Chapter 11 Some Unconsidered Aspects of Intellectual Training

Chapter 11
Some Unconsidered Aspects of Intellectual Training

We are Law-abiding in Matters Physical and Moral.––We all recognise that we are under the reign of law so far as our bodies go. We know that 'put your finger in the fire and it will be burnt,' 'sit in a draught and you will catch cold,' 'live a vigorous and temperate life and health will be your reward.' That law attends our steps with its penalties and rewards in all matters physical we know very well. Some of us go further and have a personal sense of the Lawgiver in matters of sickness and health. In sickness especially we feel that God is dealing with us, and we endeavour to lay ourselves open to the lesson of the hour. In moral matters, too, we live under the law. We may forget ourselves, but we have compunctions and are aware of penalties.

Not so in Matters Intellectual.––But in matters intellectual we are disposed to stand upon our rights. Here we recognise no authority, abide by no law. Every man is free to his own opinion, however casually formed. Every man kindles his own 'lights,' and thinks that no more is expected of him than to live up to those lights. In fact our attitude with regard to our own intellectual processes leads to that disturbing sense of duality which causes the shipwreck of many lives, the distressing unrest of others, and the easy drifting of many more. Our thinking is not a separate thing from our conduct and our prayers, or even from our bodily well-being. Man is not several entities. He is one spirit (visibly expressed in bodily form), with many powers. He can work and love and pray and live righteously, but all these are the outcome of the manner of thoughts he thinks.

Three Ultimate Facts––Not open to Question.––There are two directions in which we commit intellectual offences against the law, and oppose ourselves to authority. In the first place we are disposed to regard everything by turns as an open question. We forget that there are three ultimate postulates which the thought of man can neither prove nor disprove, though in every age it has played uneasily about one or the other. God, Self, and the World, are the three fixed points of thought. The active Western mind, with each new evolution of scientific thought, finds again and again that there is no place for God in the world; nay, so active and pleasant is the conception of self that an important school of philosophy has demonstrated that the real world is no more than a simulacrum, a mirage, as it were, projected from the conscious self. The more passive Eastern mind, is, on the contrary, inclined to regard selfhood as a passing phase in a state of absorption or reabsorption by deity. But when we learn to realise that––God is, Self is, the World is, with all that these existences imply, quite untouched by any thinking of ours, unprovable, and self-proven,––why, we are at once put into a more humble attitude of mind. We recognise that above us, about us, within us, there are "more things . . . than are dreamt of in our philosophy." We realise ourselves as persons, we have a local habitation, and we live and move and have our being in and under a supreme authority. It is not well we should take it for granted that everybody knows these things. Perhaps we all have a hearsay acquaintance with, but very few of us have a realising knowledge of, these ultimate facts.

Limitations of Reason.––A second direction in which it is well that we should recognise our limitations is with regard to the nature and function of what we call our reason, and should, perhaps, describe more accurately as our power of reasoning. We all know how often we go to bed with a difficult question to settle. We say we will sleep upon it, and, in the morning, behold, the whole question has worked itself into shape: we see all its bearings and know just how to act. We are so accustomed to take wonders as matters of course, mere everyday events, that it does not occur to us to be surprised. We even say, the mind is clearer after sleep, regardless of the fact that we have no labour of thinking at all in the morning; all comes straight of itself. When we come to think of it, most of our decisions arrive in this unlaborious way. We really cannot say that we have thought such and such a matter out: the decision comes to us in a flash, by an intuition, what you will. The subject is a large one, but all I care to stipulate for here is that children should be taught to know that much of our reasoning and so-called thinking is involuntary,––is as much a natural function as is the circulation of our blood, and that this very fact points to the limitations of reason. 

Reason brings Logical Proof of any Idea we Entertain.––We, personally, might or might not be trusted to come to a morally right conclusion from any premise we entertain. But the reasoning power, acting in a more or less mechanical and involuntary manner, does not necessarily work towards the morally right conclusion. All that reason does for us is to prove, logically, any idea we choose to entertain. For example, as we have said, important schools (Eastern and Western) of philosophy entertain the idea that there is no actual real world independent of man's conception thereof. The logical proofs of this premise pour in upon their minds in such volume that a considerable literature exists to prove an idea which on the face of it appears absurd. We all know that, entertain a notion that a servant is dishonest, that a friend is false, that a dress is unbecoming, and some power within us, unconsciously to us, sets to work to collect evidence and bring irrefragable proof of the position we have chosen to take up. This is the history of wars and persecutions and family feuds all over the world. How necessary then that a child should be instructed to understand the limitations of his own reason, so that he will not confound logical demonstration with eternal truth, and will know that the important thing to him is the ideas he permits himself to entertain, and not by any means the conclusions he draws from these ideas, because these latter are self-evolved.

A Third Fallacy––Intellect Man's Peculiar Sphere, Knowledge his Proper Discovery.––A third fallacy which lies at the root of our thinking, and therefore, of our education, is, that while nature, morals, and theology may be more or less divine in their origin and relations, not only is intellect man's proper and peculiar sphere, but knowledge,––the knowledge of witty inventions, of man and nature, of art and literature, of the heavens above and the earth beneath,––all this knowledge is man's proper discovery. He has found it out himself, thought it out for himself, observed, reasoned, collected, laboured, gathered his forces, altogether of his own will and for own ends and as an independent agent. Now, this pride of intellect also comes of the arrogance of man; not only in our age, which, I venture to think, is the very best age the world has ever seen, but in all time, it is our nature to lift up our heads and say, 'We are the people; before us there were none like unto us, neither shall there be any more after us.' But when we come to ourselves we realise that our Author and Father has not in this way made over any single vast realm of our lives into our own hands.

Great Eras come from Time to Time.––The knowledge that comes to us is given us in repasts, so to speak. Great eras of scientific discovery or literary activity or poetic insight or artistic interpretation come to the world from time to time; and then there is a long interval for the assimilation of the new knowledge or the new thought. After that, the world is taken by storm by the rise of another constellation of its great intellects; and yet we do not discern the signs of the times nor realise that thus our God is bringing us up in knowledge, which is also divine, just as much as in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. The mediæval Church recognised this great truth––as Mr. Ruskin has eloquently pointed out, showing how the 'Captain Figures,' the inventors, as it were, of grammar and music, astronomy and geometry, arithmetic and logic, all spake that which was in them under the direct outpouring of the Holy Spirit, even though none of them had any such revelation of the true God as we recognise. What a revolution should we have in our methods of education if we could once conceive that dry-as-dust subjects like grammar and arithmetic should come to children, living with the life of the Holy Spirit, who, we are told, 'shall teach you all things.'

Nothing so Practical as Great Ideas.––It may occur to some readers to consider that such lines of thought as I have suggested are perhaps interesting but not practical. Believe me, nothing is so practical as a great idea, because nothing produces such an abundant outcome of practical effort We must not turn the cold shoulder to philosophy. Education is no more than applied philosophy––our effort to train children according to the wisdom that is in us; and not according to the last novelty in educational ideas. 'Man, know thyself,' is a counsel which we might render, 'Child, know thyself, and thy relations to God and man and nature'; and to give their children this sort of preparation for life it is necessary that parents should know something of the laws of mind and of the source of knowledge.

The Formation of Intellectual Habits.––The second part of our subject––the formation of intellectual habits––need not occupy us long. We know that the possession of some half-dozen such habits makes up what is well called ability. They make a man able to do that which he desires to do with his mental powers, and to labour at the cost of not a tenth part of the waste of tissue which the same work would exact of a person of undisciplined mental habits. We know, too, that the habits in question are acquired through training and are not bestowed as a gift. Genius itself, we have been told, is an infinite capacity for taking pains; we would rather say, is the habit of taking infinite pains, for every child is born with the capacity.

We trust blindly to Disciplinary Subjects.––We trust perhaps a little blindly to the training which certain subjects give in certain mental habits. The classics, we consider, cultivate in one direction, the mathematics, in another, science, in a third. So they do, undoubtedly, so far as each of these subjects is concerned; but possibly not in forming the general habits of intellectual life which we expect to result. Remove the mathematician from his own field and he is not more exact or more on the spot than other men; indeed he is rather given to make a big hole for the cat and a little hole for the kitten! The humanities do not always make a man humane, that is, liberal, tolerant, gentle, and candid, as regards the opinions and status of other men. The fault does not lie in any one of these or in any other of the disciplinary subjects, but in our indolent habit of using each of these as a sort of mechanical contrivance for turning up the soil and sowing the seed. There is no reprieve for parents. It rests with them, even more than with the schoolmaster and his curriculum, to form those mental habits which shall give intellectual distinction to their children throughout their lives.

Some Intellectual Habits.––I need not refer again to the genesis of a habit; but perhaps most of us set ourselves more definitely to form physical and moral than we do to form intellectual habit. I will only mention a few such, which should be matters of careful training during the period of childhood:––Attention, the power of turning the whole force of the mind upon the subject brought before it: Concentration, which differs from attention in that the mind is actively engaged on some given problem rather than passively receptive: Thoroughness, the habit of dissatisfaction with a slipshod, imperfect grasp of a subject, and of mental uneasiness until a satisfying measure of knowledge is obtained;––this habit is greatly encouraged by a reference to an encyclopædia, to clear up any doubtful point, when it turns up: Intellectual Volition, the power, that is, of making ourselves think of a given subject at a given time;––most of us know how trying our refractory minds are in this matter, but, if the child is accustomed to take pleasure in the effort as effort, the man will find it easy to make himself think of what he will: Accuracy, which is to be taught, not only through arithmetic, but through all the small statements, messages, and affairs of daily life: Reflection, the ruminating power which is so strongly developed in children and is somehow lost with much besides of the precious cargo they bring with them into the world. There is nothing sadder than the way we allow intellectual impressions to pass over the surface of our minds, without any effort to retain or assimilate.

Meditation––I can mention only one more invaluable habit. Mr. Romanes consulted Darwin about the conduct of his intellectual life. 'Meditate,' was the answer, and we are told that the younger scientist set great store on this advice. Meditation is also a habit to be acquired, or rather preserved, for we believe that children are born to meditate, as they are to reflect; indeed, the two are closely allied. In reflecting we ruminate on what we have received. In meditating we are not content to go over the past, we allow our minds to follow out our subject to all its issues. It has long been known that progress in the Christian life depends much upon meditation; intellectual progress, too, depends, not on mere reading or the laborious getting up of a subject which we call study, but on that active surrender of all the powers of the mind to the occupation of the subject in hand, which is intended by the word meditation. It would be easy for any of us to suggest to himself a dozen more important intellectual habits, the consideration of which should be profitable and stimulating.

The Sustenance of Living Ideas.––The intellectual life, like every manner of spiritual life, has but one food whereby it lives and grows––the sustenance of living ideas. It is not possible to repeat this too often or too emphatically, for perhaps we err more in this respect than any other in bringing up children. We feed them upon the white ashes out of which the last spark of the fire of original thought has long since died. We give them second-rate story books, with stale phrases, stale situations, shreds of other people's thoughts, stalest of stale sentiments. They complain that they know how the story will end! But that is not all; they know how every dreary page will unwind itself. I saw it stated the other day that children do not care for poetry, that a stirring narrative in verse is much more to their taste. They do like the tale, no doubt, but poetry appeals to them on other grounds, and Shelley's Skylark will hold a child entranced sooner than any moving anecdote. As for children's art, we hang the nursery with 'Christmas Number' pictures, and their books are illustrated on a lower level still. In regard to book illustrations, we are improving a little, but still there is room.

Children's Literature.––The subject of 'Children's Literature' has been well threshed out, and only one thing remains to be said,––children have no natural appetite for twaddle, and a special literature for children is probably far less necessary than the book sellers would have us suppose. Out of any list of 'the hundred best books,' I believe that seventy-five would be well within the range of children of eight or nine. They would delight in Rasselas, Eöthen would fascinate them as much as Robinson Crusoe, the Faëry Queen, with its allegory and knightly adventures and sense of free moving in woodland scenery, would exactly fall in with their humour. What they want is to be brought into touch with living thought of the best, and their intellectual life feeds upon it with little meddling on our part.

Independent intellectual Development of Children.––We do not sufficiently recognise the independent intellectual development of children which it is our business to initiate and direct, but not to control or dominate. I know a little girl of nine who pined every day because the poems of Tennyson which she loved best were not to be found in the volumes of the larger works, which were all the house she was visiting at afforded. She literally missed her favourite poems as a child would miss a meal; and why not? The intellectual appetite is just as actual and just as exigeant as bodily hunger; more so, alas, in some cases. Miss Martineau has a charming story11 of the intellectual awakening of "a schoolboy of ten who laid himself down, back uppermost, with Southey's Thalaba before him, on the first day of the Easter holidays, and turned over the leaves, notwithstanding his inconvenient position, as fast as if he were looking for something, till in a few hours it was done, and be was off with it to the public library, bringing back the Curse of Keharna. Thus he went on with all Southey's poems and some others through his short holidays, scarcely moving voluntarily all those days except to run to the library. He came out of the process so changed that none of his family could help being struck by it. The expression of his eye, the cast of his countenance, his use of words, and his very gait were changed. In ten days he had advanced years in intelligence; and I have always thought that this was the turning-point of his life. His parents wisely and kindly let him alone, aware that school would presently put an end to all excess in the new indulgence."

As there is no religious conversion for the child who has always been brought up in the conscious presence of God, so parents who have always satisfied the intellectual craving of their children must needs forego the delight of watching a literary awakening. A little girl brought up on temperance principles, who said, 'I am so sorry my father isn't a drunkard,' that she might rejoice in his reformation, put the case for us very plainly.

Self-selection and Self-appropriation.––Given a bountiful repast of ideas, the process of natural selection soon begins. Tennyson with his––

   "Our elm tree's ruddy-hearted blossom-flake is fluttering down,"
   "Ruby-budded lime,"
   "Black as ash-buds in the front of March,"

has done more to make field botanists than ever the Science and Art Department was able to undo with its whole apparatus of lectures and examinations.

Here, again, Browning gives us a poet's impulse to a nature student:––

   "By boulder stones where lichens mock
   The marks on a moth, and small ferns fit
   Their teeth to the polished block."

Ideas of nature, of life, love, duty, heroism,––these children find and choose for themselves from the authors they read, who do more for their education than any deliberate teaching; just for this reason, that these vital ideas are self-selected and self-appropriated.

I shall touch later upon the burning question of a curriculum which shall furnish children, not with dry bones of fact, but with fact clothed upon with the living flesh, breathed into by the vital spirit of quickening ideas. A teacher objected the other day that it was difficult to teach from Freeman's Old English History, because there were so many stories; not perceiving that the stories were the living history, while all the rest was dead.

Inherited Parsimony in Lesson-books.––I should like to say here that a sort of unconscious, inherited parsimony, coming down to us from the days when incomes were smaller and books were fewer, sometimes causes parents to restrict their children unduly in the matter of lesson-books––living books, varied from time to time, and not thumbed over from one schoolroom generation to another until the very sight of them is a weariness to the flesh. But the subject of the intellectual sustenance of children upon ideas is so large and important that I must content myself with bald suggestions. Further considered, such subjects as the following might be useful

  1. Children's tastes in Fiction, in Poetry, in books of Travel and Adventure, in History, in Biography (most stimulating subject).
  2. Ideas of life and conduct that children assimilate from their reading.
  3. Ideas of duty assimilated in the same way.
  4. Ideas of nature that children seize.
  5. The leading, vitalising ideas in subjects of school study, as geography, grammar, history, astronomy, Ceasar's Commentaries, etc., etc.

Let me again refer the reader to Mr. Ruskin's description of the 'Captain Figures' at the head of each of the Liberal Arts, in his account of the Spanish Chapel; and conclude with a wise sentence of Coleridge's concerning the method of Plato, which should be always present to the minds of persons engaged in the training of children:––

Plato's Educational Aim.––"He desired not to assist in storing the passive mind with the various sorts of knowledge most in request, as if the human soul were a mere repository or banqueting room, but to place it in such relations of circumstance as should gradually excite its vegetating and germinating powers to produce new fruits of thought, new conceptions and imaginations and ideas."

11Quoted by Mr. Lewis in The Child and Its Spiritual Nature