« ForrigeFortsett »
reading, after he has been taught, at your Lancaster school, to read in the Bible. He is, you will please to observe, not going to live in the house of a father or a master, who has the means or the capacity to direct his studies in any particular channel. He has no one to tell him what publications he ought to look upon as good and what as bad. He has no one to point out to him what is the production of venality and what is not. He must take things promiscuously as they come before him. He has no guide; no criterion of truth ; nothing to excite his doubts of the veracity of his author ; but must swallow every thing which chance sends into his hands. What, then, will be the probable course of his reading ? “ Children's Books," as they are called, he will naturally begin with. As far as these consist of sheer nonsense, they may do his mind little harm; but, past all dispute, it is impossible for them to have the smallest tendency towards enlightening that mind. If they rise only a little above the nonsensical, look at them, and you will find, that from one end to the other, their tendency is to inculcate abject submission. His next series are ballads and songs, which, if they step out of nonsense, go at once into the national braggings, which, while they are applauded as the means of keeping up the spirit of the people, have been one cause of plunging us into, and of prolonging, those wars, which have occasioned our enormous debts and taxes, and have led to the filling of the country with all those military establishments, heretofore regarded as so dangerous to the liberties of England. Addison, who was a very vile politician, approved of these means of keeping alive what is called “the honest prejudices of Englishmen.” What a base idea! To inculcate undisguisedly the praiseworthiness of keeping the people in ignorance ; and that, too, for the good of the country, and by the means of the press ! Honest prejudices! That is to say, an honest belief in fulsehoods ; an honest belief that falsehood is truth! One cannot help hating the man, who could avow such an idea.
If your pupil live in the country, his standard book will, in all likelihood, be MOORE'S ALMANACK, that universal companion of the farmers and labourers of England. Here he will find a perpetual spring of knowledge; a daily supply, besides an extra portion monthly. Here are signs and wonders and prophecies, in all which he will believe as im. plicitly as he does in the first chapter of Genesis. Nor will he want a due portion of politics. To keep a people in a state of profound igno. rance; to make them superstitious and slavish, there needs little more than the general reading of this single book. The poor creature, who reads this book, and who believes that the compiler of it is able to foretel when it will rain and when it will snow, is very little more enlightened than those men who believed most firmly that St. Dunstan took the Devil by the nose ; and, there is no doubt in my mind, that, if that legend were now published, they would believe it. You will say, perhaps, that it is only the very lowest of the people who believe in the prophecies of Moore's Almanack; but, is it not the very lowest description of people whom you are attempting to teach ? And, when they get out of your hands, must they not be left to themselves? You certainly do not mean to follow them to their hovels to superintend their reading.
But, the great source of your pupil's knowledge, the great source of that light, which he is to acquire, will be the NEWSPAPERS. Here he will find a constant and copious supply. And of what? Of truth? Will he here find bold and impartial statements of facts? Will he here
find plain and fearless censure of public wrong-doers ? Will he here see the cause of the oppressed manfully espoused, and the oppressor painted in colours calculated to rouse against him the hatred of mankind ? You know, Sir, that he will not. You know, that he will find the reverse of all this. You know, that he will find falsehoods, upon every subject of a public nature; praises of all those who have power to hurt or to reward, and base calumnies on all those, who, in any degree, make themselves obnoxious to power. “Yes,” say you, in the ardour of your zeal, “but, there are exceptions, my friend ; there are some of the public papers of a different description.” Some? How many, Sir ? How many out of the 300 or 400 which are published in the kingdom ? Are there ten? Suppose there are twenty. Then there are twenty chances to one against your pupil's imbibing the truth; there are twenty chances to one that his reading will produce in bim an increase of ignorance, instead of pouring light into his mind. Besides, what is he to find in the very best of these public prints ? Will he find any thing like free discussion Suppose a venal wretch to fill his columns with praises of a wicked man in power. Will any one of your twenty newspapers dare freely to investigate those columns, and by bringing proof of the wickedness of the men in power, show their falsehood? You know well, Sir, that no one would dare to do this ; you know that no writer, in bis sober senses, would think of doing it. What, then, is the undeniable conclusion? Why, this : that the praise, reaching the mind of your reader, and remaining uncontradicted, his reading must deceive him ; must give him false notions ; must, as to a matter of great public importance, make bin more ignorant than he would have been if he had never been able to read ; must make him the partisan of a man, to whom he ought, in duty to his country, to be opposed. We often hear it said, “ Let us have discussion, discussion will do good.” But, Sir, what does discussion mean? It means, the arraying, by one person, of all the facts, and all the arguments that he can muster up, against the facts and arguments of another. It does not mean open-mouthed statement and argument on one side, while, on the other, the combatant is muzzled, is compelled, for his safety, to suppress his facts, and is only permitted tremblingly to state in parables, and argue by hypothesis. In short, discussion demands a perfectly unshackled use of ali that the mind suggests; and, if this be denied, there is no discussion, The Bishop of Llandaff answered Mr. Paine ; bis Lordship discussed the matter with Thomas. But, Thomas's publishers were prosecuted by the AttorneyGeneral, and his book was suppressed ; while that of the Bishop not only had leave to circulate freely, but was forced into circulation by all the aid that zealous churchmen and other Christians could give it. I am not here speaking of the propriety or impropriety of this ; but, it must be confessed, I think, that it was a singular sort of discussion. Yet, of very nearly the same stamp are all the discussions that your pupils will find in our public prints. If, for instance, a report be published of a trial in a court of justice, accompanied with astonishing praises of the wisdom and integrity of “the Learned Judge ;” and, if some one were to think that the decision evinced no such qualities in the learned personage, but, rather, the contrary; would he be much inclined to impart his thoughts to the public ? If, in a moment of ungovernable zeal, he were freely to discuss such praises, and draw from his facts and arguments an opposite conclusion, would he not, when he came to see his writing in print, set himself down as ruined ? Why, then, talk of discussion? Discuss, indeed, we may, and freely, too, all questions relating to the qualities of trees and herbs. There is no danger in writing about dung or potatoes or cabbages. Here your pupils will have a large field ; but, as to politics, law, and religion, the army or the navy, peace or war; as to all those subjects interesting to man as a member of society, they will assuredly meet with nothing, issuing from the press of this country, worthy of the name of discussion.
Why, then, teach the children of the poor to read ? Why waste, in this pursuit, either money or time; seeing that, if you succeed, your success must necessarily tend to the increase of error and to the debasement of the people? It is not the mere cupability of reading that can raise man in the scale of nature. It is the enlightening of his mind; and, if the capability of distinguishing words upon paper does not tend to enlighten bim, that acquireinent is to be considered as nothing of any value.
The great length of this letter mahes me fear to proceed further at present; and, therefore, I conclude with an expression of my sincere respect for your character and your motives.
WM, COBBETT. Botley, 8th Dec. 1813,
TO MR. ALDERMAN WOOD,
THE SUBJECT OF TEACHING THE CHILDREN OF THE
POOR TO READ.
(Political Register, December, 1813.)
LETTER II. SIR,
In the printing of my last letter a gross error, or, rather, interpolation, was made, in page 278, where “the history of the Bees' House" is spoken of. I never heard of such a history, and am utterly at a loss to conceive how the blunder could have been committed.
When I closed, rather abruptly, my last, I was about to notice the cause, as appeared to me, of the wonderful concurrence of all the sects to promote this work of reading. These sects, which agree in nothing else, all agree as to this matter. They all think, or say, that good must come from reading. Yet, they must, one would think, be aware, that, by learn. ing to read, the poor will run the risk of reading books, which each sect looks upon as very mischievous. But, the truth is, that each sect pleases itself with the idea, that all those who read will become its proselytes. But, perhaps, a more powerful cause is the vanity of literary men, who are all for ihe reading scheme. Each of them supposes, that, whatever neglect the present race of readers may show of his writings, a new race will be charmed with them, and, indeed, will read nothing else. Dr. Rees
and Mr. Belsham believe, I dare say, that all the boys, whom you and other liberal gentlemen are causing to be taught to read, will read their Sermons. Not at all! They will read Dibdin's songs, Moore's Almanack, and the newspapers ; and the sermons of these worthy and zealous gentlemen will remain to be read in the confined circles, in which they are now an object of attention.
The newspapers will always have the preference; and these must do barın to your readers, because, in the present state of things, they will, of course, be the vehicles of darkness rather than of light. i have shown before, that there is not, in our press, any such thing as free discussion, when the subject is of a nature interesting to man as a member of society. There is no man in England, who will venture to deny the truth of this. There is no man who will attempt to controvert the proposition. There are, indeed, men, who, in their writings, affect to boast of the blessings of a free press; but, in this they only discover their baseness. They know, that what they say is false, and they say it, in many instances, merely to disguise their shame. They wish to be looked upon as free to utter their thoughts; and this wish leads them to belie both their opinions and their knowledge.
The law of libel and all its terrors out of the question, there is abundant reason why the press should be partial and servile. Nay, supposing ihat no corruption of the press is employed by the Government; sull the press must naturally be almost wholly devoted to it. There is an influence, which very greatly surpasses in its effect all direct interference of the Government. I mean the influence of taxation. The Government has a hundred millions a year to expend. Such an expenditure must make the press its own without supposing one penny expended in purchasing the press. Men who live by writing are very rarely over-rich. They must eat as well as write. They must, therefore, write to please those who have the power to give them the means of eating Those who receive the hundred millions a year ; those amongst whom that all-influencing sum is distri. buted have that power; and, it follows, of course, that those who write will endeavour to please them.
These remarks will appear just to whomsoever will take the trouble to calculate the immense amount of the adrertisements inserted for the different purposes of the Government, not only in the London but in the country newspapers. These alone form no mean part of the profits of every newspaper which has them to insert. Their insertion is, perhaps, neces. sary to the affairs of the Government. But, the selection of the newspapers must be with its officers, and they, of course, will give their valuable custom to those papers which please them the most. If you add to these the advertisements of Magistrates, Clerks of the Peace, Sherifl's, Commissioners of Taxes, &c. &c., you will, in this article alone, see quite sufficient cause for the partiality of this part of the press. It is a sort of influence such as a rich gentleman has amongst bis tradesmen and his tenants. It arises out of the system of taxülion, which makes the Government the employer of half the nation. Liberty of the press," exclaimed a friend of mine, who is now dead; a pretty thing, “ indeed, to talk of liberty of the press in a country where the Govern“ ment has forty millions a year to expend !” What would he have said now? And, what would he have said of the idea of teaching the poor to read the productions of this press, with the hope of aiding the cause of public liberty ?
If your readers should reach so high as Magazines and Reviews, what will they find there? The productions, for the most part, of men actually in a state of the most mercenary and servile dependence; or the mere partisans of a faction. Works of this sort become daily less interesting. It is well known, that there is, in their authors, no hope of impartiality. The far greater part of the writers of them are in some place or employment, which, io say the least of its effects, must make them partial. În short, a Review is any thing, now-a-days, but what it professes to be.
But, some, at least, of your readers, will dip into history. Will they ? And what will they find there? From the history, indeed, of remote periods, they may collect some truth; but, what is to be expected from a history of the last fifty years ? A very pretty specimen of this sort of productions is to be found in the history of Lord Nelson's achievements, in 1799, in the Bay of Naples ! Capt. Foote, goaded on by a desire to avenge himself on those who had, as he says, ill-treated him, has given the worid a true history of those acts; but, in how few instances has the like happened! In how few instances has truth been able to make the smallest stand against overwhelming falsehood! To a lying culogium on any person in power who dares to reply in a manner demanded by truth! You know well that no man dares do it. You know well, that most terrible punishment would await any man, who should dare to show, that an eulogized person in power was worthy of contempt or hatred. And, this being the case, and writers being at all times to be found to eulogize the great, what benefit, I seriously ask you, can be expected from teaching the poor to read history:
Lastly, as to works upon religion. Who dares lo express his thoughts without disguise, if his thoughts be in contradiction to what is deemed essential for the people to believe ? There are men, who, so far from believing in the doctrines of Christianity, believe those doctrines to be pernicious in their effects. Take it for granted, that such men are in error ; but, if they be not permitted to publish their thoughts; if every one be not at full liberty to say just what he thinks upon the subject, what good is reading to do your pupils ? If there be a certain set of dogmas, which no man is to speak against, what have your pupils to do but to learn those dogmas from the mouth of a priest of some sect or other? Why should they reud, if others are not to write ? In truth, they are not at liberty to read, unless any one who chooses may write what he chooses upon this subject. So that, you will find, at last, that you are teaching the poor to read and to believe what others choose they should read and believe, and nothing more.
The recent instance as to a theatrical piece, would in any other state of things, lead men to reflect. The facts are thus related, in the form of a Letter to the Editor of the Morning Chronicle, inserted in that paper of the 9th instant.
“Sir, Influenced by what I conceive to be the general fecling of my country, “men, I went last night to Drury-lane Theatre in the expectation of seeing a
piece founded on the influx of grateful intelligence which has of late so “ eminently exhilarated, I hope, every individual of these truly happy realms. “ To my utter astonishment and disappointment, a printed paper was put into “ my hand at the door of the theatre (the contents of which are, of course, no“toriously public), intimating that an interdiction of the performance had been “ issued by Mr. Larpent, in the name of the Lord Chamberlain, five hours before " the period of intended representation, on the sole plea that the licenser had not “ had sufficient time to peruse a piece of one act sent to his office the Saturday « preceding.