Chapter XI. The General Public and the Library

Submitted by GrouchoMarxist on April 25, 2012

In setting out to establish a rational school I for the purpose of preparing children for their entry into the free solidarity of humanity, the first problem that confronted us was the selection of books. The whole educational luggage of the ancient system was all incoherent mixture of science and faith, reason and unreason, good and evil, human experience and revelation, truth and error in a word, totally unsuited to meet the new needs that arose with the formation of a new School.

If the school has been from remote antiquity equipped not for teaching in the, broad sense of communicating to the rising generation the gist of the knowledge of' previous generations, but for teaching on the basis of authority and the convenience of the ruling classes, for the purpose of making children humble and submissive, it is clear that none of the books hitherto used would stilt its. But the severe of this position did not at once convince me. I refused to believe that. the French democracy, which worked so zealously for the separation of Church and State, incurred the anger of the clericals, and adopted obligatory secular instruction, Would resign itself to a semi-education or a sophisticated education. I had, however, to yield to the evidence, against my prejudice I first read a large number of works in the French code of secular instruction and found that God was replaced by the State, Christian virtue by civic duty, religion by patriotism, submission to the king, the aristocracy, and the clergy by subservience to the official, the proprietor, and the employer. Then I consulted. an eminent Freethinker who held high office in the Ministry of Public Instruction and, when I had told him my desire to see the books they used, which I understood to be purged of traditional errors, and explained my design and ideal to him, he told me frankly that they had nothing of the sort; all their books were, more or less cleverly and insidiously, tainted with untruth, which is the indispensable cement of social inequality. When I further asked if, seeing that they had replaced the decaying idol of deity by the idol of oligarchic despotism, they had not at least some book dealing with the origin of religion, lie said that there was none; but he knew one which would Suit me — Malvert's Science and Religion In point of fact, this was already translated into Spanish, and was used as a reading-book in the Modern School, with the title Origin of Christianity.

In Spanish literature I found several works written by a distinguished author, of some eminence in science who had produced them rather in the interest of the publishers than with a view to the education of Children. Some of these were at first used in tile Modern School, but, though one could not accuse them of error, they lacked the inspiration of an ideal and were poor in method. I communicated with this author with a view to interesting him in my plans and inducing him to write books for me, but his publishers held him to a certain contract and he could not oblige tile.

In brief, the Modern School was opened before a single work had been chosen for its library, but it was not long before the first appeared — a brilliant book by Jean Grave, which has had a considerable influence on our schools. His work, The Adventures of Nono, is a kind of poem in which a certain phase of the happier future is ingeniously and dramatically contrasted with the sordid realities of the present social order; the delights of tile land of Autonomy are contrasted with the horrors of the kingdom of Argirocracy. The genius of Grave has raised the work to a height at which it escapes the strictures of the sceptical and conservative; he has depicted the social evils of the present truthfully and without exaggeration. The reading of' the book enchanted the children, and the profoundly of his thought suggested many opportune comments to the teachers. In their play the children used to act scenes from Autonomy, and their parents detected the causes of their hardships in tile constitution of, the kingdom of Argirocracy.

It was announced in the Bulletin and other journals that prizes were offered for the best manuals of rational instruction, but no writers came forward. I confine myself to recording the fact without going into the causes of it. Two books were afterwards adopted for reading in school. They were not written for school, but they were translated for the Modern School and were very useful. One was called The Note Book, the other Colonisation and Patriotism Both were collections of passages from writers of every country on the Injustices connected with patriotism, the horrors of war, and the Iniquity of conquest. The choice of these works was vindicated by the excellent influence they had on the minds of the children, as we shall see from the little essays of the children which appeared in the Bulletin, and the fury with which they were denounced by the reactionary press and politicians.

Many think that there is not much difference between secular and rationalist education, and in various articles and propagandist speeches the two were taken to be synonymous. In order to correct this error I published the following article in the Bulletin:

The word education should not be accompanied by any qualification. It means simply the need and duty of the generation which is in the full development of its powers to prepare tile rising generation and admit it to the patrimony of human knowledge. This is all entirely rational ideal, and it will be fully realised in some future age, when men are wholly freed from their prejudices and superstitions.

In our efforts to realise this ideal we find ourselves confronted with religious education and political education: to these we must oppose rational and scientific instruction. The type of religious education is that given in the clerical and convent schools of all countries; it consists of the smallest possible quantity of useful knowledge and a good deal of Christian doctrine and sacred history. Political education is the kind established some time ago in France, after the fall of the Empire, the object of which is to exalt patriotism and represent the actual public administration as the instrument of the common welfare.

Sometimes the qualification free or secular is applied abusively and malicously to education, in order to distract or alienate public opinion. Orthodox people, for instance, call free schools certain schools which they establish in opposition to the really free tendency of modern paedagogy; and many are called secular schools which are really political, patriotic, and anti-humanitarian.

Rational education is lifted above these illiberal forms. It has, in the first place, no regard to religious education, because science has shown that the story of creation is a myth and the gods legendary; and therefore religious education takes advantage of the credulity of the parents and the ignorance of the children, maintaining the belief in a supernatural being to whom people may address all kinds of prayers. This ancient belief, still unfortunately widespread, has done a great deal of harm, and will continue to do so as Ion,, as it persists. The mission of education is to show the child, by purely scientific methods, that the more knowledge we have of natural products, their. qualities, and the way to use them, the more Industrial, scientific, and artistic commodities we shall have for the support and comfort of life, and men and women will issue in larger numbers from our schools with a determination to cultivate every branch of knowledge and action, under the guidance of reason and the inspiration of science and art, which will adorn life and reform society.

We will not, therefore, lose our time praying to an imaginary God for things which our awn exertions alone can procure.

On the other hand, Our teaching has nothing to do with politics. It is our work to form individuals in the full possession of all their faculties while politics would subject their faculties to other men. While religion has, with its divine power, created a positively abusive power and retarded the development of humanity, political systems also retard it by encouraging men to depend for everything on the will of others, on what are supposed to be men of a superior character — on those, in a word, who, from tradition or choice, exercise the profess I on of politics. It must be the a I in of the rational schools to show the children that there will be tyranny and slavery as long as one man depends upon another, to study the causes of the prevailing ignorance, to learn the origin of all the traditional practices which give life to the existing social system, and to direct the attention of the pupils to these matters.

We will not, therefore, lose our time seeking from others what we can get for ourselves.

In a word, our business is to imprint on the minds of the children the idea that their condition in the social order will improve in proportion to their knowledge and to the strength they are able to develop; and that the era of general happiness will be the more sure to dawn when they have discarded all religious and other superstitions, which have up to the present done so much harm. On that account there are no rewards or punishments in our schools; no alms, no medals or badges in imitation of the religious and patriotic schools, which might encourage the children to believe in talismans instead of in the individual and collective power of beings who are conscious of their ability and knowledge.

Rational and scientific knowledge must persuade the men and women of the future that they have to expect nothing from any privileged being (Fictitious or real); and that they may expect all that is reasonable from themselves and from a freely organised and accepted social order.

I then appealed in the Bulletin and the local press to scientific writers who were eager for the progress of the race to supply us with text-books on these lines. They were, I said, “to deliver the minds of the pupils from all the errors of our ancestors, encourage them in the love of truth and beauty, and keep from them the authoritarian dogmas, venerable sophisms, and ridiculous convent ties which at present disgrace our social life.” A special note was added in regard to the teaching of arithmetic:

The way in which arithmetic has hitherto been generally taught has made it a powerful instrument for impressing the pupils with the false ideals of the capitalist regime which at present presses so heavily on society. The Modern School, therefore, invites essays on the subject of the reform of the teaching of arithmetic, and requests those friends of rational and scientific instruction who are especially occupied with mathematics to draw up a series of easy and practical problems, in which there shall be no reference to wages, economy, and profit. These exercises must deal with agricultural and industrial production, the just distribution of the raw material and the manufactured articles, the means of communication, the transport of merchandise, the comparison of human labour with mechanical, the benefits of machinery, public works, etc. In a word, the Modern School wants a number of problems showing what arithmetic really ought to be — the science of the social economy (taking the word “economy” in its etymological sense of “good distribution”).

The exercises will deal with the four fundamental operations (integrals, decimals, and fractions), tile metrical system, proportion, Compounds and alloys, the squares and cubes of numbers, and the extraction of square and cube roots. As those who respond to this appeal are, it is hoped, inspired rather with the ideal of a right education of children than with the desire of profit, and as we wish to avoid the common practice in such circumstances, we shall not appoint judges or offer any prizes. The Modern School will publish the Arithmetic which best serves its purpose, and will come to an amicable agreement with the author as to his fee.

A later note in the Bulletin was addressed to teachers:

We would call the attention of all who dedicate themselves to the noble ideal of the rational teaching of children and the preparation of the young to take a fitting share in life to the announcements of a Compendium of Universal History by Clemence Jacquinet and The Adventures of Nono by Jean Grave, which will be found on the cover.[6] The works which the Modern School has published or proposes to publish are intended for all free and rational teaching institutions, centres of social study, and parents, who resent the intellectual restrictions which dogma of all kinds religious, political, and social — imposes in order to maintain privilege at the expense of the ignorant. All who are opposed to Jesuitism and to conventional lies, and to the errors transmitted by tradition and routine, will find In our publications truth based upon evidence. As we have no desire of profit, the price of the works represents almost their intrinsic value or material cost; if there is any profit from the sale of them, it will be spent upon subsequent publications.

In a later number of the Bulletin (No. 6, second year) the distinguished geographer Elisee Reclus wrote, at my request, a lengthy article on the teaching of geography. In a letter which Reclus afterwards wrote me from the Geographical Institute at Brussels, replying to my request that he should recommend a text-book, he said that there was “no text-book for the teaching of geography In elementary schools”; he “did not know one that was not tainted with religious or patriotic poison, or, what is worse, administrative routine.” He recommended that the teachers should use no manual in the Modern School, which he cordially commended (February 26, 1903).

In the following number (7) of the Bulletin I published the following note on the origin of Christianity:

The older paedagogy, the real, if unavowed, aim of which was to impress children with the uselessness of knowledge, in order that they might be reconciled to their hard conditions and seek consolation in a supposed future life, used reading-books in the elementary school which swarmed with stories, anecdotes accounts of travels, gems of classical literature etc. There was a good deal of error mixed with what was sound and useful in this, and the aim was not just. The mystical idea predominated, representing that a relation could be established between a Supreme Being and men by means of priests, and this priesthood was the chief foundation of the existence of both the privileged and the disinherited and the cause of much of the evil that they endured.

Among other books of this class, all tainted with the same evil, we remember one which inserted an academic discourse, a marvel of Spanish eloquence, in praise of the Bible. The gist of it is expressed in the barbarous declaration of Omar when he condemned the Library of Alexandria to the flames: “The whole truth is contained in the sacred book. If those other books are true, they are superfluous if they are not true, they should be burned.”

The Modern School, which seeks to form free minds, with a sense of responsibility, fitted to experience a complete development of their powers, which is the one aim of life must necessarily adopt a very different kind of reading-book in harmony with its method of teaching. For this reason, as it teaches established truth and is interested in the struggle between light and darkness, it has deemed it necessary to produce a critical work which will enlighten the mind of the child with positive facts. These may not be appreciated in childhood, but will later, in manhood, when the child takes its place in social life and in the struggle against the errors, conventions, hypocrisies, and infamies which conceal themselves under the cloak of mysticism. This work reminds us that our books are not merely intended for children; they are destined also for the use of the Adult Schools which are being founded on every side by associations of workers, Freethinkers, Co-operators, social students, and other progressive bodies who are eager to correct the Illiteracy of our nation, and remove that great obstacle to progress.

We believe that the section of Malvert's work (Science and Religion) which we have entitled “The Origin of Christianity” will be useful for this purpose. It shows the myths, dogmas, and ceremonies of the Christian religion In their original form; sometimes as exoteric symbols concealing a truth known to the initiated, sometimes as adaptations Of earlier beliefs, imposed by sheer routine and preserved by malice. As we are convinced and have ample evidence of the usefulness Of (Air wok, we offer it to the public with the hope that It will bear the fruit which we anticipate. We have only to add that certain passages which are unsuitable for children have been Omitted; the omissions are indicated, and adults may consult the passages in the complete edition.