Friday, January 06, 2017

What is Education? Guest Column by Alan Patrick Herbert

I like A.P. Herbert's Misleading Cases, and this is one of my favourites-


The Court of Criminal Appeal gave judgement in this case today, which arose out of the conviction of a canal boatman for failing to send his children to school.

     The Lord Chief Justice: This case is simple but important. The appellant, Samuel Bloggs, is a boatman owning and navigating a pair of monkey-boats (erroneously described by Sir Ethelred Rutt as barges) on the Grand Union Canal. Mr. Bloggs is a married man and has three children, who reside with their father and mother on the two boats, which are loyally entitled George and Mary. Mr. Bloggs was summoned by the Education Authority of the County of Middlesex for failing to send his children to a school for the purpose of receiving elementary education, and he was committed.

     It has to be remembered that, if the prosecution is successful, the defendant’s children will be educated free of charge. The prosecutors, therefore, are wantonly seeking to increase the public expenditure. It is difficult to see why, in the present state of the national finances, the children of a class already too prolific should be educated for nothing. If a man can afford beer, tobacco, and entertainment, and a weekly contribution to a trade union, he can to contribute some small sum weekly towards the education of his children. The State at one time could well afford to educate them without the assistance of the parents, but it can well afford it no longer, and therefore we must look  with particular suspicion on any attempt to increase the burdens of the State in this respect.

     In the course of his trade or occupation as a carrier of goods or raw materials, Mr Bloggs travels continuously up and down the canal between Birmingham and London; and he put forward the reasonable defence that it was difficult for him to send children who were constantly in motion to a. school which remained stationary. He also questioned the right of a Middlesex authority to intervene in the private affairs of a family which spent more than half the week in Warwickshire and other counties. But a defence founded on nothing more than reason and practicability was easily brushed aside by a public authority, and Mr Bloggs was driven to that second line of defence which has perplexed and divided the Courts below.

     ‘What is Education?’ says Mr Bloggs. But it is not necessary for this Court to add one more to the many answers which learned men have made to that question. The question for us is, What is meant by Elementary Education in the Education Acts of this We find, after careful research, that the expression ‘elementary education’ is nowhere defined in that long series of statutes. The omission is wise, for the notion of what constitutes elementary education must obviously vary in every age, county, and class. But, though Parliament has been discreetly vague, the Court in this case is compelled to be definite.
     The respondents ask us to say that by elementary education is meant education in those elementary subjects which are ordinarily taught to our defenceless children, as reading, writing, and arithmetic. But it has been argued for Mr Bloggs that the words mean education in the elements or first parts to be learned of any subject which may be useful or necessary to the good citizen in that state of life for which he is destined by Providence, heredity, or inclination.

     Now, the children of Mr Bloggs, though they have not attended a school, have already acquired the rudiments of their father’s and grandfather’s trade, that is to say, the handling of boats and the navigation of canals; they are able in an emergency to steer a boat into a lock, to open or close a lock-gate, to make bowlines and reef-knots, clove hitches and fisherman’s bends, and to do many other useful and difficult things which the members of this Court, we admit, are unable to do. Further, it is common ground that the children are healthy, sufficiently fed, well-behaved, and attached to the life of the water, as their forebears for three generations have been. Mr and Mrs Bloggs are instructing them slowly in reading and writing, and even, with reluctance, it seems, in arithmetic.

     It is not contended that in these subjects they are so far advanced as children of the same age who attend the public elementary schools; on the other hand, the evidence is that those children are quite unable to make a bowline-on-a-bight, to distinguish between the port and. starboard sides1 of a. vessel, or to steer the smallest boat into the largest lock without disaster, while in health, discipline, manners, and practical intelligence they are inferior to the little Bloggs.

     Standardized themselves according to a single pattern, they conceive it their right and duty to take offensive notice of any person who seems to them to be unusual, a man with long hair or a woman with a short skirt. The Bloggs children do not shout ‘Oy!’ at passing strangers, as do increasingly the ‘educated’ children of the shore; they are more courteous to persons and more respectful of property. They do not commit what are called, it appears, ‘runaway-rings’, steal flowers from window-boxes or apples from trees. They would scorn to spit from bridges or throw stones at the mariner passing below. They exhibit the same good manners and gentle bearing as their parents; and since they are not in constant attendance at the cinema their speech is uncorrupted by the slang or accent of Chicago.

     Now, Mr. Herbert Spencer said that if we give our pupils the knowledge which ‘is of most worth’ – that is, the knowledge which has indispensable practical value in regulating the affairs of life – we shall at the same time give them the best possible mental training. And Mr. Bloggs (who, by the way, can read but not write) is an unconscious follower of Mr. Spencer. It may well be that our education authorities exaggerate the value of reading, writing, and arithmetic as aids to citizenship. In these days a person unable to read would be spared the experience of much that is vulgar, depressing, or injurious; a person unable to write will commit neither forgery nor free verse; and a person not well grounded in arithmetic will not engage in betting, speculation, the defalcation of accounts, or avaricious dreams of material wealth. At any rate it will not be denied that the spread of these three studies has had many evil and dubious consequences.

     But the practice of navigation is at the bottom of our national prosperity and safety, and has played no small part in the formation of the British character. The charge against Mr. Bloggs is that he has given his children an elementary training in the arts of this noble profession to the neglect of certain formal studies which are not essential to a virtuous, God-fearing, and useful life in the calling of their forefathers.

     They are unable, it is true, to read fluently the accounts of murder trials in the Sunday newspapers; they cannot write their names upon the walls of lavatories and public monuments; they do not understand the calculation of odds or the fluctuations of stocks and shares. But these acquirements may come in time.

     Meanwhile, as day by day they travel through the country, the skies and of England are their books, their excellent parents are their newspapers, and the practical problems of navigation are their arithmetic. As for writing, there is too much writing in our country as it is; and it is a satisfaction to contemplate three children who in all probability will never become novelists nor write for the papers.

     It cannot have been the intention of Nature, which fashions the flowers and fishes in such variety, that Men, the noblest works of Nature, should be all exactly alike, shaped in the same mould and fitted to the same ends. But that, it appears, is the principle, which has prompted this prosecution.

     What is in the mind of the Education Authority, however, is no great matter. The short point in this case is that Parliament does not support them. Parliament has nowhere said that the first essentials of an elementary education are reading, writing, and arithmetic. I hold therefore that Mr. Bloggs, who is carefully, lovingly, and without cost to the State equipping his children for a useful career, is providing for them an ‘elementary education’ within the meaning of the Acts. He was wrongfully convicted, and the appeal must be allowed. Costs to Mr. Bloggs, and a lump sum of one hundred pounds by way of compensation for his time and trouble.

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