This year Ireland celebrates the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising, in which a small group of Irish rebels stormed the General Post Office and other buildings in Dublin to attempt to launch a countrywide rebellion against British rule. The unofficial leader of this rising was a man named Patrick Pearse. Pearse, the teacher, poet and barrister knew the rebellion was doomed to failure but was willing to offer up a “blood sacrifice” in the hope of inspiring a new generation of Irish men and women to fight off the yoke of British oppression. Pearse is in many ways the antithesis of a typical rebel. A poet, a deeply religious man, conservative, dedicated to higher ideals.
One such ideal is the ideal of higher education. 100 years on, I have been re examining some of the writings of the Eastern 1916 leaders. One work which has stood out to me in it’s prescience and insight is a short work by Pearse on education, written in 1909, titled “The Murder Machine.” Pearse’s work deals with the nature of education in Ireland in the early 20th century and expounds his concern with the trend he saw developing – namely, away from the higher ideals of education and towards turning the schooling system into a machine designed to churn out obedient slaves.
What was being “murdered”, Pearse claimed in 1913, was the spirituality, as he saw it, of the Irish nation. The “murder machine” was at once an instrument of British policy and, even more pernicious, an instrument of progress. A section of the essay was headed “Against Modernism”. Never averse to hyperbole, Pearse claimed that the old Irish, “two thousand years ago”, had the best and noblest education system ever known among men. Here he meant the schools described in the legends of Cuchulainn. In his lectures and essays he was, as his friend Joseph Holloway put it, “indiscriminately eulogistic to absurdity” about the literary merits of the Gaelic sagas that he came to treat as history.
So impressed am I with the work I have decided to cut it down to it’s finest and most relevant points and share the abridged version with whoever it may concern.
The Murder Machine – An Abridged Version
In our adoption of the standpoint here indicated there is involved a primary blunder as to the nature and functions of education. For education has not to do with the manufacture of things, but with fostering the growth of things. And the conditions we should strive to bring about in our education system are not the conditions favourable to the rapid and cheap manufacture of ready-mades, but the conditions favourable to the growth of living organisms—the liberty and the light and the gladness of a ploughed field under the spring sunshine.
In particular I would urge that the Irish school system of the future should give freedom—freedom to the individual school, freedom to the individual teacher, freedom as far as may be to the individual pupil. Without freedom there can be no right growth; and education is properly the fostering of the right growth of a personality. Our school system must bring, too, some gallant inspiration. And with the inspiration it must bring a certain hardening. One scarcely knows whether modern sentimentalism or modern utilitarianism is the more sure sign of modern decadence. I would boldly preach the antique faith that fighting is the only noble thing, and that he only is at peace with God who is at war with the powers of evil.
In a true education system, religion, patriotism, literature, art and science would be brought in such a way into the daily lives of boys and girls as to affect their character and conduct. We may assume that religion is a vital thing in Irish schools, but I know that the other things, speaking broadly, do not exist. There are no ideas there, no love of beauty, no love of books, no love of knowledge, no heroic inspiration. And there is no room for such things either on the earth or in the heavens, for the earth is cumbered and the heavens are darkened by the monstrous bulk of the programme. Most of the educators detest the programme. They are like the adherents of a dead creed who continue to mumble formulas and to make obeisance before an idol which they have found out to be a spurious divinity.
The English thing that is called education in Ireland is founded on a denial of the Irish nation. No education can start with a Nego, any more than a religion can. Everything that even pretends to be true begins with its Credo. It is obvious that the savage who says ‘I believe in Mumbo Jumbo’ is nearer to true religion than the philosopher who says ‘I deny God and the spiritual in man.’ Now, to teach a child to deny is the greatest crime a man or a State can commit. Certain schools in Ireland teach children to deny their religion; nearly all the schools in Ireland teach children to deny their nation. ‘I deny the spirituality of my nation; I deny the lineage of my blood; I deny my rights and responsibilities.’ This Nego is their Credo, this evil their good.
I expressed the hope that even Home Rule would not commit Ireland to an ideal so low as the ideal underlying the phrase ‘a sound modern education.’
It is a vile phrase, one of the vilest I know. Yet we find it in nearly every school prospectus, and it comes pat to the lips of nearly everyone that writes or talks about schools
Now, there can be no such thing as ‘a sound modern education’—as well talk about a ‘lively modern faith’ or a ‘serviceable modern religion.’ It should be obvious that the more ‘modern’ an education is the less ‘sound’, for in education ‘modernism’ is as much a heresy as in religion. In both mediaevalism were a truer standard. We are too fond of clapping ourselves upon the back because we live in modern times, and we preen ourselves quite ridiculously (and unnecessarily) on our modern progress. There is, of course, such a thing as modern progress, but it has been won at how great a cost! How many precious things have we flung from us to lighten ourselves for that race!
And in some directions we have progressed not at all, or we have progressed in a circle; perhaps, indeed, all progress on this planet, and on every planet, is a circle, just as every line you draw on a globe is a circle or part of one. Modern speculation is often a mere groping where ancient men saw clearly. All the problems with which we strive (I mean all the really important problems) were long ago solved by our ancestors, only their solutions have been forgotten. There have been States in which the rich did not grind the poor, although there are no such States now; there have been free self-governing democracies, although there are few such democracies now; there have been rich and beautiful social organisations, with an art and a culture and a religion in every man’s house, though for such a thing to-day we have to search out some sequestered people living by a desolate sea-shore or in a high forgotten valley among lonely hills—a hamlet of Iar-Connacht or a village in the Austrian Alps. Mankind, I repeat, or some section of mankind, has solved all its main problems somewhere and at some time. I suppose no universal and permanent solution is possible as long as the old Adam remains in us, the Adam that makes each one of us, and each tribe of us, something of the rebel, of the freethinker, of the adventurer, of the egoist. But the solutions are there, and it is because we fail in clearness of vision or in boldness of heart or in singleness of purpose that we cannot find them.
An Ideal in Education
Is it not the precise aim of education to ‘foster’? Not to inform, to indoctrinate, to conduct through a course of studies (though these be the dictionary meanings of the word), but first and last to ‘foster’ the elements of character native to a soul, to help to bring these to their full perfection rather than to implant exotic excellences.
Fosterage implies a foster-father or foster-mother—a person— as its centre and inspiration rather than a code of rules. Modern education systems are elaborate pieces of machinery devised by highly-salaried officials for the purpose of turning out citizens according to certain approved patterns. The modern school is a State-controlled institution designed to produce workers for the State, and is in the same category with a dockyard or any other State-controlled institution which produces articles necessary to the progress, well-being, and defence of the State. We speak of the ‘efficiency’, the ‘cheapness’, and the ‘up-to-dateness’ of an education system just as we speak of the ‘efficiency’, the ‘cheapness’, and the ‘up-to-dateness’ of a system of manufacturing coal-gas. We shall soon reach a stage when we shall speak of the ‘efficiency’, the ‘cheapness’, and the ‘up-to-dateness’ of our systems of soul-saving. We shall hear it said ‘Salvation is very cheap in England’, or ‘The Germans are wonderfully efficient in prayer’, or ‘Gee, it takes a New York parson to hustle ginks into heaven.’
Now, education is as much concerned with souls as religion is. Religion is a Way of Life, and education is a preparation of the soul to live its life here and hereafter; to live it nobly and fully. And as we cannot think of religion without a Person as its centre, as we cannot think of a church without its Teacher, so we cannot think of a school without its Master. A school in fact, according to the conception of our wise ancestors, was less a place than a little group of persons, a teacher and his pupils. Its place might be poor, nay, it might have no local habitation at all, it might be peripatetic: where the master went the disciples followed. One may think of Our Lord and His friends as a sort of school: was He not the Master, and were not they His disciples? That gracious conception was not only the conception of the old Gael, pagan and Christian, but it was the conception of Europe all through the Middle Ages. Philosophy was not crammed out of text-books, but was learned at the knee of some great philosopher: art was learned in the studio of some master- artist, a craft in the workshop of some master-craftsman. Always it was the personality of the master that made the school, never the State that built it of brick and mortar, drew up a code of rules to govern it, and sent hirelings into it to carry out its decrees.
I do not know how far it is possible to revive the old ideal of fosterer and foster-child. I know it were very desirable. One sees too clearly that the modern system, under which the teacher tends more and more to become a mere civil servant, is making for the degradation of education, and will end in irreligion and anarchy. The modern child is coming to regard his teacher as an official paid by the State to render him certain services; services which it is in his interest to avail of, since by doing so he will increase his earning capacity later on; but services the rendering and acceptance of which no more imply a sacred relationship than do the rendering and acceptance of the services of a dentist or a chiropodist. There is thus coming about a complete reversal of the relative positions of master and disciple, a tendency which is increased by every statute that is placed on the statute book, by every rule that is added to the education code of modern countries.
Of Freedom in Education
I have claimed elsewhere that the native Irish education system possessed pre-eminently two characteristics: first, freedom for the individual, and, secondly, an adequate inspiration. Without these two things you cannot have education, no matter how you may elaborate educational machinery, no matter how you may multiply educational programmes. And because those two things are pre-eminently lacking in what passes for education in Ireland, we have in Ireland strictly no education system at all; nothing that by any extension of the meaning of words can be called an education system. We have an elaborate machinery for teaching persons certain subjects, and the teaching is done more or less efficiently; more efficiently, I imagine, than such teaching is done in England or in America. We have three universities and four boards of education. We have some thousands of buildings, large and small. We have an army of inspectors, mostly overpaid. We have a host of teachers, mostly underpaid. We have a Compulsory Education Act. We have the grave and bulky code of the Commissioners of National Education, and the slim impertinent pamphlet which enshrines the wisdom of the Commissioners of Intermediate Education. We have a vast deal more in the shape of educational machinery and stage properties. But we have, I repeat, no education system; and only in isolated places have we any education. The essentials are lacking.
I knew (of a) boy of whom his father said to me: ‘He is no good at books, he is no good at work; he is good at nothing but playing a tin whistle. What am I to do with him ’? I shocked the worthy man by replying (though really it was the obvious thing to reply): ‘Buy a tin whistle for him’. Once a colleague of mine summed up the whole philosophy of education in a maxim which startled a sober group of visitors: ‘If a boy shows an aptitude for doing anything better than most people, he should be encouraged to do it as well as possible; I don’t care what it is—scotch-hop, if you like.
Back to the Sagas
A heroic tale is more essentially a factor in education than a proposition in Euclid. The story of Joan of Arc or the story of the young Napoleon means more for boys and girls than all the algebra in all the books. What the modern world wants more than anything else, what Ireland wants beyond all other modern countries, is a new birth of the heroic spirit. If our schools would set themselves that task, the task of fostering once again knightly courage and strength and truth— that type of efficiency rather than the peculiar type of efficiency demanded by the English Civil Service— we should have at least the beginning of an educational system. And what an appeal an Irish school system might have! What a rallying cry an Irish Minister of Education might give to young Ireland! When we were starting St. Enda’s I said to my boys: ‘We must re-create and perpetuate in Ireland the knightly tradition of Cuchulainn, ‘better is short life with honour than long life with dishonour’; ‘I care not though I were to live but one day and one night, if only my fame and my deeds live after me’.
…..we need the divine breath that moves through free peoples, the breath that no man of Ireland has felt in his nostrils for so many centuries, the breath that once blew through the streets of Athens and that kindled, as wine kindles, the hearts of those who taught and learned in Clonmacnois.