The Education of Mr. Polly

excerpt from The History of Mr. Polly, by H.G. Wells, 1910


Allegory of Education“I remember seeing a picture of Education–– in some place.  I think it was Education, but quite conceivably it represented the Empire teaching her Sons…. It represented a glorious woman with a wise and fearless face stooping over her children and pointing them to far horizons.  The sky displayed the pearly warmth of a summer dawn, and all the painting was marvellously bright as if with the youth and hope of the delicately beautiful children in the foreground.  She was telling them, one felt, of the great prospect of life that opened before them, of the spectacle of the world, the splendours of sea and mountain they might travel and see, the joys of skill they might acquire, of effort and the pride of effort and the devotions and nobilities it was theirs to achieve.  Perhaps even she whispered of the warm triumphant mystery of love that comes at last to those who have patience and unblemished hearts . . . .  She was reminding them of their great heritage as English children, rulers of more than one-fifth of mankind, of the obligation to do and be the best that such a pride of empire entails …

“The education of Mr. Polly did not follow this picture very closely.

“…Mr. Polly went into the National School at six and he left the private school at fourteen, and by that time his mind was in much the same state that you would be in, dear reader, if you were operated upon for appendicitis by a well-meaning, boldly enterprising, but rather over-worked and under-paid butcher boy, who was superseded towards the climax of the operation by a left-handed clerk of high principles but intemperate habits,––that is to say, it was in a thorough mess.  The nice little curiosities and willingnesses of a child were in a jumbled and thwarted condition, hacked and cut about––the operators had left, so to speak, all their sponges and ligatures in the mangled confusion,––and Mr. Polly had lost much of his natural confidence, so far as figures and sciences and languages and the possibilities of learning things were concerned.  He thought of the present world no longer as a wonderland of experiences, but as geography and history, as the repeating of names that were hard to pronounce, and lists of products and populations and heights and lengths, and as lists and dates––oh! and boredom indescribable… He was uncertain about the spelling and pronunciation of most of the words in our beautiful but abundant and perplexing tongue,––that especially was a pity because words attracted him, and under happier conditions he might have used them well …

“Outside the regions devastated by the school curriculum he was still intensely curious.  He had cheerful phases of enterprise, and about thirteen he suddenly discovered reading and its joys.  He began to read stories voraciously, and books of travel, provided they were also adventurous …  At fourteen, when he emerged from the valley of the shadow of education, there survived something, indeed it survived still, obscured and thwarted . . . . that pointed–– not with a visible and prevailing finger like the finger of that beautiful woman in the picture, but pointed nevertheless–– to the idea that there was interest and happiness in the world.  Deep in the being of Mr. Polly, deep in the darkness, like a creature which has been beaten about the head and left for dead but still lives, crawled a persuasion that… there was beauty, there was delight, that somewhere––magically inaccessible perhaps, but still somewhere, were pure and easy and joyous states of body and mind.”



"Generations from now we'll look back and say, 'How could we have done this kind of thing to people?'"