[Spencer's “On Education” originally appeared in the 1859 Westminster Review. This text has comes from the Project Gutenberg online version of the Everyman edition of Spencer’s On EducationGeorge P. Landow]

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The spreading recognition of drawing as an element of education is one among many signs of the more rational views on mental culture now beginning to prevail. Once more it may be remarked that teachers are at length adopting the course which Nature has perpetually been pressing on their notice. The spontaneous attempts made by children to represent the men, houses, trees, and animals around them—on a slate if they can get nothing better, or with lead-pencil on paper if they can beg them—are familiar to all. To be shown through a picture-book is one of their highest gratifications; and as usual, their strong imitative tendency presently generates in them the ambition to make pictures themselves also. This effort to depict the striking things they see is a further instinctive exercise of the perceptions—a means whereby still greater accuracy and completeness of observation are induced. And alike by trying to interest us in their discoveries of the sensible properties of things, and by their endeavours to draw, they solicit from us just that kind of culture which they most need. Had teachers been guided by Nature's hints, not only in making drawing a part of education but in choosing modes of teaching it, they would have done still better than they have done. What is that the child first tries to represent? Things that are large, things that are attractive in colour, things round which its pleasurable associations most cluster—human beings from whom it has received so many emotions; cows and dogs which interest by the many phenomena they present; houses that are hourly visible and strike by their size and contrast of parts. And which of the processes of representation gives it most delight? Colouring. Paper and pencil are good in default of something better; but a box of paints and a brush—these are the treasures. The drawing of outlines immediately becomes secondary to colouring—is gone through mainly with a view to the colouring; and if leave can be got to colour a book of prints, how great is the favour! Now, ridiculous as such a position will seem to drawing-masters who postpone colouring and who teach form by a dreary discipline of copying lines, we believe that the course of culture thus indicated is the right one. The priority of colour to form, which, as already pointed out, has a psychological basis, should be recognised from the beginning; and from the beginning also, the things imitated should be real. That greater delight in colour which is not only conspicuous in children but persists in most persons throughout life, should be continuously employed as the natural stimulus to the mastery of the comparatively difficult and unattractive form: the pleasure of the subsequent tinting should be the prospective reward for the labour of delineation. And these efforts to represent interesting actualities should be encouraged; in the conviction that as, by a widening experience, simpler and more practicable objects become interesting, they too will be attempted; and that so a gradual approximation will be made towards imitations having some resemblance to the realities. The extreme indefiniteness which, in conformity with the law of evolution, these first attempts exhibit, is anything but a reason for ignoring them. No matter how grotesque the shapes produced; no matter how daubed and glaring the colours. The question is not whether the child is producing good drawings. The question is, whether it is developing its faculties. It has first to gain some command over its fingers, some crude notions of likeness; and this practice is better than any other for these ends, since it is the spontaneous and interesting one. During early childhood no formal drawing-lessons are possible. Shall we therefore repress, or neglect to aid, these efforts at self-culture? or shall we encourage and guide them as normal exercises of the perceptions and the powers of manipulation? If by furnishing cheap woodcuts to be painted, and simple contour-maps to have their boundary lines tinted, we can not only pleasurably draw out the faculty of colour, but can incidentally produce some familiarity with the outlines of things and countries, and some ability to move the brush steadily; and if by the supply of tempting objects we can keep up the instinctive practice of making representations, however rough; it must happen that when the age for lessons in drawing is reached, there will exist a facility that would else have been absent. Time will have been gained; and trouble, both to teacher and pupil, saved. From what has been said, it may be readily inferred that we condemn the practice of drawing from copies; and still more so that formal discipline in making straight lines and curved lines and compound lines, with which it is the fashion of some teachers to begin. We regret that the Society of Arts has recently, in its series of manuals on "Rudimentary Art Instruction," given its countenance to an elementary drawing-book, which is the most vicious in principle that we have seen. We refer to the Outline from Outline, or from the Flat, by John Bell, sculptor. As explained in the prefatory note, this publication proposes "to place before the student a simple, yet logical mode of instruction;" and to this end sets out with a number of definitions thus:—

"A simple line in drawing is a thin mark drawn from one point to another. . . .

The abstract is to be preliminary to the concrete. Scientific conceptions are to precede empirical experiences. That this is an inversion of the normal order, we need scarcely repeat. It has been well said concerning the custom of prefacing the art of speaking any tongue by a drilling in the parts of speech and their functions, that it is about as reasonable as prefacing the art of walking by a course of lessons on the bones, muscles, and nerves of the legs; and much the same thing may be said of the proposal to preface the art of representing objects, by a nomenclature and definitions of the lines which they yield on analysis. These technicalities are alike repulsive and needless. They render the study distasteful at the very outset; and all with the view of teaching that which, in the course of practice, will be learnt unconsciously. Just as the child incidentally gathers the meanings of ordinary words from the conversations going on around it, without the help of dictionaries; so, from the remarks on objects, pictures, and its own drawings, will it presently acquire, not only without effort but even pleasurably, those same scientific terms which, when taught at first, are a mystery and a weariness.

If any dependence is to be placed on the general principles of education that have been laid down, the process of learning to draw should be throughout continuous with those efforts of early childhood, described above as so worthy of encouragement.

Related Materials


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

Last modified 18 November 2019