November 25, 2003
The education of Young Winston begins

Winston Churchill wrote copiously all his life, and in 1930 My Early Life was published. Here's how Churchill's "education" got started:

It was at "The Little Lodge" I was first menaced with Education. The approach of a sinister figure described as "the Governess" was announced. Her arrival was fixed for a certain day. In order to prepare for this day Mrs. Everest produced a book called Reading Without Tears. It certainly did not justify its title in my case. I was made aware that before the Governess arrived I must be able to read without tears. We toiled each day. My nurse pointed with a pen at the different letters. I thought it all very tiresome. Our preparations were by no means completed when the fateful hour struck and the Governess was due to arrive. I did what so many oppressed peoples have done in similar circumstances: I took to the woods. I hid in the extensive shrubberies – forests they seemed – which surrounded "The Little Lodge." Hours passed before I was retrieved and handed over to "the Governess." We continued to toil every day, not only at letters but at words, and also at what was much worse, figures. Letters after all had only got to be known, and when they stood together in a certain way one recognised their formation and that it meant a certain sound or word which one uttered when pressed sufficiently. But the figures were tied into all sorts of tangles and did things to one another which it was extremely difficult to forecast with complete accuracy. You had to say what they did each time they were tied up together, and the Governess apparently attached enormous importance to the answer being exact. If it was not right it was wrong. It was not any use being "nearly right." In some cases these figures got into debt with one another: you had to borrow one or carry one, and afterwards you had to pay back the one you had borrowed. These complications cast a steadily gathering shadow over my daily life. They took one away from all the interesting things one wanted to do in the nursery or in the garden. They made increasing inroads upon one's leisure. One could hardly get time to do any of the things one wanted to do. They became a general worry and preoccupation. More especially was this true when we descended into a dismal bog called "sums." There appeared to be no limit to these. When one sum was done, there was always another. Just as soon as I managed to tackle a particular class of these afflictions, some other much more variegated type was thrust upon me.

That last stuff could, on the face of it, come straight out of John Holt's How Children Fail, especially the point about how the reward for doing a sum is … a harder sum.

But what Churchill is really doing here is siding ironically with the adult world, and against his juvenile self. That's how he felt, but he was wrong, he is now saying. He accurately describes how small children such as he was feel about being made to learn things, when they are at the same time eager to be learning other things instead. But he takes it for granted that such children nevertheless must be made to do their sums and their letters and their words. Churchill as a child wanted freedom, but Churchill the adult takes it for granted that Churchill child had to be over-ruled, at whatever cost in bewilderment or hurt feelings.

Churchill understood the urge for freedom. He did a lot to protect it, of course. But he was very firm about what had to be its limits.

To me, depressing.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:58 PM
Category: Compulsion