Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER VIII: democracy and education - Modern Democracies, vol. 1.
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CHAPTER VIII: democracy and education - Viscount James Bryce, Modern Democracies, vol. 1. 
Modern Democracies, (New York: Macmillan, 1921). 2 vols. Vol. 1
Part of: Modern Democracies, 2 vols.
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democracy and education
In 1868, when Britain was taking its first long step towards Universal Suffrage, Robert Lowe, who had been the most powerful opponent of that step, said in Parliament, “Educate your masters.” Two years later the first English Act establishing public elementary schools was passed. Thenceforth the maxim that the voter must have instruction fitting him to use his power became a commonplace; and the advocates of democracy passed unconsciously, by a natural if not a logical transition, from the proposition that education is a necessary preparation for the discharge of civic functions to the proposition that it is a sufficient preparation. Modern democratic theory rests on two doctrines as its two sustaining pillars: that the gift of the suffrage creates the will to use it, and that the gift of knowledge creates the capacity to use the suffrage aright. From this it is commonly assumed to follow that the more educated a democracy is, the better will its government be. This view, being hopeful, was and is popular. It derived strength from the fact that all the despotic governments of sixty years ago, and some of them down to our own day, were either indifferent or hostile to the spread of education among their subjects, because they feared that knowledge and intelligence would create a wish for freedom,1 and remembered that such old movements of revolt as Wat Tyler's rising in 1381 and the Peasants' War in Germany in 1522, had failed largely because the discontented subjects did not know how to combine.
To determine the relation between popular government and education, let us begin by asking what Education means in its relation to citizenship. In the England of 1868 elementary education included little more than reading, writing, and arithmetic, for that was practically all that the large majority of schools for the people attempted. The conception has now widened, as schools have improved and as school life has been lengthened. Most primary schools in every English-speaking country now include in their curriculum some grammar, history, and geography, often also a little physical science. Yet when we talk of popular education it is still the ability to read and write that is uppermost in our minds, and the standard by which a nation's education is judged is that of Illiteracy. Wherever any law fixes an educational qualification for the suffrage, that is the test applied. Thus we naturally slip into the belief that the power to read is a true measure of fitness, importing a much higher level of intelligence and knowledge than the illiterate possess.
In modern civilized countries, where schools abound, ignorance of letters is prima facie evidence of a backwardness which puts a man at a disadvantage, not only for rising in the world, but for exercising civic rights, since in such countries nearly all knowledge comes, not by talk, but from the printed page. The voter who cannot read a newspaper or the election address of a candidate is ill-equipped for voting. But the real question is not whether illiteracy disqualifies, but to what extent literacy qualifies. How far does the ability to read and write go towards civic competence? Because it is the only test practically available, we assume it to be an adequate test. Is it really so? Some of us remember among the English rustics of sixty years ago shrewd men unable to read, but with plenty of mother wit, and by their strong sense and solid judgment quite as well qualified to vote as are their grandchildren to-day who read a newspaper and revel in the cinema. The first people who ever worked popular government, working it by machinery more complicated than ours, had no printed page to learn from. Athenian voters who sat all through a scorching summer day listening to the tragedies of Euripides, and Syracusan voters who gave good treatment to those of their Athenian captives who could recite passages from those tragedies, whereof Syracuse possessed no copies, were better fitted for civic functions than most of the voters in modern democracies. These Greek voters learnt their politics not from the printed, and few even from any written page, but by listening to accomplished orators and by talking to one another. Talking has this advantage over reading, that in it the mind is less passive. It is thinking that matters, not reading, and by Thinking I mean the power of getting at Facts and arguing consecutively from them. In conversation there is a clash of wits, and to that some mental exertion must go. The Athenian voters, chatting as they walked away in groups from the Assembly, talked over the speeches. They had been made to feel that there were two sides to every question, and they argued these with one another. Socrates, or some eager youth who had been listening to Protagoras or Gorgias, overtook them on the way, and started fresh points for discussion. This was political education. But in these days of ours reading has become a substitute for thinking. The man who reads only the newspaper of his own party, and reads its political intelligence in a medley of other stuff, narratives of crimes and descriptions of football matches, need not know that there is more than one side to a question, and seldom asks if there is one, nor what is the evidence for what the paper tells him. The printed page, because it seems to represent some unknown power, is believed more readily than what he hears in talk. He takes from it statements, perhaps groundless, perhaps invented, which he would not take from one of his fellows in the workshop or the counting-house. Moreover the Tree of Knowledge is the Tree of the Knowledge of Evil as well as of Good. On the printed page Truth has no better chance than Falsehood, except with those who read widely and have the capacity of discernment. A party organ, suppressing some facts, misrepresenting others, is the worst of all guides, because it can by incessantly reiterating untruth produce a greater impression than any man or body of men, save only ecclesiastics clothed with a spiritual authority, could produce before printing was invented. A modern voter so guided by his party newspapers is no better off than his grandfather who eighty years ago voted at the bidding of his landlord or his employer or (in Ireland) of his priest. The grandfather at least knew whom he was following, while the grandson, who reads only what is printed on one side of a controversy, may be the victim of selfish interests who own the organs which his simplicity assumes to express public opinion or to have the public good at heart. So a democracy that has been taught only to read, and not also to reflect and judge, will not be the better for the ability to read. That impulse to hasty and ill-considered action which was the besetting danger of ruling assemblies swayed by orators, will reappear in the impression simultaneously produced through the press on masses of men all over a large country.
These considerations have a significance for European democracies only so far as they suggest the need for carrying education in politics much further than most of them have yet carried it. But in countries hitherto ruled by absolute monarchs, like China or Russia, or by a foreign power, like India or the Philippine Isles, countries in which the experiment of representative government is now about to be tried, those who try the experiment will do well to enquire what the prospect is that ability to read will carry with it the ability to participate in government. Will elementary schools started among the Filipinos qualify them for the independence promised after some twenty years of further tutelage? Will the now illiterate inhabitants of British India be better fitted to cast their votes, whenever the suffrage may be extended to them, by being enabled to read, far more widely than now, newspapers published in their vernaculars? In Russia, a nearer and more urgent case, where the experiment of press freedom would have been instructive, it was not tried, for the censorship exercised by the Czardom was promptly re-established in a more stringent form by the Bolshevists who suppressed all newspapers but their own. No one doubts that in all these countries the sooner elementary education is provided the better: but how soon will it begin to tell for good in politics?
Here is one set of reasons to shake the faith that reading and the habit of reading are enough to make men good citizens of a democracy. Now let us hear another set of sceptics who bid us go from the children that leave a village school at thirteen to the “upper” or educated classes, and enquire from an observation of their minds and conduct whether political capacity increases in proportion to knowledge. There are those who ask whether experience has shown that education helps men to political wisdom. “If it does”— so they argue — “we should find that when in some political dispute the majority of the so-called educated classes have been found on one side, and the bulk of the less educated on the other, the judgments and forecasts of the more educated were usually approved by the result. But has this in fact happened? Has not the untutored instinct of the masses been frequently vindicated by the event against the pretensions of the class which thinks itself superior? Take English history during the nineteenth century, and mark in how many cases the working men gave their sympathy to causes which' Society' frowned upon, and which subsequent events proved to have deserved that sympathy. What outworn prejudices, what foolish prophecies, what wild counsels may be heard from the lips of the rich! What ridiculous calumnies against political opponents have been greedily swallowed in the fashionable circles of Paris and London! What narrow views have been expressed even by brilliant writers and accomplished teachers or divines! High attainments in some branch of science or learning are compatible with crass ignorance and obstinate perversity where practical issues are involved. Heraclitus said long ago,' Much knowledge does not teach wisdom.'1 Have not associations of working men been more often right in their political judgment of measures than college common rooms and military clubs? The instincts of the multitude are as likely to be right as the theories of the learned.”
These two sets of criticisms seem worth stating, for extravagant estimates of the benefits to be expected from the diffusion of education need to be corrected by a little reflection on the hard facts of the case. But they do not affect the general proposition that knowledge is better than ignorance. The elementary school may do little to qualify four children out of five for his duty as a voter. But the fifth child, the child with an active mind, has gained much, and it is he who will influence others. The rich man, or the highly trained man of science, may be — and often is — a purblind politician, but that is the result of partisanship or class prejudice, not of knowledge, without which partisanship and class selfishness would be even commoner than they are.
And now we may return to ask, with moderated hopes, What can education do in the way of making good citizens?
Philosophers, and among them some of the greatest, have dwelt much upon and expected much from the formation of political habits by instruction and training. Plato, the earliest whose thoughts on the subject have come down to us, and indeed Greek thinkers generally, had an ethical as well as a political aim, wishing the State to elevate and maintain at a high standard the character of its members for the preservation of internal peace as well as for strength in war. Their favourite example of what training could do was drawn from Sparta, though they saw the hard narrowness of the character it produced. The idea, which in the Middle Ages had been lost except in so far as it was left in the keeping of the Church, was frequently revived by modern theorists while ignored by practical men, till in our own days the example of Japan reawakened a sense of what may be accomplished by the persistent inculcation of certain beliefs, and showed how the long-cherished traditions of a nation may make its members prefer death to any deviation from the accepted code of personal honour and national duty. Still more recently in another country the diffusion of a militaristic spirit and the wide acceptance of theories which place the State above morality — theories proceeding from a few forcible teachers and writers and seconded by the success which had attended their application in war — have exemplified the power of a system of doctrines when glorified by the small ruling class and accepted by nearly all of the more cultivated classes of a great nation. These results are in both instances attributable at least as much to Tradition and Authority as to school instruction, the former repeating through life the maxims delivered in early years. If we can imagine a free people to have all but unanimously agreed on certain principles of faith and practice, and to require every school to teach them, as Eousseau thought that his State should have a civic religion with a civic creed to be enforced, on pain of expulsion, upon those who did not believe it, such a people might succeed in establishing a political orthodoxy which would stand for centuries, just as the Inquisition established a theological orthodoxy in Spain which lasted from the days of Ferdinand and Isabella till Napoleon's invasion. Each generation growing up in the same unquestioned belief would impose unquestioning acceptance on the next. In our day, when every belief is everywhere contested, and intercourse between nations is unprecedentedly active, this may seem impossible, but an Ice Age may await the mind of man, as ice ages have from time to time descended upon his dwelling-place.
Assuming, as may safely be assumed (for it is done with success in Switzerland) that some service can be rendered by instilling in early years an interest in civic functions and a knowledge of their nature,1 let us ask what sort of instruction is possible: (a) in the Elementary Schools; (b) in the Secondary Schools; and (c) in the Universities?
(a) In schools where pupils remain till about fourteen years of age everything depends on the teacher. To most boys of thirteen, such terms as constitutions, ministries, parliaments, borough councils and voting qualifications are mere abstractions, meaning nothing, because the things which the names denote are outside the boy's knowledge. Text-books are of little use except in furnishing a syllabus which will help the teacher in his efforts to explain in familiar language, and by constant illustrations, what government does mean. To do even this successfully implies a skill not always found. Most teachers need to be taught how they should teach such a subject.
(b) In Secondary Schools and evening Classes for older pupils more may be done. As the school curriculum includes history, the origin of representative institutions may be explained, and the course of their development in countries like Britain and the United States may be outlined. Attention may be called to passing events, such as elections, which show how institutions are actually worked. Even the elements of economics may be added, such as the principle of the division of labour, the nature of money as a medium of exchange, and the arguments for and against Free Trade. The difficulty which inevitably recurs, that of dealing with matters which have little reality or “content” to one who has not yet come into contact with them in actual life, can be reduced, if not surmounted, by a conversational treatment enlivened by constant illustrations.
(c) When we come to the Universities a wider field opens. Here there are students of high intelligence, some of whom will in after life be leaders, helping to form and guide public opinion. As they already possess a knowledge of the concrete facts of politics, they can use books and can follow abstract reasonings. They discuss the questions of the hour with one another. The living voice of the teacher who can treat of large principles and answer questions out of his stores of knowledge, can warn against the fallacies that lurk in words, can explain the value of critical methods, and, above all, can try to form the open and truth-loving mind, is of inestimable value. In times when class strife is threatened there is a special need for thinkers and speakers able to rise above class interests and class prejudices. Men can best acquire wide and impartial views in the years of youth, before they become entangled in party affiliations or business connections. The place fittest to form such views is a place dedicated to the higher learning and to the pursuit of truth. Universities render a real service to popular government by giving to men whose gifts fit them for leadership that power of distinguishing the essential from the accidental and of being the master instead of the servant of formulas which it is the business of philosophy to form, and that comprehension of what the Past has bequeathed to us by which history helps us to envisage the Present with a view to the Future.
Lest it be supposed that in dwelling on the value of highly educated leaders I am forgetting the qualities needed among the mass of the citizens, let me say a word about the country in which that mass had shown itself most competent. What have been the causes of the success of democracy in Switzerland? Not merely the high level of intelligence among the people and the attention paid to the teaching of civic duty, but the traditional sense of that duty in all classes and, even more distinctly, the long practice in local self-government. Knowledge and practice have gone hand in hand. Swiss conditions cannot be reproduced elsewhere, but the example indicates the direction which the efforts of other democracies may take. The New England States of the North American Union, till they were half submerged by a flood of foreign immigrants, taught the same moral. Trained by local self-government to recognize their duty to their small communities, the citizens interested themselves in the business of the State and acquired familiarity with its needs by constant discussion among themselves, reading the speeches and watching the doings of their leaders. Not many were competent to judge the merits of the larger questions of policy debated in the National legislature. But they learnt to know and judge men. They saw that there are always two sides to a question. They knew what they were about when they went to the polls. Valuing honesty and courage, they were not the prey of demagogues. It is because such conditions as those of Switzerland and early Massachusetts cannot be secured in large modern cities that it becomes all the more necessary to try what systematic teaching can do to make up for the want of constant local practice.
The conclusions which this chapter is meant to suggest may be summed up as follows:
Though the education of the citizens is indispensable to a democratic government, the extent to which a merely elementary instruction fits them to work such a government has been overestimated. Reading is merely a gate leading into the field of knowledge. Or we may call it an implement which the hand can use for evil, or for good, or leave unused.
Knowledge is one only among the things which go to the making of a good citizen. Public spirit and honesty are even more needful.
If the practical test of civic capacity in individuals or classes be found in voting for the best men and supporting the best measures, i.e. the measures which ultimate results approve, the masses may be found to have in some countries acquitted themselves as well as what are called the educated classes.
Attainments in learning and science do little to make men wise in politics. Some eminent scientific men have been in this respect no wiser than their undergraduate pupils. There have been countries in which the chiefs of public services and the professors in Universities were prominent in the advocacy of policies which proved disastrous.
The habit of local self-government is the best training for democratic government in a nation. Practice is needed to vivify knowledge.
The diffusion of education among backward races such as the Filipinos or the African Bantu tribes, or even among the ignorant sections of civilized peoples, such as the Russian peasantry, or the Chinese, or the Indian ryots, will not, desirable as it is, necessarily qualify them to work a democratic government, and may even make it more difficult to work in its earlier stages.
These conclusions (if well founded) may damp hopes, but must not discourage action. Instruction must be provided, in civilized and uncivilized countries, and the more of it the better, for every man must have his chance of turning to the best account whatever capacity Nature has given him, and of enjoying all the pleasure the exercise of his faculties can afford. This will doubtless work out for good in political as well as in other fields of effort. The seed of education will ultimately yield a harvest in the field of politics, though the grain may be slow in ripening.
Even the Venetian rulers of Dalmatia in the eighteenth century-kept their Slav subjects ignorant so that they might be less able to assert themselves.
“Civisme “is taught in the Swiss schools, the book most used being the Manuel de Droit Cwique of the late M. Numa Droz, famous among the Presidents of the Confederation for his calm wisdom. In most of the American States the subject is regularly taught, with special reference to the Federal Constitution, and something, though not much, has been done in the same direction in Great Britain. In France the teacher in the public elementary schools is a mainstay of the Republican party, relied upon to combat the influence of the parish priest.