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Life of the Rev. Thomas Guthrie D.D.
Chapter IX - National Education

From the part that Dr Guthrie took in the promotion of ragged schools, and the earnestness with which he sought for them State support, it will readily be inferred that be held decided and liberal opinions on the general subject of education. He was a warm supporter of the Lord Advocate —James Moncreiff's Education Bill of 1855, "feeling," as he has put it, "that the first duty of the State is to educate her people, and the last to hang them: believing that her first duty is to prevent crime, and her second to punish it; believing that the first duty of the State is to build schools, and her second to build prisons; and believing that the State should charge herself with the duty of seeing that no child within her borders goes without education," he had no hesitation in pleading that education should be made compulsory, as he does in these words :—

"Why does the State take care that the child of every mill-spinner should be taught, and punish the party for neglecting it, and not take the same care of the children of the Grassmarket and the Cowgate? The law does not allow a man to starve his child; it is very cruel, it may be said, to starve the body; very cruel, it is true, and the State interferes with the liberty of the subject there. But if it is right in the law to compel the parent to feed his child's body, is it right in the law to allow him to starve his child's soul! Suppose the law did not compel him to feed his child's body, death would step in, and relieve society of the evil there; but if it does not compel him to feed the child's mind, what happens? The untaught child, in nine cases out of ten, becomes a burden, a nuisance, and a danger to the State.

"From the First Book of Discipline I find that one of the first things John Knox set himself to was the matter of schools. He provided that there should be in every large town in Scotland a college, in every notable town a grammar school, and in every parish a common school. Ay, and still more—and in this I have always been a follower of John Knox, and intend to be so to the end of the chapter—John Knox goes on to say that no parent, whoever he may be, whether a dealer in rags in the Cowgate, or whether a laird or a duke, that no parent, of whatever station he might, be allowed to train up his children according to his own fantasy, but that he should be compelled to give his children an education in virtue and learning.' I maintain that no man is entitled to breed wild beasts in this country for the sake of the play of hunting tigers and wolves which will endanger the lives of other men. No man is entitled to breed the most dangerous of all wild beasts, a two-legged uneducated animal! Talk of liberty! I hold that any liberty, the liberty of walking about in freedom and personal safety, is encroached on, if children are brought up in such a way as to be dangerous to the community. Men are 'havering' up yonder in Parliament about espionage. Do we hear anything of espionage in levying the taxes of the country, as in making a man tell what his income is; and will any man call it espionage to see that every parent educates his children?"

He was in favour of the Bible being taught in the school, But did justice to the views and motives of those who believe that it would be for the interest of religion itself that its teaching should be left to the home circle, the Sabbath school, and the church. He was strongly opposed to the denominational system, and augered the best results from a national, unsectarian, and liberal system of education. He greatly disliked the continuous fighting over petty differences whilst the children were neglected and perishing, and he severely rebuked, in his own style, the efforts made by the Established Church to get, by means of the Parish School Bill, the control of education almost wholly into her own power. In view of the Bill which has now become law, his words of rebuke and warning may be regarded as almost prophetic. We give with. pleasure some of his manly, able, truthful utterances on these various phases of the education question.

"I have heard of kirks where so few sat that you might drive a cart-load of whins through them, and it would not jog a living soul; but these kirks would be entirely eclipsed by any secular schools if they were attempted in Scotland. I would have no objections myself that religion should be in the Bill, but then I don't care whether it is or not, for I am sure it will be in the school.

"I prefer secular education to no education whatever; and the principle has been recognised by the Church of Scotland, which never thrust on Roman Catholics the principles of the Protestant faith. The people of Scotland are at one as to the religion taught in the school, and even as to that taught in the pulpit. Give us a national education for Presbyterians, and I will join you in doing what can be done for those not provided for. The fear of secular education is the veriest bugbear. There have been many voluntary adventure schools in Scotland, managed by the people themselves, in which I put more confidence than in church or State; and I challenge any one to mention an instance of a school so set up, where the Bible is not as well, if not better taught than in the pulpit schools. Just put on the door of a school in Scotland, The Bible is not taught here, and I will answer tor it, you will have no scholars.

"I am, however, bound to say in favour of those who are secularists, that there are many among them who, to my own knowledge, are as devout as any man on this platform. I am bound to say this in justice to them, that they believe that religion would be better taught in the houses of the people than at school, and therefore they would roll the whole responsibility of this over upon the pastors and parents. I don't agree with them in this, it is true; but if you ask me whether I believe the religion taught at home or in the school is the best, I would at once answer, the religion taught at home. But if this were a good reason why we should have no schools with religion taught in them, it is just as good a reason why we should have neither churches nor pulpits; and if you ask me whether it is best to have religion taught in the school or religion taught in the parental home, I say with the man. Why, both are best.

"I am no bigot. Everybody that knows me knows that I hold what many of my friends think loose views on the subject of education. People tell me I should take high ground on that subject. Why, I think the top of a steeple is high ground, but it is not very safe.

"Give me a common education, the different denominations working together in one common good cause. Give me this, as Dr Chalmers used to say, and it will sweeten the breath of society, and soften the asperity of the violent speech, and, I may say, the uncharitableness of which we have heard of late too much from the people of all parties, especially from the clergy. I have extremely regretted the strong language which has been used. I do not think I have used such language myself; but when I read the reports of some of those meetings where men have brought into the question the artillery of their prejudices and passions, and when afterwards I have walked down the High Street, or some such part of the city, I must say I have felt my indignation burning within me in a way I found difficult to express. Why, what are these points about which they make such wrangling as has deafened the ears of the people, to those wretched, naked, unwashed, unshorn, uncared for, lost, perishing, doomed children, that crowd the streets and lanes—what are these points to them? My disturbing points will look little enough when I am lying on a bed of death; and my disturbing points look little too when I go down among my poor fellow-creatures; and sure I am, that if some of my friends would come with me, and spend one short forenoon in these places where I have been till my heart has been like to break, and I could hardly eat the bread on my own table, it would make them ready to agree almost to anything.

"You may not get the old stagers to unite on a system of education. You will not get the old branches of the tree to unite; but take the young branches, and twist and twine them together, and they will be uniting before another summer is gone. I have no hope of these old stagers, but I have great hope of the children. It is wonderful what you may do if you get the young to agree together. I saw a happy family the last time I was in London; animals of the most antagonistic natures lying together in peace, because they had been put together when young, and fed, bred, and nursed together. I saw the mavis sleeping under the wing of the hawk; and I saw an old, grave, reverend owl looking down most complacently on a little mouse; and with the restless activity of his species, a monkey sitting on a branch, scratching his head —for an idea, I presume—and then reaching down his long arm and seizing a big rat on the floor, and lifting it into his breast, and dandling it like a baby. This is what early training will do. I just put it to you: Suppose these animals had been brought up in the denominational system, if they had been brought up in the sectarian system, and then brought together in one place, what a row there would have been.

"As to the different views regarding the Bill [for education] entertained by different bodies, and the empty cries that are raised against it, all of which I hope Parliament will disregard, and will consider only, whether this Bill is or is not contrary to the Word of God and the good of society—to each and all of these religious bodies, beginning with the Free Church, I will give the advice tendered to an honourable Baronet. When Sir John Sinclair was chosen member of parliament for his native county, a man came up to him and said, 'Noo, maister George, I'll gi'e ye an advice. They've made ye a parliament man, and my advice to you is, Be ye aye tak takin' what ye can get, and aye seek seekin' till ye get mair.'

"At the time of the Disruption a certain party would yield nothing. At the University Bill time they would yield nothing; and, at this time [of the Education Bill] they will yield nothing. There was a very sagacious man in this city, perhaps the most sagacious of all the citizens, I mean the late Sir James Gibson-Craig, who, on one occasion, was dealing with a gentleman who insisted on his having the last rights of law. Sir James advised him to yield a little. The man said he would not yield a straw. Sir James urged him, but he was obstinate. 'Well, then, let me tell you,' said Sir James, 'that the man who will have the last right and the last word at law, is very like the man who will have the last drop in the tankard, he has the chance of getting the lid down on his nose.' Now, if my friends in the Established Church would just hear me.—for I know there are many sensible men among them—I would say that, at the time of the Disruption, down came the lid; at the time of the University Bill they would have the last drop, and smash came the lid; and now that they would have the last drop again, let them take heart that the lid does not only hit them on the nose, but that it does not hit it off altogether."


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