Our Unordained Ministry
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
THE education question has had a front place on the national programme for some years now, but it is doubtful whether the English people are yet awake to its real significance. We are deep in the politics of the matter. What is called " the religious question " absorbs public attention. And religion here stands for the quarrel of the denominations. When we talk " education " we mean the legislation of recent years. But this phase of the question, important and exciting though it be, is after all merely temporary and incidental. It is only when we are through this debatable land, at its farther side, that we face the real facts of the position. The actual question, beside which all other matters are trivial, is as to the making. of England, and the part our schools are to play in the process. That, we repeat, is the aspect of education to which the nation has yet to be awakened. It is not in the least degree alive to the potentialities hidden in the common school. The religious bodies have of late been much exercised as to the actual influence they are exerting upon the national life. They are in doubt as to whether it increases or declines. The statistics of church attendance have certainly had no great encouragement to offer. They show a vast and growing population that lies outside their reach.
But side by side with the church, with its empty seats, stands the school, which is always full. Here is a teaching institution, the church, shall we say, of the young, which knows of no dissenters and practically of no absentees. It is the one moral instructor left us which can back its appeal with authority. There was a time when the Church had this power. Buckle, amongst others, has given us a vivid picture of Presbyterian ascendency in earlier Scottish days, when non-attendance at service without adequate reason was visited with heavy penalties. But the Church to-day, of what-ever name, in Scotland as elsewhere, has lost its coercive power. Its only claim on the multitude is by the attractions it offers.
But the school, as moral and spiritual guide, has other present-day advantages over the church. Its congregation, vast with the vastness of the entire juvenile population, and subject to no vicissitudes, to no ebb and flow of popularity, is a congregation meeting not for one day in the week only, but almost every day. Here is an influence which, instead of obtruding itself once a week, as does the church, into a whirlpool of other and often conflicting forces, occupies for a term of years practically the whole mind of the pupil. More than that. The school possesses this unlimited sway at the time when of all others the soul is most impressionable, the most retentive, the most plastic to the hand that forms it. Nothing holds us like the early memories. They have the supreme advantage of being the first in the field. The old man, who forgets all else of his life, remembers the things of his boyhood. The mind becomes afterwards a palimpsest on which a thousand other characters are imprinted. But the school teacher has the first use of the parchment.
This, then, is the situation. The England of the future is being mentally and morally born in the common school. Here its shape and size are being given to it. According to what our school is the nation will be. Are we clear yet as to what our school is and ought to be ? Have we taken the correct measure of this stupendous instrument ? Have we inquired as to the kind of work it should be set to ? Have we properly estimated the position and responsibilities of that vast army of teachers of both sexes who are its directing forces ? Are they in their turn awake to the real magnitude of their calling ? Do they know themselves as, though unordained, the greatest ministry which England today possesses ? It may be well, in the light of questions of this sort, to probe the position a little more closely.
We have spoken of the common school as the children's church, of the teachers as an unordained ministry. But this, it will be said, is just bringing us back into our present squabbles. Instead of keeping outside the debatable ground it plumps us into the very middle of it. It is the religious question over again. Yes, truly, we answer, a religious question, but not that of the old controversies. The present need, as we conceive it, is for a view of the school and its functions which shall at one and the same time stay the religious quarrel and recreate the nation. A recent book which has created much attention, has been published under the title, " Bushido ; or, the Soul of Japan." The point now is whether there be not such a thing as " the soul of England," and whether that soul cannot be made the inspiration and the governing power of our school life.
In the work just mentioned we are told how certain ideas, sentiments and traditions, handed down from generation to generation, and wrought into the very fibre of the people, have made Japan what it is. In that exposition we have the key to the secret of effective education. It is first and last an affair of soul. Amid the clash of our present controversies there is a thing on which all honest men are agreed, and it is that the one prime asset of a man and of a people is character ; the one problem is how to produce it. The school that cannot get this as a result, whatever else it can offer, is a failure. You may teach handwriting and equip a forger ; you may have a chemistry class and turn out expert poisoners and bomb-throwers. " Clever men," said Huxley, " are as common as blackberries ; the rare thing is to find a good one."
But how are we going to get character, virtue, our " good man," out of the school ? Plato, in more than one place, elaborates the thesis that virtue cannot be taught. And assuredly you cannot teach it as you teach arithmetic. And you cannot get it, though masses of men are not yet convinced of this, by teaching theological dogmas. Of all the experiments for putting a soul into the new generation, that of compelling it to parrot off abstruse metaphysical propositions to which the boy and girl mind brings neither the remotest comprehension nor the slightest sympathy, is at once the most dismal and the most stupid. Moreover, the now proved impossibility of bringing the rival denominations to any agreement in dogmatic teaching bars the way to any further experiments of this kind in the common schools. We have to face the problem of securing the one prime asset of character, of getting into the body and brain of our youth the highest soul of the nation, apart from the catechisms of warring Churches.
Is there a way ? For answer we have only to question the human experience. And, fortunately, we have for this purpose such an array of evidence as never before has been open to the inquirer. We have a world-history which goes back for thousands of years ; we have documents, books and monuments which lay bare the secret of all the religions. And from them we can with some certainty deduct the way in which virtue has been acquired. We learn that if it cannot be taught it can be caught—as a contagion is caught. Inside of every religion has been a soul, and it is this soul whose secret essence has penetrated the human heart and stirred it to goodness. This soul of the religions offers nothing to fight against ; it is not a dogma to be combated, but an atmosphere to be breathed. It has dwelt in different degrees in all the nations and all the faiths. We are learning now the varying expressions which it took amongst the peoples. Even the definitions are wonderfully alike ; but we discover that the spirit was always greater than the definition. Listen to some of its voices. The religion of Zoroaster, according to Beausobre, consisted in " purity of faith, in sincerity and honesty of speech, and in the justice and holiness of actions." In China, Lao-Tse gives as his great principle : " To the good I would be good. To the not good I would also be good, in order to make them good." In Greece, we know the insistence with which Socrates taught that it was infinitely better to suffer injustice than to do it. In India, the Buddhist King Asoka defined religion as " the least possible evil, much good, piety, charity, veracity, and also purity of life."
In England the moral driving power for long generations has been Christianity. But the power here has not been the theological formula, but the soul which the Gospel contained and the personalities in which it lived. A man may oppose its formulated doctrine of the Trinity, or of the Eucharist, but no man opposes its fountains of tenderness, its spirit of philanthropy, its passion for purity, its aspiration for the perfect. The best men in every age have seen that its reality lay here. Zwingli says so in his declaration that " faith does not depend on the discussions of men, but has its seat and rests itself invincibly in the soul." Pascal from his side finds the same thing ; the perfect faith, he holds, is God felt in the heart (Dieu sensible au coeur). And Froude expresses the mind of our time in his plea to " have done with theological refinements. There is an excuse for the Fathers because the heretics forced them to define particular points. But every definition is a misfortune. . . . Inquire if you will, but do not define. Then we shall have no more quarrels, and religion will take hold on life."
Now it is this undefined soul of Christianity, as exhibited in its love, its purity, its fidelity to duty, its reverence and aspiration for the highest, by whose means the schools, without hurting any man's conscience, may be made the regenerators of England. This soul, to find its way into the new generation, must be incarnated in the teachers who instruct it. Religion is to be, not on their lips as a dogma, but in their hearts as a life. It should be found in the school not as a babble of catechisms but as the ceaseless intake of an atmosphere. At work in our schools we need not merely the drill of the daily lesson, but also a contagion of goodness. It was a conviction of Cobden's that good examples are more influential than bad ones. And nowhere does a good example tell so mightily as upon the soul of a child. Here are your true hero-worshippers. At such an age the simple passing of a good man, a stray word from him, may leave an indelible impression. When Wellington was a boy, Wesley, who was of the same family, gave him a Bible, the " Imitation," and a book by Jeremy Taylor. The Iron Duke continued to read these to the end of his life.
The whole bearing of this argument narrows then to one point—the teacher. The tens of thousands of our English men and women who have given themselves to the work of the common school, are, we believe, amongst the worthiest of the land. We shall not offend them however, we trust, when we say that great masses of them have scarcely risen yet to the full height of their vocation. They have not realised how great their office, how vast the trust reposed in them by the nation. The worst is that the nation itself does not realise it, and so belittles their work. But that must end. Carlyle, in a memorable passage, gives his view of the transcendent value to the State of the true schoolmaster. Scotland has been made by its schools, and England can be. Far be it from us to underrate the power of the Churches, and of whatever other moral forces are at work in our midst. But we repeat the destinies of England lie in our schools. We shall be on the way to the greatest things when our teachers, " our =ordained ministry " by study, by self-discipline, by every physical, mental, and, above all, by every spiritual reinforcement, seek to gain the fullest height of their own soul, that upon those little ones, who are the nation that is to be, they may pour forth the treasure of its secert life.