ON EDUCATION OF CHILDREN.*
[* Extract from "Harper's Monthly Magazine", No. 733, June 1911.]
At the risk of repeating ourselves, we must recur to our plea for certain immunities of childhood, in the interests of culture.
The mistake almost always made in the appeal to the child is in holding out to him the wrong end of everything, in pressing upon him our ultimate attainment. If it were possible for us to succeed in the unnatural procedure, we should destroy all the values of childhood, for itself and for humanity. It is only in our power to torment, bewilder or oppress.
The child is from the beginning surrounded by all our magnificent attainments, but fortunately they mean nothing to him for a little period of his existence. Nature, his wise and efficient nurse, withholds him from knowledge or part in the worlds about him save in the close intimacies which enfold all unfledged nestlings; and the immunity she thus secures for him we cannot break down if we would. Yet she does not make it an absolute immunity from the world's stimulation that, in gentle measure, she courts for him, and indulges his quick responsiveness, building a new annex to his brain after birth, which shall serve as a bridge over the moat of infancy for his intelligent communication with our articulate, rational, and progressive humanity. She is not jealous of the world, but careful and patient, waiting upon childhood and claiming for it all its natural belongings.
We are wise if we learn a lesson from Nature in our treatment of young children. Her undisputed reign is very brief, and it is soon in our power to spoil her work, with abrupt and heavy handling. We need rather to provide more immunities, instead of violating those established and intimated by Nature. In the natural tuition, there is a free and open field for the senses and for irrational play, while perception and reason are held in reserve. The child at first, to use the pregnant phrase of Sir Michael Burke, in William Samuel Johnson's recent and very impressive novel, Glamourie, only "thinks things" and he knows no difference between "thing" and "think." He does not ask "why?" or "how?" but "what?" Quality is everything to him – color, taste, temperature, undetachable from the things themselves. Motin is for him only another quality, and his verbs are undistinguishable from his nouns. He does not measure, differentiate, or compare. In a word, judgment is denied him.
It is often said that the child is averse from concentration. Yet he has sometimes the long gaze. It is not attention that tires him but the attempt to divide it, to define its separate moments, as when you ask him to count and soon find his limit. You are imposing terms of the mind upon him, arresting continuity, breaking up his concentration.
Slowly but inevitably he develops a notional consciousness, becoming capable of inference, discrimination, judgment. He has a long way to go, before he passes from observation to reflection and introspection.
It is just here, where he enters upon this difficult course and is on the way to become practically wise through rational consideration and self-control – on the way possibly to eminent achievement in great affairs, in science, in psychology, in literature, or in art – that his elders who are responsible for his tutelage must respect the difficulty, and wait upon him with at least as much patience as they would upon a tender plant, supplying the conditions of growth, without forcing it. As they would shade the plant from the too ardent rays of the sun, so they should shield the plastic child against a social environment which becomes with every successive generation more aggressively stimulant.
Some of those who have succeeded to Nature's tutelage, themselves being near to Nature, especially mothers, are cautious, if not jealous, of the world's growing pressure, and their children have the happiness to grow into their fondness for the living things of the garden, the wild field, or the pasture before mingling even with schoolmates. Nothing is more conservative of sanity than this genial fellowship with beast and bird and flower and tree; and one of the happy privileges of birth, as a condition of human existence, is that for a little time bring the child near to the animate creation, upon almost a level therewith
Stories for children, following old fables and folk-lore, abound in animal personations. Rudyard Kipling and Jock Chandler Harris, in such takes, adopt a fashion as old as totemism.
It is good for the child that he should "think things" and dwell in a world of qualities – for which he has so fresh a sense – as long as the urgent stimulation of his environment will with our help permit. Our catechistic plan of education, secular or religious, is not a wise one to begin with. Let him be rooted in his earthly dwelling-place before he undertakes notional aviation. The rustic child, in a comparatively provincial neighborhood, may have too little mental stimulation, as the urban child is likely to have too much, but he has compensating advantages in his early years for a lack which, in American families generally, is hardly noticeable, even in strictly agricultural communities. He has a free and natural development, robust enough to forestall precocity without lapsing into stupidity. If he has creative genius the limitations of his childhood, if not unduly prolonged, may prove to be fortunate for its security and integrity. Milton was born and reared in the city; but usually, since Shakespeare's time, the beginnings of genius have been indicated by the Birth Registries of country parishes.
The old-fashioned schooling did not begin too soon with the child, and was not complex enough to be confusing or an instrument of torture. It may have been too rigid in its discipline and too lax in its mental exactions; but the efficiency of its service was illustrated by creditable results in character and intellectual attainments, which, if not directly produced by the system, were at least permitted by it, in school, as everywhere else, there is the individual determination of achievement, only there are some educational methods, which are more calculated than others to express, if not to destroy, individuality.
The evils of child labor are obviously pathetic, but the injury inflicted upon the child, in the primary and afterwards in the high School – by the oppressive study, by undue urgency, by unreasonable exactions, by the overcrowding of the course, and by the imposition of unusual difficulties – are farther-reaching in their effects upon humanity. They counteract Nature and so countermand genius.
Our advanced ideas of education, as expressed by wise and experienced teachers, are excellent in their application to the higher courses of study. There we need a more creative and inspirational leading of the student and the encouragement of deep rational inquiry. As soon as the adolescent period begins, the student turns his face to the future, as something immediate to himself and to his generation. The past is for the most part remote and detached from his regard, cherished only for what in it in impulse and inspiration to his dream of things to come. To him information is secondary and incidental to creation. He repudiates static tradition; for him tradition must have a pulse, must be dynamic, front-facing. In the fervor of his mood, conventionalism is relaxed, if not dissolved. Modernism – in the extreme case, ultra-modernism – has set it; if there should have been any earlier sign of it, it was unreasonable and unbecoming. It is for youth at this stage of its unfolding, that the advanced and reformed curriculum is fit and necessary.
Childhood is the very opposite of all this, in itself and in its requirements. It has not a single aspect of youth – is indeed separate from youth by a more impenetrable wall than age is; for age has memories. The infant can never again be, as really old as it is, when it is first-born, never so radically ancestral, with affinities so wholly of the past. Hope is dormant in the child, and his desires are to his elders. He unquestioningly accepts tradition, and delights in forms and rites, seeking no reason for or in anything and pleased by vain repetitions, asking for the same story over and over again and stickling for the exactness of the iteration. Therefore he likes rhyme and meter, finding in these help to a familiar groove. In all this he is like the primitive folk – only with the modern child it is a short-lived fashion.
But it is a wise fashion in the first steps of his education. If, at this early stage, we attempt to awaken his reasoning faculty, it is simply a waste of time and effort. The easier course is the natural one, for such learning as is possible to him. If we let him learn by rote, not only will he learn much that is necessary, but this very method – as in the case of arithmetical tables and grammatical paradigms – will be an economy of time all his life, for what he learns thus, he is least likely to forget. The metrical catalogue of the crowned heads of England imparts no knowledge of any consequence to one seeking a rational view of English history, but it will abide in the memory, when many of the circumstances pertinent to such a view are forgotten, and it will be useful at need. How many references to the dictionary have been saved by the old-fashioned drill in spelling; how many exercises of the fingers, by early and complete familiarity with the multiplication-table! Sixty years ago, the interior walls of a district school-house would be lined with Pelton's outline maps, and every day a half-hour would be occupied, one pupil with a long pointer going the round of them, while the whole school in concert would recite the names of the localities pointed out. One day, it would be a catalogue of the great capitals of the world; another, of the principal rivers, and so on. The very singsong of the recital, as in the case of the spelling class, helped to fix indelibly in the mind this extensive geographical information.
It was only superficial knowledge, but indispensable and exceedingly helpful. In the case of geography, the text –book supplemented the maps, giving something more than names – some glimpses of the humanity populating all these outlined-areas of the earth. That also was superficial, but, in very simple terms, informing; and to the exceptional child it was alluringly suggestive. There was nothing in this school-routine to tax the mind, except in the case of those puzzling "sums" in arithmetic, apparently contrived for the pupil's torment.
In the early school years, a valuable immunity is secured for the child by this routine, this "learning by rote." It is not a course of study; it seems more like play. The learning is not all by rote. Incidentally, much information suited to a child's unstrained capacity, is imparted. In reading-lessons, there is something to be read and hear story and fable have their chance with him. The appeal is not to his reason through argument, explication, theory, or anything prompting critical inquiry, but to his imagination, through pictures and impressions. The lack of pressure in school leaves him free for much reading of imaginative literatures, and in this his natural leaning toward past rather than present exemplars should be encouraged. The Bible has more for him than any other or all other books. The recent experiment of making the reading of stories to children an adjunct to both the school and library – if the right stories are selected, and they appear to be – is to be commended. The teaching of young children need not be inspirational; its aim should be, not to urge on the child, but to wait upon him, gently guiding his steps in the ways proper to childhood, and these are all away from what we call modernism.
It is good for the child that he is imitative, and accepts without question, old customs, traditions, conventions, and all sorts of rituals, and that he dwells long enough in the past, to feel its pulse as one with its own. It is a past that we elders have more or less broken with. We have another and better ideal of heroism than the world has had hitherto. But we do our boys no good, and only pain and bewilder them, by telling that Alexander and Napoleon were not really heroes. They too will have their revolt when they arrive at maturity and modernism. But it will better their modernism that they have cherished more backward ideals; and the future of our culture and of our literature will be brighter and stronger because they have once, for a considerable season, sincerely deferred to past masters who established the canons of an older art.