Many eminent men who have been quite rational about other things have been quite mad about education. This is really a very odd thing; because education is the one point on which it is essential to be reasonable and even moderate. It is much more necessary to be sane about education than about the Empire or the Budget or the Lords or the Menace of Germany or the Menace of Socialism. And that for a very plain reason. Men do not go mad by mobs, but by individuals; and education is the one thing in which the individual has direct and despotic power. If I have a fad about taxation, I can only vote for it. But if I have a fad about education, I can pass it unanimously — and apply it to Tommy. This does not occur in any other cases of political opinion: no other public theory can be thus privately applied. You may want to fire off guns at the Germans, like a distinguished Socialist of my acquaintance. But Nature does not give you one individual German to be fired at with a pocket pistol all day. Nature may give you one individual child to be fired at with a pocket theory all day. I may wander pensively at evening among the woods and slopes of Buckinghamshire, tenderly dreaming of what I would like to do to the Peers. But nobody gives me a Peer, bound hand and foot, for me to do what I like with. Nature does give numberless people infants bound hand and foot for people to do what they like with. All Englishmen may deal with Peers; but that is a different thing from every Englishman dealing with every Peer. Therefore I say that if there is one thing that a man ought to be careful and even cautious about, it is education. And yet it is certainly true that about education some of the wisest men have been not only hazy, but crazy. Rousseau was right about humanity, because he was really thoughtful about humanity. But he was literally childish about childhood. Herbert Spencer, in his moral system taken as a whole, was prim and prosaic to the point of Methodism. But in his scheme for the nursery he was audacious to the point of literal insanity. He wanted the poor miserable infants to learn by “experience” and by the punishments of Nature. If a child falls into the fire and is reduced to a delicate, feathery ash, Spencer suggests (very truly) that he won’t do it again. Nor anything else.
Now this introduction, though familiar and obvious, is necessary, because two of the greatest literary men now alive in Europe have just written about the moral views to be inculcated into children; one much more obviously, picturesquely, and at much greater length, but both in such a manner as to bring them, in clear popular versions, before the British public. Count Tolstoy has permitted the publication, in the Nation Literary Supplement lately, of a lucid account of how he would teach children morality. And Maurice Maeterlinck has, in his more symbolic manner, treated the same subject in “The Blue Bird,” the great infantile allegory now being acted in London. Both these men are great, both in earnest, both, it seems to me, mad, and both wrong. Tolstoy writes with a diamond on crystal; his clearness is really sublime. Nobody, friend or foe, can have the slightest doubt about what he means; and that is the purest triumph of literature. I hate his philosophy myself: but I almost love him for making it so hateful. This clarity creates an atmosphere of courage. It is said in some proverb that those who live in glass houses must not throw stones. But those who live in diamond houses may throw stones; especially if the stones are diamonds too. Tolstoy’s house and his missiles are really made of diamond — that is, of adamant. They are hard, luminous, and dogmatic — that is, intelligent. But all this only serves to show up more clearly the maniacal nonsense (no milder phrase will convey it) which Tolstoy talks about education. For what he says is briefly this: Every child must be told that he has a soul and a body, and that all evil comes from obeying his body and all good from obeying his soul. The child is to keep a little notebook, apparently, and recall at the end of the day the occasions on which he has wickedly obeyed his body, and those on which he has wisely obeyed his soul. It is further to be explained to him that in our souls we are all naturally loving and united (a lie) and that it is our animal bodies that delight to bark and bite, for ’tis their nature to. To say that the body begets evil and the soul good is to say that the Publican is worse than the Pharisee; and if that is not un-Christian, what is? A great fuss was made when, some time ago, Tolstoy was turned out of the Russian Church. I don’t know why he was turned out of the Russian Church; but I suppose it was because his form of morality was not liked.
But I have no wish to introduce the highest truths about ethics, but only the plainest facts about babies. Can anything be conceived more practically ridiculous than the Tolstoy scheme, if we take it in conjunction with any of the staring problems of the playground and the nursery? I take one problem which must have met most people who have ever seen children for one whole day — I mean the problem of getting them to go to bed. Any child worth calling a child, at the end of an exciting party, wants to sit up for ever. And we would sit up for ever but for the wise the other is his body [sic]. As for his soul, God bless it, his soul would certainly stop awake till it went mad. Parents actually have to protect the child’s body from the flaming and destructive assaults of the child’s soul. Half the bother of the nursery is that the children must obey their parents even in order to obey their bodies. Human creatures with immortal souls have to be forced to be physical. The real translation of the ανθρωπος φνσει πολιτικος is “Man is naturally unnatural.” Children often gravely neglect their bodies, and they often grossly over-cultivate their souls. What advice could be more mad to say to any innocent heir of Adam than the broad statement that he must distrust everything that goes into his body, but trust everything that comes into his head? It is quite true, of course, that children do sometimes sin corporeally — as in the matter of jam; but I would much rather have a child whose body told him to steal jam than one whose soul told him to imitate Tolstoy.
And now, in such space as remains, let me turn to the other modern educationalist. Maeterlinck is much more humane than Tolstoy, and his ideas of spiritual education are more suave, more subtle, but not less false. The most dramatic moment in the play of “The Blue Bird” is also the most unchildlike, the most glaringly unfitted for children. The little hero and heroine have come to the Kingdom of the Dead — full of darkness and putrescence and potential spectres, very powerfully suggested. The boy hesitates whether to turn the jewel, which will reveal to him all the spirits present; the girl, in terror of the ghosts, implores him not to. He buries his face, he turns the jewel; and the whole scene alters to a startling sweetness of sunshine and summer flowers. She asks in bewilderment, “Where are the dead?” He answers “There are no dead,” and the curtain falls. A very fine artistic climax — and a lie; and not the kind of lie that children tell or that children understand. Really, it will not do. Children, as was remarked by an authority whom I prefer to Tolstoy and Maeterlinck, are typical of the Kingdom of Heaven; and especially in this, that they know the difference between falsehood and truth, even when they tell the falsehood. If people do go cold on a bed, do cease to speak and walk, are put in a box and buried in the ground, it is quite useless to tell children that there are no dead. Tell them the dogma of immortality, if you are so lucky as to believe in it. Leave the thing alone, if you are not. There are plenty of other things to talk to children about — toffee or pirates, or Western Australia or the weather. But do not believe for a moment that you can feed them on phrase which contradict facts.
For it is in this respect that the modern intellectualist falls, in the most marked manner, far below the intellect of mediaevalism or antiquity. The most orthodox doctors have always maintained that faith is something superior to reason but not contrary to it. But Maeterlinck’s faith is something contrary to reason, but not superior to it. He merely denies what he cannot destroy. The modern sceptic makes a claim upon credulity more wild and sentimental than was ever made either by the meekest or the maddest theologian. He does not merely ask us to believe in the invisible; he asks us to disbelieve in the visible. There is much in the modern world to assist his tendency; Maeterlinck may go perpetually swifter and smoother in his modern motor car through throngs of modern, timid, and evasive men. But there will be a frightful clash and collision when first he runs into a child.
– The Illustrated London News, 15 January 1910.
(This column is given in its entirety.)