Popular Science Monthly/Volume 31/July 1887/Modern Over-Education

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THE appeal made by Professor Jowett, in the columns of the "Times," for state aid to provincial colleges established to promote "higher education," naturally raises the question how high education for the bulk of mankind ought to go. The world has heard something too much of the subject of late years, and the theme has been worn rather threadbare. Every lecturer in want of a topic, every Radical member of Parliament, bound to deliver an address to his constituents, and having exhausted his wrath against the House of Lords and the landed interest and his ideas on the Irish question, finds an unfailing resource in discoursing on education, in which he may deliver himself of platitudes ad libitum, and raise an approving cheer by informing his audience for the fiftieth time that "knowledge is power." It has ever been a boon to the Socialists and other democrats, who have discovered in their scheme of free education a convenient means of drawing upon the income of one class for the benefit of another. School boards make continually increasing demands upon the property of the rich, and, in the true spirit of all Liberal legislation, tyrannically encroach upon the liberties of the poor. Cramming and competition, standards and examinations, are being multiplied to such an extent that they occupy a large portion of human life, which is becoming a scene of probation indeed, in a sense in which the phrase was never before used. At this rate of progress we seem likely soon to arrive at the educational absurdity which prevails in the Chinese Empire, where an official in his ninetieth year has recently passed his "final examination," which places him on the pinnacle of Chinese wisdom and enrolls him in the most exalted rank of mandarins, a sublime elevation which the lengthened period of study it has taken to acquire it has left him little time to enjoy.

But, in spite of all this clamor, it is open to question whether the present rising generation are well educated, or even educated, in the original and natural sense of the word, at all. The Latin word educo, from which our English word is derived, means simply to draw out or train. To strengthen the faculties, to sharpen the intelligence, and to form the character—are any of these objects attained, or even aimed at, in modern education? Practically only one faculty—memory—is cultivated at the expense of all the rest, and that is overburdened. The impossible is attempted, and the young mind strained and exhausted, rather than strengthened, in the desperate effort to acquire a superficial acquaintance with almost every form of human knowledge, in order to answer the catch-questions of an examiner, who would be baffled by his own wisdom if he had not the resource of referring, when his memory fails him, to his notes or his books. A boy has now no time to digest and assimilate what he acquires, nor has he any encouragement to do so. He must "think nothing gained while aught remains," and push on to new conquests until either the dreaded day of examination arrives, or his health breaks down, and renders him unfit to be examined, or perhaps unequal to any occupation at all. The simple course of education of the ancient Persians, to ride, to draw the bow, and to speak the truth, had its advantages as compared with the modern system. Of course, in these days it is not possible to be satisfied with so limited a curriculum, though the native virtue of speaking the truth might with advantage be cultivated much more diligently than it is, more especially by some of our public men, who, by-the-way, are the real teachers, for they it is who complete the education of men who in their turn teach the youth. But some approach might be made to the simplicity of the Greek system, which, based upon the truism that it is impossible to overstrain the mind in a healthy body, in full exercise, seems to have been directed chiefly to strengthening the frame and the mental powers without exhausting either, cultivating a taste for study, and to acquiring the arts of rhetoric and elocution. For most men at the present day this is enough; an exception, of course, must be made of those who are intended for a learned profession, and especially of those whose life is to be spent in instructing others. Clergymen and schoolmasters must be well instructed, or they can not teach. A certain number of scholars and men of science are necessary, but it is not necessary that any of us should attempt the acquisition of universal knowledge. It is not possible, nor desirable, if it were possible, that all should become Bentleys or Porsons. Education does enough if it puts into the hands of youth the key of knowledge, and teaches how to use it. It does too much if it exhausts the brain, and burdens the memory with an immense number of facts which can not be permanently retained with sufficient accuracy to be useful, and which as frequently dwarf as enlarge the intellect by checking its tendency to originate. The creative faculties of the mind are its noblest part, and what encouragement to them is given by the system of modern education? An original opinion expressed in an essay may run counter to the prejudices and hurt the feelings of the examiner, who promptly revenges himself by depriving the examinee of the marks to which he is fairly entitled. This is no imaginary case, but it can be corroborated by many an unlucky victim of this Chinese system, who has not comprehended that we have imported with it the Celestial habit of close imitation, and that we must now not only read but think in a groove, and follow, as closely as we are able to discover them, the peculiarities of the examiner's mind, after the manner of the Chinese tailor who, being directed to make a European coat on the model of an old one supplied to him, reproduced it in fac-simile, patches and all. Fortunately, most of these professors have written books; it is, therefore, in most cases easy enough to win their good graces by a slavish imitation, which is said to be the most delicate and seductive kind of flattery. Thus both are ingeniously demoralized, and learning certainly is not advanced. But are not the advantages of education, even of the best, greatly over-rated? One spark of genius is worth all that was ever taught in schools. Who are the men who have enlightened and transformed the world? Certainly not the most highly educated. It might almost be maintained that those who have done most have learned least from others. Alexander the Great, indeed, was highly educated for his time, but, as he began active life at sixteen, when he commanded a wing of his father's army at the battle of Chæronea, he had not leisure to acquire much; and it may safely be affirmed that it was not the precepts of Aristotle which showed him how to overthrow the Persian Empire, and leave a name which will be remembered as long as the world shall last. His acute intellect, his daring spirit, his boundless ambition, resistless and untiring energy, and his iron will were his instructors, and made him the master of the world. "Sweetest Shakespeare, Fancy's child," did not acquire the power to warble "his native wood-notes wild" at the village school, which yet prepared him sufficiently to enable Lira to display his genius. Newton as a boy was averse to study, and though he took a degree at Cambridge, it was not that of senior wrangler, yet what mathematician has equaled him in reputation, or in the importance of his discoveries? Watt, the inventor of the steam-engine, and Whitworth, who made the tools by the use of which it has been brought to its present perfection, were both self-taught. The same may be said of Arkwright, and almost every discoverer who has been a real public benefactor. In the loftier ranks of the leaders of mankind education has never played an important part. Cromwell's youth was passed in idleness and obscurity; he had no instruction even in the military art, in which he had no rival in his day.

Lord Beaconsfield was never at a public school, nor passed through a university, and all the education he ever received appears to have been what would now be thought merely rudimentary, but it was enough for him. His stores of knowledge must have been acquired only by reading; but this armory, in his skillful hands, provided him with weapons quite adequate to an encounter with even his most formidable adversaries. The world is not governed, or even perceptibly influenced, by professors or Admirable Crichtons. It is ruled by men of action. The daring genius of Clive did more for England, and even for the advancement of the human race, by establishing that Pax-Britannica, under which 140,000,000 human beings now enjoy protection and prosperity, than all the learning of the schools. . . . The only education worthy of the name is that which, by hardening and invigorating the frame, lays the foundation of health of body and mind, which forms the character, imparts sufficient knowledge to enable each individual to cultivate the special taste which Nature has given him, and, instead of teaching only the art of passing examinations, endeavors to inspire all with the solid virtues of courage, self-reliance, honor, and religion, and makes a living, thinking, acting being, full of resource, spirit, and energy, not a walking encyclopædia—in one word, a man, and not a "professor."—Land and Water.