Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER V.: A FALSE START. 1836—37. Æt. 16—17. - An Autobiography, vol. 1
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CHAPTER V.: A FALSE START. 1836—37. Æt. 16—17. - Herbert Spencer, An Autobiography, vol. 1 
An Autobiography by Herbert Spencer. Illustrated in Two Volumes. Vol. I (New York: D. Appleton and Company 1904).
Part of: An Autobiography
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A FALSE START.
Letters dating fifty odd years back, enabled me to give to the last chapter a much more graphic character than memory alone would have enabled me to give it. In describing the year and a half which now follows, correspondence gives me but little aid. As I was at home throughout this interval, the occasions for reference to me in the communications between Hinton and Derby were comparatively few. Such incidents only as I can recollect must fill in the space.
Not long after my return my father, possibly because he wanted the information, but more probably because he wished to test my ability to apply the knowledge I had gained, sent me over to Kirk-Ireton to make a survey of the small property there belonging to him—two fields and three cottages with their gardens: a property which had been in the family for several generations. About the methods used in surveying I knew nothing. The subject had not been touched at Hinton. But my father was right in what I presume was his expectation, that my geometrical knowledge would adequately serve me in executing so simple a task. I brought him back the survey next day.
What gave me an interest in architecture at that time I cannot remember; but something prompted me to make designs for a country house. They were very absurd in relation to their end; for the arrangements were I remember, simply those of a town house transferred into the country. But the drawings, still existing somewhere among my papers, show a certain amount of aptitude as a draughtsman—if the word is applicable to a youth of sixteen.
It was either during the autumn of 1836, or during that of 1837, that I hit upon a remarkable property of the circle, not, so far as I have been able to learn, previously discovered: one which falls within the division of mathematics originally called Descriptive Geometry, but now known as the Geometry of Position. I did not then attempt a proof. This was not supplied until some two years later. The theorem and its demonstration were eventually published. (See Appendix B.)
One further recollection I may set down as at once amusing and characteristic. The possibility of a day’s fishing in the Trent had suddenly presented itself. Eagerly occupying myself during the previous evening in getting ready my appliances, I retired to bed somewhat early with the intention of starting at daybreak. Even in those days much excitement kept me awake; and the forthcoming gratification so filled my thoughts that for hours I vainly turned from side to side. All the while the room was partially illuminated by the light of a full moon, which penetrated the wide curtains. Somewhere about three o’clock the thought occurred to me—Why lie here tossing about? Why not start at once? The thought was forthwith acted upon. I got up, dressed, sallied out, walked by moonlight to Swarkstone, five miles off, and began fishing by moonlight.
My father had formed a high estimate of the dignity of his profession. He held, and rightly held, that there are few functions higher than that of the educator.
As ordinarily conceived and as ordinarily discharged, the function does not draw to itself much respect. Partly, under-valuation of the teacher is a concomitant of that under-valuation of knowledge, which has characterized past times; and dates back to feudal days, when reading and writing were not among knightly accomplishments, and when learning was considered as properly left to the children of mean people. Partly, however, it is consequent upon the low quality of the teacher, as he has been exemplified in ordinary experience. Not uncommonly the occupation of training the young has, among men, been undertaken by those who have failed in other occupations; and, among women, by those who have been left destitute or in difficulties—people with no pretension either to natural fitness or to special preparation. The usual belief has been that anyone might hear lessons said, or teach writing, or point out errors in sums. Even the abilities displayed by those who have filled the higher posts—masters in public schools and the like—have not been such as to inspire their pupils or others with much reverence. Men who have gone on generation after generation pursuing a mere mechanical routine—men who have never brought any analytical faculty to bear on the minds of their pupils—men who have never thought of trying to ascertain the normal course of intellectual development, with the view of adapting their methods to the successive stages reached—men who have, from the earliest days down to the present time, taught abstractions before their pupils have acquired any of the concrete facts from which they are abstractions; such men, I say, have naturally failed to impress their fellow-citizens. One who, not being a slave of tradition, contemplates schools as they have been, and as many of them still are, instead of being struck by the stupidity of the pupils, may more reasonably be struck by the stupidity of the masters.
It was because his ideal of education was so much higher than that commonly entertained, that my father differed from most persons so widely in the rank he assigned to the teacher’s office. If he did not make mental development a subject of deliberate study, yet he had reached some general ideas concerning it, and saw the need for adjusting the course of instruction to the successive stages through which the mind passes. Instead of persisting in methods devised in rude times and unthinkingly persevered in down to our own, he constantly sought for better methods. Always he aimed to insure an intelligent understanding of that which was taught: never being content with mere passive acceptance of it. And perceiving how involved a process is the unfolding of intellect, how important it is that the process should be aided and not thwarted, and what need there is for invention and judgment in the choice of means, he saw that, carried on as it should be, the educator’s function is one which calls for intellectual powers of the highest order, and perpetually taxes these to the full. Not in intellect only, but in feeling, did his conception of the true educator demand superiority. He habitually sought, and sought successfully, to obtain the confidence of his pupils by showing sympathy with them in their difficulties and in their successes; and thus secured a state of mind favourable to intellectual achievement, as well as to emotional improvement. He might, in short, be placed in contrast with that schoolmaster of Carlyle, described in his Reminiscences; and of whose harsh treatment of the stupid, Carlyle speaks admiringly after his manner.
Thus estimating so highly his profession as one inferior to few in order of natural rank, my father evidently desired that I should adopt it. He never, however, definitely expressed his desire: perceiving, I fancy, that there was on my part a reluctance.
Had it not been at variance with his nature to lay a plot, I might have supposed that my father had plotted to lead me into the career of the teacher. One day towards the end of July 1837, he told me that Mr. Mather, the schoolmaster with whom I had been during the earlier part of my boyhood, had lost his assistant, and had failed to find another. His vacation was coming to a close: leaving him, as he said, in some difficulty. The question put to me was, whether I would play the part of assistant until he obtained one. I had been at home for a year doing nothing; and though to assent went against my inclination, I felt I could not do otherwise than assent.
Whether advised to do so by my father, or whether of his own motion, I do not know, but Mr. Mather assigned to me the least mechanical part of the teaching; and in this I succeeded fairly well—perhaps, indeed, better than most would have done. A certain facility of exposition being natural to me, I had also, by implication, some interest in explaining things to those who did not understand them. Hence in respect of the subjects I dealt with, my lessons were at once effective and pleasure-giving. Especially with geometry I succeeded so well that the weekly lesson was eagerly looked forward to; and in our miscellaneous readings, I managed by comments and pieces of information beyond those contained in the books read, to create willing attention and resulting good recollection. In short, led mainly I doubt not by the example of my father, and partly by personal experience, I fell into natural methods rather than mechanical methods.
Very possibly, bearing in mind the account I have given of myself in the last chapter, the reader will infer that my relations with those under my control were inharmonious. If he does so, he will be wrong, however. It has been often remarked that the slave and the tyrant are in nature the same; and that it is merely a question of circumstances which part is played. The converse proposition, if not true in full measure, is partly true. He who by nature is prone to resist coercion, is, if duly endowed with sympathy, averse to exercising coercion. I say if duly endowed with sympathy; because, if devoid of it, he may be prone to assert his own claims to freedom of action, while regardless of the claims of others. But supposing he has adequate fellow feeling, his mental representations will, in a measure, deter him from habitually using that power over others which he dislikes to have used over himself. Such at least is a connexion of traits which I have elsewhere sought to show holds in men’s social relations, and which held in my relations with my pupils. My experience extended over three months; and during many Saturday-afternoon rambles in the country, when I was in sole charge, there was, I believe, no instance in which any difficulty occurred—no exercise of authority on the one side and resistance on the other. Partly in consequence of the friendly feelings that had been produced by my way of conducting studies, and partly because I did not vex by needless interdicts, complete harmony continued throughout the entire period.
Should I have succeeded had teaching become my profession? The answer is ambiguous—Yes and No. In some respects I should probably have proved well adapted to the function; but in other respects not at all adapted.
In a preceding chapter I have remarked that the habit of castle-building, which was so strong in me as a boy, and, continuing throughout youth, did not wholly cease in adult life, passed gradually into the contemplation of schemes more or less practicable. One of these, often dwelt upon not very many years ago, was that of founding an educational institute, including lower and higher schools, in which I should be able to carry out my own plans, alike for intellectual culture, moral discipline, and physical training. The detailed arrangements to be made in these respective departments, often occupied my thoughts during leisure hours; and I think it not improbable that, had I been put in possession of the needful means, and furnished with a sufficient staff of adequately intelligent assistants, I might have done something towards exemplifying a better system of education. Freed from the executive part of the work, and responsible only for devising methods, superintending the execution of them, and maintaining order, the function would have been one not unsuitable to my nature; and might have been well discharged. At the time, however, when these day-dreams occasionally occupied me, I was already committed to an undertaking more than sufficient for my energies.
But while under such ideal conditions I might have achieved a success, under ordinary conditions I should, I believe, have failed. In the first place, I dislike mechanical routine; and though rational plans of education would make lessons much less mechanical than they are at present, a considerable part must always remain mechanical. In the second place, I have a great intolerance of monotony; and many, if not most, of a teacher’s duties are necessarily monotonous. In the third place, my desire to carry out my own ideas, alike in respect to what constitutes a good education, in respect to the methods used, and in respect to the order followed, would probably have caused frequent differences with parents. As I should have been very reluctant to surrender my plans, while most parents would probably have insisted upon the adoption of something like the ordinary curriculum, serious breaches would have frequently occurred.
So that, for these several reasons, it seems to me likely that, had I been led into the career of a teacher, I should after a time have thrown it up in disgust.
The experiment was not to be tried, however. There now occurred an incident which determined my course of life for a period of years.
My uncle William had gone to London early in November, 1837, and before the end of the first week, I received a letter from him telling me to come up immediately. The reason assigned was that he had obtained for me a post under Mr. Charles Fox, mentioned in a foregoing chapter as being, in 1834, under Mr. Robert Stephenson on the London and Birmingham Railway during its construction, and who had now become permanent resident engineer of the London division. He had, I believe, during our visit to him at Watford three years previously, formed a favourable estimate of me, in so far as my fitness for engineering was concerned; but friendship for my father was, I suspect, the chief motive for offering me the appointment.
Of course the offer was at once accepted. Already, as I see by letters, the profession of a civil engineer had been one named as appropriate for me; and this opening at once led to the adoption of it.