Read CHAPTER I - FLOURISHING MEDIOCRITY of The Curse of Education , free online book, by Harold E. Gorst, on

Humanity is rapidly becoming less the outcome of a natural process of development, and more and more the product of an organized educational plan. The average educated man possesses no real individuality. He is simply a manufactured article bearing the stamp of the maker.

Year by year this fact is becoming more emphasized. During the past century almost every civilized country applied itself feverishly to the invention of a national plan of education, with the result that the majority of mankind are compelled to swallow a uniform prescription of knowledge made up for them by the State. Now there is a great outcry that England is being left behind in this educational race. Other nations have got more exact systems. Where the British child is only stuffed with six pounds of facts, the German and French schools contrive to cram seven pounds into their pupils. Consequently, Germany and France are getting ahead of us, and unless we wish to be beaten in the international race, it is asserted that we must bring our own educational system up to the Continental standard.

Before going more deeply into this vital question, it is just as well to consider what these education systems have really done for mankind. There is a proverb, as excellent as it is ancient, which says that the proof of the pudding is in the eating. No doubt learned theoretical treatises upon the scope and aim of educational methods are capital things in their way, but they tell us nothing of the effects of this systematic teaching and cramming upon the world at large. If we wish to ascertain them, we must turn to life itself, and judge by results.

To begin with, the dearth of great men is so remarkable that it scarcely needs comment. People are constantly expressing the fear that the age of intellectual giants has passed away altogether. This is particularly obvious in political life. Since the days of Gladstone and Disraeli, Parliamentary debate has sunk to the most hopeless level of mediocrity. The traditions of men such as Pitt, Fox, Palmerston, Peel, and others, sound at the present day almost like ancient mythology. Yet the supposed benefits of education are not only now free to all, but have been compulsorily conferred upon most nations. Nevertheless, even Prussian pedagogues have never succeeded in producing another Bismarck; and France has ground away at her educational mill for generations with the result that the supply of Napoleons has distinctly diminished.

Look at the methods by which our public service is recruited.

Who are the men to whom the administration of all important departments of Government is entrusted, and how are they selected?

They are simply individuals who have succeeded in obtaining most marks in public competitive examinations that is to say, men whose brains have been more effectually stuffed with facts and mechanical knowledge than were the brains of their unsuccessful competitors.

There is no question, when a candidate presents himself for a post in the Diplomatic Service or in one of the Government offices, whether he possesses tact, or administrative ability, or knowledge of the world. All that is demanded of him is that his mind should be crammed with so many pounds avoirdupois of Latin, Greek, mathematics, history, geography, etc., acquired in such a way that he will forget, within a couple of years, every fact that has been pestled into him. For every vacancy in the various departments of the Administration there are dozens, or even scores, of applicants; and the candidate selected for the post is the one whose mind has been most successfully subjected to this process of over-cramming, and consequently most effectually ruined for all the practical purposes of life.

Now, to whatever cause it may be ascribed, there can be no doubt that the general level throughout the various branches of the public service is one of mediocrity. We are not surrounded, faithful and devoted as our public servants are universally admitted to be, by administrative geniuses. Facts point altogether the other way. Great national catastrophes, like the blunders and miscalculations that have characterized the conduct of the war in South Africa, have always resulted in making the most uncomfortable revelations concerning the inefficiency of more than one important department of Government.

The War Office has long since become a public scandal, and if the truth were known about the inner domesticity of more than one great Administrative office, the susceptibilities of the nation would be still further shocked and outraged. Fortunately, however or it may be unfortunately Government linen is usually washed at home; and it is only in times of great emergency that the truth leaks out, to the general consternation.

When this does happen there is a great outcry about the inefficiency of this or that branch of the public service. The Government in power wait to see if the agitation dies a natural death; and if it is successfully kept up, a sort of pretence at reform takes place. There is a re-shuffle. Fresh names are given to old abuses; incompetent officials exchange posts; and a new building is erected at the public expense. Then all goes on as heretofore.

Nobody seems to think of making an inquiry into the constitution of the public service itself. But until this is done no real reform of any permanent value can possibly be effected. It is not the nomenclature of appointments, the subdivision of departmental work, and such matters of detail, that stand in need of the reformer. The titles and duties of the several officials are of secondary importance. It is not in them that the evils of bad administration are to be located.

The fault lies with the officials themselves, who are the victims of the stupid system which has placed them in the position they occupy. The education they have received has, in the first case, unfitted them for the performance of any but mechanical and routine work; and the strain of a competitive examination, involving the most unintellectual and brain-paralyzing process of cram, has probably destroyed the faculty of initiative, which should be, but is not, a distinguishing characteristic of the administrative official.

Herein lies the secret of all opposition to progress. It is the permanent official who needs reforming. He is the embodiment of routine and conservatism, because he is the embodiment of mediocrity. Progress means ideas, and mediocrity does not deal in them. It has been furnished, instead, by a systematic course of instruction, with a sufficient equipment of the ideas of other people to last its lifetime. Whilst we fill our public service with specially prepared mediocrity, the administrative departments will remain reactionary. And as long as education is synonymous with cramming on an organized plan, it will continue to produce mediocrity.

The army affords at the present moment an admirable object-lesson in this connection. The results of cramming young men as a preparation for a profession which demands, more than any other, individual initiative and independence, have become painfully apparent upon the field of battle. One of our foremost generals has come home from the campaign declaring the necessity of both officers and men being trained to think and act for themselves. That is one, perhaps the chief, of the great lessons which this war has taught us. But here, again, no useful reform can be achieved by alterations in the drill-book, through lectures by experienced generals, or by the issue of army orders. It is our entire system of education which is again at fault.

Boys are stuffed with facts before they go to Sandhurst, and when they get there they are crammed in special subjects. The whole object of the process is to enable candidates to pass examinations, and not to produce good officers. The effect here is the same as elsewhere. A quantity of useless and some useful knowledge is drilled into the pupil in such a manner that the mind retains nothing that has been put into it. And, to make matters worse, all this is done at the expense of retarding the proper development of faculties which would be of incalculable value to the soldier.

Most of the blunders of the war are, in fact, attributable to want of common sense, and common sense consists in the capacity of an individual to think for himself and to exercise his judgment. Educational methods which, in the majority of cases, appear to destroy this faculty altogether are clearly pernicious. Common sense is the most valuable gift with which man can be endowed. It is the very essence of genius, for it consists in the application of intelligence to every detail, and the highest order of intellect can accomplish no more than that. Yet it is the rarest of all attributes, for the very reason that it is deliberately destroyed by conventional methods of bringing up children and instructing youth. Therefore, before we can hope to obtain a supply of self-reliant officers and men, we must see some radical change in the very principles upon which modern methods of education are founded.

Wherever we go we find this curse of mediocrity. In the professions, at the Bar, in the pulpit, amongst physicians, it is apparent everywhere. There are clever men, of course; but the very fact that their names spring at once prominently to mind is in itself a proof that ability is exceptional.

Some people, of course, accepting the world as they find it, may think it very unreasonable to expect able men to be plentiful in all walks of life. That is, to my mind, the chief pathos of the situation. It has come to be accepted that the world must be filled with a great majority of very commonplace people, even amongst the educated classes.

No doubt it is filled at the present moment with a very vast preponderance of conventional minds manufactured to meet the supposed requirements of our complicated civilization. But I deny that this need be the case. On the contrary, we are surrounded on all sides by ability, by great possibilities of individual development, even by genius.

And our education systems are busily engaged in the work of destroying this precious material, substituting facts for ideas, forcing the mind away from its natural bent, and manufacturing a machine instead of a man.