Thursday, October 6, 2016

Our Noble Selves

Few subjects that have come before Parliament of late years have been debated in a more characteristic way than the Report of the Public Schools Commission. For obvious reasons it excited warm and deep personal feelings. Probably a majority of the members of the two Houses have either been educated at a public school, or have sent, or mean to send, their sons there, or are in some other way intimately connected with some of them. Of the effects of this on the schools themselves, and on the suggestions made for their reform, we have spoken on other occasions; but one fact appeared whenever the matter was referred to, which, without being connected with the special discussions which have arisen on the subject, deserves notice on account of its inherent and characteristic singularity. Whenever public schools are under discussion, their numerous and zealous defenders always make use of one argument, which it is impossible to misunderstand, and extremely difficult to answer in a way which shall be at once relevant and courteous. Stripped of a good deal of phraseology, the argument is—“I was at a public school; Eton or Harrow produced me; I, the Premier Baron of England, did with my own noble hands black the boots of the Archbishop of Canterbury; and in the face of that do you dare talk of reform? Can the system be bad which produced his Grace and myself?” Decency forbids, and indignation hardly thinks it worth while to prompt, an answer. No doubt noble lords and honourable members had their characters formed at public schools, and did derive from their teaching many of the characteristics which we now see in action; and what then? Is the fact that English public schools do pretty generally succeed in developing the children of English gentlemen into English gentlemen very like their parents a conclusive proof of the allegation that they are hardly capable of being materially improved? Is the average English gentleman the flower and ultimate quintessence of human nature? Perhaps he may be, but it is surely wonderful that English gentlemen in general should regard the fact as so palpable and self-evident that it may in all cases be assumed, without even any distinct statement of it. They will consent to discuss the question whether or not Eton boys ought to write Greek iambics and Latin elegiacs, and whether they should learn French or German; they are fully prepared to go into any matter about money, the payment of masters, and the general organization of the school, but about one thing they are perfectly clear. The discipline and general treatment which makes English boys into English men like their fathers, having been ascertained by experience, is not under any pretence whatever to be tampered with. The English gentleman is on no account to be substantially altered. Whatever else is to be done, he is to be let alone.

It is pleasant to see any class of people so perfectly well satisfied with themselves, and it is easy to see why they are satisfied. An English gentleman is, on an average, a very good sort of man. He is honourable, upright, brave, sensible, less idle than he might be, decent at all times, and moral when he is married, and sometimes before. In short, he is just the sort of person whom clergymen of a certain school (many of whom belong to the class themselves) describe as the amiable moral character who is inwardly full of dead men's bones and all uncleanness. The corrupt, interior may be, and generally is, a theological, flourish. The exterior whitewash is in reality quite genuine, and corresponds very well with what it covers. Is it not a remarkable thing that men of this kind should have such a genuine and invincible confidence in and admiration for the class to which they belong and the system which has produced them, that they should feel no consciousness of any shortcoming, that they should be haunted by no ideal, that they should be utterly unable to conceive that there ever was or ever will or indeed can be, in the whole world, a race essentially nobler than themselves? Such, however, would seem to be the case. “Me me adsum qui factus sum,” is repeated, in slightly varied modulations, by every speaker upon public education. It must be owned that the origin of such feelings is sufficiently intelligible. It is undoubtedly true that, as times go, there is hardly any other class in the world which can say as much for itself, as a class, as the gentry of this country. They have contrived to keep their wealth, their power, their social position, and a control over the general character and prejudices of the bulk of the people, to a wonderful degree, and it may be doubted whether any other class of persons in Europe or America could say the same. This result is not one which ought to be in any degree despised. On the contrary, it is most important and significant; but does it really contain all that human beings ought to care about or try for? Ought the present generation of English gentlemen to be satisfied with the reflection that they have made provision for the reproduction of an indefinite number of persons just like themselves? Is there not a weak as well as a strong side to the character, and ought we not sometimes to look at that weak side, and see whether it cannot be strengthened? Let us leave the public schools entirely out of the case, and consider for a moment the grown-up men. What is the weak side of the average English gentleman?

In the first place, though the typical man who may be put forward as a model is, like other models, a very fine fellow in his way, the great mass of English gentlemen fall infinitely short of what they might easily be in their own line. We are usually told that a man thoroughly well educated according to our systems of education is fit for any position in which he may be placed, and is able to pick up with great ease and rapidity the special knowledge which his particular position may require. No doubt this is a very respectable kind of model, but how many persons are there who make anything like an approach to it? it not the truth that, when we see this sort of versatility and general aptitude—if, indeed, we ever do see it—we are apt to praise it as a rare and wonderful gift? And is it not also true that, of the enormous number of persons who have all received the education which is supposed to produce it, no more than an exceedingly small minority, who would probably have been distinguished men under any system, display any trace whatever of it? Let any one run over the names of twenty or thirty members of this class belonging to his own club, his own profession, or his own neighbourhood, and ask himself honestly whether they have ever displayed any remarkable qualities whatever beyond that sort of ordinary good sense and good nature which prevents a man who has had the luck to be born with a silver spoon in his mouth from quarrelling with his bread and butter. The world is full of all manner of tasks to which men with a certain degree of leisure might address themselves if they really cared for anything more than enjoying the routine of life in a routine way. Would not more of these tasks have been accomplished, if we were all the sort of models that we allege ourselves to be? That the last thirty or forty years have been years of reform and improvement is perfectly true; but it is also true that the reforms which have signalised them were absolutely necessary to the preservation of the whole social fabric; and the necessity for those reforms proves conclusively that there had been a vast amount of negligence and selfishness on the part of the very class which is supposed to be, in all fundamental particulars, so good and wise that its virtues may be assumed as an axiom. A long succession of English gentlemen had no doubt contributed greatly to the formation of the vast and splendid fabric of the British Empire; but the very same men were responsible, to the same or an even greater extent, for a vast mass of crime, pauperism, and misery of all sorts, great part of which is still to be found in the country—for the wasteful expenditure of enormous sums of money represented by a considerable part of the national debt, and for the corrupt, inefficient, and antiquated state of very nearly all the public establishments—for a system of criminal law cruel and capricious beyond all example, and for a system of civil law which, though not without its good points, was full of intricacy, technicality, and confusion of every description.

That many of these evils have been, either mitigated or removed is perfectly, true, but that the general turn of character to which they may be traced is much altered is a very different proposition. English gentlemen are still, as a rule, grossly ignorant—not, it may be, in comparison with the gentry of other countries, but certainly in comparison with the opportunities of acquiring knowledge which their position gives them. Almost every man of independent means might, if he chose, employ several hours a day in study of some sort, and would do so if he were not idle, self-indulgent, and absurdly self-satisfied. Yet how many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of such men there are who never read anything except a newspaper, and whose literary knowledge extends a very little way beyond a superficial acquaintance with a few common English books. Go to any Court of Quarter Sessions, and see how many of the magistrates would be able to stand an easy examination in Blackstone's Commentaries; yet the knowledge to be had from it is of the highest practical importance to them, and the book might be mastered in three or four months by the investment of two hours a day in reading it. Look at the ignorance constantly displayed upon all manner of subjects in the House of Commons, and at the air of something like pride with which it is exhibited. A member the other day, having occasion to refer in a clumsy way to Dr. Newman's Apology, observed that Dr. Newman had been led to Rome by considering “the Donatic controversy,” as to the merits of which, said the speaker, “no man is more ignorant than myself.” It would be absurd to expect every member of Parliament to be a great historian and divine, but surely he ought to know the name of the Donatists, and to have at any rate a general notion as to who they were, and as to the meaning of Dr. Newman's parallel between them and Protestants.

There is hardly a department of public affairs in which the bad effects of the ignorance and idleness of large parts of the comfortable classes may not be observed. Look at the storm created by the Essays and Reviews, and by Dr. Colenso, especially amongst the clergy. If, in the last and the early part of the present century, the educated, part of the country had discharged any material part of their intellectual obligations in a moderately satisfactory manner, this could not have happened. It is true that a variety of physical discoveries have produced an immense deal of evidence bearing upon theological subjects; but the principles upon which the reception of that evidence depends, and the inferences to be drawn from it when it is brought forward, ought to have passed into commonplaces a hundred years ago. If any considerable part of the gentry had learnt the lessons which Tillotson, Warburton, Paley, and Middleton—to say nothing of Simon, Leclerc, and Michaelis — tried to teach them, all the modern discoveries in geology and other subjects would have created no alarm at all. They did not do so. They acted as their ancestors acted before and their descendants after them; they sneered at reason, and glorified feeling, which is, after all, only the amiable form of prejudice; and thus they transmitted to us, as we shall transmit to our posterity, a vast legacy of perplexity and confusion, The state of the law is a further instance of the intellectual deficiencies of the educated classes. The general principles of the subject are, or ought to be, no great mystery, and the broad facts relating to the state of English law are, or ought to be, sufficiently notorious. For instance, country gentlemen, at all events, ought to know that the law of real property is expressed, to a great extent, in language derived from the feudal system, that it is infested by legal fictions, and that the immense expense and trouble of investigating titles is entirely needless, and might be spared altogether if the law were reduced to a rational form. Obvious as all this is, the country gentlemen have never taken the trouble to understand or agitate on the matter. They have regarded schemes for reforming the law of real property as being, on the whole, suspicious things, infected more or less with a radical and revolutionary spirit.

These are trite illustrations; but it would be easy to go through other parts of our social system, and to prove to demonstration that, notwithstanding our brags about the noble character of the English gentleman, he is apt to be ignorant, idle, and self-indulgent in the highest degree when he is not under the immediate pressure of necessity. His self-indulgence is not apt to be vicious, and his idleness is not listless, but from his boyhood onwards he never puts his mind to hard work unless he is obliged. Considering who and what he is, and what sort of nation he has to help to govern, he ought to think it quite as unmanly to be unused to hard thinking and hard reading as to be indisposed to hard riding.

Saturday Review, July 6, 1864.

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