Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Juniores Priores

There is a marked tendency in the literature, in the speculation, and in the enterprises of the present day to pay an unusual degree of attention to the early years of life. The hideous adjective, "educational," and its even more hideous substantive, "educationist," are illustrations of one form of this tendency. The instinctive eagerness with which almost every popular writer addresses himself to the sympathies and depicts the feelings of the young, exemplifies another. We are overwhelmed with the results of minute observations on the nursery and the school-room. Popular writers who beg for the tears of the public almost uniformly draw their most touching scenes from infant death-beds, and dwell with revolting sweetness long drawn out upon the miniature passions of boys and girls who have hardly entered upon their teens. In short, the importance of the young is at a maximum; and if, in the course of a few more decades, the world is not peopled by a generation infinitely superior to those which have preceded it, it will not be from any want of interest or exertion on the part of the existing adults towards the existing adolescents.

The good side of this movement requires no illustration. It would be impossible to say anything about the importance of education without falling into the dreariest of all commonplaces; but, like most other good things, it has its attendant evils—evils which have an injurious effect upon education itself, upon those who receive, and upon those who give it. Perhaps the best illustration of this is to be found in the character and tendency of the novels which are at present so popular about life at school and at college. In the last generation, and in the works of our older writers, scenes of this kind were introduced principally as affording an opportunity for burlesque description. The common form used by Captain Marryat, for example, in describing his hero's schooldays, consists principally of accounts of the tricks which he played upon the master and the usher, and of the tyrannical punishments which he incurred in return. A modern novel about school or college life is written in a totally different temper. If the scene is a school, it will be intimated that success and good behaviour at school have the closest possible relation to success and goodness in future life; whilst deep moral meanings will be attached to all the ups and downs in lessons and in play. If it is a university, the incidents may be constructed on rather a larger scale, and more play may be given to serious passions and feelings; but the same sort of importance will be attached to matters intrinsically petty, whilst the whole will be pervaded by the same fundamental assumption, that the period passed at college is necessarily of the utmost importance, and that the part which an undergraduate plays there almost determines the part which he will play in after life. The solemnity with which these books are written, and the tone by which they are pervaded, prove that their authors fall into the error of greatly overvaluing the relative importance of very early life. For it is true, though it is a truth which many people seem to forget, that maturity is more important than youth—that the importance of youth depends principally on the fact that it is an introduction to maturity—that many of the habits and many of the qualities which have most to do with the success and happiness of mature life, though they may exist in youth, lie beyond the reach of educators—and that they are called out by the events of manhood far more than by the education received in youth. In short, a man's character has in it infinitely more than his schools and schoolmasters put there. And the closest observation and most assiduous drill during the first two or three and twenty years of his life constantly fail to bring it out.

These are, of course, unwelcome reflections to the whole generation of what, to use their own phraseology, must be called educationists, for they impose limits upon education, the existence of which educationists habitually neglect or deny. They show that it is not the business of education to form the character, for some of the most important parts of it are formed after the age of education is over. For a similar reason, it is not the business of education to give to those who receive it a chart by which the course to be steered in life is indicated. The solution of that problem depends in a great measure upon experience, which can be obtained only by each man for himself, as he comes within the influence of the great passions and interests of mature life.

On the other hand, one of the most essential characteristics of education is that it should be adapted to the immature and incomplete character of those who receive it; so that the college and the school are, after all, little more than continuations of the nursery, differing from real life by the elimination of a certain number of the elements which make up its interest. The nursery excludes almost all these elements; the school excludes most of them; and even a university excludes several of the most important. Students have no professions; they have no families; they live under a system of artificial rewards, which give a fictitious value to certain specific talents quite independent of their real importance in life, whilst they leave unnoticed other qualities of infinitely greater consequence. Hence the world of school and college is, and must be, to a great extent, a make-believe world—constructed, with more or less ingenuity, to imitate the real world, but affording an inadequate, and, in some respects, a fallacious and even misleading test as to the capacity of its inhabitants for usefulness and success outside of it. Educators of every degree are naturally inclined to forget this, and to endeavour to enhance their own importance by adopting the highest notion of the importance of their task. They assume, for the most part with little foundation, that they know what life is and how to prepare their pupils for it; whereas their own views are generally narrow and technical, and their opportunities for impressing them on their pupils limited. If they could reconcile themselves to the reflection that they have a limited task to perform—that their most important duties are negative, and that the young birds whom they have hatched properly belong to, and will pass most of their lives in, an element of which they know comparatively little—the education which they would give would be less pretentious and more useful.

It is not, however, in its effects upon education that the exaggerated importance attached to the young and their doings is most injurious. It exercises a worse and a more important influence on the minds of those who entertain it. To gain the ear of a certain number of young disciples, and to set up some scheme of education founded on his particular views, is the mode of proceeding adopted by almost every social reformer. (See Essay on Gamaliels, p. 234.) There are many people in the present day, in almost every walk of life, who appear to feel that they have no chance of getting a hearing from grown-up men and women, and who think that possibly boys and girls may furnish the fulcrum which their little schemes require in order to move the world. A large proportion of the clergy take this course. They are indefatigable (and their industry and benevolence are highly honourable to them) in educating and lecturing young people. But here they stop. To use a well-known platform phrase, middle-aged men are a "neglected class." In boyhood, every one is taught and lectured to the utmost limit that can be supposed to be good for him. Very young men are often enlisted by some reformer or speculator, who sets them to work upon schemes of his own for improving the condition of mankind; but after that period of life, a man is supposed to have got beyond the province of advice. The most anxious philanthropists have nothing whatever to say to him, and even the clergy appear to think that, if he has a soul to be saved, it is no business of theirs to save it. It is not so with the other learned professions. The doctor's services are distributed impartially over life. The lawyer has no objection to male and middle-aged clients; nor do politics or commerce turn their backs upon the unromantic age and sex.

If grown-up men are so important an element in life as a possibly unreasonable prejudice suggests, will no one undertake the improvement of their condition? There are obvious difficulties in the case, but they are difficulties which reformers and philanthropists should be prepared to meet, if their reforms and their philanthropy are real and sound. A grown-up man, who has mixed in the real business of the world, generally knows a quack when he sees him, sees through mere verbiage, and has made up his mind that there are a good many evils in life which it is hopeless to try to cure. If such a man is asked to take a great deal of trouble, to spend a great deal of time, to introduce considerable changes into his habits of conduct and modes of thought, the request must be based upon grounds which will bear the fullest discussion and the strongest adverse criticism. When people address themselves by preference to feeble, immature, or ignorant hearers, the inference which unavoidably suggests itself is, that they are not prepared for this, and that they are internally conscious, either that their case is weak, or that they do not know how to defend it If a case is really strong, it can be proved to the satisfaction of mature minds. We have seen an abundance of great political changes, but they were effected by men, and not by boys. We have also seen an abundance of puny sects, which were hardly born before they died; and their common characteristic has been that they began in the influence of a few clever men over a circle of susceptible youths. It is a wise remark, that the fate of mankind depends much more upon the risen than on the rising generation, and if religious and social reformers want to find out what their plans are really worth, they should see how they affect men of their own age and station, instead of trying to prejudice in their favour a set of lads or girls who will outgrow them in the course of a few years.

It is hardly possible to estimate the importance of such a course to the reformers themselves. It would not only give them a test of the soundness of their own views, of which they are at present entirely destitute, but it would have an effect on their own minds of which they can hardly estimate the importance. Hardly anything is so fatal to continuous mental growth as constant contact with immature minds. It is the intellectual equivalent of keeping low company. A person whose life is passed amongst children or boys can hardly be expected to avoid the blunder of supposing that the superiority of which he is continually made conscious is absolute, and not relative. The feeling that he has to be constantly setting them an example is almost certain to delude him into the belief that he has an example to set; whereas, in fact, his knowledge of life is often little wider, whilst his conjectures about it are less lively than those of his pupils. There is no one thing which it is more important for persons connected with education to remember than the truth that education is only a preparation for life, and that the life which lies beyond it is utterly unlike it, is very partially known to any one, and is, in general, particularly little known to themselves.

Saturday Review, September 29, 1860.

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