A great schoolmaster

I have recently read, pretty much in one sitting, The Story of a Great Schoolmaster, by (you guessed) H.G. Wells.

(For those of you thinking I’m sitting a lot on my sabbatical, well, that’s by design. And sometimes I lie down instead, because I know sitting a lot is bad for you.)

Published in 1924, it is the story of F.W. Sanderson, and his role as headmaster at Oundle School, Northamptonshire, which he reformed in the 1890s:

The world is changing so rapidly that it may be well to say a few words about the type of school Sanderson was destined to renovate. Even in the seventies and eighties these smaller ‘classical’ schools had a quaint old-fashioned air amidst the surrounding landscape. They were staffed by the less vigorous men of the university-scholar type; men of the poorer educated classes in origin, not able enough to secure any of the prizes reserved for university successes, and not courageous enough to strike out into the great world on their own account. (p28)

(I know it’s presumptuous of me to mention it, but Wells seems to be sporting a superior attitude here, having himself won some scholarships and prizes in the 1880s, and being courageous enough to strike out on his own as soon as he could during his early years. By 1924, however, he was a successful author of fiction rather than a successful headmaster, so I find his approach here a bit condescending.)

Wells met Sanderson in 1914, when he was looking at Oundle School as a possibility for his own sons George Phillip (“Gip”) and Francis (known as Frank, I assume after H.G.’s brother). According to Wikipedia, Gip did attend Oundle, so I assume Frank did also. Certainly it’s evident that once their father saw what Sanderson had done with the school, he was filled with admiration for his modern views and methods. It was these methods I found most interesting (and also Sanderson’s death, which I’ll get to in a minute).

Sanderson developed what we would today call “active learning”, and group active learning at that. Most of it is described in Chapter III: The Replacement of Competition by Group Work. Having noted that Sanderson believed that boys should be doing active scientific work, and that they were more involved and interested when they did, Wells then shared a mini history of education. He claimed that “there have been three chief phases in the history of educational method in the past five centuries, the phase of compulsion, the phase of competition, and the phase of natural interest” (p46). These aren’t necessarily discrete, but he sees medieval teaching as motivated largely by compulsion, and balancing rote learning with corporal punishment. The second phase was the age of the class-list (that is, the lists of students passing exams — or not). He referred to this era as “slightly more enlightened” (p46):

The school of the rod gave place to the school of the class-list. An aristocracy of leading boys made the pace and the rest of the school found its compensation in games or misbehaviour. (pp46-47)

He noted that during this time the curriculum was Greek, Latin, and formal mathematics, none of which were of any intrinsic interest to a boy. By the end of the 18th century, there was a shift, and attention to subjects that were more interesting. He briefly mentions Pestalozzi and Froebel as pioneers of the third phase. Wells had written an essay on Froebel, which I have been unable to find, to earn the Doreck Prize, so he did know about these things. He had himself been a product of the class-list phase. Both the thrills and sorrows of competition, as he saw it at the Normal School of Science, appear in several of his novels.

Sanderson began his career at Oundle using the old class-list methods, but in mathematics he started to create instead “clusters of boys surrounding an attractive problem” (p48). A “Science Conversazione” developed of small groups of pupils working on a particular problem, at first in their free time. A surprisingly large number of students joined voluntarily, in focus groups of various scientific subjects. Experiments were assigned or developed, and as the “Speech Day” approached, class time was replaced by work time on the projects. The school would look chaotic at such times, but all the pupils were completely engaged in developing solutions to the problems emerging in their work:

Concurrently with this steady replacement of the instructional-exercise system by the group-activity system, the mathematical work became less and less a series of exercises in style and more and more an attack upon problems needing solution in the workshops and laboratories, with the solution as the real incentive to the work. (p52)

What do we call this now? Applied learning, constructivism, cooperative learning, maker spaces, design thinking, flipped classroom, growth mindset, scaffolding — it’s all there in 1898.

Sanderson’s success in science led to his application of the technique to literature and history, doing away with

…the lesson that was a third-rate lecture, the note-taking, the rehearsal of silly opinions about books unread and authors unknown, the horrible annotated editions, the still more horrible text-books of literature

and replacing them with plays, with the boys taking the parts, to teach literature, to bring the pupils “into the most active contact possible with the reality of the work they studied” (p54). For history the school library was the laboratory, with content divided among the groups, who prepared maps and quotations for presentation and argued with each other about historical approaches (pp54-55). (This all sounded so exciting that I began to mourn our old college library, with its many shelves of books that could be physically browsed. Now the books are in a small section, with most of the room taken over by computers. More information? Yes, indeed. A space for enthusiastic searching for information in noisy groups? No.)

Today Oundle School still exists (with boys and girls), and Sanderson is mentioned here as its most famous headmaster. It is now primarily a boarding school, although it has day students, with ages starting as young as 11 years old, although the usual is 13. I’m sure it’s a wonderful school, but I must admit to queasiness at the very idea of having a child that age live at a school. But that is neither here nor there.

I am these days wrestling with the idea of biography as history, and it helps that Wells didn’t mean to just write a biography — his work makes a point about Sanderson:

To tell his story is to reflect upon all the main educational ideas of the last half-century, and to revise our conception of the process and purpose of the modern community in relation to education. (p2)

Sounds like a good idea now as well as then.

I noted in the book a natural sympathy, as there often is between a biographer and his subject. Apparently, like Wells, Sanderson went round on a bicycle, but wasn’t great at outdoor games (Wells was asked to participate on cricket teams, but wouldn’t play even when he agreed to sign up). As a young man, like Wells, Sanderson was slender and serious. And he always went his own way.

Sanderson died in 1922 after completing a lecture where he was introduced by Wells. He suffered a heart attack during the Q&A which followed the talk, and Wells had to go tell his widow. Wells tells the story, and reprints the lecture in its entirety, for the last chapter.

A review of the book from the Journal of Education* claimed that Sanderson being the first subject to stir Wells into writing a biography would make “The Story of a Great Schoolmaster the most famous educational book of the decade, probably of a quarter of a century”. More effusiveness followed: “We have seen no book on education from Solomon, Socrates and Comenius to Edward Eggleston and William Hawley Smith whose every paragraph has a human touch that throbs.” I think that is perhaps overdoing it, but it’s a very good book, especially for those looking to support efforts toward enlivening curriculum.

 

*The Journal of Education, Vol. 99, No. 18 (2478) (May 1, 1924), p. 499, retrieved via JSTOR 15 Nov 2018.

(Clever readers will notice that I’ve counted this small review as Student Learning Outcome 5: cultural expression as evidence of a historical theme. This is because the book is a literary work, even though it is non-fiction, and such a book is a cultural expression of its time: 1924. It could be used to represent the interest in education, and/or the popularity of Wells’ writings, during that era. It isn’t as popular now, I think, since I purchased at good price what I just realized is a first edition.)

 

 

Historical correction (and Ruskin)

Over two years ago I wrote a post that got no comment nor many readers. It was one of the only posts where I shared my discomfort with today’s identity politics.

Then this week, I received an announcement of some workshops at the college designed to engender “cultural sustaining pedagogies”. I wrote a five paragraph response to the ideas contained within this concept, explaining my views supporting universal principles over the perceived needs of particular groups, be they racial, age-based, cultural, gender, or otherwise. Having spent several hours writing, I realized there was no one to whom I could send it, and nowhere I could post it, without endangering my job and quite a few working relationships that were important to me. At the same time I realized that this was what was wanted, my refusal to engage, because the entire pretext is that I am not worthy to discuss any of these issues.

But when one attacks history, however, as a discipline, I do feel a professional responsibility. I did some reading about culturally sustainable pedagogies (cuz I’m always in for good pedagogy), and at one point was led to this article on How Racism and Patriarchy is Taught at School, published just a few days ago. It was about truth versus distortion in history textbooks and class materials, and cited as heinous examples phrases like black slaves were people “who came to work on plantations” and “[s]ome slaves reported that their masters treated them kindly”. Now the first of these is distorted enough to be an untruth: slaves did not “come” to work — they were forced and they were brought. Factually, they did not “come to work on plantations”, either — they were sold for whatever the buyer wanted them for. But the second quotation is not factually incorrect. Some slaves did report that their masters treated them kindly. There are primary sources where they say so, and I assign them. I then discuss with my students why they might have said so, what influences there might have been on their perceptions and testimony. But the truth is that they did report this kindness. So we are not replacing lies with truth. We are replacing nuanced views requiring discussion, with untruth.

The article mentioned how teachers should use the website Teaching Tolerance to teach “the truth” of the past. So I went to the site (which is sponsored by the ever laudable Southern Poverty Law Center), and it recommended a “formative assessment” for students. I link it here. Several of the questions are loaded or misleading. For example:

In the Declaration of Independence, what percentage of enslaved people were included in the line “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

You are supposed to answer 0%, or you’re wrong. This question demonstrates the same sort of oversimplification argued against in the article, just to the other side. Jefferson, like many of his contemporaries, were intellectually and morally conflicted by slavery, but stated in a number of places that men may be created equal, but were then subjected to unequal environments, treatment, birthrights, intelligence, etc. Some included women in “men”, while others did not. 18th century intellectuals argued the many sides of these issues. The “line” about equality was likely written by one man, approved by a committee of five, and agreed to and signed by the 2nd Continental Congress. Some had slaves, some didn’t, some had never owned slaves, some made money off the slave trade, some had vowed to release their slaves within a year, others had promised to release them upon their death, and many worried about slavery in its various impacts, discussing its moral, economic, and intellectual problems. To say that slaves were definitely included would be false. To say that they were all excluded would also be false.

The included Teacher Guide says: “The promise of equality and liberty in the Declaration did not extend to any enslaved people. ” But the passage from the Declaration does not promise equality or liberty. It declares them as natural rights. In fact, the Declaration of Independence doesn’t promise anything to anyone — it lays out an argument and justification for breaking away from Great Britain.

Later on the quiz there’s this question:

Which was the reason the South seceded from the Union?

To preserve states’ rights
To preserve slavery
To protest taxes on imported goods
To avoid rapid industrialization

You’re supposed to answer “to preserve slavery”. Yes, indeed. But the reason? The only reason? The main reason? There are no historical events with only one cause, and even the extremes of post-modern historicism admit to multiple explanations if not causation.

The Teacher Guide to this question says, “Every secession document cites slavery as the main reason the southern states seceded.” I have not reviewed every secession document, and I’m not sure whether this means official documents from the states, or whether it also includes letters, diaries, etc. Quite a few both official and unofficial documents also talk about states’ rights, but not always in those terms. A great many talk about freedom and independence, particularly in the context of the American Revolution. Preserving slavery was often discussed within a context of property and ownership, even by people who didn’t own slaves or didn’t care for it as an institution. To not understand and discuss these complexities is to commit presentism (the application of the values of ones own era to the circumstances of the past). Presentism, although increasingly popular, does not actually lead to a rational understanding, but rather a “stand”.

The article also says that our country was “quite literally founded on the slaughter, colonization, enslavement, segregation, and ongoing systematic oppression of millions of indigenous peoples and people of color”. Yes, indeed. But it was also founded on ideals, some of which are worthy discussing and defending. We might want to start with representation, open debate, or any of the rights listed in the first ten amendments to the Constitution.

So none of this is really about truth. It’s about correction. It’s about grievance. It’s about telling the other side, because it isn’t being told. A worthy goal, certainly. Telling the stories that haven’t been told is a main responsibility (and joy) of historical work. It’s why we’re here. But the goal isn’t to replace Storyline A with Storyline Z. It’s to understand how both storylines interact, to whose benefit one side takes precedence, and to what extent evidence supports the stories.

But lest we think these issues are new, I’ve also encountered them in reading today about the man I cannot avoid in my work, although I don’t like him: John Ruskin. In Judith Stoddart’s article* on his Fors Clavigera, I learned about Ruskin’s push to develop cultural literacy in working people with whom he admittedly not only had little in common, but didn’t know very well as individuals. What he did know, however, were big social and political trends, and what he saw was a lower class that was forming into groups to create solutions for their grievances.

In brief, Ruskin saw a grievance culture, and radical groups loosely based on socialist ideals without actually examining them (he was likely thinking of the Paris Commune, for example). Their grievances focused on class-based social hierarchy, even though that was not, to Ruskin, the root of the problem. The problem was moral, not structural. Some people may have more of some things in society, and others less, but the people with less simply taking the things from those who have more does not create a moral system. In fact, it just puts the lower classes into the immoral position that the upper classes had occupied. The problem of capitalist, industrial exploitation cannot be solved by the exploited becoming the exploiters. It is solved by doing away with exploitation.

Ruskin thus had just as much sympathy for the conditions of working people as 19th century radical politicians did. Education was the solution, but it was moral education that was needed. This was not “character education” or brainwashing, or even Christian education (though Ruskin himself was pretty darned devout). Subjects like music, astronomy, and botany, for example, could teach that things in life have an order that can be understood (p53). Understanding the universal concept of order could thus underpin the planning of political action. Basic principles could then be applied in a rational way according to the needs of both society and the individual. Ruskin aimed to “replace class consciousness by cultural consensus” (p45). Movements that engaged in action without any philosophical underpinnings were dangerous, because they displaced morality, elevating the same greed and selfishness that had been protested against in the first place.

Even before Stoddart began comparing Ruskin with Alan Bloom’s ideas of cultural literacy midway through the article, I saw connections to today. We have political and social movements, on both left and right, that are not based on moral philosophical underpinnings, except in their insistence that they are. The oppressed may become the oppressors, claiming their own truth and the inadequacy of all other truths, but that does not solve the problem. It is oppression itself that must be eliminated. The problem of people being silenced necessitates eliminating silence, not applying it to those who speak. Kindness, goodwill, and understanding are universals, not privileges withheld from some groups and given to others. It is not only unnecessary to prevent talking about incomplete ways of understanding the past, it is essential that we encourage such talk to make the historical picture more complete.

If one is trying to create Ruskin’s cultural consensus, then the intention of education should be to examine views based on what human beings have in common. The elements that bind humanity together should be openly available to discuss and to use. These elements may change over time, but to abandon a search for larger truths in a headlong drive to redress grievances will be of no more help now than it was in the 1870s.

 

*Judith Stoddard, “The Formation of the Working Classes: John Ruskin’s Fors Clavigera as a Manual of Cultural Literacy”, in Culture and Education in Victorian England, Patrick Scott and Pauline Fletcher, eds. Lewisburg: Buckness University Press, 1990.

Self-portrait with mahl stick

We interrupt the sabbatical work for a combination of art, feminism, and technology.

It’s this self-portrait by Catherina van Hemessen, whom I had not heard of till today (by way of a reference from a community college art history class):

Catharina van Hemessen, Self-Portrait (1548)

In that context, I was told that it’s the first self-portrait by a female artist. But on the Wikipedia page about her, it claims it may be the first self-portrait of anyone at work at an easel, and references a book by Frances Borzello. So I went off looking for her. Yup, she’s qualified and literally wrote the book on female painters and their self-portraits.

So I looked at the book with Amazon’s search. There are images of women painting their self-portraits in Boccaccio’s Concerning Famous Women (c. 1402-4) on page 20 of the book. Borzello also claims that an illustrator named Claricia drew herself into the letter Q in medieval manuscripts. What Borzello actually says, on page 40, is that Hemessen’s “has been claimed as the first self-portrait showing an artist of either sex at work at the easel”.

Oh, ok, then. Not quite as grand as the first self-portrait ever, of man or women, and limited by “at work at the easel”. When did easels start? And what’s that rod in her hand?

It’s a mahl stick, still used to keep the painter’s hand steady and prevent smudging. I found out about it here (well, I’m not an artist, obviously).

And, according to this Victorian book, easels have been around since at least Roman times.

Under what circumstances is a story “untold”? If I’ve never heard of either van Hemessen or Claricia, that doesn’t mean their stories aren’t there. Over and again, things that are forgotten re-emerge. The current focus on feminist history and heritage is a case in point. While I am not in favor of anything that separates humans from each other, or sets them in opposition, the histories of particular groups of people do tend to generate the re-emergence of essential knowledge. It is this re-emergence, particularly in the Internet Age, that makes it possible to find information, and more importantly, other sources of information, like Borzello’s book. And sites about mahl sticks.

Art, but for history

If it were my main subject, of course, I’d try harder. But searching for information about an artist whose work I discovered has been too difficult. Is it possible to look at art from a historical persepctive without knowing much about the artist? I think so.

I saw this painting posted on Twitter by longvictorian2:

John Atkinson Grimshaw, A moonlit country road (1877)

I thought it was stunning, so I looked up more of Grimshaw’s works.

He seemed to enjoy fall, and that season just when winter was starting.

Stapleton Park near Pontefract Sun (1877)

There are a lot of roads with one person, or just a few, and often a house.

A Wintry Moon (1886)

He also was into fairies, sometimes floating above a town.

Spirit of the Night (1879)

But I like just as much his many townscapes, including this one very near where I was looking for Work.

Hampstead Hill, Looking Down Heath Street (1881)

So I looked up the artist on the web. I found very little.

Wikiart referred me to Wikipedia, which told me there was only one book about this artist, by an Alexander Robinson in 1988. I’d like to buy a copy, but there are so few that they’re expensive. The cheapest I could find was over $50. Supply and demand.

Wikipedia also directed me to a now defunct page from 2007 (that’s 50 years ago in internet years), which said that Robinson’s book was pretty much it, and that it’s a shame such a talent died of cancer. It had the same wording as a site that has taken his name, selling reproductions. Except that Wikipedia says he died of tuberculosis.

Apparently Grimshaw left no written works, diaries, letters. We don’t have much on him.

So to a certain extent we have to take the art on its own terms, which makes sense since Whistler admired Grimshaw’s work, and he’s the “art for art’s sake” guy. Grimshaw’s style is pre-Raphaelite in its photographic realism in some paintings and attention to detail in others. I also noticed a connection to earlier traditions. Here we seem to be channeling Vermeer:

Vermeer, Woman with a Water Jug (~1662)

John Atkinson Grimshaw, Summer (1895)

If we were analyzing his work as evidence for a historical theme (which I do ask my students to do), we have a number of things to look at. Usually it’s best to look at just one work, but this site makes it possible to look at some of Grimshaw’s in chronological order. Most of his work seems to be about place, rather than the conditions of people or the ravages of industry. Domestic buildings are important in the rural scenes, and they are nice middle class houses, likely reflecting his clientele. There are many works that are similar, also suggesting a clientele who wanted certain things. We cannot really separate the artist’s work from those who were buying it.

Which suggests a time when art like this was in demand, for its beauty and, possibly, its refusal to deal with quotidian problems of the 1870s and 1880s. Instead, there is loneliness, and loveliness, and all the connotations that go along with the changing to autumn and winter. There is a focus on roads, and people traveling on them, moving away from the viewer. There is warmth within coldness in all his work, which people might find comforting.

These are larger themes that go beyond just the era in which the work was created. It would be possible, in other words, to find works from earlier or later times which are also representations of these ideas. We might find that certain themes or styles tend to appear in art at certain times in history, perhaps when there is social change, or political strife. We do this as historians, although art historians also appreciate context and the influence of historical setting on the works of artists.

Because it’s easy to misinterpret art (perhaps Grimshaw liked his paintings of women better than the townscapes, and I’m projecting that he liked the townscapes more because I like them more), historians consider them as evidence. I can appreciate their aesthetics as a viewer, but as a historian I may be more concerned about their use. In that sense, the story of the artist has less value than the art itself.

Biography has its limits, and not just with art. More coming soon on that.