The Educational Murder Machine

The Educational Murder Machine

by Patrick H. Pearse *

*This Modern Edit of Pearse's original - by Fintan Dunne

We are entranced by the conception of education as some sort of manufacturing process. 

Our children are the 'raw material'; educated by modern 'efficient' methods. We speak of the 'efficiency', and the 'up-to-dateness' of an education system just as we speak of the 'efficiency', and the 'up-to-dateness' of a system of manufacturing gas.

We send our youth to university to be `finished'; when finished they are 'turned out' after specialists 'grind' them for the bureaucracy and the professions; not forgetting the debris ejected by the machine as either too hard or too soft to be molded to the pattern required by the Civil Service or the Law Society.

There is involved a primary blunder as to the nature and functions of education. For education has not to do with the manufacture of things, but with fostering the growth of things. 

And the conditions we should strive to bring about in our education system are not the conditions favourable to rapid and cheap manufacture, but the conditions favourable to the growth of living organisms---the liberty and the light and the gladness of a ploughed field under the spring sunshine.

I put it that what education needs is less a reconstruction of its machinery than a regeneration in spirit. 

The machinery, I said, has doubtless its defects, but what is chiefly wrong with it is that it is mere machinery, a lifeless thing without a soul. 

A soulless thing cannot teach; but it can destroy. 
A machine cannot make men; but it can break men.

Most of the educators detest the programme. They are like the adherents of a dead creed who continue to mumble formulas and to make obeisance before an idol which they have found out to be a spurious divinity.

In particular I would urge that the school system of the future should give freedom---freedom to the individual school, freedom to the individual teacher, freedom as far as may be to the individual pupil

Without freedom there can be no right growth; and education is properly the fostering of the right growth of a personality. Our school system must bring, too, some gallant inspiration. And with the inspiration it must bring a certain hardening. One scarcely knows whether modern sentimentalism or modern utilitarianism is the more sure sign of modern decadence.


To the old Irish the teacher was aite, 'fosterer', the pupil was dalta, 'foster-child', the system was aiteachas, 'fosterage'; words which we still retain as oide, dalta, oideachas.

And is it not the precise aim of education to `foster'? Not to indoctrinate, to conduct through a course of studies (though these be the dictionary meanings of the word), but first and last to `foster' the elements of character native to a soul, to help to bring these to their full perfection rather than to implant exotic excellences.

We cannot think of a school without its Master. A school in fact, according to the conception of our wise ancestors, was less a place than a little group of persons, a teacher and his pupils: where the master went the disciples followed. That gracious conception was the conception of Europe all through the Middle Ages.

Philosophy was not crammed out of text-books, but was learned at the knee of some great philosopher: Art was learned in the studio of some master- artist, a craft in the workshop of some master-craftsman. Always it was the personality of the master that made the school, never the State that built it of brick and mortar, drew up a code of rules to govern it, and sent hirelings into it to carry out its decrees.

It is not merely that the old Irish had a good education system; they had the best and noblest that has ever been known among men. There has never been any human institution more adequate to its purpose than that which, in pagan times, produced Cuchulainn and the Boy-Corps of Eamhain Macha and, in Christian times, produced Enda and the companions of his solitude in Aran. The old Irish system, pagan and Christian, possessed in pre-eminent degree the thing most needful in education: an adequate inspiration.

Colmcille suggested what that inspiration was when he said, `If I die it shall be from the excess of the love that I bear the Gael'. A love and a service so excessive as to annihilate all thought of self, a recognition that one must give all, must be willing always to make the ultimate sacrifice; this is the inspiration alike of the story of Cuchulainn and of the story of Colmcille, the inspiration that made the one a hero and the other a saint.

We are too fond of clapping ourselves upon the back because we live in modern times, and we preen ourselves quite ridiculously (and unnecessarily) on our modern progress. There is, of course, such a thing as modern progress, but it has been won at how great a cost! And in some directions we have progressed not at all, or we have progressed in a circle; perhaps, indeed, all progress on this planet, and on every planet, is a circle, just as every line you draw on a globe is a circle or part of one.

Modern speculation is often a mere groping where ancient men saw clearly. All the problems with which we strive (I mean all the really important problems) were long ago solved by our ancestors, only their solutions have been forgotten.

Mankind, I repeat, or some section of mankind, has solved all its main problems somewhere and at some time. The solutions are there, and it is because we fail in clearness of vision or in boldness of heart or in singleness of purpose that we cannot find them.


In the Middle Ages there were no State art schools, no State technical schools: as I have said, it was always the individual inspiring, guiding, fostering other individuals; never the State usurping the place of father or fosterer, aiming at turning out all men and women according to regulation patterns.

In Ireland the older and truer conception was never lost sight of. It persisted into Christian times when a Kieran or an Enda or a Colmcille gathered his little group of foster-children (the old word was still used) around him. It seems to me that there has been nothing nobler in the history of education than this development of the old Irish plan of fosterage under a Christian rule, when to the pagan ideals of strength and truth there were added the Christian ideals of love and humility. 

And this, remember, was not the education system of an aristocracy, but the education system of a people. It was more democratic than any education system in the world to-day. Our very divisions into primary, secondary, and university crystallise a snobbishness partly intellectual and partly social. At Clonard, Kieran, the son of a carpenter, sat in the same class as Colmcille, the son of a king.

And so it was all through Irish history. A great poet or a great scholar had his foster-children who lived at his house or fared with him through the country. The hedge schoolmasters of the nineteenth century were the last repositories of a high tradition. I dwell on the importance of the personal element in education. I would have every child not merely a unit in a school attendance, but in some intimate personal way the pupil of a teacher, or, to use more expressive words, the disciple of a master.

And here I contradict another position of mine, that the main object in education is to help the child to be his own true and best self. What the teacher should bring to his pupil is not a set of ready made opinions, or a stock of cut-and-dry information, but an inspiration and an example; and his main qualification should be, not such an overmastering will as shall impose itself upon all weaker wills that come under its influence, but rather so infectious an enthusiasm as shall kindle new enthusiasm.

The Montessori system, so admirable in many ways, would seem at first sight to attach insufficient importance to the function of the teacher in the schoolroom. But this is not really so. True, it would make the spontaneous efforts of the children the main motive power, as against the dominating will of the teacher which is the main motive power in the ordinary schoolroom. But the teacher must be there always to inspire, to foster.


We have an elaborate machinery for teaching persons certain subjects, and the teaching is done more or less efficiently. We have some thousands of buildings, large and small. We have an army of inspectors. We have a host of teachers, mostly underpaid. We have a Compulsory Education Act. We have the grave and bulky code of education

But we have, I repeat, no education system; and only in isolated places have we any education. The essentials are lacking.

And first of freedom. The word freedom is no longer understood in Ireland. We have no experience of the thing, and we have almost lost our conception of the idea. So completely is this true that the very organisations which exist in Ireland to champion freedom show no disposition themselves to accord freedom; they challenge a great tyranny, but they erect their little tyrannies.

`Thou shalt not' is half the law of Ireland, and the other half is 'Thou must.' Now, nowhere has the law of `Thou shalt not' and `Thou must' been so rigorous as in the schoolroom. Surely the first essential of healthy life there was freedom.

But there has been and there is no freedom in Irish education; no freedom for the child, no freedom for the teacher, no freedom for the school: a sheer denial of the right of the individual to grow in his own natural way; bound hand and foot, chained mind and soul, constricted morally, mentally, and physically with the involuted folds of rules and regulations, its programmes, its minutes, its reports and special reports, its pains and penalties.

Every school must conform to a type---and what a type!

Every individual must conform to a type---and what a type!

The teacher in practice is not yet at liberty, to seek to discover the individual bents of his pupils, the hidden talent that is in every normal soul, to discover and to cherish. I knew one boy of whom his father said to me: `He is no good at books, he is no good at work; he is good at nothing but playing a tin whistle. What am I to do with him'? I shocked the worthy man by replying (though really it was the obvious thing to reply): `Buy a tin whistle for him'.

Once a colleague of mine summed up the whole philosophy of education in a maxim which startled a sober group of visitors: `If a boy shows an aptitude for doing anything better than most people, he should be encouraged to do it as well as possible.

The idea of a compulsory programme imposed by an external authority upon every child in every school in a country is the direct contrary of the root idea involved in education. Yet this is what we have in Ireland. In theory the primary schools have a certain amount of freedom; in practice they have none. At the present moment there are thousands of boys and girls pounding at a programme drawn up for them by certain persons around a table. Precisely the same textbooks in every secondary school and college, will constitute the whole literary pabulum of secondary schools. `Stick to your programme' is the strange device on the banner of the system; and the programme bulks so large that there is no room for education.

The first thing I plead for, therefore, is freedom: freedom for each school to shape its own programme in conformity with the circumstances of the school as to place, size, personnel, and so on; freedom again for the individual teacher to impart something of his own personality to his work, to bring his own peculiar gifts to the services of his pupils, to be, in short, a teacher, a master, one having an intimate and permanent relationship with his pupils, and not a mere part of the educational machine, a mere cog in the wheel; freedom finally for the individual pupil and scope for his development within the school and within the system.

And I would promote this idea of freedom by the very organisation of the school itself, giving a certain autonomy not only to the school, but to the particular parts of the school: to the staff, of course, but also to the pupils, and, in a large school, to the various sub-divisions of the pupils. I do not plead for anarchy. I plead for freedom within the law, for liberty, not licence, for that true freedom which can exist only where there is discipline, which exists in fact because each, valuing his own freedom, respects also the freedom of others.

The school must make such an appeal to the pupil as shall resound throughout his after life, urging him always to be his best self, never his second-best self. Such an inspiration will come from science and art if taught by people who are really scientists and artists, and not merely persons with certificates

Inspiration must come from the teacher. If we can no longer send the children to the heroes and seers and scholars to be fostered, we can at least bring some of the heroes and seers and scholars to the schools. We can rise up against the system which tolerates as teachers the rejected of all other professions rather than demanding for so priest-like an office the highest souls and noblest intellects of the race.


The function of the central authority should be to co-ordinate, to maintain a standard, to advise, to inspire, to keep the teachers in touch with educational thought in other lands. I would transfer the centre of gravity of the system from the education office to the teachers; the teachers in fact would be the system. Teachers, and not clerks, would henceforth conduct the education of the country.

I need hardly say that the present system must be abolished. Good men will curse it in its passing. It is the most evil thing that Ireland has ever known. Dr. Hyde once finely described

Death and the nightmare Death-in-Life
That thicks men's blood with cold.

Of the two Death-in-Life is the more hideous. It is sleeker than, but equally as obscene as, its fellow-fiend. The thing has damned more souls than the Drink. Down with it---down among the dead men! Let it promote competitive examinations in the under-world, if it will.

Well-trained and well-paid teachers, well-equipped and beautiful schools, and a fund at the disposal of each school to enable it to award its own tests based on its own programme---these would be among the characteristics of a new system. And the internal organisation: little child-republics, with their own laws and leaders, their fostering of individualities, yet never at the expense of the common wealth, their care for the body as well as for the mind.

And then, vivifying the whole, we need the divine breath that moves through free peoples, the breath that once kindled, as wine kindles, the hearts of those who taught and learned in the Irish monastery of Clonmacnois.

By Patrick H. Pearse
This Modern Edit by Fintan Dunne was first published on 13th June 2000


Popular posts from this blog

Advantage Rafsanjani and Mousavi as Opposition Seeks Checkmate