Education of People.

From: Essays on the Principles of Morality, and on the Private and Political Rights and Obligations of Mankind (1834).
Author: Jonathan Dymond
Published: Harper & Brothers 1834 Philadelphia


  WHETHER the education of those who are not able to pay for educating themselves ought to be a private or a national charge, it is not our present business to discuss. It is, in this country at least, left to the voluntary benevolence of individuals, and this consideration may apologize for a brief reference to it here.

  It is not long since it was a question whether the poor should be educated or not. That time is past, and it may be hoped the time will soon be passed when it shall be a question, To what extent?—that the time will soon arrive when it will be agreed that no limit needs to be assigned to the education of the poor, but that which is assigned by their own necessities, or which ought to be assigned to the education of all men. There appears no more reason for excluding a poor man from the fields of knowledge than for preventing him from using his eyes. The mental and the visual powers were alike given to be employed. A man should indeed “shut his eyes from seeing evil,” but whatever reason there is for letting him see all that is beautiful, and excellent, and innocent in nature or in art, there is the same for enabling his mind to expatiate in the fields of knowledge. .

  The objections which are urged against this extended education are of the same kind as those which were urged against any education. They insist upon the probability of abuse. It was said, They who can write may forge; they who can read may read what is pernicious. The answer was, or it might have been, They who can hear, may hear profaneness and learn it; they who can see, may see bad examples and follow them: but are we therefore to stop our ears and put out our eyes? It is now said, that if you give extended education to the poor, you will elevate them above their stations, that a critic would not drive a wheelbarrow, and that a philosopher would not shoe horses or weave cloth. But these consequences are without the limits of possibility; because the question for a poor man is, whether he shall perform such offices or starve: and surely it will not be pretended that hungry men would rather criticise than eat. Science and literature would not solicit a poor man from his labour more irresistibly than ease and pleasure do now; yet in spite of these solicitations what is the fact! That the poor man works for his bread. This is the inevitable result.

  It is not the positive but the relative amount of knowledge that elevates a man above his station in society. It is not because he knows much, but because he knows more than his fellows. Educate all, and none will fancy that he is superior to his neighbours. Besides, we assign to the possession of knowledge, effects which are produced rather by habits of life. Ease and comparative leisure are commonly attendant upon extensive knowledge, and leisure and ease disqualify men for the laborious occupations much more than the knowledge itself.

  There are some collateral advantages of an extended education of the people which are of much importance. It has been observed, that if the French had been an educated people, many of the atrocities of their revolution would never have happened,—and I believe it. Furious mobs are composed, not of enlightened, but of unenlightened men,—of men in whom the passions are dominant over the judgment, because the judgment has not been exercised and informed, and habituated to direct the conduct. A factious declaimer can much less easily influence a number of men who acquired at school the rudiments of knowledge, and who have subsequently devoted their leisure to a mechanics’ institute, than a multitude who cannot write or read, and who have never practised reasoning and considerate thought. And as the education of a people prevents political evil, it effects political good. Despotic rulers well know that knowledge is inimical to their power. This simple fact is a sufficient reason w a good and wise man, to approve knowledge and extend it. The attention to public institutions and public measures which is inseparable from an educated population, is a great good. We all know that the human heart is such that the possession of power is commonly attended with a desire to increase it, even in opposition to the general weal. It is acknowledged that a check is needed, and no check is either so efficient or so safe as that of a watchful and intelligent public mind: so watchful, that it is prompt to discover and to expose what is amiss; so intelligent, that it is able to form rational judgments respecting the nature and the means of amendment. In all public institutions there exists, and it is happy that there does exist, a sort of vis inertiæ which habitually resists change. This, which is beneficial as a general tendency, is often injurious from its excess: the state of public institutions almost throughout the world bears sufficient testimony to the truth that they need alteration and amendment faster than they receive is,—that the internal resistance of change is greater than is good for mas. Unhappily, the ordinary way in which a people have endeavoured to amend their institutions has been by some mode of violence. If you ask when a nation acquired a greater degree of freedom, you are referred to some era of revolution, and probably of blood. These are not proper—certainly they are not Christian—remedies for the disease. It is becoming an undisputed proposition that no bad institution can permanently stand against the distinct opinion of a people. This opinion is likely to be universal and to be intelligent only among an enlightened community. Now that reformation of public institutions which results from public opinion is the very best in kind, and is likely to be the beat in its mode:—in its kind, because public opinion is the proper measure of the needed alteration; and in its mode, because alterations which result from such a cause are likely to be temperately made.

  It may be feared that some persons object to an extended education of the people on these very grounds which we propose as recommendations; that they regard the tendency of education to produce examination, and if need be, alteration of established institutions, as a reason for withholding it from the poor. To these, it is a sufficient answer that if increase of knowledge and habits of investigation tend to alter any established institution, it is fit that it should be altered. There appears no means of avoiding this conclusion, unless it can be shown that increase of knowledge is usually attended with depravation of principle, and that in proportion as the judgment is exercised it decides amiss.

  Generally, that intellectual education is good for a poor man which is good for his richer neighbours, in other words that is good for the poor which is good for man. There may be exceptions to the general rule, but he who is disposed to doubt the fitness of a rich man’s education for the poor, will do well to consider first whether the rich man’s education is fit for himself. The children of persons of property can undoubtedly learn much more than those of a labourer, and the labourer must select, from the rich man’s system, a part only for his own child. But this does not affect the general conclusion. The parts which he ought to select are precisely those parts which are most necessary and beneficial to the rich.

  Great as have been the improvements in the methods of conveying knowledge to the poor, there is reason to think that they will be yet greater. Some useful suggestions for the instruction of older children may I think be obtained from the systems in infant schools. In a well conducted infant school, children acquire much knowledge, and they acquire it with delight. This delight is of extreme importance: perhaps it may safely be concluded, respecting all innocent knowledge, that if a child acquired it with pleasure, he is well taught. It is worthy observation, that in the infant system, lesson-learning is nearly or wholly excluded. It is not to be expected that in the time which is devoted professedly to education by the children of the poor, much extent of knowledge can be acquired; but something may be acquired which is of much more consequence than mere school-learning,—the love and the habits of inquiry. If education be so conducted that it is a positive pleasure to a boy to learn, there is little doubt that this love and habit will be induced. Here is the great advantage of early intellectual culture. The busiest have some leisure,—leisure which they may employ ill or well; and that they will employ it well may reasonably be expected when knowledge is thus attractive for its own sake. That this effect is in a considerable degree actually produced, is indicated by the improved character of the books which poor men read, and in the prodigious increase in the number of those books. The supply and demand are correspondent. Almost every year produces books for the labouring classes of a higher intellectual order than the last. A journeyman in our days can understand and relish a work which would have been like Arabic to his grandfather.

  Of moral education we say nothing here, except that the principles which are applicable to other classes of mankind are obviously applicable to the poor. With respect to the inculcation of peculiar religious opinions on the children who attend schools voluntarily supported, there is manifestly the same reason for inculcating them in this case as for teaching them at all. This supposes that the supporters of the school are not themselves divided in their religious opinions. If they are, and if the adherents to no one creed are able to support a school of their own, there appears no ground upon which they can rightly refuse to support a school in which no religious peculiarities are taught. It is better that intellectual knowledge, together with imperfect religious principles, should be communicated, than that children should remain in darkness. There is indeed some reason to suspect the genuineness of that man’s philanthropy who refuses to impart any knowledge to his neighbours became he cannot, at the same time, teach them his own creed.

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