"She grasped that before she could do anything else with them
it was necessary to find out what, if anything, these children knew..."


"They knew nothing, absolutely nothing-—nothing, nothing, nothing...
It was appalling that even children could be so ignorant."

A Clergyman's Daughter - published in 1935 when he was thirty-two years old - is Orwell's third book. Like all his other books it's based on previous experience. He'd been a teacher for a year and a half and drew on many of those experiences in the writing of A Clergyman's Daughter. His publisher was worried they'd be sued over the things Orwell said about the education system but it didn't happen. He had taught under his real name, Eric Blair, and the classroom he described had no similiarity to the ones he actually taught in. Plus he made the main character a female, although it is obvious that she is Orwell. The book is several stories in one and through it Orwell discusses poverty and religion, as well as education.

Here's an excerpt which gives a clear picture of the dumbing down of children. As in all of Orwell's work, his descriptions are as applicable now as they were then: ~ Jackie Jura

Chapter 4, Part 2

...'Now, girls,’ said Mrs Creevy, ‘this is your new teacher, Miss Millborough. As you know, Miss Strong had to leave us all of a sudden after she was taken so bad in the middle of the arithmetic lesson; and I can tell you I’ve had a hard week of it looking for a new teacher. I had seventy-three applications before I took on Miss Millborough, and I had to refuse them all because their qualifications weren’t high enough. Just you remember and tell your parents that, all of you — seventy-three applications! Well, Miss Millborough is going to take you in Latin, French, history, geography, mathematics, English literature and composition, spelling, grammar, handwriting, and freehand drawing; and Mr Booth will take you in chemistry as usual on Thursday afternoons. Now, what’s the first lesson on your time-table this morning?’

‘History, Ma’am,’ piped one or two voices.

‘Very well. I expect Miss Millborough’ll start off by asking you a few questions about the history you’ve been learning. So just you do your best, all of you, and let her see that all the trouble we’ve taken over you hasn’t been wasted. You’ll find they can be quite a sharp lot of girls when they try, Miss Millborough.’

‘I’m sure they are,’ said Dorothy.

‘Well, I’ll be leaving you, then. And just you behave yourselves, girls! Don’t you get trying it on with Miss Millborough like you did with Miss Brewer, because I warn you she won’t stand it. If I hear any noise coming from this room, there’ll be trouble for somebody.’

She gave a glance round which included Dorothy and indeed suggested that Dorothy would probably be the ‘somebody’ referred to, and departed.

Dorothy faced the class. She was not afraid of them -- she was too used to dealing with children ever to be afraid of them -- but she did feel a momentary qualm. The sense of being an impostor (what teacher has not felt it at times?) was heavy upon her. It suddenly occurred to her, what she had only been dimly aware of before, that she had taken this teaching job under flagrantly false pretences, without having any kind of qualification for it. The subject she was now supposed to be teaching was history, and, like most ‘educated’ people, she knew virtually no history. How awful, she thought, if it turned out that these girls knew more history than she did! She said tentatively:

‘What period exactly were you doing with Miss Strong?’

Nobody answered. Dorothy saw the older girls exchanging glances, as though asking one another whether it was safe to say anything, and finally deciding not to commit themselves.

‘Well, whereabouts had you got to?’ she said, wondering whether perhaps the word ‘period’ was too much for them.

Again no answer.

‘Well, now, surely you remember something about it? Tell me the names of some of the people you were learning about in your last history lesson.’

More glances were exchanged, and a very plain little girl in the front row, in a brown jumper and skirt, with her hair screwed into two tight pigtails, remarked cloudily, ‘It was about the Ancient Britons.’ At this two other girls took courage, and answered simultaneously. One of them said, ‘Columbus’, and the other ‘Napoleon’.

Somehow, after that, Dorothy seemed to see her way more clearly. It was obvious that instead of being uncomfortably knowledgeable as she had feared, the class knew as nearly as possible no history at all. With this discovery her stage-fright vanished. She grasped that before she could do anything else with them it was necessary to find out what, if anything, these children knew. So, instead of following the time-table, she spent the rest of the morning in questioning the entire class on each subject in turn; when she had finished with history (and it took about five minutes to get to the bottom of their historical knowledge) she tried them with geography, with English grammar, with French, with arithmetic -- with everything, in fact, that they were supposed to have learned. By twelve o’clock she had plumbed, though not actually explored, the frightful abysses of their ignorance.

For they knew nothing, absolutely nothing -— nothing, nothing, nothing, like the Dadaists. It was appalling that even children could be so ignorant. There were only two girls in the class who knew whether the earth went round the sun or the sun round the earth, and not a single one of them could tell Dorothy who was the last king before George V, or who wrote Hamlet, or what was meant by a vulgar fraction, or which ocean you crossed to get to America, the Atlantic or the Pacific. And the big girls of fifteen were not much better than the tiny infants of eight, except that the former could at least read consecutively and write neat copperplate. That was the one thing that nearly all of the older girls could do — they could write neatly. Mrs Creevy had seen to that. And of course, here and there in the midst of their ignorance, there were small, disconnected islets of knowledge; for example, some odd stanzas from ‘pieces of poetry’ that they had learned by heart, and a few Ollendorffian French sentences such as ‘Passez-moi le beurre, s’il vous plait’ and ‘Le fils du jardinier a perdu son chapeau’, which they appeared to have learned as a parrot learns ‘Pretty Poll’. As for their arithmetic, it was a little better than the other subjects. Most of them knew how to add and subtract, about half of them had some notion of how to multiply, and there were even three or four who had struggled as far as long division. But that was the utmost limit of their knowledge; and beyond, in every direction, lay utter, impenetrable night.

Moreover, not only did they know nothing, but they were so unused to being questioned that it was often difficult to get answers out of them at all. It was obvious that whatever they knew they had learned in an entirely mechanical manner, and they could only gape in a sort of dull bewilderment when asked to think for themselves. However, they did not seem unwilling, and evidently they had made up their minds to be ‘good’ -— children are always ‘good’ with a new teacher; and Dorothy persisted, and by degrees the children grew, or seemed to grow, a shade less lumpish. She began to pick up, from the answers they gave her, a fairly accurate notion of what Miss Strong’s regime had been like...

Dorothy tried not to hurt the children’s feelings by exclaiming at their ignorance, but in her heart she was amazed and horrified. She had not known that schools of this description still existed in the civilized world. The whole atmosphere of the place was so curiously antiquated —- so reminiscent of those dreary little private schools that you read about in Victorian novels. As for the few textbooks that the class possessed, you could hardly look at them without feeling as though you had stepped back into the mid nineteenth century. There were only three textbooks of which each child had a copy. One was a shilling arithmetic, pre Great War but fairly serviceable, and another was a horrid little book called The Hundred Page History of Britain — a nasty little duodecimo book with a gritty brown cover, and, for frontispiece, a portrait of Boadicea with a Union Jack draped over the front of her chariot. Dorothy opened this book at random, came to page 91, and read:

After the French Revolution was over, the self-styled Emperor Napoleon Buonaparte attempted to set up his sway, but though he won a few victories against continental troops, he soon found that in the ‘thin red line’ he had more than met his match. Conclusions were tried upon the field of Waterloo, where 50,000 Britons put to flight 70,000 Frenchmen — for the Prussians, our allies, arrived too late for the battle. With a ringing British cheer our men charged down the slope and the enemy broke and fled. We now come on to the great Reform Bill of 1832, the first of those beneficent reforms which have made British liberty what it is and marked us off from the less fortunate nations [etc., etc.].

The date of the book was 1888. Dorothy, who had never seen a history book of this description before, examined it with a feeling approaching horror. There was also an extraordinary little ‘reader’, dated 1863. It consisted mostly of bits out of Fenimore Cooper, Dr Watts, and Lord Tennyson, and at the end there were the queerest little ‘Nature Notes’ with woodcut illustrations. There would be a woodcut of an elephant, and underneath in small print: ‘The elephant is a sagacious beast. He rejoices in the shade of the Palm Trees, and though stronger than six horses he will allow a little child to lead him. His food is Bananas.’ And so on to the Whale, the Zebra, and Porcupine, and the Spotted Camelopard. There were also, in the teacher’s desk, a copy of Beautiful Joe, a forlorn book called Peeps at Distant Lands, and a French phrase-book dated 1891. It was called All you will need on your Parisian Trip, and the first phrase given was ‘Lace my stays, but not too tightly’. In the whole room there was not such a thing as an atlas or a set of geometrical instruments.

At eleven there was a break of ten minutes...

After the break there was another period of three quarters of an hour, and then school ended for the morning...

School began again at two o’clock. Already, after only one morning’s teaching, Dorothy went back to her work with secret shrinking and dread. She was beginning to realize what her life would be like, day after day and week after week, in that sunless room, trying to drive the rudiments of knowledge into unwilling brats. But when she had assembled the girls and called their names over, one of them, a little peaky child with mouse-coloured hair, called Laura Firth, came up to her desk and presented her with a pathetic bunch of browny-yellow chrysanthemums, ‘from all of us’. The girls had taken a liking to Dorothy, and had subscribed fourpence among themselves, to buy her a bunch of flowers.

Something stirred in Dorothy’s heart as she took the ugly flowers. She looked with more seeing eyes than before at the anaemic faces and shabby clothes of the children, and was all of a sudden horribly ashamed to think that in the morning she had looked at them with indifference, almost with dislike. Now, a profound pity took possession of her. The poor children, the poor children! How they had been stunted and maltreated! And with it all they had retained the childish gentleness that could make them squander their few pennies on flowers for their teacher.

She felt quite differently towards her job from that moment onwards. A feeling of loyalty and affection had sprung up in her heart. This school was her school; she would work for it and be proud of it, and make every effort to turn it from a place of bondage into a place human and decent. Probably it was very little that she could do. She was so inexperienced and unfitted for her job that she must educate herself before she could even begin to educate anybody else. Still, she would do her best; she would do whatever willingness and energy could do to rescue these children from the horrible darkness in which they had been kept.



Jackie Jura
~ an independent researcher monitoring local, national and international events ~

email: orwelltoday@gmail.com
website: www.orwelltoday.com