‘An intellectual waste’

‘A few years ago, I visited a school in England, taught on the monitorial system, and was introduced to the master by one of the directors, who stated that he was a very superior teacher, and had his boys, to the number of at least 50 in good order. I found the school, as stated, in excellent order, all busy at spelling lessons, or reading the Scriptures. On reaching the highest class, in company with the master and director, I asked the former if he ever questioned the scholars on what they read. He answered, ‘No, sir! I have no time for that, but you may if you please.’ I answered, that except when personally known to the teacher, I never questioned children in any school. ‘By all means, do so now, if you please; but them thick-headed boys cannot under­stand a word, I am sure.’ Being again asked to put a few questions, I proceeded: ‘Boys, show me where you are reading;’ and to do them justice, they read fluently. The subject was the story of Eli and his two sons. I caused the whole of them again to read the first verse -’And Eli had two sons, Hophni and Phineas.’ ‘Now, children, close your books; – (presuming it impossible that any error could be committed in such a plain narrative, I proceeded:) ‘Well – who was Eli?’ No answer. This question appeared too high, requiring an exercise of thought, and a knowledge not to be found in the verse read. I therefore descended in the scale, and proceeded: ‘Tell me how many sons Eli had!’, Ugh?’, Had Eli any sons?’ ‘Sir?’ ‘Open your books, if you please, and read again. Three or four read in succession, ‘And Eli had two soons, Hophni and Phineas.’ ‘Now answer me, boys – How many sons had Eli?’ ‘Soor?’ ‘Who do you think Eli was? Had Eli any sons?’ ‘Ugh?’ ‘Was he a man, do you think, or a bird, or a beast? Who do you think Eli was, children?’ ‘Soor?’ ‘Look at me, children, and answer me this – If Eli had two sons, do you think his two sons had a father?’ ‘Soor?’ ‘Think, if you please -Had Eli ANY sons?’ No answer. ‘Well, since you cannot tell me how many sons Eli had, how many daughters had he, think you?’ ‘Three, Sir.’[footnote]The three names, previously so often repeated, viz., Eli, Hophni, and Phineas, seem to have shed one ray of light upon their intellects, and brought out in answer the term three.[/footnote- ‘Where do you find that, children ? – look at your Bibles. Who told you that Eli had three daughters?’  Ugh ?’ The director turned upon his heels, and the master said, ‘Now, sir, didn’t I tell you them fellows could not understand a word?’ !!! This I term scriptural reading – those who choose, may term it scriptural education. We admit the principle, that no school or system ought to be judged of by a single exhibition, or after a transient inspection; but here there can be no mistake; for if the highest class of a school, consisting of a dozen boys of ten to twelve years of age, who had read the Scriptures daily for years, could make such an appearance, what are we to conclude, but that, in so far as their intellectual or moral culture was concerned, it mattered not whether the Scriptures they read had been printed in Hebrew, or in their mother tongue?

I thought this at the time an extreme case, but afterwards met with one or two similar results in other schools. I still proceeded, however, piercing the tough unpulverised clod of their understanding, till, at the expiration of ten or twelve minutes, they were made to perceive that Eli was a man – that this man had two sons—and that the names of these two sons were Hophni and Phineas.

That the fault was not in the children, but in the system, was rendered apparent from the fact, that on the same day I visited another school in the immediate neighbourhood, having the same sort of children, 140 in number (boys and girls), but taught on the Training system, in which was exhibited a minute acquaintance with Scripture history and doctrine, and an enlarged and minute knowledge of elementary science; moreover, their style of reading and writing, etc., was quite equal to that of the other school I had visited. The whole was conducted by a first and second trained master, practically acquainted with the system, with a slight infu­sion of the monitorial system in points of secondary importance.


Imperfect as mere verbal answering is, when every child knows all the answers in the lessons, and can repeat them, It is still more imperfect when the child only commits his own particular one to memory, which formerly was and still is too common in school. Most ludicrous scenes have taken place occasionally during public examinations, when a child happened to absent himself, and thus, by withdrawing a link of the chain, broke its continuity. An alert examiner, however, in most cases, can heal the breach, by a rapid movement to the next question in the order. A case lately occurred which illus­trates the rotation system. The public examinator, among other written questions which he was to ask, put this one, ‘Who made the world?’ The child answered, ‘Noah, Sir.’ The examinator said, ‘I beg your pardon, children, I am wrong; that child is not here (meaning the child who was to answer the question); I ought to have asked, ‘ Who made the ark?’


A friend of ours was taught to repeat the twenty-third Psalm by rote. The fourth line had been com­mitted thus, ‘The quayt-wait waters by,’ the sound ‘wait’ instead of ‘iet’ filling up the requisite number of syllables, and years elapsed before he understood that ‘quayt-wait’ meant quiet, or could get rid of the sound. We might state twenty ludicrous mistakes; such as ‘Whose son was Moses?’ One boy answered, and none of the others could correct him, The son of his daughter, Sir.’ As a ques­tion by itself, it was not perhaps very easily answered, but as the sound of the answer, the son of his daughter, strongly resembled the one wanted, viz., the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, it was of course given.

Stow, David. (1959) The Training System, 10th Ed. pps 119, 120