Observations on the Importance of the American Revolution

and the

Means of making it a Benefit to the World

Richard Price (1785)

Of Education

Such is the state of things which I wish to take place in the united American states. In order to introduce and perpetuate it, and at the same time to give it the greatest effect on the improvement of the world, nothing is more necessary than the establishment of a wise and liberal plan of Education. It is impossible properly to represent the importance of this. So much is left by the author of nature to depend on the turn given to the mind in early life, and the impressions then made, that I have often thought there may be a secret remaining to be discovered in education which will cause future generations to grow up virtuous and happy and accelerate human improvement to a greater degree than can at present be imagined.

The end of education is to direct the powers of the mind in unfolding themselves and to assist them in gaining their just bent and force. And, in order to this, its business should be to teach how to think, rather than what to think, or to lead into the best way of searching for truth, rather than to instruct in truth itself. As for the latter, who is qualified for it? There are many indeed who are eager to undertake this office. All parties and sects think they have discovered truth and are confident that they alone are its advocates and friends. But the very different and inconsistent accounts they give of it demonstrate they are utter strangers to it and that it is better to teach nothing than to teach what they hold out for truth. The greater their confidence, the greater is the reason for distrusting them. We generally see the warmest zeal, where the object of it is the greatest nonsense.

Such observations have a particular tendency to shew that education ought to be an initiation into candour, rather than into systems of faith, and that it should form a habit of cool and patient investigation, rather than an attachment to any opinions.

But hitherto education has been conducted on a contrary plan. It has been a contraction, not an enlargement, of the intellectual faculties, an injection of false principles hardening them in error, not a discipline enlightening and improving them. Instead of opening and strengthening them, and teaching to think freely, it hath cramped and enslaved them, and qualified for thinking only in one track. Instead of instilling humility, charity, and liberality, and thus preparing for an easier discovery and a readier admission of truth, it has inflated with conceit, and stuffed the human mind with wretched prejudices.

The more has been learnt from such education, the more it becomes necessary to unlearn. The more has been taught in this way, of so much the more must the mind be emptied before true wisdom can enter. Such was education in the time of the first teachers of Christianity. By furnishing with skill in the arts of disputation and sophistry, and producing an attachment to established systems, it turned the minds of men from truth, and rendered them more determined to resist evidence and more capable of evading it. Hence it happened that this heavenly instruction, when first communicated was to the Jews a stumbling block, and to the Greeks foolishness, and that, in spite of miracles themselves, the persons who rejected it with most disdain, and who opposed it with most violence, were those who had been educated in colleges and were best versed in the false learning of the times. And had it taught the true philosophy instead of the true religion, the effect would have been the same. The doctrine 'that the sun stood still, and that the earth moved round it', would have been reckoned no less absurd and incredible, than the doctrine of a crucified Messiah. And the men who would have treated such an instruction with most contempt would have been the wise and the prudent, that is, the proud sophists and learned doctors of the times who had studied the Ptolemaick system of the world and learnt, by cycles and epicycles, to account for all the motions of the heavenly bodies.

In like manner, when the improvement of logick in Mr. Locke's Essay on the Human Understanding was first published in Britain the persons readiest to attend to it and to receive it were those who had never been trained in colleges and whose minds, therefore, had never been perverted by an instruction in the jargon of the schools.

To the deep professors of the time, it appeared (like the doctrine taught in his book on the reasonableness of Christianity) to be a dangerous novelty and heresy, and the University of Oxford, in particular, condemned and reprobated the author. The like happened when Sir Isaac Newton's discoveries were first published. A romance (that is, the philosophy of Descartes) was in possession of the philosophical world. Education had rivetted it in the mind of the learned, and it was twenty-seven years before Newton's Principia could gain sufficient credit to bring it to a second edition. Such are the prejudices which have generally prevailed against new lights. Such the impediments which have been thrown in the way of improvement by a narrow plan of education. Even now the principal object of education (especially in divinity) is to teach established systems as certain truths, and to qualify for successfully defending them against opponents and thus to arm the mind against conviction and render it impenetrable to farther light. Indeed, were it offered to my option which I would have, the plain sense of a common and untutored man, or the deep erudition of the proud scholars and professors in most universities, I should eagerly prefer the former, from a persuasion that it would leave me at a less distance from real wisdom. An unoccupied and simple mind is infinitely preferable to a mind warped by systems, and the entire want of learning better than a learning such as most of that is which hitherto has been sought and admired. A learning which puffs up, while in reality it is nothing but profounder ignorance and more inveterate prejudice.

It may be worth adding here that a narrow education (should it ever happen not to produce the evils now mentioned) will probably produce equal evils of a contrary nature. I mean, that there will be danger when persons so educated come to see the absurdity of some of the opinions in which they have been educated, that they will become prejudiced against them all and, consequently, throw them all away and run wild into scepticism and infidelity. At present, in this part of the world this is a very common event.

I am by no means qualified to give a just account of the particular method in which education ought to be conducted so as to avoid these evils, that is, so as to render the mind free and unfettered, quick in discerning evidence, and prepared to follow it from whatever quarter and in whatever manner it may offer itself. But certain it is that the best mode of education is that which does this most effectually, which guards best against silly prejudices, which enflames most with the love of truth, which disposes most to ingenuity and fairness, and leaves the mind most sensible of its own need of farther information. Had this always been the aim of education, mankind would now have been further advanced. It supposes, however, an improved state of mankind, and when once it has taken place it will quicken the progress of improvement.

I have in these observations expressed a dislike of systems, but I have meant only to condemn that attachment to them as standards of truth which has been too prevalent. It may be necessary in education to make use of them or of books explaining them. But they should be used only as guides and helps to enquiry. Instruction in them should be attended with a fair exhibition of the evidence on both sides of every question, and care should be taken to induce, as far as possible, a habit of believing only on an overbalance of evidence, and of proportioning assent in every case to the degree of that overbalance, without regarding authority, antiquity, singularity, novelty, or any of the prejudices which too commonly influence assent. Nothing is so well fitted to produce this habit as the study of mathematics. In these sciences no one ever thinks of giving his assent to a proposition till he can clearly understand it and see it proved by a fair deduction from propositions previously understood and proved. In these sciences the mind is inured to close and patient attention, shewn the nature of just reasoning, and taught to form distinct ideas and to expect clear evidence in all cases before belief. They furnish, therefore, the best exercise for the intellectual powers and the best defence against that credulity and precipitation and confusion of ideas which are the common sources of error.

There is, however, a danger even here to be avoided. Mathematical studies may absorb the attention too much, and when they do they contract the mind by rendering it incapable of thinking at large by disqualifying it for judging of any evidence except mathematical and, consequently, disposing it to an unreasonable scepticism on all subjects which admit not of such evidence. There have been many instances of this narrowness in mathematicians.

But to return from this digression, I cannot help observing on this occasion, with respect to Christianity in particular, that education ought to lead to a habit of judging of it as it is in the code itself of Christianity, that the doctrines it reveals should be learnt only from a critical and fair enquiry into the sense of this code, and that all instruction in it should be a preparation for making this enquiry and a communication of assistance in examining into the proofs of its divine original, and in determining to what degree of evidence the proofs amount, after allowing every difficulty its just weight. This has never yet been the practice among Christians. The New Testament has been reckoned hitherto an insufficient standard of Christian Divinity and, therefore, formularies of human invention pretending to explain and define it (but in reality misrepresenting and dishonouring it) have been substituted in its room, and teaching these has been called teaching Christianity. And it is very remarkable that in the English Universities lectures in the New Testament are seldom or ever read, and that, through all Christendom, it is much less an object of attention than the systems and creeds which have been fathered upon it.

I will only add on this subject that it is above all things necessary, while instruction is conveyed, to convey with it a sense of the imbecility of the human mind and of its great proneness to error, and also a disposition even on points which seem the most clear, to listen to objections, and to consider nothing as involving in it our final interest but an honest heart.

Nature has so made us that an attachment must take place within us to opinions once formed, and it was proper that we should be so made, in order to prevent that levity and desultoriness of mind which must have been the consequence had we been ready to give up our opinions too easily and hastily. But this natural tendency, however wisely given us, is apt to exceed its proper limits and to render us unreasonably tenacious. It ought, therefore, like all our other natural propensities, to be carefully watched and guarded, and education should put us upon doing this. An observation before made should, in particular, be inculcated, 'that all mankind have hitherto been most tenacious when most in the wrong, and reckoned themselves most enlightened when most in the dark'. This is indeed, a very mortifying fact but attention to it is necessary to cure that miserable pride and dogmaticalness which are some of the worst enemies to improvement. Who is there that does not remember the time when he was entirely satisfied about points which deeper reflexion has shewn to be above his comprehension? Who, for instance, does not remember a time when he would have wondered at the question, 'Why does water run down hill?' What ignorant man is there who is not persuaded that he understands this perfectly? But every improved man knows it to be a question he cannot answer, and what distinguishes him in this instance from the less improved part of mankind is his knowing this. The like is true in numberless other instances. One of the best proofs of wisdom is a sense of our want of wisdom, and he who knows most possesses most of this sense.

In thinking of myself I derive some encouragement from this reflexion. I now see that I do not understand many points which once appeared to me very clear. The more I have inquired, the more sensible I have been growing of my own darkness, and a part of the history of my life is that which follows.

In early life I was struck with Bishop Butler's Analogy of religion natural and revealed to the constitution and course of nature. I reckon it happy for me that this book was one of the first that fell into my hands. It taught me the proper method of reasoning on moral and religious subjects, and particularly the importance of paying a due regard to the imperfection of human knowledge. His sermons also, I then thought, and do still think, excellent. Next to his works, I have always been an admirer of the writings of Dr. Clark[e]. And I cannot help adding, however strange it may seem, that I owe much to the philosophical writings of Mr. Hume, which I likewise studied in early life. Though an enemy to his scepticism, I have profited by it. By attacking, with great ability, every principle of truth and reason, he put me upon examining the ground upon which I stood and taught me not hastily to take any thing for granted. The first fruits of my reading and studies were laid before the public in a treatise entitled A review of the principal questions and difficulties in morals. This publication has been followed by many others on various subjects. And now, in the evening of a life devoted to enquiry and spent in endeavours (weak indeed and feeble) to serve the best interests, present and future, of mankind, I am waiting for the great teacher, convinced that the order of nature is perfect, that infinite wisdom and goodness govern all things, and that Christianity comes from God. But at the same time puzzled by many difficulties, anxious for more light, and resting with full and constant assurance only on this one truth; that the practice of virtue is the duty and dignity of man and, in all events, his wisest and safest course.

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