On Secular Education

ONCE UPON A TIME a boy was born in a square enclosure between four blank walls, where he grew up without knowledge of any other place; nor did he remember his mother or what had become of her. The only person he ever saw, as he grew up, was a sort of Guardian or Warder of the place, who passed a great deal of the time walking round and round the top of the walls like a sentinel. He was a rather remarkable old party, with a quaint sort of old-fashioned top hat and very big and bushy beard or whiskers. But he wore a very big and powerful pair of spectacles, which showed that he was delightfully scientific as well as nearly blind; and he always carried under his arm a big gun; which was enough to prove that he was the Law and the Executive.

The occupation of the boy, to which he was introduced very early in life, was as follows. In one of the walls there was a round hole, just large enough to allow a sort of iron rope or rod to pass out across the enclosure and vanish into an exactly identical round hole in the opposite wall. In this continuously moving cord it was the boy’s business to cut notches at very exact intervals and with very considerable exertion. Sometimes, at noon and late at night, he was allowed to desist, to sleep and eat a little food which the old gentleman brought to him; and on these occasions the old gentleman was so kind as to utter a short homily of the most human and sympathetic sort; pointing out the privileges which the youth enjoyed in so orderly and reliable an environment.

“You have complete liberty of thought,” explained the Guardian, “and you are doubtless exercising that faculty by admiring the neatness of the mechanism and wondering how less happy human beings can support a rude existence without it.”

“Well,” answered the boy, “it must be remembered that I have never yet seen any other human beings, happy or otherwise. As a matter of fact, I am rather wondering who I am.”

“We will resume this discussion in twelve hours’ time,” said the Guardian, looking at his watch, “when the conversation will turn upon what is the most hygienic meal-time.”

The youth resumed his labours; but his mind was clearly given over to a morbid brooding, for he actually stopped in the middle of his pleasing industry to say:

“What is all this for?”

“Enjoying as you do complete liberty of speech,” replied the old gentleman on the wall, “you will probably wish to discuss whether your hour of sleep should be fifteen minutes later.”

“I mean,” cried the boy, with a gesture as of despair, “where does all this stuff go to?”

“The complete liberty of public discussion of which you justly boast,” remarked the Guardian, “will be resumed in three weeks time.”

So the boy took up his chopper again and began to chop bits out of the iron rope until he was weary; when he suddenly hurled his chopper over the wall and flung out his arms with a wild gesture to the sky.

“Who made all this?” he cried, “Who built this place, and why?”

“Silence!” cried the Guardian from the wall, in a voice of thunder, “You enjoy complete liberty of thought and speech; and I will not allow you to be fettered by Creed or Dogma.”

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Source: Daylight and Nightmare: Uncollected Stories and Fables by G.K. Chesterton.