[Spencer's On 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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hroughout youth, as in early childhood and in maturity, the process [of education[ shall be one of self-instruction; and the obverse principle, that the mental action induced shall be throughout intrinsically grateful. If progression from simple to complex, from indefinite to definite, and from concrete to abstract, be considered the essential requirements as dictated by abstract psychology; then do the requirements that knowledge shall be self-mastered, and pleasurably mastered, become tests by which we may judge whether the dictates of abstract psychology are being obeyed. If the first embody the leading generalisations of the science of mental growth, the last are the chief canons of the art of fostering mental growth. For manifestly, if the steps in our curriculum are so arranged that they can be successively ascended by the pupil himself with little or no help, they must correspond with the stages of evolution in his faculties; and manifestly, if the successive achievements of these steps are intrinsically gratifying to him, it follows that they require no more than a normal exercise of his powers.

But making education a process of self-evolution, has other advantages than this of keeping our lessons in the right order. In the first place, it guarantees a vividness and permanency of impression which the usual methods can never produce. Any piece of knowledge which the pupil has himself acquired—any problem which he has himself solved, becomes, by virtue of the conquest, much more thoroughly his than it could else be. The preliminary activity of mind which his success implies, the concentration of thought necessary to it, and the excitement consequent on his triumph, conspire to register the facts in his memory in a way that no mere information heard from a teacher, or read in a school-book, can be registered. Even if he fails, the tension to which his faculties have been wound up, insures his remembrance of the solution when given to him, better than half-a-dozen repetitions would. Observe, again, that this discipline necessitates a continuous organisation of the knowledge he acquires. It is in the very nature of facts and inferences assimilated in this normal manner, that they successively become the premises of further conclusions—the means of solving further questions. The solution of yesterday's problem helps the pupil in mastering to-day's. Thus the knowledge is turned into faculty as soon as it is taken in, and forthwith aids in the general function of thinking—does not lie merely written on the pages of an internal library, as when rote-learnt. Mark further, the moral culture which this constant self-help involves. Courage in attacking difficulties, patient concentration of the attention, perseverance through failures—these are characteristics which after-life specially requires; and these are characteristics which this system of making the mind work for its food specially produces. That it is thoroughly practicable to carry out instruction after this fashion, we can ourselves testify; having been in youth thus led to solve the comparatively complex problems of perspective. And that leading teachers have been tending in this direction, is indicated alike in the saying of Fellenberg, that "the individual, independent activity of the pupil is of much greater importance than the ordinary busy officiousness of many who assume the office of educators;" in the opinion of Horace Mann, that "unfortunately education amongst us at present consists too much in telling, not in training;" and in the remark of M. Marcel, that "what the learner discovers by mental exertion is better known than what is told to him."

Similarly with the correlative requirement, that the method of culture pursued shall be one productive of an intrinsically happy activity,—an activity not happy because of extrinsic rewards to be obtained, but because of its own healthfulness. Conformity to this requirement, besides preventing us from thwarting the normal process of evolution, incidentally secures positive benefits of importance. Unless we are to return to an ascetic morality (or rather im-morality) the maintenance of youthful happiness must be considered as in itself a worthy aim. Not to dwell upon this, however, we go on to remark that a pleasurable state of feeling is far more favourable to intellectual action than a state of indifference or disgust. Every one knows that things read, heard, or seen with interest, are better remembered than things read, heard, or seen with apathy. In the one case the faculties appealed to are actively occupied with the subject presented; in the other they are inactively occupied with it, and the attention is continually drawn away by more attractive thoughts. Hence the impressions are respectively strong and weak. Moreover, to the intellectual listlessness which a pupil's lack of interest in any study involves, must be added the paralysing fear of consequences. This, by distracting his attention, increases the difficulty he finds in bringing his faculties to bear upon facts that are repugnant to them. Clearly, therefore, the efficiency of tuition will, other things equal, be proportionate to the gratification with which tasks are performed.

It should be considered also, that grave moral consequences depend upon the habitual pleasure or pain which daily lessons produce. No one can compare the faces and manners of two boys—the one made happy by mastering interesting subjects, and the other made miserable by disgust with his studies, by consequent inability, by cold looks, by threats, by punishment—without seeing that the disposition of the one is being benefited and that of the other injured. Whoever has marked the effects of success and failure upon the mind, and the power of the mind over the body, will see that in the one case both temper and health are favourably affected, while in the other there is danger of permanent moroseness, or permanent timidity, and even of permanent constitutional depression.

There remains yet another indirect result of no small moment. The relationship between teachers and their pupils is, other things equal, rendered friendly and influential, or antagonistic and powerless, according as the system of culture produces happiness or misery. Human beings are at the mercy of their associated ideas. A daily minister of pain cannot fail to be regarded with secret dislike; and if he causes no emotions but painful ones, will inevitably be hated. Conversely, he who constantly aids children to their ends, hourly provides them with the satisfactions of conquest, hourly encourages them through their difficulties and sympathises in their successes, will be liked; nay, if his behaviour is consistent throughout, must be loved. And when we remember how efficient and benign is the control of a master who is felt to be a friend, when compared with the control of one who is looked upon with aversion, or at best indifference, we may infer that the indirect advantages of conducting education on the happiness principle do not fall far short of the direct ones. To all who question the possibility of acting out the system here advocated, we reply as before, that not only does theory point to it, but experience commends it. To the many verdicts of distinguished teachers who since Pestalozzi's time have testified this, may be here added that of Professor Pillans, who asserts that "where young people are taught as they ought to be, they are quite as happy in school as at play, seldom less delighted, nay, often more, with the well-directed exercise of their mental energies than with that of their muscular powers."

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

Last modified 18 November 2019