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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 72

Address to the North Canterbury Educational Institute

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Address to the North Canterbury Educational Institute

In addressing an assembly of experts,—of people who have made a study of the science of teaching in all its details,—a study fortified by daily practical experience, it would be very foolish on my part to attempt to deal with such questions as generally occupy your attention. But to all of us, the principles on which our National System of Primary Education is based must be interesting land it is advisable for us from time to time to enquire into its performance, its promise, its defects, and its dangers.

The system, as you are all aware, was initiated more than sixteen years ago, on the abolition of Provincial institutions. At that time no adequate provision had been made in a large part of New Zealand, notably in the Northern Provinces, for primary instruction; not for want of will, but for want of funds. In the Provinces of Nelson, Canterbury, and Otago, great efforts had been made, and good systems established. This Province was greatly indebted to the exertions of such men as Mr. Tancred and Mr. Rolleston for the advantages it enjoyed in this respect. But for a long time there had been sore need for a National System, and previous attempts had been made to induce the General Assembly to face the question, notably by the late Sir William Fox, but in vain. I remember in 1877 that gentleman telling us that he would do all in his power to help to get the Education Bill through the House, but that he did not think we should succeed as local and provincial and religious jealousies were too strong. However, the common sense and public spirit of the Parliament at that time overcame local and personal preferences to secure the one great object—that the key of knowledge should be put within the reach of every child in New page 2 Zealand. Perhaps no one engaged in the arduous struggle to efts this object was quite satisfied with the shape in which the Education. Act came out of the ordeal of Committee; but we all felt thankful that the Bill had became law; and we deprecated serious amendments which might imperil it, until the habit and necessity of a national system of primary instruction had grown into the minds and hearts of the people. To me it is a constant source of pleasure to see in every part of New Zealand, whether it be a populous centre or an isolated country district, children trooping to well-built schools, in the prosperity and success of which all householders take the keenest interest. And I hope that no present inconvenience or annoyance that may occasionally arise from local blunders will ever induce the country to give up the Local Boards and Committees, which were intended to protect the schools from the deadening influence of centralisation. Remember that the blunders of a central office an more deadly and far-reaching in their effects, and far less easily rectified, than the most stupid blunder of the most inefficient Committee. Committees will become more and more educated to the level of their duties, but the more intelligent a central office is, the greater is its tendency to usurpation; and the central office, with an absolute power of the purse, would very soon reduce the Committees to mere nonentities without the intervention of the Education Boards, which represent, and are influenced by, public opinion in a larger sense than the Committees, and whose discussion of important questions from different points of view tends to keep alive public interest, and to preserve our system from a dead level of uniformity.

There is only time now to glance at the objections, which have been insisted on from the first, with more or less pertinacity, to our national system of primary instruction. The first is the expense and there is no doubt that the cost is very great, and that the funds available require the most careful administration. It has been objected that the taxation of the whole community for the maintenance of schools, of those who do not send their children to the State Schools as well as those who do, is a form of State socialists and as such pernicious. Such questions are questions of degree and of social necessity. I think myself that the present tendency of our political life is towards too great an interference with individual liberty, that such interference is unjustifiable if it is not necessary for the welfare of society, that it will discourage personal enterprise, and that it will inevitably lead, sooner or later, to reaction. But I would ask whether society can afford to allow the rising generation, which will by-and-bye govern the country, to grow up without the elements of knowledge. There is a wide difference between social movements to elevate the people in body and mind, and those which are only inspired by a desire to pull down those who have been most industrious or prosperous. It was very pithily put by a late American Minister to England, that no one could benefit his own position by pulling other people down. No one can say that the advocates of our National System of Education are actuated by any invidious desire to page 3 injure or press unduly on any class of the community. It was established for the salvation of our rising democracy.

Another objection is raised by those who do not so much grudge the expense, but who are sceptical as to the results. They have expected too much, if they supposed that a smattering of letters would instantly result in culture and refinement of mind. They point to the ill-manners of some of the rising generation, and are inclined to lay the responsibility for them on our National Schools. It is unfortunate that in recent years the word "Education" has been so misapplied as often to mean only instruction in some I elementary subjects. This misapplication of the word "Education" has led to very common misunderstanding. Education begins from the cradle, and depends on the parents more than on the school. It is to a great extent an unconscious process, varying with the child's surroundings. It seems often to he forgotten that in all times there have been many highly cultivated men and women who knew no letters. On the other hand, how many of those who have acquired a certain amount of book knowledge are no nearer to that higher ideal of life which should be the object of all intellectual training! I am not sure that the first effects of a smattering of knowledge is not generally disappointing. It often promotes only a very ugly form of self-conceit that leads its possessors, when they have no other guide, to despise their wiser though, perhaps, less book-taught elders, to mistake ill-manners for independence, irreverence for intellectual ability, and vulgar assurance for force of character. We must not be discouraged because society, in its growth, has to pass through this unpleasant hobbledehoy stage. Political power is now in the hands of the majority; and if it will take more than one generation to educate that majority to the level of its responsibilities, the sooner the community sets itself to the task the better. The schools can only I give the key to knowledge, and teach the pupils bow to use it; but all instruction will tend gradually to enlighten the home,—to widen from generation to generation the circle of those who attain to some vague conception of the limited scope of all human learning—to some sense however shadowy, of the proportionate relation between themselves and the universe. Then the man who quietly and conscientiously does his duty to the State will be held in higher respect than the noisy, swaggering talker, who too often builds up a position for himself on the ignorance of those around him General elementary instruction may be grudged by some and despised by others, hut it is one of the chief stones in the foundation of our Commonwealth.

In no discussions affecting the National Schools has more I confusion been created in the public mind by the misapplication of the word "Education" than in those relating to religions teaching. The public schools cannot pretend to educate, although they can do a great deal towards education; they can only teach certain subjects, and for obvious reasons those subjects can only be of a secular character. There was no religious difficulty in Western Europe when the Christian Church was practically undivided, and when most of the page 4 learning of the time was represented by the clergy. Then their claim to be the universal teachers of the young was accepted without question. In England, where most of the school buildings belong to the Established Church and to other denominations, and where such a large proportion of the cost of education is found by the religious bodies, the denominational system is still necessarily predominant. In New Zealand, where there were no such conditions, where the State had to provide all the funds required, the denominational system was tried and found wanting. If, even in England, so zealous a Churchman as Dean Hook was moved by his experience at Leeds to declare that education would never reach the masses until the State took it up as a secular matter, it is no wonder that those who had to deal practically with the question in a new country came to the same conclusion. But we must take care that the teaching in State Schools should be confined to such subjects as do not offend the consciences of parents. I have a great respect for the motives of those who advocate Bible teaching in schools, but I think their position is untenable. Much as we must all lament the necessity of excluding from the regular course of teaching that most ancient of all books, which has educated so many English generations—still we have no option if we wish to act justly and honestly by all denominations. We cannot adopt a course which would exclude Roman Catholic children, for instance, whose parents may wish, or find it necessary, to avail themselves of the National Schools. I confess myself that I see little to be gained under existing circumstances from a perfunctory dealing with religious questions by teachers who may hold all sorts of opinions as to lessons to be derived from Bible history. To those who, like myself and others in Canterbury, gave up the advocacy of the denominational system in consequence of its failure to instruct the children even in the early days of the colony, and who were alarmed at the sight of untaught youths degenerating into streets arabs even in our young towns, the outcry against our present schools seems very absurd. In New South Wales there has been a kind of perfunctory religious teaching in the schools, but I am not aware that Sydney is less disgraced by what is called "larrikinism" than any other colonial town. It is not to the school, but to the home, that we must trace the causes of youthful depravity in the towns. As long as there are vicious and careless and ignorant parents there will be unruly and troublesome children. The schools have done much to diminish the evil; they cannot pretend to eradicate it. It must be attacked in the homes of the people.

There has been lately an attempt to agree upon some form of Bible Text Book, which might fairly meet the views of the great majority of parents, but we know that it would not be accepted by Roman Catholics, and it would therefore be an unfair thing to introduce it into the schools. An organisation of religious bodies has been proposed for the purpose; but I never heard of an organisation being attempted to take advantage of the provision which now exists page 5 to permit of religious teaching in the schoolrooms out of school hours. It was with a view of enabling such teaching to be given that the general hour for school opening was fixed at 9.30 instead of 9 o'clock a.m., but there is no restriction as to the time which may be chosen. I know the difficulty that exists in towns, although in some country districts such teaching has been carried on successfully. In most tases it would be impossible for the clergy, with all their other duties, to cope with such regular teaching work. But if only a part of the 'money which it has been sometimes proposed to devote to the establishment of separate denominational schools—if only half the time which has been wasted in talking about impracticable schemes had been expended in an organisation for religious teaching under the existing law, I think that the want of such teaching would have been, to a great extent, met before this, in a more satisfactory way than by means of a perfunctory school lesson. And I say this with a knowledge of what has been done in some cases. At any rate, until some serious attempt has been made to utilise existing opportunities, no one has a right to say that it is impossible to take advantage of the provision of the Act authorising the Committees to allow the school buildings to be used for the purpose. As to the opposition of School Committees, it must be remembered that they are elected by, and therefore under the ultimate control of, the householders. Whatever obstruction may have been caused by the action of one or two Committees, I do not believe that public opinion would sanction opposition to any practical effort to give religious teaching outside of school hours to the children whose parents wished for it.

There is one phase of this question of religious teaching which I most deeply regret, and that is the sense of injury which our Roman Catholic fellow citizens appear to feel in the matter. They have shown by their self-sacrifice in building and maintaining schools that a large proportion of them conscientiously adhere to the belief that all schools for the instruction of the young must be under the control and guidance of the clergy. While we must admire the energy with which they maintain their own schools, it is impossible to admit their claim to State assistance, which is not recognised in the case of any other Church. The State can make no distinction in the distribution of public money. Any concession of this kind made to any one denomination would break up the whole system of National Instruction. But I cannot sympathise with an exclusive admiration of a secular system, simply because it is secular; or with a desire to erect secularism into a kind of dogma. Necessary as is a National system to secure instruction for all the children of the State, there is some danger lest this State system should tend towards a too narrow uniformity. We don't want to see the whole rising population turned out as it were moulded in one pattern. For my part, I hail with pleasure every kind of good school, public or private, that may be maintained in these islands; and I should like to see them so far publicly encouraged as to be allowed to claim as a right the advantage of State inspection, should they see fit to ask for it. page 6 The Education Act contemplated such encouragement when it provided that the Education Boards might authorise the inspection private schools. I was very sorry to see that the Roman Catholic Schools at Auckland were refused such inspection when they applied for it. This refusal appears to me to be contrary to the spirit of the Act; it certainly is contrary to the feeling of the legislature that passed the Act. Private schools should be encouraged to apply for inspection, as it would be some guarantee to the public of the value of the tuition given; and it is only just that the children who attend them should not be placed under any disability.

As I have spoken of the danger of too great uniformity, I should like to refer to its narrowing effect in the choice of books and in the methods of teaching. There is too great a desire to restrict pupils to a limited number of books, and too little liberty is given to teachers to develop any special natural gifts they may have. There has been a great outcry about changes in the books used in schools. If parents could only realise the advantage of such changes, they would not grudge the few shillings to be paid for new books, especially as the schooling is free, and without other cost. The very change is calculated to enlarge the views of children, and to stimulate their minds, which are apt to become cramped and limited by hackneyed repetition for too long a time. Great stress is often laid upon the advantage of having school books written in New Zealand for New Zealanders. It may be all very well to have a few New Zealand books, but the thoughts of children are naturally too much confined to local interests and to local prejudices. I look on it as a positive advantage that the excellent school books put into their hands are written from an English point of view—a point of view outside New Zealand. Even the difference of the seasons constantly alluded to tells them of a world outside their own experience. They get something of the advantages which those children who are taken to see foreign countries, can get in the Old World. I grudge all the time spent in our schools over the details of New Zealand geography which might be better employed in obtaining a more general knowledge of the physical features of the world. Local knowledge is easily picked up. It is far more important to impress on the youthful mind—too prone to self-conceit—the smallness of our little country, when compared to the rest of the world. Such teaching will not lessen the love of their native land, but it will instill into their minds a larger and nobler patriotism, and a sense of the dignity of thé birthright as children of a world-wide Empire. And if the teaching from books should not be unnecessarily narrowed, still less should that which is given directly by the teachers. There is far too little opportunity for oral teaching independent of text-books. This is not the fault of the teachers—it is the fault of a system which depend; too much upon examinations and standards, and consequent cramming. The vice of all educational systems in these days is that they are used more as tests in competition for employment, than as means of opening the minds of the young, and preparing them for an page 7 intelligent use of their faculties in any career they may be engaged in hereafter. Surely we might manage primary instruction in a more interesting and useful way and get rid of a good deal of the machinery of examinations and standards. But in order to effect this with safety we must revolutionise our system of inspection. I know that on this question of school inspection many will differ from me, but I should be glad if it was carefully considered, not only by such an experienced body as the Institute which I am now addressing, but by the Government and the legislature. I have before now advocated, but in vain, the necessity for more inspection and less examination. The inspector should be the friend and adviser of the teacher, who is often isolated, and in want of some responsible person to consult and advise with; and he should endeavour to find out and encourage any special ability the teacher may have in the way of personal oral teaching, and should be able to recognise it even when it does not run in the same groove as his own. As it is, the teacher has to cram his pupils for examinations when he ought to be giving them "live" teaching, and showing them how to learn for themselves by developing their interest in the subjects of study. Men and women with an instinct for teaching, who might plant an ambition for study and research in the minds of many a youth, and might thus brighten their own lives and that of those around them, are compelled by a cut and dried system to be more or less skilful manipulators of a "standard" machinery. Some of the money we are devoting to high standards and examinations would, I think, be better spent in increasing the number of our inspectors, and paying well the best men that can be obtained for the service. In my opinion these inspectors should not be local officers. I have seen no reason to change my mind on that subject, although we were compelled by the strong provincial feeling in the House of Representatives, when the Education Act was passed, to abandon the provision making the inspectors officers of the Central Department. The more change and variety in inspection the better, and the less the inspectors themselves get into grooves, the more valuable will be the help that they can give to teachers who are restricted to one locality. In our primary schools we are perhaps aiming at too much, and are in danger of letting the substance slip while we grasp at the shadow. How many of the smart sixth standard children, who are turned out of our schools, leave them with any desire to attain to greater knowledge? Most of them value a school career merely as a means to improve their position. This is natural enough. But are we not setting up a false standard of success? Because they have a little learning young people too often despise the career open to them. They have not been taught that it is the man that gives dignity to the occupation, and not the occupation to the man.

I will refer in illustration of my meaning to the general ambition among school children for clerkships, or any kind of occupation in the towns, however badly paid they may be, and however small may be the prospect they offer for page 8 the future. There is a great deal of talk about "settling people on the land." It appears to be thought that people once planted on a bit of land", without capital and without experience, must be successful ever after. Whereas the fact is that no business requires a longer apprenticeship and training than farming. And yet the parents who would, if they could, get their sons into some office in town, where the wages are not sufficient a keep them, or would apprentice them to overcrowded trades, will not apprentice them to farmers, where they could preserve their health and earn their living, while they learned a business which, in this young country, would lead an industrious man to independence. The utterly uneducated lad, if turned to rough country work too young, may probably develop disproportionately the mere animal side of his nature. But boys might be sent from our schools to the country with minds trained to seek and find education and knowledge in even condition of life, and superior to the vulgar prejudice against the homely pursuits that the country offers them. It may take some generations of wholesome instruction before parents generally taken higher view of the objects of education than that which is too prevalent now. In the meantime it will tax all our energies and all the means at our command to give children such sound elementary instruction as will enable them all to face the problems of lift intelligently. For those who show especial capacity, scholarships will give opportunities for a wider education at secondary schools. But is worse than waste of time to keep average boys or girls, who have no particular capacity for learning, too long away from the practical work of life for which they may be eminently qualified, in order to cram them with facts which they will soon forget. They will be more likely to read in after life with pleasure and profit if they have been intelligently taught at first, and then encouraged to apply themselves early to whatever useful work presents itself. I have detained you too long with these discursive remarks, so I will conclude with a hope that those who have the regulation of primary instruction in New Zealand will not make it a kind of Procrustes bed on which children an to be shortened or stretched to meet the exigencies of a system, but rather that the system will be kept elastic enough to bring out and encourage any kind of ability which may be latent in every boy and girl of the rising generation.

Christchurch Press Company Limited, Printer, Cashel Street.