I FIND myself in trouble with a number of indignant school inspectors and teachers throughout the country, and I am in the awkward position of a man who is essentially right but who has nevertheless been rather tactless in his phrasing. And also I have suffered from the necessity reporters and editors are under to compress and point what one has said. At times their sense of drama leads them to omit the meat and give only the salt and mustard, and so one’s remarks are presented in a state of exaggerated pungency. I find I have wounded more than I intended.
Moreover the reporters at the meeting were supplied with a first draft of my address and this I had already modi6ed in certain respects before I read it. For example, I did not say our schools are “drooling along” much as they did in 1900. “Drooling” was a hard offensive word. Actually I said they were “going along” much as they did in 1900, but the reporters sitting under me with the printed draft before them did not note the change nor did they notice the insertion of a considerable passage upon the underpayment, overwork, limitation upon initiative and so forth that prevent a vigorous teacher from doing himself or herself full justice. But these are subsidiary matters.
I still maintain when all allowances have been made for the progress of education in the past third of a century that elementary teaching throughout the world — even in our own urban elementary schools where progress has been most marked — has not kept pace with the demands of a time in which such things as aviation and radio have leapt out of nothingness into primary importance in our affairs, and in which human power for good or evil has been stupendously increased. Schools as a whole may be going forwards, but nevertheless they are being outrun. In the race between education and catastrophe, catastrophe is winning.
And anxious though I am to salve the feelings of teachers and scholastic authorities in this matter, I am obliged to remark upon one or two characteristics of this storm of protest and repudiation I have provoked. The first is the solidarity of the teachers in their indignation. I say there are teachers who are not up to their job, that some of them have not been done up inside for fifty years. They are as damp and rotten as old houses. And surely every teacher knows that that is true. “Some” is not “all.” But will they admit it? Instead they flare up. “You say we are all damp and rotten!” I don’t. And when I say two-thirds of the teaching profession is in urgent need of either reconditioning or superannuation, I mean two-thirds and not the whole.
In spite of the anger I have evoked I stick to that rough estimate. The level of qualification is still far too low for modern needs, the amount of reconditioning in brief “holiday” courses and so forth is not enough, and the educational engine in the social apparatus is not up to the stresses it has to meet, We want more and better teachers. We want them urgently. Elementary education lags — throughout the world. I stick to that.
From all the Parts of the country come “retorts” to my address. “Smithstown Director of Education Hits Out”, and that sort of thing. Maybe sometimes the journalist barbs the shaft. The more substantial counter-attack is that I am out of date — usually it is “sadly out of date”. Poor Mr. Wells! A charming head girl (with photograph) is produced to say that surely I must be thinking of my own school days sixty years ago, and inspectors, masters, head-mistresses and assistants combine in being “amused” at my unawareness of the blinding light in which their pupils live nowadays. They say I have not been in a school for fifty years, which is not exactly true and that lays them open to the obvious remark that some of them seem never to have been out of school all their lives. It is a peculiar atmosphere for I the teacher, that school atmosphere. It seems to beget a peculiar sensitiveness to criticism. One magnificent head-mistress is “disgusted” that I do not know that in 1917 she was teaching exactly what I ask to have taught and taught properly in I937. Sonic day she may read my address in full, bring herself to study my innocent-looking diagram, and realise with a shock to how much foresight, modernity and religious novelty she had laid claim. Much capital is made of the fact that I hoped some day “1066 and all that” will be altogether forgotten in our schools. My assailants assume this to be an assertion that “1066 and all that” is what they are I teaching today. But is its They should read more carefully. The fact remains that the 1066 stuff is still going on in places now. And even when “1066 and all that” is left behind, it may still be a long long way to the necessary historical basis of a modern mind. A little stuff about “hunter peoples” and “plough peoples” may not settle the matter. I remain unconvinced of this alleged complete modernisation of history teaching. What alarms me most in this outburst of retorts is the tremendous self-satisfaction of so many of these acting educationists. I should hate to think it true that you can teach something to every man (or woman) except a schoolmaster (or schoolmistress). But you should see my mail and press cuttings this week. I remain absolutely sure that no proper treatment of the property-money conventions suitable for teaching has yet been achieved and I deny that any elementary education for the modern world state is possible until that is done. Nothing but twaddle and nonsense about property, money or economic control is being handed out to young people throughout the world. No picture of the economic world is given them. My magnificent schoolmistress, my hitting — out director of education, and all the rest of them, are in a state of self-protective hallucination about that.
I admit the extraordinary difficulty of creating a really modernised universal education, but I insist upon its Urgent necessity. In the course of the remaining discussions of the British Association it did become clear to us that we could not discuss education in vacuo. Education must have an objective and that objective must be the ideal of a community in which the educated person will live. Our Nazi and French visitors, Professor Levy and Mr. F. Horrabin, helped us to realise that. If the activities of the Educational Section of the British Association of this year did nothing else, they serve materially to show how inseparable is education from the general body of social science and theory.
Education and social existence are reciprocal. Its informative side has to be essentially social elucidation. So that the ideal teacher can never be a specialist; he has to have a working conception of the world as a whole into which his teaching fits. When I write or talk to teachers about the real magnitude of their task I am apt to feel like Max Beerbohm’s caricature of Walt Whitman urging the American eagle to soar. It remained ruffled and inactive on its perch. Nevertheless for good or ill the future is in the hands of the teachers as it is in the hands of no other men and women, and the more this is recognised the more urgent our criticisms of them will have to be.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:15