23: Education, True (Then, Now)

As he looked back in the 1880s, trying to assess his life as what he knew would be his last effective days drew toward their close, Ruskin saw that, in the heart of him, he had always been a teacher–not a geologist (though he would have much liked to have been one, believing to his end that he could have been the best to ever don that special mantle in Europe, certainly not an artist (see the last two posts for his not-too-flattering assessment of his own estimable talents with pen and brush), definitely not a successful social reformer (his Guild of St. George, established in the 1870s, dedicated to saving England from the ravages of the Industrial Revolution, had had very limited success, even when viewed by the most sympathetic of eyes.

A teacher. Teaching people to see things they did not, understand things they had not, light imaginations which before had been but embers. Such results he had tried to effect without surcease. All his books, from the five Modern Painters volumes, to his half dozen books on architecture, to his thousands of pages (yes, that many) of social criticism, were teachings, all intended to help make the world, if he succeeded in convincing readers of his arguments, a better, happier place. An educator. Someone who had attempted to transmit knowledge in its essence, to cultivate in others a growing of the mind and an opening of the heart: self-perpetuating gatherings and openings–not for money’s sake, not for prestige’s sake, not for power’s sake, but for their own sake, such minds and hearts being the sine qua non for any chance of salubrious life in any society.

Here are two of many marvelous remarks about education and its purpose.

The first comes from one of his greatest lectures–“Traffic”–delivered in the manufacturing city of Bradford in 1864. It was a talk carefully crafted to make it clear to his well-off, well-dressed, well-schooled–and soon, well-discomfited–audience that, if anyone was to be held responsible for the crises and predicaments then besetting Britain, it was none other than their rich and prideful selves, selves which, as a matter of responsible course, did not take any of the ends of education he was about to articulate as axiomatic:

And the entire object of true education is to make people not merely do the the right things, but enjoy the right things. Not merely industrious, but to love industry. Note merely learned, but to love knowledge. Not merely pure, but to love purity. Not merely just, but to hunger and thirst after Justice.

The second comment is taken from one of his Oxford lectures of the 1870s. Education, Ruskin says, is not–as most of his students (not to mention most of our modern own) presumed it to be–an expensive means for giving those lucky enough to get it the sophisticated tools they would need to become rich and rise to the highest echelons of the social order, it was the key we needed to link all of us meaningfully to life and each other:

Reading and writing are in no sense education unless they contribute to the end of making us feel kindly toward all creatures.

I mentioned a moment ago that Ruskin believed, rightly, that he had failed as a social reformer. Little more than a decade after its hopeful founding (i.e., by the mid-1880s), his well-intentioned Guild of St. George was a shambles. A good administrator he had not proved to be; indeed, he had proved to be almost the opposite. (For more on the Guild’s complex early years, see the just-published, extremely well-researched and argued book by Mark Frost, The Lost Companions and John Ruskin’s Guild of St. George (http://www.anthempress.com/the-lost-companions-and-john-ruskin-s-guild-of-st-george). Happily, despite these early trials, like the phoenix, the Guild has survived and today thrives almost a century and a half after its inauguration, dedicating itself to implementing by various means the noble vision of its founder. (For more on today’s Guild, click on the “Ruskin Resources” Page under the banner pictures at the top of this post; then scroll down to “The Guild of St. George.”) Among the contemporary Guild’s activities are regular symposia dedicated to discussions of Ruskin’s ideas and their relevance to current issues. Recently, symposia have focused, in one instance, on the relevance of Ruskin’s economic thought to today’s society and, in another, on the prescience of his environmental concerns, concerns which predicted the world-wide crisis in pollution and melting in which we now find ourselves.

The next conference–apropos this post–will be on education. Organized by Ruskin scholars Sara Atwood and Paul Tucker, it will be called “Education for Education’s Sake?” Following is the official notice for the gathering. It includes not only a description of principal events, but all the details you would need to know should you wish to attend, which, we hope, some of you will! 


The Guild of St. George and

The Ruskin Library and Research Centre (Lancaster University)

announce a Symposium: 

Education for Education’s Sake?

Ruskin and Modern Education 

Toynbee Hall, 28 Commercial St, London, United Kingdom

10.00 a.m. – 4.30 p.m. Saturday, 11 October, 2014

Description: Despite considerable amounts of time, money and attention devoted to educational issues and reform, we have much yet to learn about what defines a good education. What’s more, most of our problems are not new. We moderns have inherited nineteenth-century debates about education and seem further than ever from finding workable solutions. Instead, we put our faith in measurement, data, test results and technology. Education is too often viewed as a commodity, and students as consumers. Increasingly, education is understood as merely the accumulation of facts or skills, its ultimate end the production of graduates who will perpetuate the global economy.

John Ruskin believed that education meant “leading human souls to what is best, and making what is best out of them.” He warned of the danger of applying market principles to education, understanding that to do so would be to make education simply one more species of exchange. For him, education properly directed led to a deep and multifaceted way of understanding and engaging with the world. It should combine the practical with the experiential and creative and should be mindful of students’ individual aptitude and circumstance. “Educate or govern,” Ruskin told his readers, “they are one and the same word. . .  You are to spend on National Education, and…make by it, not more money, but better men.” Ruskin’s ideas suggest new approaches to classroom instruction, practice, and curricula from which we can learn, but to do so we must also understand the principles that anchor his methodology which often conflict with today’s educational ideology.

The purpose of this symposium will be to look closely at the problems confronting education today. In a time of great educational upheaval, as new types of schools proliferate, and disagreement persists about access, curricula, standards, teacher training and other subjects, we will consider how Ruskin’s ideas might productively inform our current debates. A prestigious number of Ruskin scholars and professional thinkers will help us do approach these issues effectively: Professor Dinah Birch, Pro-Vice Chanellor and Professor of English Literature at the University of Liverpool, will deliver the keynote lecture, “The Demands of Perfection”; Paul Tucker will speak about Ruskin and art education; Sara Atwood will discuss market-centred education and, following these presentations,  Anthony O’Hear, Melissa Benn, and Aonghus Gordon will join a panel discussion led by Dr. Andrew Tate. Audience participation will be encouraged.

Until next post.

Be well out there as summer ends and, for us all in our various ways, school begins again–or continues.



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