January 1835-June 1836

The Collected Letters, Volume 8


National Education; 3 February 1835; DOI: 10.1215/lt-18350203-TC-NE-01; CL 8:29-36.

National Education


[CA. 3 FEB. 1835]

In some printed Books,1 it is stated that the proportion of grown-up persons in England who can read and write is to those who cannot as One to Eleven.2 Supposing this statement, in our almost total want of statistic documents, to be greatly exaggerated,3 it is at any rate evident to all men that Education, in this country, both as to quantity and kind, is in the miserablest condition; that the educated even the ill-educated are comparatively few; and that thus, generation after generation, the great mass of the community grows up, and works out its existence, in a semi-barbarous state; shut out from participating in the common inheritance of mankind (for the Skill and Wisdom accumulated from the Past and existing in the Present is the sole possession of the Family of Man), as completely as the uncouched4 blind is from the light of the sun at noonday ! If he know that there is a sun shining, it is perhaps much: but to him it shines in vain, yielding no guidance: his sole guidance is not to quit company with the other blind or half-seeing; and so grope darkly along, as his fathers have done,—tho' now on ways far different from those his fathers travelled on.

Such a state of matters, were we not used to see it daily, would fill us with sorrow and amazement. For each untaught individual it is a tragedy. His life passes, and will not return, and he has never lived. To mutilate his body, to annihilate half the strength of his body, were small matter: but his soul has never opened her eyes; on him spiritual life never dawned, no faculty was unfolded but animal instincts, and some mechanic ingenuity as of beavers: he has issued from Eternity and returns to Eternity with a man's gifts in him, yet so like the beasts that perish!5 Thus nevertheless it goes on for age after age; the millions that suffer it, hiding from us what a suffering it is for the individual units; and here and there a benevolent man lamenting it with a regret which he knows will bring no remedy.

Meanwhile, in this age of ours it has become far more pressing than ever. By the operation of causes, on which most considerate persons have been drawn to think, and form some theory or other, the millions of uneducated can no longer grope darkly along as their fathers did, but have now new and far rougher ways to travel. By Trades Unions, Political Unions, by all manner of blind convulsive movements (down even to the lowest desperate convulsive movements of Swing Rick-burning),6 we can discern that the matter is coming to a crisis with them. Their old guides and commanders (Clergy, Gentry and such like) are becoming distrusted; class after class of them is getting dismissed from the actual guideship; the popular mass feels more and more that it can trust only to its own guidance, that all other guidances mistake the griefs it labours under, or wilfully misinterpret them, and refuse any answer but coercion. The people have now established themselves as judges and scrutinising watchers over the conduct of all public affairs; and this not in show only and by complimentary appellation, but in substance and very deed; so that he henceforth who cannot (acting rightly or wrongly) convince the people of his being right will find it impossible to rule the people;—which relation, indeed, has, in these late years, been translated into express law, and solemnly admitted as a fundamental principle of our Natural Existence, by the passing of the Reform Act. It certainly expresses the universal conviction, whether in hope or in fear, to say that the Democratic force in England which had long been increasing, has hence forth become irresistible, if still more or less modifiable; that while new results of all kinds are rapidly shaping themselves, it is the mass of the people mainly which will decide their shape; that with the mass of the people the whole destiny of all classes in England now lies. Whether such new results, inevitably fast approaching, shall be wise and beneficent, or unwise, false and ruinous, will depend simply on what wisdom is in the people, or what want of wisdom. To have such wisdom as exists universally imparted; in other words to have the people taught and well taught, is therefore at this moment the most important task of all. The new time will be born: the just Thought or else the malignant Absurdity must and will embody itself into Reality, for great good, or for incalculable evil; there is no other alternative.

It may farther be stated, that according to all past experience, now less likely than ever to be belied, the Government of England cannot undertake this task: in their peculiar manner of existence, hampered amid conflicting parties, in endless Parliamentary and Extra-Parliamentary debatings, our Governments hitherto were seldom found to originate anything; nearly their whole energy is necessarily spent in keeping themselves in being. Unless England, by the energy of unofficial exertions, can accomplish some scheme of National Education, it may for unlimited periods (one must fear), remain uneducated. On the other hand, were such a scheme once matured in the community at large, or even loudly enough demanded by the community, doubtless an honest Government would thankfully sanction it, and set resolutely about executing it.

Under such circumstances, is it not fit that the community bestir itself? That good men, of what political persuasion soever, in whose hands or in whose heads lie means of any kind, should cease merely wishing in this matter, and begin acting? Let them resolve, with more emphasis than ever, that a task called for by God and man shall not longer remain uncommenced; that they even now will commence it, and in all reasonable ways labour in it, and not rest from it till they see it in progress towards being done. As the first step to which, ought they not to unite their energies, since all strength is by union? Let them form a definite ASSOCIATION for this object, to act in it, speak in it, write in it, do towards it whatsoever their combined capabilities can. Already other such Associations are arising or about to arise (Glasgow, for one instance):7 but surely it would beseem the Metropolis to take the lead here; and in this as in so many other things to be the Mother-city; the Mother of EDUCATIONAL ASSOCIATIONS in all towns of the Empire! Let us consider what the leading objects of such an Association might be; what difficulties it would probably have to contend with.

The grand primary object, inclusive of all others, were of course its own existence; that it might be an Association, wherein men honestly united might strengthen one another's hands in this work, and do with incalculably increased effect whatsoever their collective sense and deliberation could devise; for, it has been said, “ten men in fellowship will accomplish what a thousand isolated would attempt in vain.”8 To awaken the whole people to this matter, by addressing them in written or spoken words, above all, in actions,—which might speak; to collect information, statistic and scientific; to collect foreign experience, adjust it to domestic uses, and bring it home to the general conviction; to call out a far better Kind of Schoolmasters, and open freer field for them; in a word, by all rational methods to strive that Education should at once expand itself, and elevate itself: these were the aims of such an Association; to be endeavoured after in such way as its means might render possible and adviseable [sic]. Among the actions calculated to speak for themselves one of the hopefullest, might be the preparing and establishing of a Metropolitan Normal School, worthy of the Metropolis and the Kingdom; or preliminary arrangements for that.

The difficulties are indeed great; yet they are not unsurmountable. Wheresoever in the Earth there is one man wise and another man less wise, the former can impart of his wisdom to the latter: Nature has in no way forbidden this, but in all ways emphatically prescribed it: nothing but some foolish misarrangement of Artifice9 has forbidden it. Even such imparting of spiritual strength to the less strong, such noble communing of Wisdom with Ignorance is all Education (if it be not mockery of Education);—to which the mere arts of reading and writing, and indeed the most of what is yet communicated in our schools, are but the insignificant preludes, which only attain significance as they are followed by the performance. The word Knowing (or Kenning) is in all good languages synonymous with canning, or ability to do somewhat.10 This youth may profess himself trained to render Aeschylus into English words, and that only trained to make raw hides into leather boots; and it will depend on other circumstances, and a farther inquiry, whether the latter is not more educated than the former.

One grand difficulty that used to stand on the very threshold may at last happily be considered as removed. It is not asserted by any reasonable person, in these days, that the poor should be kept ignorant in order to be governable by the rich: of that inhuman thesis (crueler than if we proposed to keep the poor always sickly that they might be governable) the world may consider itself delivered forever. The grand difficulty which still remains, on which all Educational Societies that hitherto exist among us have stumbled and lamed themselves, is that of Sectarianism in Religion. While Religion is Sectarian, the religious, so readily in all enterprises, divide themselves into uncommunicating, or even hostile Sects, from the angry jarring of which all men that were otherwise fittest are the eagerest to withdraw; whereby the active force is not only mournfully diminished in quantity, but rendered ineffective too by isolation into small portions. Nevertheless Religion is and will long continue Sectarian: it behoves all good men to look this difficulty calmly in the face, and consider well, whether from the sad condition of the highest Good the word Evil is to perpetuate itself yea, or no! Principle cannot and shall not be compromised; but if the Good hinders Good, let us be sure the fault is in us not in it.

Let us begin by admitting that this same Sectarian incompatibility is grounded on a truth, and even on the greatest truth. The teacher who does not thoroughly know that the culture of the character and heart not only transcends the culture of the understanding, but even includes it, and first makes it possible; or in hallowed words, that “the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom,”11 knows nothing of his sacred art, and has no call to profess teaching. To train up the child12 in devout submission to the Laws whereby its unseen Author has appointed it to live; in a word, to make the child religious: this surely is the essence of Education, the spirit in which all true Education must be conducted. To have discerned this truth is much; and to act upon it even contentiously is more honourable than to be at peace by failing to discern it. Unhappily, however, the next conclusion of the religious world tho' a not unnatural is a most erroneous one: that this same spirit of Religion is to be infused into the hearts of children by the infusion into their memories, of certain Scientific Formulas (named Church Creeds) which better or worse represent it, symbolize it; each Formula (as is the nature of Science) standing more or less at war with all other Formulas; existing only as it can forbid them to exist. A sad state of matters; which ought not always to continue! Surely it might here become plain that Religion is not communicated by the memory or understanding, but by the heart; by the sacred contact of heart with heart; that to make true-minded devout scholars religious school-books are as dead leaves; the grand requisite is a true-minded devout schoolmaster: let such a one be sought for as hid treasure, and welcomed and honoured when found; and in the finding of him let the religious problem be considered as solved. Scientific Formulas, if the Reality itself is there, may stand safely in abeyance: such Formulas are not Religion; but at most and best the cases in which Religion lodges or has lodged,—and may lodge again, for it is now there to seek a lodgement.

A fit method of dealing with the religious difficulty might perhaps therefore ground itself on these two principles. First that no one to whom “the infinite nature of Duty”13 had not disclosed itself; who did not regard religion as the highest; or, more specifically, who did not regard the Gospel of Jesus of Nazareth as verily an Evangel, or Message of glad news, the greatest ever sent from Heaven to Earth, and our Protestant form of reading this message as the glory of these late ages,—should be invited to connect himself with our Association. Secondly that whosoever demanding for himself clear freedom to express this conviction, and harmonize it with his other knowledge, in what best (least inconceivable) way he could, demanded of his brother's freedom not to do the like, or to do the like at his peril,—should, even as little, be invited to join us. In this way were tolerance perhaps reconciled with rigour, and the true men of our age mostly free to unite with us. Which one difficulty once overcome, no other were insuperable. There are properly but two Sects in the world: the Believing and the unbelieving; concerning which it was long ago written that Faith (Belief) would remove mountains.14


If these ideas are true, what is to be done? Will he that reads them and believes them continue to answer: Nothing?