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An essay by Arthur C. Benson


Title:     Education
Author: Arthur C. Benson [More Titles by Benson]

It is clear that the progress of the individual and the world alike depends upon the quickening of ideas. All civilisation, all law, all order, all controlled and purposeful life, will be seen to depend on these ideas and emotions. The growing conception of the right of every individual to live in some degree of comfort and security is nothing but the taking shape of these ideas and emotions; for the end of all civilisation is to ensure that there shall be freedom for all from debasing and degrading conditions, and that is perhaps as far as we have hitherto advanced; but the further end in sight is to set all men and women free to some extent from hopeless drudgery, to give them leisure, to provide them with tastes and interests; and further still, to contrive, if possible, that human beings shall not be born into the world of tainted parentage, and thus to stamp out the tyranny of disease and imbecility and criminal instinct. More and more does it become clear that all the off-scourings and failures of civilisation are the outcome of diseased brains and nerves, and that self-control and vigour are the results of nature rather than nurture. All this is now steadily in sight. The aim is personal freedom, the freedom which shall end where another's freedom begins; but we recognise now that it is no use legislating for social and political freedom, if we allow the morally deficient to beget offspring for whom moral freedom is an impossibility. And perhaps the best hope of the race lies in firmly facing this problem.

But, as I say, we have hardly entered upon this stage. We have to deal with things as they are, with many natures tainted by moral feebleness, by obliquity of vision, by lack of proportion. The hope at present lies in the endeavour to find some source of inspiration, in a determination not to let men and women grow up with fine emotions atrophied; and here the whole system of education is at fault. It is all on the lines of an intellectual gymnastic; little or nothing is done to cultivate imagination, to feed the sense of beauty, to arouse interest, to awaken the sleeping sense of delight. There is no doubt that all these emotions are dormant in many people. One has only to reflect on the influence of association, to know how children who grow up in a home atmosphere which is fragrant with beautiful influences, generally carry on those tastes and habits into later life. But our education tends neither to make men and women efficient for the simple duties of life, nor to-arouse the gentler energies of the spirit. "You must remember you are translating poetry," said a conscientious master to a boy who was construing Virgil. "It's not poetry when I translate it!" said the boy. I look back at my own schooldays, and remember the bare, stately class-rooms, the dry wind of intellect, the dull murmur of work, neither enjoyed nor understood; and I reflect how small a part any fanciful or beautiful or leisurely interpretation ever played in our mental exercises; the first and last condition of any fine sort of labour--that it should be enjoyed--was put resolutely out of sight, not so much as an impossible adjunct, as a thing positively enervating and contemptible. Yet if one subtracts the idea of enjoyment from labour, there is no beauty-loving spirit which does not instantly and rightly rebel. There must be labour, of course, effective, vigorous, brisk labour, overcoming difficulties, mastering uncongenial details; but the end should be enjoyment; and it should be made clear that the greater the mastery, the richer the enjoyment; and that if one cannot enjoy a thing without mastering it, neither can one ever really master it without enjoying it.

What we need, in education, is some sense of far horizons and beautiful prospects, some consciousness of the largeness and mystery and wonder of life. To take a simple instance, in my own education. I read the great books of Greece and Rome; but I knew hardly anything of the atmosphere, the social life, the human activity out of which they proceeded. One did not think of the literature of the Greeks as of a fountain of eager beauty springing impulsively and instinctively out of the most ardent, gracious, sensitive life that any nation has ever lived. One knew little of the stern, businesslike, orderly, grasping Roman temperament, in which poetry flowered so rarely, and the arts not at all, until the national fibre began to weaken and grow dissolute. One studied history in those days, as if one was mastering statute-books, blue-books, gazettes, office-files; one never grasped the clash of individualities, or the real interests and tastes of the nations that fought and made laws and treaties. It was all a dealing with records and monuments, just the things that happened to survive decay--as though one's study of primitive man were to begin and end with sharpened flints!

What we have now to do, in this next generation, is not to leave education a dry conspectus of facts and processes, but to try rather that children should learn something of the temper and texture of the world at certain vivid points of its history; and above all perceive something of the nature of the world as it now is, its countries, its nationalities, its hopes, its problems. That is the aim, that we should realise what kind of a thing life is, how bright and yet how narrow a flame, how bounded by darkness and mystery, and yet how vivid and active within its little space of sun.

[The end]
Arthur C. Benson's essay: Education