The Works of the Rev. Jonathan Swift/Volume 5/An Essay on Modern Education





FROM frequently reflecting upon the course and method of educating youth, in this and a neighbouring kingdom, with the general success and consequence thereof, I am come to this determination; that education is always the worse, in proportion to the wealth and grandeur of the parents; nor do I doubt in the least, that if the whole world were now under the dominion of one monarch (provided I might be allowed to choose where he should fix the seat of his empire) the only son and heir of that monarch, would be the worst educated mortal, that ever was born since the creation; and I doubt the same proportion will hold through all degrees and titles, from an emperor downward to the common gentry.

I do not say, that this has been always the case; for in better times it was directly otherwise, and a scholar may fill half his Greek and Roman shelves with authors of the noblest birth, as well as highest virtue: nor do I tax all nations at present with this defect, for I know there are some to be excepted, and particularly Scotland, under all the disadvantages of its climate and soil, if that happiness be not rather owing even to those very disadvantages. What is then to be done, if this reflection must fix on two countries, which will be most ready to take offence, and which, of all others, it will be least prudent or safe to offend?

But there is one circumstance yet more dangerous and lamentable: for if, according to the postulatum already laid down, the higher quality any youth is of, he is in greater likelihood to be worse educated; it behoves me to dread, and keep far from the verge of scandalum magnatum.

Retracting therefore that hazardous postulatum, I shall venture no farther at present than to say, that perhaps some additional care in educating the sons of nobility, and principal gentry, might not be ill employed. If this be not delivered with softness enough, I must for the future be silent.

In the mean time, let me ask only two questions, which relate to England. I ask first, how it comes about, that for above sixty years past the chief conduct of affairs has been generally placed in the hands of new men, with very few exceptions? The noblest blood of England having been shed in the grand rebellion, many great families became extinct, or were supported only by minors: when the king was restored, very few of those lords remained, who began, or at least had improved their education under the reigns of king James, or king Charles I, of which lords the two principal were the marquis of Ormond, and the earl of Southampton. The minors had, during the rebellion and usurpation, either received too much tincture of bad principles from those fanatick times, or coming to age at the restoration, fell into the vices of that dissolute reign.

I date from this era the corrupt method of education among us, and in consequence thereof, the necessity the crown lay under of introducing new men into the chief conduct of publick affairs, or to the office of what we now call prime ministers; men of art, knowledge, application, and insinuation, merely for want of a supply among the nobility. They were generally (though not always) of good birth; sometimes younger brothers, at other times such, who although inheriting good estates, yet happened to be well educated, and provided with learning. Such, under that king, were Hyde, Bridgman, Clifford, Osborn, Godolphin, Ashley Cooper: few or none under the short reign of king James II: under king William, Somers, Montague, Churchill, Vernon, Boyle, and many others: under the queen, Harley, St. John, Harcourt, Trevor: who indeed were persons of the best private families, but unadorned with titles. So in the following reign, Mr. Robert Walpole was for many years prime minister, in which post he still happily continues: his brother Horace is ambassador extraordinary to France. Mr. Addison and Mr. Craggs, without the least alliance to support them, have been secretaries of state.

If the facts have been thus for above sixty years past, (whereof I could with a little farther recollection produce many more instances) I would ask again, how it has happened, that in a nation plentifully abounding with nobility, so great share in the most competent parts of publick management, has been for so long a period chiefly entrusted to commoners; unless some omissions or defects of the highest import may be charged upon those, to whom the care of educating our noble youth had been committed? For, if there be any difference between human creatures in the point of natural parts, as we usually call them, it should seem, that the advantage lies on the side of children born from noble and wealthy parents; the same traditional sloth and luxury, which render their body weak and effeminate, perhaps refining and giving a freer motion to the spirits, beyond what can be expected from the gross, robust issue of meaner mortals. Add to this the peculiar advantages, which all young noblemen possess by the privileges of their birth. Such as a free access to courts, and a universal deference paid to their persons.

But as my lord Bacon charges it for a fault on princes, that they are impatient to compass ends, without giving themselves the trouble of consulting or executing the means; so perhaps it may be the disposition of young nobles, either from the indulgence of parents, tutors, and governors, or their own inactivity, that they expect the accomplishments of a good education, without the least expense of time or study to acquire them.

What I said last, I am ready to retract, for the case is infinitely worse; and the very maxims set up to direct modern education, are enough to destroy all the seeds of knowledge, honour, wisdom, and virtue among us. The current opinion prevails, that the study of Greek and Latin is loss of time; that publick schools, by mingling the sons of noblemen with those of the vulgar, engage the former in bad company; that whipping breaks the spirits of lads well born; that universities make young men pedants; that to dance, fence, speak French, and know how to behave yourself among great persons of both sexes, comprehends the whole duty of a gentleman.

I cannot but think, this wise system of education has been much cultivated among us, by those worthies of the army, who during the last war returned from Flanders at the close of each campaign, became the dictators of behaviour, dress, and politeness, to all those youngsters, who frequent chocolate-coffee-gaminghouses, drawingrooms, operas, levees, and assemblies: where a colonel, by his pay, perquisites, and plunder, was qualified to outshine many peers of the realm; and by the influence of an exotick habit and demeanour, added to other foreign accomplishments, gave the law to the whole town, and was copied as the standard pattern of whatever was refined in dress, equipage, conversation, or diversions.

I remember, in those times, an admired original of that vocation, sitting in a coffeehouse near two gentlemen, whereof one was of the clergy, who were engaged in some discourse, that savoured of learning. This officer thought fit to interpose, and professing to deliver the sentiments of his fraternity, as well as his own (and probably he did so of too many among them) turned to the clergyman, and spoke in the following manner, "Dn me, doctor, say what you will, the army is the only school for gentlemen. Do you think my lord Marlborough beat the French with Greek and Latin? Dn me, a scholar when he comes into good company, what is he but an ass? Dn me, I would be glad by Gd to see any of your scholars with his nouns, and his verbs, and his philosophy, and trigonometry, what a figure he would make at a siege, or blockade, or rencountering —— Dn me," &c. After which he proceeded with a volley of military terms, less significant, sounding worse, and harder to be understood, than any that were ever coined by the commentators upon Aristotle. I would not here be thought to charge the soldiery with ignorance and contempt of learning, without allowing exceptions, of which I have known many; but however the worst example, especially in a great majority, will certainly prevail.

I have heard, that the late earl of Oxford, in the time of his ministry, never passed by White's chocolatehouse (the common rendezvous of infamous sharpers and noble cullies) without bestowing a curse upon that famous academy, as the bane of half the English nobility. I have likewise been told another passage concerning that great minister, which, because it gave a humorous idea of one principal ingredient in modern education, take as follows. Le Sack, the famous French dancingmaster, in great admiration, asked a friend, whether it were true, that Mr. Harley was made an earl and lord treasurer? and finding it confirmed, said, "well; I wonder what the devil the queen could see in him; for I attended him two years, and he was the greatest dunce that ever I taught[1]."

Another hindrance to good education, and I think the greatest of any, is that pernicious custom in rich and noble families, of entertaining French tutors in their houses. These wretched pedagogues are enjoined by the father, to take special care that the boy shall be perfect in his French; by the mother, that master must not walk till he is hot, nor be suffered to play with other boys, nor be wet in his feet, nor daub his clothes, and to see the dancing master attends constantly, and does his duty; she farther insists, that the child be not kept too long poring on his book, because he is subject to sore eyes, and of a weakly constitution.

By these methods, the young gentleman is, in every article, as fully accomplished at eight years old, as at eight and twenty, age adding only to the growth of his person and his vice; so that if you should look at him in his boyhood through the magnifying end of a perspective, and in his manhood through the other, it would be impossible to spy any difference; the same airs, the same strut, the same cock of his hat, and posture of his sword, (as far as the change of fashions will allow) the same understanding, the same compass of knowledge, with the very same absurdity, impudence, and impertinence of tongue.

He is taught from the nursery, that he must inherit a great estate, and has no need to mind his book, which is a lesson he never forgets to the end of his life. His chief solace is to steal down and play at spanfarthing with the page or young blackamoor, or little favourite footboy, one of which is his principal confident and bosom friend.

There is one young lord[2] in this town, who, by an unexampled piece of good fortune, was miraculously snatched out of the gulf of ignorance, confined to a publick school for a due term of years, well whipped when he deserved it, clad no better than his comrades, and always their playfellow on the same foot, had no precedence in the school, but what was given him by his merit, and lost it whenever he was negligent. It is well known, how many mutinies were bred at this unprecedented treatment, what complaints among his relations, and other great ones of both sexes; that his stockings with silver clocks were ravished from him; that he wore his own hair: that his dress was undistinguished; that he was not fit to appear at a ball or assembly, nor suffered to go to either: and it was with the utmost difficulty, that he became qualified for his present removal, where he may probably be farther persecuted, and possibly with success, if the firmness of a very worthy governor, and his own good dispositions will not preserve him. I confess, I cannot but wish, he may go on in the way he began; because I have a curiosity to know by so singular an experiment, whether truth, honour, justice, temperance, courage, and good sense, acquired by a school and college education, may not produce a very tolerable lad, although he should happen to fail in one or two of those accomplishments, which, in the general vogue, are held so important to the finishing of a gentleman.

It is true, I have knowai an academical education to have been exploded in publick assemblies; and have heard more than one or two persons of high rank declare, they could learn nothing more at Oxford and Cambridge, than to drink ale and smoke tobacco; wherein I firmly believed them, and could have added some hundred examples from my own observation in one of those universities; but they all were of young heirs sent thither only for form; either from schools, where they were not suffered by their careful parents to stay above three months in the year; or from under the management of French family tutors, who yet often attended them to their college, to prevent all possibility of their improvement: but I never yet knew any one person of quality, who followed his studies at the university, and carried away his just proportion of learning, that was not ready upon all occasions to celebrate and defend that course of education, and to prove a patron of learned men.

There is one circumstance in a learned education; which ought to have much weight, even with those who have no learning at all. The books read at school and college are full of incitements to virtue, and discouragements from vice, drawn from the wisest reasons, the strongest motives, and the most influencing examples. Thus young minds are filled early with an inclination to good, and an abhorrence of evil, both which increase in them, according to the advances they make in literature; and although they may be, and too often are, drawn by the temptations of youth, and the opportunities of a large fortune, into some irregularities, when they come forward into the great world, yet it is ever with reluctance and compunction of mind; because their bias to virtue still continues. They may stray sometimes, out of infirmity or compliance; but they will soon return to the right road, and keep it always in view. I speak only of those excesses, which are too much the attendants of youth and warmer blood; for as to the points of honour, truth, justice, and other noble gifts of the mind, wherein the temperature of the body has no concern, they are seldom or ever known to be wild.

I have engaged myself very unwarily in too topious a subject for so short a paper. The present scope I would aim at, is, to prove that some proportion of human knowledge appears requisite to those, who by their birth or fortune are called to the making of laws, and in a subordinate way to the execution of them; and that such knowledge is not to be obtained, without a miracle, under the frequent, corrupt, and sottish methods of educating those, who are born to wealth or titles. For I would have it remembered, that I do by no means confine these remarks to young persons of noble birth; the same errours running through all families, where there is wealth enough to afford, that their sons (at least the eldest) may be good for nothing. Why should my son be a scholar, when it is not intended that he should live by his learning? By this rule, if what is commonly said be true, that "money answers all things," why should my son be honest, temperate, just, or charitable, since he has no intention to depend upon any of these qualities for a maintenance?

When all is done, perhaps, upon the whole, the matter is not so bad as I would make it; and God, who works good out of evil, acting only by the ordinary course and rule of nature, permits this continual circulation of human things, for his own unsearchable ends. The father grows rich by avarice, injustice, oppression; he is a tyrant in the neighbourhood over slaves and beggars, whom he calls his tenants. Why should he desire to have qualities infused into his son, which himself never possessed, or knew, or found the want of, in the acquisition of his wealth? The son, bred in sloth and idleness, becomes a spendthrift, a cully, a profligate, and goes out of the world a beggar, as his father came in[3]: thus the former is punished for his own sins, as well as for those of the latter. The dunghill, having raised a huge mushroom of short duration, is now spread to enrich other men's lands. It is indeed of worse consequence, where noble families are gone to decay; because their titles and privileges outlive their estates: and politicians tell us, that nothing is more dangerous to the publick, than a numerous nobility without merit or fortune. But even here God has likewise prescribed some remedy in the order of nature; so many great families coming to an end, by the sloth, luxury, and abandoned lusts, which enervated their breed through every succession, producing gradually a more effeminate race wholly unfit for propagation.

  1. The story of le Sack many of the dean's friends have heard him tell, as he had it from the earl himself.
  2. Lord Mount-Cashel, bred at Dr. Sheridan's school.
  3. It should be 'as his father came into it.'