A Schoolmaster's Apologia Pro Vita Sua.


THE HISTORY of the School is told, but there are a few words I wish to add, partly that any future historian of the School may have some idea as to what a teacher of the present day is aiming at—a point on which the old records are lamentably silent—and partly because, though educational reform is now everywhere being talked of, there is, I fear, great haziness as to what education means and what it can do. It must however be clearly understood that for the opinions expressed I alone am responsible. They must not be regarded as those of the School authorities, nor indeed as having any special reference to this School at all. It is with the general problems of education that I am concerned, and my remarks apply to views that are held and practices that prevail in hundreds of schools throughout the land.

SO FAR AS I can see a Grammar School has always had two ends in view—to help its boys to get a living, and still more (for money is only a condition of life) to train them how to live, i.e. to develope to the utmost their powers of soul, of mind, and of body. The problem now is more complicated than of old, for careers are more numerous, and so more subjects have to be taught, and different courses of study arranged; but yet through all this variety there still runs, I believe, in every school that is true to its old ideals a thread of unity in the doctrine that life is far more than a livelihood, and that the subjects taught are not ends in themselves but means to the attainment of higher ends—the acquisition of habits of right thinking and right doing.

This theory pervades the whole of school life. The system of organization is intended not only to make the machine work smoothly but to train the boys in habits of order, discipline, punctuality, etc. The games are not merely to strengthen their bodies or to provide recreation, still less to turn out good cricketers or footballers, but to foster pluck, chivalry, resourcefulness, powers of leadership, esprit de corps, and other desirable qualities. Drawing is not only to teach the use of the pencil but to train the eye; music not only to teach boys how to sing but to train the ear; carpentry not only to enable them to make shelves and boxes but to train the hand; gymnastics not to produce acrobats but to make the boys supple and graceful in all their movements.

The training in moral habits should go on through every lesson, though it is pre-eminently the function of those in divinity; and the acquisition of mental habits—judgment, observation, accuracy, taste, etc.—should be the product in different degrees of the studies of languages, mathematics, history, science, etc.

The specific knowledge I regard rather as the province of instruction, the formation of habits as that of education, and the result of nearly forty years of teaching is to convince me that the latter is far the more important.

I HAVE NO desire however to depreciate the former. A considerable amount of general information is desirable for everyone, and a good deal of special knowledge is requisite for entering on any particular career; but I believe that the value of the knowledge acquired in youth is greatly over-estimated. The school may indeed lay a foundation on which to build, but the really valuable knowledge is that which is gained later, and in any case most of the facts learnt by a boy, unless they are in constant use, fade from his mind with appalling rapidity. The habits on the other hand which discipline the character and train the intellect are much more permanent and of universal validity; for, if properly inculcated, their effect should be seen not only in the special studies by which it is attempted to produce them, but in the whole life of the boy.

Drill, for instance, cannot be regarded as fulfilling its educational end if the cadet is punctual only on parade, smart and orderly only when in uniform, and if a boy shows his reasoning powers merely in mathematics and precision of language merely in classics the objects of the teaching of those subjects will have been only imperfectly attained; for, whatever the theorist may say, the teacher knows that a boy who has been trained to use his brains, to keep his eyes open, to be thorough and accurate in one subject, will carry the same habits into other studies also, provided that they have been adequately instilled into him in the first instance and are not neutralized by bad teaching elsewhere.

THE MASTER, of course, does not claim to work miracles, to create something out of nothing, but in most boys the germ of what he is looking for already exists, and it is by his success in developing this, rather than by the knowledge which his pupils possess, that his ability as a teacher should, I believe, be estimated. To the formation then of such habits—moral, physical, and intellectual—too much importance can hardly be attached, and in any serious attempt to re-organize education the first question asked should be—what are the qualities a boy should possess when leaving school, and by what subjects and what methods of treating them can they best be attained?

At present it is the subjects alone that are prescribed: their effects upon the pupil are either entirely neglected, or assumed to be automatically produced, or left to the ingenuity of the teacher to determine. The result is great divergence in views and lack of harmony in practice. To give then any precise definition of the teacher's ends is impossible, for quot homines tot sententiae.

No rational man however can be content to labour long without some attempt to justify his actions to himself, and it may be of interest if I describe briefly the theory I have hammered out to guide me in my work; not that it is necessarily correct, nor that there is anything remarkable in it, but simply because it is typical of what many schoolmasters are compelled to do, and because it deals with a subject which for centuries was the most important part of the work of this School and about which there is still great misconception—the teaching of the classics.

IN THE OLD DAYS, as we have seen, the main function of a Grammar School was to prepare boys for the university by training them in grammar, logic, and rhetoric, through the medium of Latin and later also of Greek: nothing else was taught except morals, manners, and divinity. Conditions however have changed. Much less time can now be given to the classics; Latin is no longer the universal language; only a small proportion of the boys go to the universities; and the great majority will make no direct use afterwards of most that they have learnt at school—a fact as true of modern languages, of mathematics, and of science, as it is of Latin and Greek. The problem then for the teacher is how to combine the specific knowledge required by some with training that will be of practical value for all.

Now the subjects I have to teach (and they include all those taught by the Headmaster of old) are five—divinity, Latin, Greek, history, and English—and the way I look at them is this. They are all connected with man—his religious ideals, his thoughts, his actions, his modes of expression. Just then as the mathematician is concerned with the properties of space and number, and the scientist with those of matter, so I conceive that my function is to give my pupils some insight into the nature of man—and it should be remembered that it is with man even more than with matter that they will have to deal in after-life.

THE SUBJECT however is overwhelming in its magnitude, and if any practical good is to be done attention must be focussed mainly on certain aspects of it. Now for the mathematician if his definitions are granted and his procedure correct his conclusions are certain, and much the same too, assuming the uniformity of nature, is the case with the scientist; but in dealing with man no such certainty is attainable. You cannot be sure how he will think or act, and his language is only an imperfect vehicle for his feelings and thoughts. Probability then has to take the place of certainty, and it seems to me that the most useful thing I can do is to teach my subjects in such a way as to train the boys (a) to use their judgment, so as (b) to estimate the weight of evidence in human affairs, and (c) to appreciate the use of words, and these indeed, I believe, were the main objects of the Medieval Trivium.

I am not then teaching Latin and Greek merely as languages, and it does not worry me if some of my pupils are never able to write a decent piece of “prose” or to translate an “unseen” passage. A boy who has read in the proper way a book or two of one of the great writers of antiquity should carry away with him some lessons of priceless value. He should have learnt that he must pass over nothing without thoroughly understanding it, and that in language when correctly used every word and every inflexion has its force. He should have got some notion of what is meant by style—how one word is better than another, and how the order of words has a great influence upon their meaning. His reasoning faculties should be exercised by the logical construction of the sentences; and the effort to express their meaning in English should increase his vocabulary and teach him precision and taste in the use of his native tongue.

And then behind and still more important than the language is that which it attempts to express, the ideas of some of the greatest thinkers and writers the world has ever known, and these, added to the lessons in divinity and history, provide an inexhaustible field for the study of man and the training of the boys to trace the connexion of cause and effect, to view things as they are apart from prejudice and tradition, to distinguish truth from falsity and right from wrong.

IT IS SAID that the classics are obsolete, but I have great doubt if there is any other subject from which equal results can be got.

From English at any rate—it may be my own fault—I cannot get them. The familiar appearance of the words causes the boys to content themselves with a vague idea instead of the thorough comprehension of the meaning of a passage, and to think that the way in which it is expressed is of but small importance; nor—though this to some will appear a hard saying—do the books they have to study seem to grip their attention and excite their interest in the same way as the authors they read in Latin and Greek.

In French and German too, I fancy, much the same is the case, and the fact that they have to be studied for practical use renders it hard to devote much time to purely educational ends.

From an educational point of view indeed classics, I believe, are much more akin to mathematics and science than to modern languages, but the ground covered by mathematics is nothing like so wide, and in science, the whole field of study is different. My withers then are quite unwrung when I am charged with teaching useless subjects, for it is habits that I am trying to inculcate, and habits too of inestimable value. And what I have said of classics is true, I hold, of every other subject: it is the effect it has on the boy that is of importance, not his proficiency in it.

I AM NOT going to say however that the desired results are always, or indeed ever more than partially, attained, for the teacher has many obstacles to contend with.

In the first place, boys vary greatly in physique, in character, in ability, in circumstances; nor is it easy to decide for what line of study each is best adapted. What I usually find is that the boy good in one subject is good in all: at any rate those whom I “spot” as promising classics are as a rule precisely those whom the mathematical and science masters wish to draw into their nets, while those whom I think to be of no good not one of my colleagues seems ever anxious to have.

It should be remembered too that the master has to deal with boys in masses, and that even when classified in Forms the differences are only reduced and by no means eliminated; that boys often come to a school comparatively old and imperfectly grounded, and are taken away before the completion of their normal course; that the hours they are under their teacher's influence are but few; and that all too often there is a glaring inconsistency between the ideals he is trying to foster and the practices in vogue in the outer world.

If a boy sees that ends are regarded as justifying means, that the main end aimed at is the attainment of wealth, that wealth is used for luxury and amusement, that duty is put after self-interest, that honest work is looked on as folly, that smartness and superficiality pass current as thought, it is hard to make him honourable in conduct and strenuous and thorough in work, to train him to consider the welfare of others more than of himself, and to instil into him those ideals which in theory at least are universally regarded as desirable.

NOR HAS THE task been made more easy by a change which of late years has been everywhere introduced into the schools.

When the boys were taught all subjects by the same master, he could gain an intimate knowledge of their characters, and steadily impress upon them the habits which he wished to inculcate; but with the great extension of knowledge this is no longer possible, and the master is now fast becoming a specialist, teaching one or two subjects only, while the boys are being more and more split up into “sets” for different subjects, each taught by a different teacher.

So far as instruction is concerned the result has been in some cases an improvement, but with regard to the higher ends of education I doubt whether the same can be said.

Personally I find that of the boys whom I take in “sets” I know very little, and I feel that my interest is not so great and my hold over them not nearly so strong as it is with those whom I take in several subjects as a “form.” Moreover masters do not all think alike, and the influence of one is liable to be cancelled by that of another. The work too of the teachers though easier is, I am sure, duller; for a change of subject is a greater relief than a change of boys, and to have to study a variety of subjects—and it is after all not impossible to attain a respectable knowledge in several—widens a man's interests and lends force and life to his teaching.

PERHAPS HOWEVER the most formidable obstacle is the popular identification of education with examination, and the way in which the schools have of late years been falling more and more under the control of great examining boards.

The defect in this system is that there is no real contact between the examiner and the teacher; and, as the same papers are set to great masses of candidates drawn from many schools, it is the examiner and not the teacher who determines the lines on which the pupils are to be taught. This might be defensible if the examiners were always enlightened teachers and the papers conformed to educational ideals; but my experience is that the books prescribed are often not those which a wise teacher would select, that the amount set is sometimes too great for the study to be anything more than superficial, and that the questions are not such as to foster the qualities which the master wishes to inculcate. Examinations conducted on right lines might be indeed of considerable use in guiding, testing, and stimulating the work; but as a guide I have found them more of a hindrance than a help—at any rate they have constantly compelled me to teach in a way quite different from that which I should have followed if left to my own discretion.

As a stimulus too their value is seriously discounted by the fact that candidates are tempted, greatly to the detriment of their general education, to drop their weaker subjects in order to concentrate attention on those in which they are more likely to pass; while as a test the papers are too much concerned with discovering the information and not the abilities of the pupils. Nor is the verdict of the examiners by any means infallible. The time allotted for the answers is usually far too short and the thoughtful boy is frequently beaten by some glib and superficial rival. Many boys too can never show their true ability on paper and failure is often due to ill-health or nervousness, while every schoolmaster knows that different examiners or different questions might produce quite different results.

SUCH ARE SOME of the obstacles which hamper the teacher, and that those which are susceptible of a remedy have been allowed to exist and even to develope is due I believe to two popular fallacies, viz.:

(a) that it is in the subjects themselves and not in their effects that the main end of education consists;

(b) that the study of a subject will ipso facto produce the desired results and that to have won distinction in the former is a sure proof that the latter have been attained.

The first point has already been dealt with, but with regard to the second I am sure that, though in some cases it may be true, as a general principle it is utterly unsound. Wranglers are not always conspicuous for logic, and men of great scientific attainments are often not more observant or accurate in ordinary life than those with no such qualifications. I have known boys gain high honours in classics without having a spark of true scholarship in them, and in history without having in the least acquired the “historical mind.” Of course there are such things as natural gifts, but in most cases the desired qualities are only developed slowly and with difficulty, and depend enormously on the way in which the boys have been taught.

AND HERE WE come to another difficulty, for in a good teacher a remarkable combination of qualities is required. He should have the instincts and habits of a gentleman, the virtues of a saint, the disciplinary powers of a drill-sergeant, the devotion and high ideals of a clergyman, the common-sense and methodical mind of the successful man of business, the knowledge of a professor—sometimes indeed of a whole group of professors—and what is by no means the invariable concomitant of knowledge, the power of imparting it. But besides all these—and the list is by no means exhaustive—he must, if he is to win the respect, to secure the attention, to inspire the enthusiasm of his pupils, possess that intangible indefinable power which I can only call personality. Without this he will never be a true teacher: with it he may even move mountains, for the influence of a strong personality is enormous and the results upon the pupils for weal or woe immense, though they are often such as no examination tests and no inspector notices in his report.

It is I am sure, in the contact of the mind and character of the master with those of his pupils that the essence of teaching consists, and if a school is to perform its proper function it is important that not merely the Headmaster but all his assistants be men of exceptional nature and ability, and such men are not easily got.

THE WORK THEN for many reasons must necessarily be imperfect, but it does not follow that it is therefore futile. Some day perhaps, when the nation understands that education does not mean the passing of examinations or the acquisition of short-lived information, but the training of a boy not merely for some special career but for the whole battle of life so that he may grapple with its problems and resist its temptations, that this training is a far more difficult art than the ordinary man imagines, and that if it is to be successful the best talent in the country must be attracted into the profession, better results may be attained. Even as it is however much good work is being done, and the teacher who looks at his life from the pastoral and not the pecuniary point of view has little reason to regret it. He has, it is true, many difficulties, many disappointments: he receives plenty of criticism and remarkably little praise: of much of his labour he will never see the fruit.

But there is another side to the shield. It is good for a man to be forced to “live laborious days;” to have to be constantly extending his knowledge; to be compelled to be clear in thought, clear also in expression; to be daily called upon to exercise firmness and justice, patience and self-control, cheerfulness and sympathy. It is much too to be in constant contact with the young: it keeps him young in heart, young also to some extent in body. Still more is it to know that he is working not for his own interests but for the welfare of others.

Failures of course are inevitable—even the greatest Teacher the world has ever seen had a Judas among those whom He trained—but good work is never entirely lost. Of the seed that is sown some at least will return a generous crop, and for the rest the teacher must live in hope.

“With aching hands and bleeding feet
We dig and heap, lay stone on stone;
We bear the burden and the heat
Of the long day, and wish 'twere done.
Not till the hours of light return
All we have built do we discern.”


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Postscript Assistant Masters since 1854

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