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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 8

The Education of the People and the Religious Difficulty

page 15

The Education of the People and the Religious Difficulty.

Throughout the civilised world there would at length seem to be a decided awakening of the public mind on the question of Education; and we have, as one result of that awakening, the New South Wales Public Schools Act. But this measure, with all its excellencies, is confessedly a compromise; and, until Mr. Parkes or some other fearless and far-seeing statesman shall come forward, and seizing the so-called "religious difficulty" by the horns, secure for the colony a system of government education, purely secular in its spirit and provisions, a compromise, and a very embarrassing compromise, the present Public Schools Act is likely to remain. Surely our schools for the people might and should be carried on without resorting, under the hollow pretence of preserving their religious character, to books of "Scripture Lessons"—a mutilated Bible—which, however acceptable to Protestants, are in some respects unquestionably antagonistic to the faith of Roman Catholics, and still more so to the religious sentiments of those whose minds have renounced the errors and superstitions of both parties. Catholics object—rightly so, we think—to the Scripture Lessons as being prevailingly Protestant in tone, and as tending, therefore, to disturb and corrupt the religious training which, in their estimation, all Catholic children ought to receive. For ourselves, we object to them on the ground that, in reproducing the most objectionable features of the Bible, they assume the truth of theological notions respecting God and his government of the universe with which the highest science and philosophy of the day are openly at issue. Holding, indeed, as we do, that the Bible contains much that is positively unfit for public reading to children, and much also that must ever be a dead letter to them, it does seem to us that to regard this reading of the Bible as making all the difference between a secular and a religious school, is both a superstition and an absurdity;—a superstition because it makes religion to consist in a mere form, and an absurdity because no real effect for good is produced; and it is a piece of tyranny to which not even a poor man should be exposed, that he should be compelled to subject his child to share in a superstition and an absurdity, or pay the penalty by keeping his child in ignorance at home—that his child should not have the piece of bread, unless he takes with it the regulation pill.

The proposition, then, we wish to affirm, is, that dogmatic or doctrinal teaching should have no place whatever in a just and healthy system of public education. And for this we give three reasons:—1, that at the early age when children should be at school, they are not able to understand the Bible read at page 16 random, or to comprehend the language, much less the sense, of the dogmas which are usually taught as the sum and substance of religion; 2, that the first business of life is to prepare children to live well here; 3, that it is in nowise the duty of the State, or of the schoolmaster assisted by the State, to provide for the spread of dogmatic peculiarities.

The first of these three reasons is, or ought to be, obvious enough; for it is plainly absurd to attempt to make children comprehend the dogmas that puzzle and muddle the heads of great divines. The thing called religious teaching, as defined and regulated by the government, is the reading of a piece of the Bible, the bare reading of any portion of which is supposed to work somehow like a charm. Sometimes the chapter may be glaringly inappropriate, often quite unintelligible, and occasionally positively unfit to be read aloud to children, but this matters not: the charm will work whatever the words may be. And what is the result of it all? Simply this, that not one child in ten has any real knowledge of the Bible they almost get to hate, or of the dogmas they never try to love. It is a mercy, perhaps, that the children do not remember more of what they sometimes hear; but what a shocking waste of time and power it is, to bring in this needless obstruction to a true education and to the true work of a school. We need not wonder at the reports we hear as to the answers the examiners get from puzzled children on these matters. As, for instance, the following version of "the Belief," written by a lad in a national school :

"I belive in God the all mighty maker of Heaven and in Jesus Christ the only son of God who was conseved by the holy Gost born of the vurgen Marry soffed under panshed plited was Squest fied ded and boded he descended into heel the third day he rose again from the ded he descended into Heaven and setted hat the right hand of God the father all might maker of Heaven and earth the see and all that in them is and rested opon the Seventh day and Howard it."

Or this, written by a boy described as "intelligent," in answer to the question, What did your godfathers and godmothers then for you?

"They did promis and voal three things in my name, first that I should pernounce of the devel and all his walks, pumps, and valities of this wicked wold, and all the sinful larsts of the flesh," &c.

Now these scholars had been learning and repeating the Catechism for four or five years, and this was the result. The whole thing, repeated by rote, parrot-like, had simply muddled their brains. And even as regards the perpetual and indiscriminate use of the Bible itself, who does not know that children are often made to hate it? And what wonder, when, as is sometimes the case, it is made an instrument of torture, a chapter being considered a fine or penalty, to learn which is the punishment meted out for an offence. The Bible, in the hands of a good mother or a thoughtful father, is a priceless aid in the education of chil- page 17 dren, but what it is in the hands of a "hide-bound pedant," or even of the ordinary good routine schoolmaster, let results declare. What have little children to do, at present, with Leviticus, and the wars of the Jews, and the kings of Israel and Judah? Would it not be better,—would there not be more religion in it,—if they were put to learn something about themselves, their fellow-creatures, their duty or their country? For this is the great work of the day-school,—to fit children for the work of this life, and not to waste their time and strength, and muddle their heads, by any premature and utterly useless attempts to teach them scraps of divinity. It is little time they can give, and but little strength they have to spare, and every moment of the one and every particle of the other are needed for the proper work of the school.

If the teacher strove to make his scholars ashamed of lying and swearing and cheating and selfishness, this, we are told, would be mere "godless morality;" but if he got up and read about pigeons, and he-goats, and the blood of bulls, and heifers, and Gog and Magog, and Mesopotamia, that, forsooth, would be religion. Our own opinion is, that there would be a great deal more religion in teaching the child something about itself; and that the really religious teaching would be, not the bit of magical reading, but the spoken word of life.

The second reason is, that the first great business of life is to prepare children to live well. Whatever world there is to come, or whatever world we shall come to, after this, it is pretty clear that God meant us to begin with this. He has placed us here; and our duty to God, our duty to ourselves, and our duty to others, require that we should make it our first business to live well here. There is of course a great truth in the saying that we ought to be prepared for another world; but surely the best way of preparing for another world is to be faithful in this; therefore we would say as little as possible to children about death and the judgment, and heaven and hell. Read the books that are sometimes written for children—full of everything that is unnatural and diseased. Or listen to the absurd, or sometimes, horrible little sermons preached to children in our schools. Hear how they are called upon to prepare for death almost before the poor little things have begun to live, and to be in agonies about pardon before they have begun to sin. It is this that perpetuates the errors and superstitions of the past; it is this that makes it such uphill work to teach the people to think healthily and freely on matters really pertaining to religion. Now, children need very little of this kind of thing. What they need is, to be shown as speedily as possible what they are, where they are, whence they are, and what they have to do. This is our programme of a true day-school education; all else is waste of power and waste of time; an impertinence, an injustice, an intrusion. Teach them what they are; tell them, therefore, page 18 something about the laws of health, of which they are at present disgracefully ignorant; something about the body, its perils and possibilities; the mind, the conscience, and the heart. Teach them where they are; tell them, therefore, something about the world they live in, and the country they call their own; train them, therefore, to think it as religious a thing to be told of the kings of England as of the kings of Israel and Judah; and let the names of Milton and Cromwell and Shakespeare be as devoutly mentioned as the names of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob; so shall we make the Lord God something more than a local Deity, and so shall we practically declare that He is not far from any one of us. Teach them also what they have to do; tell them, therefore, something of the ordinary duties of life; something of the laws of trade, of which they are taught next to nothing now; something of the duties of masters and servants, the nature of politics, the conditions of citizenship, and the duties of the rulers and the ruled. We say these are the things that ought to make up the business of every-day school teaching, and that must make up the work of every publicly-supported school. The priest, with his sacramental or theological tackle, must be kept outside; the Bible itself, as a drudge book, or task book, or magical reading book, must cease to be enforced; and nothing must be allowed to uselessly exhaust any portion of the time or the little strength that can by the children be given to this first great business of life—the learning how to live. "Make them," as Mr. Buskin has said of children, "men first, and religious men afterwards; but a knave's religion is always the rottenest thing about him."

The last reason is, that it is in nowise the duty of the State, or of the schoolmaster assisted by the State, to provide for the spread of dogmatic peculiarities. It may not yet be self-evident, but it will be, and must be clear before long, that a system of national education, established and regulated by the State, or otherwise supported by public money, must ultimately be a system of Secular education. For a time, as a matter of policy or necessity, schools of the old kind may be received, and the Bible regulation may be enforced or allowed; but in the end it will be seen that it is not only illogical but unjust to admit into public schools anything that interferes with the primary and only work of a school—the education of children for secular affairs. How shall the State do this? "I answer," said the Hon. Auberon Herbert, at the Meeting of the National Education League, held in Birmingham, in October last, "by giving to every child a clear conception of the fact of his existence as a member of society, and of the birth with him of obligations which limit his actions towards others; by leading him to understand what law is; to understand the necessity that where men and women live together they should live under law, and the spirit and intentions of the law which a civilised community im- page 19 poses on itself. It must show him that the happiness of society, its power of progression, its power of enjoying higher pleasures, impose on its members many obligations—obligations of truthful speech, of upright dealing, of respect for feelings as well as rights—obligations which cannot be neglected without somewhere inflicting injury upon that society which he is learning to place higher than his own individual existence. Under such teaching the social bond will pass from the region of phrases and become to our children as they grow up a distinct and living reality."

And now what is the great principle which underlies all that we have here advanced? For there is a principle at stake here, little as it may at present be seen! It is not a paltry controversy about details; it is not a squabble about methods. These ripples may disturb the surface, but there is a deep current beneath. Our cause is the cause of the complete emancipation of the human mind from the bondage of old-world superstitions of priest and creed. We are on the eve of one more struggle between the old order and the new. The old order received full utterance a year or two ago, when the Pope, before all the world, cursed those who denied that the right and duty of educating the children resided with the Church and the priest; and it finds a lingering utterance in the so-called "religious difficulty" here. But it is not a "religious difficulty;" it is a Pope's difficulty, a priest's difficulty, a chapel difficulty, a church difficulty; and it is not doubtful what the end of that will be.

The great question at stake, then, goes deeper down than this bare question of education. For we are not only entering upon a new phase of the question of education, we are also entering upon a new phase of the question of religion; and these are bound up the one with the other. What was once called religion (an affair of creed-making and creed-believing, of forms, and sacraments, and priests, and rituals), is all gliding away; while the real religion, the religion of natural piety—the religion of being good and of doing good—the religion of love to God and love to man, is coming forth to the resurrection, let us hope, of everlasting life. And this is what lies at the heart of this movement. "The chief priests and rulers" may not see it—or they may not be willing to own it; and only a voice as of one crying in the wilderness may proclaim it; but there is the deep current that is carrying this mighty movement on, and though the men of the old order may not know it, they feel it; and we may safely predict a struggle ere the old order can be changed to the new. But the change will come; and the priest with his saving charm, and the preacher with his saving creed, will give place in our schools—aye, and in our churches—to the teacher with his declarations concerning those great laws of life, for want of the knowledge of which the people all around us perish. Then, indeed, in the truest sense, religion will be taught in our page 20 schools; not as a form, or as the magical reading of magical words, but as a reality for all life; for the schoolmaster will himself be truest priest amongst his scholars; and he will teach them truth, obedience, unselfishness, charity, purity, and love to the dear God that loves us, and love to one another for the great Father's sake. And in that day he will be accounted best to have taught religion, not who has done any regulation work of mechanical routine, but who has filled young minds with bright thoughts, and filled their young hearts with noble ardours, and given them a desire to live for pure and generous ends. Then will men know what religion really is; and they will find God, not in thunder-clouds of terror, or seated on a "great white throne," but in the beautiful laws and benificent order of this lower world, in all the duties of our common way, where He ever breathes the whisper of His will. And with the simple teaching of the religion of human nature, all will be satisfied because none will be aggrieved; for all will be grateful that their children are taught their practical duty here to God and Man.

We plead, then, for a national system of Secular education. We are for listening to no cry that asks to consider the cost of it; heartily agreeing with those who say, "We have heard enough of the cost of education, tell us something now of the cost of ignorance." Every penny we spend in this direction will be so much money put into the bank of Nature, and will bring in a large return—"All its gains," says Ruskin, "are at compound interest." There are those, indeed, who doubt and fear; who tell us we are dreamers, and that, do what we will, we shall not alter human nature or uplift or improve it. But this we count a kind of social infidelity—the only infidelity that does real harm, for it degrades our nature, and clips the wings of hope, and flings dust in the eyes of the explorer, and threatens to break the heart of the prophet who speaks of better days to come.

Come, then, we would say to all religious teachers, let us cry truce here, and, at the door of the school-house, let us forget that we have a creed; and, whether we train these children into little church or chapel people or not, let us, at all events, make them decent, disciplined, educated, womanly women and manly men. And it may be that the good God will not think so badly of us after all, if for the present, we cease to contend about Heaven, and only seek to make His children fit for earth.