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CHAPTER 7: FREE EDUCATION BY REV. B.H. ALFORD - Thomas Mackay, A Plea for Liberty: An Argument against Socialism and Socialistic Legislation (LF ed.) 
A Plea for Liberty: An Argument against Socialism and Socialistic Legislation, consisting of an Introduction by Herbert Spencer and Essays by Various Writers, edited by Thomas Mackay (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1981). Foreword by Jeffrey Paul.
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As the subject allotted to me is one in which the point of view of the writer is a serious element for the consideration of the reader, it is well to state at the outset that I write as a Manager of some standing in charge of a so-called Church School. The position that many of the Managers of such Schools have taken up, is clearly enough stated in words spoken (according to the report in The Times of August 8th) by the Bishop of Bath and Wells. ‘He said they must look at the question not merely in the light of their original opinion as to whether education was a good thing or not, but they must look at the position of it outside. If they succeeded in preventing Government from bringing forward their scheme, in which they proposed to safeguard the interests of Voluntary Schools, they might be perfectly certain that when a Government of a different political constitution came into power they would carry Free Schools without the safeguards.’ This appears a very candid confession that the authorities of the Church of England (as far as one Bishop can pledge them) desire to avoid discussing the principle of Free Education, because, if they were forced to come to an adverse judgment, they might imperil the fortunes of a certain class of schools. But would it not be more patriotic to enquire into the advantages or disadvantages for the nation of Free Schools, and abide by the decision—rather than determine beforehand upon risking any national disadvantage, in order to maintain a form of education which might not finally be secured even at the price of such a surrender?
My purpose is to keep the vexed questions as between school and school, government and government, out of sight, and to consider:
Firstly: What can be urged in favour of Free Education on broad grounds? What answering arguments can be suggested?
Secondly: What radical objections may be taken to the whole proposal?
I. And, as a preliminary, it were well to ascertain what financial change would occur on the adoption of Free Education in England. I take the Balance Sheet of my own schools as a basis of calculation. They contain about 300 children, and last year (1888-1889) cost £600 to maintain—or £2 a head. This sum was raised in the following proportions: £250, or 16s. 8d. a head, reached us out of taxation in the form of Government grant; £150, or 10s. per head, were provided from voluntary sources; £200 or 13s. 4d. a head, came in the shape of pence from the parents. The proposal now is to throw this last item upon the locality, to be raised there in addition to any existing School Board rate. But the change will involve a further displacement: the item of voluntary aid, which at present meets one-fourth of the expense of our Schools, could not be relied upon to remain at that level. Even enthusiasts for denominational teaching will be pressed by the increased rates, and lessen their subscriptions; the lukewarm will probably drop them altogether; so that the alteration will not merely bring about the transfer to the rates of parents’ payments: it will also bring about a loss of at least a third of the subscriptions, which will have to be made up out of rates. So that the probable Balance Sheet of the future, in a ‘freed’ Church School costing £600 to maintain, will run as follows—By Government grant, £250; from Voluntary sources, £100; by Rate, £250; or, in other words, the demand upon the pocket of the nation in respect of denominational schools alone will be doubled. This educational tax for 1888-1889 reached two millions: the addition to the School Board rate therefore threatens to reach another two millions, as soon as the schools are ‘freed.’1
For this large increase of burden to be laid on the community the following are among the principal reasons urged:
(1) That Free Education is the logical sequence of the Act of 1870, and that, wherever there is compulsion, there ought to be payment in respect of the things required by the State.
The arguments which start from postulating certain unwritten rights of the citizen are highly effective in popular oratory; as when, for instance, Mr. Chamberlain asks, ‘of the two chief obligations put on parents, why should vaccination be given, and education sold?’ but such appeals have to face this historical fact, that the legislature has not recognised their a priori validity: each case is considered on its own merits: distinction is made between claim and claim; which would not be done, if the claims were all fundamentally and equally just. As a matter of practice, the cost of the community being secured against small-pox has been discharged by the State: but again, the cost of the community being secured against insanitary drains has not, for this is an obligation laid on the landlord. Mr. Forster provided power to establish certain Free Schools for the children of parents unable to pay fees—as a matter of expediency: it never occurred to him that education must be free wherever it was compulsory, as a matter of equity. And not only did it not occur to the author of the settlement of 1870, but one of the strongest supporters of compulsion, Mr. Fawcett, took issue with the Birmingham League on this very point, and protested against universal Free Schools. Was he the man to commit a logical injustice?
(2) But the same argument reappears in a form of lesser stringency—pleading that, if not unjust, it is at least inconsistent that parents should be forced to pay where they have no option as to incurring the debt.
It may be replied that, having borne that anomaly for twenty years, we might be content to let it abide as a tradition, side by side with many time-honoured absurdities which the Frenchman is more anxious to rectify than the Englishman. There might be some reason, however, why the matter is deemed more pressing now than at the outset of the new educational scheme: so the advocate of Free Schools may be asked to show cause why he presses the matter now, and selects this above other apparent State anomalies as requiring to be altered. And he would probably answer that the difficulty of remitting the fees of impecunious parents has increased, and that to abolish all fees is a consequent necessity.
There is no doubt that it has been a crux from the beginning, how to provide a good machinery for determining cases of exemption from payment in School Board districts. For some time the Guardians acted—I believe in certain places they act still—but it was felt that parents incurred an unnecessary stigma in applying through the Relieving Officer. At present, in London at least, voluntary committees undertake the investigation and remit fees. A few years ago their methods were revised and put upon a basis which approved itself to the Chairman of the Board. Whence then the present outcry? I venture to think it does not come from parents—not even from hard-worked Committees, though they have an invidious task to perform—but mainly from the collectors of fees, the teachers, and officials of the schools. They find it difficult to get in the weekly pence, and they would gladly see them abolished. No doubt: but this is a very different plea from that of justice to parents, and must be met in a different way. When this is used as of force to bring about free schools, we are bound to point out that there is another outlet from the difficulty. We can improve the machinery; we can be firm, even generous with the officials. It would be cheaper to pay more for collection than to abandon a large source of revenue altogether in a fit of despair.
(3) There then occurs what is not so much an argument addressed to the reasonable as an inducement put before the indolent. It is said, ‘This must come: it is in the air: it is no use resisting it. Lord Salisbury has practically conceded Free Schools.’ But every English Premier moves with the opinion of the country, and that opinion is neither so settled nor so pronounced as to require present action. Even if it were, the evil or good of any proceeding is not determined by the clamour for it. It is for those who believe there is mischief in the demand to demonstrate the mischief and see what resistance can effect. Nothing arises so soon, but nothing subsides so fast as a popular cry.
(4) But when the advocates of Free Education have exhausted their pleas, reasonable or specious, there is still an arrow left in the very phrase which describes their proposal: it is winged with the epithet ‘free.’ This is one of several deceptive words which fly about in these educational controversies. One class of schools is called ‘National’ when in truth it is distinctly representative of a religious body: the same class of schools is with equal infelicity still called ‘Voluntary,’ although compulsion applies to them (for better or for worse) as much as to any. We had begun to understand and make allowances for these fallacious epithets, and now we have a third unreality set before us in the prefix ‘free.’ It has great attraction for the easy-going: it is as if the master taught for nothing; or nobody was saddled with the cost of his teaching: therefore it must be excellent, and a thing to be voted for with both hands.
II. But let men who have minds and consciences pause a little: for the question admits of being looked at in another light, and may then possibly assume a very different complexion. I admit that my answers to the advocates of Free Education might be overruled, if there were nothing positive to be urged beside—no principle at issue, no social mischief underlying this attractive scheme.
It is proposed, in consideration of the poverty of some parents, to make all parents a present of the fees they have been accustomed to pay for their children in primary schools. This sounds a generous proposal: it is really a new and hazardous step: it does not mean the extension within its own sphere of a principle already at work: it means the intrusion of that principle into another and an alien sphere, to which, we contend, it is not applicable. For let us consider what the State has hitherto done in the way of tutelage. It has set itself to remedy—failures: children, for whom parents can make no provision at all, it has sent into work-house schools: children, over whom parents can exercise no control—these it has sent into industrial schools: children, for whom parents can make only part provision—finding food, but not education, these it has paid for in primary schools. Some consider that the State has gone too far in doing these things, but it cannot be questioned that the State has proceeded cautiously, has made investigations, even, in suitable cases, extracted pledges for repayment of the outlay incurred. Hitherto every care has been taken by the authorities to assume any parental function which the parents were able—morally and financially—to perform themselves. Now it is proposed to alter this; to make a fresh and insidious departure, concealing how much it means, and pretending that there is no rupture with the past. Now the State is to come forward and say to parents, capable as well as incapable, ‘We will do for your children, without reserve or enquiry, what hitherto we have done, with reserve and after enquiry, only on behalf of proved failures; for the future we will accept all the children you send us, and teach them at the public cost.’ But this is an entire subversion of the principle which has governed England hitherto. We have always impressed upon parents that the children they had they must also maintain until they could shift for themselves; that nutrition of mind was necessary as well as nutrition of body; whereas now we are expected to turn round and say, ‘nutrition of mind is exempted from your duties and converted into a State charge.’ But is it possible to make a first breach in parental responsibility which shall also be the last? It becomes increasingly evident that nutrition of mind is correlated to nutrition of body; that the payment of school-fees is a farce for the unfed, and foolishness for the half-clothed. The example will have been set that distinctions as between the solvent and insolvent poor are either impossible or invidious, and the State which begins to teach gratuitously must—in the name of the consistency invoked at the outset—end by establishing free meals and free clothing for the behoof of all attending primary schools. Nor do the socialists conceal that this is the object aimed at by them, and their idea of the logical necessities of the case. So our difference on this point from the State-socialists is vital, and must be reasoned out. They see the unequal distribution of this life’s advantages; they perceive that superior education accounts for most of these advantages; they fancy that by making education more general they shall succeed in distributing these advantages, and especially wealth, more equally. So they are for freeing education at all cost. ‘At all cost’—but have they really considered what the cost amounts to? They are thinking of it merely as a matter of £ s. d.; but is it only that? Can it be so limited? Do they not seek to be generous to the pockets of some men without being just to the nature of all men? Are they not worshipping the name of State, endowing it with unreal force, and fancying it can deal with the problems of life apart from the character of individuals, which, after all, is the main factor in solving the problem? For can the State be better than the persons composing the State? and can they be good without discipline? Now the discipline which has hitherto gone to the training of Englishmen has been of this nature. The child has been brought up as part of the small community called a home; there he has learnt what submission to authority means, through being subject to his parents; there he has learnt what co-operation means, through living with elder and with younger members of the family. Leaving home he has been thrown upon his own resources, and they have developed under pressure of the necessities of life: he has learnt to be prudent in foreseeing, versatile and courageous in meeting difficulties. Thus he is prepared in his turn to establish a home, to exert authority of his own, and to teach obedience to others. So by successive stages of often unconscious discipline a man becomes an orderly citizen; through submission, and independence, and the exercise of rule upon a small scale, he is fitted to combine with others trained after the like fashion in the great community of the State. But the present age is impatient; some of its hasty counsellors would dispense with preliminary training, and advise men that they can worthily take their places in a large society without having served any apprenticeship to the smaller. Acts of Parliament are henceforth to protect every citizen and labourer from many of the practical roughnesses which served to educate their forefathers; the State is asked to loosen some at least of the bonds which, as a child, attached him to his parents, and as a parent, bound him to his children. The Englishman is to become a good citizen per saltum, without having proved himself a good son, or a man of valour in the fight for existence. State socialism opposes science, and fancies it can improve the species physically by sparing us hardships, and morally by sparing us duties; whereas it is more likely to aid degeneration by encouraging the dependent character and discouraging the discipline of home.
Already among those classes of the metropolis which this proposal is intended to benefit, the parental tie is feeble; there is little sense of responsibility in having children; a weak control is exercised over them: there is considerable readiness to dispose of them to charitable institutions. The philanthropists who have most experience and who prefer radical to superficial improvement, are for appealing to family life and increasing the solidarity of home. Yet the proposals we are considering, if adopted, would inevitably thwart their efforts, and set the State to counterwork some of its wisest citizens. Mr. Fawcett, for instance, foresaw and deprecated this result of free schools as long ago as 1870, when the Birmingham League sought to make them universal. According to Mr. Leslie Stephen, in the biography he wrote of his friend, ‘the fatal error, as he urged, was that the gratuitous system would diminish the sentiment of parental responsibility. To bring a child into the world was to incur a grave responsibility, and no action of the State should tend to obscure the fact. But to relieve a parent from the cost of his children’s schooling would most emphatically diminish his motives for forethought.’
I might almost leave the controversy to stand or fall with this opinion of an educationalist so friendly to the working-classes and so fearless in counselling them; but there are two or three misconceptions as to the line of argument I have adopted which need notice. It is forcibly said in public, when this matter comes under discussion, that educated men have of long custom held exhibitions at school and the universities—have enjoyed in fact privileges which they now seek on principle to withhold from those of a lower class, who need them even more urgently. It is asked, ‘has their discipline been injured by the advantages they enjoyed—or have the terrible things prophesied come to pass in their own homes?’ And I can fancy students familiar with Mr. Fawcett’s biography inclined to cry out against him when they read that, in selecting his college at the University, ‘he chose Peterhouse deliberately on the ground that its fellowships were supposed to be of more than average value, and were tenable by laymen’; also that ‘he won a Scholarship in the College Examination of May, 1854.’ But I conceive there is a very complete defence for the Professor from any charge of inconsistency. I can imagine him answering that this personal argument ignored the difference between exceptional assisted and universal gratuitous education; that he was prepared to advocate the former for all classes, and deprecate the latter equally for all; that the advantages given to Exhibitioners and Scholars are on a level (not indeed in origin, but in effect) with the assistance given in every primary school to every parent who pays only thirteen or fourteen shillings a year out of a cost of forty. In either case there is a residue of duty left for the parent to discharge, and help does not supersede effort.
There are indeed some who are prepared to risk the deterioration of character threatened by those whom they think alarmists on account of the gain to be assured to education, as if every child were certain to come to school regularly as soon as there is nothing to pay. But does this expectation accord with our experience in such matters? Are gifts valued equally with things paid for? Are they not very much looked in the mouth, and criticised, and frequently rejected? In the case of children for whom we remit fees in our schools, a rule has had to be made that remission must depend on constant attendance; before this was done the irregularity was great. Let all fees be abolished and this resource fails. Other things being equal, regular attendance will certainly not improve but diminish with free schools. Nor do I imagine that compulsion will be found easier of enforcement than now, for it is not poverty which makes gaps in the school classes so much as mother’s washing-day, and going on errands and attendance on the perambulator; which things, I presume, will continue much as before, being practically unavoidable. And illustrations come to us from countries where free schools are in force. Statements as to America have appeared in the public press, but perhaps the analogy of our own recent colonies is more in point. I have before me a letter from a lady who has long resided in New Zealand, and has paid careful attention to the working of its institutions, especially those which deal with the young. She writes—‘Unless where compulsion is most rigidly carried out (a task of immense practical difficulty), the very children for whom a free education is provided do not attend the schools.’ ‘Free schools will not necessarily ensure the education of the lowest class; indeed we see a directly contrary effect; for the middle class gladly avail themselves of the advantages offered by primary schools, and send their children to them. Such children are a credit to the teachers, who naturally encourage this better class rather than the shifting, ill-mannered children of the poorest and the improvident.’ I admit how pathetic all this is: how honourable is the purpose in a new country of improving on the methods of the old, and endeavouring that the sons should be better taught than their fathers were in England; but the failure constitutes a lesson that State machinery cannot bring about the improvement desired—indeed, stands in the way of it, because it impairs the one method of effecting slowly what it seeks vainly to effect hastily. For (again quoting from my correspondent) ‘there is an increasing tendency on the part of the population of the colony to look to the Government for help, and such legislation in the name of progress shifts the centre of gravity in the moral world from the parent to the State—slowly but surely undermining the foundation of national life by the deterioration of the unit of the family.’
There will remain, I suppose, to the last a sentimental desire to give away whatever we prize as an infallible method of distributing it: there is also the general charm which socialistic schemes have for those who are in arms against the selfishness of the world, and believe that the true way of combating it lies in wide schemes of regulation. The two errors run up into one; and that one is a forgetfulness of the laws of virtue as laid down centuries ago in Athens and tested by long experience. There is no moral improvement possible without ‘purpose’: you cannot leave the will of the man himself out of question: what you bestow on him does not avail, unless it rouses his own determination to follow it up: wherein you coerce him for his own benefit, you do him no lasting benefit at all, as long as you retain the reins of restraint, and are unwilling or unable to trust him with them. It is the appetite for being taught which has to be created, and which must precede all machinery for satisfying it. But what creates appetite is not supply, it is exertion. There is no need to increase the difficulties of learning, but there is need of caution how they are diminished and education made too cheap and easy. The children cannot be separated from their parents in the estimate of school. What the young see the elder appreciate, they will appreciate, and the obligation which they find them ready to transfer to any who will undertake it, they will lightly esteem. Personal payment is a sign of value attached to the thing purchased: it may be reduced to a small sum quite out of proportion to the thing purchased, but as soon as it is abolished altogether, the whole matter of education falls to a lower level—the thing received becomes, like gas or water, an article laid on by the municipality, paid for out of the rates, and mental benefits assume a material complexion fatal to their majesty and worth.
In conclusion, let me reiterate that what moves me against Free Education is that it is a new departure; the application of an enervating doctrine to the roots of English discipline. The State would virtually say to thousands of parents, ‘You have failed, and the ratepayers shall remove from you the last remnant of educational duties, and undertake to teach your children for you. Probably you will also be relieved of the cost of feeding and clothing them: but this is in suspense for a time, to see how you receive the earlier plan—whether you resent it as an indignity to learning and yourselves, or welcome it as an instalment due from the selfishness of the wealthy.’
I appeal to parents to suspect what the political parties vie with each other in thrusting upon them. Is it not a bribe? I appeal also to thinkers, who observe life and study character. Is there not a more excellent way? Can we not imagine and by determination realise an England which shall be pure without the supervision of a Vigilance Society, sober—even in the face of a thousand public-houses, open at all hours, and fond of knowledge, although—and even because—knowledge has to be won at the cost of self-denial, being the best inheritance a man can bequeath to his children as the fruit of the exertions of a lifetime.
B. H. Alford
Note—The writer has intentionally limited himself to criticism of the recent proposal to ‘free’ schools he has declined to turn aside to discuss how far the school system in present use is satisfactory, either from the point of view of learning or the point of view of liberty. He has been content with the endeavour to show that any change in the way of gratuitous teaching would be a change for the worse.
[1 ] Any other scheme which may be proposed laying the expense on the taxpayers rather than the ratepayers may serve to conceal the cost to the public; it will not diminish it.