There is in education a law of delayed action, by which seed sown and long forgotten only grows in late years. Teachers like to see results from their efforts, and direct them accordingly, but the most precious fruits of a good teacher’s work are those that he is never likely to see.1
If the quality of teachers can best be seen by studying their students then Queen Elizabeth is splendid testimony to Roger Ascham2. Elizabeth had almost everything against her in her youth. Her mother was executed, on her father’s orders, when she was less than three. She had several illegitimate siblings (one even by her own aunt). Her first stepmother, Jane Seymour3, of whom she was very fond, died a few days after her brother Edward was born, and another was executed for adultery. Her third stepmother, Catherine Parr4, with whom she lived after her father died, quickly married a well-born charismatic adventurer, Thomas Seymour5. Seymour appears to have had something more than a stepfather’s interest in the fourteen-year-old princess, and Catherine, sensing that Elizabeth’s teenage emotions were getting dangerously confused, banished Elizabeth from her home6. Elizabeth was mortified, all the more so when Catherine died shortly afterwards in childbirth. Two years later Seymour was executed for treason, and Elizabeth’s other guardian, Archbishop Cranmer, was burnt at the stake7. For five years Elizabeth was in daily threat of execution from her Catholic stepsister, Mary8.
Few emotionally traumatised children today go through as much mental anguish as did the young Elizabeth. Yet Elizabeth emerged from all this as one of the most cultured women of her age, speaking six languages, responding at a reception in 1562 in ‘Italian to one, French to the other, Latin to the third; easily, without hesitation, clearly and without being confused at the various subjects thrown out, as is usual in such discussion’9. A woman who had every reason to be totally screwed up, most certainly was not.
Elizabeth must have inherited some genetic advantages from her two strong-minded parents, but also she had from the very start an adoring nurse, Catherine Asher10, who was to take the place of the mother Elizabeth never knew. A warm-hearted woman who had entertained romantic fantasies for her ward, she was forever aware of the dangerous intrigues that surrounded the princess. When Asher was imprisoned in the Tower of London, as much to frighten the young princess into making an admission (however false) that would implicate her and others, the sixteen-year-old Elizabeth had the audacity to plead for her nurse’s release with the very Lord Protectorate11, who was after her own blood, with the most perceptive and affectionate words; “We are more bound to those that bringeth us up well than to our parents, for our parents do that which is natural for them ─ that is bringing us into this world ─ but our bringers-up are a cause to make us live well”12.
Only in the early twenty-first century are female historians and neuropsychologists beginning to draw out of the dusty archives of history the full significance of mother, and mother substitutes, in the first few months of life on the lives of subsequently famous people. Far from being spoilt, Elizabeth was left to entertain herself. She read widely. When Ascham followed Grindal as her tutor in 1558 he was so amazed at the quality of Elizabeth’s written Greek that he doubted if there were three or four men in the whole of England who could better her. To her classical erudition Ascham gave her a delight in the cadences of the English language. Years later, in 1588, as Elizabeth rallied her troops at Tilbury to repel the Armada, she poured out the sum of all that erudition in words that recalled the Greeks, Demosthenes and Aeschines, that she had studied with the gentle Ascham; “Let tyrants fear… being resolved in the midst and heat of battle to live and die amongst you all… I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and a King of England too”13.
Ascham well understood the development of the intellect, and England owes him much for the education he provided for one of the country’s greatest monarchs, but in his generalisation about separating learning from experience, something which frightened his schoolmasterly mind because it was uncontrollable and unquantifiable, he did subsequent generations a great disservice14.
The many generations of schoolmasters who subsequently read Ascham, the majority of whom would have been bachelors, took his injunction about the superiority of book learning most literally. They troubled themselves only with what Ascham had said, but never stopped to ask why he had said it. So they continued to teach about the superiority of men over women, of logic over emotions, and of the mind over the hand to such an extent as to make the formal curriculum of the grammar school increasingly irrelevant to the needs of its pupils. The implications have often been disastrous.
Thesis 29: 24th August 2006