a centenary
of Learning

  • 50
  • by Helen Wodehouse
  • graduated
  • studied Other Studies
  • from UK

In 1964, when she died, Helen Wodehouse was still the only woman to have held a Chair in this University and it was in 1964 that the decision was taken to name the new Graduate School of Education building in Berkeley Square after her.

Helen Wodehouse at Bristol

Helen Wodehouse was Professor of Education and Head of this Department from 1919 to 1931. In 1919 there were separate men’s and women’s Departments for Education. Helen Wodehouse led their merger, which was achieved by 1925, against some opposition. She initiated a system of regular assessment instead of a final examination for the Diploma of Education, a system that has continued ever since. In 1964, when she died, Helen Wodehouse was still the only woman to have held a Chair in this University and it was in 1964 that the decision was taken to name the new Graduate School of Education building in Berkeley Square after her.

Academic writing

Helen Wodehouse wrote in the fields of Philosophy, Theology and Education. While her books are now out of print, there are still several journal articles available online. Her key works, as cited in her obituary, give a sense of the range of her interests: A Survey of Education (1924), The Scripture Lesson in the Elementary School (1926), Temples and Treasuries (1935), Selves and their Good (1936), One Kind of Religion (1944).


From accounts at the time of her death, Helen Wodehouse was described as ‘austere’, ‘shy’, ‘dedicated’, ‘inspirational’. In a memorial pamphlet, there are some stories from a former student:

Teaching, she told us, is not so much handing on the torch of knowledge as fumbling with a box of matches, trying to strike one so that your pupils can find the electric light switch for themselves. (Humphreys 1964)

I have re-told this anecdote to several people and the reaction is almost always one of laughter – which to me says there are insights to be uncovered. There is an obvious sense of humility on the part of the teacher. This is not a heroic vision of the charismatic teacher. Instead we are offered a sense of a continual journeying and searching. The teacher is forever fumbling. Yet there is a reason for the fumbling, perhaps even a deliberateness. The teacher is not ‘handing on’ knowledge but creating the conditions within which pupils can learn, find the light switch for themselves. In fact the fumbling, we can see, is absolutely necessary to the pupil being able to discover for themselves. Where is the joy of excitement in being shown how someone else finds their way? Her former student recalled another incident:

She advised us to be wary about introducing innovations too soon: “Write down your ideas on a piece of paper and put it away in a sealed envelope for 2 years and then bring it out and, if you still think it advisable, act on it.” (Humphreys 1964)

There is perhaps here the wisdom of the excellent administrator Wodehouse was reputed to be.

The purpose of education

The Graduate School of Education library still contains, in its Store, copies of ‘A Survey of the History of Education’, published in 1924. In this book, Wodehouse seems concerned to make the reader pause and consider the wider, philosophical questions about education that, as she comments, can be hard to keep before the mind. She imagines a journey from starting out as a beginning teacher, afterwards becoming more expert and taking on more responsibility until finally reaching old age:

At first the need of keeping things going somehow may be too confusing and overwhelming to allow of new thought. … Afterwards … he (sic) is preoccupied with the pressing matters of each day … he defers to another time … the question of what education in general should be … Finally he reaches the assurance of the elderly man, that what he has always known must be the best (Wodehouse 1924, 215-6)

So, what should education be for? Drawing on Plato, she suggests a purpose for education related to justice, which “consists in every man (sic) doing his own work; in a world so guided by wisdom and permeated with sympathy that the work of each forwards the work of all” (1924, 224). This self-consciously utopian vision is allied to a commitment to seeing possibilities for change. While a former student (quoted above) quotes Wodehouse as warning against innovation, in her writing she is vehement about the dangers of stagnation:

When we are disposed to say of any custom, ‘This has been from the beginning and can never be changed,’ it may be well to look back to the beginning and to see how recent it is; how small and new and young are the inventions of the new half-conscious maker of history. An effort is needed, because this ability to be conscious of our newness is itself so new. (Wodehouse 1924, 1-2)

… in a work knit together by human relationships the effects [of too great a sameness] are worse [than in trades where machines work on lifeless material], for upon lack of growth follow staleness and conventionalization (Wodehouse 1924, 216)

She sees the personal work of each teacher as intimately linked to wider trends related to the whole curriculum across the country. The education system as a whole will avoid staleness only through the work of each classroom.

There is no automatic safeguard. No subject and no curriculum can dispense with the teacher’s periodic effort of heart and mind, or with his (sic) sensitiveness to growing possibilities and changing needs. The central problem of organization is to safeguard and promote such high diligence and such awareness, and to help them to their full effort. (Wodehouse 1924, 217)

Wodehouse was described as an expert administrator at the time of her death. The quotation above gives the sense of someone who sees the purpose of the structures around the classroom (from the local to the national) as being to protect the “high diligence” and “awareness” of each teacher. The effort of heart and mind that is required is in the form of watchfulness and an almost spiritual or psychoanalytic sense of noticing when we are becoming stuck:

For each of us, a chief work of study is to push back the walls of our world and to show us how much of it is hidden in twilight. When in some department of our life we cease to study, that department stays, or becomes, small and set and clear. By middle age most of the universe is far too clear to most of us. (Wodehouse 1924, 223)

Avoiding clarity and certainty is touched on again, in relation to the journey to becoming a teacher:

When the inexperienced teacher … is confronted with the problem of a child to be educated, he (sic) brings to it not the hypothetical fresh and empty mind, but a mind with a history, a mind filled and formed by his own up-bringing and by tradition and memories and hearsay. He clings to remembered scraps as to supporting planks in the ocean (Wodehouse 1924, 215)

As a teacher educator, this description of beginning teacher resonates strongly. On the Bristol PGCE course, one description we have of what we do, is trying to unhook students from the images of how they were taught so that they are able to make choices and get a sense of the teacher they want to be. Putting these last two quotations together, Wodehouse warns against the dangers throughout a career in teaching, of what Keats, in a letter to his brother, describes as “irritable reaching after fact and reason” (Keats and Buxton Forman 2004, 57). We are in danger of grasping for scraps as we begin teaching and then settling on too easy a certainty when we become more experienced. The challenge is to safeguard our own ‘diligence’ and ‘awareness’.

The religious or spiritual overtones in Wodehouse’s writing are a consistent theme. She saw progress in education not as a linear process in which successive generations can ‘stand on the shoulders of giants’. In her Survey of Education, she was clear there has been progress, yet:

So far educational history, like religious, is not a journey but a continual reinspiration. (Wodehouse 1924, 218)

A “continual reinspiration” again draws the broad themes of educational history back to the classroom, back to the teacher and to the need to be watchful of our own certainties.


Keats, J., & Buxton Forman, H. (2004) The Letters of John Keats. Whitefish, Montana, USA: Kessinger Publishing Co.

Humphreys, D. (1964) Helen Wodehouse. Unpublished pamphlet held in Library Store.

Humphreys, D. (1976) The University of Bristol and The Education and Training of Teachers. Bristol: University of Bristol School of Education.

The Times. (1964) Dr. H. M. Wodehouse Former Mistress of Girton. The Times, Oct 22, p.17

Wodehouse, H. (1924) A Survey of The History of Education. London: Edward Arnold & Co.