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Useful And Fantastic: A Goldfield Schoolmaster - 3

...“Thirty years ago there was a strong prejudice extant against educating the poor children, lest their enlightenment should produce discontent but this benighted fallacy has exploded and vanished into thin air. Education does not promote discontent, but on the contrary, lightens labor and conduces to happiness.”...

Val Yule continues her account of a highly gifted school master who taught in a rural part of New South Wales in the early years of the Nineteenth Century.

The teachers asked about the numerous insects kept in a rectangular box divided into seven parts, and on McCombe's request, Miss Lee, with a smile, explained that McCombe had arranged these insects of different species in seven compartments because they belonged to seven orders according to Linnaeus, the great naturalist, and that they were called insects “because they have a separation of their bodies into two parts, that is cut or notched, hence they take the name from the Latin word”.

“Explain to us how you know that all these specimens belong to seven orders.”

Miss Lee then explained at some length about the Coleoptera, the Hemiptera, the Lepidoptera, the Neuroptera, the Hymenoptera, the Diptera and the Aptera, with the meanings of their names.

“These big names sound well,” said teacher Treehey,” but it is foolishness, in my opinion, to lose time in studying such a subject.”

This spurred McCombe to expound on Natural History as “probably the most instructive and interesting of all subjects, and no person can be said to possess great knowledge without having some acquaintance with Biology. The eye of the ordinary fly is a phenomenon in itself. It contains thousands of regular hexagonal facets, each of which has a distinct vision. These insects may appear small to you, as a great teacher, but not so to the Creator of all things. If these insects were seen through a microscope, children, and school children especially, would learn to respect the lives of beings so perfect and wonderful. To use the words of Shakespeare:

The poor beetle, that we tread upon
In corporal suf'rance feels as great a pang
As when a giant dies.”

“This is very poetical,” returned Mr Treehey, “but the fact remains that flies and insects are a nuisance, and are useless to man.”

Mr McCombe was saddened that a teacher could express himself so, and replied with a characteristic short talk, reported in detail by Brennan, on the value of insects for destroying weeds in the bud, extirpating them when full grown, feeding on carrion, living on dung, and so destroying, dispersing and changing noxious substances.

The group then observed the assistant teaching singing to forty children according to the Tonic Sol Fa method. The assistant explained the etymology of the words “tonic, tone or sound; and solfa, the gamut” and the children at once ran up and down the scale.

The teachers congratulated McCombe and complimented Miss Lee. Mr McCombe told them that “Miss Lee is an exceptionally clever girl, and may one day become a great mathematician. Her father, Dr Lee, was educated at the great University, Nankin, and he has taught her thoroughly on the calculating instrument known as the Abacus, with the result that she can apply it to all forms of calculations in arithmetic, algebra and logarithms. Baron Naper (sic) has constructed a somewhat complex abacus, the principles of which can never be grasped by ordinary intelligence. It is possible that if I remain here for any lengthened period, Miss Lee will produce a work on “Mathematics Made Easy “ that will entitle her to be ranked as a benefactor.”

McCombe then invited the group to a children’s concert on the Wednesday night, to be preceded by a lecture on education. As they went home, teacher Tierney commented “This school is a great college, and the master, both as a gentleman and as a scholar, has no superior in the Colony. We. . are no better than the blind leading the blind, and should, like the Haruspices of old, turn our heads on meeting one another, lest we should laugh at our impostureship.”

On the night of the lecture, the schoolrooms were decorated with British and Colonial flags, Chinese lanterns, and a profusion of scented flowers and waratahs; while in a marquee outside, Dr Lee and his wife supplied refreshments gratuitously. The various clergymen and teachers of the district were in attendance. Mr McCombe was dressed as M.A. with gown, hood and trencher, and his appearance evoked much applause. After a dignified bow, he proceeded with his address.''

Brennan’s report of its almost universalist sweep was strong on details, despite some non sequitors. The opening strophe was:

“Knowledge is power, a truth by all confessed
When rightly used and heavenward bound is blest.”

“This thought, it is said, emanated either from the philosopher Bacon, or the classic poet Pope, but whoever gave expression to it, the fact remains that the sentiment is correct. The distinction between a savage and a civilised life is knowledge. By instructing children in habits of mental discipline we promote virtue, and implant in their tender and pliant minds a sense of moral obligation.”

McCombe then described in detail the various kinds of knowledge. "God has endowed mankind with numerous powers including the divine gift of reason, and it is the cultivation of these powers and this gift in a proper manner that constitutes what is termed education." The goal of education is "an intelligent and vigorous adult.manhood.''

He went on to speak about physical, intellectual, moral and spiritual education, beginning with a religious formation of character, upon which the superstructure of intellectual requirements could rest with safety The Persians, in the days of Xenophon, had “an intelligent conception of education”. The youth was removed from the parents and educated by the State. “The result was in the highest degree satisfactory.”

“Thirty years ago there was a strong prejudice extant against educating the poor children, lest their enlightenment should produce discontent but this benighted fallacy has exploded and vanished into thin air. Education does not promote discontent, but on the contrary, lightens labor and conduces to happiness.”

Untrained teachers were a mistake because teachers are not like the young robin, “which though hatched in the oven, can go forth and build its nest, perfect in every detail, without ever having seen one.” Schools should approximate to second homes. Masters should “not assist advanced pupils either too much or too little. I give assistance only when absolutely necessary. I teach the principles thoroughly, exhort them to think out and reason for themselves, and in this way they become masters of the subject.”

McCombe told of two of his best students who stoically declined help for the solution of a very difficult question, and finally they triumphed. “I shall not forget the joy they disclosed at their success.”

He liked students to be “fired by a noble ambition, who think and reason for themselves, who drink deep from the Pierian Springs, who hold, so to speak, converse with the mighty dead, who rule us from their urns.”


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