he was doing the sensible thing and that we
are teaching him a piece of unreason. Surely this cannot properly be called education. Our
correction is absolutely arbitrary and answers to nothing in nature. And how we magnify the
importance of grammar! The real use of language is to convey our meaning, and the man who
says "them things" conveys his quite as well as we who say "those things." Why, then, should we
assume an air of superiority? For all we know, a hundred years hence "them things" may be right
and "those things" wrong; for what is our language made of, if not of the mistakes of our
ancestors? What is the main value of thorough drilling in spelling and grammar? Why, when I
meet a man who exhibits a knowledge of the rules of prosody and orthography in his speech and
writing, I say to myself, "My dear sir, you have been taught in the same way that I was taught;
we belong to the same fraternity." It is a kind of Masonic grip, that is all.
I know a man who slips up frequently in conversation, and who cannot write a page of a letter
without making several mistakes, and yet he knows almost everything else under the sun. He can
build a house, make a road, work a forge, and mend a mowing-machine; he understands the care
of horses and cattle, the qualities of different soils, the proper seasons for sowing and planting
and reaping. He can cook his dinner and break a colt and manage men; and I have often been
tempted to say to him, "You are the educated man, and not I." It is true that I have resisted the
temptation thus far and may eventually triumph over it, and yet if I did yield to it some day,
would I not be coming pretty near the truth? For I was educated upon the theory that I was a
disembodied mind, and as a result I find it very difficult to this day even to sharpen a pencil.
Count Tolstoy testifies even more radically to similar facts in Russia, for he says that there the
best educated men often can neither read nor write.
We have bodies as well as minds, and that is a great discovery for the educator to have made.
Education must include the body, or it will be one-sided. In Germany the specialization of mind
and body has gone farther perhaps than elsewhere, and there we have the ideal learned professor,
with a huge bald forehead, great gold spectacles over his nearly blind eyes, and a slim,
round-shouldered body which has almost atrophied from lack of fresh air and exercise. Go out
from him into the fields and see the typical peasant, a giant in strength, but with a mind utterly
undeveloped in the direction of book-learning.
I remember as a boy visiting Oxford during the Franco-Prussian war and having the gardener of
one of the colleges ask me if the war was in our neighbourhood! And thus the beautiful walls of
Christ Church and Magdalen dam up, as it were, the reservoirs of knowledge and prevent them
from overflowing into the minds of the working people. A man has arms and legs as well as a
brain, and he should learn to make use of all of them. What could be more absurd than the Indian
clubs and dumb-bells and weights and pulleys which men have devised for the purpose of giving
them that physical exercise which they should have been taught to find in some useful
We need to produce all-round men and women, and the highest civilization is that which
produces the greatest number of them. In our haste to manufacture "things," we have forgotten
the manufacture of men. We have "heads" over factories and "hands" to work in them, but the
idea of combining head and hand in one individual is only just asserting itself. The principal
product of a country is not its steel rails or its bicycles or its machinery, but its men and women,
and our most important manufactories are the schools in which we undertake to shape them. Of
all our "captains of industry," the schoolmaster is the most essential to the true progress of the
But there is one thing in the child more important than mind or body, and that is what we call
character -- the spiritual nature -- the soul. A child's character is his attitude to his environment,
an attitude which may be masterful or servile, true or false, kindly or hateful. The first axiom for
the teacher to assimilate is that there are natural elements at work in the child making for a good
character. Give him a chance and he will show initiative, prefer the truth and exhibit affection
for those about him. He must be encouraged along these lines, and great care must be taken to
throw no obstruction in his way.
The deepest thing in character is love, for it is a pliant, suggestive, and yet overwhelming force,
and in its self-forgetfulness leaves the way clear for all justice and righteousness. Children are
affectionate by nature, and perhaps that is the quality contemplated by the saying, "Unless ye
become as little children, ye cannot enter the kingdom of heaven." It is not therefore necessary to
teach love for neighbour positively, but to invite and cultivate it. In the old-fashioned school,
with its hard and fast system and its discipline, this would not be easy. Yet even here the teacher
might begin to exercise the child in the class-room in loving the other children. On the first day,
say, let each pupil begin with the child on his right, and on the next take in the one on his left,
and then the one before and the one behind, until the circle of affection spread out and embraced
the whole school, like the ripple from a falling stone on a pond. By the time it reached the walls
of the school-house nothing could stop it, and it would take in the whole world before long, and
it would prove as catching as the mumps or the measles. A good, manly, robust love is really the
natural activity of human souls.
Possibly the above method might be a difficult one to inaugurate, but surely the many writers
upon pedagogy could invent a better way if they once applied their minds to it. The trouble is
that they have never thought seriously of developing the affections. The thing to avoid is the
production of little prigs and hypocrites. And perhaps the best way to do this is not to have an
old-fashioned school at all, but a new fashioned one in which not a word on the subject of love
for neighbour should be uttered, but everything possible done "on the quiet" to kindle into a
flame every spark of it which shows itself. And the beauty of this neighbour love is that it goes
down to the very root of all activities, and gives a motive for all the mental and physical and
moral training that can be devised, for as soon as the individual begins to love he is seized by a
strong desire to be useful to those whom he loves, and to look upon himself as an instrument for
their welfare, and he will wish at once to make himself as perfect an instrument as he can.
Here, then, is a good strong peg on which to hang all education, and the same studies which
before were mere "accomplishments" and selfish indulgences become miraculously transformed
into subordinate parts of a coherent scheme of education, and the whole circle of "lessons"
become related at the centre with the desire to serve humanity. Such a view of education puts
every kind of knowledge in its place and gives a field of exercise to the natural exuberance of the
child -- to his sense of honesty, courage, truth, justice and all the other virtues. Without some
such conception of education as this we might as well join the classes on the floor of the mosque
of El Azhar and mumble gibberish for the rest of our lives and consider ourselves educated.
It is encouraging to know that despite all temporary and local symptoms of reaction the general
drift of the educational world is towards greater freedom. Schools are more efficient now
without corporal punishment than they used to be with it. We are learning that we must
substitute nature's discipline for our own. The child should fear, not us, but the consequences of
his acts. As Bolton Hall has well said in an unpublished lecture, "Nature punishes. To punish a
child is to teach it that when you are absent it can transgress nature's laws and go unpunished";
and again, "Nature is a school, and when we punish we take the child away from nature's
school." Punishment is an appeal to cowardice, to the beast in man. Let us rather appeal, says he,
to the divinity in him. "It were as well to break a child's back as to break his will." And another
objection to punishment is a practical one which I draw from my own experience, for I have
never indulged in it without feeling that I was doing something worse, in punishing, than the
original offence of the child. In the last analysis the reason that I punish the child is because I
happen to be stronger than he is, and this is an irrational basis for justice. At any rate, let us try to
avoid such arbitrary and faulty methods. Our best and most successful educators have long since
discarded them, and the appeal to force shows only the weakness of the teacher.
And new methods of instruction are making their way too. Read School and Society, by
Professor John Dewey, of the University of Chicago, if you wish to learn what the next step in
education will be. In his schools they do things together. They are social affairs. He shows
clearly that the mere absorption of facts is an individual and selfish pursuit, and that marks and
examinations give an artificial and anti-social competitive quality to education, so that it actually
becomes a school crime for one child to help another, when such help should be recognized as a
Mr. Reeder, superintendent of the New York Orphan Asylum, too, condemns "institutionalism."
"Only life," he says, "rich, full, free, natural and individual, prepares for life.... The discipline
that makes a good soldier or a good factory operative shrivels the life of a child," and he might
have added "of a soldier and of a factory operative too." Everywhere we hear of the introduction
of manual training and of the Kindergarten system, and the influence of Pestalozzi and Froebel is
slowly extending and improving upon itself.
The educational world is to-day in a state of ferment, and hence the strong convictions of a man
like Tolstoy are likely to impress themselves upon it; and when he calls upon us to make the
child his own chief teacher, we are bound to give ear and consider his advice. Teach the child
when it wishes to learn, and do not (as Bolton Hall says we do) rebuke it for asking questions at
one time -- ("You will understand that later, my dear," or "Don't interrupt me!") -- and then cram
it with undesired information at another.
It has often been noted that country-bred boys as a rule succeed better in life than city boys. Is it
not because they are brought up in an atmosphere of greater freedom? It is from the
determination of such questions as "Shall I climb the apple-tree or sail boats in the brook?" that
initiative and self-reliance spring, and the omnipresent nurse, governess and tutor are usually
discouragers of originality, while the streets of a city offer little play for choice. The best
environment for a child, and hence the best school, is the one which presents the widest range of
selection for his activities, and which leaves the choice as far as possible to him. Whenever the
school of the future begins to realize this ideal, the happy children of that day and the
well-rounded men and women, full of energy and readiness, who will grow up from them, will
owe a debt of gratitude to Count Tolstoy, for he will surely have his high place among the
pioneers of a freer and truer education.