Chapter 15 School-Books and How They Make for Education

Chapter 15
School-Books and How They Make for Education

Line upon Line.––The theme of 'School-books' is not a new one, and I daresay the reader will find that I have said before what I shall say now. But we are not like those men of Athens who met to hear and to tell some new thing; and he will, I know, bear with me because he will recognise how necessary it is to repeat again and again counsels which are like waves beating against the rock of an accepted system of things. But, in time, the waves prevail and the rock wears away; so we go to work with good hope. Let me introduce what I have to say about school-books by a little story from an antiquated source.

An Incident of School-Girl Life.––Frederika Bremer, in her novel of The Neighbours (published 1837), tells an incident of school-girl life (possibly a bit of autobiography), with great spirit. Though it is rather long, I think the reader will thank me for it––the little episode advances what I have to say better than could any duller arguments of my own.

The heroine says:––"I was then sixteen, and, fortunately for my restless character, my right shoulder began to project at the time. Gymnastics were then in fashion as remedies against all manner of defects, and my parents determined to let me try gymnastics. Arrayed in trimmed pantaloons, a Bonjour coat of green cloth and a little morning cap with pink ribbon, I made my appearance one day in an assemblage of from thirty to forty figures dressed almost the same as myself, who were merrily swarming about a large saloon, over ropes, ladders, and poles. It was a strange and novel scene. I kept myself in the background the first day, and learned from my governess the 'bending of the back' and the 'exercises of the arms and legs.' The second day I began to be intimate with some of the girls, the third I vied with them on ropes and ladders, and ere the close of the second week I was the leader of the second class, and began to encourage them to all manner of tricks.

"At that time I was studying Greek history; their heroes and their heroic deeds filled my imagination even in the gymnastic school. I proposed to my band to assume masculine and antique names and, in this place, to answer to no other than such as Agamemnon, Epaminondas, etc. For myself I chose the name of Orestes, and called my best friend in the class, Pylades. There was a tall thin girl, with a Finlandish accent, whom I greatly disliked, chiefly on account of the disrespect for me and my ideas which she manifested without reserve; . . . . from this arose fresh cause for quarrels.

"Although in love with the Greek history, I was no less taken with the Swedish. Charles XII. was my idol, and I often entertained my friends in my class with narration of his deeds till my own soul was on fire with the most glowing enthusiasm. Like a shower of cold water, Darius (the tall girl, whose name was Britsa) one day came into the midst of us, and opposed me with the assertion that the Czar Peter I. was a much greater man than Charles XII. I accepted the challenge with blind zeal and suppressed rage. My opponent brought forward a number of facts with coolness and skill, in support of her opinion, and when I, confuting all her positions, thought to exalt my victorious hero to the clouds, she was perpetually throwing Bender and Pultawa in my way. O Pultawa! Pultawa! many tears have fallen over thy bloody battlefield, but none more bitter than those which I shed in secret when I, like Charles himself, suffered a defeat there. Fuel was added to the flame until––'I challenge you, I demand satisfaction,' cried I to Darius, who only laughed and said, 'Bravo, bravo!' . . . I exclaimed, 'You have insulted me shamefully, and I request that you ask my pardon in the presence of the whole class, and acknowledge that Charles XII. was a greater man than Czar Peter, or else you shall fight with me, if you have any honour in your breast and are not a coward.' Britsa Kaijsa blushed, but said with detestable coolness: 'Ask pardon indeed? I should never dream of such a thing. Fight? O, yes, I have no objection! but where and with what? With pins, think you, or'––'With the sword if you are not afraid, and on this very spot. We can meet here half an hour before the rest; arms I shall bring with me; Pylades is my second and you shall appoint your own!' . . . . Next morning when I had entered the spacious saloon, I found my enemy already there with her second. Darius and I saluted each other proudly and distantly. I gave her the first choice of the swords. She took one and flourished it about quite dexterously, as if she had been accustomed to the use of it. I saw myself (in imagination) already stabbed to the heart. . . 'Czar Peter was a great man,' cried Darius. 'Down with him! long life to Charles XII!' I cried, bursting into a furious rage. I placed myself in an attitude of defence. Darius did the same. . . . . Our swords clashed one against the other, and in the next moment I was disarmed and thrown on the ground. Darius stood over me and I believed my last hour had arrived. How astonished was I, however, when my enemy threw her sword away from her, took me by the hand and lifted me up, whilst she cheerfully cried: 'Well, now you have satisfaction; let us be good friends again; you are a brave little body!' At this moment a tremendous noise was heard at the door and in rushed the fencing master and three teachers. My senses now forsook me."

I hope the reader is not among the naughty children who read the fable and skip the moral; for, whatever is to follow, is, in fact, the moral of this pretty incident.

How did the Girls get their Enthusiasm?––What was it, we wonder, in their school-books that these Swedish maidens found so exciting? There is no hint of other than school reading. In the first place we may conclude it was books. The oral lesson for young children, the lecture for older, had not been invented in the earlier years of the last century. We use books in our schoolrooms; but one does not hear of wild enthusiasm, ungovernable excitement, over the tabulated events of the history books, the tabulated facts of the science primers. Those Swedish girls must have used books of another sort; and it is to our interest to find out of what sort. As records would be hard to come by, we must look for information to the girls themselves; not that we can summon them to give a direct answer, but if we can get at what they were, we shall be able to make a good guess at what should fire their souls.

What manner of Book sustains the Life of Thought?––The story discloses no more than that they were intelligent girls, probably the children of intelligent parents. But that is enough for our purpose. The question resolves itself into––What manner of book will find its way with upheaving effect into the mind of an intelligent boy or girl? We need not ask what the girl or boy likes. She very often likes the twaddle of goody-goody story books, he likes condiments, highly-spiced tales of adventure. We are all capable of liking mental food of a poor quality and a titillating nature; and possibly such food is good for us when our minds are in need of an elbow-chair; but our spiritual life is sustained on other stuff, whether we be boys or girls, men or women. By spiritual I mean that which is not corporeal; and which, for convenience sake, we call by various names––the life of thought, the life of feeling, the life of the soul.

It is curious how every inquiry, superficial as it may seem to begin with, leads us to fundamental principles. This simple-seeming question––what manner of school-books should our boys and girls use?––leads us straight to one of the two great principles which bottom educational thought.

The School-books of the Publishers.––I believe that spiritual life, using spiritual in the sense I have indicated, is sustained upon only one manner of diet––the diet of ideas––the living progeny of living minds. Now, if we send to any publisher for his catalogue of school books, we find that it is accepted as the nature of a school-book that it be drained dry of living thought. It may bear the name of a thinker, but then it is the abridgment of an abridgment, and all that is left for the unhappy scholar is the dry bones of his subject denuded of soft flesh and living colour, of the stir of life and power of moving. Nothing is left but what Oliver Wendell Holmes calls the 'mere brute fact.'

It cannot be too often said that information is not education. You may answer an examination question about the position of the Seychelles and the Comoro Islands without having been anywise nourished by the fact of these island groups existing in such and such latitudes and longitudes; but if you follow Bullen in The Cruise of the Cachelot the names excite that little mental stir which indicates the reception of real knowledge.

Reason for Oral Teaching.––Intelligent teachers are well aware of the dry-as-dust character of school books, so they fall back upon the 'oral' lesson, one of whose qualities must be that it is not bookish. Living ideas can be derived only from living minds, and so it occasionally happens that a vital spark is flashed from teacher to pupil. But this occurs only when the subject is one to which the teacher has given original thought. In most cases the oral lesson, or the more advanced lecture, consists of information got up by the teacher from various books, and imparted in language, a little pedantic, or a little commonplace, or a little reading-made-easy in style. At the best, the teacher is not likely to have vital interest in, and, consequently, original thought upon, a wide range of subjects.

Limitations of Teachers.––We wish to place before the child open doors to many avenues of instruction and delight, in each one of which he should find quickening thoughts. We cannot expect a school to be manned by a dozen master-minds, and even if it were, and the scholar were taught by each in turn, it would be much to his disadvantage. What he wants of his teacher is moral and mental discipline, sympathy and direction; and it is better, on the whole, that the training of the pupil should be undertaken by one wise teacher than that he should be passed from hand to hand for this subject and that.

Our aim in Education is to give a Full Life.––We begin to see what we want. Children make large demands upon us. We owe it to them to initiate an immense number of interests. Thou hast set my feet in a large room; should be the glad cry of every intelligent soul. Life should be all living, and not merely a tedious passing of time; not all doing or all feeling or all thinking––the strain would be too great––but, all living; that is to say, we should be in touch wherever we go, whatever we hear, whatever we see, with some manner of vital interest. We cannot give the children these interests; we prefer that they should never say they have learned botany or conchology, geology or astronomy. The question is not,––how much does the youth know? when he has finished his education––but how much does he care? and about how many orders of things does he care? In fact, how large is the room in which he finds his feet set? and, therefore, how full is the life he has before him? I know you may bring a horse to the water, but you cannot make him drink. What I complain of is that we do not bring our horse to the water. We give him miserable little text-books, mere compendiums of facts, which he is to learn off and say and produce at an examination; or we give him various knowledge in the form of warm diluents, prepared by his teacher with perhaps some grains of living thought to the gallon. And all the time we have books, books teeming with ideas fresh from the minds of thinkers upon every subject to which we can wish to introduce children.

We undervalue Children.––The fact is, we undervalue children. The notion that an infant is a huge oyster, who by slow degrees, and more and more, develops into that splendid intellectual and moral being, a full-grown man or woman, has been impressed upon us so much of late years that we believe intellectual spoon-meat to be the only food for what we are pleased to call 'little minds.' It is nothing to us that William Morris read his first Waverley Novel when he was four and had read the whole series by the time he was seven. He did not die of it, but lived and prospered; unlike that little Richard, son of John Evelyn, who died when he was five years and three days old, a thing not to be wondered at when we read that he had 'a strong passion for Greek, could turn English into Latin and vice versa with the greatest ease,' had 'a wonderful disposition to Mathematics, having by heart divers propositions of Euclid'; but I quote little Richard (nobody could ever have called him Dick) by way of warning and not of example. Macaulay seems to have begun life as a great reader. We know the delightful story of how, when Hannah More called on his parents, he, a little boy of four, came forward with pretty hospitality to say that if she 'would be good enough to come in' he would bring her 'a glass of old spirits.' He explained afterwards that 'Robinson Crusoe often had some.'

Children of the Last Generation.––But we may dismiss these precocious or exceptional children. All we ask of them is to remind us that our grandfathers and grandmothers recognised children as reasonable beings, persons of mind and conscience like themselves; but, needing their guidance and control, as having neither knowledge nor experience. Witness the queer old children's books which have come down to us; these addressed children as, before all things, reasonable, intelligent, and responsible persons. This is the note of home-life in the last generation. So soon as the baby realised his surroundings, he found himself morally and intellectually responsible.

Children as they are.––And children have not altered. This is how we find them––with intelligence more acute, logic more keen, observing powers more alert, moral sensibilities more quick, love and faith and hope more abounding; in fact, in all points like as we are, only more so; but absolutely ignorant of the world and its belongings, of us and our ways, and, above all, of how to control and direct and manifest the infinite possibilities with which they are born.

Our Work, to give vitalising Ideas.––Knowing that the brain is the physical seat of habit and that conduct and character, alike, are the outcome of the habits we allow; knowing, too, that an inspiring idea initiates a new habit of thought, and hence, a new habit of life; we perceive that the great work of education is to inspire children with vitalising ideas as to every relation of life, every department of knowledge, every subject of thought; and to give deliberate care to the formation of those habits of the good life which are the outcome of vitalising ideas. In this great work we seek and assuredly find the co-operation of the Divine Spirit, whom we recognise, in a sense rather new to modern thought, as the supreme Educator of mankind in things that have been called secular, fully as much as in those that have been called sacred.