15 June 2011

He knows the names of beastly flowers

The ideas that dominate modern educational ideology and practice have been incubating for a long time.

The idea, for example, that evidence of IQ (in the old-fashioned sense) was irrelevant, and had nothing to do with what a person was good at, was implicitly present in a book called The New Broom which my Uncle Harry had had as a boy and which I read at about 8, so it might have been written about 1900. In this book, someone refers to having seen a former schoolfellow sweeping the streets, and says, without any implication that anything had gone wrong and needed to be corrected, that this was a great surprise as this person had always excelled at school and they had all expected him to become Prime Minister. (How foolish they had been.)

In another episode in the book, a new master at a public school does some social engineering. Many of the boys are in the habit of going to the local pub for drinking, smoking and billiards (played for money, no doubt). This is seen as bad, and the new master goes and drags back a boy called Mansell, who is a prime mover in the goings-on. He is forced to play football, which at first he resists with a show of disinterest on the field, but into which he is eventually drawn by his natural aptitude for the game. He ‘could not prevent himself from being fast and clever on a football field’. So soon he is playing for the school and becomes a great team player and a prominent and feted member of the school community. At no stage is the idea expressed that he might be steered into some kind of academic pursuit rather than football.

The same idea, that school life is not, and should not be, about learning, is expressed in a poem in E. Nesbit’s The Railway Children, published in 1906. The poem is about a new boy at a school, who will soon come to know better.

He cannot wicket-keep at all,
He's frightened of a cricket ball.
He reads indoors for hours and hours.
He knows the names of beastly flowers.
He says his French just like Mossoo--
A beastly stuck-up thing to do--
He won't keep cave, shirks his turn
And says he came to school to learn!
He won't play football, says it hurts;
He wouldn't fight with Paley Terts;
Now Wigsby Minor says that Parr
Is only like all new boys are.
I know when I first came to school
I wasn't such a jolly fool!

Even as early as this, there is clearly a conviction that it is unnecessary to consider a person’s inclinations. Force him into the situation which will permit him to do what he should want to do, if he were the right sort of person, and he will change into that sort of person, or it is his own fault if he does not.

The antagonism to IQ, and the pressure that could be applied to individuals, became much greater in the Welfare State era, in which many parents were no longer paying directly for what was being meted out to their children, and could themselves be slandered and persecuted.

Even before the onset of state education and the Welfare State, several of those who became leading intellectuals had parents who thought it was a good idea for them to be preserved from, or only minimally exposed to, the school experience. Such as John Stuart Mill, Frederic Myers and Bertrand Russell.