John William Donaldson.

On adult education and self-improvement; an address to the Young Men's Institute, of Bury St. Edmund's, on their second anniversary, the 18th May, 1852 online

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Online LibraryJohn William DonaldsonOn adult education and self-improvement; an address to the Young Men's Institute, of Bury St. Edmund's, on their second anniversary, the 18th May, 1852 → online text (page 1 of 2)
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The im Maij, 1852,








No one, who is not blind to the signs of the times,
can fail to perceive that the future destinies
of this country must depend on the success with
which we carry out the great undertaking of edu-
cating the whole community. But although this
is generally admitted, I think it is often sup-
posed that this problem is confined to the duty
of providing school-training for the children of
the lower orders. This supposition, whenever it
is productive of any effect on the conduct of indi-
viduals, must be regarded as a mischievous error ;
for it induces a forgetfulness of the reasons which
make it desirable that the mental and moral culti-
vation of all classes should be duly regarded, and
that the school training of the lower orders, and
working classes should be continued and completed.
Now we must educate the upper classes, if we
would not deprive rank of its only lustre, and
wealth of its greatest charm ; we must educate
the middle classes, if we would furnish them with
the inducements for shaking off the selfishness of
indolent respectability, if we would enable them
to resist the aggressions of intrusive bigotry, if we
would break down the party-walls of class-preju-
dices, if we would inspire every one of those who
have virtually a large share in the government of
England, with an enlightened regard for his own
and his country's welfare; and lastly, we must

1 090«^,01


educate the lower orders, if we would make the
the labouring man feel that he is a responsible and
rational being, not a mere tool for doing work, or
an echo for propagating opinions which he does
not understand ; we must educate the lower orders,
if we would give them that reverence for law,
that sense of truth and justice, that habit of self-
respect and self-control, without which we cannot
ensure the gradual amelioration of our institutions
from the risk of revolutionary disturbances, and
save this country from the alternative so sternly
proposed to many nations on the Continent — the al-
ternative of choosing between despotism or anarchy.
If the man of rank and fortune is not pro-
perly educated, we have either the rude sports-
man who despises literature, or the voluptuarj'-,
who scoffs at morality, or the town dandy, who
dawdles away the brief and precious hours of
existence in the pursuit of contemptible frivolity.
All these, and others more or less like them, are
lost to their country and their age. They live
and die without having effected anything, except
so far as they have succeeded in making their
order odious in the eyes of those beneath them.
Fortunately the aristocracy of this comitry have
always been distinguished, in the majority of
instances, by their endowments of mind and cha-
racter — no less than by the nobility or opidence
to which they are born. In tliis country, as in
Greece, the gentleman is an accomplished and
good, as well as a rich or highly-connected man :
and happily we may often add that he is the true
knight, who bears the cross on his shield, on his
sword hilt, and in his heart, who exhibits the
spirit of Christianity in the unsullied brightness
of his honour, m the unselfish devotedness of his
person al courage, and in the unaffected benevo-


lence of his demeanour and conduct. It is for this
reason that the English noble is loved, respected,
and imitated by his inferiors ; it is for this reason
that he is permitted while still a stripling to lead
the stern discipline of our embattled array, it is
for this reason that his success, in equal competi-
tions to which all are admitted, is ahvays greeted
with general approbation. It cannot be denied
that a great deal has been done of late years to
improve the education of the upper classes. Very
rarely now-a-days do we meet with those examples
of violence, effrontery, shameless profligacy, and
brutal stupidity, which some of us remember, and
of which we may all read. Public opinion, and
its great engine, the press, have done something to
abate the scandal ; but a great deal more must be
attributed to the improvement of that public edu-
cation, by which the minds of the young of the
Tipper classes are especially influenced. At first,
only some few schools were distinguished by the
tone of christian and gentlemanly feeling which
they imparted to their pupils ; and I remember, that
when I was in residence at Cambridge, T could tell
by a young man's manner and conduct from which
of the public schools he had come up to College.
But now an inattention to education properly so
called, is the exception rather than the rule at
those places, where the upper classes receive their
boyish training, and the effect of this is felt through-
out the length and breadth of the land.

Of the education of the great middle class at
the present clay it is somewhat difficult to speak.
Divided as it is into a number of different subsec-
tions, it is perhaps impossible to say anything
which does not require a great deal of special
qualification. But if we define the middle class
as consisting of those who are engaged in making


money by some kind of business, and who enjoy
by virtue of their exertions all the comforts,
and a varying proportion of the luxuries of
life, the following picture may be maintained
(of course with individual exceptions,) as generally
true in its outline and colouring. The man of
business as such is generally prone to acquiesce
in the consciousness of liis own respectability. If
he is ambitious to l>e fashionable or aristocratic,
he is found to imitate rather the expensiveness
than the accomplishments af the class above him.
But when most satisfied with his own position,
he seems to care for little beyond his personal and
domestic comforts, and the decencies of his out-
ward appearance. Abundant meals, and good
clothes, and a well furnishecl parlour, are the
extent of his wishes. And he measures things
without his own circle by the ideas which suffice
for his own narrow world. Hence he is^ too often
thetool of bigotry, the echo of stereotyped opinions,
the victim of class prejudices, the blind or obstinate
advocate of measures which have no connexion
with his own or his country's better interests. If
this is a true description, Englishmen of the middle
class must be very difficult to educate. Indeed,
I am inclined to regard them as jitactically the
great stumbling-block in the way of a general
diffusion of higher cultivation in this country ;
and while I would take all means to induce them
to seek a better kiud of education for their chil-
dren, I place my hopes of an improvement in
their intellectual condition, an improvement on
which, as I have said, the prospects of this coun-
try very much depend, in the lateral pressure of
the upper and lower classes, when the ameliorated
education of the latter shall combine with the
daily increasing condescension of the former, and
both together break through the crust of comfort-


able indolence in which our tradesmen and pro-
fessional men so often envelope themselves.

The intellectual improvement of the lower or-
der, is the most practicable^ and most influential,
though not ultimately the most important de-
partment iu this great Ijusiness of national educa-
tion. It must result from the increased enlightmcnt
and awakened discernment of the higher or-
der among us, and will in the end, combined with
this, and directed by it, rc-act on the more inert
mass of the middle classes. On the present occa-
sion, it is my intention not so much to discuss,
however briefly, the general question of education,
as to indicate the best way of working the
machine which you have recently set iu motion,
and to which you desire to give the most exten-
sively useful application. I shall therefore say
nothing about Schools, though of course you will
})rcsume that I am an advocate for the establish-
ment of Schools iu every nook and corner of this
Island. There is scarcely any kind of school, to
which I would not extend that amount of support
and encouragement which it deserved and required.
Ragged schools, and respectable schools, endowed
schools.'and self-supporting schools, Sunday schools,
and week-day schools, infant schools, and schools
for children of a larger growth are all in their
different degrees worthy of consideration and as-
sistance. But I must take this part of the subject
for granted, and apply myself to the case before
me. I am addressing a " A Yot xg Men's In-
stitute;" I am requested to state my views as to
the best way of managing and guiding a society
consisting mainly of young persons engaged in
some kind of labour, fostered indeed and patron-
ized by the highest and most educated class in this
tosvn and neighbourhood, but really carried out on


the principle of mutual instruction and self-im-
provement. All of you, Members, have received
some sort of elementary school instruction, and you
are all supposed to be inspired by the laudable am-
bition of improvinc^ to the utmost the faculties and
opportunities Avhich God has given you. And the
question is — how are we to make this Institute
most completely available for the good object
which you have in view ?

In the first place, it is desirable that you should
include in yoiir Society as large a number as possi-
ble of the young mechanics or intelligent labourers
of this Town. The Mechanics' Institute, has, as
I think most unwisely, refused to receive you as an
integral part of its own composition. I attribute
this to the influence of middle class prejudices ;
and I see no alternative for you, but to work out
by yourselves the problem which you wished to
undertake with their frank and active co-operation.
The arguments, by which they supported the re •
jection of your overtures for amalgamation, were
those, which are generally satisfactory to the
middle class of Englishmen ; for they merely a-
mounted to a declaration of their contentment with
an existing state of things. If they have since
then endeavoured to widen the basis of their
society, they have done so under the pressure of
those stimulants which your continued existence
seems to supply, and which they call agitation.
But even if what they propose weresufficient to meet
all the exigencies of the case, they must be aware
that it is now too late to check your independent
action; and as it is desirable that there should be
no division among the young men of Bury who
are anxious for self -improvement, it is to be hoped
that they will join you in sufficient numbers to se-
cure your cfibctual working. So convinced am


I that there is not room for two such societies in
Bury, that I must confine what I can do to the
particular institute which seems to me most likely
to be an effectual agent in the improvement of
intellectual culture in this Town, especially if
T observe in any other society tendencies which
the well- wishers of diffused and generally accessi-
ble knowledge must regard as hostile or ob-
structive .

And this leads me to consider, in the second
place, the claims which this Institute makes to the
support and assistance of the higher classes in the
Town and Neighbourhood. You count among
your patrons and members all, or nearly all, of the
most completely educated and accomplished per-
sons in the district. And if they continue to sup-
port you, I think you may consider yourselves in
a more favourable position in regard to the true
sources of your intellectual wealth than any simi-
lar society in this Country.

AVhcn Institutions of this kind were first formed
in Great Britain, it was proposed even by those
who were most active in their establishment that no
persons of the better class — none in fact, except
Mechanics and Artizans, should be admitted to
any participation in the management or direction,
or even be counted among the members. This
was soon felt to be a course calculated to keep up
those class-prejudices,which education ought to ex-
tirpate, and it was well remarked in a Northern
Paper that the exclusion of the riche:i^nd more
educated would render it impossible to work the
machinery with any effect. '^As the most promi-
nent feature of this establishment," says a waiter
in the Leeds Mercury of 1823, "would be the re-
gular Delivery of Lectui'es, we apprehend it
would not be easy to find persons in this Town at


once qualified and disposed to lecture ; and they
cannot be engaged from other places but at a heavy
expense. In Edinburgh and Glasgow, where
some of the Professors of the Universities have
lectured gratuitously, and where scientific men are
very abundant, this difficulty is not experienced."
Now I think it will be admitted by any one
who is acquainted with the present state of Bury
St. Edmund's, that the number of persons here
who are able to contribute by Lecturing or other-
wise to the spread of knowledge in this locality,
bears a large, an unusually large proportion to the
population of the place, you have here not only
the well-bred and accomjjlishcd gentleman, who is
found in all parts of England, but you have also
literary and scientific men of no ordinary learning
and ability, who are but thinly scattered over this
Island, and all these have shown a willingness to
contribute in different ways to the social and intel-
lectual culture of the Town. Whatever plans
then you may be able to form for self-education
and mutual improvement, you can count upon
encouragement and support of the best kind. And
if I may assume that your society will include, if
not the majority, at least sufficient number of the
intelligent and industrious young men of the place,
if I may assume that the educated class will as
heretofore encourage you with symjjathy, and
assist you by the gratuitous outpourings of their
own matured and ready knowledge, (and I think

1 may assume both the one and the other), I can
have no doubt as to the niode of action most likely
to bring to good effect the intentions with which

. this society has been formed.

To begin with yourselves. The first prerequi-
site is to take care that you do not sell yourselves
to any employment which will be incompatible


with a reasonable amount of leisure for self-im-
provement. The early closing system, or the
limitation of the hours of toil, toward the estab-
lishment of which so much has been done of late
years, is the essential condition without which the
working man or mechanic will be unable to profit
by the advantages held out by societies like yours.
Our wish is to give every man an individual con-
sciousness and independent existence j to let him
live, as all responsible beings must live, as a free
member of the social body to which he belongs ; 1 o
allow him to exercise the untrammelled energies of
his nature. Otherwise, as an able writer has said,
" he will not be cheered by any idea of the true
dignity of his ministry ;" he will become an inse-
parable adjunct to some comi)lex machinery of
labour, and, losing his distinctive humanity, he
will become a tool instead of a man. Therefore do
not sell all your hours for wages, but retain some
part as a store for duty and a tribute to your
immortal nature.

But supposing that you have secured to your-
selves a reasonable amount of leisure, your next
business is to see to its right employment. If you
bestow your spare time on self-indulgence and
dissipation, you'are in a worse condition than if
you had no spare time at all. Better far to be a
useful tool than to be the bond slave of foolish or
degrading inclinations. As far as relaxation is
concerned, I think that those, whose work is of a
sedentary and indoor description, o,ught always to
bestow a certain time dn exercise ^n the open air.
Healthful exercise is essential to the development
of an unclouded intellect. But when this claim
is satisfied, there ought to be no choice between
intellectual and other anuisemcnts. The words
tedious, dull, dry, unentertaining , when applied


to such pursuits as elevate the mind, belong only
to the vocabulary of a puerile, pampered, and
frivolous being. Those who live upon sweetmeats
have a distaste for wholesome food ; and the charms
of htcrature and science are regarded with loathing
by those, whose minds are dissipated, and whose
moral tastes are depraved. When the intellect
is not weakened and the character vitiated by
self-indulgence and indolence, there are no
pleasures equal to those which the successful pur-
suit of knowledge is sure to bring with it. Every
step discloses a fresh landscape, every ascent un-
folds a new discovery, and every divergence to the
right or left brings with it an enlarged conscious-
ness of power, which fills the soul mth reasonable
elation. Those v/lio have made the trial, esjiecially
those who have made unassisted experiments in
the attainment of knowledge, will bear witness to
the truth of what I say; to those who have not
made trial of the fair fruits of intellectual exertions,
1 have only to recommend an early and an earnest
commencement of a course of self-discipline in
these things, with the confident promise that it
will soon lead to self-emancipation.

As man is by his nature a social being, the
business of self-improvement in knowledge is best
carried out by co-partnership ; and thus self-im-
provement and mutual improvement go hand in
hand, or rather converge into one employment.
If you cannot form classes under the presidency
of a teacher, at least form coteries or little gather-
ings for the interchange of ideas on subjects of
common interest. Let such meetings, consisting
at most of a dozen members, be held once or twice
a month, to read in common some portion of an
author ; and let each member in turn communi-
cate his ideas in writing, as the thesis for a


friendly discussion. My own experience at College
enables me to assure you that the most educated
men can derive information and encouragement
from this course, and if so, what must be its effect
on those who have to make up for an early defici-
ency in their training ? Barthold Niebuhr,
who was, take him altogether, the greatest literary
man of the present century, belonged to a society
of this kind at Berlin, and he has left us a solemn
record of the influence which it had upon his
labours. " There is," he says, " an inspiration
which proceeds from the presence and converse of
beloved friends; an immediate acting on our
minds, whereby the Muses are revealed to our
view, awaking joy and strength in us, and purg-
ing our sight : to this my whole life long I have
owed whatever was best in me."

Another step which you may take with a view
to yoiu* self-improvement consists in the gradual
formation of a class library. I mean of a collection
of books, maps, drawings, aud if necessary of
models, immediately connected vnth. the objects of
your class studies. This will be infinitely more
useful and beneficial than if you were to arrange
on your shelves, in twice the number of volumes,
the miscellaneous contributions of friends, the
stray refuse of other libraries. There is indeed
no book, or scarcely any book, from which you
might not get some good : if you were to read
through the contents of those trays which stand at
the doors of second-hand book shops in London,
all quoted at some uniform price, you would get
more good than if you read nothing at all ; and
whatever donations you may receive, it will be
with you while to accept and use them. But the
object of your own contributions should be to buy
special books for special work, books bearing ou


your own efforts to acquire knowledge; and by the
help of judicious friends, especially by the counsel
of those gentlemen who may be disposed to lecture
for you, the selection may be made with a toler-
able degree of safety.

This last remark leads me to the other feature
in your prospects of success — the help which you
may hope to receive from the educated men whiek o
appear among your patrons. To such persons
you must look, and I would urge you to look to
no others, for direct instructions in the Lecture
Room, and for ^counsel when you require their
advice. With regard to Lectures, I have often
expressed my opinion. Nothing can be less
valuable than a got-up lecture, when the lecturer,
to use a term of the criicket-ficld, is bowlino;
beyond his strength. The only lectures good for
anything in an educational point of view, are those
which fall from the lips of men where knowledge
is thoroughly digested, matured, and methodized,
and who pour forth the imconstrained utterances
of their superior enlightenment. From such men
you may expect clear notions, apt illustrations,
fullness of matter, and hinrs suggestive and crea-
tive of the studies, which I would have you pursue
in classes by yourselves, and without which, the
Lecturer will lecture in vain. With regard to
the subjects of the Lectures delivered to you, as
long as you confine yourselves to men of eminence
or to those who hold a recognized position among
yourselves, the selection and the mode of treat-
ment may safely be left to the gentlemen who arc
willing to minister to your information. Under
no circumstances should you listen to proposals
for the establishment of a censorship, which
would pollard all thoughts and opinions accord-
ing to the pre-conceptions of individuals. In


a free country, public opinion is the only
tribunal to which a speaker or writer should be
required to appeal, and to say nothing of his
own conscience, which must be presumed to be
active and influential, until the contrary can be
shewn by the evidences of his conduct, an honest
and respectable man is always sufficiently guided
by a regard for the good opinion of his neigh-
bours. As far then as concerns the subjects
treated here by Lecturers, you have only to
select your men, and you may safely leave all
the rest to them and the public. But perhaps
I should hardly complete the duty which I
have undertaken, if I did not express my opinion
briefly in regard to the description of lectures,
which I should think most likely to be advantage-
ous to you.

In the first class then I would place those sciences
which are generally illustrated by museums, espe-
cially geology, chemistry, botany, and zoology.
To these descriptive astronomy will of course be
added. Microscopic exhibitions and chemical
manipulations are not only instructive, but emi-
nently entertaining, and they have the great ad-
vantage of exciting curiosity, and stimulating a
desire to acquire knowledge ; and as wonder is the
mother of science, I should estimate very highly
every provocative of ignorant admiration.As merely
natural science, especially as treated by mere natu-
ralists, is apt to fall into materialism, I should be
glad if physiological lectures could be occasionally
combined or varied with discourses on the moral
nature of man, and on the reality of his spiritual
instincts ; and this would enable you to gain glimpses
occasionally of the greatest of modern sciences —
ethnography or the philosophical demonstration of
the all important fact that man is essentially one and


accidentally different. A practical deduction from
this science leads to what may be considered as
partly a branch of public economy. I mean the
question of emigration. The belief in the common
origin of mankind presumes an admission ot the
fact that man is by his nature, or rather by the
condition of his existence, an emigrant and sporadic
being. Originating in a particular locality, he
could not have peopled those portions of the
world which he occupies, if he had not been wil-
ling from time to time, to go forth from the land
of his parentage, to clear the forest, to drain the


Online LibraryJohn William DonaldsonOn adult education and self-improvement; an address to the Young Men's Institute, of Bury St. Edmund's, on their second anniversary, the 18th May, 1852 → online text (page 1 of 2)