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Reminiscences and Reflections of an Octogenarian Highlander Chapter LVIII. - Education


THE re-animating and, it might almost be said, recreative Renaissance at the end of the fifteenth and beginning of the sixteenth century, preceded and intermingled with the Reformation, necessarily stimulating it, but sometimes trying to limit and divert it. Many of the scholars and apostles of the Renaissance, like Erasmus, the chief of them all, while mercilessly exposing and bitterly satirising the scandalous corruptions into which the Western Church had fallen, wished to preserve its wonderful organisations, thoroughly purified, and with a General Council instead of the Pope, in supreme command. This was an alterative, although it turned out to be a thoroughly impracticable ideal. The art of printing, which unfettered and gave wings to the vast stores of classical and Christian lore formerly imprisoned in manuscripts which were only accessible to the few, was the chief agency in producing the Renaissance movement in its diversified forms and manifestations. It was a contributive coincident that simultaneously the Vatican should have sunk to its lowest point of degradation; and something, too, was due to the capture of Constantinople by the Turks, and the flight of learned Greeks carrying precious manuscripts with them to Western countries. The Renaissance took a strong and early hold on England. Caxton's early press set an example to the reformers which they soon learned to imitate. Henry VIII. was born and trained under the influence of the Renaissance. Cardinal Wolsey, using the funds of dissolved small and scandalous monastic institutions, founded and endowed Christ Church College, Oxford, with several professorships, and gave his native town of Ipswich a college which, unfortunately, had but a short existence. Dean Colet spent his fortune in founding and endowing St Paul's School, London. He was the friend of Erasmus, and quite as an advanced reformer as that learned Dutchman. A vigorous and popular preacher, Dean Colet attacked the Church and monastic vices of his age, and spoke with a good man's scorn of the celibacy of the clergy, which was so badly abused by many of those who took the vow. It was, perhaps, fortunate for himself that he died in peaceful retirement before Bluff Hal quarrelled with the Pope, but one cannot help believing that had he lived to have had a hand in educational affairs after the separation from Rome, the schooling of the English people would have profited thereby, as his views in regard to teaching was of a piece with his views in regard to preaching, that it should reach down to the masses.

Zeal for extending the light of the new learning was not confined to the leaders of the religious Reformation movement, which had to pass to severance through many wars and troubles. Sir Thomas More a son of the Renaissance who adhered to and died for the Roman Catholic Church was a keen student of classical lore, and had generous, even Utopian, views of his own upon the spread of education and a reconstruction of society on something like more scientific principles than feudalism. Colet's example in founding and endowing grammar schools was followed largely by Edward VI., Queen Elizabeth, private individuals, and trade guilds. Nor was it lost sight of in after times. Oxford and Cambridge were splendidly equipped for keeping the lamps of the higher learning brightly burning, and for advances in science and arts. Several of the grammar schools did the work of complete colleges, and the hurnblest of them were local centres of light and leading. The Reformation and the discovery of America, superadded to the art of printing, which gave wings to ancient lore, woke the nations out of long uneasy slumbers to a life of extraordinary intellectual activity, daring speculation, and romantic adventure. Out of that came the magnificent crop of the Elizabethan literature. But while the children of the landed gentry and of professional classes, and rich citizens were enjoying what was, for the age, high educational privileges, and breathing the intoxicating air of almost a new life, the masses of the people were left without much schooling, except what came to them from Church and ruling classes, or what they acquired by experience as sailors, soldiers, and apprentices to artizans and traders. In the century of unsettle- merit and resettlement, England had great scholars and great authors, and the multitudes followed their leaders and under them performed glorious achievements. But while England had many Colets and Cranmers, many thinkers, many poets, one Shakespeare, and able statesmen and sea-kings in abundance, it missed having a John Knox with fiery eloquence and a brain to conceive and a backing strong enough to give effect to a system of parochial schools by which the whole people would be brought into an all sweeping educational net. True it is that aspirants from the lowest social grades were not excluded from English grammar schools and universities. On the contrary, fair provision was made for their entrance and maintenance; but with- out a national system of elementary education, the masses could not be much raised by the few from among them who shot out of their birth-spheres by means of superior knowledge and ability.

So much from the passing of the Reform Bill downwards had been said and written about the deficiency of popular education in England that I was quite surprised and delighted to find so little evidence of it in the Bradford district. Very few of the native people were incapable of reading the Bible, the Prayer Book, hymn book, and news- papers. Absolute inability was only to be found among in -comers from the country and from Ireland, and in the second generation of them also it was surely disappearing. With little book knowledge, the old women of the native working classes were, as wives, housekeepers, and mothers, a credit to their sex and a blessing to their country; and among them were many who were as full of individual character and proverbial philosophy, garnished with sharp personal observation, as Mrs Poyser herself. It is only just to the Congregationalists to state that all along they had striven, by means of private and boarding schools, to give their children a fair amount of education. As a body they were a select and prosperous host of middle-class people. The Wesleyan revival and the counter evangelical revival in the Church of England produced along with the religious an educational awakening among the masses. But the transition period of the industrial revolution caused a serious backset until the Factory Acts rescued the children from being wholly made mill slaves, bereft of schooling instruction and healthy open-air exercise. Before legislation checked it, rather serious damage, physical, moral, and mental, was done to the child slaves of the mill; but home life kept that damage from spreading as widely as would otherwise have been the case, and has been the case in other countries, where family and religious influences have not been equally strong.

Elementary education made a great advance in England between 1835 and 1860. The Church of England tried to establish a national school, not only in every parish, but in every part of a town, or district of a country parish, in which there were children to be gathered together for weekly instruction. The Wesleyans showed similar zeal and enterprise in building many schools. Roman Catholics, and smaller Christian and non-Christian sects, followed suit. State aid, encouragement, and grant payments, according to results of examination by official inspectors, gave increased momentum to a movement which had the whole-hearted sanction of public opinion. On every hand sprung up mechanics' institutes, which turned smiling faces to science and politics, and shrugging shoulders to the religious teaching in the denominational schools, which in England were by this time doing the work that had long been done in Scotland by parish schools and side schools. The Secularists had a hall in Brad- ford, in which Bradlaugh and Holyoake expounded their views, while Huxley and other scientific agnostics gathered large audiences in St George's Hall to listen to their lectures. There also, blind Mr Fawcett vigorously endeavoured to elevate political economy, impressed with the seal of the then, in towns, all popular Manchester School, to the rank of an exact science.

Between the numerous State-aided and State-inspected denominational schools and many private and boarding schools, which were doing excellent work in an unobtrusive way, and old grammar schools which needed to be reformed so as to better adapt them as connecting links with colleges and universities, Bradford and its district were well furnished with educational machinery before the first English Elementary School Bill was passed. The Minister of Education who sponsored that Bill was one of the Bradford members of Parliament, Mr William Edward Forster, as honest, patriotic, and fair- minded a man as ever stood in shoe leather. He was a broad churchman himself, and the pupil and son-in-law of Dr Arnold, of Rugby, but was by lineage connected with Quaker families of high standing and historical renown. He entered enthusiastically into the Volunteer movement, and took a deep and enlightened interest in foreign and colonial affairs. Fate, in the shape of Mr Gladstone, played him a cruel trick on the defeat of the Beaconsfield Government, by making him Chief Secretary for Ireland, where, although the kindest of men by nature and training, he got the nickname of" Buckshot Forster." On the education question Mr Forster was an optimist, who thought that the Board School system to be established by his Bill would only add 3d in the pound, or at the utmost 6d, to the rates. He proclaimed with conviction that the new system would not supersede or despitefully ill-use, but merely fill up the gaps left by the State-aided and State-inspected schools already in existence, on which the people of different religious persuasions the Church of England leading had spent vast sums of their money. It was confessed on all hands that better general organisation was desirable; that in many places there were sad gaps waiting to be filled up, and that compulsory attendance of children in school should, up to a reasonable limit, be en- forced. Mr Forster had great admiration for the Scotch parish school system, which, without much intermediate help from higher-grade schools, enabled clever and studious lads from the country districts and the villages, as well as the farm-houses and mansions, to get to the universities, and afterwards to distinguish themselves in all callings and professions. I had some correspondence with him before he introduced the Scotch Bill, which was to be the companion and complement of the English one, from which I gathered that he was anxious to preserve as far as possible the features and qualities of the Scotch schools, which had succeeded so long and so successfully in continuously eliminating an aristocracy, not of wealth, but of merit, out of the whole Scotch people.

As three-fourths of the Scotch people were Presbyterians who all professed adherence to the Westminster Confession of Faith as their subordinate standard; as the Free Church schools were to be willingly handed over to the new School Boards; and as "use and wont" was to be conceded, it was much easier to deal in bulk with the Scotch than it was with the English education problem. Mr Forster had in his large-minded way of measuring others by his own reasonableness, overlooked the sleepless hostility of the Liberation Society to the Church of England, and the dead certainty that it would use for its disestablishment levers every fulcrum that malevolent and skilled observation, or even imagination, could find or read into the Elementary Education Act. On the 25th clause of the Act an agitation was at once raised, which made a good deal of noise, but received less support than its promoters had expected. It was in that agitation that, along with Dr Dale, Dr George Dawson, and others, Mr Joseph Chamberlain made his first appearance in public life. Birmingham agitators were so far advanced towards Unitarianism and Agnosticism that the Nonconformists who still clung to old Puritan doctrines, were unwilling to accept them as leaders. But all Nonconformists that marched under the Liberation Society banner voted for members holding disestablishment views at the first election of School Boards, and wherever the men they returned found themselves in a majority balm in Gilead was found for their party ; and gall and wormwood for the Church of England and the schools on which its public had spent their millions of money. When he spoke of a 3d to a 6d rate, in the vast majority of cases Mr Forster optimistically assumed that the School Boards would only put up their schools where there were glaring gaps of educational machinery. Wherever they had the power, the Liberation Society men, disregarding the pockets of the ratepayers, ran up palatial school buildings in open opposition to the national and other denominational schools which had to be content with humbler buildings, and in these had done educational services of the highest importance to the children of the masses, and poorer middle classes. The Congregationalists, who looked well to the education of their own children, generation after generation, had, in proportion to their wealth and numbers, done least of all for the education of the masses until they got their hands, by control of School Boards, into the pockets of the ratepayers. As soon as they got their opportunity, they found deficiencies everywhere, and plausible arguments for tacking profligate expenditure on equipment and costly fads arid fancies to the reading, writing, and arithmetic limits of elementary education.


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