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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 78

A Master's Letter

A Master's Letter.

The following extracts from a letter received from a professional teacher of high standing speak for themselves (certain passages are omitted to prevent identification) :—

Permit me to thank you for your plain wards on education. I trust you will continue to hammer away. I had just been reading Kingsley's immortal and prophetic chapter viii. in the 'Water Babies' (the part about "the examiner coming") when I saw your lecture reported. . . .

The examiner is the immediate cause of mischief. But behind the examiner is a total misconception of what education is for. Instead of aiming at the development of body and soul for mature life, it is becoming a violent effort "ad hoc," the "hoc" being an examination test of memory or of proficiency in some technical requirement for a particular trade, as if this, and nothing beyond this, were the "tedos" of the whole matter. It is not the teacher's fault. Having committed this fundamental error, competition does the rest. The examination (being an end in itself) must be made more and more searching, and its standard must be raised continually to keep ahead of the amazing capacity for being crammed which exists in boys and girls.

As the kind of learning most easily tested by examination is that which consists of names, formulæ, and arbitrary classifications, the sciences and arts are reduced to names, formulæ, etc., which can easily be printed in books and delivered orally by teachers. All that the learner has to do is to commit them to memory, and wind them off the reel when examination time comes.

My experience leads me to suppose that the average boy or girl does not imagine that these formulæ, etc., mean anything in particular. They leave the "whole-matter to rot in desuetude as soon as the page 40 examiner is satisfied. But the few really intelligent pupils insist on understanding what they learn, and these are one ones who suffer from brain-weariness, because the quantity of stuff passed through their brairns is too much to be understood all at once, though it can be carelessly committed to memory.

I speak with bated breath of the university system. . . .

It is difficult to discuss the subject at all without talking, extravagantly. I am convinced by experience that the present race for learning sterilises brains far more than it stimulates. Learning superficially becomes a habit, and thought is exorcised altogether. I suppose this is why the really thoughtful and interesting boys and girls are almost invariably those who have had their minds developed by intelligent home life, usually by their mothers. There they begin to think really, and to probe things in conversation, and read interesting books, without the fear of the examiner before their eyes; . . set them thinking and rouse imagination, the great stimulus of thought.

You will pardon me as a mere stranger, introducing myself in this manner. I entirely agree with you—lady's boots and all.