A Liberal Education (1929 style)

Listened yesterday to a tremendous edition of the Charlotte Mason Poetry Podcast, which featured a speech by Horace West Household, the Director of Education for Gloucestershire at the North of England Education Conference in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1929. Can you imagine a Regional Schools Commissioner in 2018 using the same beautiful language or whose vision of a good liberal education was so sound?

The nineteenth century did not believe, and the twentieth is not always willing to admit, or to act as though it admitted, that the worker’s child in the primary school needs, and is capable of enjoying and profiting by, all that is meant by a liberal education. Even the teachers, many of them, declared that they could not when, twelve years ago, I made my first venture in the experiment which I shall describe to you. They could not believe that the child from a poor bookless home could enjoy and profit by the same wide range of study in history ancient and modern, in literature, poetry, art, music, even archaeology, astronomy and the whole romance of science, as his more fortunate contemporary who is bound for Winchester, or Shrewsbury, or Eton.

Then thirty or forty years ago came the text book, written by clever teachers in a language and manner peculiar to school text books and met with nowhere else, constructed to fit in with the method of oral teaching and of imparting information, and with this depreciatory conception of the child as a being, retarded and crippled in mind by the material and intellectual poverty of his whole environment. How should he, born of such a stock, coming from such a home, love great poetry and drama, rejoice to make contact with great minds and through them with great thoughts and great events, range eager and excited over the whole field of history, thrill to the tale of Thermopylae and Salamis, take Plutarch for his mentor in the school of citizenship, revel in the wizardry of Scott, or roam over a world of waters with Odysseus or Sir Francis Drake? So he was fobbed off with these dreary text books, which no normal adult would dream of reading, nor any normal child save on dire compulsion. And to this day a young teacher—and many an old one—cannot read poetry to a class, no, not of twelve-year-olds, without halting at every stanza to explain the obvious at interminable length, incredulous of the child’s capacity to understand, forgetful of his own childish enjoyment out of school (rarely, alas, within it) when some good reader made him thrill to the music of verse read as it should be read, or swept him along upon the tide of some great prose story, which one pause for explanation or for question would have ruined. We will ask the child to see all that the adult sees, forgetting that the fifty per cent. that he gets to-day (there are to-morrows and to-morrows still to come) is worth infinitely more than the one hundred per cent. that we would force upon him; and so we cast a blight upon literature and history, and geography and science; and for the priceless gold of knowledge won by thought and made his own, we foist upon the child the pitiful dross of information, forced, rammed at high pressure, in machine-made chunks by class-teaching upon the collective memory, where it withers unassimilated, and most often perishes leaving no mark behind.

Read the rest here, or listen to the podcast here.


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