No child is too poor or of too humble birth to go to school. An education is the right of every person; those who are less bright need instruction to lift them out of their ignorance, whilst those with an inquiring mind need the discipline of education lest they be tempted to idleness.1
As England became more Puritan, so education was taken more seriously. By the time of Shakespeare’s death England had some four hundred and fifty grammar schools for a population of just over three million people. Most of the schools were small, and taught probably no more than one-fifth of boys, and none of the girls, of an appropriate age. “Is there anything more precious, friendly and loveable than a pious, disciplined, obedient and teachable child?”2 wrote a sanctimonious mid-sixteenth century reformer imposing his own theological expectations on human nature. To the Puritans a youngster was essentially pliant, a soul to be moulded, and hopefully to be saved for Eternity.
Roger Ascham’s plea for more ‘gentleness’ in the way teachers approached their students was needed not only across Europe, but also across the Atlantic where the early English colonists in Massachusetts were proud to have established the Boston Latin School in 16363. Teachers, by nature of their knowledge base in classical literature, philosophy and drama, were quick to assume that mental agility followed from physical intimidation. Many of them were bullies. Readers of Horace remembered that the famous Latin poet called his teacher “Whacker” Orbillius, and in the male-only world of a grammar school centuries ago, as in boys only boarding schools of far more recent years, there was an overt recognition that the ancient Greeks honoured homosexuality, and an excessive ‘whacking’ environment could be fuelled by, or indeed fuel, sado-masochistic practices4.
Elizabeth’s death highlights obvious the chasm between Catholic and Protestant factions. King James so elevated the concept of monarchy as to embrace the divine right of kings, and his son, Charles I (a closet Catholic), took such a belief to an extreme confrontation with the ever more puritanical, eventually republican, House of Commons. The English Civil War5 ended with the execution of the king on a cold January morning in 1649, by which time some half a million people (ten percent of the population) had died ─ either directly on the battlefield, of wounds received, or from plague or starvation4. Oliver Cromwell6, the farmer from Huntingdon, the man who created Parliament’s New Model Army and fervent puritan, became Lord Protector. To help him deal with foreign affairs Cromwell appointed John Milton, perhaps England’s finest poet, to be his ‘Secretary for Foreign Tongues’, or Foreign Secretary7. They were a strangely matched pair. Like Cromwell, Milton was a Puritan and a zealot, but he was also an intellectual. He was driven by the need to refute the idea of monarchy by providing a puritan doctrine of government and public order.
In his famous essay “Of Education”8 Milton observed that both the grammar schools and the universities had become too elite and ungrounded in daily realities. His solution was radical: “Though (a man) should pride himself to have all the tongues that Babel cleft the world into, yet if he have not studied solid things in them as well as words and lexicons he would nothing so much to be esteemed a learned man as any yeoman or tradesman”9. This was a direct challenge to Ascham, and the classical curriculum of the grammar schools. It also expressed well the Puritan conviction that faith without good works was valueless. Doing should follow from Thinking.
Milton proposed the setting up Academies of some one hundred and fifty young men between the ages of twelve and twenty-one in most of the market towns of England. He then turned to the Czech philosopher, Jan Amos Comenius10, whose book on education “The Great Didactic” had so impressed him when it was published in 1638, and quoted in this, and the next, Theses statements. Comenius urged Milton that learning should honour all forms of personal experience and stressed that much valid learning arises from practical experience. If education proceeds from the general to the particular, going from what is easy to what is more difficult, and if the intellect is forced to nothing to which the natural bent does not incline it, and if the use of everything taught be constantly kept in mind, then the process of education would be easy, stated Comenius. So Milton went on to conclude that every academy should call upon, as needs required, the tutorial services of ‘hunters, fowlers, fishermen, shepherds, gardeners, architects, engineers, mariners, and anatomists’ as well as mathematicians and classical scholars. This would give students a “real teacher of natural knowledge that they shall never forget”11.
“I call therefore a complete and generous education is that which fits a man to perform justly, skilfully, and magnanimously, all the offices both private and public of peace and war”12. With such high-flowing prose, Milton felt compelled to redesign education to fit an emerging puritanical and entrepreneurial nation known subsequently as the Protestant Work Ethic.
Thesis 31: 24th August 2006