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A South-Sea Siren

Chapter VIII

page 90

Chapter VIII

Since it is my turn to initiate a subject for discussion,’ observed Major Dearie, with conscious importance, ‘I will propose one which may, perhaps, be considered rather hackneyed, but which, nevertheless, is of absorbing importance—National Education!’

A suppressed groan followed this announcement.

‘We are in for it,’ muttered Arthur Irving to his nearest companion.

Beery is going to rehearse his next election speech, but I shall reply on the temperance ticket,’ whispered back Tippings, with a wink.

‘We have a surfeit of education,’ expostulated Mr Beaumont, sotto voce.

‘No wonder,’ observed Raleigh, ‘when it is all cram.’

‘The other day,’ remarked Mr Seymour, in his quiet and humorous style, ‘I met an honest fellow who could neither read nor write—it was quite a treat.’

The gallant major here blew his nose with a trumpet-sound, to pu a stop to such irrelevant interjections. ‘Don't be alarmed!’ he cried, ‘I am not, as a member of the District School Board, going to talk “shop”. I do not propose to allude to practical details, to the curriculum of studies, or even to Bible-reading in schools; I shall tread upon no one's corns, for I respect all convictions, although I must confess to sbaring in very few of them.’

Thereupon the assembled guests looked helplessly at one another, settled themselves in their seats, crossed their legs, passed round the demi-john, and puffed away vigorously at their pipes until the room was filled with a dense cloud of smoke.

‘I uphold National Education, both on moral and utilitarian grounds,’ resumed the major, with emphasis. ‘I support it as a question of principle, and also on the plea of expediency. It is not only right, it is also advisable.’

‘And an awful bore,’ muttered Tippings.

‘Gentlemen!’ continued the orator, ‘there is no denying or concealing the fact, however much it may go against the grain, that we are now living in a Democratic community. A community in which the Will and Intelligence of the People must rule. Now it is selfevident, that according as this Will is controlled by reason, and this Intelligence enlightened by knowledge, so must the government of the page 91 community be effected. Thus the education of the masses, which constitute the ruling powers, has become a necessity; it is essential to good government.’

‘We shall never get it at that rate,’ ejaculated Raleigh.

‘God help us!’ ejaculated the parson, shaking his head.

‘What's become of our dear old friend and governor, to the machine of State—the balance of power?’ inquired Mr Seymour blandly.

The major shrugged his shoulders.

‘Many persons,’ he continued, ‘attach undue importance to the forms of our constitution; they seem to rely upon the old-fashioned system of “checks”, as if the will of the people could be long controlled, or even regulated by mere administrative mechanism. No, sir! We must go farther and look deeper; we must adopt natural rather than artificial methogs for guiding the national impulse or curbing its impetuosity, for even the sovereign People may sometimes make mistakes and even commit excesses.’

‘Don't tell the electors that!’ cried Tippings.

‘Why not?’ angrily inquired the major.

‘Because they won't take it kindly. It is only last week that I heard Mouthy—your rival for legislative honours—inform them quite differently. How it was he could not tell, but so it was, that whatever decision the majority of the electors came to was invariably the best one. It was in the nature of things, he said, that the people were bound to win, and were certain to be right. He was cheered to the echo.

‘Mouthy is an ass!’ exclaimed the major, petulantly. ‘I shall inform the electors that their welfare will entirely depend on their securing a person of sound principles and enlightened views to represent them. And I shall impress upon them the great truth that the success of popular government in the future must mainly depend on the education of the rising generation. Let them send their children to school, in order to qualify them for the discharge of their important public duties. For how can they be qualified without instruction? I cannot but admit the natural right which every member of the community has to a voice in the management of the affairs of the community—in other words, to a vote; yet I entirely agree with John Stuart Mill, where he says that no man should be permitted to exercise the franchise unless he can read and write. Now, without pursuing that subject further, I would only like to allude to some of the objections which are commonly raised to the demand for national education.’

The gallant speaker here launched forth into a rather lengthy discourge on the platitudes which were in vogue a quarter of a century page 92 ago. For since that time the whole system of national schools with free and secular instruction has been carried into effect, and it is no longer a question of asking how it would answer, but of inquiring how it has answered. The major concluded his eloquent address by challenging his friend Raleigh to controvert his conclusions. ‘I notice our worthy host here,’ he exclaimed, ‘burning to rush into the fray. He is great at objections. Perhaps he will favour us with some.’

Raleigh. I hardly see any common ground to argue upon. I dispute the whole of your premises.

Major Dearie. Take them categorically, my dear sir, and explain yourself. Do you deny that in a democratic community the Will and Intelligence of the People must rule?

Raleigh. I don't believe in the People spelt with a capital P. I deny that this abstract thing with a capital P can be guided by abstract influences, which you are pleased to call Will and Intelligence—also with capitals. I suppose what you mean by National Will is what we term in mechanics ‘the resultant of forces’. Given a body—say this orange; it may be anything but politic—and stick it full of pins, as I am doing, all representing forces acting in different directions; then these may all be resolved into one controlling force, represented both in magnitude and direction by this large bodkin. Is that it?

Major Dearie. Precisely! An excellent illustration. We will call it the national bodkin, which indicates the popular impulse, while the pins represent——

Raleigh. Personal interests, local interests, class interests, party interests, the self-seeking of politicians, the intrigues of faction, the greed of the multitude—everything, in fact, except wisdom and virtue.

‘You are hard on democracy,’ observed Mr Beaumont, who presided at the head of the table. ‘But don't you think that this sweeping assertion will rather tell against you, and go to prove the urgent necessity for this popular education you object to? Instruct and enlighten the masses, and they will surely be less amenable to these baneful influences which we can scarcely deny, but which we must all deplore?

Raleigh. No! That is one of those postulates which are constantly being quoted as conclusive arguments, but which in reality are pure assumptions. I believe it to be totally unwarranted from what we know from past experience. Where men's interests and passions are concerned, it has never been shown that education—especially in the limited sense which we now apply to the term—has exercised any controlling sway over their actions. For if it is contended that mere intellectual culture raises the moral standard of the man it would page 93 follow that the most learned people would be distinguished as the wisest, truest, and best of men, which is certainly not in accordance with fact. On the contrary, the greatest scourges of mankind have generally been men of commanding abilities. Many of the worst men that ever lived have been numbered amongst the best educated. Where do we look for the biggest scoundrels of the present day, the sharks that prey on humanity, the schemers, impostors, conspirators, and political charlatans—is it among the ignoramuses? It used to be considered that the so-called “criminal class” was recruited from the most ignorant and debased of the population, and because the majority of pickpockets could not read or write, it was gravely concluded that a lack of schooling was at the root of the evil. Rubbish! The educated thief is infinitely more to be feared. For every shilling abstracted by the street arab, there are scores of pounds lost to the cultured depredator. Our jails are filled with vulgar criminals no longer, but with refined swindlers. Then what is the teaching of history? Look at the Church. It was the repository of nearly all the erudition of the Middle Ages, yet when its interests were affected how did it act? Take our universities. They represented the leading intellect and most refined culture of the nation, yet were they ever one whit behind the ignorant herd in religious intolerance or political virulence? At the present day rudimentary education is almost universal in civilised countries, while many nations have carried the system of public instruction to a high degree, but where are all these anticipated results? There is Germany, for instance—that most learned of nations. I have been in a bootmaker's shop in Berlin and found a man at the counter prepared to take my order for a pair of shoes in five languages. It is not uncommon to run across a working mechanic there who is well read both in literary and scientific subjects, he will grind at his lathe and the classics at the same time. Yet what is the outcome of all this intellectual drilling? Is the nation more prosperous, more contented, more moral in consequence? Has it gained political freedom, or materially reduced its criminal record? I think not. To turn from the Old World to the New, can it be denied that the population of the United States is fairly well instructed? And yet is there any country where political administration is more corrupt, or where the excesses of party government are more outrageous? The fact is, it is not a question of education at all. Popular instruction has its advantages, but its influence on the national character, on the morals, the honesty, the passions and conduct of men is small indeed.

‘Popular education may fall far short of what is expected from it,’ remarked Mr Beaumont, ‘but unfortunately it is the only means we page 94 have to rely upon to influence the masses. We have to reckon with the working man——’

‘Who is destined to be our “boss” before long,’ interjected Arthur Irving. ‘It is only a question of time, and there will be a victory for labour all along the line.’

‘Well, then, let us take a fond look at our friend The Working Man,’ continued Raleigh. ‘We hear a great deal about him, and doubtless he is to be the personage of the future. The working man already feels his strength, and he is striving how best to apply it for his own interests, but believe me, it won't be by logic or persuasion. He has a much more effective weapon at hand, and which he can use to good purpose—combination. If the working man clamours for popular education, it is because he perceives in it a sure way of teaching the voters their enormous power, and then bringing that power to react on political institutions in their class interests with overwhelming force. It is all a conflict of interests. Let there be no mistake about that. It is quite amusing to listen to the spurious sympathy which is constantly being lavished by popular leaders on their friend and protégé, The Working Man; when all his freaks, tyranny, and transgressions are charitably ascribed to ignorance.

‘If the working man finds that argument doesn't answer, and resorts to violence and intimidation, as in the case of strikes, we are gravely told it is because the poor fellow is misguided, and does not know any better. He wants instruction. When he returns blatant and corrupt demagogues to Parliament, it is because he is imposed upon; therefore enlighten his faculties. When he goes in for rabid protection, it is because he has never been instructed in the correct principles of political economy—consequently raise the standard of his education, and so on.

‘What hypocritical twaddle! Believe me, the working man is not such a fool as he looks.

‘He has a very good notion of what he wants, and a shrewd idea of how best to get it. He can talk, and argue the point until all is blue, and quote Scripture, if necessary, he is a very fair diplomatist, and can also be a thorough-placed tyrant to boot, when it suits him.’

‘Even admitting all this,’ remarked the police magistrate, ‘since the masses are bound to rule they ought to be instructed. Surely, it would be better to be governed by an enlightened people, than by an ignorant mob.’

‘I look upon it also in another light,’ exclaimed Arthur Irving. ‘Personally, I have had the advantage of a liberal education; I was sent to an English public school, and afterwards to college. I can fully page 95 appreciate the good I have received, and I ask myself why should not others be entitled to a similar benefit. Is it right and proper that certain members of the community should have the road opened to them for every species of preferment and distinction, while it is closed to others? Ought not the State, in common fairness to all, to afford to every man an equal opening for the exercise of the talents with which Nature may have gifted him?’

‘It is no business of the State's,’ replied Raleigh, with an indifferent shrug.

‘Before the discussion proceeds any further,’ mildly remarked the Rev. Tupper, ‘I should like to ask for a definition of the term “education”. It is so very elastic. What are we to understand by it? Of course, we are all in favour of moral and intellectual training; the Church teaches——’

‘Just so,’ blurted out the major. ‘The Church teaches those things which the State ought not to teach. I submit the question of secular education only. The three Rs, and primary instruction on useful subjects.’

‘Godless education, then,’ groaned the divine.

‘State education,’ retorted the other. ‘You may call it “godless”, if you like, for the State recognises no God.’

‘Except the people,’ cried Raleigh; ‘vox populi, vox Dei.’

‘The State has no soul to be damned,’ remarked Tippings, ‘any more than a corporation.’

‘Why shouldn't it have?’ demanded Raleigh, indignantly. ‘According to our gallant friend here it has a Will and Intelligence, and exercises all the powers and functions of a personality. Why should it escape damnation?’

‘Because,’ answered the wag, ‘it is a recognised principle that the sovereign can do no wrong

‘And yet,’ observed Mr Beaumont, with a chuckle, ‘Robespierre, the exalted democrat, gave the supreme People a Supreme Being, and cut off every head that refused to bow to it,’

Mr Seymour, who was reclining on a lounge chair, at one end of the room, complacently smoking a long pipe, here took up the discussion, with the view, apparently, of diverting it from a rather objectionable digression.

‘Let us keep,’ he said, ‘to the question. I am glad that my friend the major, in introducing this subject, should have based his argument, to a great extent, on simple expediency. I am prepared to meet him on that ground, while I should decline to follow him in the matter of so-called “principles”. I acknowledge none of these. There is, I know, page 96 a mania at the present day for reducing all questions to first principles, but surely a more unprofitable attempt can hardly be conceived, for it never leads to any permanent or valid conclusion. Often, after a huge system of social ethics has been raised, with infinite pains and much learning, on some fundamental maxim, such, for instance, as the “greatest happiness principle”, the whole blessed fabric comes tumbling down, because the premises are found to be quite unsound. Nothing can be more misleading and unsatisfactory than arguments based on the alleged natural rights of man. They all have their day, these theories, and reign supreme until deposed to make place for some other new-fangled ideas.

‘At the present time Science is in the ascendant. Nothing will do that is not scientific. We have even a new jargon forced upon us, in the key of the ologies, all about causation and development, potentialities, differentiation, environment, spontaneous variability, and so on.

‘As far as I can see, the modern “scientist” has succeeded most conclusively in demonstrating his profound ignorance on all subjects not purely scientific, and the utter uselessness and unreliability of his abstract speculations even on science. However, I have nothing to say against science within its own domain; there let it triumph, but this scientific intermeddling in morals, philosophy, law, politics, and religion, is intolerable. I must confess to knowing very little about it, but I judge by results. It appears to me that the attempt to conform the mental and even sentimental agencies that influence human beings, and all the complicated motives that govern the actions of mankind, to fixed laws and a systematic method, has so far proved absolutely abortive. Why even Political Economy can advance no claim to be recognised as a true science. It is constantly shifting its ground.

The principles that were considered orthodox a few years ago, that were taught in schools, and almost universally accepted, are now being generally discarded as obsolete and even mischievous. It seems as if that mighty edifice of dry disquisition was already tottering on its foundations. But to revert to the question at issue. The major has alluded to that familiar principle, so dear to democracy, that every man has a natural right to a vote.

‘This, I suppose, should be accepted as one of those political axioms that are self-evident; for it is incapable of proof. It must be taken as an article of faith, too subtle and supreme for vulgar demonstration. As a matter of fact, it is perfectly false, in every sense, and under all conditions. It is even absurd. For how can a man have a “natural” right to something that has no existence in nature. I could page 97 understand a man claiming a natural right to walk, because nature has provided him with a pair of legs for the purpose, but surely he could not formulate the same indefeasible privilege to travel by railway. Now, what is a vote?’

‘Natural selection,’ said Tippings.

‘Leading,’ added the major, ‘to the survival of the fittest.’

‘We may hope that it may prove so, in your case, major,’ observed the president, smilingly; ‘but I wouldn't make too cocksure of it.’

‘From what I have seen of elections,’ remarked Raleigh, sententiously, ‘I should say that a vote was the tribute which Stupidity pays to Incompetence.’

‘A vote,’ pursued Mr Seymour, not heeding the interruption, ‘is but a means to an end. It is a very artificial, indirect, and, I believe, imperfect expedient for gaining a certain result—let us say, the rule of the majority.

‘Now, there is nothing natural about that. Representative government is not founded upon any of nature's laws——indeed, the only sort of government that could claim to be established on any sort of natural basis, is the monarchial one.

‘But there is no “divinity that doth hedge” a majority. There is no sanctity attaching to mere numbers. The principle is no truer, and not half so effective, as the old adage “might is right”. An action that is morally wrong, unjust, or dishonourable will not alter its character, merely through the support of a majority.

‘Government itself is but an expedient; an artificial combination for the mutual advantage of the governed; intended to secure justice, in its most comprehensive sense; national and personal freedom, the protection of property, and the general welfare of the community.

‘Now, if these primary objects of government can be best effected by means of manhood suffrage, then by all means, let such a principle prevail; but if it can be proved, on the contrary, that manhood suffrage is not conducive to good government, and may be destructive of the very ends for which the State is instituted, then it would follow that manhood suffrage, as a means of government, should be rejected. I can understand the question being discussed on those lines, because they are logical, and lead to a practical result; but for goodness’ sake let us leave all these abstract theories about so-called “natural rights” out of the question.

‘You can claim justice as a right, because in the nature of things justice lies at the root of all moral dealings between man and man; but although you are entitled to Law and Equity, it would surely be ridiculous to assert a natural claim to be The Lord Chancellor.’

page 98

‘Or even,’ exclaimed Tippings, ‘because you have right to be protected, to put in a claim to be a bobby.’

‘Certainly not!’ said the major; ‘but you may claim, as a natural right, to be eligible for every public post, from the Lord High Chancellor down to the humble policeman.’

‘I fail to see it,’ continued Mr Seymour; ‘but even if we admitted so much, for argument's sake, that could only warrant you in claiming the franchise if you were fully qualified for the exercise of that important function—a very different conclusion to the pretended “natural right” to a vote, which would give it to all alike, whether qualified or not; the fool, the reprobate, the vagabond, the drunkard, and to a host of people who have no interest in the State, who contribute nothing to its revenue, or who might be absolutely unfit for the discharge of any trust—all alike claiming to be entitled to a voice in the management of public affairs.’

‘The State,’ remarked Irving, ‘is no respecter of persons. One man is assumed to be as good as another.’

‘You may assume anything you like,’ replied Mr Seymour, ‘but that does not make it a fact. But to return to the question of National Education. It is claimed that a system of public instruction should be adopted on the ground of expediency. It is said to be advisable that all children should receive the rudiments of a sound education, and, also, that this object can better be carried out systematically by the Government than by private endeavours. Both propositions are undeniable; but why stop there? It is highly advisable that children should be properly brought up, well fed, well clothed, well trained to useful occupations, and supplied with work afterwards. It is advisable that their morals should be attended to, that they should be preserved from bad examples and evil influences. It is advisable that our girls should marry young, and make good housewives, and it is extremely important that they should choose suitable partners for life. In this respect, however, their own inclinations are not always to be trusted, and in a matter of much moment it would therefore be advisable that some better system of selection should prevail. It is advisable that poverty should be removed, that crime and disease should be stamped out, that all the natural resources of the country should be developed, that the conflict between capital and labour should be terminated—in fact, there is no end to the list of advisable things, nor can it be denied that the State might accomplish some of them. At any rate, the State might make the desirable attempt. With such a glorious and magnificent vista before you, with such boundless scope for moral and material improvement within your reach, are you going to be satisfied page 99 with such a paltry, insignificant, petty-fogging result as the imparting of the three Rs? Oh, Heavens!’

And the speaker threw himself back on his chair, as if overcome with the force of his own argument.

‘Still,’ replied the major, taking the matter quite seriously, ‘if it is a step in the right direction——’

‘Ah! there you have it, at last,’ exclaimed Mr Seymour, suddenly recovering himself. ‘Is it a step in the right direction? That is the question. If you ask my opinion, I will say at once that I think it a step in the wrong direction.’

‘Why so?’

‘Because whatever tends to reduce or circumscribe individual responsibility, or to restrict the free and natural expansion of private endeavour, has a backward tendency. No doubt the Government may do a vast deal towards fostering, protecting, encouraging or promoting nearly every element of progress. The individual may squat down, with his hands in his pockets, and let the Government drag him along—possibly he may advance, at first, more rapidly that way than by relying on his own unaided exertions—but it will not be for long, nor to his ultimate advantage. The two most important factors in the growth of a nation are self reliance and private enterprise, and these are being sacrified to this ever-increasing dependence on Government.’

‘The function of the Government is to lend a hand for'ard.’ said Irving.

‘With a kick behind,’ added Tippings.

‘I fear we should never get on without the Government,’ said Mr Beaumont. ‘Private enterprise might not always be available.’

‘Private enterprise would always be forthcoming so soon as there was a legitimate channel for it,’ answered Raleigh. ‘We might not advance so fast, but we should do better in the long run.’

‘And keep out of debt,’ added Mr Seymour.