G. B. Shaw’s Essay ‘Life and Learning’–An Analytical Study 

Gorge Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) was a man of a complex personality and as a writer, he was idealist, intellectualist and as an idealist, he was controversial as he had no belief in the age-long conventions of human institutions. Throughout his writings, he refutes the traditional ideals, theories and manner of human society and tries his best to establish his own idealistic views. The present essay ‘Life and Learning’ is an essay through which he has criticized the system of traditional school education and wishes to preach his own view that education is a life-long process which begins with one’s birth and ends with death. In other word, he has shown through arguments that school education is defective as many unnecessary subjects are taught and many fundamental necessary subjects are ignored.

First of all, the essayist G.B. Shaw begins the essay with the views of the students and then with that of his own on the system of institutional education. He says that the students think that they have grown up in learning. George Bernard Shaw himself also thought so while he was a student. But with the passing of his age, he begins to appreciate that in learning he has not ‘grown-up’. He assures that the students also will realize this after they make an end of their school education. And then they will discover that the world is a bigger school where they will learn many practical things which are not generally taught in school.

Secondly, the essayist says about the hardest part of school education. He says that the hardest part of school education is the early part that is the primary stage, while the students have to be turned into a ‘ready reckoner’. By the phrase ‘ready reckoner’ he wants to mean that the students during this primary stage have to depend upon their memory and they need to learn all the things by heart.

In this stage, the students have to cram in all the mathematical multiplication tables, which he considers to be “a stupendous feat of sheer learning’. Here the author gives his personal experience and clarifies his view on this hardest part of schooling. While George Bernard Shaw was a student he had memorized many difficult things which his governess (private teacher) taught him. But the difficulty which he crossed with the success gave him no trouble as during that period he did not try to understand them but tried only to keep in mind. But yet, he regrets that though he memorized many things during his primary stage, yet there had been many things which his governess did not teach him.

Thirdly, the author says about his memory at old age. The strength of memory at one’s old age generally decreases. George Bernard Shaw also had experienced so as he forgot everything in a few seconds while he became old and everybody five minutes after they had been introduced to him. But that forgetfulness was not a matter of regret for him instead it was great happiness as he did not want to be bothered with new things and new people. But the author had experienced that what he learnt, while he was young, remained intact even at his old age. So he advises the students to cram in all they can while they are young because if anyone learns anything when he is young he remembers it forever.

Fourthly, he goes on to say about school routine and says that school life becomes irksome because of routine. In other words, it is routine that makes school life troublesome because the students have to follow punctuality strictly which is felt by most students to be against their freedom. The students have to get up at a fixed hour, wash and dress at a fixed hour and have to go to school at a fixed hour after the discipline of their school. Generally, the school authority imposes the routine upon the students supposing that it would be suited to everybody; but the routine suits none because the will and eagerness of individuals is different to each other. So an individual needs individual attention. This individual attention cannot be had in school. On the other hand, nobody has time enough to provide each student with a separate teacher and an especial routine carefully suited to individual personality. The author clarifies this view comparing school routine to a pair of German boots which were not divided into left and rights. A boot was a boot and it did not a matter which foot anyone put it on, but one’s foot had to choose itself. In England, the socks were made so which were also not divided into rights and lefts, but the author had his socks knitted as rights and lefts by order, though when he ordered a soak knitter to knit his socks as rights and lefts then he was considered a ‘queer sort of fellow’. But everybody has to manage with them somehow. Moreover, the author of this essay says more that in school though the students have to follow a routine which did not suit properly to everybody yet when they will come out of their school they cannot get rid of the following of a routine. In every course of their life, they must face routine to get struck properly in any occupation.

Fifthly, George Bernard Shaw says about the role of a crammer to the students. First, he gives the definition of what a crammer is. As he says, a crammer is a person who devoted his time for the students. He, on behalf of the students, studies all the old examination papers and finds out what questions are generally asked in the examination and prepares the answers to these questions which are expected by the examiners and officially to be correct.

Sixthly, G.B. Shaw says about the preparation of answers to the questions asked to the students in the examination. The author says that the answers prepared for the examinations are not always the correct answer. Because the students have to write those answers which are officially correct. The textbooks prescribed for the students contain those matters which are generally out of date. The students are taught the old or outdated matters and they are compelled to give answers from their textbooks. But the textbooks always do not contain recent or the latest information. The author gives a fine example to illustrate his view and says that in the 15th century, Copernicus, famous Polish astronomer, propounded the theory that the planets move round the sun not in circles but in ellipses. Thus, Leonardo-da Vinci held the truth that earth is the moon of the sun. But till then people believed in what the holy books taught them. So Shaw says that if a student in the 15th century gives an answer on Copernicus and Leonardo-da Vinci on the movements of the heavenly bodies he would have been ‘burnt alive for heresy’ instead of passing with flying colours. Thus is the matter with modern students. To pass the examination with credit they must not write the latest true information but instead, they must write what their textbooks contain and what their elderly teachers have taught them. And hence the author says that passing examination today is just what it was in the days of Copernicus and says more that it is dangerous to give up to date answers in the examinations.

Seventhly, the author says about the danger of being failed in the examination for giving up to date answers to the elderly examiners. This failure is much in the technical professions. If one wants to get into the navy or practice medicine one must get trained for some months in practices that are quite out of date. If the special training is not taken up then one will be turned down. But there are some subjects in which the theories and practices don’t change. As for example Homer’s Greek and Virgil’s Latin, now are dead languages but they don’t change as naval and medical practices change. Likewise, if anyone desires to be a clergyman he must practice those subjects which don’t change. For example, the Greek of the New Testament does not change. The creeds don’t change. The thirty-nine articles don’t change—though some of them are terribly out of date. At last, the author says that the students always should give these answers to their examination questions which are prescribed in the textbooks without judging them whether they are true or false. If any student happens to have any original ideas about examination subjects he must not air them in the examination papers. He may know better than his examiners but he should not let his examiners know about it.

At last, the author of the essay ‘Life and Learning’ G.B. Shaw says that the students, after their school education, will enter into the school of the world, and then they will see that their school education was defective. They will then find that they have read and learn things but had not learned how to eat, drink, sleep, breathe which are very important things in life. The author clarifies this point by his own practical experience in life. He says that people may take him as an educated man because he had earned his living for sixty years by such a work which only an educated man can do. But the subjects which educated him were not taught in school. The subjects which educated the author were not known to the teachers and they were utterly and barbarously ignorant of them. As many unnecessary subjects were taught in school and many necessary subjects were neglected and as certain discipline and routine had to follow in school so school life became troublesome to the author. To say in his own words, ”School was to me a sentence of penal servitude.” The author could read all the masterpieces of English poets, playwrights, historians and scientific pioneers, but he could not read school books. Because the author says that school books are written by those people who don’t know how to write. He says more that a person who knows nothing of all the great musicians from Palestrina to Edward Elgar or of the great painters from Gitto to Burn Jones is a savage and ignoramus even if he is hung all over with gold medals for school classics. He expresses his antipathy against the method of teaching Mathematics. Mathematics becomes a subject of abhorrence to him because the school teachers had not explained the meaning of Mathematics and its relations to science while they taught him the subject. The author after giving all these arguments against school education concludes the essay with a piece of advice to the students that the students should not expect too much from their school achievements.

Throughout the essay, the author has shown his antipathy against school education and finds out the defects of school education with his personal experiences in life. The arguments propounded by him in support of his views are utterly realistic and true to practical life.

People can learn much valuable lesson in their practical life. School as it seems to our practical life that it teaches those subjects without which a man can live a happy and fruitful life. School education generally makes a student specialist in a subject which in his practical social life does not hold well. Shaw’s arguments are realistic and true and this essay has shown nakedly the age-long defective system of education and hence there is a dire need of modifying the curriculum of school education corresponding with the need of practical life. 

The structure of the essay is coherent and full of unity. The author propounded his views one by one with illustration form his personal experiences.

It is one of the finest specimens of personal or subjective essay which is characterized by the originality of thought, realistic in application, unity in structure and simplicity of language. 0 0 0


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