A never-ending saga
“When I told my 16-year-old son the title of your book,” said a teacher in Manchester ten days ago, “he responded with uncharacteristic enthusiasm, ‘that book must have been written just for me. That’s why I’m so frustrated. Endless hours of schooling seem to be giving me little preparation for the world I think I live in.’”
Not ever teenager feels like that, or is justified in dismissing what ten years of schooling have done for them. But some are, and very many more would be correct in claiming that an overdose of classroom instruction seems to have emasculated them from the sense of being in control of, and responsible for, their own futures.
Landing in Vancouver after a nine and a half hour flight last month from London, the last flashes of evening sunlight picked up the outline of that massive sheet of water known as Puget Sound, around which the whole economy (Microsoft, Boeings and Starbucks) of the Pacific Northwest throbs. I was reminded of the role in history of that young naval lieutenant, Peter Puget, who gave his name to these seas. Puget, the sixth of seventh sons of a Huguenot banker was only ten when his father went bankrupt and, being penniless, he was forced to join the navy (1770) as a ship’s boy, the lowest and most demeaning rank responsible for cleaning the toilets on the Georgian battleships of the late 18th century. Ten years younger than Horatio Nelson, whose father was able to buy his son a position as midshipman, Peter Puget was unusually gifted and determined so to work himself up the ranks of naval officers that, by the age of 22, he was made a lieutenant. Twelve months later (1791) he was appointed by Captain Vancouver as First Lieutenant to command HMS Discovery, ordered to sail from London down to the south Atlantic and around Tierra del Fuego and up the Pacific coast of the Americas to claim for England that land now known as British Columbia, so displacing the Spaniards.
Puget acknowledged that he owed his promotion initially to the quality of his early years book learning from his father combined with his own determination to learn everything that he could from the older officers. (Take time out and watch the relationship of serving officers to 18th century midshipman in the magnificent film Master and Commander with Russell Crowe made in 2002). Not content with giving his name to what is now one of the world’s busiest seaways, Puget (former cleaner of toilets) went on to become a Rear Admiral in command of the Far East Squadron based in Madras, India.
His story is not unique: late 18th century gentry were quick to recognise the learning potential of such on-the-job-training in the navy, and often sought influential naval captains to take on their sons for a ‘gap year’ on the high seas. Many of these young men eventually thrived. But then, with the Battle of Waterloo ending the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, the British began mothballing their warships, and officers and midshipmen alike were laid off or put on half-pay. Youngsters who had dreamed of achieving fame on the quarter deck of a battleship were, instead, bundled off by their parents (who had no wish for their elegant country houses to be cluttered up with rebellious teenagers) and sent off to boarding school. So bored did these young men become, and so avid were they for adventure, that they literally rebelled – they pulled down the buildings and locked their teachers in cupboards. So bad did this become that in 1818 it took two battalions of infantrymen to quell the riots at Winchester College.
A familiar story? Teenagers with age, energy and a delight in risk-taking, together with a sense of purpose in their hearts, are – and always have been – the driving force in a society’s future. But teenagers with nothing to do, and nothing to care for, become threats to themselves and everyone else. To see education as a pre-eminently school-based activity is, and ever was, to miss the point of adolescence.
See Chapter Nine of Overschooled but Undereducated and Jonathan Raban’s “Passage to Juneau (2002)