HL Deb 23 July 1875 vol 225 cc1872-7

asked the Under Secretary for War, Whether it is intended to make success in a competitive examination, among other English works, in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, a necessary introduction to the military service of Her Majesty as Cavalry and Infantry officers; and whether the provisions for such examination are under the sanction of the Commander-in-Chief or the Secretary for War? As we all knew, competition prevailed in almost every branch of public life except the highest—we had not yet come to the period when Ministers of State were appointed because of the number of "marks" achieved by them or when they were complimented by the House of Commons because of the success which they had gained in their examination—that was a point which we had not yet reached. But meanwhile he thought their Lordships would agree that it was only proper that in those cases in which examinations prevailed those examinations should be conducted with a view to the objects to be obtained by them. He quite agreed that military students should be examined as to their general knowledge of English literature and the English language; but even in Prussia and France, where these matters were carried to extremes, he was not aware that Prussian military students were subject to examination in the ancient German language, or that young French officers were examined as to their proficiency in ancient French literature. He put this Question because on looking over the list of subjects for examination on entrance into the Army he found that Chaucer was one of the authors with whose writings candidates were required to be acquainted. He should have thought that an acquaintance with the Chronicles of Froissart would have been more consonant with a military education; but however that might be, he felt sure that their Lordships would agree with him that the compulsory study of Chaucer savoured more of the pedantry of the Professor than the wise conclusion of the practical man. He was aware that neither English literature nor Chaucer was in terms compulsory; but rivalry in competition practically made it so. He wanted to know whether this scheme of examination was proposed by the Civil Service Examiners; and, if so, whether it had received the sanction of the military authorities? If the former was the case, it seemed strange to him that the Examiners should have been allowed to frame such a scheme; and if the latter, he would think it still more strange that so important a part of the education of young officers for the Army should have received the sanction of the authorities who were responsible for the efficiency of officers admitted to the service.


said, the question of the noble Earl was based upon two erroneous assumptions, the first of which was that candidates for admission to the Army were bound to pass an examination in English Literature, and the second that Chaucer was always included among the authors presented for examination. Neither of these assumptions was correct. The fact was that English Literature was one of nine subjects from which the candidates might select four, and that Chaucer was only incidentally included among the authors in reference to whose works students might be examined. No student, however, who took up the subject of English Literature was bound to study any particular one of the authors named. In reply to his noble Friend's Question he had to say that the subjects for examination were chosen by the Civil Service Commissioners and then submitted for publication to the Director General of Military Education. The Secretary of State for War had power of veto in case he did not approve the curriculum chosen by the Commissioners. He was not, however, aware that upon any occasion the authorities at the War Office had altered or dissented from the selection that had been made by the Civil Service Commissioners.


said, he had paid particular attention to these examinations, and had observed that, as a rule, the subjects had been well selected and the results satisfactory; but he had been surprised to observe that one passage of Chaucer, in which there was a very fine military description, had been omitted from the selections for examination.


thought the noble Earl (the Earl of Harrowby) had done good service by raising this question. He conceived very few authors were less suited to advance military education than Chaucer. In order to understand Chaucer it was necessary to pass through a preliminary study of old English and to acquire a knowledge of a vast number of archaic words which had long passed out of general use and were only preserved by the laborious students of early English literature. If these words were introduced into modern speech the person using them would be exposed to ridicule. He viewed with great regret the introduction of such authors into a system of military examination; and, further, he would go the length of stating his opinion that if the person devising such a course had desired to bring into contempt the whole system of military examinations he could hardly have hit upon a better method. He was therefore sorry to find the noble Earl the Under Secretary of State for War opposing the view of the noble Earl who had brought the question forward, and stating that the subjects for examination were submitted to and approved by the Secretary of State for War.


, in explanation, said, the subjects for examination were selected by the Civil Service Commissioners, but they were forwarded to the Director General of Military Education for publication, and they were subject to the approval of the Secretary of State.


said, he understood that the Civil Service Commissioners, having chosen the subjects for examination, handed them to the Director General of Military Education, not for supervision, but merely that he might transmit them to the Secretary of State.


thought the system referred to by the illustrious Duke ought not to remain in force; but that a plan more suited to the future career of candidates for the profession of arms ought to be adopted.


said, it seemed to be assumed that the object in view in these examinations was military education; but the fact was that that was not the purpose immediately in view. Some years ago the state of general education in the Army was so unsatisfactory that a Royal Commission was appointed with a view to its improvement, and their recommendation was that officers should entered the Army at an early age with a good English education. There was one object which the Commissioners had particularly in view. They noticed that a very small portion of young man who enter the Army were drawn from public schools; but they learnt from commanding officers that the best officers were those who had been drawn from our public schools, and, therefore, they said in effect—"Let us have a system by which we may secure for the Army youths with the best civil education which the country affords, and let us give them, afterwards, the best mili- tary education which we can provide." It was in strict conformity with the recommendations of the Royal Commissioners that the Civil Service Commissioners had endeavoured to proceed. It was in deference to the opinion of the Royal Commissioners that the examinations were given over to the Civil Service Commissioners. While the present system had been in operation the War Office, he believed, had never interfered with the choice of the Civil Service Commissioners; and the Civil Service Commissioners, on their part, had scrupulously endeavoured to ascertain and act in accordance with the wishes of the illustrious Duke (the Duke of Cambridge) and the Secretary of State for War. The question, therefore, was not whether the study of Chaucer or any other author formed a desirable part of a military education—for the military education was to come afterwards—but whether it ought to enter into the education of an English gentleman. In this matter the object of the Civil Service Commissioners, as of the Royal Commissioners, had been, not to tell the managers of public schools what they ought to teach, but to follow the course of study they had adopted, as the one calculated to make the best officers for the Army. He confessed he had been much surprised in the course of the discussion to hear men of the greatest literary attainments speak of Chaucer as if he were not a proper subject for study. Chaucer was pronounced by Hallam to be "the greatest poet of the Middle Ages beyond comparison," and he should have thought that, in trying to find out the best pupils of the English public schools, it was not an unnatural thing to select Chaucer's works as a subject of examination.


also desired to point out that the examinations in question were not military examinations, but were designed solely with the view of securing officers of good general education for the Army. They were, in fact, public school examinations, and were intended to get young men from the public schools to enter the Service. The Civil Service Commissioners had been intrusted with these examinations, and, so far as he was aware, the authorities of the War Office, whether civil or military, had in no way interfered in the matter. The question which had been raised was therefore one for the Civil Service Commissioners alone to deal with. It was not until the young men had passed the examination in question that it became the duty of the authorities at the War Office to deal with their military education.


was understood to express his entire concurrence with the noble Earl (the Earl of Harrowby), and to say that, in his opinion, the present system of examination for introduction to the Army was very far from satisfactory.


thought the most crying evil of the present system of competitive examination was that it fostered "cramming." That being so, to fix upon Chaucer as a subject by an acquaintance with which a good many marks might be obtained by young men, appeared to him to be a course the tendency of which would be to increase that evil.

After a few words from Earl FORTESCUE,


said, that not one word of English was taught at the public school at which he was. Whether that was a creditable state of things he did not know; but there was now a modern side to most public schools, and he should be very much surprised if in any course of English literature the study of Chaucer should be entirely omitted. The noble Earl opposite (Earl Cadogan), who spoke with great authority on such a subject, said it would be a disadvantage for a young man to study Chaucer, inasmuch as it might introduce the use of obsolete words into his ordinary conversation; but that argument would, in his opinion, apply equally to the study of Latin.


was understood to say it was most desirable that young men should receive a good general education, for by that means they acquired a knowledge of a great variety of subjects.