Revisiting the Classics: Joan and Peter by H. G. Wells

Adam Kissel

Education critics might be disheartened to think that the past 100 years of critique since H.G. Wells published Joan and Peter: The Story of an Education in 1918 have hardly improved the situation. In Wells’ novel, the orphaned children suffer through Deweyan feral education under the control of their feminist aunts and then attend similarly unfocused elementary schools until their legal caretaker, Oswald, returns from doing his part to bring civilization to British colonial Africa in order to do the same for Joan and Peter.

During his search for a proper school, Oswald has “his own clear conviction of what [education] ought to be up to, but the more he saw of existing conditions, the more hopelessly it seemed to be up to either entirely different things or else, in a spirit of intellectual sabotage, up to nothing at all.” All of the headmasters fail his “catechism” of what an educated citizen is supposed to know. And the Imperial Education Department is of no help whatsoever.

“Here are two children, brilliant children—with plenty of money to be spent on them! Doesn’t the Empire care a twopenny dam what becomes of them? … What are you doing? How are you doing it? How do you fit it in to the imperial scheme of things?” Even the better schools are “beautiful shelters of intellectual laziness,” Oswald observes.

Oswald’s search for a proper college for his wards goes just as badly. He confronts Blepp, the senior tutor at St. Giles’, Oxford: “Think of the problems that press upon us … Are we making the mentality to solve the Irish riddle here? Are we preparing any outlook for India here? … When I think of the size of the imperial body, its hundreds of nations … and then of the size and quality of this, I’m reminded of the Atlantosaurus. You’ve heard of the beast? Its brain was smaller than the ganglia of its rump.”

The “tepid drip of disconnected instruction” is relieved, for Joan and Peter, by reading “irresponsible contemporary” writers such as Shaw, Fabian Society pamphleteers, and Wilde, who at least have imagination. But for Oswald, “it remained an open question in his mind whether they did more good by making young people think or more harm by making them think wrong.” Since the progressive dons seem to believe the former, he tolerates it all.

Oswald’s concern—Wells’s, too—is that a fully unregulated marketplace of ideas, the open curriculum, if you will, has no telos. From elementary school through college, Oswald suggests, education should at least get citizens caught up with the best that has been thought and said so far (Oswald does invoke Matthew Arnold in this vein) including the latest science. But a free-for-all, where students pick up their ideas as easily as pulling any book they want out of the bookstore, or where bull sessions run everywhere and nowhere, does not prepare people to become educated, prosperous human beings and citizens.

It is hard to miss Wells, sometimes directly intruding as narrator, suggesting that a post-WWI world order requires organization and imagination, a kind of regulated marketplace of ideas where general education prepares citizens for their adult responsibilities—a core curriculum, if you will. While Wells keeps Oswald’s colonial style at an ironic distance—after all, Oswald has only one good eye—the novel offers no better curricular solution between the extremes of Joan and Peter’s radical aunts, on the one hand, and their nationalist, racist, upper-class aunt on the other.

“The generations running to waste like rapids—like rapids. …”

Oswald dwells on this line for a decade. Since Wells wrote, it has been a century.

Adam Kissel is an independent scholar living in Arlington, VA, and a lifetime member of the National Association of Scholars.

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