Book Review: The Making and the Unmaking of a Dullard

Dear Reader,

This post is part of my ongoing series in search of a reformed Christian theology of education. Find all the posts here.

I really enjoyed having Thomas Edward Shields The Making and the Unmaking of a Dullard (Leopold Classic Library, 2019; reprint of original 1909 publication) around my house. I told each of my kids it was about them.

Shields’ book is unique; it is a living book on education. The whole thing is a story told by a former dullard about his educational experience, how he came to be labeled a simpleton (the book uses the word omadhaun, a new one to me) and how he pulled himself out of that rut. It is eminently readable. There are some clear conclusions drawn, but there is perhaps less of a whole, coherent philosophy of education.

As you may have discerned from the use of the word “dullard,” this is an older book, originally published in 1909. The years before the First World War were very fruitful for educational philosophies. It was a time of hope. With the ideas of evolution behind him,  man firmly believed in progress and the world wars had not yet come to disillusion him and show him of his depravity. Charlotte Mason (CM) worked in this period (though beginning a bit earlier) as did Maria Montessori and Rudolf Steiner, founder of the Waldorf movement.

Though the language is dated and the particular situation would probably be viewed and treated much differently today, there is a lot here that sounds very modern. The teacher in the group (one of the former-dullard’s audience) complains that more and more of her pupils — fully half of them — seem to be unable to learn. While in her day they were labeled dullards and the problem was seen to be mainly intellectual, the situation sounds a lot like the problems we have today with attention-deficit issues. Boys are said to suffer because they are in a female environment. “The natural exuberance of the boy is often toned down . . . The boy revolts . . . As a result, without knowing what is the matter, his interest gradually declines, and he drops out  . . . ” (pp. 28-9).  Another root problem the book identifies is a lack of a proper environment outside of the school — families are falling apart and the society as a whole has no defining narrative to teach children, again a modern problem.

Shields holds a few core values which shape his conclusions. Though there is little to no talk of God here, he is a Roman Catholic and he values the personhood of each child. He seeks answers in the nature of the child. That is, he believes one needs to understand how the child works in order to solve the problems in education. Finally, though the application is meant to be individualized, he is still very much seeking a process. There is still the expectation that the intelligent, educated experts can discuss the problems and devise a system.

Because Shields offers his conclusions so clearly, I will present those as a list with a few reflections thrown in and then offer some overall thoughts at the end – –

  • The memory of failure blocks future successes. Therefore, failure should be avoided as much as possible. A modern way to say this might be that children need to have confidence. Success breeds further success. This is a principle with which Charlotte Mason would agree as well. A practical application would be that we should not push children too far beyond what they are capable of. “[W] e rarely succeed in doing anything that we believe we can not do” (p. 34). The dullard of the story became one in large part when he was promoted too highly beyond his academic level.
  • Children remember particularly experiences with a high emotional content. While they may not remember specifics, these are the most formative experiences for them. When children are “whipped or frightened or ridiculed on account of their failure” (p. 33), the effects of that failure are even more profound.
  • “Minds with the greatest strength often develop slowly in early childhood” (pp. 24-5). In other words, the kids that might initially seem slowest academically may end up being the most intelligent adults, so it is particularly important not to let them be discouraged early on.
  • There are alternating periods of physical and mental development. The author argues that the most brilliant young children tend to be physically small (p. 73). If they hit puberty and begin to catch up with their peers, their seeming intelligence may also seem to fade. Conversely, young children who are large for their age often seem stupid but they too may catch up academically when their growth levels off. I am not sure if the specifics here are true but I distinctly remember an older homeschool mom telling me that her son went through a year or two around puberty when he just seemed to have forgotten everything he previously knew. Then he stopped growing so fast and he got back to learning. The application for parents and teachers would be to not make judgement, whether good or bad too hastily and to remember that there may be seasons to learning as well as to physical growth.
  • “The best interests of the very bright pupils are not served by pushing them up through the grades as rapidly as possible.” (p. 77)
  • “[I]ndividual children are very seldom average children” (p. 59) and “all children are atypical” (p. 60).
  • There are physical causes for “dullness” which must be dealt with before one can go further. They include illness, malnutrition, fright, environmental issues, and defective senses (eg. problems seeing or hearing).
  • “[M]ost teachers talk too much.” (p. 101)
  • Rote memorization is despised.
  • Reading should be done slowly and should be for content, not form. This is said at a time when children were expected to read aloud nicely and not necessarily to know or understand what they read.
  • “[E]very little bit of truth that the growing mind discovers for itself has more real value than many times the quantity fed to it.” (p. 136) I love this quote and it is very CM.
  • Children must be put into direct contact with real, tangible things. For science, for instance, he says that every step forward in human knowledge has come from actual hands-on experience and experiments. Practically speaking, this means students should repeat experiments for themselves rather than just reading about them. If they do this under the guidance of a knowledgeable teacher, they can progress more quickly so human knowledge can still advance. We don’t all have to reinvent the wheel from scratch.
  • Even the youngest minds should be presented with what he calls “germinal truths” which contain a whole body of knowledge in them. This often means hands-on experience again. For instance, a child who uses a pitchfork as a lever can appreciate many concepts of physics before he is able to put them into words.
  • Children often need “fairy stories” and half-truths as a step along the way until their minds are ready for the whole, naked truth (p. 251). (This is one principle I do not agree with, though I have nothing against fairy stories.)
  • Education, especially early education, should be sensory-motor. One should not cram too much book learning into children’s heads. (Again, I would disagree on this one; more on that later.)
  • We have mastered something when we can adapt it to our purposes. The example given is of a farm machine. One man may use it but another who can change and improve it to suit some purpose has truly mastered it. The same may presumably be said of the rules of poetry or some other more academic subject.
  • “Premature” and “injudicious” praise teach children to work for the teacher’s praise (p. 178). It is far better for them to work for internal motivations, the desire to know for its own sake.
  • Children should not be encouraged to specialize at too young an age. It causes them to lack development in other areas. This is particularly a concern with precocious children who seem “gifted” in one area. Again, this was an idea Charlotte Mason had as well.
  • A man “begins to be a man in that hour wherein he learns to transfer his allegiance from individuals to principles” (p. 234). In other words, the goal — or at least one goal — is not for the child to always follow his teacher but for him to get to the point that he has fixed ideas and principles which guide his life.

There is a lot in Shields’ thought that I like. It is interesting to see what similarities he has with Charlotte Mason and what differences. I wish I knew more about how widely spread these ideas were at the time and which were actually unique to their proponents. I also wish I knew a bit more about Maria Montessori’s theory to see how Shields’ thought lined up with hers. They both, unlike Mason, began with deficient children (for lack of a better word) so it would be interesting to see if they ended up in the same places. I do think Montessori emphasized the hand-on elements as Shields does so that may be one point of connection. One wonders if they had not begun there, if they had begun with normally developing children, if they, like Mason, would have prioritized book learning more.

I like that Shields emphasizes the uniqueness of the child as a person and that he values each one, no matter how backwards his society deemed them. I think a lot of his principles about avoiding failure and not overly praising are good. My main disagreement with him would be on the actual day-to-day how of learning. I am not opposed to hands-on learning but I do not think it should be our go-to. I would give books a much higher place. Part of the difference, I think, stems from how books were used in his time. Then it was mostly rote learning from books which I agree is not profitable. While I like (with Charlotte Mason) would agree that a child learns much more when he discovers for himself, I think this discovery can happen in the context of reading. In reading good books, what CM would call living books, we put children in contact with the best minds. When we ask them to narrate this material (see this post for a little on that), then they do do the work of discovery and make it their own.

My short take on The Making and the Unmaking of a Dullard is that, while it is not going to be essential to anyone’s philosophy of education today, it is an enjoyable book, well-written, engaging, and quickly read, and if you are looking for something lighter to read on the subject of education it would be a fine choice.



4 responses to this post.

  1. […] Unmaking of a Dullard by Thomas Edward Shields — I have a more thorough review of this book here. Sheilds’ is an older book on education told in a narrative form. Though somewhat dated, it has […]


  2. […] one of stretching, providing work which does not break but constantly requires more of the child. (The Making and the Unmaking of a Dullard; Frank Gaebelein; The Tech-Wise […]


  3. […] Many of the above ideas can be found in Thomas Edward Shields’ The Making and the Unmaking of a Dullard (Leopold Classic Library, 2019; reprint of original 1909 publication). If you don’t have time to read the book, you can read my notes on it here. […]


  4. […] Children confronted with tasks for which they are not ready blame themselves for failure and develop a “learned helplessness” (pp. 57, 131). [We also saw this idea in The Making and Unmaking of a Dullard; see this post.] […]


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