Read CHAPTER VII - FEARS OF BOYHOOD of Where No Fear Was A Book About Fear, free online book, by Arthur Christopher Benson, on

There is a tendency, I am sure, in books, to shirk the whole subject of fear, as though it were a thing disgraceful, shameful, almost unmentionable.  The coward, the timid person, receives very little sympathy; he is rather like one tainted with a shocking disease, of which the less said the better.  He is not viewed with any sympathy or commiseration, but as something almost lower in the scale of humanity.  Take the literature that deals with school life, for instance.  I do not think that there is any province of our literature so inept, so conventional, so entirely lacking in reality, as the books which deal with the life of schools.  The difficulty of writing them is very great, because they can only be reconstructed by an effort of memory.  The boy himself is quite unable to give expression to his thoughts and feelings; school life is a time of sharp, eager, often rather savage emotions, lived by beings who have no sense of proportion, no knowledge of life, no idea of what is really going on in the world.  The actual incidents which occur are very trivial, and yet to the fresh minds and spirits of boyhood they seem all charged with an intense significance.  Then again the talk of schoolboys is wholly immature and shapeless.  They cannot express themselves, and moreover there is a very strict and peremptory convention which dictates what may be talked about and what may not.  No society in the world is under so oppressive a taboo.  They must not speak of anything emotional or intellectual, at the cost of being thought a fool or a prig.  They talk about games, they gossip about boys and masters, sometimes their conversation is nasty and bestial.  But it conceals very real if very fitful emotions; yet it is impossible to recall or to reconstruct; and when older people attempt to reconstruct it, they remember the emotions which underlay it, and the eager interests out of which it all sprang; and they make it something picturesque, epigrammatic, and vernacular which is wholly untrue to life.  The fact is that the talk of schoolboys is very trivial and almost wholly symbolical; emotion reveals itself in glance and gesture, not in word at all.  I suppose that most of us remember our boyish friendships, ardent and eager personal admirations, extraordinary déifications of quite commonplace boys, emotions none of which were ever put into words at all, hardly even into coherent thought, and were yet a swift and vital current of the soul.

Now the most unreal part of the reconstructions of school life is the insistence on the boyish code of honour.  Neither as a boy nor as a schoolmaster did I ever have much evidence of this.  There were certain hard and fast rules of conduct, like the rule which prevented any boy from giving information to a master against another boy.  But this was not a conscientious thing.  It was part of the tradition, and the social ostracism which was the penalty of its infraction was too severe to risk incurring.  But the boys who cut a schoolfellow for telling tales, did not do it from any high-minded sense of violated honour.  It was simply a piece of self-defence, and the basis of the convention was merely this, that, if the rule were broken, it would produce an impossible sense of insecurity and peril.  However much boys might on the whole approve of, respect, and even like their masters, still they could not make common cause with them.  The school was a perfectly definite community, inside of which it was often convenient and pleasant to do things which would be penalised if discovered; and thus the whole stability of that society depended upon a certain secrecy.  The masters were not disliked for finding out the infractions of rules, if only such infractions were patent and obvious.  A master who looked too closely into things, who practised any sort of espionage, who tried to extort confession, was disapproved of as a menace, and it was convenient to label him a sneak and a spy, and to say that he did not play the game fair.  But all this was a mere tradition.  Boys do not reflect much, or look into the reasons of things.  It does not occur to them to credit masters with the motive of wishing to protect them against themselves, to minimise temptation, to shelter them from undesirable influences; that perhaps dawns on the minds of sensible and high-minded prefects, but the ordinary boy just regards the master as an opposing power, whom he hoodwinks if he can.

And then the boyish ideal of courage is a very incomplete one.  He does not recognise it as courage if a sensitive, conscientious, and right-minded boy risks unpopularity by telling a master of some evil practice which is spreading in a school.  He simply regards it as a desire to meddle, a priggish and pragmatical act, and even as a sneaking desire to inflict punishment by proxy.

Courage, for the schoolboy, is merely physical courage, aplomb, boldness, recklessness, high-handedness.  The hero of school life is one like Odysseus, who is strong, inventive, daring, full of resource.  The point is to come out on the top.  Odysseus yields to sensual delight, he is cruel, vindictive, and incredibly deceitful.  It is evident that successful beguiling, the power of telling an elaborate, plausible, and imperturbable lie on occasions, is an heroic quality in the Odyssey.  Odysseus is not a man who scorns to deceive, or who would rather take the consequences than utter a falsehood.  His strength rather lies in his power, when at bay, of flashing into some monstrous fiction, dramatising the situation, playing an adopted part, with confidence and assurance.  One sees traces of the same thing in the Bible.  The story of Jacob deceiving Isaac, and pretending to be Esau in order to secure a blessing is not related with disapprobation.  Jacob does not forfeit his blessing when his deceit is discovered.  The whole incident is regarded rather as a master-stroke of cunning and inventiveness.  Esau is angry not because Jacob has employed such trickery, but because he has succeeded in supplanting him.

I remember, as a boy at Eton, seeing a scene which left a deep impression on me.  There was a big unpleasant unscrupulous boy of great physical strength, who was a noted football player.  He was extremely unpopular in the school, because he was rude, sulky, and overbearing, and still more because he took unfair advantages in games.  There was a hotly contested house-match, in which he tried again and again to evade rules, while he was for ever appealing to the umpires against violations of rule by the opposite side.  His own house was ultimately victorious, but feeling ran very high indeed, because it was thought that the victory was unfairly won.  The crowd of boys who had been watching the match drifted away in a state of great exasperation, and finally collected in front of the house of the unpopular player, hissed and hooted him.  He took very little notice of the demonstration and walked in, when there arose a babel of howls.  He turned round and came out again, facing the crowd.  I can see him now, all splashed and muddy, with his shirt open at the neck.  He was pale, ugly, and sinister; but he surveyed us all with entire effrontery, drew out a pince-nez, being very short-sighted, and then looked calmly round as if surprised.  I have certainly never seen such an exhibition of courage in my life.  He knew that he had not a single friend present, and he did not know that he would not be maltreated - there were indications of a rush being made.  He did not look in the least picturesque; he was ugly, scowling, offensive.  But he did not care a rap, and if he had been attacked, he would have defended himself with a will.  It did not occur to me then, nor did it, I think, occur to anyone else, what an amazing bit of physical and moral courage it was.  No one, then or after, had the slightest feeling of admiration for his pluck.  “Did you ever see such a brute as P - looked?” was the only sort of comment made.

This just serves to illustrate my point, that boys have no real discernment for what is courageous.  What they admire is a certain grace and spirit, and the hero is not one who constrains himself to do an unpopular thing from a sense of duty, not even the boy who, being unpopular like P - , does a satanically brave thing.  Boys have no admiration for the boy who defies them; what they like to see is the defiance of a common foe.  They admire gallant, modest, spirited, picturesque behaviour, not the dull and faithful obedience to the sense of right.

Of course things have altered for the better.  Masters are no longer stern, severe, abrupt, formidable, unreasonable.  They know that many a boy, who would be inclined on the whole to tell the truth, can easily be frightened into telling a lie; but they have not yet contrived to put the sense of honour among boys in the right proportion.  Such stories as that of George Washington - when the children were asked who had cut down the apple-tree, and he rose and said, “Sir, I cannot tell a lie; it was I who did it with my little hatchet” - do not really take the imagination of boys captive.  How constantly did worthy preachers at Eton tell the story of how Bishop Selwyn, as a boy, rose and left the room at a boat-supper because an improper song was sung!  That anecdote was regarded with undisguised amusement, and it was simply thought to be a piece of priggishness.  I cannot imagine that any boy ever heard the story and went away with a glowing desire to do likewise.  The incident really belongs to the domain of manners rather than to that of morals.

The truth is really that boys at school have a code which resembles that of the old chivalry.  The hero may be sensual, unscrupulous, cruel, selfish, indifferent to the welfare of others.  But if he bears himself gallantly, if he has a charm of look and manner, if he is a deft performer in the prescribed athletics, he is the object of profound and devoted admiration.  It is really physical courage, skill, prowess, personal attractiveness which is envied and praised.  A dull, heavy, painstaking, conscientious boy with a sturdy sense of duty may be respected, but he is not followed; while the imaginative, sensitive, nervous, highly-strung boy, who may have the finest qualities of all within him, is apt to be the most despised.  Such a boy is often no good at games, because public performance disconcerts him; he cannot make a ready answer, he has no aplomb, no cheek, no smartness; and he is consequently thought very little of.

To what extent this sort of instinctive preference can be altered, I do not know; it certainly cannot be altered by sermons, and still less by edicts.  Old Dr. Keate said, when he was addressing the school on the subject of fighting, “I must say that I like to see a boy return a blow!” It seems, if one considers it, to be a curious ideal to start life with, considering how little opportunity civilisation now gives for returning blows!  Boys in fact are still educated under a system which seems to anticipate a combative and disturbed sort of life to follow, in which strength and agility, violence and physical activity, will have a value.  Yet, as a matter of fact, such things have very little substantial value in an ordinary citizen’s life at all, except in so far as they play their part in the elaborate cult of athletic exercises, with which we beguile the instinct which craves for manual toil.  All the races, and games, and athletics cultivated so assiduously at school seem now to have very little aim in view.  It is not important for ordinary life to be able to run a hundred yards, or even three miles, faster than another man; the judgment, the quickness of eye, the strength and swiftness of muscle needed to make a man a good batsman were all well enough in days when a man’s life might afterwards depend on his use of sword and battle-axe.  But now it only enables him to play games rather longer than other people, and to a certain extent ministers to bodily health, although the statistics of rowing would seem clearly to prove that it is a pursuit which is rather more apt to damage the vitality of strong boys than to increase the vitality of weak ones.

So, if we look facts fairly in the face, we see that much of the training of school life, especially in the direction of athletics, is really little more than the maintenance of a thoughtless old tradition, and that it is all directed to increase our admiration of prowess and grace and gallantry, rather than to fortify us in usefulness and manual skill and soundness of body.  A boy at school may be a skilful carver or carpenter; he may have a real gift for engineering or mechanics; he may even be a good rider, a first-rate fisherman, an excellent shot.  He may have good intellectual abilities, a strong memory, a power of expression; he may be a sound mathematician, a competent scientist; he may have all sorts of excellent moral qualities, be reliable, accurate, truthful, punctual, duty-loving; he may in fact be equipped for life and citizenship, able to play his part sturdily and manfully, and to do the world good service; but yet he may never win the smallest recognition or admiration in his school-days, while all the glory and honour and credit is still reserved for the graceful, attractive, high-spirited athlete, who may have nothing else in the background.

That is certainly the ideal of the boy, and the disconcerting thing is that it is also the ideal, practically if not theoretically, of the parent and the schoolmaster.  The school still reserves all its best gifts, its sunshine and smiles, for the knightly and the skilful; it rewards all the qualities that are their own reward.  Why, if it wishes to get the right scale adopted, does it not reward the thing which it professes to uphold as its best result, worth of character namely?  It claims to be a training-ground for character first, but it does little to encourage secret and unobtrusive virtues.  That is, it adds its prizes to the things which the natural man values, and it neglects to crown the one thing at which it professes first to aim.  In doing this it only endorses the verdict of the world, and while it praises moral effort, it rewards success.

The issue of all this is that the sort of courage which it enforces is essentially a graceful and showy sort of courage, a lively readiness, a high-hearted fearlessness - so that timidity and slowness and diffidence and unreadiness become base and feeble qualities, when they are not the things of which anyone need be ashamed!  Let me say then that moral courage, the patient and unrecognised facing of difficulties, the disregard of popular standards, solidity and steadfastness of purpose, the tranquil performance of tiresome and disagreeable duties, homely perseverance, are not the things which are regarded as supreme in the ideal of the school; so that the fear which is the shadow of sensitive and imaginative natures is turned into the wrong channels, and becomes a mere dread of doing the unpopular and unimpressive thing, or a craven determination not to be found out.  And the dread of being obscure and unacceptable is what haunts the minds of boys brought up on these ambitious and competitive lines, rather than the fear which is the beginning of wisdom.