A nostalgic article from Ashley Sterne in The Telegraph (Brisbane, Queensland), 25 October 1937.
[Note: a sporan is a small pouch that hangs in front of a Scotsman's kilt.)
Out of School
By Ashley Sterne
I have hitherto always imagined an educationalist to be a terribly severe-looking individual, with knobs of knowledge sticking out of his forehead like walnuts, a head of hair like a hastily-constructed stork's-nest, and a long, disorderly beard like a moth-eaten sporan. I must now amend this mental picture and visualise him as a merry and bright sort of fellow; for I read that a certain "Prominent Educationalist" has recently been urging the total abolition of homework for schoolboys.
This much-needed reform is, of course, no very novel and original idea. Smith Minor has been advocating it for several generations, but unfortunately without anybody sitting up and taking notice. Now, however, that the voice of a Man that Matters has set the wild echoes flying, there seems to be a reasonable chance of the schoolboy being granted this indoor relief.
How homework ever came to be imposed upon the wretched scholar must be a matter for conjecture. In my own days at St. Barabbas's, during the most vicious period of the Victorian era, I can only imagine that our homework was designed to keep us out of the ale-houses, gin-places, and opium-dens (which, I agree, are not exactly a good thing for Young England), for we were regularly burning the midnight therm in our futile endeavours to cope with it. Slacking or ignoring it altogether simply meant that on the morrow we should, for health and comfort's sake, have to return to school with our trousers lined with sheet-iron.
Yet consider what we had to accomplish. Take the Latin stuff we were expected to prepare alone and unguided. Here's a bit from Platypus which I well remember sitting up all night over — all adverbs and conjunctions and prepositions — stuff which I would have defied even John Milton to construe without a crib.
"Propinque nunc tunc junc punc zinc dum turn jamdudum teetotum hicockolorum ..."
In despair, I translated it as: "Caesar, having quartered Gaul Into three halves, at once retired to his winter-quarters." What it really means, in good Modern English, is: "Then pious Aeneas splashed himself out a good four fingers of 20 u.p. Old Falernian from the Sabine jar, and, with a nod to the terra-cotta bust of Old Man Anchises on the mantelpiece, knocked it back with his usual cheery 'Here's how!'" And you, no doubt, will be as surprised as I was at this most unexpected result.
Then, again, there were those diabolically harassing mathematical exercises which invariably concerned either an old market woman buying and selling fruit, or three wasters named A, B, and C performing a "piece of work." I cannot remember, at this distance of time, the precise wording of the problem set us to elucidate, but the following examples reflect the spirit, of them:—
"An old market-woman buys Ribston pippins at the rate of 29 for 5 1/2 d. and sells them as Cape gooseberries at 8 1/2 d. a pint. Calculate to three decimal-places what relation she was to the person whose photograph she was looking at. (Brokerage 1/8.)"
Of course, the problem would have been simple if the old crone had been looking at the actual person. But schoolmasters are always out to catch chaps whenever they can; otherwise there would be nothing to justify their trailing half the alphabet after their names.
"A, B, and C are digging an artesian well. A works twice as fast as B, who has to attend hospital twice a week for deep-ray therapy. Nevertheless, B works twice as fast as A and C together, and C can give A a stroke a hole. How much does each draw at the end of the week? (Reckon £1 to be worth 4.86 dollars.)"
The answer should be 6 quarts, of course. But the only solution I could suggest, after three hours' intensive study of the erudite Mr. Pendlebury, was that it turned blue litmus red.
And then, after the written homework, there was always something to be got off by heart — such as "Paradise Lost," or a list of the coaling stations between Archangel and Honolulu, or possibly the genealogical table showing Hardicanute's descent from Boadicea. I tell you, it was no joke for a lad in the early 'teens to sit up till long past midnight wrestling with such tasks, his eyelids propped open with drawing-pins, his brows swathed with cold-tea bandages, and his feet immersed in strong black coffee.
And when the Schoolboy's Friend has triumphantly succeeded in getting home-work abolished, I hope that he will see what he can do about the extirpation of school-exams. The pedagogues may argue that they are necessary in order to test the height of a boy's knowledge, but as no school-exam has ever achieved anything except plumb the depths of a boy's ignorance (none of the set questions is ever part of former instruction), their futility is obvious. I still retain in my archives a set of the St. Barabbas's exam-papers, from which I cull the following specimens:—
"State what you know about Jenkins's Ear, Peter's Pence, Queen Anne's Bounty, Jessica's First Prayer, Christy's Old Organ. Give a reason for your answers, and an example of each."
"On the accompanying blank map of Tristan da Cunha insert the following geographical features: (a) the Pier and Bandstand: (h) the Red Lion; (c) the Vicarage, (d) the Gaumont Palace, (e) the blacksmith's, (f) the route of the underground railway system."
"What chemical reaction takes place when you pour hydraulic acid on (a) sulphate of zinc, b) the Sultan of Zanzibar?"
"What is the difference — stop us if you've heard it — between the table of affinity and the theory of relativity? Write a life of Einstein, and illustrate with photographs."
Well, I knew nothing of any of these things, but all the same, what I knew about other things not covered by the questions would have filled a pantechnicon. From which it follows that the only way by which school exams can ever ascertain the extent of a boy's learning is to let him set his own exam papers. Thereafter what his tutors wouldn't know about blowing birds' eggs, rearing silkworms, the market value of three-cornered Cape of Good Hope postage stamps, and the private lives of such famous individuals as the Young Lady of Nottingham, the Curate of Kidderminster. and the Old Man of Pernambuco could all be written upon a couple of confetti.
These reformations would naturally come rather too late in my young life to be of any advantage to me, but I do not hesitate to affirm that if I were Wee Georgie Wood or Ivor Vintnor I'd forthwith buy myself a sachtel and crash straight back to the Lower Third at dear old St. Barabbas's, if only to feel what it felt like to be home-workless and examless.
As it is, what a hope of passing myself off for fourteen, with my left foot done up in a parcel, and wide open spaces on my skull that stand in dire need of returfing!