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T.H. Huxley Plays Chess with Himself

That Aldous Huxley’s incisive reasoning and facility with the language came to him naturally cannot be doubted by anyone who has read the essays of his grandfather, T.H. Huxley, the man affectionately known as “Darwin’s Bulldog.” A look at “A Liberal Education,” one of his briefer works, will demonstrate the elder Huxley’s prowess. In order to argue for compulsory education, Huxley likens life to a board game:

Suppose it were perfectly certain that the life and fortune of every one of us would, one day or other, depend upon his winning or losing a game of chess. Don’t you think that we should all consider it to be a primary duty to learn at least the names and the moves of the pieces?

He goes on from opening gambit to make the rather precarious analogy between the game of chess and the game of life.

Yet it is a very plain and elementary truth, that the life, the fortune, and the happiness of every one of us, and, more or less, of those who are connected with us, do depend upon our knowing something of the rules of a game infinitely more difficult and complicated than chess.

The game that Huxley points out here is, of course, life with the rules of Nature as the rules of the game. Like all metaphors, that which Huxley creates is imperfect and vulnerable when taken to extremes. In fairness, however, he writes well and makes his case convincingly. Around a third of the way through the essay–just past the opening but before the endgame–the writer proposes a view of education that should get the blood pumping for any concerned educator.

Education is the instruction of the intellect in the laws of Nature, under which name I include not merely things and their forces, but men and their ways; and the fashioning of the affections and of the will into an earnest and loving desire to move in harmony with those laws.

This all sounds great. Placed into the less florid prose of the early twenty-first century, Huxley is arguing that education helps people to learn to get along successfully in life. Yet what decent person would disagree with such a statement. Can we imagine the most devoted Marxist embracing such a statement? The Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia? Pope Benedict? Richard Dawkins? Or even the proprietor of DeVry University. Certainly. For these various figures, education allows the student to understand class conflict, embrace the teachings of the Koran, follow the teaching office of the Catholic Church, learn to love our selfish genes, or learn networking skills to advance in a technological workplace. Of course education aims to help the learner navigate the seas of life. The problem is understanding what perils the world actually presents.

If Muhammed was the true prophet of Allah, then one had best learn the rules of chess that the Grand Mufti advocates, but if Dawkins is correct and life is simply a mechanistic arrangement of complex randomness, then embarking on the Hajj is foolish. Like so many persuasive writers, Huxley seems taken in by the aroma of his own language.

Nonetheless, Huxley’s essays on education are worth reading.

Posted in English Literature, Victorian.

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