Schooling and Education

Francis Neilson

[Chapter thirty-eight of the book, My Life In Two Worlds,
published by CC. Nelson Publishing Co., 1953]

I wonder if any layman of my time has been consulted so often by professional instructors about this great problem of schooling the masses. My experience here and in Europe is somewhat different from that of untraveled Englishmen and Americans. I have seen four systems at work-those of this country and the land of my birth; and, to some extent, those of France and Germany. Yet, according to the academic notions of instructors, I am not an educated man, for I was never a student at a college or a university. The little knowledge I have, I gathered after I became an adult. Indeed, my own experience in fitting myself for my career is considered by many so unique that I wonder if my views about learning are worth recording.

Still, I should like to say something about the condition into which school instruction has fallen. It is in disrepute, and day after day I read articles in the papers and in the weekly magazines, which reveal an almost unbelievable conflict of opinion as to what is wrong and how the defects in it may be remedied. One trouble is that everything in the way of study, with the exception of the exact sciences, is made too easy for the pupil. Another is that the student is asked to deal with far too many subjects.

Now I have tested, over a period of nearly forty years, the knowledge of young people who have finished high school. And in the families with which I have been connected, I know of only one pupil who gained anything worth remembering. Indeed, they knew so little of the subjects they had "taken," I decided the girls would have been better employed in a dressmaker's shop and the boys set to work in an office or a factory. Four years had been wasted.

As for university students, most of them had succeeded only in making contacts and in cheering at a football match. Hendrik van Loon once upset a teachers' meeting when he told them that one of the defects of the system was that schooling was made "as easy as going a-fishing." And he knew that most of the university graduates were illiterate.

Years ago I made up my mind that schooling was for the masses and education for the few. I arrived at this conclusion after two decades of close study of the people I met, and I do not mind admitting now the reason why I did this. My own lack of college training prompted me to compare my knowledge with that of my friends. I felt my deficiencies so keenly that, if I had not been engaged in work that occupied my full day, I would have attended a night school.

I thought then that it was necessary for an educated man to know Greek and Latin. George Douglas Brown, who was a Snell Scholar and a Balliol man, knocked the notion out of my head when he told me Greek was of no use at all to him, save in an extra-cultural way, and that did not earn any bawbees. He helped me to study some Latin and, strangely enough, the motive was to prepare me to take my dinners and qualify as a barrister. At that time, some of my friends thought I would make a good one. Montague Emanuel, who Assisted Lord Halsbury in the work of the codification of the English law; Rufus Isaacs, and Hemmerde imagined I would make a successful criminal lawyer.

This testing process through which I put myself shortly after I reached the age of thirty, forced me to take every spare hour to read and study. I was seldom without a book while journeying from my home to the theater. In my room at the Duke of York's Theatre, and also in the one I had at the Royal Opera, there were books to be taken up between rehearsals and when I was not busy upon the stage. When I entered the political arena in 1902, I had read most of the masterpieces of English writers. Before I left America in 1897, I knew the Greek classics in translation, and many of the Latin authors. But it was in philosophy, history, and economics that I exercised my mind, and formed a habit of studying the metaphysics of the ancient and medieval schools, which is with me to this day.

Yet, I am not satisfied that I am an educated man, although I have been called a scholar. Nevertheless, my experience has taught me this truth-that any man, if he have the inclination, can make a cultural being of himself. When I review the years I spent in politics, I call to mind dozens of men in America and in England who had only the common school lessons and, yet, found time, while making a living, to educate themselves. I could mention the names of many associates in political work, who had to labor all their lives and, yet, found hours to read, study, and digest the masterpieces of general literature.

One man at a boiler works on the Solway drove a donkey engine, and in fifteen years he had gathered together a library of secondhand books which contained the works of the Scottish school of philosophers. Hence, education in the best sense of the term is an open gate for anyone to enter who knows how to read and write. It is only the sciences and the arts that offer to the student the disciplines necessary for intensive study.

Among the great inventors, machinists, financiers, and merchants of fifty years ago who received little schooling but, as they made progress, educated themselves, two names come readily to mind: James Brindley, who could not even spell his patron's name, built a canal at an elevation of thirty-nine feet over the river Irwell in Lancashire. There was also Thomas Edison, who taught himself, and whose wonders as an inventor are known to schoolboys. If we are to judge by results, elementary schooling seems to be all that is necessary for those who achieve great things in industry.

Fifty years ago I knew men who bred the best cattle, sheep, and swine. Some of these farmers were -also the best makers of cheese; yet, there was not one amongst them who boasted more than a common schooling, when young. In all these cases, it was the practical experience of the day-in and day-out labor in which they were employed, which enabled them to succeed and win blue ribbons for their products.

These facts are overlooked by our perfervid educationists, who are busy subdividing branches of schooling to provide for more teachers, and introducing pastime gadgets and household duties so that they can call for larger budgets.

Tens of millions of dollars spent upon teaching are wasted every year, and many of the candid instructors I have met do not hesitate to say so, in private. A real teacher has no interest in a numbskull, but under the system, he dares not speak the truth about him to his parents. The uneducated father and mother are now the very bane of the system. Yet, it is true our so-called progress has made the economic struggle harder for those who breed and rear children.

The tired man and woman, when their children return from school, look for recreation-television, the movie, or the bowling alley. If parents were made to pay the school fee directly, as they were when I was a child, there would be a vast change in their notions about the chances of their progeny to learn anything worth while. The old system of apprenticeship in the trades, with the opportunity to attend night school, was the best that has been devised for the children of the masses. Certainly all our records today-particularly those concerning juvenile delinquents-show that our result cannot be compared with that of two generations ago.

I see nothing under the strict system of schooling would prevent a likely pupil doing for himself what I did for myself. There has been nothing extraordinary in the work I have accomplished. I have known many who have achieved as much. Surely it is a matter of inclination, and the determination to persevere and find the knowledge you wish to acquire.

Perhaps the school system, as we know it, defeats itself. A well-known educationist told me that at least sixty-five per cent of the pupils under his review regarded schooling as an onerous business. I do not think I have met a dozen boys who took pleasure in going to classes. But this I know -that the vast majority of youngsters of eight or ten years will respond quickly when offered a job which calls for the use of their hands. It is the natural bent of all young beings. The field, the shop, the factory are all more interesting than books and blackboards.

To my mind, schooling should begin with the primary industry. In the natural order of things, man's first job was to find his food. Then he became a builder, a clothier, and a shoemaker. None knew this better than the Greeks, and Socrates lays it down in simple terms in the first few chapters of the Republic.

There is, however, another way of engaging the attention of young pupils. Years ago, at Liverpool Cathedral, I provided a small sum each year to maintain a school of cultural studies. Every choirboy was induced to join it. Their ages ranged from nine to sixteen, and these choristers were drawn from nearby seminaries, such as the Liverpool Institute (which I attended when a boy) and Liverpool Collegiate.

The thought struck me twenty years ago, what a wonderful opportunity there was for a choirboy to study the cultural arts in such a place as the Cathedral. And to give them an incentive to study the marvels of the place, a competition was instituted. Each year one branch of the workmanship of the building is selected for study, and prizes are given for the best papers. The response has been so wonderful that it exceeded all our expectations. Some of the subjects chosen have been: architecture, music, stained glass, wood carving, iron work-indeed, all of the arts employed to build Sir Giles Scott's masterpiece.

The boys are divided into groups, according to their ages, and the papers of the prize-winners are sent to me after each season's work; and from them I learn that, under Dean Dwelly's superintendence of this school, the boys have added to their ordinary instruction branches of learning that enable many of them to enter the higher schools and universities as budding scientists and artists.

In this way, we have been able to assist boys to win scholarships and go to the higher institutions of learning. The roll call of the achievements of these choristers is one of my greatest treasures. This is an experience in making education attractive to the young, and I think we have proved the worth of it, for several of the young men who were choirboys are now at universities. One has become an accomplished organist, taking all the honors at Manchester University. Another is with James Powell & Sons, the stained glass makers famed all over the world. This young man sent me an essay he wrote upon the stained glass of Winchester Cathedral, which might have been done by the great James Hogan himself.

Many, of course, have to enter the services as soldiers, sailors, and airmen. But their letters from different parts of the world indicate that they have not lost touch with the Cathedral and the work they were engaged upon when they were choristers.

This may read as if it were an exotic tale about schooling. In this practical world of lathes and pneumatic drills, it may not seem reasonable to our instructors that the lads are being fitted for work in a democracy of illiterates.

Is it not strange that those who chatter so much about universities forget that they started in the medieval cathedral, and everything in science and art was nurtured there? Indeed, there was no place else to receive instruction. Small wonder that the culture of Christendom gives us the names of Alfred of Wessex, Dunstan of Glastonbury, and Richard de Bury, who became treasurer of the kingdom and Lord Chancellor under Edward III. Richard wrote the famous treatise on the love of books, called Philobiblon.

There were also the three great scientists: Roger Bacon, Robert Grosseteste, and Edmund Rich, whose names should be known to all educated people who speak the English language.

At Liverpool Cathedral another great adjunct of almost priceless worth has been added lately by my friend, Sir Frederick Radcliffe. He has given to the library his collection of incunabula, and already the boys are vying with one another in conning the books. The librarian is twenty-one years old and entered the choir when he was nine. A few weeks ago, at the invitation of my friend, Edward Robertson, the Librarian of the John Rylands Library, in Manchester, he went to see that world-renowned collection.

Our attempt at Liverpool has been in the nature of a test of what young people are capable of studying. And we find the scheme is working well. Every boy who joins the choir is eager to take up a branch of the learning that is offered to him; and that it is not merely a passing interest is shown by his desire, after he has left the choir, to be associated with the work and devote himself to helping his choral successors to enjoy the wonders the edifice contains.