The Romantic Idea of Education

August 31, 2020 Authored by: Theodore Dalrymple

The Romantics emphasized the innocence and inherent goodness of children, compared with the moral degradation of adults. The way to make better adults, then, and to ensure that such degradation did not take place, was to find the right way of preserving their innocence and goodness. The right education became the prevention of education.

Along with their innocence and goodness went, or were ascribed to them, other attributes, like intelligent curiosity, natural talent, vivid imagination, desire to learn and ability to find out things for themselves. If the evidence that children were not equal in all respects was too strong to be absolutely denied, the fiction was substituted that all children were endowed with at least one special talent, and in that way were equal — all talents being equal, of course.

Romantic educational theory, subsequently provided with a patina of science by committed researchers, is full of absurdities that would be delightfully laughable had they not been taken seriously and used as the basis of educational policy to impoverish millions of lives. Romanticism has penetrated into the very fibre of the educational system, affecting even the way in which children were taught to read.

Despising routine and rote, and pretending that in all circumstances they were counterproductive or even deeply harmful, and much hated by children, the romantic educational theorists came up with the idea that children would learn to read better if they discovered how to do so for themselves.

Thus, partly on the pretext that English is not a phonetic language (though it is not completely unphonetic either, and indeed the majority of its words are written phonetically), children were presented with whole words and sentences in the hope that they would eventually deduce the principles of spelling and grammar. This is only slightly more sensible than sitting a child under an apple in the hope that it will arrive at the theory of gravity. Most children need a clue, and even those few who don’t could spend their time more profitably on other things. Here I shall give only a selection of some of the things that have been said, apparently believed and acted upon.

In the examination of any intellectual or social trend, it is impossible to reach its sole and indisputable source, as it is possible to do for some rivers, nor is it necessary to do so. All that is necessary is to show that the trend exists and that it has its intellectual antecedents.

The theorists of education of the nineteenth century and first part of the twentieth laid the foundations for schools that, in large parts of the country, have become little more than elaborate baby-sitting services and the means by which children are kept off the streets, where they might act like piranha fish in a South American river. Never in the field of human history has so little been imparted to so many at such great expense.

In Britain, we now spend four times as much per head on education as in 1950; but it is very doubtful whether the standard of literacy in the general population has increased, and it is far from impossible that it might have decreased.

In the area in which I worked, a poor one, I discovered that the majority of my patients who had recently emerged from eleven years of compulsory education, or at any rate of compulsory attendance at school, could not read a simple text with facility. They would stumble over longer words, and would often be completely unable to decipher words of three syllables, pointing to an offending word and saying, ‘I don’t know that one’, as if English were written in ideograms rather than alphabetically. When asked to put into their own words what the passage meant that they had just stumbled through, they would say ‘I don’t know, I was only reading it.’ When asked whether they were any good at arithmetic, half of them replied ‘What’s arithmetic?’ As to their arithmetical ability itself, it can perhaps best be grasped by the reply that one eighteen year-old gave me to the question ‘What is three times four?’

‘I don’t know,’ he said, ‘we didn’t get that far.’

I should point out that these young people were not of deficient intelligence, and in any case I discovered that the mentally-handicapped children of middle class professional parents, who had taken care to educate those children to the maximum of their capacity, were often better able to read and reckon than their much more intelligent age-peers from working-class, or sub-working-class, backgrounds.

Nor was the virtual illiteracy of the young people compensated for by any great development of memory such as often found in pre-literate peoples. Their general level of information was pitiful. In fifteen years, I met three young people among my patients who had recently received a British state education who knew the dates of the Second World War, and I thought it a triumph of natural intelligence in the circumstances that one of them deduced from the fact that there had been a Second that there had been a First, though he knew nothing of it. Needless to say, they did not know the date of anything else in history either.

It is true that my patients were a selected sample, and perhaps not representative of the population as a whole; but my sample was not a small one, and it has to be remembered that it has been proved beyond reasonable doubt that, using the right teaching methods, it is possible to teach nearly 100 per cent of the children coming from the poorest and worst of homes to read and write fluently. This is so, incidentally, even when English is not the language used at home.

It is indicative of the intellectual deformations produced by sentimentality that, when I recounted my experiences to middle-class intellectuals, they imagined that I was criticising or sneering at my patients, rather than drawing attention, with a fury that it required all my self-control not to make absurdly evident, to the appalling injustice done to these children by an educational system that did not even have the advantage (or excuse) of being cheap. Indeed, they largely refused to accept either the truth or the wider validity of my observations, using a variety of mental subterfuges to minimise their significance.

They would say that what I was saying was not true — though all statistical surveys, as well as other anecdotal evidence, suggested that my findings were far from unusual or unique to me. Then they would say that, though true perhaps, it was ever thus, not realising that, even if this were so, it would not justify the present state of affairs. The vast increase in expenditure alone ought to have ensured that what had previously been the case was the case no longer; that previous ages had reasons for not imparting letters to children that were no longer available to us as an excuse for failing to do so; but that, in any case, there was evidence that it was simply not true that it was ever thus.

In France, for example, tests have demonstrated as conclusively as such things can be demonstrated that the level of comprehension of simple written texts, and the ability of today’s children to write the French language correctly, has declined by comparison with that of children educated in the 1920s, when controlled for various factors such as social class. Perhaps this is not altogether surprising: when the education correspondent of Le Figaro wrote an article drawing attention to declining standards, he received 600 letters from teachers, a third of which contained spelling errors. And it is obvious that among the reasons for the decline in standards in France are the same gimcrack romantic educational ideas that have held sway in Britain for rather longer.

The reluctance of the romantically-inclined to acknowledge that there was something profoundly wrong with an educational system that left a high proportion of the population unable to read properly or do simple arithmetic (despite the expenditure of vast sums and the more than adequate intelligence of that population to master those skills) probably derived from their unwillingness to give up their post-religious sentimentality, the idea that but for the deformations of society, man was good and children were born in a state of grace.

Some of the things written by romantic educational theorists are so ludicrous that it takes a complete absence of sense of humour not to laugh at them, and an almost wilful ignorance of what children, or at least many or most children, are like to believe them. Perhaps my favourite is from Cecil Grant’s English Education and Dr Montessori, published in 1913:

“No child learning to write should ever be told a letter is faulty… every stupid child or man is the product of discouragement… give Nature a free hand, and there would be nobody stupid.”

Clearly Mr Grant was much discouraged in his youth, but not nearly enough, I fear.

Centre For Indic studies