PIONEER WORK OF P.N.E.U.
By Fr. F. H. DRINKWATER On behalf of parents it may always be said that after all they do provide the raw material of education, and perhaps the teaching fraternity is not always sufficiently grateful to them for performing this humble but necessary service. Schools of every kind tend to regard the parent as a dangerous and incalculable animal, to be appeased and flattered, of course, on the correct occasions, but to be kept at a distance and not called into co-operation except in direst extremity.
In the ranks of the teachers, however. there are always a few fifth-columnists who rightly or wrongly see the parent as the educator par excellence, unsurpassable and unreplaceable ; and some of these have even conceived the magnificent idea of turning the parent himself-or more usually herself-into a teacher, and thus, if not eliminating the need for the school altogether, at any rate doing most of its work beforehand.
One such attempt, deservedly well known in the U.S.A. (the League of TeacherMothers founded by Miss Ella Frances Lynch) was described in the CATHOLIC HERALD lately. But something of the same sort exists also in England.
DATES FROM THE " NAUGHTY NINETIES " It is called the Parents National Educational Union (hence by the mystic letters P.N.E.U. for short), and it was founded by Miss Charlotte Mason, who died in 1923 leaving her work and her school in charge of a Trust. There is an office at 26, Victoria Street, S.W.1, and the Parents' Union School, the real headquarters of the work, is at Ambleside, amongst the lakes and fells.
All this dates back to what are called the " naughty nineties," but Miss Charlotte Mason was not feeling naughty; instead, she felt " fond of children " and desired to help parents who were struggling with the education problem.
In these days married people, with one unlucky child or two, often say " We can't afford to educate any more."
The Victorian answer to that feeble excuse was the " school-room " in every middleclass home, where the children of a family, or perhaps of two or three families, were taught by parents or governess until they were deemed old enough and tough enough to go off to the far-from-luxurious boardingschools of those days. It was a good arrangement, as plenty of us can testify from experience, but of course the parents or governesses were mostly amateurs and needed help, and that is where Charlotte Mason came in.
She started (in 1891) her scheme for a kind of systematic tuition through the post, with a curriculum of work, and regular assignments to be worked through and sent up for correction, periodical tests. and all the rest of it, somewhat on the principle of the Pelmet; system or Fr. McMahon's religious instruction for the Bushies.
It filled a genuine need, and from the home-schoolroom it spread to many schools, chiefly private schools but also to the ordinary ones, while its ideas have influenced many more. A few years ago most of the elementary schools in Gloucestershire, under the guidance of a specially enthusiastic Director of Education. were following the P.N.E.U. course, and many of them still hold to it. Its programmes grew with the years, and the course now takes the School Certificate in its stride, so to speak, but will not go into such details which can easily be discovered by readers for themselves.
SHE HAD THE RIGHT IDEA
The main fact is that Miss Charlotte Mason possessed then many of the right ideas that can now be gathered from Froehel, Montessori. Dalton plan, etc.. etc., with an extra dash of Englishness, and even of Victorian Eng
lishness, which is somehow just what one is glad to meet in educational philosophy.
Able school teachers complain that the P.N.E.U. course, with its set books and rigid examinations, leaves too little freedom, but we must remember that the system was not devised for them.
Two points I have always liked very much in the P.N.E.U. outlook. One is that the mother-tongue-the speaking and writing of English, and the training of the mind
through the right use of language-is frankly accepted as the all-important thing in the curriculum. And the other is that the children are supposed to use not the usual kind of school-readers, but a little library of living hooks, because (says P.N.E.U.) the mind responds naturally to knowledge that is communicated in well-chosen words and in literary form.
This seems to me very true. and I have always disliked the " Bible Histories " which are given to our children, and which always seem to be written by some very uninspired writer and sometimes even take the form of an uninspiring translation of some uninspired German or other.
DOWN WITH THE TEXT BOOK Similarly in the matter of doctrine, I have often been urged to bring out a series of religious textbooks for the children (and how remunerative they would be-I suppose I should have been a millionaire by this time, with at least 120,000 schoolchildren in one diocese alone having to buy one of my books every year!) but I have always rejected the idea on principle and stuck to the production of teachers' aid-hooks which seems to me the true policy even if only some teachers ever take the trouble to use them.
The reason I mention this here is because it has just occurred to me that probably some of the credit for this correct decision
should go to Miss Charlotte Mason, or rather to the unsigned articles which she used to contribute to The Times Educational Supplement twenty years ago, and from which I probably derived my prejudice against pupil's textbooks in the cultural subjects. •' Down with the class-reader! Down with the textbook " would make a very good educational slogan all the way up from kindergarten to university.
" TELLING BACK "
Charlotte Mason (I think) and even the Charlotte Masonites would disclaim any idea of a special P.N.E.U. method, but there is at least one point of procedure that they insist on a good deal: that children should " tell back " (in speech or writing) what they have heard from the teachers or read in their book after a single hearing or reading. " A single hearing or reading " is insisted on ; children (they claim) have naturally great powers of concentration and memorising, which are ruined by the repetitions, questionings and summarisings, etc., which make up the ordinary kind of class-lesson.
I may be wrong, but that one recommendation seems to take us back with a tremendous leap to something that was a living reality in the days of Bede and Alcuin, and that might be worth re-discovering in these days when we are re-discovering things so recklessly.