From The Irish Review, July-August, 1914.
It seems to be accepted generally as axiomatic that education is a good thing, that no nation can hope to succeed in the struggle for existence without it, that the nation with the best system of education will triumph over those whose system is inferior. The possibilities of education in shaping the future of the human race are often held to be almost infinite. Many moderns seem to look on education as a sort of infallible remedy for all evils, if only the best method could be discovered; they worship it as eighteenth century philosophers worshipped human reason.
Of course no one knows exactly what the latent possibilities of human nature may be. It is evident that education can do something to shape the individual, to give him a certain bent, to make him develop in a previously chosen direction. Whether it can ever eradicate the vices of man or make him anything very different from what he is, or has been, is at least only a matter of faith. The majority of people, too, have only the vaguest idea as to what they want education to achieve. There is a feverish, unintelligent taste to have everybody educated somehow. It is assumed that the mere going to school will produce some mysterious beneficial effect. Again, the end of education can be regarded from different points of view, those of the child, the parent, the State.
The child is the corpus vile on which education experiments. He at least may claim not to be overworked and to have his natural disposition taken into account by his educators. The parent, presumably, is interested in the future careers of his children, and if, in addition, he pays anything for their education, his views ought to receive some consideration. As for the State, that mysterious, intangible personality, what is its attitude towards education?
It is of the utmost importance to professional educators to know what is required of them, for education tends more and more to be taken from the home and put into the hands of special educators. It is curious in Ireland how little parents seem to realise the importance of this transference of responsibility from the home to the school. They evidently do not realise it yet, for they take practically no personal interest in securing efficiency in the teacher. No doubt the average teacher is as respectable and honest as the average parent, and in many cases is more qualified to impart learning, but the whole business seems to be left very much to chance. Parents are not warranted in asking too much of educators in Ireland; they scarcely pay enough for the article to claim a guarantee of its soundness.
But there is one aspect of education to which attention must be more particularly confined in the present essay. Reference has been made to the State and the point of view from which it regards education. What is the State? Everyone has some vague idea of the State. To some it means policemen, to others lunatic asylums, to others a job. It is evident that in Ireland the State does not stand for any exalted ideal. It does not mean to us what the Polis meant to Plato or Aristotle. The poisonous atmosphere associated with the ‘Castle,’ the odious relations between Government and People, which have made Irish history a succession of nightmares, the cloud of suspicion which damps and chills our national life – all these causes render impossible an ideal conception of the State in Ireland.
But in education it is impossible to avoid the state. It is too prominent a conception in history, too permanent a factor in human life to be ignored. The State is the community personified. As man is a little kingdom in himself, so as citizen is he part of an ideal kingdom, the civic community in which he is born and in which he lives. As he has duties to himself as free-born heir of man’s estate, duties to his parents as child, to his friends as friend, to his employer as employee, so has he duties to the State as citizen. In short, the State requires good citizens if it is to be a real State. If talk about the State is not all mere cant and humbug, we must believe in citizenship.
But do we expect the educator to make good citizens? If so, we are putting the very Soul of the State into his keeping. He is no more the gaoler of the young, Society’s drudge, but rather a chosen night, a priest of the inmost shrine. Of course good citizenship is not easy to define. If a person is honest, industrious, and efficient, he is in so far a good citizen. But the citizen may be able to compose in Latin, he may be versed in the mysteries of the binomial theorem, he may be a first-rate lawyer or plumber (for all are products of education in the wide sense), he may be an all-round honest and agreeable being, without having his civic consciousness developed. Education teaches, or is expected to teach, amongst other things, how to succeed, how to look after one’s own interests; does it also teach how to look after the interest of that larger self of which one is a part?
Self-love is an excellent thing, the mainspring, some would contend, of human effort and achievement; but the desire to make one’s own gain contribute in some degree to the well-being of others, the sense of solidarity which makes one rejoice or tremble at the success or failure of a fellow-countryman, and above and beyond all these, the passionate love which sees in one’s own country a jewel, a paradise, a sanctuary; in short, Patriotism in all its manifold moods and aspects – does it lie outside the range of education? Assuredly not. Will not the teacher deal with more fervour, linger with more tenderness, on themes which kindle that sacred fire than on the cold lore of antiquity or the passionless truths of Science?
But in Ireland education is confronted with a serious difficulty. It is that alluded to above, the lack of an ideal conception of the State. Nay, we are in no agreement in our geographical definition of the State. Some Irishmen think (consciously or unconsciously) that England is the State, others that it is Ireland, others the United Kingdom, others the British Empire. It surely must be of some importance to Irish education in general to know to what particular State Irish allegiance is due. We speak of the real allegiance of the heart, not of any legal or formal allegiance. In a properly organised State, patriotism is inculcated in the young as a matter of course. The citizens of the future are impregnated with the conception of the larger civic community with which the life of the smaller communities, family, town, province, is organically and indissolubly connected. In Ireland some learn, from the earliest dawn of intelligence, to adore the Imperial sun; others imbibe Nationalism variously diluted. Both classes are early taught to abhor the ideals of the other. Hinc illae lacrimae. Will one ideal triumph over the other, or is a fusion possible?
It is idle to look for a homogenous community of Irishmen when two such contrary ideals are contending for the possession of Irish souls. A closer examination of the two ideals, Nationalism and Imperialism, is required, especially as they present themselves to the young mind. The British Empire is a ready-made, going concern. However the cold mind of the mature observer may view the Empire, it is undeniable that it can be made exceedingly attractive to the young. Boys in particular are readily fascinated by tales of bravery and successful achievement, and the military and naval history of the Empire undoubtedly contain many illustrious pages. The unhealthy glitter, the drunken bombast, the fustian, the claptrap of jingoism, do not obscure genuine heroism; and many names in British Imperial history can be honoured as those of men. The violent partisanship which vitiates all our perspective and blinds all our judgments of present and past seldom permits a dispassionate, impersonal consideration of alien triumphs, especially when those same triumphs suggest bitter memories of degradation, oppression and thwarted endeavour.
But the British Empire is an undoubted fact; those whose talent is for the ready-made and obvious find comfort in the contemplation of such solid reality. And the flavour of strange lands and peoples, the vast spaces, the allurements of world-wide power, the material attractions of highly-paid posts; all these deck out the Empire and Imperialism in dazzling colours before young eyes. Minds incapable of discerning that Canada is virtually an independent State, united in an ill-defined Confederacy with Great Britain; that India is a vast sea of humanity, inarticulate indeed and under autocratic sway, but teeming with a vast brood of dark storms, whose hour, the might of whose wrath, none can determine; such minds are readily dazzled by red paint liberally flung upon a map; a pleasing illusion of a complex and harmonious whole is easily produced by a few cheap phrases reinforced by the magic lantern.
And Nationalism, how does it present itself to the young? Its past history, a record of ceaseless struggle, illuminated by heroism thrown into strong relief by treachery and disunion, heroism persistent and invincible, although wedded to failure; its future – toute une Irlande á refaire, to adapt the closing words of a great novel. Here is a picture less brilliant and alluring than the other; but what an appeal to all that is noblest in the human heart, and what an appeal to the creative instinct! Language, industries, government, society, the arts – all to be made anew or to be quickened into fresh, strong life. Whether a fusion of Nationalist and Imperialist ideals is possible may not be argued now – that is to say, a real ultimate, abiding fusion.
In politics, of course, all things are possible; politicians rush in where philosophers fear to tread. Compromise is the soul of politics, and Home Rule is a fair example of a good compromise. Politicians who wish to succeed are bound to recognise the fact that we are not living in Plato’s Republic; they cannot even be expected to desire its advent. It would seem, however, that Nationalism logically developed must mean independence, whereas Imperialism, if it means anything, means the subjection of one community to another. Independence, of course, includes virtual independence; grown men ought not to be deluded with names. In what essential respect, for example, is Canada less free than France? But this thought cannot be pursued here. The present point is that in Irish education the State is powerless to impose a uniform ideal of itself.
Andres Gar Polis: the phrase from Thucydides somehow arises – ‘the men are the State.’ If the men be of one mind, then is the State one; then we have patriotism, co-operation, citizenship; then can the problems which arise within the State from the natural inequalities of man be solved with the equity, patience and wisdom inspired by the consciousness of brotherhood. Would that Irish education had that common inspiration! Our progress will be slow until we agree to move in the same direction. Our National ideal must be constructive, creative, progressive; a healthy nation will never be reared on a diet of polemics, soured with the bitter herbs of past controversy. Nothing is more needed in Irish education than the study of Irish history; but the danger of bringing it unduly into relation with modern politics is a very real one. The young must be brought up not as the slaves of the past, but as the architects of the future. What the future of Ireland will be who will venture to predict? But the day will come (it may be centuries distant) when Ireland will either be virtually incorporated with England, or will be a more real Ireland, a fully developed, self-contained State, a political entity, a living, breathing, independent organism, an individual force in the collectivity of moral world-forces. She must be absorbed or she must assert herself.
In the relentless, unceasing struggle for survival which pervades the Universe, the war of ideas is as stern as any. The more vital idea prevail in politics, morals, religion. Time is the only arbiter in the struggle. But ultimate issues only concern us remotely. We live here and now. However high and proud rises the palace of dreams, the humble work of foundations is the concern of our present generation. Young Ireland is puzzled by conflicting ideals, deafened by opposing war-cries, paralysed by contradictory commands. Education is not animated by a common patriotic spirit. Until one patriotism has ousted the other, until the goal of National and civic endeavour has been more precisely defined, until agreement upon what is vital and essential to the destiny of the people has been reached, patience and hope must be our cardinal virtues. In no country in the world has the Past riveted such fetters upon the Present as it has in Ireland.
The spirits of hostility, defiance and suspicion have brooded so long over the country that it is a marvel how any common national sentiment has been evolved.
To sum up. In Irish education, viewed as a whole, there is something elementary lacking; something which in other countries is taken for granted – that is, the simple notion of a common country, in whose material interests all are equally concerned, whose honour all must defend, the significance of whose life transcends that of the individual’s life. The reason for this fatal defect is, or should be, patent to all. Two incompatible ideals are preached from one generation to another. Society is divided upon a fundamental issue. Moreover, in Ireland, State and Nation are not only not identical, but frequently in violent opposition to one another, and never united except by mechanical bonds. But there is no doubt that the conception of service to Ireland, for Ireland’s own sake, is becoming more prevalent; it is, moreover, a conception by no means peculiar to any one section of Irishmen. Herein lies our great hope for the future. A feeling of genuine disgust with the past is beginning to pervade young Ireland; and a common ground is slowly being reached from which a fresh start may be made. Imperialist Irishmen and Nationalist Irishmen are beginning to realise that they can travel, at any rate, a certain distance in company, although their paths ultimately diverge. When Ireland is a State in being she will see to it that her system of education is in harmony with her own intimate life. Until that consummation is reached, the two ideals must war for the mastery, and the more potent will prevail.