It is, of course, quite true that bits and pieces of the mediaeval traditionstill linger, or have been revived, in the ordinary school syllabus oftoday. Some knowledge of grammar is still required when learning a foreignlanguage--perhaps I should say, "is again required," for duringmy own lifetime, we passed through a phase when the teaching of declensionsand conjugations was considered rather reprehensible, and it was consideredbetter to pick these things up as we went along. School debating societiesflourish; essays are written; the necessity for "self- expression"is stressed, and perhaps even over-stressed. But these activities are cultivatedmore or less in detachment, as belonging to the special subjects in whichthey are pigeon-holed rather than as forming one coherent scheme of mentaltraining to which all "subjects"stand in a subordinate relation."Grammar" belongs especially to the "subject" of foreignlanguages, and essay-writing to the "subject" called "English";while Dialectic has become almost entirely divorced from the rest of thecurriculum, and is frequently practiced unsystematically and out of schoolhours as a separate exercise, only very loosely related to the main businessof learning. Taken by and large, the great difference of emphasis betweenthe two conceptions holds good: modern education concentrates on "teachingsubjects," leaving the method of thinking, arguing, and expressingone's conclusions to be picked up by the scholar as he goes along' mediaevaleducation concentrated on first forging and learning to handle the toolsof learning, using whatever subject came handy as a piece of material onwhich to doodle until the use of the tool became second nature.
What, then, are we to do? We cannot go back to the Middle Ages. Thatis a cry to which we have become accustomed. We cannot go back--or canwe? Distinguo. I should like every term in that proposition defined. Does"go back" mean a retrogression in time, or the revision of anerror? The first is clearly impossible per se; the second is a thing whichwise men do every day. "Cannot"-- does this mean that our behavioris determined irreversibly, or merely that such an action would be verydifficult in view of the opposition it would provoke? Obviously the twentiethcentury is not and cannot be the fourteenth; but if "the Middle Ages"is, in this context, simply a picturesque phrase denoting a particulareducational theory, there seems to be no a priori reason why we shouldnot "go back" to it--with modifications--as we have already "goneback" with modifications, to, let us say, the idea of playing Shakespeare'splays as he wrote them, and not in the "modernized" versionsof Cibber and Garrick, which once seemed to be the latest thing in theatricalprogress.
When we think about the remarkably early age at which the young men went up to university in, let us say, Tudor times, and thereafter were held fit to assume responsibility for the conduct of their own affairs, are we altogether comfortable about that artificial prolongation of intellectual childhood and adolescence into the years of physical maturity which is so marked in our own day? To postpone the acceptance of responsibility to a late date brings with it a number of psychological complications which, while they may interest the psychiatrist, are scarcely beneficial either to the individual or to society. The stock argument in favor of postponing the school-leaving age and prolonging the period of education generally is there is now so much more to learn than there was in the MiddleAges. This is partly true, but not wholly. The modern boy and girl arecertainly taught more subjects--but does that always mean that they actuallyknow more?
However, it is in the highest degree improbable that the reforms I proposewill ever be carried into effect. Neither the parents, nor the trainingcolleges, nor the examination boards, nor the boards of governors, northe ministries of education, would countenance them for a moment. For theyamount to this: that if we are to produce a society of educated people,fitted to preserve their intellectual freedom amid the complex pressuresof our modern society, we must turn back the wheel of progress some fouror five hundred years, to the point at which education began to lose sightof its true object, towards the end of the Middle Ages.
Has it ever struck you as odd, or unfortunate, that today, when theproportion of literacy throughout Western Europe is higher than it hasever been, people should have become susceptible to the influence of advertisementand mass propaganda to an extent hitherto unheard of and unimagined? Doyou put this down to the mere mechanical fact that the press and the radioand so on have made propaganda much easier to distribute over a wide area?Or do you sometimes have an uneasy suspicion that the product of moderneducational methods is less good than he or she might be at disentanglingfact from opinion and the proven from the plausible?
The role of education is to prepare children for the modern world. Schools should cut art and music out of the curriculum so that children can focus on useful subjects such as information technology.
Let us amuse ourselves by imagining that such progressive retrogressionis possible. Let us make a clean sweep of all educational authorities,and furnish ourselves with a nice little school of boys and girls whomwe may experimentally equip for the intellectual conflict along lines chosenby ourselves. We will endow them with exceptionally docile parents; wewill staff our school with teachers who are themselves perfectly familiarwith the aims and methods of the Trivium; we will have our building andstaff large enough to allow our classes to be small enough for adequatehandling; and we will postulate a Board of Examiners willing and qualifiedto test the products we turn out. Thus prepared, we will attempt to sketchout a syllabus--a modern Trivium "with modifications" and wewill see where we get to.