Category Archives: History

Shakespeare and creative education

This essay was first published in the Spring 2016 edition of Use of English.

I can remember reading Othello for the first time when I was studying A-level, and feeling slightly disappointed and cheated when I read the notes about Shakespeare’s sources for the play. What particularly offended me was how the main female character in the source version of the story, Cinthio’s Hecatommithi, was called Disdemona. Not only had Shakespeare not bothered to come up with a plot of his own, but he had made only the most token attempt to disguise the fact by changing Disdemona to Desdemona.  And Cinthio’s novella seemed, from the sections in the Arden notes at least, to be the worst kind of melodrama, full of stock heroes and villains. What would the modern equivalent of this be? Ian McEwan writing the story of Dirdre Barley, resident of Coronel Street, and her unjust imprisonment by the British state? He’d obviously be laughed out of town.

Nor was this use of sources a one-off. I was to go on to learn that most of the Roman and Greek plays borrowed from Thomas North’s translations of Plutarch, and that most of the English history plays borrowed from Raphael Holinshed’s chronicles. Still others borrowed from contemporary playwrights. To give a couple of examples of such borrowing from just one play, look at Antony and Cleopatra.  Shakespeare has Enobarbus describe Cleopatra’s procession along the river Cydnus as follows:

The barge she sat in, like a burnish’d throne,
Burn’d on the water: the poop was beaten gold;
Purple the sails, and so perfumed that
The winds were love-sick with them; the oars were silver,
Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made
The water which they beat to follow faster,
As amorous of their strokes. For her own person,
It beggar’d all description: she did lie
In her pavilion–cloth-of-gold of tissue–
O’er-picturing that Venus where we see
The fancy outwork nature: on each side her
Stood pretty dimpled boys, like smiling Cupids,
With divers-colour’d fans, whose wind did seem
To glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool,
And what they undid did.

(Act 2, Scene 2, 195-214)

North’s translation of Plutarch is remarkably similar.

She came sailing up the river Cydnus, in a barge with gilded stern and outspread sails of purple, while oars of silver beat time to the music of flutes and fifes and harps. She herself lay all along under a canopy of cloth of gold, dressed as Venus in a picture, and beautiful young boys, like painted Cupids, stood on each side to fan her. Her maids were dressed like sea nymphs and graces, some steering at the rudder, some working at the ropes. The perfumes diffused themselves from the vessel to the shore, which was covered with multitudes, part following the galley up the river on either bank, part running out of the city to see the sight.[1]

Other parts of the same play are borrowed from more recent sources. Antony and Cleopatra was probably written in about 1606, and is clearly influenced by Samuel Daniel’s play The Tragedy of Cleopatra,  written in 1594: ‘there are a number of details common to both plays which are not to be found in Plutarch.’[2] Daniel’s Cleopatra speaks of her determination to die in the following terms: ‘I have both hands, and will, and I can die’ and ‘For who can stay a mind resolve’d to die’.[3] Shakespeare’s Cleopatra speaks of ‘My resolution and my hands I’ll trust’ (4.15.49).

To the modern eye, this may all look a bit like cheating. However, it is interesting to consider such practices in the light of Shakespeare’s education, where such reliance on source materials was actively encouraged. Shakespeare probably attended the King’s New School in Stratford from about 1571. At this time, there were approximately 360 grammar schools in England, and we have a fairly good idea of the curriculum Shakespeare would have studied and the prevailing pedagogical style.[4] These grammar schools were based to a very large degree on the memorisation and repetition of classic Latin texts. The curriculum was deep rather than broad. New material was introduced relatively rarely, and when it was, it was studied to exhaustion. In Brian Vickers’s words:

The curriculum was not large, but the teaching was incredibly thoroughly. New facts were released sparely (new words at a rate of three a day) and after the master’s explanation the pupil would repeat it, memorize it, be asked to recite it; be tested again, repeat it, and be made to use it over and over until there was no chance of forgetting it. The amount of repetition required is frightening. School hours were from 6 am till 9, then breakfast; 9.15 till 11., then lunch; 1 till 5, then supper; 6 till 7, for pure repetition; for thirty-six weeks a year, and for four to six years. First thing in the morning pupils were tested on the facts they had been given to learn the previous day. Then some new work was introduced to be studied until lunchtime; that afternoon it would be repeated, and a little bit more added. All would be rehearsed in the evening, tested next day, and so on. Fridays and Saturdays the whole week’s work was reviewed and repeated.[5]

Pupils would memorise definitions and examples of over a hundred rhetorical figures, and be encouraged to spot them when reading literature. They were also encouraged to use such literary texts as models and templates in their own writing. Cardinal Wolsey advised grammar school teachers as follows:

You are to mark every orthography, every figure, every graceful ornament of style, every rhetorical flourish, whatever is proverbial, all passages that ought to be imitated and all that ought not.[6]

In short, Shakespeare was encouraged at school to memorise, to imitate and to repeat, and in his plays, we can see Shakespeare took this advice to heart. We have already seen how he used and manipulated his sources in a very similar way to that recommended by Wolsey. We can also see that the rhetorical figures he memorised at school formed a vital part of his craft.  In Shakespeare’s Language, Frank Kermode traces the evolution of Shakespeare’s language across his career. His earliest tragedy, Titus Andronicus, may well be his ‘most learned’, full of the rhetorical techniques he would have learned at school. Marcus’s speech at the end of the play features Senecan tags, Homeric epithets, and references to the myths of Philomel and Orpheus. Shakespeare’s last tragedy, Coriolanus, employs such figures in a different manner – but it still employs them. There is imagery involving an osprey and a fish, ‘a conventional bestiary illustration’ which Kermode describes as being ‘tersely adequate’; then ‘the oxymoron “noble servant” illustrates with precision the dilemma of Coriolanus’ and finally there is synecdoche, with a casque standing in for the battlefield, and a cushion for the senate house. Coriolanus was written in the early 17th century, but Shakespeare would have learnt those figures and examples of them at school in the 1570s.[7] We can also see the direct impact of particular textbooks on Shakespeare’s plays. One of the most popular textbooks of rhetorical techniques was George Susenbrotus’s Epitome Troporum Ac Schematum, and TW Baldwin has shown how Shakespeare used very many of these stock figures in his work. For example, Susenbrotus used lead and stone to represent dullness or stupidity, and air and fire to represent speed and swiftness, and these symbols recur frequently in Shakespeare’s work. Similarly, in Susenbrotus, asyndeton is illustrated by Caesar’s famous line: I came, I saw, I conquered, and this exact line pops up again and again in Shakespeare. A line from an ode from Horace about the ‘wicked Adriatic sea’ is exemplified in Susenbrotus as an example of synecdoche, and reused in The Taming of the Shrew. There are countless examples of Shakespeare’s reuse of such stock phrases, both those from Susenbrotus and other popular rhetorical textbooks of the time.[8]

What does Shakespeare’s obvious reliance on memorisation and imitation mean for his reputation as one of humanity’s most creative minds? Have we been getting it wrong for all these years? Is he actually, to borrow a phrase from one of his contemporaries, Robert Greene, an ‘upstart crow’ whose best work is copied from others? Probably not. Far from reconsidering Shakespeare’s reputation, we need to reconsider modern notions of creativity and originality. Our modern ideas of these concepts are influenced by the Romantics, by the idea of the lone and solitary individual summoning up great thoughts in a spontaneous ecstasy. In Shakespeare’s day, Greene notwithstanding, creativity was seen as relying more on tradition, and poetry ’was a craft to be studied.’[9] Shakespeare was not the only creative genius to emerge from this milieu.

Credit for the ability of so many Renaissance writers to use the full expressive resources of language must be given to the humanist school-system and to the masters who so energetically enforced it…we can see from their later compositions, the schools exerted a lasting impression on the writers who attended them.[10]

Another famous product of a similar education wrote the phrase which best sums up this model of creativity: ‘if I have seen further, it is because I was standing on the shoulders of giants.’[11]

Which conception is right? Is creativity best developed in the somewhat paradoxical way encouraged by the Renaissance grammar school, by engaging with tradition? Or is the more spontaneous and free-flowing method preferred by the Romantics and most modern educationalists to be preferred? Interestingly enough, there is a body of recent academic research which seeks to answer this question – and the evidence so far is all on the side of the Elizabethan grammar schools. In a range of different disciplines, researchers have shown that mastery and creativity are the result of thousands of hours of practice. In Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, which popularised the ‘10,000 hours of practice’ theory, he charted the development of original thinkers as varied as the The Beatles and Steve Jobs, and showed that all of them depended, as Shakespeare did, on hours of often quite gruelling practice.[12] The academic research underpinning Gladwell’s book is perhaps even more interesting than this. The ‘10,000 hours’ idea derives from the work of the Swedish cognitive scientist K Anders Ericsson. Ericsson showed that what mattered was not just practice. Mere experience, or hours logged, does not help develop mastery of a discipline. Instead, what matters is what Ericsson termed ‘deliberate practice’.[13] Deliberate practice involves breaking down a skill into its constituent parts, and practising those. This is better at developing skill than simply practising the skill itself. Musicians, for instance, don’t practice by playing a piece again and again, but by playing scales and practising particularly tricky parts of the piece. Footballers don’t practise by playing full-sided games, but by doing passing drills and playing small-sided games. Practice does make perfect, but it’s a particular kind of practice. Paradoxically, it’s more useful to practise activities that don’t look like the final end goal. Cognitive science also emphasises the importance of ‘overlearning’: it isn’t enough to understand something in the moment, or to perform it successfully once or twice. Performance isn’t learning. To truly understand and master something requires repetition, often beyond the point we may think necessary.

We can see how both deliberate practice and overlearning were present in Shakespeare’s education. The analysis of rhetorical figures involved breaking down literary texts into their constituent parts and memorising those parts. And we’ve also seen that relatively little new content was introduced: pupils had to ‘overlearn’ content before they were allowed new material. The apparently oppressive repetition of grammatical and rhetorical drills may not seem on the surface to be particularly helpful for developing creativity. But actually, they were. The insight from Shakespeare’s education and modern research is that far from stifling creativity, memorisation and repetition enable it.  As Rex Gibson said,

Everything Shakespeare learned in school he used in some ways in his plays. At first, he applied his knowledge of the rules of language as he had acquired it at school. Some of his early plays seem to have a very obvious pattern and regular rhythm, almost mechanical and like clockwork. But having mastered the rules, he was able to break and transform them; to move from Titus Andronicus and The Two Gentlemen of Verona to Hamlet and The Tempest. On this evidence, Shakespeare’s education has been seen as an argument for the value of learning by rote, of constant practice, of strict rule-following. Or, to put it another way, ‘discovery favours the well-prepared mind’. Even the early plays show the same quality of writing that characterises his greatest plays. Shakespeare turned his school knowledge into striking dramatic action and vividly realised characters. His dramatic imagination was fuelled by what would now be seen as sterile exercises in memorisation and constant practice. What was mechanical became fluid, dramatic language that produced thrilling theatre.[14]

One very good example of how this process worked can be seen in Love’s Labour’s Lost. We have seen how Shakespeare borrowed from Susenbrotus the stock figure that lead was dull and slow. In Love’s Labour’s Lost, Moth the schoolboy says to his master, Armado, that a horse is moving ‘as swift as lead’. Armado reprimands him: ‘Is not lead a metal heavy, dull, and slow?’ It seems obvious to Armado (and presumably to the grammar school alumni in the audience), that Moth has misunderstood this chapter in the textbook. However, Moth responds that ‘You are too swift, sir, to say so: / Is that lead slow which is fired from a gun?’ In this scene, both Shakespeare and Moth’s creativity are on display, and both reveal exactly what Gibson and the cognitive scientists would say about the development of creativity. Moth’s witty subversion can only happen if he knows what the stock meaning of ‘lead’ is, and Shakespeare’s scene also depends on his knowledge of the rhetorical figures and their role in the typical schoolroom. Far from being stifled by school, the originality and wit of both Moth and Shakespeare grows out of such ‘school knowledge’. Baldwin offers us a plausible explication of how Shakespeare’s thought processes might have worked here.

The development of this sequence in Shakespeare’s mind is significant. He begins by reversing the conventional idea of lead as the symbol for slowness. Then he jumps to its conventional antithesis, the idea of thought as the symbol of swiftness, correlated with air and fire, as lead and stones are with earth. Finally, both lead as bullets, and thought are connected as symbols of swiftness. Clearly, Shakespeare had in his mind to begin with both the hyperbole plumbo stupidior and the symbolism of lead to represent the slower elements, as mind represented the swifter elements of air and fire. So when his mind started on lead, it inevitably worked through these previously prepared grooves.[15]

Shakespearean scholars and cognitive scientists approach the development of creativity in very different ways, but they have both come to similar conclusions. If we accept the conclusions of these academics, what are the implications for modern education? It is at this point that many readers will become uneasy. It is all very well to extol the virtues of Shakespeare’s education from a distance, but suggesting they might provide a model for modern schooling is a different matter. Even Vickers, who praises the impact of the Elizabethan grammar schools, calls the amount of repetition ‘frightening’ and ‘remorseless’ and says ‘one is glad not to have been a boy at such a school – or, perhaps more, not to have been a master.’[16] This is certainly a powerful argument. It may well be that Shakespeare’s education was peculiarly suited to developing creativity – but it may also be that we are not prepared to sacrifice that much in order to develop it. Other things are more important.

Still others might argue that the world has moved on since Shakespeare’s time, and that such methods are impossible to bring back, even if we wanted to. Perhaps the best counter-argument to this comes from Dorothy L. Sayers, in an article about education which features a Shakespearean analogy.

What, then, are we to do? We cannot go back to the Middle Ages. That is a cry to which we have become accustomed. We cannot go back–or can we? Distinguo. I should like every term in that proposition defined. Does “go back” mean a retrogression in time, or the revision of an error? The first is clearly impossible per se; the second is a thing which wise men do every day. “Cannot”– does this mean that our behavior is determined irreversibly, or merely that such an action would be very difficult in view of the opposition it would provoke? Obviously the twentieth century is not and cannot be the fourteenth; but if “the Middle Ages” is, in this context, simply a picturesque phrase denoting a particular educational theory, there seems to be no a priori reason why we should not “go back” to it–with modifications–as we have already “gone back” with modifications, to, let us say, the idea of playing Shakespeare’s plays as he wrote them, and not in the “modernized” versions of Cibber and Garrick, which once seemed to be the latest thing in theatrical progress.[17]

The analogy with Shakespearean performance is an intriguing one. Just as we have ‘gone back’ to performing Shakespeare’s plays as he wrote them, and indeed often using stages and costumes as similar to his as we can find, what might it look like if we were to ‘go back’ to a more Shakespearean mode of education? Obviously, as Sayers says, there would be modifications. Just as we do not now perform Shakespeare with only male actors, so too no-one would propose excluding girls from education, or indeed reintroducing corporal punishment. Similarly, one would not want to bring back the punishingly long hours, or the exclusive focus on Latin literature.

But there are clearly some places where our departures have been in error. Another modern scientist, Herbert Simon, has reflected on the accuracy of a great deal of what might be termed ‘traditional education’, even as he suggests how we could improve on its principles. In his words,

Human beings have been learning, and have been teaching their offspring, since the dawn of our species. We have a reasonably powerful “folk medicine,” based on lecturing and reading and apprenticeship and tutoring, aided by such technology as paper and the blackboard –  a folk medicine that does not demand much knowledge about what goes on in the human head during learning and that has not changed radically since schools first emerged. To go beyond these traditional techniques, we must follow the example of medicine and build (as we have been doing for the past thirty or forty years) a theory of the information processes that underlie skilled performance and skill acquisition: that is to say, we must have a theory of the ways in which knowledge is represented internally, and the ways in which such internal representations are acquired. In fact, cognitive psychology has now progressed a long way toward such a theory, and, as we have seen, a great deal is already known that can be applied, and is beginning to be applied, to improve learning processes.[18]

Much of the powerful ‘folk medicine’ that Simon refers to has in fact been abandoned in the past fifty years as being out of date. Before we can improve learning processes in the way Simon suggests, we first of all have to reverse some of those abandonments. If we were to combine the best of a traditional Shakespearean education with what we know from modern science about how we think and learn, what might it look like? We might see a focus on memorisation and mastery, and of depth before breadth. We would perhaps see new technology used to help memorisation, not to try and replace it. More attention would be given to how drill is scheduled and organised, with modern theories about the best way to time and space repetition being used to structure the school day. We would probably also see more of a focus on a core, shared body of knowledge, but in a range of different subjects, not the exclusive focus on Latin authors that we saw in Shakespeare’s day.

The task for current educationalists is in itself a creative one, somewhat akin to that of Shakespeare’s own process of creation: to absorb and master the best practice from the past, and the latest research from the present, and to synthesise it in such a way as to create something new. Or, in the words of a Shakespearean contemporary, when we innovate, we must ‘make a stand upon the ancient way, and then look about us, and discover what is the straight and right way, and so to walk in it.’[19]

[1] Qtd in Muir, Kenneth. The Sources of Shakespeare’s plays. Routledge, 1977, p.221.

[2] Muir, p.229.

[3] Qtd in Muir, p.229.

[4] Baldwin, Thomas Whitfield. William Shakspere’s Small Latine & Lesse Greeke. Vol. 1. University of Illinois Press, 1944.

[5] Vickers, Brian. In Defence of Rhetoric. Oxford: Clarendon, 1989, p.257.

[6] Qtd in Mack, Peter. Elizabethan Rhetoric: theory and practice.  Cambridge University Press, 2002, p.15.

[7] Kermode, Frank. Shakespeare’s Language. Macmillan, 2001, p.17-26.

[8] Baldwin, Vol. 2, pp.138-175

[9] Kermode, p.32.

[10] Vickers, p. 264.

[11] Newton I. Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009, p. 574.

[12] Gladwell, Malcolm. Outliers: The Story of Success. Hachette UK, 2008.

[13] Ericsson K.A., Krampe R.T. and Tesch-Römer C. T’he role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance.’ Psychological Review 1993; 100: 363–406; Ericsson K.A., Charness N., Hoffman R.R., et al. The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

[14] Gibson R. Teaching Shakespeare. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998, p. 46–47.

[15] Baldwin, Vol.2, p.150-1.

[16] Vickers, pp.257-8

[17] Sayers, Dorothy L., ‘The Lost Tools of Learning’ (1948). Accessed December 1, 2015.

[18] Anderson J. R., Reder L.M. and Simon H.A. ‘Applications and misapplications of cognitive psychology to mathematics education.’ Texas Education Review, 2000; 1: 29–49.

[19] Bacon, Francis. ‘Of innovations’.  The Major Works, ed. Brian Vickers. Oxford University Press, 1996, p.387.


Research Ed 2016: evidence-fuelled optimism

One of the great things about the Research Ed conferences is that whilst their aim is to promote a sceptical, dispassionate and evidence-based approach to education, at the end of them I always end up feeling irrationally excited and optimistic. The conferences bring together so many great people and ideas that it’s easy to think educational nirvana is just around the corner. Of course, I also know from the many Research Ed sessions on statistics that this is a sampling error: the 750+ people at Capital City Academy yesterday are entirely unrepresentative of just about anything, and educational change is a slow and hard slog, not a skip into the sunlit uplands. Still, I am pretty sure there must be some research that says if you can’t feel optimistic at the start of September, you will never make it through November and February.

And there was some evidence that the community of people brought together by Research Ed really are making a difference, not just in England but in other parts of the world too. One of my favourite sessions of the day was the last one by Ben Riley of the US organisation Deans for Impact, who produced the brilliant The Science of Learning report. Ben thinks that English teachers are in the vanguard of the evidence-based education movement, and that we are way ahead of the US on this score.   One small piece of evidence for this is that a quarter of the downloads of The Science of Learning are from the UK. There clearly is a big appetite for this kind of stuff here. In the next few years, I am really hopeful that we will start to see more and more of the results and the impact of these new approaches.

Here’s a quick summary of my session yesterday, plus two others I attended.

My session

For the first time, I actually presented some original research at Research Ed, rather than talking about other people’s work. Over the last few months, I have been working with Dr Chris Wheadon of No More Marking on a pilot of comparative judgment of KS2 writing. We found that the current method of moderation using the interim frameworks has some significant flaws, and that comparative judgment delivers more reliable results with fewer distortions of teaching and learning. I will blog in more depth about this soon: it was only a small pilot, but it shows CJ has a lot of promise!

Heather Fearn

Heather (blog here) presented some research she has been working on about historical aptitude. What kinds of skills and knowledge do pupils need to be able to analyse historical texts they have never seen before, or comment on historical eras they have never studied? The Oxford Historical Aptitude Test (HAT) asks pupils to do just that, and I have blogged about it here before. In short, I think it is a great test with some bad advice, because it constantly tells pupils that they don’t have to know anything about history to be able to answer questions on the paper. Heather’s research proved how misleading this advice was. She got some of her pupils to answer questions on the HAT, and then analysed their answers and looked at the other historical eras they had referred to in order to make sense of the new ones they encountered on the HAT. Pupils were much better at analysing eras, like Mao’s China, where comparisons to Nazi Germany were appropriate or helpful. When asked to analyse eras like 16th century Germany, they fell back on to anachronisms such as talking about ‘the inner city’, because they didn’t really have a frame of reference for such eras.

This is a very very brief summary of some complex research, but I took two implications from it, one for history teachers, and one for everyone. First, the more historical knowledge pupils have, the more sophisticated analysis they can make and they more easily they are able to understand new eras of history. Second, there are profound and worrying consequences of the relentless focus in history lessons on the Nazis. Heather noted that her pupils were great at talking about dictatorships and fascism in their work, but when they had to talk about democracy, they struggled because they just didn’t understand it – even though it was the political system they had grown up with. This seems to me to offer a potential explanation of Godwin’s Law: we understand new things by comparing them to old things; if we don’t know many ‘old things’ we will always be forcing the ‘new things’ into inappropriate boxes; if all we are taught is the Nazis, we will therefore end up comparing everything to them. I think this kind of research shows we need to teach the historical roots of democracy more explicitly – perhaps by focussing more on eras such as the ancient Greeks, and the neglected Anglo-Saxons.

Ben Riley

Ben is the founder of Deans for Impact, a US teacher training organisation.  The Science of Learning, referenced above, is a report by them which focusses on the key scientific knowledge teachers need to understand how pupils learn. In this session, Ben presented some of their current thinking, which is more about how teachers learn. Their big idea is that ‘deliberate practice’ is just as valuable for teachers as it is for pupils. However, deliberate practice is a tricky concept, and one that requires a clear understanding of goals and methods. We might have a clear idea of how pupils make progress in mathematics. We have less of an idea of how they make progress in history (as Heather’s research above shows). And we probably have even less of a clear idea of how teachers make progress. Can we use deliberate practice in the absence of such understanding? Deans for Impact have been working with K Anders Ericsson, the world expert on expertise, to try and answer this question. I’ve been reading and writing a lot about deliberate practice over the last few months as part of the research for my new book, Making Good Progress?, which will be out in January. In this book, I focus on using it with pupils. I haven’t thought as much about its application to teacher education, but there is no doubt that deliberate practice is an enormously powerful technique which can lead to dramatic improvements in performance – so if we can make it work for teachers, we should.

What Anne Brontë can tell us about education

From The Tenant of Wildfell Hall:

Rose, now, at a hint from my mother, produced a decanter of wine, with accompaniments of glasses and cake, from the cupboard and the oak sideboard, and the refreshment was duly presented to the guests. They both partook of the cake, but obstinately refused the wine, in spite of their hostess’s hospitable attempts to force it upon them. Arthur, especially shrank from the ruby nectar as if in terror and disgust, and was ready to cry when urged to take it.

‘Never mind, Arthur,’ said his mamma; ‘Mrs. Markham thinks it will do you good, as you were tired with your walk; but she will not oblige you to take it!—I daresay you will do very well without. He detests the very sight of wine,’ she added, ‘and the smell of it almost makes him sick. I have been accustomed to make him swallow a little wine or weak spirits-and-water, by way of medicine, when he was sick, and, in fact, I have done what I could to make him hate them.’

Everybody laughed, except the young widow and her son.

‘Well, Mrs. Graham,’ said my mother, wiping the tears of merriment from her bright blue eyes—‘well, you surprise me! I really gave you credit for having more sense.—The poor child will be the veriest milksop that ever was sopped! Only think what a man you will make of him, if you persist in—’

‘I think it a very excellent plan,’ interrupted Mrs. Graham, with imperturbable gravity. ‘By that means I hope to save him from one degrading vice at least. I wish I could render the incentives to every other equally innoxious in his case.’

‘But by such means,’ said I, ‘you will never render him virtuous.—What is it that constitutes virtue, Mrs. Graham? Is it the circumstance of being able and willing to resist temptation; or that of having no temptations to resist?—Is he a strong man that overcomes great obstacles and performs surprising achievements, though by dint of great muscular exertion, and at the risk of some subsequent fatigue, or he that sits in his chair all day, with nothing to do more laborious than stirring the fire, and carrying his food to his mouth? If you would have your son to walk honourably through the world, you must not attempt to clear the stones from his path, but teach him to walk firmly over them—not insist upon leading him by the hand, but let him learn to go alone.’

‘I will lead him by the hand, Mr. Markham, till he has strength to go alone; and I will clear as many stones from his path as I can, and teach him to avoid the rest—or walk firmly over them, as you say;—for when I have done my utmost, in the way of clearance, there will still be plenty left to exercise all the agility, steadiness, and circumspection he will ever have.—It is all very well to talk about noble resistance, and trials of virtue; but for fifty—or five hundred men that have yielded to temptation, show me one that has had virtue to resist. And why should I take it for granted that my son will be one in a thousand?—and not rather prepare for the worst, and suppose he will be like his—like the rest of mankind, unless I take care to prevent it?’

‘You are very complimentary to us all,’ I observed.

‘I know nothing about you—I speak of those I do know—and when I see the whole race of mankind (with a few rare exceptions) stumbling and blundering along the path of life, sinking into every pitfall, and breaking their shins over every impediment that lies in their way, shall I not use all the means in my power to insure for him a smoother and a safer passage?’

‘Yes, but the surest means will be to endeavour to fortify him against temptation, not to remove it out of his way.’

‘I will do both, Mr. Markham. God knows he will have temptations enough to assail him, both from within and without, when I have done all I can to render vice as uninviting to him, as it is abominable in its own nature—I myself have had, indeed, but few incentives to what the world calls vice, but yet I have experienced temptations and trials of another kind, that have required, on many occasions, more watchfulness and firmness to resist than I have hitherto been able to muster against them. And this, I believe, is what most others would acknowledge who are accustomed to reflection, and wishful to strive against their natural corruptions.’

‘Yes,’ said my mother, but half apprehending her drift; ‘but you would not judge of a boy by yourself—and, my dear Mrs. Graham, let me warn you in good time against the error—the fatal error, I may call it—of taking that boy’s education upon yourself. Because you are clever in some things and well informed, you may fancy yourself equal to the task; but indeed you are not; and if you persist in the attempt, believe me you will bitterly repent it when the mischief is done.’

‘I am to send him to school, I suppose, to learn to despise his mother’s authority and affection!’ said the lady, with rather a bitter smile.

‘Oh, no!—But if you would have a boy to despise his mother, let her keep him at home, and spend her life in petting him up, and slaving to indulge his follies and caprices.’

‘I perfectly agree with you, Mrs. Markham; but nothing can be further from my principles and practice than such criminal weakness as that.’

‘Well, but you will treat him like a girl—you’ll spoil his spirit, and make a mere Miss Nancy of him—you will, indeed, Mrs. Graham, whatever you may think. But I’ll get Mr. Millward to talk to you about it:—he’ll tell you the consequences;—he’ll set it before you as plain as the day;—and tell you what you ought to do, and all about it;—and, I don’t doubt, he’ll be able to convince you in a minute.’

‘No occasion to trouble the vicar,’ said Mrs. Graham, glancing at me—I suppose I was smiling at my mother’s unbounded confidence in that worthy gentleman—‘Mr. Markham here thinks his powers of conviction at least equal to Mr. Millward’s. If I hear not him, neither should I be convinced though one rose from the dead, he would tell you. Well, Mr. Markham, you that maintain that a boy should not be shielded from evil, but sent out to battle against it, alone and unassisted—not taught to avoid the snares of life, but boldly to rush into them, or over them, as he may—to seek danger, rather than shun it, and feed his virtue by temptation,—would you—?’

‘I beg your pardon, Mrs. Graham—but you get on too fast. I have not yet said that a boy should be taught to rush into the snares of life,—or even wilfully to seek temptation for the sake of exercising his virtue by overcoming it;—I only say that it is better to arm and strengthen your hero, than to disarm and enfeeble the foe;—and if you were to rear an oak sapling in a hothouse, tending it carefully night and day, and shielding it from every breath of wind, you could not expect it to become a hardy tree, like that which has grown up on the mountain-side, exposed to all the action of the elements, and not even sheltered from the shock of the tempest.’

‘Granted;—but would you use the same argument with regard to a girl?’

‘Certainly not.’

‘No; you would have her to be tenderly and delicately nurtured, like a hot-house plant—taught to cling to others for direction and support, and guarded, as much as possible, from the very knowledge of evil. But will you be so good as to inform me why you make this distinction? Is it that you think she has no virtue?’

‘Assuredly not.’

‘Well, but you affirm that virtue is only elicited by temptation;—and you think that a woman cannot be too little exposed to temptation, or too little acquainted with vice, or anything connected therewith. It must be either that you think she is essentially so vicious, or so feeble-minded, that she cannot withstand temptation,—and though she may be pure and innocent as long as she is kept in ignorance and restraint, yet, being destitute of real virtue, to teach her how to sin is at once to make her a sinner, and the greater her knowledge, the wider her liberty, the deeper will be her depravity,—whereas, in the nobler sex, there is a natural tendency to goodness, guarded by a superior fortitude, which, the more it is exercised by trials and dangers, is only the further developed—’

‘Heaven forbid that I should think so!’ I interrupted her at last.

‘Well, then, it must be that you think they are both weak and prone to err, and the slightest error, the merest shadow of pollution, will ruin the one, while the character of the other will be strengthened and embellished—his education properly finished by a little practical acquaintance with forbidden things. Such experience, to him (to use a trite simile), will be like the storm to the oak, which, though it may scatter the leaves, and snap the smaller branches, serves but to rivet the roots, and to harden and condense the fibres of the tree. You would have us encourage our sons to prove all things by their own experience, while our daughters must not even profit by the experience of others. Now I would have both so to benefit by the experience of others, and the precepts of a higher authority, that they should know beforehand to refuse the evil and choose the good, and require no experimental proofs to teach them the evil of transgression. I would not send a poor girl into the world, unarmed against her foes, and ignorant of the snares that beset her path; nor would I watch and guard her, till, deprived of self-respect and self-reliance, she lost the power or the will to watch and guard herself;—and as for my son—if I thought he would grow up to be what you call a man of the world—one that has “seen life,” and glories in his experience, even though he should so far profit by it as to sober down, at length, into a useful and respected member of society—I would rather that he died to-morrow!—rather a thousand times!’ she earnestly repeated, pressing her darling to her side and kissing his forehead with intense affection. He had already left his new companion, and been standing for some time beside his mother’s knee, looking up into her face, and listening in silent wonder to her incomprehensible discourse.

The youth of today and the youth of yesterday

A colleague at school recently asked me if I knew of any examples of people from hundreds of years ago complaining about ‘the kids of today’.  I said I had a couple of ideas and that I would get them to him. After a bit of work on Google (see those 21st century skills in action!) I tracked down the quotation I had in mind. It was attributed to Socrates.

The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers.

Except I hadn’t. Although this quotation was all over the internet, none of the sites I clicked on could provide an accurate citation. I found another quotation I dimly remembered.

What is happening to our young people? They disrespect their elders, they disobey their parents. They ignore the law. They riot in the streets inflamed with wild notions. Their morals are decaying. What is to become of them?

This one was meant to be by Plato. Except, again, it wasn’t. I couldn’t find any reliable attribution. I found yet another one, this time apparently by Hesiod.

I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond words… When I was young, we were taught to be discreet and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly wise [disrespectful] and impatient of restraint.

Then I found a slightly similar pattern of words attributed to Peter the Hermit.

The world is passing through troublous times. The young people of  today think of nothing but themselves. They have no reverence for parents or old age. They are impatient of all restraint. They talk as if they knew everything, and what passes for wisdom with us is foolishness with them. As for the girls, they are forward, immodest and unladylike in speech, behavior and dress.

Again, there was no reliable citation. Finally, I found this.

When I look at the younger generation, I despair of the future of civilisation.

Again, it’s attributed to Aristotle but there is no reliable reference.

I found a few rather wonderful webpages (here, here and here) citing several of these quotations as proof that anyone who complains about the behaviour of the youth of today is a misguided whinger. Of course, despite constructing an entire thesis around these quotations, they too were unable to reference them correctly.

I also spoke to another colleague, who is a classicist, and we both embarked on a trawl of the internet and the very good perseus.tufts site to try and find these citations.  We had no luck. There were a few sites suggesting that some of the quotations were a misquotation or a slightly different translation of a speech in one of Aristophanes’s plays spoofing Socrates. Maybe. I had a look at some of the speeches, and this didn’t seem very plausible. We also had no luck in finding anything with a similar flavour – which is a bit odd when you think about it. None of the Greek philosophers were particularly shy about making authoritative assertions. If you wanted to find genuine examples of Plato or Socrates asserting that women are hugely inferior to men, for example, you would not have to look very far. So this silence on the subject of youths is odd. Of course, my colleague and I didn’t conduct an exhaustive search – we are teachers, we had marking to do – so it’s entirely possible some of these quotations are correct. If anyone does find a proper citation or anything else that is relevant, please link to it in the comments. The first colleague who asked the question still hasn’t had a proper answer.

I did manage to unearth the truth about one of the quotations, however. The first one I mentioned, attributed to Socrates, is definitely spurious. It seems to be that the Mayor of Amsterdam made it up in the 1960s. It was mentioned in an article in the New York Times in the same decade. And from then on it took on a life of its own, aided of course by the invention of the internet. When some researchers rang up the Mayor of Amsterdam and asked for the citation, he said he couldn’t remember the book he’d found it in.

The 1960s, of course, were famous for lots of protests by young people and the end of a culture of deference towards the old. It seems to me particularly significant that it was in that decade that a politician should feel the need to invent a quotation showing that kids have always been disrespectful. The subsequent afterlife of this quotation shows that it wasn’t just this politician who was in need of reassurance about the perennial misbehaviour of the young.

So, a quotation which is meant to show that kids have always been badly behaved instead seems to prove something quite different: that in the 1960s, people were so desperate to convince themselves that kids had always been badly behaved that they started making things up to prove it.