Education and the Training of Character



IF THERE were such things as Political Shows, machinery for the preservation of peace would be among the exhibits. There, in a row, would stand a succession of designs from the Holy Alliance (and earlier) down to the League of Nations, Treaties, Pacts, Covenants, Concerts of Europe, Military Conventions, Disarmament Projects, all of which began in hope and ended in failure. Many of them are powerful, many ingenious, but none have worked. Are the projects of our generation for preserving peace to be equally unsuccessful? It depends on whether we diagnose rightly the cause of our past failures.

Better institutions arc greatly to be desired, but the efficiency of institutions, as of machines, depends on those who operate them. The fate of a new League or Concert of Nations will depend on those who work it. The evils of the world do not come, except in a minor degree, from bad political machinery and will not be cured by improving it. There is a truer philosophy in the Epistle of St. James. “From whence,” he asks, “come wars and fightings among you?” “Because,” we answer, “the Disarmament Conference failed, or the League of Nations was imperfect, or no one had thought of Federal Union, or Mr, Chamberlain’s diplomacy was weak.” St. James was not the most intellectual of the Apostles, but his reply is more to the point: “Come they not hence, even of your lusts that war in your members? Ye lust, and have not: ye kill, and desire to have.” The language may be old-fashioned, but here is the plain truth. Fundamentally the political problem is a problem of human character.

Let those who doubt this truism read any period of history in detail. I emphasize the words “in detail.” It is one of our greatest errors in studying history that we generally study it on a small scale, in textbooks and outlines of history. They have their value, but they leave us with little idea of what history is. In the textbook, history appears simple — much too simple. It becomes an affair of years, not, as it is in the making, of weeks, days, hours. The struggles, agonies, passions, and uncertainties of the time disappear; the lines and wrinkles are smoothed out, leaving a characterless and rather uninteresting face. Issues which at the time were confused seem clear, denouements obvious and inevitable, and we never realize how near to failure were triumphs that to us seem easy, or how close to success were complete and disastrous failures. The mischances and blunders of statesmen astonish us and we shut the book saying, like Puck, “Lord, what fools these mortals be!”

Such is history, read even in the best textbooks and outlines. They show only tendencies, trends, movements, results; they give the scheme of events as an aerial photograph gives the shape and plan of a town, but they reveal no more of what really happens than such a photograph reveals of the human life actually lived in the streets and houses of the town. To know that, you must leave your aeroplane, walk through the streets, enter the houses, and meet and mix with the inhabitants. Read textbooks by all means; but you will learn infinitely more from reading Macaulay or the three volumes of Trevelyan’s England Under Queen Anne. There you will see what history is and what determines its course.

There are many determining factors: geography and geology, climate, economic conditions, scientific discovery; but above all there is the too often forgotten element of human nature. Not merely the accident of individual genius — the appearance of a Cromwell or a Chatham, a Frederick or a Napoleon, a Washington or a Lincoln — but the working of more ordinary human nature: intellectual qualities — wisdom, intelligence, judgment, foresight, and their opposites; but still more, moral qualities — disinterestedness, courage, honesty, a sense of justice and fair play, patience and self-mastery and the power to endure and wait and persevere in a clearly seen purpose, and their opposites: greed, ambition, vanity, pride, jealousy, bad temper, the uncontrolled tongue, the faint heart, the desire for ease and comfort. All these factors, eliminated from outline histories, are revealed under the microscope of a detailed study and are seen to be main determinants of the course of the world for achievement or frustration, success or failure, good or evil. Man is the real problem, the old, the modern problem; for the new world is not so new: humanity changes its clothes but not its nature; Adam puts on a more elaborate and complicated dress but remains the old Adam.

At this point a reader may say: “We have heard all this before: one cannot open a paper without finding someone saying that civilization is in danger of destruction because our growth in knowledge has far outstripped our growth in character. Why labor truisms which no one denies? You are preaching to the converted and boring them.”

I admit the justice of the criticism: I am talking truisms. But do we believe them to be true? And if so, why do we not do more about it? Why do we not try to bring our characters up to the level of our knowledge? Why do we not take seriously the words of Ruskin: “Education does not mean teaching people to know what they do not know; it means teaching them to behave as they do not behave.” As it is, though the future of civilization depends on an improvement in human character and conduct, we leave the problem almost untouched, and devote our energies to constructing political machinery, ignoring the brittle human nature which so easily snaps, throwing the whole factory out of working.

Progress in engineering has come largely from improved metals; the maker of an aeroplane or an automobile knows that success depends on the quality of his materials as well as on his manufacturing technique. Equally, progress in politics and life depends on getting improved human material — men who will keep the laws and covenants which are so easy to construct. The makers of states have yet to realize this, or at any rate to act as if they did. Innumerable books have been recently written about the future of the world and the problem of peace; they have discussed every conceivable economic and political project; but how many of them have shown any perception of the obvious truth that human character is the most important element in the problem, or devoted any thought to the question of its improvement?

Or look at education. Since the war, there has been a keener perception of its importance, a livelier interest in it; but the interest has been (at least in England) mainly in educational machinery — types of schools, curricula, and so forth — not in that major task of education, the improvement of character. Educators seem interested in providing for everything except the most important ingredient in life. Some schools, no doubt, do provide for it well; some do so moderately; none probably would disclaim it as one of their aims. But there is nothing in our modern educational theory comparable to Plato’s Republic — still the greatest of all books on education. For Plato saw what we ignore, not only that education is the basis of the state, but that the ultimate aim and essence of education is the training of character — to be achieved by the discipline of the body, the will, and the intelligence; therefore, he planned his whole scheme to this end, yet in such a manner that intellectual education was in no way distorted or ignored, that the intellectual and the moral coincided. We, where we attack the problem at all, do so in an amateur and haphazard way.

It is not surprising that human character has not improved, for we have never taken its improvement seriously in hand. We have spent time and careful thought on physical health; but what have we done comparable for the health of the character? Our system of spiritual or ethical medicine (if I may so phrase it) is in much the same position as medicine itself in the eighteenth century: good in patches, but wholly inadequate and generally unprogressive, and needing, if any real advance is to be made, hard thought, exact study, and methodical treatment.


THREE objections will probably be made to the suggestion that we should do more to train human character for its tasks in the world. It will be said that we already do it; that it cannot be done; that it is very dangerous to attempt it.

Let us consider these objections in turn. Something has been done, it is true, to train human character; and here and there a success has been achieved which shows what immense advances are within our power if the problem is taken seriously. But in general the garden of school remains one tended by conscientious men, who are content with things as they are, but who have never considered whether methods of cultivation cannot be radically improved and better varieties of flowers produced. If anyone really thinks that we are tackling the problem effectively, he has only to open his eyes and look at the world, not ignoring his own people. Si monumentum requiris, circumspice.

But we need not therefore exchange complacency for despair, or agree with critics who say that nothing can be done, that character cannot be changed, that men are fettered in the prison of human nature. We are like the man in Mark Twain’s story who spent sixteen years in jail and then opened the door, which had been unlocked all the time, and walked out; we are in a prison in which humanity has been content to serve a needlessly long sentence and from which, with rather more effort, it could with little difficulty escape. For the remarkable thing is how easy it is to train character. Indeed, it is alarmingly easy. Consider what Hitler, who has justly been called an “arch-educationist,” did in six years with German youth. Or turning to the school, consider what Thomas Arnold of Rugby did, partly by the force of his character, partly by means deliberately chosen, but without an elaborate study of the problem.

I have much more sympathy with the third type of critic, who says that the molding of character is too dangerous an operation to undertake. But I note that his attitude is that of the servant in the Parable of the Talents, who was alarmed at the adventurous methods of his fellow servants, took no risks with his talent, and was condemned for not making use of his opportunities. And in fact you cannot educate a child at all without forming its mind. Do sensible parents bring up their children as greedy, dirty, cruel, selfish, false? Be as libertarian as you will, you are still “prejudicing” the mind in a particular direction — to libertarianism; the choice is yours, not the child s. You are “conditioning” it to feel that a certain atmosphere, which you approve, is good, and that its opposite is bad.

If we really wish a child to grow up unwarped by any external influence, we must take a leaf out of the book of the Egyptian king who, wishing to discover the natural language of men, “took two newborn children and gave them to a shepherd to bring up among his flocks. He gave charge that none should speak any word in their hearing; they were to lie by themselves in a lonely hut, and in due season the shepherd was to bring goats and give the children their milk. Psammetichus did this because he wished to hear what speech would first come from the children’s lips, when they had passed the age of indistinct babbling.” Our libertarians are less thorough in their experiments than Psammetichus.

Of course, any attempt to train character is dangerous and must be undertaken with full perception of its danger. Many notes must be harmonized if the full music of the human instrument is to sound: gentleness and courage, boldness and prudence, inquisitiveness and reverence, tolerance and firmness, confidence and humility, stability and freedom. It is a difficult and risky attempt to make a man, and it is tempting to turn aside from the task. But we have only to look round to see the disastrous results of declining it, as, for the most part, we have hitherto done.

But there is, I believe, a sign of coming change, no greater at the moment than the “little cloud out of the sea, like a man’s hand,” which Elijah saw in the rainless skies over Carmel. The last war produced the phrase “self-determination,” out of which little good came. This war has produced another phrase, the “re-education” of enemy countries (in the last war we never talked of re-educating Germany), and the word has a significance beyond its surface meaning. It is the first sign that we are beginning to appreciate the true nature of the political problem, and to see that it is a question of human nature rather than of organization. It is only a hint: the idea at present is vague and limited to the re-education of our enemies. We have not yet decided what reeducation means or how it is to be done, much less made any start with it; nor have we considered that we ourselves as well as Germany and Japan may need re-education. But the emergence of the phrase is significant of things to come. Re-education is what the world needs. It can be achieved only if we attack it frontally with clear knowledge of the aim in view and exact consideration of the best means to achieve it.


IN a future not, one hopes, too distant, we may see something in education corresponding to the practice of medicine. If a person is inclined to bronchitis, if he is weak in some of his organs, — his heart, say, or his lungs, — a doctor prescribes for him a certain regimen. If he is rheumatic, he is warned not to do certain things and is told to do certain other things. In physical medicine a treatment is devised to preserve health and to guard against the particular disease to which the individual is inclined. Might we not, should we not, have a similar aim and comparable treatment in education to preserve the health of the character? Parents and, to some extent, schoolmasters try to produce antidotes to the undesirable tendencies of their pupils, but might not that practice be carried much further? Might we not devise a system of education which shall try to cure the weaknesses to which human beings are inclined, and to encourage the virtues which they require? We do it to some extent, but might we not do it much more methodically and scientifically? No doubt a system of moral or spiritual medicine would be uncertain and tentative, but so also is physical medicine.

How should we proceed? We should decide what virtues we require and the best way to develop them. We should note the merits and defects of our own and other nations and try to discover their origins. We should consider the special weaknesses of our own age, the peculiar temptations and dangers, moral and spiritual, to which it is exposed, and how to counteract them. We shall get increasing help from psychologists, indispensable though dangerous advisers, whose theories may be advantageously checked by common sense, by the practical knowledge of which a great store is locked up in the minds of active teachers, and by the study of actual experiments in “teaching men to behave as they do not behave,” in the making of character.

All great educational thinkers have been interested in the problem, but experiments are more instructive than theories, because theories show what is hoped, experiments what is achieved. Some of these experiments show how much can be done when a real attempt is made to mold character. One of the most interesting examples comes from England. It is unfortunate that Thomas Arnold, the great headmaster of Rugby, is best known in the present age from Lytton Strachey’s caricature. A real introduction to the man and his work can be found in the Life written by one of his pupils, Dean Stanley. There we see an educator who knew what he wanted to do, held that education is, above all, concerned with character, and believed that character must be trained through the intellect as well as in other ways.

Arnold was as wholehearted in his aim as Plato, but his methods are less thought out, and they belong more to his own time. He is the greatest figure in English education, and he created an ideal, a type, and a method which have profoundly influenced the nation and still persist. One would study also such different experiments in character-making as that of Vittorino da Feltre, and the training of a Jesuit, and many more, past and present. They must be studied objectively and without prejudice, with an eye to their failures and defects as well as to their success, that we may know not only what to imitate but what to avoid. Nor should we omit experiments that we may mistrust or condemn, such as those of Soviet Russia (of which we know very little at first hand) or of Nazi Germany.

Finally, we may learn something from a remarkable experiment to which England has recently been forcibly submitted. Since 1939 we have had an education in behavior which may have done little for our knowledge or brains but has had a powerful and mainly beneficial effect on our characters. It has been given outside our schools and universities and by a rough teacher — the war. Britain between 1940 and 1945 was a better country than in 1939. There was infinitely less “passive barbarism”; there was some of the littleness of man but far more of his greatness, in both sexes and in all classes and ranks of life. That is suggestive and instructive. If we note what has given us this new spirit in war, we might devise means that would keep it alive in the difficult world of peace.

War gives a twofold education. It imposes a great common purpose on a nation, which burns up minor and meaner forces in its consuming flame. And it imposes the attitude and conduct which result from a common purpose. The nation becomes something like a society—a band of companions; in fact it becomes a nation. What lessons can our post-war education learn from the schoolmaster, war? How can we retain in peace these two things which war has temporarily taught us: a great common aim and the spirit of fellowship?


I AM proposing a methodical and thorough preparation for an important operation, and the following remarks are not intended to be anything but very elementary first aid. I suggest that there are two main elements of character training and that the work is incomplete if either is neglected; and I ask you to consider whether we take much trouble about either.

The first element is training in social behavior, a difficult and generally neglected task. Self-centered, self-willed creatures as most of us naturally are, it is our fate to be citizens, members of a community. Men are born to four citizenships: they should be able to live as good members of their family, of their community, of their nation, and of the whole human society. How many of the world’s troubles can be traced to a failure in one or other of these citizenships — to our never mastering the art of living with others, in the family, in the community, in the nation, in international relations! I have put them in order of ascending difficulty; in the art of living .as good members of the human race, men have almost everything to learn.

Here I am speaking only of citizenship in the accepted sense — membership of a nation. It means that we must learn to live with others and respect their rights and feelings. It also means that we have to play a part in the community, make a contribution to it, often accept the decision of a majority which goes against our private interests, opinions, and desires. Otherwise the community will not prosper and may not survive, and in its shipwreck we shall be drowned.

Democracy, more than any other form of government, needs good citizenship. Under an absolutism or a dictatorship, men are forced to fall into line. But in a democracy things are not so simple. Freedom is of the essence of democracy: the completer the democracy, the completer the freedom. But it has to be the freedom of service self-chosen and sometimes of sacrifice self-imposed. That is not the instinct of the natural man; yet somehow that habit has to be acquired. If it is not acquired, the state goes to pieces, and in the end the autocrat appears who coerces its citizens into the duties which they were not willing of themselves to assume.

Here is the explanation of the breakdown of democracy in so many countries of the world. If citizenship does not exist, it has to be imposed. That is a stage through which every nation has to pass. At some time of its history it must go to school and learn the discipline, self-control, team spirit, and other qualities necessary if liberty is to be enjoyed. Hence certain aspects of Fascism, Nazism, Communism, and the authoritarian clement in the present government of China. They are stages in the making of national character, a training in qualities indispensable for national existence.

When I say this I may be accused of being a Nazi or a Fascist, these being at the moment, naturally enough, terms of popular abuse. But the charge will be unjust. I have no doubt that democracy is incomparably better than Fascism or Nazism, and that the human race will always move towards it, as the highest form of human society. But it is the most difficult form and it needs certain qualities whose rarity is shown by its frequent collapse. The Anglo-Saxon democracies seem to possess them. We seem to have acquired a sufficient quantum of public spirit, justice, fair play, consideration for others, to make democracy work.

Yet I doubt if there is much margin to spare. In England we are justly proud when we think of the men in the Forces, of the spontaneous self-creation of the Home Guard and Air Raid Wardens services, of the conduct of the ordinary person in a queue, of the general law-abiding spirit of the people. We feel less comfortable when we reflect on the black market, pilfering, profiteering both by employers and by employed, workers absenting themselves from work for fear that they may earn enough money to be liable for income tax. How can we confirm our virtues and cure our weaknesses and make liberty and democracy secure? What is education doing about it? What can it do?

There is only one way to learn social habits: by living a life in which such habits automatically develop. Live in a society and in most cases you will become a social being. That is the secret of the British boarding school, the finest factory of citizenship in existence. Boarding schools, like everything else, have their defects, but they do train people to be members of a society; in them the egotist and careerist are discouraged; the individualist discovers the existence of other pebbles on the beach and learns how to fit in with them. A boy finds himself a member of something greater than himself and learns loyalty and service to it. These are the qualities of the good citizen.

Unfortunately in England we have given this or any other training to only a tiny minority, and have turned 80 per cent of the population out on the world at fourteen. The miracle is that they are in general so good; for their defects we are more to blame than they. We should give to the many some equivalent of the training that we have given to a few. Then we need have no fears for democracy.

We are beginning to give such a training. Let me mention some instances and suggest some possibilities. First in time and high in importance is the nursery school, where in infant years the child learns to live in a community. Then the day school, through school societies and common activities, makes its contribution, though in the nature pf things it can do much less than the boarding school. The more democratic its internal government, the more its pupils learn to manage their own lives, the better. May not some day schools in the future develop boarding departments, where a boy can spend some part of his school life? But, without this, school camps and camp schools can do valuable work. Scouts and Guides and Youth Movements are important schools of citizenship. Churches, guilds, trade and professional associations, trade-unions — all organizations in which men live as part of something greater than themselves — contribute. A period of national service bringing all classes together in a common life would carry it on. Finally, residential adult colleges would crown it.


SO FAR I have argued that we should give everyone a training in the habit of citizenship, I have suggested that we have neglected to do this, and I have indicated some means by which it might be done. It is an indispensable part of the equipment needed by every citizen. But it is not the only equipment that he needs. Good citizenship and low civilization can go together. The Spartans in the ancient world, the Nazis in the modern, are examples of admirable public spirit and complete devotion to the state. Yet Sparta was not a high civilization, nor do we wish to become a second Nazi Germany.

Without social training no character is prepared for life. But by itself it is incomplete and even dangerous, unless concurrently men learn to take a master, and the right master. If you ask what I mean by this, I will point to an example where civilized men have taken a master, to their great advantage and advancement. He can be found, presiding, unseen, in any true law court. For in accepting law, men disregard private prejudices and preferences, to serve voluntarily a master called Justice, who is the independent voice of Reason, that judge and litigant alike obey. It is the highest spiritual achievement of collective humanity; “great as are the evils which society still owes to lawyers, the lawyer class has always been a civilizing agency. Their power represents at least the triumph of reason and education over caprice and brute force.”

But law governs only a part of human life, and outside its kingdom anarchy reigns. To bring more of life under a great master is a major problem of our time. It hardly arises in societies where the mere burden of making a living masters a man’s whole life. It hardly arises in totalitarian states, where a dictator tells his subjects whom and what they are to serve. It is less serious in societies governed by good fixed traditions, which no one questions or criticizes. But it is urgent in a world where the basic needs are satisfied. If it takes no master, the marks of such a world, however prosperous it may be, are lack of purpose and drive, a cynical skepticism unsure of itself, a disabling pessimism; if it takes the wrong master, it may exchange these for more spectacular disasters. The second type is a common phenomenon in history; the first is found only in prosperous civilizations, such as the Roman Empire and the advanced nations of our own day.

Some men do take a master and serve it with devotion: religion, public or social service, art, literature, science or other activities of the mind, politics, power, money. They tend to be contented and, within the limits of their own powers and of their particular master’s kingdom, successful — at least they have a clear purpose to occupy their energies and fortify their minds. Others are masterless men, drifting from one allegiance to another, according to the whim and impulse of the moment; there are two classical portraits in literature of this type — Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, and Plato’s picture, in the Republic, of what he calls the “democratic” man. This type is ineffective, ignoble, in the end unhappy, and, as Plato saw and as the rise of Hitler illustrates, the material out of which, by reaction, dictatorships are made. Most of us probably fall between the two extremes. In judging any individual or nation, the most searching question that can be asked is: “Whom has he taken for master, and how faithful is his service?”

What master should we take? Whom, even when we do not obey him, should we admit to be the legitimate sovereign over the whole of life? I would suggest that we might accept excellence as master. You may dismiss such an idea as a high-brow fancy. But in fact it is a general human instinct and practice to pursue excellence. No woman and few men would be pleased if you said that they did not know the difference between good and bad in dress. People interested in baseball or football are not satisfied to be second-rate. People engaged in commerce and industry would be annoyed if you suggested that their methods and organization were inferior. In everything from games to religion, from gardening to politics, there is a quest for excellence, for the firstrate.

A surgeon or a physician is trained by watching masters of the art at work, and learns from their excellence something unforgettable, not to be learned from lectures or books. In a school of architecture or painting, the pupil is shown in reproduction or otherwise the masterpieces of the art. The same principle holds for the teaching of law, of engineering, of every occupation, whether professional or technical: the learner is or should be brought in touch with the best practice of his art or trade, so that he has a standard to judge by, a mark at which to aim. In everything, we think it essential to know the best, however much we may come short of it. Always, soon or late, humanity turns to excellence as naturally as a flower turns to the sun: mankind crucifies Christ and kills Socrates, and they die amid derision and hatred; but in the end they receive the homage of the world. The first-rate is the accepted goal of humanity.

There are four fields in which excellence is the concern of everyone. First, a man should know the highest standards and best methods in his own job, so that he may do it as well as he can: professional pride, a sense of craftsmanship, are acknowledged virtues. But if he goes no further than this, he is a limited human being. Important parts of civilization are art and architecture, music and literature—flowers that grow out of the nature of man, reveal his character and adorn it; there too we should know what is first-rate and not be taken in by the secondor third-rate.

Next, if we are to have a first-rate community, everyone should know what is first-rate in national life and have an idea of the kind of state a Divine Architect might create with perfect human beings; then he will have an overruling ideal to guide him. With such an ideal, slums, disease, uneducated masses, hideous industrial towns, a disfigured countryside, would never have been or would have vanished long ago. It is part of patriotism to love the country one has, but part also to know how to make it really worthy of love.

Finally, everyone should know what is first-rate in human character and conduct, for on the achievement of this everything turns. In Plato’s Republic we read: “Governments vary as the dispositions of men vary. States are made, not out of rocks or trees, but from the dispositions of their citizens which turn the scale and draw everything in their own direction.” Most people are fortunate enough to meet living examples of the first-rate in character. But the great sources of our knowledge in this field are religion and the subsidiary realms of literature, history, and the arts. A school or university which fails to show its students something of these models of human excellence sends them into life ignorant of the knowledge which they need most, and neglects the chief duty of education.

To sum up: my thesis has been that in most modern educational schemes the training of character, if not neglected, has been given a subordinate place; that we have very little, if anything, like the concentration on it in Plato’s thought and in Arnold’s practice; that nowhere have the tactics of attack been methodically thought out, though it is the crucial point and should therefore be the center of our system; that it needs exact and thorough study; and that we ought to undertake this study without delay, for time presses. When the atomic bombs fell on Japan, we had a glimpse of the precipice on whose edge we stand.

Our task in character training falls under two heads. We have to develop the qualities necessary for life in a community. But, by itself, such training has two dangers: it might produce either a world of human bees or ants, efficient but limited and static, or a highly disciplined mass like the Nazi youth, whose social virtues were directed to disastrous ends. Hence the importance of knowing the right end; and the right end is the first-rate in every province of life. This is the greatest of all branches of knowledge, and it should be the center, though it is not the whole, of education.

May not the desire to make first-rate human beings and a first-rate society replace, or rather carry on, the spirit which united and inspired us in the war and be a master whom all would accept? Is not that in itself a sufficient motive for life? To see the vision of excellence, so far as our limitations allow; to get at least a glimpse of the unchanging values of the eternal world as they are revealed in whatever is beautiful and good in the material world of earth; to attempt to make one’s infinitesimal contribution towards a society which will embody them more fully than does our own — to do that is to take seriously the tremendous words of Christ: “Be ye therefore perfect, as your Father in Heaven is perfect.”