Front Page Titles (by Subject) SECTION III. Certain Circumstances in Education which promote the Spirit of Despotism. - The Works of Vicesimus Knox, vol. 5
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SECTION III. Certain Circumstances in Education which promote the Spirit of Despotism. - Vicesimus Knox, The Works of Vicesimus Knox, vol. 5 
The Works of Vicesimus Knox, D.D. with a Biographical Preface. In Seven Volumes (London: J. Mawman, 1824). Vol. 5.
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Certain Circumstances in Education which promote the Spirit of Despotism.
Many who have arisen to high elevation of rank or fortune seem to think that their nature has undergone a real metamorphosis; that they are refined by a kind of chemical process, sublimed by the sunshine of royal favour, and separated from the fæces, the dross and the dregs of ordinary humanity; that humanity, of which the mass of mankind partake, and which, imperfect as it is, God created. They seem to themselves raised to a pinnacle; from which they behold, with sentiments of indifference or contempt, all two-legged and unfeathered beings of inferior order, placed in the vale, as ministers of their pride, and slaves of their luxury, or else burdens of the earth, and superfluous sharers of existence.
The great endeavour of their lives, never employed in the essential service of society, is to keep the vulgar at a distance, lest their own purer nature should be contaminated by the foul contagion. Their offspring must be taught, in the first instance to know and revere, not God, not man, but their own rank in life. The infants are scarcely suffered to breath the common air, to feel the common sun, or to walk on the common earth. Immured in nurseries till the time for instruction arrives, they are then surrounded by a variety of domestic tutors. And what is the first object in their education? Is it the improvement of their minds, the acquisition of manly sentiment, useful knowledge, expanded ideas, piety, philanthropy? No; it is the embellishment of their persons, an accurate attention to dress, to their teeth, to grace in dancing, attitude in standing, uprightness, not the uprightness of the heart, but the formal and unnatural perpendicularity of a soldier drilled on the parade. If a master of learned languages and philosophy be admitted at all, he feels himself in less estimation with the family than the dancing-master; and if possessed of the spirit which the nature of his studies has a tendency to inspire, he will soon depart from a house, where he is considered in the light of an upper servant, paid less wages, and subjected to the caprice of the child whom he ought to controul with the natural authority of superior wisdom. To assume over his pupil the rights of that natural superiority, would be to oppose the favourite ideas of the family, “that all real preeminence is founded on birth, of fortune, and court favour.” The first object with the pupil and the last, the lesson to be got by heart and to be repeated by night and by day, is an adequate conception of his own native consequence, a disposition to extend the influence of rank and riches, and to depress and discourage the natural tendency of personal merit to rise to distinction by its own elastic force.
If the boy be allowed to go to any school at all, which is not always deemed prudent, because schools in general have a few plebeians who raise themselves there, to some degree of superiority, by merit only, it is only to schools, which fashion recommends, which abound with titled persons, and where the expenses are so great, as to keep ingenious poverty, or even mediocrity of fortune, at a respectful distance. Here he is instructed to form connections with his superiors. The principal point is to acquire the haughty air of nobility. Learning and virtue may be added, if peradventure they come easily; but the formation of connections, and the assumption of insolence, is indispensable. To promote this purpose, pocket-money is bestowed on the pupil with a lavish hand by his parents, and all his cousins who court his favour. He must show his consequence, and be outdone by no lord of them all, in the profusion of his expenses, in the variety of his pleasures; and, if his great companions should happen to be vicious, in the enormity of his vice. Insults and injuries may be shown to poor people who attend the school, or live near it, as marks of present spirit and future heroism. A little money makes a full compensation, and the glorious action on one side, and the pusillanimous acquiescence under it, on the other, evinces the great doctrine, that the poor are by nature creatures of other mould, earth-born perhaps, and made for the pastime of those who have had the good fortune to be born to opulence or title. The masters themselves are to be kept in due order by the illustrious pupils, or a rebellion may ensue. Such an event indeed is sometimes devoutly wished, as it affords opportunities for embryo heroes to show their prowess and their noble pride. Every ebullition of spirits, as it is candidly called, displaying itself in insolence or ill-usage of the inferior ranks, defenceless old men or women, and the poor in general, is remembered and cherished with care, as a flattering prognostic of future eminence in the cabinet, the senate, at the bar, or in the field. Justice, generosity, humility, are words indeed in the dictionary, and may adorn a declamation; but insolence, extravagance, and pride must mark the conduct of those who are sent rather to support the dignity of native grandeur by the spirit of arrogance, than to seek wisdom and virtue with the docility of modest and ingenuous disciples. Practical oppression of inferiors is one of the first elements of aristocratical education; and the order of Fags (as they are called) contributes much to familiarize the exercise of future despotism. Mean submissions prepare the mind, in its turn, to tyrannize.
Let us now suppose the stripling grown too tall for school, and entered at an university. The English universities are admirably well adapted to flatter the pride of wealth and title. There is a dress of distinction for the higher orders extremely pleasing to aristocratical vanity. In the world at large the dress of all gentlemen is so similar, that nothing is left to point out those who think themselves of a superior order; unless indeed they ride in their coaches, and exhibit their splendid liveries behind, and armorial ensigns on the sides: but at Oxford, they never walk the streets, on the commonest occasions, without displaying their proud preeminence by gowns of silk and tufts of gold.
As noblemen, or gentlemen commoners, they not only enjoy the privilege of splendid vestments, but of neglecting, if they please, both learning and religion. They are not required, like vulgar scholars, to attend regularly to the instruction, or to the discipline of the colleges; and they are allowed a frequent absence from daily prayer. They are thus taught to believe, that a silken gown and a velvet cap are substitutes for knowledge; and that the rank of gentlemen commoners dispenses with the necessity of that devotion which others are compelled to profess in the college chapels. High privileges these! and they usually fill those who enjoy them with that attachment to rank, which leads directly to the spirit of despotism. They are flattered in the seats of wisdom, where science and liberality are supposed to dwell, with an idea of some inherent virtue in mere rank, independently of merit; and after having learned a lesson so pleasant to self-love and idleness, they go out into the world with confidence, fully resolved to practise the proud theories they have imbibed, and to demand respect without endeavouring to deserve it.
Without public or private virtue, and without even the desire of it; without knowledge, and without even a thirst for it; many of them, on leaving college, enlist under the banners of the minister for the time being, or in a self-interested opposition to him, and boldly stand forth candidates to represent boroughs and counties, on the strength of aristocratical influence. Though they appear to ask favours of the people, they pay no respect to the people, but rely on rank, riches, and powerful connections. Ever inclined to favour and promote the old principles of jacobitism, toryism, and unlimited prerogative, they hope to be rewarded by places, pensions, titles; and then to trample on the wretches by whose venal votes they rose to eminence.
The ideas acquired and cherished at school and at the university are confirmed in the world by association with persons of a similar turn, with Oriental adventurers, with pensioners and courtiers, with all who, sunk in the frivolity of a dissipated, vain, and useless life, are glad to find a succedaneum for every real virtue, in the privileges of titular honour, in splendid equipage, in luxurious tables, in magnificent houses, in all that gives distinction without merit, and notoriety without excellence. Their number and their influence increase by an union of similar views and principles; and a formidable phalanx is formed against those liberties, for which the most virtuous part of mankind have lived and died. Under the auspices of multitudes, thus corrupted and united, it is not to be wondered, that the spirit of despotism should increase. Despotism is indeed an Asiatic plant; but brought over by those who have long lived in Asia, and nursed in a hot house with indefatigable care, it is found to vegetate, bloom, and bear fruit, even in our cold, ungenial climate.
It might then be worthy a wise legislator to reform the modes of education, to explode the effeminacy of private and superficial nurture, to promote an equality of rank in schools and universities, and to suffer, in the immature age, no other distinctions than those, which may be adjudged by grave and virtuous instructors, to distinguished improvement, exemplary conduct, goodness of heart, and a regard to the happiness of inferiors.
The constitution of England is founded on liberty, and the people are warmly attached to liberty; then why is it ever in danger, and why is a constant struggle necessary to presevere it uninfringed? Many causes combine, and perhaps none is more operative, than a corrupt education, in which pride is nourished at the tenderest period, and the possession or expectation of wealth and civil honours is tacitly represented, even in the schools of virtue, as superseding the necessity of personal excellence.