Following the Equator

Chapter LXI.

In the first place God made idiots. This was for practice. Then He made School Boards.
Pudd’nhead Wilson’s New Calendar.

Mark Twain

SUPPOSE we applied no more ingenuity to the instruction of deaf and dumb and blind children than we sometimes apply in our American public schools to the instruction of children who are in possession of all their faculties? The result would be that the deaf and dumb and blind would acquire nothing. They would live and die as ignorant as bricks and stones. The methods used in the asylums are rational. The teacher exactly measures the child’s capacity, to begin with; and from thence onwards the tasks imposed are nicely gauged to the gradual development of that capacity, the tasks keep pace with the steps of the child’s progress, they don’t jump miles and leagues ahead of it by irrational caprice and land in vacancy—according to the average public-school plan. In the public school, apparently, they teach the child to spell cat, then ask it to calculate an eclipse; when it can read words of two syllables, they require it to explain the circulation of the blood; when it reaches the head of the infant class they bully it with conundrums that cover the domain of universal knowledge. This sounds extravagant—and is; yet it goes no great way beyond the facts.

I received a curious letter one day, from the Punjab (you must pronounce it Punjawb). The handwriting was excellent, and the wording was English—English, and yet not exactly English. The style was easy and smooth and flowing, yet there was something subtly foreign about it—something tropically ornate and sentimental and rhetorical. It turned out to be the work of a Hindoo youth, the holder of a humble clerical billet in a railway office. He had been educated in one of the numerous colleges of India. Upon inquiry I was told that the country was full of young fellows of his like. They had been educated away up to the snow-summits of learning—and the market for all this elaborate cultivation was minutely out of proportion to the vastness of the product. This market consisted of some thousands of small clerical posts under the government—the supply of material for it was multitudinous. If this youth with the flowing style and the blossoming English was occupying a small railway clerkship, it meant that there were hundreds and hundreds as capable as he, or he would be in a high place; and it certainly meant that there were thousands whose education and capacity had fallen a little short, and that they would have to go without places. Apparently, then, the colleges of India were doing what our high schools have long been doing—richly over-supplying the market for highly-educated service; and thereby doing a damage to the scholar, and through him to the country.

At home I once made a speech deploring the injuries inflicted by the high school in making handicrafts distasteful to boys who would have been willing to make a living at trades and agriculture if they had but had the good luck to stop with the common school. But I made no converts. Not one, in a community overrun with educated idlers who were above following their fathers’ mechanical trades, yet could find no market for their book-knowledge. The same mail that brought me the letter from the Punjab, brought also a little book published by Messrs. Thacker, Spink & Co., of Calcutta, which interested me, for both its preface and its contents treated of this matter of over-education. In the preface occurs this paragraph from the Calcutta Review. For “Government office” read “drygoods clerkship” and it will fit more than one region of America:

“The education that we give makes the boys a little less clownish in their manners, and more intelligent when spoken to by strangers. On the other hand, it has made them less contented with their lot in life, and less willing to work with their hands. The form which discontent takes in this country is not of a healthy kind; for, the Natives of India consider that the only occupation worthy of an educated man is that of a writership in some office, and especially in a Government office. The village schoolboy goes back to the plow with the greatest reluctance; and the town schoolboy carries the same discontent and inefficiency into his father’s workshop. Sometimes these ex-students positively refuse at first to work; and more than once parents have openly expressed their regret that they ever allowed their sons to be inveigled to school.”

The little book which I am quoting from is called “Indo-Anglian Literature,” and is well stocked with “baboo” English—clerkly English, booky English, acquired in the schools. Some of it is very funny,—almost as funny, perhaps, as what you and I produce when we try to write in a language not our own; but much of it is surprisingly correct and free. If I were going to quote good English—but I am not. India is well stocked with natives who speak it and write it as well as the best of us. I merely wish to show some of the quaint imperfect attempts at the use of our tongue. There are many letters in the book; poverty imploring help—bread, money, kindness, office—generally an office, a clerkship, some way to get food and a rag out of the applicant’s unmarketable education; and food not for himself alone, but sometimes for a dozen helpless relations in addition to his own family; for those people are astonishingly unselfish, and admirably faithful to their ties of kinship. Among us I think there is nothing approaching it. Strange as some of these wailing and supplicating letters are, humble and even groveling as some of them are, and quaintly funny and confused as a goodly number of them are, there is still a pathos about them, as a rule, that checks the rising laugh and reproaches it. In the following letter “father” is not to be read literally. In Ceylon a little native beggar-girl embarrassed me by calling me father, although I knew she was mistaken. I was so new that I did not know that she was merely following the custom of the dependent and the supplicant.


“I pray please to give me some action (work) for I am very poor boy I have no one to help me even so father for it so it seemed in thy good sight, you give the Telegraph Office, and another work what is your wish I am very poor boy, this understand what is your wish you my father I am your son this understand what is your wish.

“Your Sirvent, P. C. B.”                        

Through ages of debasing oppression suffered by these people at the hands of their native rulers, they come legitimately by the attitude and language of fawning and flattery, and one must remember this in mitigation when passing judgment upon the native character. It is common in these letters to find the petitioner furtively trying to get at the white man’s soft religious side; even this poor boy baits his hook with a macerated Bible-text in the hope that it may catch something if all else fail.

Here is an application for the post of instructor in English to some children:

“My Dear Sir or Gentleman, that your Petitioner has much qualification in the Language of English to instruct the young boys; I was given to understand that your of suitable children has to acquire the knowledge of English language.”

As a sample of the flowery Eastern style, I will take a sentence or two from a long letter written by a young native to the Lieutenant-Governor of Bengal—an application for employment:


“I hope your honor will condescend to hear the tale of this poor creature. I shall overflow with gratitude at this mark of your royal condescension. The bird-like happiness has flown away from my nest-like heart and has not hitherto returned from the period whence the rose of my father’s life suffered the autumnal breath of death, in plain English he passed through the gates of Grave, and from that hour the phantom of delight has never danced before me.”

It is all school-English, book-English, you see; and good enough, too, all things considered. If the native boy had but that one study he would shine, he would dazzle, no doubt. But that is not the case. He is situated as are our public-school children—loaded down with an over-freightage of other studies; and frequently they are as far beyond the actual point of progress reached by him and suited to the stage of development attained, as could be imagined by the insanest fancy. Apparently—like our public-school boy—he must work, work, work, in school and out, and play but little. Apparently—like our public-school boy—his “education” consists in learning things, not the meaning of them; he is fed upon the husks, not the corn. From several essays written by native schoolboys in answer to the question of how they spend their day, I select one—the one which goes most into detail:

“66. At the break of day I rises from my own bed and finish my daily duty, then I employ myself till 8 o’clock, after which I employ myself to bathe, then take for my body some sweet meat, and just at 9½ I came to school to attend my class duty, then at 2½ P.M. I return from school and engage myself to do my natural duty, then, I engage for a quarter to take my tiffin, then I study till 5 P.M., after which I began to play anything which comes in my head. After 8½ half pass to eight we are began to sleep, before sleeping I told a constable just 11 o’ he came and rose us from half pass eleven we began to read still morning.”

It is not perfectly clear, now that I come to cipher upon it. He gets up at about 5 in the morning, or along there somewhere, and goes to bed about fifteen or sixteen hours afterward—that much of it seems straight; but why he should rise again three hours later and resume his studies till morning is puzzling.

I think it is because he is studying history. History requires a world of time and bitter hard work when your “education” is no further advanced than the cat’s; when you are merely stuffing yourself with a mixed-up mess of empty names and random incidents and elusive dates, which no one teaches you how to interpret, and which, uninterpreted, pay you not a farthing’s value for your waste of time. Yes, I think he had to get up at halfpast 11 P.M. in order to be sure to be perfect with his history lesson by noon. With results as follows—from a Calcutta school examination:

“Q. Who was Cardinal Wolsey?

“Cardinal Wolsey was an Editor of a paper named North Briton. No. 45 of his publication he charged the King of uttering a lie from the throne. He was arrested and cast into prison; and after releasing went to France.

“3. As Bishop of York but died in disentry in a church on his way to be blockheaded.

“8. Cardinal Wolsey was the son of Edward IV, after his father’s death he himself ascended the throne at the age of (10) ten only, but when he surpassed or when he was fallen in his twenty years of age at that time he wished to make a journey in his countries under him, but he was opposed by his mother to do journey, and according to his mother’s example he remained in the home, and then became King. After many times obstacles and many confusion he become King and afterwards his brother.”

There is probably not a word of truth in that.

“Q. What is the meaning of ‘Ich Dien’?

“10. An honor conferred on the first or eldest sons of English Sovereigns. It is nothing more than some feathers.

“11. Ich Dien was the word which was written on the feathers of the blind King who came to fight, being interlaced with the bridles of the horse.

“13. Ich Dien is a title given to Henry VII by the Pope of Rome, when he forwarded the Reformation of Cardinal Wolsy to Rome, and for this reason he was called Commander of the faith.”

A dozen or so of this kind of insane answers are quoted in the book from that examination. Each answer is sweeping proof, all by itself, that the person uttering it was pushed ahead of where he belonged when he was put into history; proof that he had been put to the task of acquiring history before he had had a single lesson in the art of acquiring it, which is the equivalent of dumping a pupil into geometry before he has learned the progressive steps which lead up to it and make its acquirement possible. Those Calcutta novices had no business with history. There was no excuse for examining them in it, no excuse for exposing them and their teachers. They were totally empty; there was nothing to “examine.”

Helen Keller has been dumb, stone deaf, and stone blind, ever since she was a little baby a year-and-a-half old; and now at sixteen years of age this miraculous creature, this wonder of all the ages, passes the Harvard University examination in Latin, German, French history, belles lettres, and such things, and does it brilliantly, too, not in a commonplace fashion. She doesn’t know merely things, she is splendidly familiar with the meanings of them. When she writes an essay on a Shakespearean character, her English is fine and strong, her grasp of the subject is the grasp of one who knows, and her page is electric with light. Has Miss Sullivan taught her by the methods of India and the American public school? No, oh, no; for then she would be deafer and dumber and blinder than she was before. It is a pity that we can’t educate all the children in the asylums.

To continue the Calcutta exposure:

“What is the meaning of a Sheriff?”

“25. Sheriff is a post opened in the time of John. The duty of Sheriff here in Calcutta, to look out and catch those carriages which is rashly driven out by the coachman; but it is a high post in England.

“26. Sheriff was the English bill of common prayer.

“27. The man with whom the accusative persons are placed is called Sheriff.

“28. Sheriff—Latin term for ‘shrub,’ we called broom, worn by the first earl of Enjue, as an emblem of humility when they went to the pilgrimage, and from this their hairs took their crest and surname.

“29. Sheriff is a kind of titlous sect of people, as Barons, Nobles, etc.

“30. Sheriff; a tittle given on those persons who were respective and pious in England.”

The students were examined in the following bulky matters: Geometry, the Solar Spectrum, the Habeas Corpus Act, the British Parliament, and in Metaphysics they were asked to trace the progress of skepticism from Descartes to Hume. It is within bounds to say that some of the results were astonishing. Without doubt, there were students present who justified their teacher’s wisdom in introducing them to these studies; but the fact is also evident that others had been pushed into these studies to waste their time over them when they could have been profitably employed in hunting smaller game. Under the head of Geometry, one of the answers is this:

“49. The whole BD = the whole CA, and so-so-so-so-so-so—so.”

To me this is cloudy, but I was never well up in geometry. That was the only effort made among the five students who appeared for examination in geometry; the other four wailed and surrendered without a fight. They are piteous wails, too, wails of despair; and one of them is an eloquent reproach; it comes from a poor fellow who has been laden beyond his strength by a stupid teacher, and is eloquent in spite of the poverty of its English. The poor chap finds himself required to explain riddles which even Sir Isaac Newton was not able to understand:

“50. Oh my dear father examiner you my father and you kindly give a number of pass you my great father.

“51. I am a poor boy and have no means to support my mother and two brothers who are suffering much for want of food. I get four rupees monthly from charity fund of this place, from which I send two rupees for their support, and keep two for my own support. Father, if I relate the unlucky circumstance under which we are placed, then, I think, you will not be able to suppress the tender tear.

“52. Sir which Sir Isaac Newton and other experienced mathematicians cannot understand I being third of Entrance Class can understand these which is too impossible to imagine. And my examiner also has put very tiresome and very heavy propositions to prove.”

We must remember that these pupils had to do their thinking in one language, and express themselves in another and alien one. It was a heavy handicap. I have by me “English as She is Taught”—a collection of American examinations made in the public schools of Brooklyn by one of the teachers, Miss Caroline B. Le Row. An extract or two from its pages will show that when the American pupil is using but one language, and that one his own, his performance is no whit better than his Indian brother’s:


“Christopher Columbus was called the father of his Country. Queen Isabella of Spain sold her watch and chain and other millinery so that Columbus could discover America.

“The Indian wars were very desecrating to the country.

“The Indians pursued their warfare by hiding in the bushes and then scalping them.

“Captain John Smith has been styled the father of his country. His life was saved by his daughter Pochahantas.

“The Puritans found an insane asylum in the wilds of America.

“The Stamp Act was to make everybody stamp all materials so they should be null and void.

“Washington died in Spain almost broken-hearted. His remains were taken to the cathedral in Havana.

“Gorilla warfare was where men rode on gorillas.”

In Brooklyn, as in India, they examine a pupil, and when they find out he doesn’t know anything, they put him into literature, or geometry, or astronomy, or government, or something like that, so that he can properly display the assification of the whole system—


“‘Bracebridge Hall’ was written by Henry Irving.

Edgar A. Poe was a very curdling writer.

“Beowulf wrote the Scriptures.

“Ben Johnson survived Shakespeare in some respects.

“In the ‘Canterbury Tale’ it gives account of King Alfred on his way to the shrine of Thomas Bucket.

“Chaucer was the father of English pottery.

“Chaucer was succeeded by H. Wads. Longfellow.”

We will finish with a couple of samples of “literature,” one from America, the other from India. The first is a Brooklyn public-school boy’s attempt to turn a few verses of the “Lady of the Lake” into prose. You will have to concede that he did it:

“The man who rode on the horse performed the whip and an instrument made of steel alone with strong ardor not diminishing, for, being tired from the time passed with hard labor overworked with anger and ignorant with weariness, while every breath for labor he drew with cries full of sorrow, the young deer made imperfect who worked hard filtered in sight.”

The following paragraph is from a little book which is famous in India—the biography of a distinguished Hindoo judge, Onoocool Chunder Mookerjee; it was written by his nephew, and is unintentionally funny—in fact, exceedingly so. I offer here the closing scene. If you would like to sample the rest of the book, it can be had by applying to the publishers, Messrs. Thacker, Spink & Co., Calcutta

“And having said these words he hermetically sealed his lips not to open them again. All the well-known doctors of Calcutta that could be procured for a man of his position and wealth were brought, —Doctors Payne, Fayrer, and Nilmadhub Mookerjee and others; they did what they could do, with their puissance and knack of medical knowledge, but it proved after all as if to milk the ram! His wife and children had not the mournful consolation to hear his last words; he remained sotto voce for a few hours, and then was taken from us at 6.12 P.M. according to the caprice of God which passeth understanding.”

Following the Equator - Contents    |     Chapter LXII.

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