GENTILE, Giovanni. The Reform of Education, translated by Dino Bigongiari, 139–165. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1922.
Educators of the modern school are bent on transforming its methods and institutions on the basis of the conception set forth in the previous chapters. The subtle discussions required to make this conception clear must have convinced the reader that this work of educational reform could only succeed if preceded by such philosophical doctrines as have recently been evolved in Italy and are now becoming the accepted faith of the newer generation. To this new belief the school must be converted, if it is ever going to conquer that freedom which has been its constant aspiration, and which seems to be an indispensable condition for its further growth.
The faith of the modern man cleaves to a life conceived and directed idealistically. He believes that life—is man’s free creation; that in it, therefore, human aims should gain an ever fuller realisation; and that these aims, these ends will not be attained unless thought, which is man’s specific force, extends its sway so as to embrace nature, penetrate it, and resolve it into its own substance. He believes that nature, thus turned into an instrument of thought, yields readily to its will, not being per se opposed or repugnant to the life and activity of the spirit, but rather homogeneous and identical with it. He believes, moreover, that this sway can only be obtained by amplifying, strengthening, and constantly potentiating our human energy, which means thinking, knowing, self-realising; and that self-realisation is not possible unless it is free, unless it be rescued from the prejudice of dependence upon external principles, and unless it affirms itself as absolute infinite activity. This is the Kingdom of Man prophesied at the dawn of modern thought. This is the work which science, art, religion, not less than political revolutions and social reforms, have gradually been accomplishing and perfecting in the last three hundred years. This new spiritual orientation has to a certain extent influenced teaching; and though without a general programme of substantial reforms, the ideal of education has been transformed along idealistic lines. This transformation, strange to say, has been effected in part by means of institutions which have arisen as a result of the recent development of industrial life and of the corresponding complexity in economic and social relations. These schools, because of their names, seem to be quite removed from the idealistic tendencies of modern civilisations. Whether they be called technical, business, or industrial schools, they seem to be and are in fact the result of a realistic conception of life. But such realism, we must remember, is far from being opposed to our idealism, and should not be compared with the realism which we have objected to. We should rather consider it as the most effective demonstration of the idealistic trend of our times. For these institutions are founded on the theory that knowledge increases man’s power in the world by enabling him to overcome the obstacles by which nature, if ignored and unknown, would hinder the free development of civilisation in general, and of those individuals in particular in whom and through whom civilisation becomes actual.
Realism, on the other hand, as the opposite of the idealistic conception of life and culture, was shown to be based on a conception of reality which exists totally outside human thought and of the civilisation which is produced by it,—of a reality existing per se in such a way that no end peculiar to man, no free human life, can be conceived which will have the power of bending this reality toward itself, of resolving it within itself. This realistic point of view is not different from the outlook of the primitive man who, awed by the might of nature, kneels submissively before its invisible power, which, he thinks, controls these forces. It is the accepted belief of the naïve and dreamy consciousness of child-like humanity; but it is none the less a conception which is opposed to the course constantly followed by civilisation. Its dangers must be made very clear and its menace removed from the path of its triumphant enemy. To overcome this realistic point of view in the field of education is the duty of teachers, who must be in a position to recognise it, and to track it into whatever hiding places it may lurk. I intend therefore in this chapter to point out some of the most notable realistic prejudices which, though still tolerated by contemporary thought, ought to be definitely stamped out, if we are really convinced of the spiritual character of culture and of its essential attributes.
I shall here bring up again a consideration which I touched upon in the first chapter,—an idea which is the fundamental prejudice of the realistic theory of education in its antagonism to the profound exigencies of the free spiritual life which education should promote. I mean the idea of Science (with a capital S),—that Science which is imagined as towering over and above the men who toil and suffer, think and struggle in quest of its light and of its force; that Science which would be so beautiful, and majestic, and impressive, were it not for the fact that it does not exist. This Science is looked upon as infallible, without crises, without reverses, without vicissitudes of doctrines, without parties, and without nationality,—without history in short; for history is full of these baser occurrences; and men, without a single exception, even the greatest of scientists, even the lofty geniuses that have transformed or systematised knowledge, are all in some measure prone to err. The exceptions which are adduced to contradict this statement are so few, so limited by restrictions and by hair-splitting distinctions, that we can hardly allow them; especially when we consider that even granting the infallible oracular character of some men’s utterances, the fact remains that his listeners must undergo the process of understanding him, and in so doing they may go astray. So that from superhuman unfailing verities, we slip back instantly to human fallibility. Infallible Science, then, is not known, cannot be known to mankind; for the simple reason that we who constitute it are subject to error, and being ourselves prone to fail, we expose science to the same danger. If it does exist somewhere it surely is not in this world in which we live, thinking, knowing, and—creating science.
This mythical science, unsullied and incorruptible, segregated from all possible intercourse with thought, ever soaring in the pure air of divine essences, is yet the mother of a numerous offspring, the parent of countless daughters as virginal and as infallible as the mother herself. These are the particular sciences, bearing various names, but all of them equally worthy of the distinction of the capital S in the eyes of their realistic worshippers.
This mythology is taught in the schools which too often are called, and without any figurative meaning, the shrines of learning. Conceived as divinely superlative, as something which, though revealed historically by the successive discoveries of privileged minds, is none the less sharply distinct from the history of humanity, science descends into the school. There it manifests itself as human knowledge, and is communicated to the youthful minds eager to ascend to the heaven of truth. And so the school comes to be looked upon as a kind of temple, as the Church where the inspired Word of the Sacred Books is read and explained by those who have been chosen by the Divinity to act as its interpreters, as preachers of the Faith. With this religious conception of the school we connect the “mission” of the educator, whose task, when not ridiculed and lampooned by the same scoffers who at all times have jeered at the teachers of divinity, has been surrounded by a glamour of religiosity. We see them encircled by that halo of distant respect which we naturally connect with those who, acting as intermediaries between us and the deity, are themselves transfigured and deified.
The school then is looked upon as a temple in which the pupil receives his spiritual bread. But not so the home which the boy must leave, that he may satisfy his mysteriously innate craving for knowledge. Not so the street, where the small boys gather, drawn together by the irresistible need of pastime, by the sweet desire of frolicsome companionship, by the unconscious yearning after spiritual communion with the world which there makes its way into the child’s mind far off from the classroom, and lavishes upon it, its own light, its portion of thought, its share of new experiences, and the joy of an ever renewed outpouring of sympathetic spirituality.
The custodian of this temple, the schoolmaster, is regarded as a divine, as the minister who imparts the consecrated elements of Science, who leads the pupil to the “panem angelorum,” as Dante calls it. But our fathers and mothers are not so regarded,—they who were the first custodians of a greater temple, the world, to whose marvels they gradually initiated our growing minds; they who by the use of speech taught us, without being aware of it, infinitely more than the best of schools will ever be able to teach us in the future; not our elder brothers to whom we always looked up in emulation, and from whom, even more than from our parents, we learned the thoughts and the words suited to our needs; not our grandmother, who long before our eager phantasy might roam through the printed pages, gently led us into Fairyland, and there, in the enchantments of a magical world, disclosed to us that humanity which books and teachers later in life were to re-evoke for us. No! There are no altars to Science except in the Schoolhouse, and none but educators may minister to its cult.
This mythological lore is not merely a harmless form of imagery, against which it might be pedantic to rebel. It is a real superstition, which has its roots deep down in the personality of the educator; it adheres parasitically to culture, climbs over its sturdy trunk, drains its sap, weakens it, deadens it. For when we have stripped this conception of education of its mythological exterior, there yet remains a clearly religious and realistic thought, which is professed with firm adhesion of the mind and complete devotion of the soul, as the inviolable norm of the whole activity which pertains to the object of this norm itself. Let us, for example, consider what is presupposed by the doctrine of methods, the so-called methodology, which is an important part of didactics, and a very considerable section in the whole field of pedagogics. The doctrine of methods comprises a general treatment, which corresponds to what we called the Mother-Science, and a particular treatment for the individual sciences. There is methodology of learning in general, and there are methodics for the several disciplines, or at least for each group of disciplines, into which learning is divided and subdivided in accordance with the logical processes adopted in any particular case, or in accordance with the objects of these disciplines. To each method of knowing, considered in itself, corresponds a teaching method, so that there is one general didactic method, and many special ones by which the general method is to be applied.
But what is the method of a science if not the logical scheme or the form of a certain scientific knowledge? And, on the other hand, what can be known as to the form of anything, unless we have the thing itself before us in its form and with its contents? In order to define the form of a science, and say, for example, that it is deductive in mathematics and inductive in chemistry, we must first presuppose the existence of these sciences themselves. But in them form is never anything indifferent to content; it is the form of that content. This is made clear if we consider the methodologies which logicians presume to define in the abstract, and with no regard to the determined content of the corresponding sciences. We notice that they are able to present a successful exposition and formulation only by fixing the meaning of each formula by the use of examples, thereby passing from the abstract to the concrete, and showing the method to be within the concrete knowing out of which logic presumes to extract it. In the same way every philosophical system has its method; but whenever criticism has endeavoured to fix abstractly the method of a system, in order then to show how it has been applied in the construction of the system itself, it has been forced in every case to admit that the method already contained the system within itself, that it was the system itself. So that it would have no value whatsoever, it could not even be grasped by thought in its particular determinateness, if it were not presented as the natural form of that precise thought.
No harmful results would follow, if this assumption merely implied the accepting of science and methods as existing by themselves previous to the learning of science by means of its respective method; if it resulted merely in the failure to recognise the impossibility of conceiving science and methods as existing outside the human mind where they actually do live and exist. If this were all, we should merely take notice of it as a speculative error which affected only the solution of the particular problem in which it appeared. But in the life of thought, where everything is united and connected in an organic system, every point of which is in relation to every other point, there is no error limited to a single problem; its effects are felt in the whole system, and they react on thought as a whole. And since thought is activity itself,—life’s drama, as we called it,—every error infects the entire life. Let us consider the consequences of this realistic conception of methodology.
Science, we are told, in its abstract objectivity is one, immutable, unaltered; it is removed from the danger of error and of human fallibility, and protected from the alternate succession of ignorance and discovery; incapable therefore of progressing and of developing because it was complete from the very beginning, and is eternally perfect. But such a Science is quite different from the one which grows in the life of culture, and is the free formation of the human personality. This one is ever changing, always admitting all possible transformations, different from individual to individual, and different also in the mind of the same person. It lives only on condition that it never fix itself, that it never crystallise, that it place no limits to its development; it continues to be in virtue of its power to grow, to modify itself, to integrate itself and incessantly to develop. Science as culture, as personality, is free, perennially becoming, stirred by ethical impulses, multiple, varied. If we fix the method, it indicates that we are dealing with science realistically considered as pre-existing, and we can therefore have only one sole, definite, immutable method,—one for everybody, and devoid of freedom, not susceptible of development, refractory to all moral evaluation. We should have then a rigid law of the spirit, as compelling as the laws of nature. But by obedience to such a principle, the spirit could not affirm itself: such compliance is surrender and abdication, not the realisation of some good. The most that could be said of it is that perhaps it prevents or annuls an evil which alienates us from a primitive good which is not ours, and not being ours cannot truly be good.
A fixed method forces the spirit into this hopeless dilemma: (1) Either refuse to submit, and thus save life at the cost of all that makes life worth living—propter vitam vivendi perdere causas (which evidently would be the case, if we consider that the spirit lives solely on condition that it recognise no pre-established laws, that it be free from the bondage of nature, that it create its own law, its own world, freely; and that, on the other hand, the cause of living, what constitutes the worth of life, is that enhancement of the spirit’s reality which realises itself in science, and therefore in the method of science)
(2) Or else submit, and kill life in the effort to save its worth—propter causas vivendi perdere vitam (which is absurd; for what is the worth of life if there is no life?).
However that may be, the type of education that presupposes a certain ideal of knowledge previously constituted and ready to be imparted by the teacher to the pupil in conformity with some suitable method, must follow a method, a unique one—the method of science, and therefore of the teacher, and therefore also of the pupil, whether the latter is capable of it or not. For it is tacitly assumed that science==method; science==teacher; science==pupil. On the strength of these equations the common term “science” should suffice to identify the first method, which is the one of science in itself, with the last, which is the method of science to be mastered by the pupil. But the above series of equations is false, because, admitting the first, the one namely on the basis of which we are now discussing, neither the second nor the third is possible without passing from realistic to idealistic science,—two very different things, as I have shown. Even if we leave the teacher out of consideration, we shall have to remember that the pupil learns a science by making it his own,—a fallible science, which he may understand up to a certain point and no further. It will be one of the many sciences which have no one given method, but many of them, and the pupil can only avoid appropriating, individualising, subjectivising science by following that way which is very broad, very easy, and, alas, only too well beaten,—the royal road of non-learning, which is diligently unkept by all the schools which have to teach precise, well-defined science, and have a pre-established method by which to teach it.
But, it might be objected, if science, realistically conceived, is a fictitious entity in no way corresponding to reality, how is it possible to have a method which by its uniqueness and definiteness effectively corresponds to the unalterable unity of this non-existent science? And what teacher would ever arbitrarily impose on his students such an abstract and mechanical method? This is true enough; but man learns to compromise with all deities, Science included. This divinity, in order somehow to exist, must assume a few human traits without however renouncing her divine prerogatives. The fact that Apollo held no communication with the Pythian priestess did not remove the oracular sanctity from the Delphic response. For man knows no deity other than the one which he is capable of conceiving with his soul, just as he knows no other red besides the one which he sees with his own eyes.
Science, which he considers as an object existing in itself, outside of his and other human minds, and therefore endowed with absolute validity in all its branches and in the articulations of these branches, is nothing but the science which he knows. And he knows it because he has constructed it in the form in which he knows it: fingit creditique. But this absence of consciousness from the constructing, and the consequent faith in the realistic value of science, determine the positions and the doctrines which produce the consequences I have deplored. For he who establishes a school and enacts its regulations takes as a model his own science, without at all being aware that it is only his own. It becomes therefore the content of the institution and determines its method. But a teacher who does not feel inclined to teach that given science and to adopt that special method creates his own ideal, which is but the projection of his personal culture; and unable to account critically for the intrinsic connection existing between his ideal and his personality, he too fingit creditique. He believes that the school authority has erred, and that Science, as he understands it, must be kept distinct from the official doctrines. But in his mind his science is not his own. It is, he is confident, that Sovereign Science which by his method and through his cult must enlighten the school over which he rules. And so at the point of arrival where the realistic conception of methods must work, it is found to be effective notwithstanding the rebuffs of reality, and it works. It works and it acts in the only way that it is possible for it to act, namely, by going amiss. It fails and will always continue to fail, not so much because every pupil has his own personality and will have his own particular culture with its corresponding method, but especially because whatever the number of the pupils in a school, the human mind knows of no culture which is not also its own free development, its autonomous ethical becoming. A science, which is supposed to exist before the spirit, becomes a thing, and will never again be able to trace its way back to the spirit. By presupposing science, teachers materialise the culture in whose development education consists; and this materiality of a culture known to teachers renders impossible that other culture which is unknown to teachers, which is going to be not theirs, but the pupils’, for whom they work and in whose behalf the school was instituted.
Methods, programmes, and manuals most conspicuously reveal the realistic prejudices of school technique; and against these educators should constantly be on their guard. For these prejudices have, as Vico would put it, an eternal motive, which at times seems to be definitely uprooted and completely done away with, only to reappear, alas! in a different form and with an ever renewed lease of life. The motive is the following: The school is created when people are conscious of a certain amount of knowledge already attained, well defined, and recognised as valuable. Likewise man’s value socially is estimated on the work done, and it is on the basis of this finished work that he is credited with the acquisition of a certain personality. This is assuredly no longer a becoming but a being; an existent thing, already realised, which, though a contradiction in terms for those of us who have mastered the concept of the attributes of the spirit, is not thereby condemned as accidental and disposed of once for all. For it is also true that culture, personality, science,—spiritual reality in short,—is a reality, and true it is that when we know it, we know it as already realised. We may indeed have a very keen and lively sentiment of the subjectivity, and inwardness, and newness or originality of our culture, in which, for example, Dante, Dante himself, is our Dante, is “We.” But yet this “We” looms before us as a truth which transcends our particular “we.” It is truth; it is science. And before this divine Truth, before this Science, we too fall on our knees, because it is no longer a mythology, but—our experience, our life.
Thus we think; thus, spiritually, we live. I meditate and inquire into the mystery of the universe unceasingly; but in the background of my inquiry, from time to time a solution appears, a discovery which urges my exploring mind onward. Mystery itself is not mystery unless it be known as such, and then it becomes knowledge. Inquiry is therefore at once a research and a discovery. And this untiring activity, which knows neither sleep nor rest, is mirrored before its own eyes and lives in the fond contemplation of its reflected image, which image in its objectivity appears to it as fixed as it, the activity, is mobile. And no man ever felt so keenly the humility and meanness of his own powers, no one ever presumed so little of himself, that he could not yet be drawn by his own nature to idolise himself, to see himself before himself, exactly as he is, as what he cannot but be. And on the other hand we cannot but affirm our immortal faith in the absolute truth of the ideals which impose upon us sentiments of humility.
The error which we must victoriously contend against is not this ingenuous and unconquered faith in the objectivity of thought (which is also the objectivity of all things). What we must fight against is mental torpor and the sloth of the heart, which induce us to stop in front of the object as soon as we get it. A deplorable failing indeed, since the object is lost in the very act by which we grasp it, and we must again resume our work and toil some more in order to attain it again. For the object, in short, does exist, but in the subject; and in order to be a living and real object it must live on the life itself of the subject.
A textbook is a textbook; when it was written, and if its author was capable of thinking and of living in his thought, it too was a living thing; and a living thing, that is, spirit, it will continue to be for the instructor who does not through indolence allow himself to believe that all the thinking demanded by the subject was done once for all by the author of the manual. For the manual, as a book intended for the teacher, meant to be constantly awakened by teachers to an ever quickened life, the life of the spirit, can only be what the instructor makes it. He, therefore, must have culture enough to read it as his book; he must be able to restore it to life, to re-create it by the living process of his personal thought. This done, he will have done but one-half of the work needed to transform himself from a reader into a teacher. For his reading must lead up to the reading of the pupils; and they ought not to be confronted with the finished product of a culture turned out, all ready-made by the mechanism of the handbook. So that we should now complete our previous statement, and say that the teacher re-creates the book when he review it in the mind of the one for whom the book was written; when author, teacher, and pupil constitute but one single spirit, whose life animates and inwardly vivifies the manual, which therefore ought not to be called, as it is, a hand-book, but a spiritual guide for the mind. Unfortunately the oft-deplored indolence which freezes and stiffens spiritual life fastens the books to the hands of the teacher first, and then to those of the pupils.
Teachers should carefully watch themselves. If the book begins to feel heavy in their hands, it is a sign that it is becoming a burden on the pupils’ minds. It will end by stifling their mental life, unless its oppressive dulness is dispelled by the reawakened consciousness of the instructor. Teachers should never for an instant become remiss in their loving solicitude for their school. When their book, the book they selected for their pupils, as the means of imparting the culture for which the school stands, ceases to be the pupils’ book, cherished by them as a thing of their own, intimately bound up with their persons, then it is high time to throw it away. For the moment a book loses its power to attract it instantly begins to repel. It then becomes an instrument of torture and a menance for the life of the youthful minds entrusted to the teachers’ care.
Dictionaries and grammars go side by side with handbooks,—instruments of culture that are only too often converted into engines of torture. The abuse of these books, especially noticeable in the secondary schools, is not limited to them, but is infecting primary instruction too, and teachers should know what such books are, and be enlightened as to their limitations. Otherwise the dictionary becomes the cemetery of speech, and grammar the annexed dissecting room. A lexicon is a burial ground for the mortal remains of those living beings which we call human words, each one of which always lives in a context, not because it is there in bodily company, in the society of other words, but because in every context it has a special signification, being the form of a precise thought or state of mind, as we may wish to call it. A word need not be joined to other words to form that complex which grammarians call a sentence. It may stand alone, all by itself, and constitute a discourse, and express a thought, even a very great thought. The “fiat” of the book of Genesis is an example. What is requisite is that the word, whether by itself or with others, should adhere to the personality, to the spiritual situation, and be the actual expression of a soul. When joined to the soul a word, which materially is identical with countless other words uttered by other souls, and with the peculiar accents of the respective personalities, reveals peculiar expression, is a particular word not to be ever compared with any of those countless ones materially identical with it. The biblical “fiat,” repeated by men who feel within them the almighty Word of the Creator, is constantly taking on new shades of meaning, is always reinforced by richer tones, and will always continue to do so, as a result of the numerous ways that men have of picturing to themselves the deity, and in accordance with the variety of doctrines, phantasies, and sentiments, or whatever other forms of activity may converge into the expression of a person’s spiritual life. So that if, abstractly considered, it is the word that we read, always the same, in the sublime passage of Genesis, in reality it lives in an infinite number of forms, as though an infinite number of words.
But in dictionaries, words are sundered from the minds, detached from the context, soulless and dead. A good lexicon—and those that are put in the hands of pupils are seldom satisfactory—should always in some way restore the word to the natural context, enchase it, so to speak, in the jewel from which it was torn. It should never presume to give meanings of abstracted words, but ought to point them out as they exist historically in the authors who are deemed worthy representatives of the language or of the literature. Dictionaries so compiled do away partly with the objectionable abstractness, but are yet unable to conjure the dead from their tombs. Their weakness and insufficiency lie first of all in the fact that the true context of a word, in which it lives concretely, and from which therefore it draws its meaning, is in reality not the brief phrase, which is all that historical dictionaries can quote, but rather the entire work of the author from which the quoted phrase derives whatever colours it may possess and its own peculiar shade. And the whole work in turn can be understood only in connection with the boundless historical environments out of which it emerges, in which it lives, and where its thoughts receive their peculiar colouring and their special significance. The insufficiency of the dictionary comes out even more clearly from another and more important consideration. An historical dictionary of the Italian language will, for example, tell us how Machiavelli used the word “virtue” (virtù), and by the examples adduced we should see or perhaps surmise the meaning of that word, the knowledge of which is not just mere erudition, in as much as in the mind of the cultured reader the thought of Machiavelli is restored to life, and with it the concept which he was wont to express by the term “virtue.” But idealistically speaking, is this word Machiavelli’s or is it ours,—a word belonging to us who are inquiring into his thoughts? It is ours, by all means, and for the reason that it belongs to our Machiavelli. Unless we have then within us this our Machiavelli, it is useless for us to search for the meaning of the word in the dictionary. In it surely we may find it, but as a dead body to be resurrected only by remembering that its life is not in the printed page but in us, and only in us. In our life everything will have to be resuscitated that is to become part of our culture.
And the same applies to grammars. As people conceive them and use them, what are they if not a schematic arrangement of the forms by which words are joined so as to constitute speech? And how can we cut the discourse to the quick and extract these schemes, without at the same time destroying its life? The scheme is a “part of speech,” and it is a rule. Grammar is a series of rules regarding the parts of speech, considered singly and collectively. But the grammatical scheme—part of speech or rule—abstracts a generic form from the particular expression in such a way that the paradigm of a conjugation, for example, shall be the conjugation of many verbs but not of any determined one. The rule governing the use of the conditional is in the same way referred to every verb which expresses a conditional act or occurrence, but to no one verb in a peculiar manner. But since no speech contains a verb which might present to us a verbal form which is not also the form of a determined verb, nor a conditional which does not point with precision to the action or occurrence subordinated to a condition, it is evident that the scheme places before us, not the living and concrete body of the speech, but a dissected and dead part of this body.
I shall not here recall the controversies occasioned by the difficulties inherent in the normative character ordinarily attributed to grammatical schemes. I shall simply note that a scheme becomes intelligible only if the example accompanies it; and the example always turns out to be a living discourse, within which therefore we meet again the scheme, but liberated from the presumed abstractness to which it had been confined by the grammarian. And I shall merely add that the grammatical norm, which in the realistic conception of grammar is presented as a rule, anteceding actual speech both in time and ideally, has in reality no validity whatsoever excepting as a law internal to the speaking itself, which brings out its normative force only in the act itself of speaking. In spite of this, however, the majority of people consider grammar as an antecedent to speech and to thought, and therefore to the life of the spirit. It appears to them as a reef on which the freedom of the personality must be driven in the course of its becoming, bearing down as it does on a past which is believed to exist beneath the horizon of actuality and beyond the present life of the spirit. To them grammar is legislation passed by former writers and speakers, prescribing norms for those who intend to use the same language in the future. Against this myth, and the consequent idol of grammar worshipped as a thing which has not only the right, but the means also, of controlling and oppressing the creative spontaneity of speech, teachers should be constantly on their guard, if they feel bound to respect and protect the spirituality of culture.
Neither grammar then, nor rhetoric, nor any kind of misguided perceptive teaching should be allowed to introduce into the school the menace of realism which lurks naturally in the shadow of all prescriptive systems. A precept is a mere historical indication, a sign which points to something that was done as to something that had to be done then and is to be done now. It was done and it was thought that it had to be done. But what was done cannot be done over again, and what was thought cannot again be thought. Life knows no past other than the one which it contains within its living present. The precept has no value excepting as that precept which we in every single instance intuit, and which we must intuit, being spiritually alive and free, as the peculiar form of our thought, of our speaking, of our doing, of our being, in short, which is our becoming. If we look upon a precept as transcending this becoming, and as an antecedent to it, we misapprehend and therefore imperil our indwelling freedom, which for us now ought to mean not simply the failure to foster the growth of the spirit, but a deliberate attempt to hinder and thwart its development and to blight the function of culture.
One more prejudice of those imputed to realistic instruction must still be pointed out, and it will be the last. It is one of those time-worn devices whose history, extending over a thousand years, reflects the entire life of the school—the composition. Teachers expect and demand that a predetermined and definite theme, as a nucleus of a thought organism, as leit-motif, so to speak, of a work of art, as a ruling principle for moral or speculative reflections, be developed by pupils who may yet have never given the topic a single thought, who may possibly be not at all attuned to that definite spiritual vibration, who may in short be quite removed from the line along which the theme should be developed. In the lower grades the line itself is marked, the entire contour is given, and the pupil’s mind is arbitrarily encompassed within this fixed outline. These methods are now fortunately applied with diminished rigour and less crudely than before. But the fact remains that in all classes the teacher either assigns a theme at random, picking a topic from a casual reading or from among the whims of his rambling fancy, or else he conscientiously and carefully studies the possibilities of a subject, and develops it to a certain extent before he assigns it; so that he naturally expects the pupil’s treatment to conform to his own delineation; and he values the composition in proportion as it approaches the rough draft which he had previously sketched in his mind.
Here too, as elsewhere, we encounter the difficulty of a thought which is presupposed to thinking, which therefore binds it, strains it and racks it out of its healthy and fruitful growth; for thought cannot live without freedom. The dangers are many that beset us in the practice of theme-composition, and not at all of them of a merely intellectual character. There is no intellectual deficiency which is not also at the same time a moral blemish; and a course of exercises, such as we have considered, not only jeopardises the formation of the intelligence by urging it along a line of false and empty artificiality to the postiche and the appliqué, but it also, and far more seriously, threatens the moral character of the pupils in that it beguiles them into a sinful familiarity with insincerity, which might perhaps become downright cheating.
Composition however in itself is not taboo for the idealist. Like grammar and every other instrument of the teaching profession it must be converted from the abstract to the concrete. We should never demand of the pupil an inventiveness beyond his powers, never unfairly expect of his mind what it cannot yet give. The boy must not be given a subject drawn from a world with which he is unfamiliar. But when the subject springs naturally from the pupil’s own soul, in the atmosphere of the school, and as a part of the spiritual life which unites him to his teacher and to his classmates, then composition, like every other element of a freely developing culture, is a creation and an unfailing progress. For whatever has been frozen by the chill of realism, and has been consequently made unfit for the life of the spirit, may again be revived in the warmth of the living intelligence of the concrete, and be thence idealistically fused with the spontaneous and vigorous current of spiritual reality.