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William Wordsworth, Dorothy Wordsworth

The Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth, Vol. 5: The Later Years: Part II: 1829–1834 (Second Revised Edition)

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  • MS. untraced.
  • Mem. Grosart.
  • K. LY i. 328.

[late Jan. 1829]

My dear Sir,

I have taken a folio sheet to make certain minutes upon the subject of Education.2

As a Christian preacher your business is with man as an immortal being. Let us imagine you to be addressing those, and those only, who would gladly co-operate with you in any course of education which is most likely to insure to men a happy immortality. Are you satisfied with that course which the most active of this class are bent upon? Clearly not, as I remember from your conversation, which is confirmed by your last letter. Great principles, you hold, are sacrificed to shifts and expedients. I agree with you. What more sacred law of nature, for instance, than that the mother should educate her child? Yet we felicitate ourselves upon the establish-pg 19ment of infant schools1 which is in direct opposition to it. Nay, we interfere with the maternal instinct before the child is born, by furnishing, in cases where there is no necessity, the mother with baby linen for her unborn child. Now, that in too many instances a lamentable necessity may exist for this, I allow; but why should such charity be obtruded? Why should so many excellent ladies form themselves into committees, and rush into an almost indiscriminate benevolence, which precludes the poor mother from the strongest motive human nature can be actuated by for industry, for fore-thought, and self-denial? When the stream has thus been poisoned at its fountain-head, we proceed, by separating, through infant schools, the mother from the child and from the rest of the family, disburthening them of all care of the little one for perhaps eight hours of the day. To those who think this an evil, but a necessary one, much might be said, in order to qualify unreasonable expectations. But there are thousands of stirring people now in England, who are so far misled as to deem these schools good in themselves, and to wish that, even in the smallest villages, the children of the poor should have what they call 'a good education' in this way. Now, these people (and no error is at present more common) confound education with tuition.

Education, I need not remark to you, is everything that draws out the human being, of which tuition, the teaching of schools especially, however important, is comparatively an insignificant part. Yet the present bent of the public mind is to sacrifice the greater power to the less—all that life and nature teach, to the little that can be learned from books and a master.2 In the eyes of pg 20an enlightened statesman this is absurd; in the eyes of a pure lowly-minded Christian it is monstrous.

The Spartan and other ancient communities might disregard domestic ties, because they had the substitution of country, which we cannot have. With us, country is a mere name compared with what it was to the Greeks: first, as contrasted with barbarians; and next, and above all, as that passion alone was strong enough then to preserve the individual, his family, and the whole State from ever-impending destruction. Our course is to supplement domestic attachments without the possibility of substituting others more capricious. What can grow out of it but selfishness?

Let it then be universally admitted that infant schools are an evil, only tolerated to qualify a greater, viz. the inability of mothers to attend to their children, and the like inability of the elder to take care of the younger, from their labour being wanted in factories, or elsewhere, for their common support. But surely this is a sad state of society; and if these expedients of tuition or education (if that word is not to be parted with) divert our attention from the fact that the remedy for so mighty an evil must be sought elsewhere, they are most pernicious things, and the sooner they are done away with the better.

But even as a course of tuition I have strong objections to infant schools, and in no small degree to the Madras system also. We must not be deceived by premature adroitness. The intellect must not be trained with a view to what the infant or child may perform, without constant reference to what that performance promises for the man. It is with the mind as with the body. I recollect seeing a German babe stuffed with beer and beef, who had the appearance of an infant Hercules. He might have enough in him of the old Teutonic blood to grow up to be a strong man; but tens of thousands would dwindle and perish after such unreasonable cramming. Now I cannot but think, that the like would happen with our modern pupils, if the views of the patrons of these schools were realised. The diet they offer is not the natural diet for infant and juvenile minds. The faculties are over-strained, and not exercised with that simultaneous operation which ought to be aimed at as far as is practicable. Natural history is taught in infant schools by pictures stuck up against walls, and such mummery. A moment's notice of a red-breast pecking by a winter's hearth is worth it all.

pg 21These hints are for the negative side of the question; and for the positive,—what conceit, and presumption, and vanity, and envy, and mortification, and hypocrisy, etc. etc., are the unavoidable result of schemes where there is so much display and contention! All this is at enmity with Christianity; and if the practice of sincere churchmen in this matter be so, what have we not to fear when we cast our eyes upon other quarters where religious instruction is deliberately excluded? The wisest of us expect far too much from school teaching. One of the most innocent, contented, happy, and, in his sphere, most useful men whom I know can neither read nor write. Though learning and sharpness of wit must exist somewhere, to protect, and in some points to interpret, the Scriptures, yet we are told that the Founder of this religion rejoiced in spirit, that things were hidden from the wise and prudent, and revealed unto babes; and again, 'Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings Thou hast perfected praise'. Apparently, the infants here contemplated were under a very different course of discipline from that which many in our day are condemned to. In a town of Lancashire,1 about nine in the morning, the streets resound with the crying of infants, wheeled off in carts and other vehicles (some ladies, I believe, lending their carriages for this purpose) to their school-prisons.

But to go back a little. Human learning, as far as it tends to breed pride and self-estimation (and that it requires constant vigilance to counteract this tendency we must all feel), is against the spirit of the Gospel. Much cause, then, is there to lament that inconsiderate zeal, wherever it is found, which whets the intellect by blunting the affections. Can it, in a general view, be good that an infant should learn much which its parents do not know? Will not the child arrogate a superiority unfavourable to love and obedience?

But suppose this to be an evil only for the present generation, and that a succeeding race of infants will have no such advantage over their parents; still it may be asked, should we not be making these infants too much the creatures of society when we cannot make them more so? Here would they be, for eight hours in the day, like plants in a conservatory.2 What is to become of them for the other sixteen hours, when they are returned to all the influences, the dread of which first suggested this contrivance? Will they be better able to resist the mischief they may be exposed pg 22to from the bad example of their parents, or brothers and sisters? It is to be feared not, because, though they must have heard many good precepts, their condition in school is artificial; they have been removed from the discipline and exercise of humanity, and they have, besides, been subject to many evil temptations within school and peculiar to it.

In the present generation I cannot see anything of an harmonious co-operation between these schools and home influences. If the family be thoroughly bad, and the child cannot be removed altogether, how feeble the barrier, how futile the expedient! If the family be of middle character, the children will lose more by separation from domestic cares and reciprocal duties than they can possibly gain from captivity, with such formal instruction as may be administered.

We are then brought round to the point, that it is to a physical and not a moral necessity that we must look, if we would justify this disregard, I had almost said violation, of a primary law of human nature. The link of eleemosynary tuition connects the infant school with the national schools upon the Madras system. Now I cannot but think that there is too much indiscriminate gratuitous instruction in this country; arising out of the misconception above adverted to, of the real power of school teaching, relative to the discipline of life; and out of an over-value of talent, however exerted, and of knowledge, prized for its own sake, and acquired in the shape of knowledge. The latter clauses of the last sentence glance rather at the London University and the Mechanics' Institutes1 than at the Madras schools, yet they have some bearing upon these also. Emulation, as I observed in my last letter, is the master-spring of that system. It mingles too much with all teaching, and with all learning; but in the Madras mode it is the great wheel which puts every part of the machine into motion.

But I have been led a little too far from gratuitous instruction. If possible, instruction ought never to be altogether so. A child will soon learn to feel a stronger love and attachment to its parents, when it perceives that they are making sacrifices for its instruction. All that precept can teach is nothing compared with convictions of this kind. In short, unless book-attainments are carried on by the side of moral influences they are of no avail. Gratitude is one of the most benign of moral influences; can a child be grateful to a corpor-pg 23ate body for its instruction? or grateful even to the Lady Bountiful of the neighbourhood, with all the splendour which he sees about her, as he would be grateful to his poor father and mother, who spare from their scanty provision a mite for the culture of his mind at school? If we look back upon the progress of things in this country since the Reformation, we shall find that instruction has never been severed from moral influences and purposes, and the natural action of circumstances, in the way that is now attempted. Our forefathers established, in abundance, free grammar schools;1 but for a distinctly understood religious purpose. They were designed to provide against a relapse of the nation into Popery, by diffusing a knowledge of the languages in which the Scriptures are written, so that a sufficient number might be aware how small a portion of the popish belief had a foundation in Holy Writ.

It is undoubtedly to be desired that every one should be able to read, and perhaps (for that is far from being equally apparent) to write. But you will agree with me, I think, that these attainments are likely to turn to better account where they are not gratuitously lavished, and where either the parents and connections are possessed of certain property which enables them to procure the instruction for their children, or where, by their frugality and other serious and self-denying habits, they contribute, as far as they can, to benefit their offspring in this way. Surely, whether we look at the usefulness and happiness of the individual, or the prosperity and security of the state, this, which was the course of our ancestors, is the better course. Contrast it with that recommended by men in whose view knowledge and intellectual adroitness are to do everything of themselves.

We have no guarantee in the social condition of these well informed pupils for the use they may make of their power and their knowledge; the scheme points not to man as a religious being; its end is an unworthy one; and its means do not pay respect to the order of things. Try the Mechanics' Institutes, and the London University, etc. etc. by this test. The powers are not co-ordinate with those to which this nation owes its virtue and its prosperity. Here is, in one case, a sudden formal abstraction of a vital principle, and in both an unnatural and violent pushing on. Mechanics' Institutes make discontented spirits and insubordinate and pre-pg 24sumptuous workmen. Such at least was the opinion of Watt,1 one of the most experienced and intelligent of men. And instruction, where religion is expressly excluded, is little less to be dreaded than that by which it is trodden under foot. And, for my own part, I cannot look without shuddering on the array of surgical midwifery lectures, to which the youth of London were invited at the commencement of this season by the advertisements of the London University. Hogarth2 understood human nature better than these professors; his picture I have not seen for many long years, but I think his last stage of cruelty is in the dissecting room.

But I must break off, or you will have double postage to pay for this letter. Pray excuse it; and pardon the style, which is, purposely, as meagre as I could make it, for the sake of brevity. I hope that you can gather the meaning, and that is enough. I find that I have a few moments to spare, and will, therefore, address a word to those who may be inclined to ask, what is the use of all these objections? The schoolmaster is, and will remain, abroad. The thirst of knowledge is spreading and will spread, whether virtue and duty go along with it or no. Grant it; but surely these observations may be of use if they tend to check unreasonable expectations. One of the most difficult tasks is to keep benevolence in alliance with beneficence. Of the former there is no want, but we do not see our way to the latter. Tenderness of heart is indispensable for a good man, but a certain sternness of heart is as needful for a wise one. We are as impatient under the evils of society as under our own, and more so; for in the latter case, necessity enforces submission. It is hard to look upon the condition in which so many of our fellow creatures are born, but they are not to be raised from it by partial and temporary expedients; it is not enough to rush headlong into any new scheme that may be proposed, be it Benefit Societies, pg 25Savings' Banks, Infant Schools, Mechanics' Institutes, or any other. Circumstances have forced this nation to do, by its manufacturers, an undue portion of the dirty and unwholesome work of the globe. The revolutions among which we have lived have unsettled the value of all kinds of property, and of labour, the most precious of all, to that degree that misery and privation are frightfully prevalent. We must bear the sight of this, and endure its pressure, till we have by reflection discovered the cause, and not till then can we hope even to palliate the evil. It is a thousand to one but that the means resorted to will aggravate it.

  • Farewell, ever affectionately yours,     
  • W. Wordsworth   

Query.—Is the education in the parish schools of Scotland gratuitous, or if not, in what degree is it so?

Notes Settings


Editor’s Note
2 See pt. i, L. 384. Rose had replied on 15 Jan.: 'Your praise of my last Sermons was indeed most gratifying. To receive commendation from one to whose works I owe so much, and to whom 1 look up with such implicit deference is the greatest pleasure I could receive in the way of human commendation.' As Christian Advocate at Cambridge, Rose had the opportunity of discussing the subject of education from the University pulpit, and in his letter he set out his own views and invited W. W.'s comments. 'We educate children … as social, not as immortal beings, and consider their progress in the world as the first thing needful, to say the least. Hence in the Lancastrian System, Religious Education is a blank, and in the Bell, only in fact an adjunct, whatever it may be in name.' (WL MSS.) W. W.'s long reply here develops many themes touched on in previous letters about education (see particularly MY i. 249–51), and anticipates the final statement of his position in his speech at the laying of the foundation stone of the new school at Bowness in 1836 (Prose Works, iii. 291–6).
Editor’s Note
1 The first infant school was set up by Robert Owen at New Lanark in 1816 (see The Life of Robert Owen. Written by Himself, 1857, pp. 138 ff.). This initiative was quickly followed by Brougham, Lord Lansdowne, and James Mill, who started the Brewers Green School in Westminster three years later. A group of Quakers, including William Allen (see MY ii. 589), began an infant school at Spitalfields about the same time, and the movement gradually spread to other parts of the country. The Quakers were now planning a school at Kendal on the same lines.
Editor’s Note
2 W. W.'s distrust of book learning compared with direct experience of the natural world was reflected in his approach to the education of young Basil Montagu at Racedown in 1797 (see EY, p. 180), and is the theme of Expostulation and Reply and The Tables Turned (PW iv. 56–7). It sprang from his reading in David Hartley (see MY i. 266) and eighteenth-century associationalist thinking, but probably owes something to earlier sources as well. See Alan G. Hill, 'Wordsworth, Comenius, and the Meaning of Education', RES xxvi (1975), 301–12.
Editor’s Note
1 Perhaps Preston, where W. W. occasionally stayed with Samuel Horrocks, the cotton manufacturer.
Editor’s Note
2 Cf. Doctor Blimber's establishment in Dickens's Dombey and Son, ch. xi.
Editor’s Note
1 Brougham had put himself at the head of both these projects. See pt. i, Ls. 180 and 225.
Editor’s Note
1 W. W. is thinking particularly of the educational programmes of Edward VI and Elizabeth, and of the foundation of his own Hawkshead Grammar School by Archbishop Sandys in 1585, an event celebrated many years before in his 'School Exercise' (PW i. 259–61).
Editor’s Note
1 James Watt (1766–1819), the Scottish engineer. W. W.'s high opinion of him is recorded by J. P. Muirhead, 'A Day with Wordsworth', Blackwood's Magazine, ccxxi (1927), 728–43: 'I look upon him, considering both the magnitude and the universality of his genius, as perhaps the most extraordinary man that this country ever produced.' The Mechanics' Institutes took their origin from the evening classes started in Glasgow in 1760 by John Anderson (1726–96), Professor of Natural Philosophy at the University, who left property at his death to found a college, Anderson's Institute, to carry on his work.
Editor’s Note
2 William Hogarth (1697–1764), whose Four Stages of Cruelty depict the brutality and callousness of his age. The last stage, 'The Reward of Cruelty', is shown in the dissecting room. Dissections of criminals often took place in public after their execution as part of the sentence imposed on the prisoner. See Ronald Paulson, Hogarth: His Life, Art, and Times, 2 vols., 1971, ii. 103 ff.
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