Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
The Measure of Intellect
By Hugh Miller (18021856)
From My Schools and Schoolmasters
PARTLY through my friend, but in part also from the circumstance that I retained a measure of intimacy with such of my school-fellows as had subsequently prosecuted their education at college, I was acquainted, during the later years in which I wrought as a mason, with a good many university-taught lads; and I sometimes could not avoid comparing them in my mind with working men of, as nearly as I could guess, the same original calibre. I did not always find that general superiority on the side of the scholar which the scholar himself usually took for granted. What he had specially studied he knew, save in rare and exceptional cases, better than the working man; but while the student had been mastering his Greek and Latin, and expatiating in Natural Philosophy and the Mathematics, the working man, if of an enquiring mind, had been doing something else; and it is at least a fact, that all the great readers of my acquaintance at this timethe men most extensively acquainted with English literaturewere not the men who had received the classical education. On the other hand, in framing an argument, the advantage lay with the scholars. In that common sense, however, which reasons but does not argue, and which enables men to pick their stepping prudently through the journey of life, I found that the classical education gave no superiority whatever; nor did it appear to form so fitting an introduction to the realities of business as that course of dealing with things tangible and actual in which the working man has to exercise his faculties, and from which he derives his experience. One cause of the over-low estimate which the classical scholar so often forms of the intelligence of that class of the people to which our skilled mechanics belong, arises very much from the forwardness of a set of blockheads who are always sure to obtrude themselves upon his notice, and who come to be regarded by him as average specimens of their order. I never yet knew a truly intelligent mechanic obtrusive. Men of the stamp of my two uncles, and of my friend William Ross, never press themselves on the notice of the classes above them. A minister newly settled in a charge, for instance, often finds that it is the dolts of his flock that first force themselves upon his acquaintance. I have heard the late Mr. Stewart of Cromarty remark that the humbler dunderheads of the parish had all introduced themselves to his acquaintance long ere he found out its clever fellows. And hence often sad mistakes on the part of a clergyman in dealing with the people. It seems never to strike him that there may be among them men of his own calibre, and, in certain practical departments, even better taught than he, and that this superior class is always sure to lead the others. And in preaching down to the level of the men of the humbler capacity, he fails often to preach to men of any capacity at all, and is of no use. Some of the clerical contemporaries of Mr. Stewart used to allege that, in exercising his admirable faculties in the theological field, he sometimes forgot to lower himself to his people, and so preached over their heads. And at times, when they themselves came to occupy his pulpit, as occasionally happened, they addressed to the congregation sermons quite simple enough for even children to comprehend. I taught at the time a class of boys in the Cromarty Sabbath School, and invariably found on these occasions that while the memories of my pupils were charged to the full with the striking thoughts and graphic illustrations of the very elaborate discourses deemed too high for them, they remembered of the very simple ones, specially lowered to suit narrow capacities, not a single word or note. All the attempts at originating a cheap literature that have failed, have been attempts pitched too low: the higher-toned efforts have usually succeeded. If the writer of these chapters has been in any degree successful in addressing himself as a journalist to the Presbyterian people of Scotland, it has always been, not by writing down to them, but by doing his best on all occasions to write up to them. He has ever thought of them as represented by his friend William, his uncles and his cousin Georgeby shrewd old John Fraser, and his reckless though very intelligent acquaintance Cha; and by addressing to them on every occasion as good sense and as solid information as he could possibly muster, he has at times succeeded in catching their ear, and perhaps, in some degree, in influencing their judgment.