Henry Salt Archive

Henry Salt (1853-1939) was the author of the Life of Henry David Thoreau, Animals Rights and A Plea for Vegetarianism which inspired Gandhi for follow a vegetarian diet.

The Schoolmaster Abroad

by H. S. S.

A paper entitled School has lately been started, as “a medium for the ventilation of all matters of educational interest.” We are informed in the editorial column of the February number that the paper has met with most gratifying success, “not the least flattering, perhaps, of the letters received being some in which capitalists have proposed to become possessors of the journal.” And certainly School seems determined to deserve well of the capitalists; for among the questions “ventilated” we find Socialism occupying a prominent place, it being the contention of the writer in School that teachers ought to take the earliest opportunity of impressing the minds of the pupils with detestation of the Socialist doctrines. “It is to be regretted,” he says, “that while counter influences are daily acquiring greater strength, correct ideas of their moral and social obligations are seldom systematically instilled into the minds of the rising generation in our schools. Most boys are taught that particular acts of theft from their schoolfellows are wrong, and they are punished accordingly. They may still, however, grow up to have very erroneous ideas regarding their moral obligations to society in these respects, and not scruple in after life to advocate wholesale plunder.” It will be observed that the writer of this passage quietly assumes that the Socialists, and not the capitalists, are the “plunderers,” and thus begs the whole question which is at issue, thereby illustrating at the outset his profound ignorance of the subject which he essays to teach. He proceeds to urge that both churches and schools must do their utmost “to enforce those correct principles by which legitimate authority and just rights in property can be maintained, and without which the fabric of society would fall to pieces.” The Times being quoted as a reliable exponent of the enormities of French Communism, principals of schools are earnestly exhorted to inculcate an abhorrence of such revolutionary ideas, and are warned again the peril of engaging French and German masters who may be Socialists in disguise and may thus insidiously corrupt the minds of the schoolboys with their dangerous doctrines. “Quite recently,” adds the writer, “the police-report contained an account of an ex-minister of the Commune who was sentenced for a brutal assault on a woman in this country.” The relevance of this remark is not very obvious; for there is, unfortunately, no need to go across the Channel for instances of immoral conduct, which have sometimes been observed even in the case of capitalists and ex-ministers of her Majesty’s Government. But we presume that the writer in School is of opinion that any stick is good enough to beat a dog with, and that in abusing Socialists the silliest and grossest statements may be usefully employed. All of his “Remarks on Socialism” are characterised by the same mixture of malignity and stupidity, and would be a disgrace to the dullest of the schoolboys whom he wishes to instruct.

Side by side with the misrepresentation of Socialist doctrines, it is the fashion nowadays in our public schools to establish what are known as “school missions” in the poorer quarters of London and other large towns, the object being to make the youthful capitalist take a philanthropic interest in the condition of the working classes.  The movement is doubtless well meant, and some little good may come of it indirectly. Nevertheless it is impossible not to feel a certain amount of impatience and indignation at such childish trifling with questions of paramount importance. What is the result of all the subscription-lists and parish visitings, and sermons in the school chapel descriptive of what has been done among the “poorer brethren” of the relieved district? Mainly this; that our pampered and luxurious schoolboys give back in “charity” to the working-classes a very small fragment of the immense sum which their parents annually extort. They establish a “mission” among the very people by whose life long labour and suffering they are fed, clothed, housed, educated, and supported in every sort of comfort and affluence; and having done this, they naturally and inevitably feel a glow of honest satisfaction and pride; for, as we all know, it is more blessed to give than to receive. With consciences thus made easy, they can devote themselves more unreservedly to the real business of their lives – eating, drinking, sleeping, idling, and self-enjoyment. The position of these school missions in relation to the working-classes may be aptly illustrated by the American story of the man who relieved the hunger of his dog by cutting off its tail and giving back the bone in “charity” to the original proprietor, after himself enjoying a dish of soup extracted therefrom.

After all, it may at least be said on behalf of our public schools that indirectly and unconsciously they are often powerful revolutionary agencies. The bigotry and intolerance of the tone that is prevalent in these educational centres, the wasteful luxury and gross idleness of the boys, and the rank commercialism of the spirit in which these schools are conducted, are quite sufficient to disgust any thoughtful person who happens to be brought into contact with them, and to set him wondering how and why it is possible that such shameful scandals can exist in this enlightened age. By drawing attention to the connection between Socialism and “matters of educational interest,” the writer of the article in School may possibly be doing less service than he intended to the sacred cause of capitalism.

Published: The Commonweal, 26 March 1887