A Dominie in Doubt

A Dominie in Doubt

Alexander Sutherland Neill
Alexander Sutherland Neill

Author: Neill, Alexander Sutherland, 1883-1973
Education — Philosophy
Alexander Sutherland
Education — Scotland
Teachers — Scotland — Biography
A Dominie in Doubt









To Homer Lane, whose first lecture convinced me that I knew nothing
about education. I owe much to him, but I hasten to warn educationists
that they must not hold him responsible for the views given in these
pages. I never understood him fully enough to expound his wonderful
educational theories.

A. S. N.
AUGUST 12, 1920.



“Just give me your candid opinion of A Dominie’s Log; I’d like to
hear it.”

Macdonald looked up from digging into the bowl of his pipe with a
dilapidated penknife. He is now head-master of Tarbonny Public School,
a school I know well, for I taught in it for two years as an ex-pupil

Six days ago he wrote asking me to come and spend a holiday with him,
so I hastily packed my bag and made for Euston.

This evening had been a sort of complimentary dinner in my honour, the
guests being neighbouring dominies and their wives, none of whom I
knew. We had talked of the war, of rising prices, and a thousand other
things. Suddenly someone mentioned education, and of course my
unfortunate Log had come under discussion.

I had been anxious to continue my discussion with a Mrs. Brown on the
subject of the relative laying values of Minorcas and Buff Orpingtons,
but I had been dragged to the miserable business in spite of myself.

Now they were all gone, and Macdonald had returned to the charge.

“It’s hardly a fair question,” said Mrs. Macdonald, “to ask an author
what he thinks of his own book. No man can judge his own work, any
more than a mother can judge her own child.”

“That’s true!” I said. “A man can’t judge his own behaviour, and
writing a book is an element of behaviour. Besides, there is a better
reason why a writer cannot judge his own work,” I added.

“Because he never reads it?” queried Macdonald with a grin.

I shook my head.

“An author has no further interest in his book after it is published.”

Macdonald looked across at me. It was clear that he doubted my

“Surely you don’t mean to say that you have no interest in A Dominie’s


“None whatever!” I said.

“You mean it?” persisted Macdonald.

“My dear Mac,” I said, “an author dare not read his own book.”

“Dare not! Why?”

“Because it’s out of date five minutes after it’s written.”

For fully a minute we smoked in silence. Macdonald appeared to be
digesting my remark.

“You see,” I continued presently, “when I read a book on education, I
want to learn, and I certainly don’t expect to learn anything from the
man I was five years ago.”

“I think I understand,” said Macdonald. “You have come to realise that
what you wrote five years ago was wrong. That it?”

“True for you, Mac. You’ve just hit it.”

“You needn’t have waited five years to find that out,” he said, with a
good-natured grin. “I could have told you the day the book was
published—I bought one of the first copies.”

“Still,” he continued, “I don’t see why a book should be out-of-date in
five years. That is if it deals with the truth. Truth is eternal.”

“What is truth?” I asked wearily. “We all thought we knew the truth
about gravitation. Then Einstein came along with his relativity
theory, and told us we were wrong.”

“Did he?” inquired Macdonald, with a faint smile.

“I am quoting from the newspapers,” I added hastily. “I haven’t the
remotest idea what relativity means. Perhaps it’s Epstein I mean—no,
he’s a sculptor.”

“You’re hedging!” said Macdonald.

“Can you blame me?” I asked. “You’re trying to get me to say what
truth is. I am not a professor of philosophy, I’m a dominie. All I
can say is that the Log was the truth . . . for me . . . five years
ago; but it isn’t the truth for me now.”

“Then, what exactly is your honest opinion of the Log as a work on

“As a work on education,” I said deliberately, “the Log isn’t worth a

“Not a bad criticism, either,” said Macdonald dryly.

“I say that,” I continued, “because when I wrote it I knew nothing
about the most important factor in education—the psychology of

“But,” said Mrs. Macdonald in surprise—hitherto she had been an
interested listener—”I thought that the bits about the bairns were the
best part of the book.”

“Possibly,” I answered, “but I was looking at children from a grown-up
point of view. I thought of them as they affected me, instead of as
they affected themselves. I’ll give you an instance. I think I said
something about wanting to chuck woodwork and cookery out of the school
curriculum. I was wrong, hopelessly wrong.”

“I’m glad to hear you admit it,” said Macdonald. “I have always
thought that every boy ought to be taught to mend a hen-house and every
girl to cook a dinner.”

“Then I was right after all,” I said quickly.

Macdonald stared at me, whilst his wife looked up interrogatively from
her embroidery.

“If your aim is to make boys joiners and girls cooks,” I explained,
“then I still hold that cookery and woodwork ought to be chucked out of
the schools.”

“But, man, what are schools for?” I saw a combative light in

Macdonald’s eye.

“Creation, self-expression . . . . the only thing that matters in
education. I don’t care what a child is doing in the way of creation,
whether he is making tables, or porridge, or sketches, or—or—”

“Snowballs!” prompted Macdonald.

“Or snowballs,” I said. “There is more true education in making a
snowball than in listening to an hour’s lecture on grammar.”

Mrs. Macdonald dropped her embroidery into her lap, with a little gasp
at the heresy of my remark.

“You’re talking pure balderdash!” said Macdonald, leaning forward to
knock the ashes from his pipe on the bars of the grate.

“Very well,” I said cheerfully. “Let’s discuss it. You make a class
sit in front of you for an hour, and you threaten to whack the first
child that doesn’t pay attention to your lesson on nouns and pronouns.”

“Discipline,” said Macdonald.

“I don’t care what you call it. I say it’s stupidity.”

“But, hang it all, man, you can’t teach if you haven’t got the
children’s attention.”

“And you can’t teach when you have got it,” I said. “A child learns
only when it is interested.”

“But surely, discipline makes them interested,” said Mrs. Macdonald.

I shook my head. “It only makes them attentive.”

“Same thing,” said Macdonald.

“No, Mac,” I replied. “It is not the same thing. Attention means the
applying of the conscious mind to a thing; interest means the
application of both the conscious and the unconscious mind. When you
force a child to attend to a lesson for fear of the tawse, you merely
engage the least important part of his mind—the conscious. While he
stares at the blackboard his unconscious is concerned with other

“What sort of things?” asked Macdonald.

“Very probably his unconscious is working out an elaborate plan to
murder you,” I said, “and I don’t blame it either,” I added.

“And the snowballs?” queried Mrs. Macdonald.

“When a boy makes a snowball, he is interested; his whole soul is in
the job, that is, his unconscious and his conscious are working
together. For the moment he is an artist, a creator.”

“So that’s the new education . . . making snowballs?” said Macdonald.

“It isn’t really,” I said; “but what I want to do is to point out that
making snowballs is nearer to true education than the spoon-feeding we
call education to-day.”

* * * * *

Duncan does not like me. He is a young dominie of twenty-three or
thereabouts, a friend of Macdonald, and he has just been demobilised.
He was a major, and he does not seem to have recovered from the
experience. He has got what the vulgar call swelled head. Last night
he was dilating upon the delinquencies of the old retired teacher who
ran the school while Duncan was on active service. It seems that the
old man had allowed the school to run to seed.

“Would you believe it,” I overheard Duncan say to Macdonald, “when I
came back I found that the boys and girls were playing in the same
playground. Why, man, some of them were playing on the road! And the
discipline! Awful!”

Poor children! I see it all; I see Duncan line them up like a squad of
recruits, and march them into school with never a smile on their faces
or a word on their lips. Macdonald tells me that he makes them lift
their slates by numbers.

And the amusing thing is that Duncan thinks himself one of the more
advanced teachers. He reads the educational journals, and eagerly
devours the articles about new methods in teaching arithmetic and
geography. His school is only a mile and a half away, and I hope that
he will come over to see Mac a few times while I am here.

I have seen the old type of dominie, and I have seen the new type. I
prefer the former. He had many faults, but he usually managed to do
something for the human side of the children. The new type is a danger
to children. The old dominie leathered the children so that they might
make a good show before the inspector; the new dominie leathers them
because he thinks that children ought to be disciplined so that they
may be able to fight the battle of life. He does not see that by using
authority he is doing the very opposite of what he intends; he is
making the child dependent on him, and for ever afterwards the child
will lack initiative, lack self-confidence, lack originality.

What the new dominie does do is to turn out excellent wage-slaves. The
discipline of the school gives each child an inner sense of
inferiority . . . . what the psycho-analysts call an inferiority
complex. And the working-classes are suffering from a gigantic
inferiority complex . . . . otherwise they would not be content to
remain wage-slaves. The fear that Duncan inspires in a boy will remain
in that boy all his life. When he enters the workshop he will
unconsciously identify the foreman with Duncan, and fear him and hate
him. I believe that many a strike is really a vague insurrection
against the teacher. For it is well known that the unconscious mind is

* * * * *

To-night I dropped in to see my old friend Dauvit Todd the cobbler.
Many an evening have I spent in his dirty shop. Dauvit works on after
teatime, and the village worthies gather round his fire and smoke and
spit and grunt. I have sat there for an hour many a night, and not a
single word was said. Peter Smith the blacksmith would give a great
sigh and say: “Imphm!” There would be silence for ten minutes, and
then Jake Tosh the roadman would stare at the fire, shake his head, and
say: “Aye, man!” Then a ploughman would smack his lips and say: “Man,
aye!” A southerner looking in might have jumped to the conclusion that
the assembly was collectively and individually bored, but boredom never
enters Dauvit’s shop. We Scots think better in crowds.

To-night the old gang was there. The hypothetical southerner again
would have marvelled at the reception I received. I walked into the
shop after an absence of five years.

“Weel, Dauvit,” I said, and sat down in the basket chair. Dauvit and I
have never shaken hands in our lives. He looked up.

“Back again!” he said, without any evident surprise; then he added:

“And what like a nicht is ‘t ootside?”

Gradually other men dropped in, and the same sort of greeting took
place. The weather continued to be discussed for a time. Then the
blacksmith said: “Auld Tarn Davidson’s swine dee’d last nicht.”

Dauvit looked up from the boot he was repairing.

“What did it dee o’?” and there followed an argument about the symptoms
of swine fever.

An English reader of The House with the Green Shutters would have
concluded that these villagers were deliberately trying to put me in my
place. By ignoring me might they not be showing their contempt for
dominies who have just come from London? Not they. They were glad to
see me again, and their method of showing their gladness was to take up
our friendship at the point where it left off five years ago.

The only time a Scot distrusts other Scots is when they fuss over him.
The story goes in Tarbonny that when young Jim Lunan came home
unexpectedly after a ten years’ farming in Canada, his mother was
washing the kitchen floor.

“Mother!” he cried, “I’ve come hame!”

She looked over her shoulder.

“Wipe yer feet afore ye come in, ye clorty laddie,” she said.

But there is a garrulous type of Scot . . . or rather the type of Scot
that tries to make the other fellow garrulous. In our county we call
them the speerin’ bodie. To speer means to ask questions. The
speerin’ bodie is common enough in Fife, and I suppose it was a Fifer
who entered a railway compartment one morning and sat down to study the
only other occupant—an Englishman.

“It’s a fine day,” said the Scot, and there was a question in his tone.

The Englishman sighed and laid aside his newspaper.

“Aye, mester,” continued the inquisitive Fifer, “and ye’ll be——”

The Englishman held up a forbidding hand.

“You needn’t go on,” he said; “I’ll tell you everything about myself.
I was born in Leeds, the son of poor parents. I left school at the age
of twelve, and I became a draper. I gradually worked my way up, and
now I am traveller for a Manchester firm. I married six years ago.
Three kids. Wife has rheumatism. Willie had measles last month. I
have a seven room cottage; rent £27. I vote Tory; go to the Baptist
church, and keep hens. Anything else you want to know?”

The Scot had a very dissatisfied look.

“What did yer grandfaither dee o’?” he demanded gruffly.

When the argument about swine fever had died down, Dauvit turned to me.

“Aye, and how is Lunnon lookin’?”

“Same as ever,” I answered.

“Ye’ll have to tak’ Dauvit doon on a trip,” laughed the smith.

Dauvit drove in a tacket.

“Man, smith, I was in Lunnon afore you was born,” he said.

“Go on, Dauvit,” I said encouragingly, “tell us the story.” I had
heard it before, but I longed to hear it again. Dauvit brightened up.

“There’s no muckle to tell,” he said, as he tossed the boot into a
corner and wiped his face with his apron. “It’ll be ten years come
Martimas. Me and Will Tamson gaed up by boat frae Dundee. Oh! we had
a graund time. But there’s no muckle to tell.”

“What about Dave Brownlee?” I asked.

Dauvit chuckled softly.

“But ye’ve a’ heard the story,” he said, but we protested that we

“Aweel,” he began, “some of you will no doubt mind o’ Dave Broonlee him
that stoppit at Millend. Dave served his time as a draper, and syne he
got a good job in a Lunnon shop. Weel, me and Will Tamson was walkin’
along the Strand when Will he says to me, says he: ‘Cud we no pay a
veesit to Dave Broonlee?’ Then I minded that Dave’s father had said
something aboot payin’ him a call, but I didna ken his address. All I
kent was that he was in a big shop in Oxford Street.

“Weel, Will and me we goes up to a bobby and speers the way to Oxford
Street. When we got there Will he goes up to another bobby and says:
‘Please cud ye tell me whatna shop Dave Broonlee works intil?’ At that
I started to laugh, and syne the bobby he started to laugh. He laughed
a lang time and syne when I telt him that it was a draper’s shop he
directed us to a great big muckle shop wi’ a thousand windows.

“‘Try there first,’ says the bobby.

“Weel, in we goes, and a mannie in a tail coat he comes forart rubbin’
his hands.

“‘And what can I do for you, sir?’ he says to Will.

“‘Oh,’ says Will, ‘we want to see Dave Broonlee,’ but the man didna ken
what Will was sayin’. It took Will and me twenty meenutes to get him
to onderstand.

“‘Oh,’ says he, ‘I understand now. You want to see Mr. Brownlee?’

“‘Ye’re fell quick in the uptak,’ says Will, but of coorse the man
didna ken what he was sayin’.

“He went to the backshop to speer aboot Dave, and when he cam back he
says, says he: ‘I’m sorry, but Mr. Brownlee has gone out to lunch.
Will you leave a message?’

“Will turned to the door.

“‘Never mind,’ says he, ‘we’ll see him doon the toon.'”

* * * * *

In reading my Log I am appalled by the amount of lecturing I did in
school. Since writing it I have visited most of the best schools in
England, and I found that I was not the only teacher who lectured. But
we are all wrong. I fancy that the real reason why I lectured so much
was to indulge my showing-off propensities. To stand before a class or
an audience; to be the cynosure of all eyes; to have a crowd hanging on
your words . . . . all showing off! Very, very human, but . . . . bad
for the audience.

When a teacher lectures he is unconsciously giving expression to his
desire to gain a feeling of superiority. That, I fancy, is the deepest
wish of every one of us . . . . to impress others, to be superior. You
see it in the smallest child. Give him an audience, and he will show
off for hours. The boy at the top of the class gains his feeling of
superiority by beating the others at arithmetic, while the dunce at the
bottom of the class gains his in more original ways . . . punching the
top boy at playtime, scoring goals at football, spitting farther than
anyone else in school. I have seen a boy smash a window merely to draw
attention to himself, and thus to gain a momentary feeling of

And we grown-ups are boys at heart. The boy is the father to the man.
Take, for instance, a childish trait—exhibitionism. Most children at
an early age love to run about naked, to show off their bodies. Later
the conventions of society make the child repress this wish to exhibit
himself. But we know that a repressed wish does not die; it merely
buries itself in the unconscious. Many years later the exhibition
impulse comes out in sublimated form as a desire to show off before the
public . . . hence our politicians, actors, actresses, street-corner
revivalists, and—er—dominies.

Now I hasten to add that there is nothing to be ashamed of in being a
politician or a dominie. But if I lecture a class I am making the
affair my show, and I am not the most important actor in the play; I am
the scene-shifter; the real actors who should be declaiming their lines
are sitting on hard benches staring at me and wondering what I am
raving about. Each little person is thirsting to show his or her
superiority, and he never gets the chance. Occasionally I may ask a
sleepy-looking urchin what are the exports to Canada, and he may gain a
slight feeling of superiority if he can tell the right answer. Yet I
fancy that his unconscious self despises me and my question. Why in
all the earth should I ask a question when I know the answer? The
whole thing is an absurdity.

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