[Spencer's Intellectual Education” originally appeared in the Westminster Review. This text has comes from the Project Gutenberg online version of the Everyman edition of Essays of EducationGeorge P. Landow]

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here cannot fail to be a relationship between the successive systems of education, and the successive social states with which they have co-existed. Having a common origin in the national mind, the institutions of each epoch, whatever be their special functions, must have a family likeness. When men received their creed and its interpretations from an infallible authority deigning no explanations, it was natural that the teaching of children should be purely dogmatic. While "believe and ask no questions" was the maxim of the Church, it was fitly the maxim of the school. Conversely, now that Protestantism has gained for adults a right of private judgment and established the practice of appealing to reason, there is harmony in the change that has made juvenile instruction a process of exposition addressed to the understanding. Along with political despotism, stern in its commands, ruling by force of terror, visiting trifling crimes with death, and implacable in its vengeance on the disloyal, there necessarily grew up an academic discipline similarly harsh—a discipline of multiplied injunctions and blows for every breach of them—a discipline of unlimited autocracy upheld by rods, and ferules, and the black-hole.

On the other hand, the increase of political liberty, the abolition of laws restricting individual action, and the amelioration of the criminal code, have been accompanied by a kindred progress towards non-coercive education: the pupil is hampered by fewer restraints, and other means than punishments are used to govern him. In those ascetic days when men, acting on the greatest-misery principle, held that the more gratifications they denied themselves the more virtuous they were, they, as a matter of course, considered that the best education which most thwarted the wishes of their children, and cut short all spontaneous activity with—"You mustn't do so." While, on the contrary, now that happiness is coming to be regarded as a legitimate aim—now that hours of labour are being shortened and popular recreations provided—parents and teachers are beginning to see that most childish desires may rightly be gratified, that childish sports should be encouraged, and that the tendencies of the growing mind are not altogether so diabolical as was supposed.

The age in which all believed that trades must be established by bounties and prohibitions; that manufacturers needed their materials and qualities and prices to be prescribed; and that the value of money could be determined by law; was an age which unavoidably cherished the notions that a child's mind could be made to order; that its powers were to be imparted by the schoolmaster; that it was a receptacle into which knowledge was to be put, and there built up after the teacher's ideal. In this free-trade era, however, when we are learning that there is much more self-regulation in things than was supposed; that labour, and commerce, and agriculture, and navigation, can do better without management than with it; that political governments, to be efficient, must grow up from within and not be imposed from without; we are also being taught that there is a natural process of mental evolution which is not to be disturbed without injury; that we may not force on the unfolding mind our artificial forms; but that psychology, also, discloses to us a law of supply and demand to which, if we would not do harm, we must conform. Thus, alike in its oracular dogmatism, in its harsh discipline, in its multiplied restrictions, in its professed asceticism, and in its faith in the devices of men, the old educational regime was akin to the social systems with which it was contemporaneous; and similarly, in the reverse of these characteristics, our modern modes of culture correspond to our more liberal religious and political institutions.

But there remain further parallelisms to which we have not yet adverted: that, namely, between the processes by which these respective changes have been wrought out; and that between the several states of heterogeneous opinion to which they have led. Some centuries ago there was uniformity of belief—religious, political, and educational. All men were Romanists, all were Monarchists, all were disciples of Aristotle; and no one thought of calling in question that grammar-school routine under which all were brought up. The same agency has in each case replaced this uniformity by a constantly-increasing diversity. That tendency towards assertion of the individuality, which, after contributing to produce the great Protestant movement, has since gone on to produce an ever-increasing number of sects—that tendency which initiated political parties, and out of the two primary ones has, in these modern days, evolved a multiplicity to which every year adds—that tendency which led to the Baconian rebellion against the schools, and has since originated here and abroad, sundry new systems of thought—is a tendency which, in education also, has caused divisions and the accumulation of methods. As external consequences of the same internal change, these processes have necessarily been more or less simultaneous. The decline of authority, whether papal, philosophic, kingly, or tutorial, is essentially one phenomenon; in each of its aspects a leaning towards free action is seen alike in the working out of the change itself, and in the new forms of theory and practice to which the change has given birth.

Related material


Spencer, Herbert. "On Manners and Fashion." Essays on Education and Kindred Subjects. London: Dent/Everyman, 1966.

Last modified 18 November 2019