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Public Education.

by Isaac Leeser

There is hardly one proposition which is so self-evident as that the members of the human family, in civilized society, are bound to aid each other in the attainment of the utmost possible degree of happiness. There is a chain of mutual dependence running through the whole framework of social organization, that it can be with truth asserted, that not the most distant parts can be affected without the disease reaching sooner or later those the farthest removed from the original contagion. Hence every one is interested in the maintenance of justice, in the punishment of the guilty, and the useful employment of all who can in any manner contribute, through their exertion, to the increase of the general stock of labour. The latter condition is the one assigned to us by Providence, more as a means of healthful existence than as a punishment for transgression; and hereof the Bible speaks already at the first creation of man, when he was led into the garden of Eden, “to till it, and to keep it.” Hence it is the duty of the community to permit, if possible, no one to be idle, and to see that all who labour should labour understandingly. Now labour includes all employment, whether it be the hands that execute, or the mental exertions which are the parent of labour in others, or which the organization of the community calls for, as matters which it requires, though strictly speaking nothing is produced thereby. Two things follow from this definition, that labour, to be useful to the community, must proceed from proper agents; secondly, that the labourer who properly pursues his task is entitled to all respect and consideration, as much so as the person who employs him, since in fulfilling the object of his creation, he contributed to the general good no less than to his own subsistence.

The question now naturally arises: “How are the labourers, which, as defined, ought to include the largest number of men, even those belonging to the learned professions, so called, to be fitted for their station, so as to aid in producing the utmost possible benefit to the community at large?” The answer has been often given: it is education which is to ennoble the labourer, and render him not alone a contributor to the general stock of wealth, but also an intelligent participator in the government of the affairs of the commonwealth, however small the share may be which falls to his lot. For by securing an education, he becomes fitted to see the object of his exertions, and he will not work merely because his poverty compels him thereto, but to elevate himself above his condition if possible, or at all events, to enjoy in the sphere assigned to him, the utmost consideration and usefulness of which it is capable.

“But what sort of education is it which will enable man to fulfil his duties properly, and with advantage to himself and others?” The enemies of general freedom and enlightenment, they who deem that some men are born to rule, whilst others are destined to labour for their advancement, have pointed to the crimes of those of the so-called lower classes of society, who have received a good share of education, and asked exultingly: “Whether or not learning has been injurious to them?” It may be answered in general terms to this objection, that no system is perfect, and that no matter how much we educate, crimes will be committed; and that whereas the humble in circumstances, the poor, the lower classes, are more exposed to temptation to commit crimes against property: it must be reasonable to find much wrong-doing committed, even in a community of educated persons. But independently of this consideration, it may be asserted that there is a difference in the kinds of education which are afforded. One kind merely goes to teach a certain number of ideas which have no farther reference to life than to embellish it; another, however, is directed to point out how life is to be conducted to be useful, by being founded on virtue. Mere embellishments, such as reading, writing, a knowledge of languages, practical sciences, and the arts, do not reach the heart, however they may improve the understanding; the mind may be very corrupt, even whilst one possesses all the elegancies and accomplishments of the most finished gentleman. Nay, such knowledge in the reach of an unprincipled person, enables him the more readily to prey on his neighbour. He has now, in addition to the desire and the brute force to accomplish his object, also the dexterity and cunning to devise and carry out the evil which he may feel inclined to pursue. Add to this the impulse of poverty, the presence of temptation, and the supposed difficulty of being detected: and you have reason enough why education of the kind spoken of should rather lead to evil than good results.

Let us, however, turn to the education of the heart. It also requires the first rudiments of mental education, it may also be accompanied by the elegancies and mere sciences; but it must take hold of the duties, likewise, which have to be performed from our entrance into existence, until we finally leave it. It lays hold of man as he begins to think, in his earliest infancy and from this point downward in the path of years, it is to direct and restrain him, to encourage him when he acts well, to punish him when his deeds are evil. The Bible teaches us that the heart of man is evil from his youth; but it also commands us to teach the law diligently to our children; and that we shall learn our duties and observe to do them; that the law is our life and the length of our days. These various passages are not contradictory nor incongruous with each other; they are the language of revelation, confirmed by sound common sense and our daily experience. The heart is wicked, that is, evil has a powerful attraction for man during the whole course of his existence; but there is a force in religious training to subdue the evil and to make it subservient to a good result. Let us consider to what length ambition and covetousness have led, to what crimes and sufferings they have given birth. But on the contrary, show us one good act in life performed by the man who had no love of honour, no desire to possess. The very reward which the mechanic desires for his daily toil is an evidence that he desires to possess something which he has not already; but without this wish he would not work; and which of the two results is the best, the state of idleness which desires nothing, and that of labour which seeks a reward? Every one almost who learns any trade hopes one day to be master; it is certainly an evidence of ambition that one should feel so; but what efforts are not made to reach a degree of perfection through this wish! it is the secret of activity, of exertion, of a determination to excel; and thus it is the motive which has produced all the improvement and refinement of modern life which embellish it above the rude manners of many preceding generations. Education has therefore pointed out to is a sphere in which failure, it is true, is not impossible, but where success is almost sure, if the proper course be pursued. It is a claim which the poor, and the labouring classes especially, have upon the rest of the community, that they be properly and early trained to a correct mode of thinking, so that in their struggle through life they may be able to withstand the natural inclination to evil, and to withdraw them by an inherent power from the solicitation of seducing circumstances, into which circumstances or associates may draw them.

In other words the whole community is bound to provide means of a thorough religious education for all classes, whether they may be able to pay the teachers from their own means or not. It is a general position, that every person who has life is entitled to bread, to water, to raiment, and a roof to shelter him. Where one’s own means do not reach, there are provided poor houses, asylums of all kinds, and the ready hand of charity, which seldom lets the necessitous pass away without relief. The physical wants are supplied; societies are raised to see that the orphan has a home, that the woman at the moment of becoming a mother should have all the comforts which her painful state demands; the fire is kindled on the poor man'’ hearth by the busy hand of a benevolent spirit whilst the winter storm howls fierce without; the couch of sickness is attended by watchful eyes, even whilst the sufferer is unconscious of outward objects, and recognises not the faces of those which surround him. All this is done for the body; but what is done for the soul? where is the education which is to ennoble—not to embellish life? which is to elevate the soul, enrich the heart, and teach man how to live in prosperity, how to suffer in adversity? Moreover, it is not the poor alone who require this aid,—the rich too are suffering from the want of it, the highest of the earth require the soothing, the sustaining power of faith to enable them to travel the thorny path which their existence on earth opens for them. O were there nothing but flowers in our way, were we always to travel on smooth and level roads, surrounded by joy, nursed by pleasure: how pleasantly would our days glide away one by one into the ocean of eternity. But far otherwise do our days speed along. Prosperity is not for ever, nor security for many years. Each man requires the stay for his spirit which religion affords, when he is wearied with labour and sorrow; and he has a claim on his fellow-men to reach him the helping hand, to search with him, to find and to appropriate to himself the benefits of the mental culture which is thus needed for him; or what is the same, the community is as much bound to provide ample religious education as it is to provide poor houses, orphan asylums, and hospitals of all kinds for the physical wants of the poor. It is the duty of all to see, that from the earliest possible period proper principles be instilled in the mind of the people, so that the mere physical education, under which term we include every branch except the moral sciences, should be accompanied in every step by a corresponding effort to expand the moral faculties, and to take great heed that the acquisition of knowledge be not made an additional means to enable to designing to prey with more certainty and impunity upon the wants of the community.

But it is a lamentable fact, that the various sectarian differences which exist every where, must necessarily prevent a common course of instruction for all mankind, since each class connects its morals with the peculiar dogmas which it especially claims as its own. Hence, whilst all men think their system the only correct one, they ought not, if they would even be willing, to surrender them whilst they are convinced of their correctness. Hence it is not to be desired under present circumstances to amalgamate all the children of a community to receive their moral impressions from one teacher, whilst he would be induced to infuse his peculiar dogmas into the mind along with the acknowledged universal principles of right in which all are agreed. This is neither bigotry nor illiberality, but only acting up to conscientious convictions, without which we ourselves should not profess to believe in or to uphold any system of doctrine. It results from this, that moral principles cannot be well imparted with religious sanction except by denominational teachers; for, although pure morals are alike in all systems founded upon the blessed Scriptures, they must be taught free from those views which parents have a just right to think as clashing with their religious sentiment properly so called.—Now there might be a possibility for various Christian sects to unite in one school upon the broad grounds of their distinctive notions in which all agree; far different however is it with Israelites, who have received such a legacy from their fathers as renders it incompatible to assimilate upon any common platform with the sects around them. But religion and morals are as necessary to them and have as beneficial an effect on their lives as can possible be the case with any other class of mankind. and, since the public teachers of other societies can thus be of no use to us, it follows as a necessary deduction, that we are bound to seek ourselves to establish schools, to demand the appointment of teachers, and to secure to all Israelites a Public Religious Education. With these remarks we close for the present, and ask of our readers to ponder well on the propositions which we have laid before them.