WE ALL KNOW that Mr. Smiles dedicated the modern world to Self-Help. Since then it has dedicated itself to Self-Hindrance, of the strangest sort, amounting often to self-strangulation or self-hanging; the individualistic theory of liberty having truly given it rope enough to hang itself. It is amazing to no note in how many matters the modern world started out to do one thing and has done exactly the opposite. The ethics if the economist, in the early nineteenth century exaggerated the sanctity and pride of private property. This led to a race for wealth which has not only led recently to a relapse into poverty, but to a change by which, even for the few who had more property, the property was much less private. In the nineteenth century the Northern Farmer was described as hearing the comfortable sound of “property, property, property” in the very canter of his horse’s legs. Nowadays the Northern Farmer probably travels in a motor and ploughs by machinery; I know not whether strange noises from the bowels of his iron monsters seen to resemble the words “mortgage” or “bankruptcy,” but I am pretty certain that they do not now soothe him with the dulcet dactyls of the cantering hooves. In plain fact the Northern Farmer has much less property than he had when he started out to look for it in the presence of Mr. Alfred Tennyson. And even the he has is much less private property, being sunk in the vast semi-public undertakings or international combines, over which he certainly has no control, as he had control over his horses. The same industrial individualism which set out with no thought except private property has produced a new world in which private property is hardly ever thought of, or at least not primarily as private.
I was looking at a recent collection which contains the opinions of many famous free-thinkers about Jesus Christ. It is amusing to note how all of them differ among themselves; how one of them contradicts another and the last is always repudiated by the next. And I was specially amused to note that the earlier skeptics, like Strauss, blamed Jesus of Nazareth for his contempt for commerce and capital (then the gods of the hour), while the later skeptics, like Shaw and Wells, praised the same Jesus of Nazareth for the same contempt for the same commerce, because in the interval the sceptic had turned from an earnest Individualist to an earnest Socialist. Anyhow, it was not Christ or the Christian idea that had changed; it was only all the criticisms of all their critics. And the later sceptic actually became more orthodox than the earlier sceptic, simply by going Bolshevist. This is merely an example, for the moment, of how the whole tone of the world has changed about property in relation to privacy. The modern capitalist is more of a communist than was the old revolutionist. The real Radicals had a horror of centralization, and one of the most popular and prominent of the demagogues described a Communist as a man who “always was willing to give you his penny and pocket your shilling.” The moral of this vast overturn and disappointment is obvious enough: that when private property only means private enterprise, and private enterprise only means profiteering, it will soon cease even to produce profits and become in every sense unprofitable.
The way the world has changed about private property is proved by the fact that it is regarded as a private field. Mr. Belloc and I, when we said first that we really did believe that private property should be private, were mildly chaffed, as if we were seeking solitude like hermits, or hoarding halfpence like misers. But I am not concerned with our particular thesis here, or with any such personal matters; I only mention this one as the most obvious of many examples if the modern world rushing one way and rebounding another. Another example is the tangle of education. In one sense, this is supremely the educational age. In another sense, it is supremely and especially the anti-educational age. It is the age in which the Government’s right to teach everybody’s children is for the first time established. It is also the age in which the father’s right to teach his own children is for the first time denied. It is the time in which experimentalists earnestly desire to teach a jolly little guttersnipe everything; even Criminology and Cosmic Poise and the Maya system of decorative rhythm. But it is also the time in which earnest philosophers are really doubting whether it is right to teach anybody anything; even how to avoid taking poison or falling off precipices.
But the practical difficulty of our present education is even worse. It is attempting to conduct a process, and yet it has produced a world which incessantly interrupts and reverses that process. Education is initialization; it is in its nature a progression from one thing to another; the arrangement of ideas in a certain order. A child learns to walk before he learns to skip; he learns his own alphabet before he learns the Greek alphabet. Or, if any educationist now reverses this process, he must at least have a reason for reversing it, and must therefore refuse to reverse the reversal. But the real life of our time reverses everything and no reason for anything. The real world, that roars round the poor little gutter-boy as he goes to school, is an utterly anti-educational world. If the school is really giving any education, the world is certainly engaged day and night in ruing his education. For the world gives him things anyhow, in any order, with any result; the world gives him things meant for somebody else; the world throws things at him from morning till night, quite blindly, madly, and without meaning or aim; and this process, whatever else it is, is the exact opposite of the process of education. The gutter-boy spends about three-quarters of his time getting uneducated. He is educated by the modern State School. He is uneducated by the Modern State.
Because, as I have already ventured very delicately to hint, the modern Sate is in a devil of a state. It is itself the chaos and contradiction produced by that very unbalanced race after private profit that has produced its own opposite in a sort of communal confusion. Educationists have the task of putting the school in order before anybody has put the State in order. It is arguable that we ought to put the State in order before there can really be such a thing as a State school. But I will not discuss my own remedies here, which would involve indecent allusions to a third thing called the Family; now never mentioned in respectable circles. Only I think there is something wrong with a system that thus throttles itself and cuts its own throat; a world in which we cannot even paint the town red without turning it green, or set the Thames on fire without freezing it.
~G.K. Chesterton, Illustrated London News, May 28, 1932.