Education and civic life

Fircroft College in 1969 with Tom Bryan inset
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Tom Bryan’s (1912) paper was an important statement of education involving the whole person and looking to solidarity and association.

contents: preface · introduction · education as the development of faculties through knowledge · education as development of the whole person · education for solidarity and association · how to cite this piece

Tom Bryan (1865-1917) was the first warden of Fircroft College, Birmingham and a significant contributor to the development of adult education practice in Britain. His particular achievement was to take elements of the experience of British adult schools and to combine them with elements of Danish High Schools. Bryan was not a prolific writer. This is one a few papers that we have of his. It brings alive his passion for education and his hatred of the mechanical and reductionist orientations that were around when he wrote (and that still, unfortunately are in the ascendant). Instead he argued for an education for life; that looked to the needs of the whole person; and was concerned with nurturing solidarity and association. This paper was read by Tom Bryan at the Educational Conference of the Co-operative Union in Birmingham, July 20, 1912. Please note: we have added in the subheadings to make navigation through the piece easier.

When I was asked to speak on “Education and Civic Life” I gladly consented; but I fear now it was with too light a heart. At that distance it seemed easy to find something to say on the subject; but as the event drew near the difficulty became rather to find what not to say. A host of the great teachers of mankind, from Isaiah and Plato to Mazzini and Ruskin, have addressed themselves to the subject of the education of man as citizen. I think, therefore, the most and the best I can do is to cull a few flowers from their glorious garden of thought, to make them into a garland as well as I can, and to present it to this conference.

Education as the development of faculties through knowledge

Education is not merely the accumulation of knowledge or learning, but the development of faculties through knowledge. It is curious that we should need to insist on this, because the word “to know” originally meant “to be able.” And in some of the narrower ends of life we still use the word in its first sense. We have some indication of this in the allied word “can,” of which the  Scotch is “ken,” and in the North Country word “canny.” Let us, then, go back to the prime meaning of knowledge as developed ability or faculty.

Knowing and doing are so closely related that we cannot “do” unless we “know;” and we cannot ” know” unless we ” do.” ” The latest gospel in this world,” says Carlyle, “is, Know thy work and do it. Know what thou canst work at, and work at it.” And again, at the end of his chapter on ” Reward,” ” the proper epic of this world is not now ‘Arms and the Man’: How much less shirt-frills and the man! No, it is now Tools and the Man, that henceforth to all time, is now our epic.”

Education, then, is a very practical business; closely allied to the most intimate concerns of human life. The true education is not a preparation for examination, but a preparation for life. If I may borrow the language of Carlyle, knowledge is not a frill to life, but a tool. I suppose that the ancient empire of Assyria was never so full of learning, never had such magnificent libraries, nor so many books, as just before its complete downfall; but that learning was the child of luxury and not the companion of labour. The same is true of ancient Athens. When knowledge was a tool and not a mere frill to life, then Athens flourished and was strong to resist her enemies both within and without; but when that order was reversed, then weakness and dissolution followed.

But if learning divorced from labour is ruinous, what shall we say of labour divorced from learning? Our system of elementary education is as yet of very recent origin; the inauguration of that system will be within the memory of many here present. It was seriously urged against the State school that education would unfit the rising generation for the day’s work. It was pretty widely held that there were certain kinds of work which could be better done by an uneducated than by an educated person; that education unfitted for all manual labour, and that universal education would empty of workmen the warehouses and wharves, and fill to overflowing all counting-houses and Government offices. All this is true of a certain falsely called education; and the thought itself was a survival of an old barbaric idea which denied personality to one-half of the human race by reducing them to the condition of slaves and making them the tools of the life of the other half of mankind. Our modern sense of the solidarity of humanity rebels against the doctrine that the life of culture and refinement can be secured for some by the degradation of all the rest. We deny that humanity comprises two kinds of people – one kind being those who are fitted only to work, and the other kind those who are fitted only for the cultured and refined life. There is no true culture which is not the comrade of labour; there is no true refinement but that which joyfully renders the service of which it is capable.

Carlyle, in his own forceful and inimitable language, has given us a picture of the tragedy of the uneducated workman; he speaks first of the grandeur to the seeing eye of the toiler doing his duty. “Two men I honour, and no third. First, the toil-worn craftsman that with earth-made implement laboriously conquers the earth, and makes her man’s. Venerable to me is the hard hand; crooked, coarse; wherein notwithstanding lies a cunning virtue, indefeasibly royal, as of the sceptre of this planet. Venerable, too, is the rugged face, all weather-tanned, besoiled, with its rude intelligence; for it is the face of a man, living manlike. Oh, but the more venerable for thy rudeness, and even because we must pity as well as love thee! Hardly entreated brother! For us was thy back so bent, for us were thy straight limbs and fingers so deformed; thou wert our conscript, on whom the lot fell, and fighting our battles wert so marred. For in thee, too, lay a God-created form, but it was not unfolded; encrusted must it stand with the thick adhesions and defacements of labour; and thy body, like thy soul, was not to know freedom. Yet toil on, toil on; thou art in thy duty, be out of it who may; thou toilest for the altogether indispensable, for daily bread.”

And then, later, in the same chapter, he portrays the undeveloped soul of the man to whom education has been denied. He says: ” It is not because of his toils that I lament for the poor; we must all toil, or steal (howsoever we name our stealing), which is worse; no faithful workman finds his task a pastime. . . . But what I do mourn over is, that the lamp of his soul should go out; that no ray of heavenly, or even of earthly knowledge, should visit him; but only, in the haggard darkness, like two spectres, Fear and Indignation bear him company. Alas! while the body stands so broad and brawny, must the soul lie blinded, dwarfed, stupefied, almost annihilated? Alas! was this, too, a breath of God; bestowed in heaven, but on earth never to be unfolded? That there should one man die ignorant who had capacity for knowledge, this I call a tragedy, were it to happen more than twenty times in the minute, as by some computations it does. The miserable fraction of science which our united mankind, in a wide universe of nescience, has acquired, why is not this, with all diligence, imparted to all? ” It is the supreme tragedy that body and soul capable of development should still be undeveloped.

Education as the development of faculty is the presupposition of freedom; it is the secure basis of citizenship. The true society can only rest safely on the developed “God-created form” of its members. “Fear and indignation” cannot be the only companions of the citizens in a strong and secure state.

When learning is the ally of labour, then is there strength and health and freedom; but when learning is the ally of luxury, there comes bondage, decay, and death.

Education as development of the whole person

Since man has powers of mind, powers of body, and powers of soul, and all in need of development, if the man is to be perfected, the education of the man as citizen must develop the whole man-intellectually, physically, and morally.

Mazzini, in his Duties of Man, in the chapter on education, laid great emphasis on the distinction of these faculties of man, and the means to be used in developing them. “Education is addressed to the moral faculties; instruction to the intellectual. The first develops in man the knowledge of his duties; the second makes him capable of fulfilling them. Without instruction, education would be too often ineffective; without education instruction would be a lever lacking a fulcrum. You can read; what does that amount to if you cannot tell which books contain error, which the truth? You are able by writing to communicate your thoughts to your brothers; what is the use if your thoughts only express egoism ? Instruction, like riches, can be a source of either good or evil according to the intention with which it is used. Consecrated to the general progress it is a means of civilisation and of liberty; used only for personal advantage it becomes a means of tyranny and corruption. In Europe to-day, instruction unaccompanied by a corresponding degree of moral education is a very grievous evil; it keeps up the inequality between class and class of the same people, and inclines the mind to calculation, to egoism, to compromises between justice and injustice, and to all false doctrine.”

We may roughly make the distinction in a sentence: Instruction aims at fitting a man to get a livelihood; education aims at fitting him to live. Now, while the livelihood is of great importance, it is eternally true that ” the life is more than meat and the body than raiment.” It is when a man really lives that he finds he is a social creature, and the education of a social creature will aim at making him sociable. Such education will develop the faculty for loyalty to the common life and the common good; it will strengthen the will to obey the laws which aim at the safety and well-being of the community; it will enlarge his faculty of sympathy so that he suffers with all those who suffer injustice or privation; it will give him courage and strength to render that service to the community of which he is capable. Education helps a man to see clearly and whole the world in which he lives, and to appreciate whatever of beauty is there.

If I may wrest from its context and use it for my own purposes, I would quote a powerful passage from Rousseau. He says: “From our first years an absurd education bedecks our minds and corrupts our judgments. On all hands I see immense institutions, where young people are educated at great expense, and taught everything but their duty. Your children do not know their mother tongue, and yet speak others that are used nowhere. They can compose verses which are almost beyond their comprehension. Without being able to distinguish truth from error, they have the art of confusing others by specious arguments. Yet they do not know the meaning of words like ‘magnanimity,’ ‘equity,’ ‘temperance,’ ‘humanity,’ and ‘courage.’ The sweet word ‘ fatherland’ never falls on their ear; and if they hear God mentioned, it is a being to be dreaded rather than reverenced.”

But there is an education which is not “absurd,” which will reveal the meaning of words like magnanimity, equity, temperance, humanity, courage, truth, and the like; an education which will make a burden easy to be borne, the exercise in daily life of the faculties whose products are courage, temperance, truth, humanity, and justice; an education which cultivates the faculty for association with others to compass the highest ends of human life; and which teaches the joy of duty honestly and modestly performed, and the dignity of service unobtrusively rendered though it never be recognised. An education which will enable us to rest in this assurance, that it is more desirable to honestly deserve than it is to get the good opinion of our fellows.

Permit me to enforce this point by a passage from John Morley. In an introduction to the works of William Wordsworth, after discussing the place of the poet, and leaving the question undecided, Morley writes: “But Wordsworth, at any rate, by his secret of bringing the infinite into common life, as he evokes it out of common life, has the skill to lead us, so long as we yield ourselves to his influence, into inner moods of settled peace, to touch ‘the depth and not the tumult of the soul,’ to give us quietness, strength, steadfastness, and purpose, whether to do or to endure. All art or poetry that has the effect of breathing into men’s hearts, even if it be only for a space, these moods of settled peace, and strongly confirming their judgment, and their will for good; whatever limitations may be found besides, however prosaic may be some or much of the detail, is great art and noble poetry, and the creator of it will always hold, as Wordsworth holds, a sovereign title to the reverence and gratitude of mankind.”

Let us alter those words ” art” and “poetry” into “teaching” and “education,” and the passage still states a great truth. Education must awaken the mind of man, it must discipline his mind, it must fill his mind and heart with all the spiritual and intellectual treasures which the past has accumulated, and it must inspire him to the finer issues of life. ” Life is a mission; duty, therefore, its highest law,” says Mazzini; and until that is learned the best is still unlearned, the best is still unknown. The civic life depends upon our learning the great lesson of duty.

Education for solidarity and association

The end of education is the development of the sense of solidarity, of the faculty for association, and this is the basis of all noble citizenship. Mazzini has told us that the law of life is progress, and the method of progress is association. I find some grounds for that in history. The race is educated, is forwarded, through and by means of the individual. Progress may be slow, but it does not lack the element of certainty. In his physical body the life story of the race is repeated in each individual; but the development accomplished by the race in countless aeons is performed in the individual in an almost infinitesimally short space of time. In the life story of the race, the development from the single simple cell to the perfect human form occupied vast stretches of time; but in the life of the individual that same development is perfected in the few short prenatal months.

This is true also of the mental and spiritual powers. We are born with potentialities, faculties that have been developed in the race but are latent in the individual, but which can be called forth in a few short days or weeks or years in the individual. How wonderful has been the acquisition of these powers! Lamennais has expressed this in a few pregnant words: “Humanity is as a man who lives and learns for ever,” and what Lamennais said to a few, Mazzini has proclaimed to the world.

I realised what these words meant as I stood in the National Museum at Copenhagen. Relics of the life of primitive man have been carefully collected and arranged in a way to illustrate the progress of mankind. First comes the skeleton of an adult man buried in a midden heap of shells. Apparently the body had been just deposited and covered. No coffin or any other thing to indicate human care or affection. But then follow graves where the body is enclosed between two or three stones, telling the story of the growth of an idea of kinship and the birth of affection. In other graves the coffins are of wood, and along with the skeleton are found wooden cups, platters, weapons, and so on, telling of the development of a whole set of ideas of a future life as well of the amenities of life here. Then is to be seen the dawn of art – rude and rough indeed, but beautiful by reason of its age, and because it was the earliest attempts of an infant race. And with the growth of ideas came the faculty of speech for expressing ideas, and then letters. Upon the shoulders of the man or people who wrote the first letter-a veritable giant-stand the giants Homer, Isaiah, Virgil, Shakespeare, and upon their shoulders we men stand, from which sublime height we may view the world. Humanity is as a man who lives and learns for ever. We stand here to-day, in this great school, and we have to learn to-day’s lesson and do to-day’s task! Association is the method. You are learning that lesson not for yourselves only. All your efforts to associate have a human significance. Your societies are more than dividends; they are concerned with human progress. So I understand human solidarity, of which citizenship is so far the highest form.

How to cite this piece: Bryan, T. (1912) ‘Education and civic life’ Paper read at the Education Conference of the Cooperative Union in Birmingham, July 20. Reproduced in H. G. Wood and A. J. Ball (1922) Tom Bryan. First warden of Fircroft, London: George Allen and Unwin. Available in the informal education archives:

Acknowledgement: The image of Fircroft College is by Alan Burnett. Sourced from Flickr ccbysa2 licence.

This piece has been reproduced here on the understanding that it is not subject to any copyright restrictions, and that it is, and will remain, in the public domain.

First placed in the archives: January 2004. Updated June 2019.