My own start

Ruskin’s Fors Clavigera had made me think  meanly, if not meanly enough, of the school teaching that had been my work since 1878; and under the same influence of Ruskin’s book I felt that man’s only decent occupation was in handicraft. I shudder yet smile to think now what raw ideas swayed me then; yet the enthusiasm so ill reflected in them were the sweetness of life to me in every disillusionment that was to come. They saved me from the worst sordidness of business. Finishing my school work with the first term of 1884, namely the day before Good Friday, I took four days of rest (I was to have no more vacations for many years) and began work at the shop on Easter Tuesday.

I don’t remember what I did that day; but I do remember the grey and searching east wind that faced me at six o’clock that morning. There was a little over a furlong of street to travel, familiar enough, but I had never before seen it at that early hour.

George Sturt, The Wheelwright’s Shop  (1921) p.12

It’s impossible to open any text concerning craft in the early twentieth century without finding a reference to Ruskin. Ruskin’s ideas on education in Fors Clavigera were a real find; progressive in their day (if not today, in this era of “common core”) and amazingly well thought through in my estimation.

As a writing teacher, I remember the reaction some students would have to my utter lack of grammar instruction; after several courses in linguistics/language I reached the conclusion (as many have) that it was probably the biggest waste of classroom time there is. I felt that the best way to learn writing was through practice, and discovering a good reason to write. Here’s Ruskin’s take, in a dutiful footnote:

I am at total issue with most preceptors as to the use of grammar to any body. In a recent examination of our Coniston school I observed that the thing the children did exactly best, was their parsing, and the thing they did exactly worst, their repetition. Could stronger proof be given that the dissection of a sentence is as bad a way to the understanding of it as the dissection of a beast to the biography of it ?  (255)

Truly fabulous way of putting it, in my estimation: better than Wordsworth’s “murder to dissect,” more pointed and directed to his end.  The shining moments, alluded to by George Sturt, who remembered this book fondly so many years later, include:

And it is in the wholesome indisposition of the average mind for intellectual labour that due provision is made for the quantity of dull work which must be done in stubbing the Thornaby wastes of the world. Modern Utopianism imagines that the world is to be stubbed by steam, and human arms and legs to be eternally idle ; not perceiving that thus it would reduce man to the level of his cattle indeed, who can only graze and gore, but not dig ! It is indeed certain that advancing knowledge will guide us to less painful methods of human toil ; but in the true Utopia, man will rather harness himself, with his oxen, to his plough, than leave the devil to drive it.

The entire body of teaching throughout the series of Fors Clavigera is one steady assertion of the necessity that educated persons should share their thoughts with the uneducated, and take also a certain part in their labours. But there is not a sentence implying that the education of all should be alike, or that there is to be no distinction of master from servant, or of scholar from clown. That education should be open to all, is as certain as that the sky should be ; but, as certainly, it should be enforced on none, and benevolent Nature left to lead her children, whether men or beasts, to take or leave at their pleasure. Bring horse and man to the water, let them drink if, and when, they will ; — the child who desires education will be bettered by it, the child who dislikes it, only disgraced. (258-9)

This is a line of reasoning missed by most utopian theories; people actually would prefer to work rather than be driven by forces outside their control. The idea that utopia is a land where people are couch potatoes, or poets and scholars, well, that’s obviously a fantasy. I do love that phrase that “That education should be open to all, as is certain the sky should be”—but that obviously (at least to Ruskin) doesn’t mean that everyone needs to go to college. There’s a lot of work out there to be done.

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2 Comments

  1. Posted March 26, 2015 at 9:05 am | Permalink

    If you haven’t discovered this trove of Ruskin online you might enjoy it http://onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/webbin/book/lookupname?key=Ruskin%2C%20John%2C%201819-1900

  2. Jeff
    Posted March 29, 2015 at 10:07 am | Permalink

    Thanks Doug. I’ve been looking things up piecemeal because as I mentioned, I can only take a little Ruskin at a time. It’s scary to see it all there in one pile like that! That man can go on like nobody’s business; these aren’t short pieces, they go on and on and on… I wish I enjoyed them more. Some of the nuggets are priceless, but you’ve got to wade through a lot to find them. More people quote Ruskin as quoted by other people, I think, rather than read him themselves.

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