Letter XXI. February 4, 1819
My dear Greaves,
If education is understood to be the work, not of a certain course of exercises resumed at stated times, but of a continual and benevolent superintendence; if the importance of development is acknowledged not only in favour of the memory, and the intellect, and a few abilities which lead to indispensable attainments, - but in favour of all the faculties, whatever may be their names, or nature, or energy, which Providence has implanted; its province, thus enlarged, will yet be with less difficulty surveyed from one point of view, and will have more of a systematic and truly philosophical character than an incoherent mass of exercises, arranged without unity of principle, and gone through without interest, - which frequently, not very appropriately, receives the name of education.
We must bear in mind that the ultimate end of education is not a perfection in the accomplishments of the school, but fitness for life; not the acquirement of habits of blind obedience, and of prescribed diligence, but a preparation for independent action. We must bear in mind that whatever class of society a pupil may belong to, whatever calling he may be intended for, there are certain faculties in human nature common to all, which constitute the stock of the fundamental energies of Man. We have no right to withhold from anyone the opportunities of developing all their faculties. It may be judicious to treat some of them with marked attention, and to give up the idea of bringing others to high perfection. The diversity of talent and inclination, of plans and pursuits, is a sufficient proof for the necessity of such a distinction. But I repeat that we have no right to shut out the child from the development of those faculties also which we may not for the present conceive to be very essential for his future calling or station in life.
Who is not acquainted with the vicissitudes of human fortune which have frequently rendered an attainment valuable, that was little esteemed before, or led to regret the want of application to an exercise that had been treated with contempt? Who has not at some time or other experienced the delight of being able to benefit others by his advice or assistance, under circumstances when, but for his interference, they must have been deprived of that benefit? And who, even if in practice he is a stranger to it, would not at least in theory acknowledge, that the greatest satisfaction that Man can obtain, is a consciousness that he is pre-eminently qualified to render himself useful?
But even if all this were not deserving of attention; if the sufficiency of ordinary acquirements for the great majority were vindicated on grounds, perhaps, of partial experience, and of inference from well-known facts; I would still maintain, that our systems of education have for the most part been labouring under this inconvenience, that they did not assign the due proportion to the different exercises proposed by them. The only correct idea of this subject is to be derived from the examination of human nature with (all its faculties.) We do not find, in the vegetable or the animal kingdom, any species of objects gifted with certain qualities which are not, in some stage of its existence, called into play, and contribute to the full development of the character of the species in the individual. Even in the mineral kingdom, the wonders of Providence are incessantly manifested in the numberless combinations of crystallization; and thus even in the lowest department of created things, as far as we are acquainted with them, a constant law, the means employed by Supreme Intelligence, decides upon the formation, the shape, and the individual character of a mineral according to its inherent properties. Although the circumstances under which a mineral may have been formed, or a plant may have grown, or an animal brought up, may influence and modify, yet they can never destroy that result which the combined agency of its natural energies or qualities will produce. Thus education, instead of merely considering what is to be imparted to children, ought to consider first what they may be said already to possess, if not as a developed, at least as an involved faculty capable of development. Or if, instead of speaking thus in the abstract, we will but recollect that it is to the great Author of life, that Man owes the possession, and is responsible for the use of his innate faculties, education should not only decide what is to be made of a child, but rather inquire, what is a child qualified for? what is his destiny, as a created and responsible being? what are his faculties as a rational and moral being? what are the means pointed out for their perfection, and the end held out as the highest object of their efforts, by the Almighty Father of all, both in creation, and in the page of revelation?
To these questions, the answer must be simple and comprehensive. It must combine all mankind, - it must be applicable to all, without distinction of zones, or nations, in which they may be born. It must acknowledge, in the first place, the rights of Man in the fullest sense of the word. It must proceed to show that these rights, far from being confined to those exterior advantages which have from time to time been secured by a successful struggle of the people, embrace a much higher privilege, the nature of which is not yet generally understood or appreciated. They embrace the rightful claims of all classes to a general diffusion of useful knowledge, a careful development of the intellect, and judicious attention to all the faculties of Man, physical, intellectual, and moral.
It is in vain to talk of liberty, when Man is unnerved, or his mind not stored with knowledge, or his judgment neglected, and above all, when he is left unconscious of his rights and his duties as a moral being. (PSW 26, p. 97-100 )