Popular Science Monthly/Volume 34/January 1889/The Sacrifice of Education

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AS an indication of the present state of feeling in England toward the system of public education in that country, and especially toward the abuse of examinations, we reprint the following vigorous protest, which is signed by over a hundred professors and teachers, about seventy members of Parliament, and by members of the nobility, clergymen, and others, to the total number of four hundred. We omit the names for lack of space. The sentiments expressed in the protest are enforced in appended communications from Prof. Max Müller, Mr. E. A. Freeman, and Mr. Frederic Harrison, which it is our purpose to print next month:


We, the undersigned, wish to record our strong protest against the dangerous mental pressure and misdirection of energies and aims which are to be found in nearly all parts of our educational system. Alike in public elementary schools, in schools of all grades and for all classes, and at the universities, the same dangers are too often showing themselves under different forms. Children—as is so frequently insisted on—are treated by a public department, by managers and schoolmasters, as suitable instruments for earning Government money; young boys of the middle and richer classes are often trained for scholarships, with as little regard for the future as two-year-old horses are trained for races; and young men of real capability at the universities are led to believe that the main purpose of education is to enable them to win some great money prize, or take some distinguished place in an examination.

We protest emphatically against such a misdirection of education, and against the evils that necessarily arise from it.

We wish at the outset to call the attention of parents and teachers to the resulting physical mischief. One of the first duties of a child or young person is to grow well. In the rapid formation of new bone, muscle, and tissue of all kinds, Nature lays on a child a very heavy tax—a tax that should absorb the larger part of its surplus energy. It is probable that in the course of every year some valuable young lives are lost, in cases where this energy has been drawn away by mental overstrain from the work which. it has primarily to perform, and where there is in consequence a failure of strength to meet the sequelæ of scarlet fever or other serious illness. Even in the great number of cases where no strongly marked ill-effect discloses itself during the years of youth, there are sufficient grounds for believing that what is unsparingly taken at this period of life is taken at the expense of future vigor and capability. It has, moreover, to be borne in mind that mental overpressure and brain irritation, on the one side, are likely, just as idleness and want of occupation the other, to increase among boys peculiar physical (and moral) dangers of a most serious character—dangers which are but little regarded by the public, but which always exist where boys are massed together.

We consider that, together with a general failure to keep steadily in view the true ends of education, great examinations and the valuable prizes attached to them are responsible for a large part of this overstrain placed on young bodies and young minds. Let these great prizes once exist in the education market, and we must expect that boys and young men will train for them, regardless of higher and more important considerations; that parents and teachers will allow themselves to join in the emulation—a few, perhaps, of their number mentally protesting, while looking on with "somber acquiescence."

By the side of the physical evils, at which we have glanced, stand equally serious evils of an intellectual and moral kind:

1. It should be noted that under the prize-system all education tends to be of the same type, since boys from all schools of the same grade meet in the same competition, and all teaching tends to be directed toward the winning of the same prizes. No more unfortunate tendency could be imagined. The health and progress of every great science, such as education, depend upon continual difference, upon new ideas, and experiments carried out to give effect to such ideas; upon the never-ending struggle between many different forms and methods, each to excel the other. It can not be too often repeated that uniformity means arrest of growth and consequent decay; diversity means life, growth, and adaptation without limit.

2. We hold that the preponderating influence of examinations destroys the best teaching. Under it the teacher loses his own intelligent self-direction. He can not devote his powers to such parts of a subject as are most real to himself, and most deeply felt by himself (though on this depend the impressiveness of all teaching and the awakening of permanent interest in those taught), as he is constantly controlled by the sense of the coming examination, in which of course he wishes his pupils to succeed. The pupil, on the other hand, allows himself to be mechanically guided for the sake of success. His mental sympathies become bounded by the narrowest horizon. "What will pay" in the examination becomes his ruling thought, and he turns away from the many new intellectual interests, which would spring up on all sides of one who was allowed to be in love with knowledge for its own sake, as from luxuries that must be sternly put aside for the sake of success in the all-important examination. To a young and healthy mind the constant suggestiveness that accompanies work done in every branch of knowledge, the constant opening up of new interests, are the great stimulants to self-development, and they should be ever spurring the student on to endeavor to know more and to see more clearly. We hold that these life-giving interests can not possibly coexist with the repressing influences of training for great examinations.

3. The true value of different kinds of education can not be so intelligently considered and so easily measured by the public when these great prizes are in existence. It is most undesirable that important controversies, whether between classical and scientific education, or between the various methods of teaching, should be obscured by the serious monetary considerations that now throw their shadow over all educational work.

We do not propose to discuss here other more subtle evils, which appear to many of us to result from doing work simply for the sake of an all-important examination, such as the temporary strengthening of the rote-faculties to the neglect of the rational faculties, the rapid forgetfulness of knowledge acquired, the cultivation of a quick superficiality and power of cleverly skimming a subject, the consequent incapacity for undertaking original work, the desire to appear to know rather than to know, the forming of judgment on great matters where judgment should come later, the conventional treatment of a subject and loss of spontaneity, the dependence upon highly skilled guidance, the belief in artifices and formulated answers, the beating out of small quantities of gold-leaf to cover great expanses, the diffusion of energies over many subjects for the sake of marks, and the mental disinclination that supervenes to undertake work which is not of a directly remunerative character, after the excitement and strain of the race; nor will we discuss another class of evils, that falls less directly on the student, such as the waste of very precious time inflicted on the teacher by the drudge-work of examinations. It is enough now to affirm that the moral effect of the system, viewed broadly, is distinctly bad. We have made of our education a body without a soul. Our misdirected efforts result in a system which is corruptio optimi. There is no nobler influence that can be brought to bear upon a young student than the desire to get knowledge for the sake of understanding the world in which he has to live, the marvelous forces among which he has to act, the humanity of which he forms part, and thus of preparing a life of mental activity and happiness for himself, and of enlightened usefulness to others; but this influence is almost entirely set aside by the prize system. Only too often the greater part of the knowledge acquired for an examination, and the life which the student has presently to lead, are to him as matters separated by a great gulf, almost without connection with each other. We can not help asking why we should thus throw away the noblest and most enduring inducements that we possess, and put in their place motives which, except for the desperate effort of the moment, must be poor and unfruitful. We can find no good grounds for believing that the simple love of knowledge for its own sake, which at different periods of the world has acted so powerfully upon young and ardent minds, has in itself lost any of the old sacred fire; nor can we for a moment admit that the boys and young men of higher aspirations, who would be ready to follow Knowledge in a high and worthy spirit, should be sacrificed by an ignobly conceived system to the inferior-minded—if there are such—who can only be tempted to follow her because she means a sum of money, the public triumph of a successful class, or the gaining of a place. For those who can only be induced to work for such motives, let their friends provide in some special fashion such rewards and stimulants as they may find necessary; but for the higher type of boys and young men (and we believe they will gradually prove to be far the larger number, when we have once shaken ourselves free from the corrupting influences of the present system) let the effort be to offer the only true kind of teaching—the teaching of those who are in love with their subjects, and would, if allowed, devote themselves to calling out the same feeling in their pupils. At the present moment both teacher and pupil are morally depressed and incapacitated by a system that deliberately sets itself to appeal to the lower side of human nature. Again and again brilliant young men, once full of early promise, go down from the universities as the great prize-winners, and do little or nothing in the after-years. They have lived their mental life before they are five-and-twenty. The victory of life has seemed to them gained, and knowledge exhausted, almost before the threshold of either has been crossed.

It can not be too often insisted on that examination is a good educational servant, but a bad master. It is a useful instrument in the hand of a teacher to test his own work, and to know how far his pupils have followed and profited by his teaching. But it necessarily exerts a fatal influence whenever it is made of such importance that teachers simply conform to an external standard, lose faith in themselves, sink into the position of their own text-books, and give but little of their own personality to their work. It is true that it is necessary to test the work of teachers; but it is not necessary, for the purpose of doing so, to take the whole soul out of teaching. If examinations are to be defended on the ground that they test the efficiency of teachers, then we reply that other and better ways of doing this are to be found, and must be found. We admit quite frankly that they can only be found and pursued at the price of some trouble and experiment on the part both of parents and those responsible for the conduct of teaching; but if trouble and thought and experiment are to be spared in this great matter, we had better at once resign the hope of attaining any moral and intellectual results of real value from what we are doing. It has been suggested that masters and tutors might be induced to publish regularly notes of some of their courses; it has been suggested that some of the periodical examinations of boys and young men by their own masters and professors should be printed—with the questions and answers made—and sold in some cheap form; that parents and others interested should be invited to attend viva voce examinations. It is urged that such publicity would help to enlighten those specially interested as to the teaching given at different schools and colleges; and act as a moderate and healthy stimulus both to teachers and taught, without in any way producing the evil effects of the present fiercely competitive prize-system. We can not here attempt to express any opinion upon such proposals; but every reasonable plan for giving parents some acquaintance with what their sons are learning, and the methods pursued, deserve careful consideration.

In conclusion, we protest against the waste that accompanies the mischievous exaggeration of our present systems of examination. We protest against the great endowments of schools and universities being applied as money rewards for learning, either in the form of scholarships or fellowships, when they might be applied to increasing teaching-power, attracting men of high and varied learning as teachers to the universities, endowing concurrent chairs so as to admit the expression of different schools of thought on the same subjects, lowering to a certain point the fees taken for attendance, carrying the teaching of the universities into many different parts of the country, and assisting education in many other direct and useful ways. We protest against the common mistake of benefactors—anxious to help education—founding new scholarships, and thus intensifying the evil that exists, instead of founding local chairs and local courses of teaching; we renew our protest against the low ideals placed before young men; against the highly artificial competition to which both parents and teachers give their adhesion, and which destroys the real natural competition of method competing against method and type against type; and we protest against the assigning of Government positions by competition—a system which sets an evil example throughout the country and which does not insure the choice of the most fit. That the Government should require a high class of knowledge and attainment from those seeking for its appointments is reasonable; but the difficulties which attend the selection of candidates should not be allowed to bring upon us in wholesale fashion (though indirectly) the great evils which result from competitive examinations. It is urged—and the whole matter deserves serious consideration—that it would be better that some system should be sought out under which, for example, those who wished to enter the civil service, and who reached a certain standard of excellence required by the commissioners, should be practically tested in such way and for such period as could be conveniently arranged; that the most fitting should then be selected on public grounds by the permanent heads of departments. It is urged that some such a course—and others are to be suggested—should be preferred to the excessive and hurtful stimulus of special training for the one purpose of defeating in a great educational contest other candidates, also specially trained for the same purpose, and to the consequent encouragement of competitive examination throughout the whole country by the force of Government example. Here also we desire to express no opinion of any kind upon the suggestion given, but simply to point out how important it is that those who are most qualified should turn their attention to this subject with the view of discovering the best way of avoiding both the evils that belonged to the past and those that belong to the present.

We have only to add that what we have said as regards the education of young men and boys necessarily applies with increased force to young women and girls. It is deeply to be regretted that their education is becoming simply a stale repetition of the mistakes made in the case of men. In their instance it is to be expected that the injuries to health and bodily vigor will be even greater; while the delicate perceptive powers, which they possess in larger measure than men, are likely to suffer irreparable injury. We can only hope that with the abolition of the class and prize system there will grow up a much more delicate appreciation than exists at present of the subtle influences, both for good and for evil, of education; and that the easy credulity with which this generation has placed "book learning" before a careful training of the senses and higher faculties may slowly give way to truer views.

We ought to add that we sign this paper in general agreement with the principles expressed in it, and not as individually expressing entire adhesion to all details.—Nineteenth Century.