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Wells, H G - On education



Type of spiritual experience

A description of the experience

extract from The Presidential Address to the Educational Science Section of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, given on September 2nd, 1937, at Nottingham, as read by Mr, Wells

I have been keenly interested for a number of years, and particularly since the War, in public thought and public reactions, in what people know and think and what they are ready to believe. What they know and think and what they are ready to believe impresses me as remarkably poor stuff. A general ignorance — even in respectable quarters — of some of the most elementary realities of the political and social life of the world is, I believe, mainly accountable for much of the discomfort and menace of our times. The uninstructed public intelligence of our community is feeble and convulsive. It is still a herd intelligence. It tyrannises here and yields to tyranny there. What is called elementary education throughout the world does not in fact educate, because it does not properly inform. I realised this very acutely during the later stages of the War and it has been plain in my mind ever since. It led to my taking an active part in the production of various outlines and summaries of contemporary knowledge. Necessarily they had the defects and limitations of a private adventure, but in making them I learnt a great deal about — what shall I say — the contents of the minds our schools are turning out as taught.

And so now I propose to concentrate the attention of this Section for this meeting on the question of what is taught as fact, that is to say upon the informative side of educational work. For this year I suggest we give the questions of drill, skills, art, music, the teaching of languages, mathematics and other symbols, physical, aesthetic, moral and religious training and development, a rest, and that we concentrate on the inquiry: What are we telling young people directly about the world in which they are to live? What is the world picture we are presenting to their minds? What is the framework of conceptions about reality and about obligation into which the rest of their mental existences will have to be fitted? I am proposing in fact a review of the informative side of education, wholly and solely-informative in relation to the needs of modern life.

And here the fact that I am an educational outsider — which in every other relation would be a disqualification — gives me certain very real advantages. I can talk with exceptional frankness. And I am inclined to think that in this matter of the informative side of education frankness has not always been conspicuous. For what I say I am responsible only to the hearer and my own self-respect. I occupy no position from which I can be dismissed as unsound in my ideas. I follow no career that can be affected by anything I say. I follow, indeed, no career. That’s all over. I have no party, no colleagues or associates who can be embarrassed by any unorthodox suggestions I make. Every schoolmaster, every teacher, nearly every professor must, by the nature of his calling, be wary, diplomatic, compromising; he has his governors to consider, his college to consider, his parents to consider, the local press to consider; he must not say too much nor say anything that might be misinterpreted and misunderstood. I can. And so I think I can best serve the purposes of the British Association and this section by taking every advantage of my irresponsibility, being as unorthodox and provocative as I can be, and so possibly saying a thing or two which you are not free to say but which some of you at any rate will be more or less willing to have said..........................

No one believes today, as our grandparents — perhaps for most of you it would be better to say great-grandparents — believed, that education had an end somewhen about adolescence. Young people then leave school or college under the imputation that no one could teach them any more. There has been a quiet but complete revolution in people’s ideas in this respect and now it is recognised almost universally that people in a modern community must be learners to the end of their days. We shall be giving a considerable amount of attention to continuation, adult and post-graduate studies in this section, this year. It would be wasting our opportunities not to do so. ................................

Our modern ideas seem to be a continuation of learning not only for university graduates and practitioners in the so-called intellectual professions, but for the miner, the plough-boy, the taxi-cab driver, and the out-of-work, throughout life. Our ultimate aim is an entirely educated population.

Nevertheless it is true that what I may call the main beams and girders of the mental framework must be laid down, soundly or unsoundly, before the close of adolescence. We live under conditions where it seems we are still only able to afford for the majority of our young people, freedom from economic exploitation, teachers even of the cheapest sort and some educational equipment, up to the age of 14 or 15, and we have to fit our projects to that. And even if we were free to carry on with unlimited time and unrestrained teaching resources, it would still be in those opening years that the framework of the mind would have to be made.

We have got to see therefore that whatever we propose as this irreducible minimum of knowledge must be imparted between infancy and — at most, the fifteenth or sixteenth year. Roughly, we have to get it into ten years at the outside........................

.................................... And next let us turn to another relentlessly inelastic-seeming case — and that is, the school time-table. How many hours in the week have we got for this job in hand? The maximum school hours we have available are something round about thirty, but out of this we have to take time for what I may call the non-informative teaching, teaching to read, teaching to write clearly, the native and foreign language teaching, basic mathematical work, drawing, various forms of manual training, music and so forth. A certain amount of information may be mixed in with these subjects but not very much. They are not what I mean by informative subjects. By the time we are through with these non-informative subjects, I doubt if at the most generous estimate we can apportion more than six hours a week to essentially informative work. Then let us, still erring on the side of generosity, assume that there are forty weeks of schooling in the year. That gives us a maximum of 240 hours in the year. And if we take ten years of schooling as an average human being’s preparation for life, and if we disregard the ravages made upon our school time by measles, chicken-pox, whooping-cough, coronations and occasions of public rejoicing, we are given 2,400 hours as all that we can hope for as our time allowance for building up a coherent picture of the world, the essential foundation of knowledge and ideas, in the minds of our people. The complete framework of knowledge has to be established in 200 dozen hours. It is plain that a considerable austerity is indicated for us. We have no time to waste, if our schools are not to go on delivering, year by year, fresh hordes of fundamentally ignorant, unbalanced, uncritical minds, at once suspicious and credulous, weakly gregarious, easily baffled and easily misled, into the monstrous responsibilities and dangers of this present world. Mere cannon-fodder and stuff for massacres and stampedes.

The source of the experience

Wells, H G


Observation contributed by: John Bryant