Sunday, October 7, 2012


There is a tendency among the educated to notice particularly the inefficiencies in their schooling and to suppose that the whole business could have been managed much more quickly. I think that this is probably an illusion. It is a widespread one though.

 In the "Harvard College" chapter of The Education of Henry Adams, Adams writes
The entire work of the four years could have been easily put into the work of any four months in after life.
That greatly impressed me when I was 20 and a lazy undergraduate. These many years later, I think that the statement needs the following qualification:
Provided that one had previously spent four years at Harvard or a comparable college, and thought carefully about what one had learned in the meantime.
Santayana, who had the same education as Adams, namely Boston Latin School and Harvard College, writes in Persons and Places of Boston Latin
In the best schools, almost all time is wasted. Now and then something is learned that sticks fast; for the rest the boys are simply given time to grow and kept from too much mischief.
In context, clearly he means "Even in the best schools..." and I'm fairly sure that he means to include Boston Latin among them.

At the end of Kipling's story "Regulus", which begins with a class construing fifth ode of the third book in Horace, the science teacher Hartopp makes his case
'And at the end of seven years--how often have I said it?' Hartopp went on,--'seven years of two hundred and twenty days of six hours each, your victims go away with nothing, absolutely nothing, except, perhaps, if they've been very attentive, a dozen--no, I'll grant you twenty--one score of totally unrelated Latin tags which any child of twelve could have absorbed in two terms.'
 Yet Kipling implies that boys have learned something:
'You see. It sticks. A little of it sticks among the barbarians,' said King.
It is, though, their third time through that Ode. And Kipling writes in his autobiography that he did not at all care for Horace until as an adult he picked up a volume one night.

These days I see men and women who grew up with the very regular orthography of Spanish try to make make sense of spellings like "would"--why not "wood"?--and "ought", irrationalities I mastered as a child. Some of them I mastered under the care of drab teachers and martinets I do not remember fondly. Still, after all those worksheets, somehow I learned the spellings.

The last word perhaps should go to Samuel Johnson, who had some experience in front of a classroom, and not--as Adams and Santayana's--at  a college:
Every man that has ever undertaken to instruct others can tell what slow advances he has been able to make, and how much patience it requires to recall vagrant inattention, to stimulate sluggish indifference, and to rectify absurd misapprehension.

1 comment:

  1. Schooling is wasted on the schoolchild in the same way that youth is wasted on the young - or at least both were wasted on me and I now regret it.