William Morris’ Thoughts on Education – 19th century

I ran across this vignette while reading Nature’s Unruly Mob by Paul Gilk.  I thought I would share this story, from page 65: The Educator’s Engine
“In News from Nowhere, a late nineteenth-century novel by William Morris, there is an interesting dialogue I will shortly quote. But first a little background, News from Nowhere is eutopian.
As News from Nowhere opens, the author, as first person character, has fallen asleep in his bed (in Hammersmith, a London suburb, in 1980) and awakens in the twenty-first century.  He finds himself in the same location, except that everything, including the building in which he went to sleep, is new and different.  After an episode of discovery and introduction—an experience as puzzling to the author as to his amused hosts and hostesses—he gets a guide by the name of Dick Hammond; and as they are traveling the following day (by horse and carriage!), our author sees many strange and transformed sights.  A group of children, tenting in meadows near the edge of the forest, sets the following scene:

Romantic as the Kensington wood was, however, it was not lonely.  We came on many groups both coming and going, or wandering in the edges of the wood.  Among these were many children from six to eight years old up to sixteen or seventeen.  They seemed to me to be especially fine specimens of their race, and were clearly enjoying themselves to the utmost; some of them were hanging about little tents pitched on the greensward, and by some of these fires were burning, with pots hanging over them gipsy fashion. Dick explained to me that there were scattered houses in the forest, and indeed we caught a glimpse of one or two.  He said they were mostly quite small, such as used to be called cottages when there were slaves in the land, but they were pleasant enough and fitting for the wood.
‘They must be pretty well stocked with children,’ said I, pointing to the many youngsters about the way.
‘O,’ said he, ‘these children do not all come from the near houses, the woodland houses, but from the countryside generally.  They often make up parties, and come to play in the woods for weeks together in the summertime, living in tents, as you see.  We rather encourage them to it; they learn to do things for themselves, and get to notice the wild creatures; and, you see, the less they stew inside houses the better for them. Indeed, I must tell you that many grown people will go live in the forests in the summer; though they for the most part go to the bigger ones, like Windsor, or the Forest of Dean, or the northern wastes.  Apart from the other pleasures of it, it gives them a little rough work, which I am sorry to say is getting somewhat scarce for these last fifty years’.
He broke off, and then said, ‘I tell you all this, because I see if I talk I must be answering questions, which you are thinking, even if you are not speaking them out; but my kinsman will tell you more about it.’
I saw that I was likely to get out of my depth again, and so merely for the sake of tiding over and awkwardness and to say something, I said–
‘Well, the youngsters here will be all the fresher for school when the summer gets over and they have to go back again.’
‘School?’ he said; ‘yes, what do you mean by that word? I don’t see how it can have anything to do with children.  We talk, indeed, of a school of herring, and a school of paining, and in the former sense we might talk of a school of children—but otherwise,’ said he, laughing,’ I must own myself beaten’.
Dang it! thought I, I can’t open my mouth without digging up some new complexity.  I wouldn’t try to set my friend right in his etymology; and I thought I had best say nothing about the boyfarms which I had been used to call schools, as I saw pretty clearly that they had disappeared; so I said after a little fumbling, ‘I was using the word in the sense of a system of education.’
‘Education?’ said he, meditatively, ‘I know enough Latin to know that word must come from educere, to lead out; and I have heard it used; but I have never met anyone who could give me a clear explanation of what it means.’
You may imagine how my new friends fell in my esteems when I heard this frank avowal; and I said, rather contemptuously, ‘Well, education means a system of teaching young people.’
Why not old people also?’ said he with a twinkle in his eye. ‘But,’ he went on, ‘I can assure you our children learn, whether they go through a “system of teaching” or not.  Why you will not find one of these children about here, boy or girl, who cannot swim; and everyone of them has been used to tumbling about the little forest ponies—there’s one of them now! They all of them know how to cook; the bigger lads can mow; many can thatch and do odd jobs carpentering; or they know how to keep shop.  I can tell you they know plenty of things.’
‘Yes, but their mental education, the teaching of their minds,’ said I, kindly translating my phrase.
‘Guest,’ said he, ‘perhaps you have not learned to do these things I have been speaking about; and if that’s the case, don’t you run away with the idea that it doesn’t take some skill to do them, and doesn’t give plenty of work for one’s mind; you would change you opinion if you saw a Dorsetshire lad thatching, for instance.  But, however, I understand you to be speaking of book-learning; and as to that, it is a simple affair.  Most children, seeing books lying about, manage to read by the time they are four years old.; though I am told it has not always been so.  As to writing, we do not encourage them to scrawl too early (though scrawl a little they will), because it gets them into a habit of ugly writing; and what’s the use of a lot of ugly writing being done, when rough printing can be done so easily.  You understand that handsome writing we like, and many people will write their books out when they make them, or get them written; I mean books of which only a few copies are needed—poems, and such like, you know.’ “

About Scott Roberts

pastor of Hope in Christ Church, Bellingham, WA
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