A PRACTICAL VIEW OF IRISH EDUCATION.
A little learning, we are told, is a dangerous thing; and in their dealings with Irish education the English should have discovered that this danger is accentuated when the little learning is combined with much native wit. In the days when religious persecution was universal--only, be it remembered, a few generations ago--it was the policy of England to avert this danger by prohibiting, as far as possible, the acquisition by Irish Roman Catholics of any learning at all. After the Union, Englishmen began to feel their responsibility for the state of Ireland, a state of poverty and distress which culminated in the Famine. Knowledge was then no longer withheld: indeed the English sincerely desired to dispel our darkness and enable us to share in the wisdom, and so in the prosperity, of the predominant partner. In their attempts to educate us they dealt with what they saw on the surface, and moulded their educational principles upon what they knew; but they did not know Ireland. Even if we excuse them for paying scant attention to what they were told by Irishmen, they should have given more heed to the reports of their own Royal Commissions.
We have so far seen that the Irish mind has been in regard to economics, politics, and even some phases of religious influence, a mind warped and diseased, deprived of good nutrition and fed on fancies or fictions, out of which no genuine growth, industrial or other, was possible. The one thing that might have strengthened and saved a people with such a political, social, and religious history, and such racial characteristics, was an educational system which would have had special regard to that history, and which would have been a just expression of the better mind of the people whom it was intended to serve.
Now this is exactly what was denied to Ireland. Not merely has all educational legislation come from England, in the sense of being based on English models and thought out by Englishmen largely out of touch and sympathy with the peculiar needs of Ireland, but whenever there has been genuine native thought on Irish educational problems, it has been either ignored altogether or distorted till its value and significance were lost. And in this matter we can claim for Ireland that there was in the country during the first half of the nineteenth century, when England was trying her best to provide us with a sound English education, a comparatively advanced stage of home-grown Irish thought upon the educational needs of the people. Take, for example, the Society for Promoting Elementary Education among the Irish Poor, know as the Kildare Street Society, which was founded as early as the year 1811. The first resolution passed by this body, which was composed of prominent Dublin citizens of all religious beliefs, was set out as follows:--
This Society, it is true, did not see or foresee that any system of mixed religious education was doomed to failure in Ireland, but they took a wide view of the place of education in a nation's development, and the character of the education which their schools actually dispensed was admirable. This hopeful and enterprising educational movement is described by Mr. Lecky in a passage from which I take a few extracts:--
Take, again, as an evidence of the progressive spirit of the Irish thinkers on education, the remarkable scheme of national education which, after the passing of the Catholic Emancipation Act, was formulated by Mr. Thomas Wyse, of Waterford. In addition to elementary schools, Mr. Wyse proposed to establish in every county, 'an academy for the education of the middle class of society in those departments of knowledge most necessary to those classes, and over those a College in each of the four provinces, managed by a Committee representative of the interests of the several counties of the provinces.' 'It is a matter of importance,' wrote Mr. Wyse, 'for the simple and efficient working of the whole system of national education, that each part should as much as possible be brought into co-operation and accord with the others.' He foresaw, too, that one of the needs of the Irish temperament was a training in science which would cultivate the habits of 'education, observation, and reasoning,' and he pointed out that the peculiar manufactures, trades, and occupations of the several localities would determine the course of studies. Mr. Wyse's memorandum on education led, as is well known, to the creation of the Board of National Education, but, to quote Dr. Starkie, the present Resident Commissioner of the Board, 'the more important part of the scheme, dealing with a university and secondary education, was shelved, in spite of Mr. Wyse's warnings that it was imprudent, dangerous, and pernicious to the social condition of the country, and to its future tranquillity, that so much encouragement should be given to the education of the lower classes, without at the same time due provision being made for the education of the middle and upper classes.'
As still another evidence of the sound thought on educational problems which came from Irishmen who knew the actual conditions of their own country and people, the case of the agricultural instruction administered by the National Board is pertinent. The late Sir Patrick Keenan has told us that landlords and others who on political and religious grounds distrusted the National system, turned to this feature of the operations of the National Board with the greatest fervour. A scheme of itinerant instruction in agriculture, which had a curious resemblance to that which the Department of Agriculture is now organising, was developed, and was likely to have worked with the greatest advantage to the country at large. Sir Patrick Keenan, who knew Ireland and the Irish people well, speaks of this part of the scheme as 'the most fruitful experiment in the material interests of the country that was ever attempted. It was,' he adds, 'through the agency of this corps of practical instructors that green cropping as a systematic feature in farming was introduced into the South and West, and even into the central parts of Ireland.' But all the hopes thus raised went down, not before any intrinsic difficulties in the scheme itself, or before any adverse opinion to it in Ireland, but before the opposition of the Liverpool Financial Reform Association, who had their own views as to the limits of State interference with agriculture. These examples, drawn from different stages of Irish educational history, might easily be multiplied, but they will serve as typical instances of that want of recognition by English statesmen of Irish thought on Irish problems, and that ignoring of Irish sentiment--as distinguished from Irish sentimentality--which I insist is the basal element in the misunderstandings of Irish problems.
I now come to a brief consideration of some facts of the present educational situation, and I shall indicate, for those readers who are not familiar with current events in Ireland, the significant evolution, or revolution, through which Irish education is passing. Within the last eight years we have had in Ireland three very remarkable reports--in themselves symptoms of a widespread unrest and dissatisfaction--on the educational systems of the country. I allude to the reports of two Viceregal Commissions, one on Manual and Practical Instruction in our Primary Schools, and the other on our Intermediate Education; and to the recent report by a Royal Commission on University Education. These reports cover the three grades of our educational system, and each of them contains a strong denunciation and a scathing criticism of the existing provision and methods of instruction in elementary, secondary, and university education (outside Dublin University), respectively. One and all showed that the education to be had in our primary and secondary schools, as well as in the examining body known as the Royal University, had little regard to the industrial or economic conditions of the country. We find, for example, agriculture taught out of a text book in the primary schools, with the result that the gamins of the Belfast streets secured the highest marks in the subject. In the Intermediate system are to be found anomalies of a similar kind, which could not long have survived if there had been a living opinion on educational matters in Ireland. No careful reader of the evidence given before the Commissions can fail to see that under our educational system the schools were practically bribed to fall in with a stereotyped course of studies which left scant room for elasticity and adaptation to local needs; that the teacher was, to all intents and purposes, deprived of healthy initiative; and that the Irish parents must as a body have been in the dark as to the bearing of their children's studies on their probable careers in life. A deep and wholesome impression was made in Ireland by the exposure of the intrinsic evils of a system calculated in my opinion to turn our youth into a generation of second-rate clerks, with a distinct distaste for any industrial or productive occupation in which such qualities as initiative, self-reliance, or judgment were called for.
I am told by competent authorities that there is not a single educational principle laid down in either the report on Manual Instruction or on Intermediate Education, which was not known and applied at least half a century ago in continental countries. In fact, in the Recess Committee investigations, as any reader of the report of that body can see for himself, the Committee, guided by foreign experience, foreshadowed practically every reform now being put into operation. It is better, of course, that we should reform late than never, but it is well to bear in mind also, so far as the problems of this book are concerned, how far the education of the country has fallen short of any sound standard, and how little could have been expected from the working of our system. The curve of Irish illiteracy has indeed fallen continuously with each succeeding census, but true education as opposed to mere instruction has languished sadly.
Together with my friends and fellow-workers in the self-help movement, I believe that the problem of Irish education, like all other Irish problems, must be reconsidered from the standpoint of its relation to the practical affairs and everyday life of the people of Ireland. The needs and opportunities of the industrial struggle must, in fact, mould into shape our educational policy and programmes. We are convinced that there is little hope of any real solution of the more general problem of national education, unless and until those in direct contact with the specific industries of the country succeed in bringing to the notice of those engaged in the framing of our educational system the kind and degree of the defects in the industrial character of our people which debar them from successful competition with other countries. Education in Ireland has been too long a thing apart from the economic realities of the country--with what result we know. In the work of the Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction for Ireland, an attempt is being made to establish a vital relation between industrial education and industrial life. It is desired to try, at this critical stage of our development, the experiment--I call it an experiment only because it does not seem to have been tried before in Ireland--of directing our instruction with a conscious and careful regard to the probable future careers of those we are educating.
This attempt touches, of course, only one department of the whole educational problem, much of which it would be quite outside my present purpose to discuss. But I must guard against the supposition that in our insistence upon the importance of the practical side of education we are under any doubt as to the great importance of the literary side. My friends and I have been deeply impressed by the educational experience of Denmark, where the people, who are as much dependent on agriculture as are the Irish, have brought it by means of organisation to a more genuine success than it has attained anywhere else in Europe. Yet an inquirer will at once discover that it is to the "High Schools" founded by Bishop Grundtvig, and not to the agricultural schools, which are also excellent, that the extraordinary national progress is mainly due. A friend of mine who was studying the Danish system of State aid to agriculture, found this to be the opinion of the Danes of all classes, and was astounded at the achievements of the associations of farmers, not only in the manufacture of butter, but in a far more difficult undertaking, the manufacture of bacon in large factories equipped with all the most modern machinery and appliances which science had devised for the production of the finished article. He at first concluded that this success in a highly technical industry by bodies of farmers indicated a very perfect system of technical education. But he soon found another cause. As one of the leading educators and agriculturists of the country put it to him: 'It's not technical instruction, it's the humanities.' I would like to add that it is also, if I may coin a term, the 'nationalities,' for nothing is more evident to the student of Danish education or, I might add, of the excellent system of the Christian Brothers in Ireland, than that one of the secrets of their success is to be found in their national basis and their foundation upon the history and literature of the country.
To sum up the educational situation in Ireland, it is not too much to say that all our forms of education, technical and general, hang loose. We lack a body of trained teachers; we have no alert and informed public opinion on education and its function in regard to life; and there is no proper provision for research work in all branches, a deficiency, which, I am told by those who have given deep thought and long study to these problems, inevitably reacts most disastrously on the general educational system of the country. This state of things appears not unnatural when we remember that the Penal Laws were not repealed till almost the close of the eighteenth century, and that a large majority of the Irish people had not full and free access to even primary and secondary education until the passing of the Emancipation Act in 1829. At the present day, the absence of any provision for higher education of which Roman Catholics will avail themselves is not merely an enormous loss in itself, but it reacts most adversely upon the whole educational machinery, and consequently upon the whole public life and thought of that section of the nation.
One of the very first things I had to learn when I came into direct touch with educational problems, was that the education of a country cannot be divided into water-tight compartments, and each part legislated for or discussed solely on its merits and without reference to the other parts. I see now very clearly that the educational system of a country is an organic whole, the working of any part of which necessarily has an influence on the working of the rest. I had always looked upon the lower, secondary, and higher grades as the first, second, and third storeys of the educational house, and I am not quite sure that I attached sufficient importance to the staircase. My view has now changed, and I find myself regarding the University as a foundation and support of the primary and secondary school.
It was not on purely pedagogic grounds that I added to my other political irregularities the earnest advocacy of such a provision for higher education as Roman Catholics will avail themselves of. This great need was revealed to me in my study of the Irish mind and of the direction in which it could look for its higher development. My belief is based on practical experience; my point of view is that of the economist. When the new economic mission in Ireland began now fourteen years ago, we had to undertake, in addition to our practical programme, a kind of University extension work with the important omission of the University. We had to bring home to adult farmers whose general education was singularly poor, though their native intelligence was keen and receptive, a large number of general ideas bearing on the productive and distributive side of their industry. Our chief obstacles arose from the lack of trained economic thought among all classes, and especially among those to whom the majority looked for guidance. The air was thick with economic fallacies or half-truths. We were, it is true, successful beyond our expectations in planting in apparently uncongenial soil sound economic principles. But our success was mainly due, as I shall show later, to our having used the associative instincts of the Irish peasant to help out the working of our theories; and we became convinced that if a tithe of our priests, public men, national school teachers, and members of our local bodies had received a university education, we should have made much more rapid progress.
I hardly know how to describe the mental atmosphere in which we were working. It would be no libel upon the public opinion upon which we sought to make an impression to say that it really allowed no question to be discussed on its merits. Public opinion on social and economic questions is changing now, but I cannot associate the change with any influence emanating from institutions of higher education. In other countries, so far as my investigations have extended, the universities do guide economic thought and have a distinct though wholly unofficial function as a court of appeal upon questions relating to the material progress of the communities amongst which they are situated. Of such institutions there are in Ireland only two which could be expected to direct in any large way the thought of the country upon economic and other important national questions--Maynooth, and Trinity College, Dublin. Whether in their widely different spheres of influence these two institutions could, under conditions other than those prevailing, have so met the requirements of the country as to have obviated what is at present an urgent necessity for a complete reorganisation of higher education need not be discussed; but it is essential to my argument that I should set forth clearly the results of my own observation upon their influence, or rather lack of influence, upon the people among whom I have worked.
The influence of Maynooth, actual and potential, can hardly be exaggerated, but it is exercised indirectly upon the secular thought of the country. It is not its function to make a direct impression. It is in fact only a professional--I had almost said a technical--school. It trains its students, most admirably I am told, in theology, philosophy, and the studies subsidiary to these sciences, but always, for the vast majority of its students, with a distinctly practical and definite missionary end in view. There is, I believe, an arts course of modest scope, designed rather to meet the deficiencies of students whose general education has been neglected than to serve as anything in the nature of a university arts course. I am quite aware of the value of a sound training in mental science if given in connection with a full university course, but I am equally convinced that the Maynooth education, on the whole, is no substitute for a university course, and that while its chief end of turning out a large number of trained priests has been fulfilled, it has not given, and could not be expected to have given, that broader and more humane culture which only a university, as distinguished from a professional school, can adequately provide.
Moreover, under the Maynooth system young clerics are constantly called upon to take a part in the life of a lay community, towards which, when they entered college, they were in no position of responsibility, and upon which, so far as secular matters are concerned, when they emerge from their theological training, they are no better adapted to exercise a helpful influence. In my experience of priests I have met with many in whom I recognised a sincere desire to attend to the material and social well-being of their flocks, but who certainly had not that breadth of view and understanding of human nature which perhaps contact with the laity during the years in which they were passing from discipline to authority might have given to them. However this may be, it is clear and it is admitted that education as opposed to professional training of a high order is still, generally speaking, a want among the priests of Ireland, and I look forward to no greater boon from a University or University College for Roman Catholics than its influence, direct and indirect, on a body of men whose prestige and authority are necessarily so unique.
It is, therefore, to Trinity College, or the University of Dublin, that one would naturally turn as to a great centre of thought in Ireland for help in the theoretic aspects, at least, of the practical problems upon whose successful solution our national well-being depends. Judged by the not unimportant test of the men it has supplied to the service of the State and country during its three centuries of educational activity, by the part it took in one of the brightest epochs of these three centuries--the days when it gave Grattan to Grattan's Parliament, by the work and reputation of the alumni it could muster to-day within and without its walls, our venerable seat of learning need not fear comparison with any similar institutions in Great Britain. It may also, of course, be said that many men who have passed through Trinity College have impressed the thought of Ireland, and, indeed, of the world, in one way or another--such men as, to take two very different examples, Burke and Thomas Davis--but on some of the very best spirits amongst these men Trinity College and its atmosphere have exerted influence rather by repulsion than by attraction; and certainly their characteristics of temper or thought have not been of a kind which those best acquainted with the atmosphere of Trinity College associate with that institution. Still nothing can detract from the credit of having educated such men. But these tests and standards are, for my present purpose, irrelevant. I am not writing a book on Irish educational history, or even a record of present-day Irish educational achievement. I am rather trying, from the standpoint of a practical worker for national progress, to measure the reality and strength of the educational and other influences which are actually and actively operating on the character and intellect of the majority of the Irish people, moulding their thought and directing their action towards the upbuilding of our national life.
From this point of view I am bound to say that Trinity College, so far as I have seen, has had but little influence upon the minds or the lives of the people. Nor can I find that at any period of the extraordinarily interesting economic and social revolution, which has been in progress in Ireland since the great catastrophe of the Famine period, Dublin University has departed from its academic isolation and its aloofness from the great national problems that were being worked out. The more one thinks of it, indeed, and the more one realises the opportunities of an institution like Trinity College in a country like Ireland, the more one must recognise how small, in recent times, has been its positive influence on the mind of the country, and how little it has contributed towards the solution of any of those problems, educational, economic, or social, that were clamant for solution, and which in any other country would have naturally secured the attention of men who ought to have been leaders of thought.
Whatever the causes, and many may be assigned, this unfortunate lack of influence on the part of Trinity College, has always seemed to me a strong supplementary argument for the creation of another University or University College on a more popular basis, to which the Roman Catholic people of Ireland would have recourse. From the fact that Maynooth by its constitution could never have developed into a great national University, and that Trinity College has never, as a matter of fact, done so, and has thus, in my opinion, missed a unique opportunity, it has come about that Ireland has been without any great centre of thought whose influence would have tended to leaven the mass of mental inactivity or random-thinking so prevalent in Ireland, and would have created a body of educated public opinion sufficiently informed and potent to secure the study and discussion on their merits of questions of vital interest to the country. The demoralising atmosphere of partisanship which hangs over Ireland would, I am convinced, gradually give way before an organised system of education with a thoroughly democratic University at its head, which would diffuse amongst the people at large a sense of the value of a balanced judgment on, and a true appreciation of, the real forces with which Ireland has to deal in building up her fortunes.
To discuss the merits of the different solutions which have been proposed for the vexed problem of higher education in Ireland would be beyond the scope of this book. The question will have to be faced, and all I need do here is to state the conditions which the solution will have to fulfil if it is to deal with the aspects of the Irish Question with which the new movement is practically concerned. What is most needed is a University that will reach down to the rural population, much in the same way as the Scottish Universities do, and a lower scale of fees will be required than Trinity College, with its diminished revenues, could establish. Already I can see that the work of the new Department, acting in conjunction with local bodies, urban and rural, throughout the country, will provide a considerable number of scholarships, bursaries, and exhibitions for young men who are being prepared to take part in the very real, but rather hazily understood, industrial revival which is imminent. Leaving sectarian controversies out of the question, the type of institution which is required in order to provide adequately for the classes now left outside the influence of higher education is an institution pre-eminently national in its aims, and one intimately associated with the new movements making for the development of our national resources.
Unfortunately, however, in Ireland, and indeed in England too, there is a tendency to regard educational institutions almost solely as they will affect religion. At least it is difficult to arouse any serious interest in them except from this point of view. I welcome, therefore, the striking answers given to the queries of Lord Robertson, Chairman of the University Commission, by Dr. O'Dwyer, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Limerick, who boldly and wisely placed the question before the country in the light in which cleric and layman should alike regard it:--
Equally significant were the statements of Dr. O'Dea, the official spokesman of Maynooth, when he said,
I had for long indulged a hope that a university of the type which Ireland requires would have been the outcome of a great national educational movement emanating from Trinity College, which might, at this auspicious hour, have surpassed all the proud achievements of its three hundred years. That hope was dispelled when the cry of 'Hands off Trinity' was applied to the profane hands of the Royal Commission. Perhaps that attitude may be reconsidered yet. There is one hopeful sentiment which is often heard coming from that institution. An opinion has been strongly expressed that nothing ought to be done to separate in secular life two sections of Irishmen who happen to belong to different creeds. Whatever may be the logical outcome of the position taken up towards the University problem by those who give expression to this pious opinion, I do not for a moment doubt their sincerity. But I often think that too much importance is attached to the danger of building new walls, and that there is too little appreciation of the wide and deep foundation of the already existing walls between the two sections of Irishmen who are so unhappily kept apart. In dealing with this, as with all large Irish problems, it had better be frankly recognised that there are in the country two races, two creeds, and, what is too little considered, two separate spheres of economic interest and pursuit. Socially two separate classes have naturally, nay inevitably, arisen out of these distinctions. One class has superior advantages in many ways of great importance. The other class is far more numerous, produces far the greater proportion of the nation's wealth, and is, therefore, from the national point of view, of greater importance. But both are necessary. Both must be adequately provided for in the supreme matter of higher education. Above all, the two classes must be educated to regard themselves as united by the bond of a common country--a sentiment which, if genuine, would treat differences arising from whatever cause, not as a difficulty in the way of national progress, but rather as affording a variety of opportunities for national expansion.
I do not concern myself as to the exact form which the new institution or institutions which are to give us the absolutely essential advantage of higher education should take. If in view of the difference in the requirements to which I have alluded, and the complicated pedagogic and administrative considerations which have to be taken into account, schemes of co-education of Protestants and Roman Catholics are difficult of immediate accomplishment, let that ideal be postponed. The two creeds can meet in the playground now: they can meet everywhere in after life. Ireland will bring them together soon enough if Ireland is given a chance, and when the time is ripe for their coming together in higher education they will come together. If the time is not now ripe for this ideal there is no justification for postponing educational reform until the relations between the two creeds have been elevated to a plane which, in my opinion, they will never reach except through the aid of that culture which a widely diffused higher education alone can afford.
When I was beginning to write this chapter I chanced to pick up the Chesterfield Letters. I opened the book at the two hundredth epistle, and, curiously enough, almost the first sentence which caught my eye ran: 'Education more than nature is the cause of that difference you see in the character of men.' I felt myself at first in strong disagreement with this aphorism. But when I came to reflect how much the nature of one generation must be the outcome of the education of those which went before it, I gradually came to see the truth in Lord Chesterfield's words. I must leave it to experts to define the exact steps which ought to be taken to make the general education of this country capable of cultivating the judgment, strengthening the will, and so of building up the character. But every day, every thought, I give to the problems of Irish progress convinces me more firmly that this is the real task of educational reform, a task that must be accomplished before we can prove to those who brand us with racial inferiority that, in Ireland, it was not nature that has been unkind in causing the difference we find in the character of men.