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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 78

True Education Versus Cram. — From the Point of View of a Public School Master

True Education Versus Cram.

From the Point of View of a Public School Master.

In 1898 a startling letter appeared in 'The Times' from an M.D. who had examined several hundreds of boys of thirteen and fourteen on their entering public schools. His verdict was that 64 per cent, were in a very unsatisfactory condition. . . .

We talk of science. We call ours a scientific age. And yet to apply scientific knowledge to the production of the finest possible human being is, as Mr Herbert Spencer showed long ago still a conception rather for the future than for the present. As in many other cases, it would be hazardous to venture on what will, it is to be hoped, be the commonplaces of a future generation, less under the iron heel of custom and prejudice.

It is impossible, however, all at once to revolutionise institutions and modes of life, or to undo the effect of ages of mismanagement. But to come down from the clouds to the solid earth. There is no doubt that the preparatory school product is not what he might easily be made to be in physical robustness, habits of life, beliefs, and ways of thinking, intelligence, or knowledge.

Though I have mentioned these things separately, they are, or ought to be, so interwoven as to be inseparable in the education of a child from his earliest years. What is the most important of all kinds of knowledge? Surely that which has to do with life, which tends to make it fuller, healthier, happier. What beliefs is it most essential to impress on a child? Surely that God's laws, when we can be sure about them, are binding, and that the main laws of health are more and more verifiable every day. In what ways of thinking ought we to train a child? Surely in referring everything he does, not to the standard of what is usual, but of what is sensible and right. What sort of intelligence is most telling in the quest of happiness? Surely that which enables him to reason most accurately and most readily about what it is best for him to do in his daily conduct." All other intelligence, beliefs, and ways of thinking and knowledge are secondary to these; and if we have these ingrained in the child by-precept and example, we shall also have excellence in physique and robustness, and rationality in habits of life.

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I need not waste time in proving that this ideal is not even aimed at. . . What improvement there is I believe to be due to desire to excel in games. They have caused more time to be spent in regular open-air exercise, the good effects of which have been so obvious that they have opened the eyes of many school-masters to the exceeding sinfulness of depriving a boy of oxygen and a quickened circulation by way of punishment. They have also proved to many parents, who, after many qualms, have sent to school boys whom they have succeeded in making "delicate" by their home treatment, what a mistake all this codding has been. . . . And the less foolish management of girls' schools since Mr Herbert Spencer made people think about these is already operating in the same direction.

But the connection between cause and effect in such matters is not sufficiently realised by schoolmasters, still less so by parents, and the "preparatory product," in my experience, has rarely heard anything about it. Irregular verbs, or the mountains of South America, have been more prominent in his education than the laws of his own being. I rarely meet with a boy who has learned why he should eat slowly, why vegetables or their equivalent should form part of his diet, why he should not eat at random between meals, why he should take a run on a wet day and change immediately after-wards, why he should sleep with his window open, why he can strengthen his throat by keeping it bare why his breathing organs should have absolutely free play, unencumbered by a tight or even by any waistcoat, why he should take hard exercise in flannel, and not in any cotton fabrics.

I am aware that I shall raise a smile by the mention of such things, and the smile proves my point. When reason shall have superseded custom as the guide of our lives, the smile will be the other way. But no one who has tried to make boys live rationally, and think why they should do this and not do that, can doubt that if all preparatory schools will do the same no future M.D. will be able to say that they turn out 64 per cent. of their boys in bad condition.

This 64 per cent. (and M.D. cannot be far wrong) is really a very serious matter. I am not going to dilate on the enormous importance for the happiness and prosperity of life of a bodily condition not merely free from disease, but robust, buoyant, and high-spirited. But there is one point of view which will touch those who have no such exalted ideas about high health, but still dread disease. The craze about epidemics, the energy consumed in isolation and disinfection, and the consequent loss of time and disturbance of arrangements, as well as the demoralising panic which is sometimes the result of all this fuss, have come to be serious evils. And it is a case, after all of Mrs Partington You cannot prevent epidemics. Mumps and measles have dispersed their germs before the first signs of indisposition. . . .

Again, with the tubercle germ, about which we have heard so much. "Boil the milk," say some. Well, the boys won't drink it; but the boy who is not one of the 64 per cent. may drink unboiled milk with impunity. He will throw off the tubercle germ as a liner's bow throws off the spray, unless the tubercle germ is present in such quantity as to imply criminal carelessness.

In fact, we ought to turn out the preparatory product pretty well germ-proof as well as accustomed to think rationally, and not conventionally or nervously about his "health." I only wish there was a word to express that normal and glorious condition of being which ought to be that of the average man and woman. Perhaps in some future century, when the perfection of the human animal is regarded as of equal importance with the perfection of the steam engine, there will be such a word.

So far I have dealt with my subject mainly from a physical point of view but all life, as I said before, is interwoven. In teaching our "preparatory school product" to act rationally in the concerns of his daily life, and, let us hope, in also setting a good example ourselves (which I fear not all schoolmasters or parents do), we shall have been training him in a most valuable mental habit. . . . .

Euclid, to the average preparatory boy, is mainly a matter of memory. In the rare cases in which he can make out geometrical riders, he has so far been taught to think.

But, putting Latin aside, the rest of his education has been almost entirely receptive. This is partly due to the numerous subjects required at examinations Working for marks almost infallibly induces a cut-and-dried style of teaching. It page 77 is, indeed, difficult in any subject, except translation from and into other languages and mathematical problems, to avoid what is usually called "cram," when the subject is got up for examination purposes.

But "cram," though it undoubtedly fosters some useful qualities, is fatal to the cultivation of independence, curiosity, initiative, and resource.

If I were asked to name one point in which the "preparatory school product" is inferior to boys educated by a really good tutor or governess at home, under the direction of parents who do not care for their boys being "successes" at thirteen or eighteen years old, but for their success at twenty-five or thirty, I would say that the preparatory school, as a rule, puts the extinguisher on the keenness for knowledge and curiosity about things in general which is natural to most children.

I am not blaming preparatory schools. Passing examinations and winning "successes" is for them a matter of life and death, and they are powerless against the examination system. If the public schools were to set more store by healthy general development, and less on the powers of receptivity and ability to cram, "and if they were not so keen to bribe clever boys into being prematurely forced in order to gain material with which to win future successes, more national methods of education, in its widest sense, would be pursued by the preparatory schools. . . .

But I do not despair of much more satisfactory results in the near future, as there are signs, here and there, of reason getting the better of prejudice and custom in the concerns of our daily life. This I am convinced is the next stage in the progress of civilisation.

[At a secondary school in New Zealand, where Dr Almond's regime has been Strictly followed out for a few years, the average increase in physique of pupils is reported to be as follows :—Height, about lin; chest expansion, about 1in; weight, nearly 3lb. Further, it is stated that there has been a great improvement in general health and alertness and a corresponding mental advance.]