In recent years it has been said ruefully that the English naturally excel in invention, the Japanese in manufacturing and the Americans in salesmanship. Why are the English like this? It seems it all goes back to the Reformation, to the very first book ever written in England about education, which argued that as a student could learn more in an hour from a book, than in twenty hours of experience, practical subjects were of no value1.
Henry’s dissolution of the monasteries left England with a sudden shortage of schools, just at the time when the commercial interests of the country called for larger numbers of educated young men. Edward diverted some of the monies from the suppression of the chanteries to the creation of some new (Edward Sixth) free grammar schools, while wealthy merchants and others early in Elizabeth’s reign, no longer able to endow a chantery in their name, turned instead to endowing grammar schools2. But what, and how, should such schools now teach, for the Reformation had fundamentally changed the way Protestants thought about authority? Which meant that people had to be taught to think for themselves. That in turn challenged the traditional role of priests and teachers who had to become, in modern jargon, more like facilitators than instructors.
Men wanted to hold onto as many of the older traditions as possible, and one such was the Rev. Thomas Alleyne, rector of Stevenage, who bequeathed money to found three grammar schools when he died in 1558. He was in no doubt that it was to be ‘more of the same’, by ordering that ‘in their communications all pupils shall be in Latine in all places among themselves as well as in the streets and in their playes as in schole’.
Ten years later the fifty-three year old Roger Ascham3 published what was to become the most important education book of its time, and of subsequent centuries, namely “The Scholemaster”. Ascham wrote this, significantly, in English not Latin. He has to be taken seriously. In his day he was revered as an outstanding scholar and, in 1548, when Princess Elizabeth was fourteen years old, he became her tutor. Ascham was conventional in the priority which he placed on the study of the classics ─ both literature and language ─ but unconventional in the emphasis he placed on ‘gentleness’ in instruction especially in the early years. He urged the cultivation of ‘hard wits’, rather than superficial ‘quick wits’, which he defined as those who could memorise answers but not work things out for themselves. That was a fundamental challenge to the pre-reformation system of schooling.
Intellectually rigorous with students, he was humane and harshly criticised the brutality of much grammar school teaching (‘the butchery fear of making Latin’s’), the foolish discrimination against the slow-witted child, and the habit of sending young men to Italy to acquire personal experience of Renaissance art and literature. The schoolmaster must study each individual pupil, he wrote, and ‘discretely consider the right disposition of both their natures, and not so much weigh what either of them is able to do now, as what either of them is likely to do hereafter’. Quick wits are deceiving, Ascham wrote, for “I know that those which be commonly the wisest, the best learned, and best men also, when they be old, were never commonly the quickest of wits when they were young”4.
Which all testifies to Ascham’s greatness. But he added a third precept, and it is this which has had such a devastating effect on English education. In the attainment of wisdom Ascham was convinced that learning from a book, or from a teacher, was twenty times as effective as learning from experience. He added what seems the rather trite statement that “It was an unhappy mariner who learnt his craft from many shipwrecks”. Then he went on to say that it was folly for a young man to travel to Italy in search of the wisdom of the ancients, said Ascham. Why such a trenchant injunction? “I was once in Italy myself”, he wrote, “but I thanked God that my abode there was but nine days”. This scholar from damp and temperate England where no men, and certainly no women, ever took their clothes off in public, was appalled by the lasciviousness of the statutes, the writings and the paintings that archaeologists were recovering from the dust of ancient Rome, and the fascination these held for lecherous sixteenth century men. “I saw in that little time, in one city, more liberty to sin than ever I heard in our noble city of London in nine years”5.
So, concluded Ascham, let the schoolmaster censor what it is that students study. Classical literature contains all that is best in philosophy and greatest in human achievement but, and here was the voice of that very particular English manifestation of Protestantism — the Puritans — beginning to make itself heard by repeating, ever more vigorously, St. Paul’s diatribe against women as the temptresses of honourable men. “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” was to men like Ascham a very real sentiment6. Protestantism was to do much to release human creativity, but it was to take far longer for Protestants and the English Puritans in particular, to accept their sexuality.
Thesis 28: 24th August 2006