Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Social Panaceas

(June, 1912.)


To have followed the frequent discussions of the Labour Unrest in the
Press is to have learnt quite a lot about the methods of popular
thought. And among other things I see now much better than I did why
patent medicines are so popular. It is clear that as a community we are
far too impatient of detail and complexity, we want overmuch to
simplify, we clamour for panaceas, we are a collective invitation to
quacks.

Our situation is an intricate one, it does not admit of a solution
neatly done up in a word or a phrase. Yet so powerful is this wish to
simplify that it is difficult to make it clear that one is not oneself a
panacea-monger. One writes and people read a little inattentively and
more than a little impatiently, until one makes a positive proposal
Then they jump. "So _that's_ your Remedy!" they say. "How absurdly
inadequate!" I was privileged to take part in one such discussion in
1912, and among other things in my diagnosis of the situation I pointed
out the extreme mischief done to our public life by the futility of our
electoral methods. They make our whole public life forensic and
ineffectual, and I pointed out that this evil effect, which vitiates our
whole national life, could be largely remedied by an infinitely better
voting system known as Proportional Representation. Thereupon the
_Westminster Gazette_ declared in tones of pity and contempt that it was
no Remedy--and dismissed me. It would be as intelligent to charge a
doctor who pushed back the crowd about a broken-legged man in the street
with wanting to heal the limb by giving the sufferer air.

The task before our community, the task of reorganising labour on a
basis broader than that of employment for daily or weekly wages, is one
of huge complexity, and it is as entirely reasonable as it is entirely
preliminary to clean and modernise to the utmost our representative and
legislative machinery.

It is remarkable how dominant is this disposition to get a phrase, a
word, a simple recipe, for an undertaking so vast in reality that for
all the rest of our lives a large part of the activities of us, forty
million people, will be devoted to its partial accomplishment. In the
presence of very great issues people become impatient and irritated, as
they would not allow themselves to be irritated by far more limited
problems. Nobody in his senses expects a panacea for the comparatively
simple and trivial business of playing chess. Nobody wants to be told
to "rely wholly upon your pawns," or "never, never move your rook";
nobody clamours "give me a third knight and all will be well"; but that
is exactly what everybody seems to be doing in our present discussion
And as another aspect of the same impatience, I note the disposition to
clamour against all sorts of necessary processes in the development of a
civilisation. For example, I read over and over again of the failure of
representative government, and in nine cases out of ten I find that this
amounts to a cry against any sort of representative government. It is
perfectly true that our representative institutions do not work well and
need a vigorous overhauling, but while I find scarcely any support for
such a revision, the air is full of vague dangerous demands for
aristocracy, for oligarchy, for autocracy. It is like a man who jumps
out of his automobile because he has burst a tyre, refuses a proffered
Stepney, and bawls passionately for anything--for a four-wheeler, or a
donkey, as long as he can be free from that exploded mechanism. There
are evidently quite a considerable number of people in this country who
would welcome a tyrant at the present time, a strong, silent, cruel,
imprisoning, executing, melodramatic sort of person, who would somehow
manage everything while they went on--being silly. I find that form of
impatience cropping up everywhere. I hear echoes of Mr. Blatchford's
"Wanted, a Man," and we may yet see a General Boulanger prancing in our
streets. There never was a more foolish cry. It is not a man we want,
but just exactly as many million men as there are in Great Britain at
the present time, and it is you, the reader, and I, and the rest of us
who must together go on with the perennial task of saving the country by
_firstly_, doing our own jobs just as well as ever we can, and
_secondly_--and this is really just as important as firstly--doing our
utmost to grasp our national purpose, doing our utmost, that is, to
develop and carry out our National Plan. It is Everyman who must be the
saviour of the State in a modern community; we cannot shift our share in
the burthen; and here again, I think, is something that may well be
underlined and emphasised. At present our "secondly" is unduly
subordinated to our "firstly"; our game is better individually than
collectively; we are like a football team that passes badly, and our
need is not nearly so much to change the players as to broaden their
style. And this brings me, in a spirit entirely antagonistic, up against
Mr. Galsworthy's suggestion of an autocratic revolution in the methods
of our public schools.

But before I go on to that, let me first notice a still more
comprehensive cry that has been heard again and again in this
discussion, and that is the alleged failure of education generally.
There is never any remedial suggestion made with this particular outcry;
it is merely a gust of abuse and insult for schools, and more
particularly board schools, carrying with it a half-hearted implication
that they should be closed, and then the contribution concludes. Now
there is no outcry at the present time more unjust or--except for the
"Wanted, a Man" clamour--more foolish. No doubt our educational
resources, like most other things, fall far short of perfection, but of
all this imperfection the elementary schools are least imperfect; and I
would almost go so far as to say that, considering the badness of their
material, the huge, clumsy classes they have to deal with, the poorness
of their directive administration, their bad pay and uncertain outlook,
the elementary teachers of this country are amazingly efficient. And it
is not simply that they are good under their existing conditions, but
that this service has been made out of nothing whatever in the course of
scarcely forty years. An educational system to cover an Empire is not a
thing that can be got for the asking, it is not even to be got for the
paying; it has to be grown; and in the beginning it is bound to be thin,
ragged, forced, crammy, text-bookish, superficial, and all the rest of
it. As reasonable to complain that the children born last year were
immature. A little army of teachers does not flash into being at the
passing of an Education Act. Not even an organisation for training those
teachers comes to anything like satisfactory working order for many
years, without considering the delays and obstructions that have been
caused by the bickerings and bitterness of the various Christian
Churches. So that it is not the failure of elementary education we have
really to consider, but the continuance and extension of its already
almost miraculous results.

And when it comes to the education of the ruling and directing classes,
there is kindred, if lesser reason, for tempering zeal with patience.
This upper portion of our educational organisation needs urgently to be
bettered, but it is not to be bettered by trying to find an archangel
who will better it dictatorially. For the good of our souls there are no
such beings to relieve us of our collective responsibility. It is clear
that appointments in this field need not only far more care and far more
insistence upon creative power than has been shown in the past, but for
the rest we have to do with the men we have and the schools we have. We
cannot have an educational purge, if only because we have not the new
men waiting. Here again the need is not impatience, not revolution, but
a sustained and penetrating criticism, a steadfast, continuous urgency
towards effort and well-planned reconstruction and efficiency.

And as a last example of the present hysterical disposition to scrap
things before they have been fairly tried is the outcry against
examinations, which has done so much to take the keenness off the edge
of school work in the last few years. Because a great number of
examiners chosen haphazard turned out to be negligent and incompetent as
examiners, because their incapacity created a cynical trade in cramming,
a great number of people have come to the conclusion, just as
examinations are being improved into efficiency, that all examinations
are bad. In particular that excellent method of bringing new blood and
new energy into the public services and breaking up official gangs and
cliques, the competitive examination system, has been discredited, and
the wire-puller and the influential person are back again tampering with
a steadily increasing proportion of appointments....

But I have written enough of this impatience, which is, as it were,
merely the passion for reconstruction losing its head and defeating its
own ends. There is no hope for us outside ourselves. No violent changes,
no Napoleonic saviours can carry on the task of building the Great
State, the civilised State that rises out of our disorders That is for
us to do, all of us and each one of us. We have to think clearly, and
study and consider and reconsider our ideas about public things to the
very utmost of our possibilities. We have to clarify our views and
express them and do all we can to stir up thinking and effort in those
about us.

I know it would be more agreeable for all of us if we could have some
small pill-like remedy for all the troubles of the State, and take it
and go on just as we are going now. But, indeed, to say a word for that
idea would be a treason. We are the State, and there is no other way to
make it better than to give it the service of our lives. Just in the
measure of the aggregate of our devotions and the elaborated and
criticised sanity of our public proceedings will the world mend.

I gather from a valuable publication called "Secret Remedies," which
analyses many popular cures, that this hasty passion for simplicity, for
just one thing that will settle the whole trouble, can carry people to a
level beyond an undivided trust in something warranted in a bottle. They
are ready to put their faith in what amounts to practically nothing in a
bottle. And just at present, while a number of excellent people of the
middle class think that only a "man" is wanted and all will be well with
us, there is a considerable wave of hopefulness among the working class
in favour of a weak solution of nothing, which is offered under the
attractive label of Syndicalism. So far I have been able to discuss the
present labour situation without any use of this empty word, but when
one finds it cropping up in every other article on the subject, it
becomes advisable to point out what Syndicalism is not. And incidentally
it may enable me to make clear what Socialism in the broader sense,
constructive Socialism, that is to say, is.

H.G. Wells