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Workmanship Before Artistry

Issue date: 
Monday, 7 March 1960
Viscount Cobham, GCMG, TD

You may well feel justifiably aggrieved at having to listen to a speech from your guest, but for this you will have to lay the blame at the door of your principal. I myself think that it borders on a confidence trick that, under the pretext of accepting your hospitality, I am now availing myself of an opportunity to indulge a Governor-General's one stock-in-trade, namely, that of "saying a few words" on any and every occasion. I do assure you that the pain of having to listen is no whit more severe than the agony of composition.

I will begin by saying at once that, beneath my acceptance of your invitation, there lay an ulterior motive. It is true that it always gives me very genuine pleasure to meet representatives of a profession with which my family has long been associated. Both my great-grandfather and my grandfather were governors of Eton; my father was chairman of half a dozen schools; and when I left England I was chairman of four.

In addition to these administrators, we have had in the family quite a lot of schoolmasters - the Dean of an Oxford College, three headmasters and several assistant masters since the turn of the century. So it is a small wonder that I accept with avidity all invitations to visit of scholastic establishments of all sorts. Of these, there is none more important than a teachers' training college.

One thing I ask you to believe, and that is that my sole wish is to be helpful and not critical. My opinions are no more likely to be right than those of anyone else. I am unfashionable enough to believe that those who differ from me are neither fools nor knaves; but I do not believe that it is given to any mortal to comprehend more than half the truth of any subject; this is surely shown by the correspondence columns in the newspapers. And I hope that I will not prove to be like the twelfth juryman who left the jury room and flung over his shoulder, "All I can say is that eleven stupider men I have never met!"

Nor have I any desire to meddle in the internal affairs of the country in which I am at once a temporary guest and a necessary part of the constitution. At the same time, I do assure you that, loving New Zealand as I do, I find it very hard to dissociate myself entirely from the many pressing and vital problems which confront her today - problems which are all too familiar in the Mother Country also.

I believe that it proves not unhelpful if people of similar interests and convictions meet and discuss mutual problems. I have never placed much faith in the old clich that the onlooker sees most of the game. I know that cricket spectators suffer under the delusion that to be three times as far from the scene of the action as the umpire, and half as attentive, gives them the right to aver with the utmost conviction that his decision was wrong. The spectator does, however, have the advantage of seeing the game as a whole.

In industry the most constructive criticism is often made by a business rival. Just before I left England I listened with interest and profit to a talk given to the Board of my old Company, A.E.I., by Ralph Cordiner, the president of the General Electric Corporation of America, who pointed out with great clarity what he believed to be the weaknesses in the presentation of our balance sheet, and other matters dealing with the relationship in England between management and labour, seen through American eyes.

I would like, moreover, to assure you that I am not appearing as a professional educationist. I obstinately cling to the view that men and women whose lives are dedicated to teaching, and who are in daily contact with the young, are more likely to know how to teach than the theorist.

It may possibly interest you if for a few minutes I tell you something about the problems which face the English school today. As chairman, I discovered that my principal duty seemed to lie in writing circular letters to parents beginning: "In view of the recent Burnham Scale award and the increase in the cost of living, the Governors regret " Parents seemed to receive these announcements with resignation rather than enthusiasm, but there was surprisingly little outcry.

To any who did become offensively vocal, I had the best of all possible answers, namely, that I myself had eight children to educate, and so had some slight working knowledge of the economics involved.

But it was on the purely scholastic side that our chief difficulties lay, and I suspect that you are facing the same ones in your country. One may possibly sum up the chief of these as follows:

"How can we give a child a broadly-based liberal education in what are loosely called 'the humanities,' while at the same time pushing in enough specialised knowledge in engineering and the sciences to enable him to earn his living in the scientific, the industrial, or the commercial field?"

It is true that industry is terribly short of specialists of all kinds; but it is not going too far to say that it is also short - very short - of men and women who possess qualities of leadership, understanding, and what may be loosely summarised under the heading of "address."

The English public school was designed to produce men possessing those qualities, and its aim was wonderfully summarised by a famous old classical scholar and poet, William Johnson-Cory, in the following passage:

"At school you are engaged not so much in acquiring knowledge as in making mental efforts under criticism. A certain amount of knowledge you can, indeed, with average faculties, retain - nor need you regret the hours you spend on much that is forgotten, for the shadow of lost knowledge at least protects you from many illusions. But you go to a great school, not so much for knowledge, as for arts and habits - for the habit of attention, for the art of expression, for the art of assuming at a moment's notice a new intellectual position, for the art of entering quickly into another person's thoughts, for the habit of submitting to censure and refutation, for the art of indicating assent and dissent in graduated terms, for the habit of regarding minute points of accuracy, for the art of working out what is possible in a given time, for taste, for discrimination, for mental courage and for mental soberness."

The corollary to this, of course, was that the English public school was founded upon a rigid - according to modern ideas, over-rigid - discipline. The clay took a very definite shape in the hands of the potter, and if some weaker vessels later on developed cracks, well, these were just the discards and unfortunately for some of the Dominions, were sometimes labelled "for export only."

Discipline was usually achieved by the skilful use of humour. I remember a cousin of mine arriving late for Early School in bedroom slippers and receiving the immediate request: "So, Talbot, you have come in a slippery way; you will return on a bootless errand." And my Uncle George Lyttleton greeted an ex-Captain of Worcestershire cricket to whom he had given repeated doses of lines for being late for Early School, "Coventry, write out everything."

I expect that many of you have heard of the so-called Industrial Fund for the equipping of science faculties in the English public schools. About ten of the biggest companies put up something over 2 million. This was a very practical way of emphasising the paramount need for an annual intake, not of science specialists, but of young men who had absorbed what a good public school has to give - a sense of discipline, and responsibility, a good working knowledge of their cultural background, a capacity for leadership, and above all (and surely this is the purpose of all education) the humility of the all-rounder, which displays so often - I will not say always - a strong contrast with the mental arrogance of the specialist. For I put it to you that the true purpose of education is not to make young people certain, but uncertain.

But it is one thing to build and equip about 150 science schools; it is quite another to find teachers. A competent metallurgist of 25 or so will earn 2000 a year or more in industry; in an English Public School his salary will be in the region of 700. Again, the scholarship standard is so high in England at university level nowadays that the public schools have to start their boys specialising in science almost as soon as they arrive, which is endangering the whole scheme.

The public schools have appealed to the universities to lower the standard of their examinations, and receive the reply: "We don't set any particular standards - they set themselves. When we have five places and 100 applicants, we have to take the five best - and naturally they will be good. How else can we select?"

In other words, they will tend to come from the grammar schools. And so it is that the public schools find themselves at a severe disadvantage vis a vis the grammar schools.

Parallel with the shortage of scientists is the shortage (in my view the much more serious shortage) of men and women, grounded in philosophy and the humanities, who are prepared to go into public life and serve the State.

One of the many ancillary tasks of a Governor-General is that of taking the chair at meetings convened for the final selection of Rhodes Scholars. The selection of Rhodes Scholars presents singular difficulty, and the problem is one wherein I feel that we need a slightly different approach from the scholastic profession.

New Zealand produces many splendid athletes and many young men with good brains; and often the two are combined. But I feel that something else is needed - something that can possibly be described on in the old phrase "a man with fire in his belly" - a man with ambition not only to get a first in Greats and a football blue, but also to go into public life and make his mark in the field of statesmanship.

This was the idea that underlay Lord Milner's "Kindergarten," and nobody can say that Milner was a bad picker. Philip Carr, later Lord Lothian, Patrick Duncan, Geoffrey Robinson, later editor of The Times, Lional Curtis - all these men graduated from the so-called "Kindergarten," and almost without exception they made a big mark upon contemporary people and events.

If democracy is to survive, it will need leaders - men of integrity, brains and courage. May I be permitted to quote what I think is a very fine passage from Sir Philip Magnus' "Life of Gladstone" which sets out in words better than any that I can command the dilemmas and doubts which assailed that Grand Old Man some 80 years ago:

"Gladstone had seen the power and wealth of the State expand during his lifetime beyond all precedent, and he was more afraid of misusing both than he was of neglecting problems. He considered that politics would be debauched and divorced from the service of God, if policy were to be auctioned by Party Leaders, ambitious to buy votes from selfish, and probably unscrupulous, pressure-groups. Behind the luxury and pride which capitalist industry had generated, behind Bismarck's ruthless concentration and use of force, behind the growing and almost universal demand for increased material satisfactions, Gladstone glimpsed monstrous shadow shapes, which danced convulsively in the fiery furnace of his imagination."

Those were far-sighted visions indeed, and much of the great Liberal statesman foresaw has come to pass. For all our vast expenditure on State schools and social services, the spirit of voluntary service is dying, and unless we can replace it, I believe we are in for bad trouble. A malign influence, loosely called materialism, has cut the tap-root from which men and women of noble proportions drew their spiritual strength, and now the shallow surface roots draw not from the deep wells of learning and experience, but from the muddy rivulets of this or that dogma.

"Vulgarity is seldom far from the human animal," wrote C. E. Montague, "when it has only decorated its animal life and not built and ample life upon it."

In our search for material blessings we have indeed neglected the ample life, and amid the bustle and turmoil of our modern world, faced with the necessity of earning our daily bread, and with Armageddon seemingly just round the corner, is it surprising? Someone has described the cynic as a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing, and that is the man who is undermining today the accumulated progress of 2000 years.

Forty years ago that great man, John Dover Wilson, drafted a memorandum on Day Continuation Schools that seems to me to go right to the heart of the matter:

"The learned and cultivated in our day are still largely living on Renaissance memories; the people have forgotten how to sing at their work and that work has no meaning for them, no place in the scheme of human salvation. This the paramount need of civilisation is to make work at once significant and joyous, and until that is accomplished, we shall remain as we are at present, a society wonderful in scientific achievement, but spiritually barbaric and socially anarchic."

This is what Wilson thought of the cultural state of England just after the turn of the century. Quoting these significant words recently, Sir Arthur Bryant sourly commented: "Close on half a century has lapsed since these words were written, but though we have more than half-destroyed the spiritual edifice our fathers bequeathed to us, we have still done little or nothing to replace it."

Since Wilson wrote, there have arisen many new theories about how children, especially very young children, should be taught. These have tended to obscure the basic rule of the profession which can roughly be summarised as follows: A child learns from a teacher by virtue not of what the teacher knows but of what the teacher is.

As Oliver Holmes wrote:

"Uncursed by doubt, our earliest creed we take;
We love the precepts for the Teacher's sake."

Children are vastly perceptive and imitative. Every mental, physical, or sartorial quirk, is quickly observed and tucked away for future reference.

Without, then, possessing the central core of affection and respect for a teacher, children are, I believe, no easier to teach today, merely by virtue of new techniques in education. The first school I ever attended produced consistently good scholastic results by a mixture of first-class teaching and pretty severe, but not over-severe, discipline. The cane is, I understand, unfashionable; at the same time I would counsel you against accepting a mere change of fashion as necessarily as an advance in wisdom.

Above all, I beg that you try to inculcate into your pupils the idea that workmanship comes before artistry. You can pay no higher tribute to the man or woman in this imperfect world than to call him or her a good workman. For a good workman is on the road to becoming a good artist.

In my opinion, children today are being taught too many vocational subjects. They are being trained rather than educated. The purpose of teaching at school is to equip a young person, when it reaches maturity, with a finely wrought instrument, tempered in the flame of discipline and difficulty. And just as the "humanities" (to use a current phrase) are on the whole more difficult to teach than scientific subjects - because wisdom, which they exist to cultivate cannot be cut and dried - so are they more difficult to learn, and take much longer. Their very range and scope make them formidable.

I myself regard the gradual abandonment of the classics with dismay. The old cry of "Of what use are the classics in after life?" leaves my withers unwrung. To it I can only reply: "By their fruits shall they be judged." And for eight centuries that have stood the test of time in producing a certain quality of mind, balanced, analytical and mature.

The reasons for this are not easy to define, but I believe that they are twofold. First, they give a child a sense of vast perspective. The child soon realises a fact that not many realise today - that twenty centuries ago civilisations existed in no way inferior, and in many ways vastly superior, to our own. Second, the unravelling of a complicated piece of Latin prose is in itself a superb mental exercise.

But it is the sense of perspective that I believe to be all important, and I think that it should be taught, almost "obiter dictum," as soon as a child can understand the meaning of figures. A scientist will teach his class that light travels at 186,000 miles a second; that is, that it will travel in one second seven times around the earth. A light year is the distance that light travels in a year. And the cluster galaxy in Hydra is 2200 light years away! Those are to the best of my knowledge and belief accurate, demonstrable facts.

Finally, I do believe in my inmost heart, that religion forms by far the most important part of a child's early training.

Robert Wilson wrote recently:

"It is my belief that stressing ethical concepts should be a basic part of education. It is one of the glories of the Christian heritage that, while open to all faiths and tolerant of all beliefs, it has, throughout its history, emphasised the relation of man to his Maker and the final accounting that each individual must render for his actions. Such emphasis, it seems to me, recognises a fundamental educational truth: That culture, in its highest sense, is moral, as well as intellectual and aesthetic."

And I will leave you with that thought.

Last updated: 
Friday, 9 January 2009

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