MoboReader > Literature > Practical Education, Volume I

   Chapter 2 TASKS.

Practical Education, Volume I By Maria Edgeworth Characters: 59769

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


"Why don't you get your task, instead of playing with your playthings from morning till night? You are grown too old now to do nothing but play. It is high time you should learn to read and write, for you cannot be a child all your life, child; so go and fetch your book, and learn your task."

This angry apostrophe is probably addressed to a child, at the moment when he is intent upon some agreeable occupation, which is now to be stigmatized with the name of Play. Why that word should all at once change its meaning; why that should now be a crime, which was formerly a virtue; why he, who had so often been desired to go and play, should now be reviled for his obedience, the young casuist is unable to discover. He hears that he is no longer a child: this he is willing to believe; but the consequence is alarming. Of the new duties incumbent upon his situation, he has but yet a confused idea. In his manly character, he is not yet thoroughly perfect: his pride would make him despise every thing that is childish, but no change has yet been wrought in the inward man, and his old tastes and new ambition, are in direct opposition. Whether to learn to read, be a dreadful thing or not, is a question he cannot immediately solve; but if his reasoning faculty be suspended, there is yet a power secretly working within him, by which he will involuntarily be governed. This power is the power of association: of its laws, he is, probably, not more ignorant than his tutor; nor is he aware that whatever word or idea comes into his mind, with any species of pain, will return, whenever it is recalled to his memory, with the same feelings. The word Task, the first time he hears it, is an unmeaning word, but it ceases to be indifferent to him the moment he hears it pronounced in a terrible voice. "Learn your task," and "fetch your book," recur to his recollection with indistinct feelings of pain; and hence, without further consideration, he will be disposed to dislike both books and tasks; but his feelings are the last things to be considered upon this occasion; the immediate business, is to teach him to read. A new era in his life now commences. The age of learning begins, and begins in sorrow. The consequences of a bad beginning, are proverbially ominous; but no omens can avert his fate, no omens can deter his tutor from the undertaking; the appointed moment is come; the boy is four years old, and he must learn to read. Some people, struck with a panic fear, lest their children should never learn to read and write, think that they cannot be in too great a hurry to teach them. Spelling-books, grammars, dictionaries, rods and masters, are collected; nothing is to be heard of in the house but tasks; nothing is to be seen but tears.

"No tears! no tasks! no masters! nothing upon compulsion!" say the opposite party in education. "Children must be left entirely at liberty; they will learn every thing better than you can teach them; their memory must not be overloaded with trash; their reason must be left to grow."

Their reason will never grow, unless it be exercised, is the reply; their memory must be stored whilst they are young, because, in youth, the memory is most tenacious. If you leave them at liberty for ever, they will never learn to spell; they will never learn Latin; they will never learn Latin grammar; yet, they must learn Latin grammar, and a number of other disagreeable things; therefore, we must give them tasks and task-masters.

In all these assertions, perhaps, we shall find a mixture of truth and errour; therefore, we had better be governed by neither party, but listen to both, and examine arguments unawed by authority. And first, as to the panic fear, which, though no argument, is a most powerful motive. We see but few examples of children so extremely stupid as not to have been able to learn to read and write between the years of three and thirteen; but we see many whose temper and whose understanding have been materially injured by premature or injudicious instruction; we see many who are disgusted, perhaps irrecoverably, with literature, whilst they are fluently reading books which they cannot comprehend, or learning words by rote, to which they affix no ideas. It is scarcely worth while to speak of the vain ambition of those who long only to have it said, that their children read sooner than those of their neighbours do; for, supposing their utmost wish to be gratified, that their son could read before the age when children commonly articulate, still the triumph must be of short duration, the fame confined to a small circle of "foes and friends," and, probably, in a few years, the memory of the phenomenon would remain only with his doting grandmother. Surely, it is the use which children make of their acquirements which is of consequence, not the possessing them a few years sooner or later. A man, who, during his whole life, could never write any thing that was worth reading, would find it but poor consolation for himself, his friends, or the public, to reflect, that he had been in joining-hand before he was five years old.

As it is usually managed, it is a dreadful task indeed to learn, and, if possible, a more dreadful task to teach to read. With the help of unters, and coaxing, and gingerbread, or by dint of reiterated pain and terror, the names of the four-and-twenty letters of the alphabet, are, perhaps, in the course of some weeks, firmly fixed in the pupil's memory. So much the worse; all these names will disturb him, if he have common sense, and at every step must stop his progress. To begin with the vowels: each of these have several different sounds, and, consequently, ought to have several names, or different signs, to distinguish them in different circumstances. In the first lesson of the spelling book, the child begins with a-b, makes ab; b-a makes ba. The inference, if any general inference can be drawn from this lesson, is, that when a comes before b, it has one sound, and after b, it has another sound; but this is contradicted by and by, and it appears that a after b, has various sounds, as in ball, in bat, in bare. The letter i in fire, is i, as we call it in the alphabet, but in fir, it is changed; in pin, it is changed again; so that the child, being ordered to affix to the same sign a variety of sounds and names, and not knowing in what circumstances to obey, and in what to disregard the contradictory injunctions imposed upon him, he pronounces sounds at hazard, and adheres positively to the last ruled case, or maintains an apparently sullen, or truly philosophic and sceptical silence. Must e in pen, and e in where, and e in verse, and e in fear, all be called e alike? The child is patted on the head for reading u as it ought to be pronounced in future; but if, remembering this encouragement, the pupil should venture to pronounce u in gun, and bun, in the same manner, he will, inevitably, be disgraced. Pain and shame, impress precepts upon the mind: the child, therefore, is intent upon remembering the new sound of u in bun; but when he comes to busy, and burial, and prudence, his last precedent will lead him fatally astray, and he will again be called a dunce. O, in the exclamation Oh! is happily called by its alphabetical name; but in to, we can hardly know it again, and in morning and wonder, it has a third and a fourth additional sound. The amphibious letter y, which is either a vowel or a consonant, has one sound in one character, and two sounds in the other; as a consonant, it is pronounced as in yesterday; in try, it is sounded as i; in any, and in the termination of many other words, it is sounded like e. Must a child know all this by intuition, or must it be whipt into him? But he must know a great deal more, before he can read the most common words. What length of time should we allow him for learning, when c is to be sounded like k, and when like s? and how much longer time shall we add for learning, when s shall be pronounced sh, as in sure, or z, as in has; the sound of which last letter z, he cannot, by any conjuration, obtain from the name zed, the only name by which he has been taught to call it? How much time shall we allow a patient tutor for teaching a docile pupil, when g is to be sounded soft, and when hard? There are many carefully worded rules in the spelling-books, specifying before what letters, and in what situations, g shall vary in sound; but, unfortunately, these rules are difficult to be learned by heart, and still more difficult to understand. These laws, however positive, are not found to be of universal application, or at least, a child has not always wit or time to apply them upon the spur of the occasion. In coming to the words ingenious gentleman, get a good grammar, he may be puzzled by the nice distinctions he is to make in pronunciation in cases apparently similar; but he has not yet become acquainted with all the powers of this privileged letter: in company with h, it assumes the character of f, as in tough; another time he meets it, perhaps, in the same company, in the same place, and, as nearly as possible, in the same circumstances, as in the word though; but now g is to become a silent letter, and is to pass incognito, and the child will commit an unpardonable errour, if he claimed the incognito as his late acquaintance f. Still, all these are slight difficulties; a moment's reflection must convince us, that by teaching the common names of every consonant in the alphabet, we prepare a child for misery, when he begins to spell or read. A consonant, as sayeth the spelling-book, is a letter which cannot be pronounced without a vowel before or after it: for this reason, B, is called be, and L, el; but why the vowel should come first in the one case, or last in the second, we are not informed; nor are we told why the names of some letters have no resemblance whatever to their sounds, either with a vowel before or after them. Suppose, that after having learned the alphabet, a child was to read the words

Here is some apple-pye.

He would pronounce the letters thus:

Acheare ies esoeme apepeele pewie.

With this pronunciation the child would never decipher these simple words. It will be answered, perhaps, that no child is expected to read as soon as he has learnt his alphabet: a long initiation of monosyllabic, dissyllabic, trissyllabic, and polysyllabic words is previously to be submitted to; nor, after this inauguration, are the novices capable of performing with propriety the ceremony of reading whole words and sentences. By a different method of teaching, all this waste of labour and of time, all this confusion of rules and exceptions, and all the consequent confusion in the understanding of the pupil, may be avoided.

In teaching a child to read, every letter should have a precise single sound annexed to its figure; this should never vary. Where two consonants are joined together, so as to have but one sound, as ph, sh, &c. the two letters should be coupled together by a distinct invariable mark. Letters that are silent should be marked in such a manner as to point out to the child that they are not to be sounded. Upon these simple rules our method of teaching to read has been founded. The signs or marks, by which these distinctions are to be effected, are arbitrary, and may be varied as the teacher chooses; the addition of a single point above or below the common letters is employed to distinguish the different sounds that are given to the same letter, and a mark underneath such letters as are to be omitted, is the only apparatus necessary. These marks were employed by the author in 1776, before he had seen Sheridan's, or any similar dictionary; he has found that they do not confuse children as much as figures, because when dots are used to distinguish sounds, there is only a change of place, and no change of form: but any person that chooses it, may substitute figures instead of dots. It should, however, be remembered, that children must learn to distinguish the figures before they can be useful in discriminating the words.

All these sounds, and each of the characters which denote them, should be distinctly known by a child before we begin to teach him to read. And here at the first step we must entreat the teacher to have patience; to fix firmly in her mind, we say her mind, because we address ourselves to mothers; that it is immaterial whether a child learns this alphabet in six weeks or in six months; at all events, let it not be inculcated with restraint, or made tiresome, lest it should retard the whole future progress of the pupil. We do not mean to recommend the custom of teaching in play, but surely a cheerful countenance is not incompatible with application.

The three sounds of the letter (a) should first be taught; they may be learned by the dullest child in a week, if the letters are shown to him for a minute or two, twice a day. Proper moments should be chosen when the child is not intent upon any thing else; when other children have appeared to be amused with reading; when the pupil himself appears anxious to be instructed. As soon as he is acquainted with the sounds of (a) and with their distinguishing marks, each of these sounds should be formed into syllables, with each of the consonants; but we should never name the consonants by their usual names; if it be required to point them out by sounds, let them resemble the real sounds or powers of the consonants; but in fact it will never be necessary to name the consonants separately, till their powers, in combination with the different vowels, be distinctly acquired. It will then be time enough to teach the common names of the letters. To a person unacquainted with the principles upon which this mode of teaching is founded, it must appear strange, that a child should be able to read before he knows the names of his letters; but it has been ascertained, that the names of the letters are an incumbrance in teaching a child to read.

In the quotation from Mrs. Barbauld, at the bottom of the alphabetical tables, there is a stroke between the letters b and r in February, and between t and h, in there, to show that these letters are to be sounded together, so as to make one sound. The same is to be observed as to (ng) in the word long, and also as to the syllable ing, which, in the table No. 4, column 4, is directed to be taught as one sound. The mark (.) of obliteration, is put under (y) in the word days, under e final in there, and also under one of the l's and the (w) in yellow, to show that these letters are not to be pronounced. The exceptions to this scheme of articulation are very few; such as occur, are marked, with the number employed in Walker's dictionary, to denote the exception, to which excellent work, the teacher will, of course, refer.

Parents, at the first sight of this new alphabet, will perhaps tremble lest they should be obliged to learn the whole of it before they begin to teach their children: but they may calm their apprehensions, for they need only point out the letters in succession to the child, and sound them as they are sounded in the words annexed to the letters in the table, and the child will soon, by repetition, render the marks of the respective letters familiar to the teacher. We have never found any body complain of difficulty, who has gone on from letter to letter along with the child who was taught.

As soon as our pupil knows the different sounds of (a) combined in succession with all the consonants, we may teach him the rest of the vowels joined with all the consonants, which will be a short and easy work. Our readers need not be alarmed at the apparent slowness of this method: six months, at the rate of four or five minutes each day, will render all these combinations perfectly familiar. One of Mrs. Barbauld's lessons for young children, carefully marked in the same manner as the alphabet, should, when they are well acquainted with the sounds of each of the vowels with each of the consonants, be put into our pupil's hands.[7]

The sound of three or four letters together, will immediately become familiar to him; and when any of the less common sounds of the vowels, such as are contained in the second table, and the terminating sounds, tion, ly, &c. occur, they should be read to the child, and should be added to what he has got by rote from time to time. When all these marks and their corresponding sounds are learnt, the primer should be abandoned, and from that time the child will be able to read slowly the most difficult words in the language. We must observe, that the mark of obliteration is of the greatest service; it is a clue to the whole labyrinth of intricate and uncouth orthography. The word though, by the obliteration of three letters, may be as easily read as the or that.

It should be observed that all people, before they can read fluently, have acquired a knowledge of the general appearance of most of the words in the language, independently of the syllables of which they are composed. Seven children in the author's family were taught to read in this manner, and three in the common method; the difference of time, labour, and sorrow, between the two modes of learning, appeared so clearly, that we can speak with confidence upon the subject. We think that nine-tenths of the labour and disgust of learning to read, may be saved by this method; and that instead of frowns and tears, the usual harbingers of learning, cheerfulness and smiles may initiate willing pupils in the most difficult of all human attainments.

A and H, at four and five years old, after they had learned the alphabet, without having ever combined the letters into syllables, were set to read one of Mrs. Barbauld's little books. After being employed two or three minutes every day, for a fortnight, in making out the words of this book, a paper with a few raisins well concealed in its folds, was given to each of them, with these words printed on the outside of it, marked according to our alphabet:

"Open this, and eat what you find in it."

In twenty minutes, they read it distinctly without any assistance.

The step from reading with these marks, to reading without them, will be found very easy. Nothing more is necessary, than to give children the same books, without marks, which they can read fluently with them.

Spelling comes next to reading. New trials for the temper; new perils for the understanding; positive rules and arbitrary exceptions; endless examples and contradictions; till at length, out of all patience with the stupid docility of his pupil, the tutor perceives the absolute necessity of making him get by heart, with all convenient speed, every word in the language. The formidable columns in dread succession arise a host of foes; two columns a day, at least, may be conquered. Months and years are devoted to the undertaking; but after going through a whole spelling-book, perhaps a whole dictionary, till we come triumphantly to spell Zeugma, we have forgotten to spell Abbot, and we must begin again with Abasement. Merely the learning to spell so many unconnected words, without any assistance from reason or analogy, is nothing, compared with the difficulty of learning the explanation of them by rote, and the still greater difficulty of understanding the meaning of the explanation. When a child has got by rote,

"Midnight, the depth of night;"

"Metaphysics, the science which treats of immaterial

beings, and of forms in general abstracted from matter;"

has he acquired any distinct ideas, either of midnight or of metaphysics? If a boy had eaten rice pudding, till he fancied himself tolerably well acquainted with rice, would he find his knowledge much improved, by learning from his spelling-book, the words

"Rice, a foreign esculent grain?"

Yet we are surprised to discover, that men have so few accurate ideas, and that so many learned disputes originate in a confused or improper use of words.

"All this is very true," says a candid schoolmaster; "we see the evil, but we cannot new-model the language, or write a perfect philosophical dictionary; and, in the mean time, we are bound to teach children to spell, which we do with the less reluctance, because, though we allow that it is an arduous task, we have found from experience, that it can be accomplished, and that the understandings of many of our pupils, survive all the perils to which you think them exposed during the operation."

The understandings may, and do, survive the operation; but why should they be put in unnecessary danger? and why should we early disgust children with literature, by the pain and difficulty their first lessons? We are convinced, that the business of learning to spell, is made much more laborious to children than it need to be: it may be useful to give them five or six words every day to learn by heart, but more only loads their memory; and we should, at first, select words of which they know the meaning, and which occur most frequently in reading or conversation. The alphabetical list of words in a spelling-book, contains many which are not in common use, and the pupil forgets these as fast as he learns them. We have found it entertaining to children, to ask them to spell any short sentence as it has been accidentally spoken. "Put this book on that table." Ask a child how he would spell these words, if he were obliged to write them down, and you introduce into his mind the idea that he must learn to spell, before he can make his words and thoughts understood in writing. It is a good way to make children write down a few words of their own selection every day, and correct the spelling; and also after they have been reading, whilst the words are yet fresh in their memory, we may ask them to spell some of the words which they have just seen. By these means, and by repeating, at different times in the day, those words which are most frequently wanted, his vocabulary will be pretty well stocked without its having cost him many tears. We should observe that children learn to spell more by the eye than by the ear, and that the more they read and write, the more likely they will be to remember the combination of letters in words which they have continually before their eyes, or which they feel it necessary to represent to others. When young people begin to write, they first feel the use of spelling, and it is then that they will learn it with most ease and precision. Then the greatest care should be taken to look over their writing, and to make them correct every word in which they have made a mistake; because, bad habits of spelling, once contracted, can scarcely be cured: the understanding has nothing to do with the business, and when the memory is puzzled between the rules of spelling right, and the habits of spelling wrong, it becomes a misfortune to the pupil to write even a common letter. The shame which is annexed to bad spelling, excites young people's attention, as soon as they are able to understand, that it is considered as a mark of ignorance and ill breeding. We have often observed, that children listen with anxiety to the remarks that are made upon this subject in their presence, especially when the letters or notes of grown up people, are criticised.

Some time ago, a lady, who was reading a newspaper, met with the story of an ignorant magistrate, who gave for his toast, at a public dinner, the two K's, for the King and Constitution. "How very much ashamed the man must have felt, when all the people laughed at him for his mistake! they must all have seen that he did not know how to spell; and what a disgrace for a magistrate too!" said a boy who heard the anecdote. It made a serious impression upon him. A few months afterwards, he was employed by his father in an occupation which was extremely agreeable to him, but in which he continually felt the necessity of spelling correctly. He was employed to send messages by a telegraph; these messages he was obliged to write down hastily, in little journals kept for the purpose; and as these were seen by several people, when the business of the day came to be reviewed, the boy had a considerable motive for orthographical exactness. He became extremely desirous to teach himself, and consequently his success was from that moment certain. As to the rest, we refer to Lady Carlisle's comprehensive maxim, "Spell well if you can."

It is undoubtedly of consequence, to teach the rudiments of literary education early, to get over the first difficulties of reading, writing, and spelling; but much of the anxiety and bustle, and labour of teaching these things, may be advantageously spared. If more attention were turned to the general cultivation of the understanding, and if more pains were taken to make literature agreeable to children, there would be found less difficulty to excite them to mental exertion, or to induce the habits of persevering application.

When we speak of rendering literature agreeable to children, and of the danger of associating pain with the sight of a book, or with the sound of the word task, we should at the same time avoid the errour of those who, in their first lessons, accustom their pupils to so much amusement, that they cannot help afterwards feeling disgusted with the sobriety of instruction. It has been the fashion of late to attempt teaching every thing to children in play, and ingenious people have contrived to insinuate much useful knowledge without betraying the design to instruct; but this system cannot be pursued beyond certain bounds without many inconveniences. The habit of being amused not only increases the desire for amusement, but it lessens even the relish for pleasure; so that the mind becomes passive and indolent, and a course of perpetually increasing stimulus is necessary to awaken attention. When dissipated habits are required, the pupil loses power over his own mind, and, instead of vigorous voluntary exertion, which he should be able to command, he shows that wayward imbecility, which can think successfully only by fits and starts: this paralytic state of mind has been found to be one of the greatest calamities attendant on what is called genius; and injudicious education creates or increases this disease. Let us not therefore humour children in this capricious temper, especially if they have quick abilities: let us give rewards proportioned to their exertions with uniform justice, but let us not grant bounties in education, which, however they may appear to succeed in effecting partial and temporary purposes, are not calculated to ensure any consequences permanently beneficial. The truth is, that useful knowledge cannot be obtained without labour; that attention long continued is laborious, but that without this labour nothing excellent can be accomplished. Excite a child to attend in earnest for a short time, his mind will be less fatigued, and his understanding more improved, than if he had exerted but half the energy twice as long: the degree of pain which he may have felt will be amply and properly compensated by his success; this will not be an arbitrary, variable reward, but one within his own power, and that can be ascertained by his own feelings. Here is no deceit practised, no illusion; the same course of conduct may be regularly pursued through the whole of his education, and his confidence in his tutor will progressively increase. On the contrary, if, to entice him to enter the paths of knowledge, we strew them with flowers, how will he feel when he must force his way through thorns and briars!

There is a material difference between teaching children in play, and making learning a task; in the one case we associate factitious pleasure, in the other factitious pain, with the object: both produce pernicious effects upon the temper, and retard the natural progress of the understanding. The advocates in favour of "scholastic badinage" have urged, that it excites an interest in the minds of children similar to that which makes them endure a considerable degree of labour in the pursuit of their amusements. Children, it is said, work hard at play, therefore we should let them play at work. Would not this produce effects the very reverse of what we desire? The whole question must at last depend upon the meaning of the word play: if by play be meant every thing that is not usually called a task, then undoubtedly much may be learned at play: if, on the contrary, we mean by the expression to describe that state of fidgeting idleness, or of boisterous activity, in which the intellectual powers are torpid, or stunned with unmeaning noise, the assertion contradicts itself. At play so defined, children can learn nothing but bodily activity; it is certainly true, that when children are interested about any thing, whether it be about what we call a trifle, or a matter of consequence, they will exert themselves in order to succeed; but from the moment the attention is fixed, no matter on what, children are no longer at idle play, they are at active work.

S--, a little boy of nine years old, was standing without any book in his hand, and seemingly idle; he was amusing himself with looking at what he called a rainbow upon the floor; he begged his sister M--to look at it; then he said he wondered what could make it; how it came there. The sun shone bright through the window; the boy moved several things in the room, so as to place them sometimes between the light and the colours which he saw upon the floor, and sometimes in a corner of the room where the sun did not shine. As he moved the things, he said, "This is not it;" "nor this;" "this has'n't any thing to do with it." At last he found, that when he moved a tumbler of water out of the

place where it stood, his rainbow vanished. Some violets were in the tumbler; S-- thought they might be the cause of the colours which he saw upon the floor, or, as he expressed it, "Perhaps these may be the thing." He took the violets out of the water; the colours remained upon the floor. He then thought that "it might be the water." He emptied the glass; the colours remained, but they were fainter. S-- immediately observed, that it was the water and glass together that made the rainbow. "But," said he, "there is no glass in the sky, yet there is a rainbow, so that I think the water alone would do, if we could but hold it together without the glass. Oh I know how I can manage." He poured the water slowly out of the tumbler into a basin, which he placed where the sun shone, and he saw the colours on the floor twinkling behind the water as it fell: this delighted him much; but he asked why it would not do when the sun did not shine. The sun went behind a cloud whilst he was trying his experiments: "There was light," said he, "though there was no sunshine." He then said he thought that the different thickness of the glass was the cause of the variety of colours: afterwards he said he thought that the clearness or muddiness of the different drops of water was the cause of the different colours.

A rigid preceptor, who thinks that every boy must be idle who has not a Latin book constantly in his hand, would perhaps have reprimanded S-- for wasting his time at play, and would have summoned him from his rainbow to his task; but it is very obvious to any person free from prejudices, that this child was not idle whilst he was meditating upon the rainbow on the floor; his attention was fixed; he was reasoning; he was trying experiments. We may call this play if we please, and we may say that Descartes was at play, when he first verified Antonio de Dominis bishop of Spalatro's treatise of the rainbow, by an experiment with a glass Globe:[8] and we may say that Buffon was idle, when his pleased attention was first caught with a landscape of green shadows, when one evening at sunset he first observed that the shadows of trees, which fell upon a white wall, were green. He was first delighted with the exact representation of a green arbour, which seemed as if it had been newly painted on the wall. Certainly the boy with his rainbow on the floor was as much amused as the philosopher with his coloured shadows; and, however high sounding the name of Antonio de Dominis, bishop of Spalatro, it does not alter the business in the least; he could have exerted only his utmost attention upon the theory of the rainbow, and the child did the same. We do not mean to compare the powers of reasoning, or the abilities of the child and the philosopher; we would only show that the same species of attention was exerted by both.

To fix the attention of children, or, in other words, to interest them about those subjects to which we wish them to apply, must be our first object in the early cultivation of the understanding. This we shall not find a difficult undertaking if we have no false associations, no painful recollections to contend with. We can connect any species of knowledge with those occupations which are immediately agreeable to young people: for instance, if a child is building a house, we may take that opportunity to teach him how bricks are made, how the arches over doors and windows are made, the nature of the keystone and butments of an arch, the manner in which all the different parts of the roof of a house are put together, &c.; whilst he is learning all this he is eagerly and seriously attentive, and we educate his understanding in the best possible method. But if, mistaking the application of the principle, that literature should be made agreeable to children, we should entice a child to learn his letters by a promise of a gilt coach, or by telling him that he would be the cleverest boy in the world if he could but learn the letter A, we use false and foolish motives; we may possibly, by such means, effect the immediate purpose, but we shall assuredly have reason to repent of such imprudent deceit. If the child reasons at all, he will be content after his first lesson with being "the cleverest boy in the world," and he will not, on a future occasion, hazard his fame, having much to lose, and nothing to gain; besides, he is now master of a gilt coach, and some new and larger reward must be proffered to excite his industry. Besides the disadvantage of early exhausting our stock of incitements, it is dangerous in teaching to humour pupils with a variety of objects by way of relieving their attention. The pleasure of thinking, and much of the profit, must frequently depend upon our preserving the greatest possible connection between our ideas. Those who allow themselves to start from one object to another, acquire such dissipated habits of mind, that they cannot, without extreme difficulty and reluctance, follow any connected train of thought. You cannot teach those who will not follow the chain of your reasons; upon the connection of our ideas, useful memory and reasoning must depend. We will give you an instance: arithmetic is one of the first things that we attempt to teach children. In the following dialogue, which passed between a boy of five years old and his father, we may observe that, till the child followed his father's train of ideas, he could not be taught.

Father. S--, how many can you take from one?

S--. None.

Father. None! Think; can you take nothing from one?

S--. None, except that one.

Father. Except! Then you can take one from one?

S--. Yes, that one.

Father. How many then can you take from one?

S--. One.

Father. Very true; but now, can you take two from one?

S--. Yes, if they were figures I could, with a rubber-out. (This child had frequently sums written for him with a black lead pencil, and he used to rub out his figures when they were wrong with Indian rubber, which he had heard called rubber-out.)

Father. Yes, you could; but now we will not talk of figures, we will talk of things. There may be one horse or two horses, or one man or two men.

S--. Yes, or one coat or two coats.

Father. Yes, or one thing or two things, no matter what they are. Now, could you take two things from one thing?

S--. Yes, if there were three things I could take away two things, and leave one.

His Father took up a cake from the tea-table.

Father. Could I take two cakes from this one cake?

S--. You could take two pieces.

His Father divided the cake into halves, and held up each half so that the child might distinctly see them.

Father. What would you call these two pieces?

S--. Two cakes.

Father. No, not two cakes.

S--. Two biscuits.

Father. Holding up a whole biscuit: What is this?

S--. A thing to eat.

Father. Yes, but what would you call it?

S--. A biscuit.

His Father broke it into halves, and showed one half.

Father. What would you call this?

S--. was silent, and his sister was applied to, who answered, "Half a biscuit."

Father. Very well; that's all at present.

The father prudently stopped here, that he might not confuse his pupil's understanding. Those only who have attempted to teach children can conceive how extremely difficult it is to fix their attention, or to make them seize the connection of ideas, which it appears to us almost impossible to miss. Children are well occupied in examining external objects, but they must also attend to words as well as things. One of the great difficulties in early instruction arises from the want of words: the pupil very often has acquired the necessary ideas, but they are not associated in his mind with the words which his tutor uses; these words are then to him mere sounds, which suggest no correspondent thoughts. Words, as M. Condillac well observes,[9] are essential to our acquisition of knowledge; they are the medium through which one set of beings can convey the result of their experiments and observations to another; they are, in all mental processes, the algebraic signs which assist us in solving the most difficult problems. What agony does a foreigner, knowing himself to be a man of sense, appear to suffer, when, for want of language, he cannot in conversation communicate his knowledge, explain his reasons, enforce his arguments, or make his wit intelligible? In vain he has recourse to the language of action. The language of action, or, as Bacon calls it, of "transitory hieroglyphic," is expressive, but inadequate. As new ideas are collected in the mind, new signs are wanted, and the progress of the understanding would be early and fatally impeded by the want of language. M. de la Condamine tells us that there is a nation who have no sign to express the number three but this word, poellartarrorincourac. These people having begun, as Condillac observes, in such an incommodious manner, it is not surprising that they have not advanced further in their knowledge of arithmetic: they have got no further than the number three; their knowledge of arithmetic stops for ever at poellartarrorincourac. But even this cumbersome sign is better than none. Those who have the misfortune to be born deaf and dumb, continue for ever in intellectual imbecility. There is an account in the Memoires de l'Academie Royale, p. xxii-xxiii, 1703, of a young man born deaf and dumb,[10] who recovered his hearing at the age of four-and-twenty, and who, after employing himself in repeating low to himself the words which he heard others pronounce, at length broke silence in company, and declared that he could talk. His conversation was but imperfect; he was examined by several able theologians, who chiefly questioned him on his ideas of God, the soul, and the morality or immorality of actions. It appeared that he had not thought upon any of these subjects; he did not distinctly know what was meant by death, and he never thought of it. He seemed to pass a merely animal life, occupied with sensible, present objects, and with the few ideas which he received by his sense of sight; nor did he seem to have gained as much knowledge as he might have done, by the comparison of these ideas; yet it is said that he did not appear naturally deficient in understanding.

Peter, the wild boy, who is mentioned in Lord Monboddo's Origin of Language,[11] had all his senses in remarkable perfection. He lived at a farm house within half a mile of us in Hertfordshire for some years, and we had frequent opportunities of trying experiments upon him. He could articulate imperfectly a few words, in particular, King George, which words he always accompanied with an imitation of the bells, which rang at the coronation of George the Second; he could in a rude manner imitate two or three common tunes, but without words. Though his head, as Mr. Wedgewood and many others had remarked, resembled that of Socrates, he was an idiot: he had acquired a few automatic habits of rationality and industry, but he could never be made to work at any continued occupation: he would shut the door of the farm-yard five hundred times a day, but he would not reap or make hay. Drawing water from a neighbouring river was the only domestic business which he regularly pursued. In 1779 we visited him, and tried the following experiment. He was attended to the river by a person who emptied his buckets repeatedly after Peter had repeatedly filled them. A shilling was put before his face into one of the buckets when it was empty; he took no notice of it, but filled it with water and carried it homeward: his buckets were taken from him before he reached the house and emptied on the ground; the shilling, which had fallen out, was again shown to him, and put into the bucket. Peter returned to the river again, filled his bucket and went home; and when the bucket was emptied by the maid at the house where he lived, he took the shilling and laid it in a place where he was accustomed to deposit the presents that were made to him by curious strangers, and whence the farmer's wife collected the price of his daily exhibition. It appeared that this savage could not be taught to reason for want of language.

Rousseau declaims with eloquence, and often with justice, against what he calls a knowledge of words. Words without correspondent ideas, are worse than useless; they are counterfeit coin, which imposes upon the ignorant and unwary; but words, which really represent ideas, are not only of current use, but of sterling value; they not only show our present store, but they increase our wealth, by keeping it in continual circulation; both the principal and the interest increase together. The importance of signs and words, in our reasonings, has been eloquently explained, since the time of Condillac, by Stewart. We must use the ideas of these excellent writers, because they are just and applicable to the art of education; but whilst we use, it is with proper acknowledgments that we borrow, what we shall never be able to return.

It is a nice and difficult thing in education, to proportion a child's vocabulary exactly to his knowledge, dispositions, or conformation; our management must vary; some will acquire words too quickly, others too slowly. A child who has great facility in pronouncing sounds, will, for that reason, quickly acquire a number of words, whilst those whose organs of speech are not so happily formed, will from that cause alone, be ready in forming a copious vocabulary. Children who have many companions, or who live with people who converse a great deal, have more motive, both from sympathy and emulation, to acquire a variety of words, than those who live with silent people, and who have few companions of their own age. All these circumstances should be considered by parents, before they form their judgment of a child's capacity from his volubility or his taciturnity. Volubility can easily be checked by simply ceasing to attend to it, and taciturnity may be vanquished by the encouragements of praise and affection: we should neither be alarmed at one disposition nor at the other, but steadily pursue the system of conduct which will be most advantageous to both. When a prattling, vivacious child, pours forth a multiplicity of words without understanding their meaning, we may sometimes beg to have an explanation of a few of them, and the child will then be obliged to think, which will prevent him from talking nonsense another time. When a thoughtful boy, who is in the habit of observing every object he sees, is at a loss for words to express his ideas, his countenance usually shows to those who can read the countenance of children, that he is not stupid; therefore, we need not urge him to talk, but assist him judiciously with words "in his utmost need:" at the same time we should observe carefully, whether he grows lazy when we assist him; if his stock of words does not increase in proportion to the assistance we give, we should then stimulate him to exertion, or else he will become habitually indolent in expressing his ideas; though he may think in a language of his own, he will not be able to understand our language when we attempt to teach him: this would be a source of daily misery to both parties.

When children begin to read, they seem suddenly to acquire a great variety of words: we should carefully examine whether they annex the proper meaning to these which are so rapidly collected. Instead of giving them lessons and tasks to get by rote, we should cautiously watch over every new phrase and every new word which they learn from books. There are but few books so written that young children can comprehend a single sentence in them without much explanation. It is tiresome to those who hear them read to explain every word; it is not only tiresome, but difficult; besides, the progress of the pupil seems to be retarded; the grand business of reading, of getting through the book, is impeded; and the tutor, more impatient than his pupil, says, "Read on, I cannot stop to explain that to you now. You will understand the meaning of the sentence if you will read to the end of the page. You have not read three lines this half hour; we shall never get on at this rate."

A certain dame at a country school, who had never been able to compass the word Nebuchadnezzar, used to desire her pupils to "call it Nazareth, and let it pass."

If they be obliged to pass over words without comprehending them in books, they will probably do the same in conversation; and the difficulty of teaching such pupils, and of understanding what they say, will be equally increased. At the hazard of being tedious, we must dwell a little longer upon this subject, because much of the future capacity of children seems to depend upon the manner in which they first acquire language. If their language be confused, so will be their thoughts; and they will not be able to reason, to invent, or to write, with more precision and accuracy than they speak. The first words that children learn are the names of things; these are easily associated with the objects themselves, and there is little danger of mistake or confusion. We will not enter into the grammatical dispute concerning the right of precedency, amongst pronoun substantives and verbs; we do not know which came first into the mind of man; perhaps, in different minds, and in different circumstances, the precedency must have varied; but this seems to be of little consequence; children see actions performed, and they act themselves; when they want to express their remembrance of these actions, they make use of the sort of words which we call verbs. Let these words be strictly associated with the ideas which they mean to express, and no matter whether children know any thing about the disputes of grammarians, they will understand rational grammar in due time, simply by reflecting upon their own minds. This we shall explain more fully when we speak hereafter of grammar; we just mention the subject here, to warn preceptors against puzzling their pupils too early with grammatical subtleties.

If any person unused to mechanics was to read Dr. Desagulier's description of the manner in which a man walks, the number of a-b-c's, and the travels of the centre of gravity, it would so amaze and confound him, that he would scarcely believe he could ever again perform such a tremendous operation as that of walking. Children, if they were early to hear grammarians talk of the parts of speech, and of syntax, would conclude, that to speak must be one of the most difficult arts in the world; but children, who are not usually so unfortunate as to have grammarians for their preceptors, when they first begin to speak, acquire language, without being aware of the difficulties which would appear so formidable in theory. A child points to, or touches, the table, and when the word table is repeated, at the same instant he learns the name of the thing. The facility with which a number of names are thus learned in infancy is surprising; but we must not imagine that the child, in learning these names, has acquired much knowledge; he has prepared himself to be taught, but he has not yet learnt any thing accurately. When a child sees a guinea and a shilling, and smiling says, "That's a guinea, mama! and that's a shilling!" the mother is pleased and surprised by her son's intelligence, and she gives him credit for more than he really possesses. We have associated with the words guinea and shilling a number of ideas, and when we hear the same words pronounced by a young child, we perhaps have some confused belief that he has acquired the same ideas that we have; hence we are pleased with the mere sound of words of high import from infantine lips.

Children who are delighted in their turn by the expression of pleasure in the countenance of others, repeat the things which they perceive have pleased; and thus their education is begun by those who first smile upon them, and listen to them when they attempt to speak. They who applaud children for knowing the names of things, induce them quickly to learn a number of names by rote; as long as they learn the names of external objects only, which they can see, and smell, and touch, all is well; the names will convey distinct ideas of certain perceptions. A child who learns the name of a taste, or of a colour, who learns that the taste of sugar is called sweet, and that the colour of a red rose is called red, has learned distinct words to express certain perceptions: and we can at any future time recall to his mind the memory of those perceptions by means of their names, and he understands us as well as the most learned philosopher. But, suppose that a boy had learned only the name of gold; that when different metals were shown to him, he could put his finger upon gold, and say, "That is gold;" yet this boy does not know all the properties of gold; he does not know in what it differs from other metals; to what uses it is applied in arts, manufactures, and commerce; the name of gold, in his mind, represents nothing more than a substance of a bright yellow colour, upon which people, he does not precisely know why, set a great value. Now, it is very possible, that a child might, on the contrary, learn all the properties, and the various uses of gold, without having learned its name; his ideas of this metal would be perfectly distinct; but whenever he wished to speak of gold, he would be obliged to use a vast deal of circumlocution to make himself understood; and if he were to enumerate all the properties of the metal every time he wanted to recal the general idea, his conversation would be intolerably tedious to others, and to himself this useless repetition must be extremely laborious. He would certainly be glad to learn that single word gold, which would save him so much trouble; his understanding would appear suddenly to have improved, simply from his having acquired a proper sign to represent his ideas. The boy who had learnt the name, without knowing any of the properties of gold, would also appear comparatively ignorant, as soon as it is discovered that he has few ideas annexed to the word. It is, perhaps, for this reason, that some children seem suddenly to shine out with knowledge, which no one suspected they possessed; whilst others, who had appeared to be very quick and clever, come to a dead stop in their education, and appear to be blighted by some unknown cause. The children who suddenly shine out, are those who had acquired a number of ideas, and who, the moment they acquire proper words, can communicate their thoughts to others. Those children who suddenly seem to lose their superiority, are those who had acquired a variety of words, but who had not annexed ideas to them. When their ignorance is detected, we not only despair of them, but they are apt to despair of themselves; they see their companions get before them, and they do not exactly perceive the cause of their sudden incapacity. Where we speak of sensible, visible, tangible objects, we can easily detect and remedy a child's ignorance. It is easy to discover whether he has or has not a complete notion of such a substance as gold; we can enumerate its properties, and readily point out in what his definition is defective. The substance can be easily produced for examination; most of its properties are obvious to the senses; we have nothing to do but to show them to the child, and to associate with each property its usual name; here there can be no danger of puzzling his understanding; but when we come to the explanation of words which do not represent external objects, we shall find the affair more difficult. We can make children understand the meaning of those words which are the names of simple feelings of the mind, such as surprise, joy, grief, pity; because we can either put our pupils in situations where they actually feel these sensations, and then we may associate the name with the feelings; or we may, by the example of other people, who actually suffer pain or enjoy pleasure, point out what we mean by the words joy and grief. But how shall we explain to our young pupils, a number of words which represent neither existing substances nor simple feelings, when we can neither recur to experiment nor to sympathy for assistance? How shall we explain, for instance, the words virtue, justice, benevolence, beauty, taste, &c.? To analyze our own ideas of these, is no easy task; to explain the process to a young child, is scarcely possible. Call upon any man, who has read and reflected, for a definition of virtue, the whole "theory of moral sentiments" rises, perhaps, to his view at once, in all its elegance; the paradoxical acumen of Mandeville, the perspicuous reasoning of Hume, the accurate metaphysics of Condillac, the persuasive eloquence of Stewart; all the various doctrines that have been supported concerning the foundation of morals, such as the fitness of things, the moral sense, the beauty of truth, utility, sympathy, common sense; all that has been said by ancient and modern philosophers, is recalled in transient perplexing succession to his memory. If such be the state of mind of the man who is to define, what must be the condition of the child who is to understand the definition? All that a prudent person will attempt, is to give instances of different virtues; but even these, it will be difficult properly to select for a child. General terms, whether in morals or in natural philosophy, should, we apprehend, be as much as possible avoided in early education. Some people may imagine that children have improved in virtue and wisdom, when they can talk fluently of justice, and charity, and humanity; when they can read with a good emphasis any didactic compositions in verse or prose. But let any person of sober, common sense, be allowed to cross-examine these proficients, and the pretended extent of their knowledge will shrink into a narrow compass; nor will their virtues, which have never seen service, be ready for action.

General terms are, as it were, but the indorsements upon the bundles of our ideas; they are useful to those who have collected a number of ideas, but utterly useless to those who have no collections ready for classification: nor should we be in a hurry to tie up the bundles, till we are sure that the collection is tolerably complete; the trouble, the difficulty, the shame of untying them late in life, is felt even by superior minds. "Sir," said Dr. Johnson, "I don't like to have any of my opinions attacked. I have made up my faggot, and if you draw out one you weaken the whole bundle."

Preceptors sometimes explain general terms and abstract notions vaguely to their pupils, simply because they are ashamed to make that answer which every sensible person must frequently make to a child's inquiries, "I don't know."[12] Surely it is much better to say at once, "I cannot explain this to you," than to attempt an imperfect or sophistical reply. Fortunately for us, children, if they are not forced to attend to studies for which they have no taste, will not trouble us much with moral and metaphysical questions; their attention will be fully employed upon external objects; intent upon experiments, they will not be very inquisitive about theories. Let us then take care that their simple ideas be accurate, and when these are compounded, their complex notions, their principles, opinions, and tastes, will necessarily be just; their language will then be as accurate as their ideas are distinct; and hence they will be enabled to reason with precision, and to invent with facility. We may observe, that the great difficulty in reasoning is to fix steadily upon our terms; ideas can be readily compared, when the words by which we express them are defined; as in arithmetic and algebra, we can easily solve any problem, when we have precise signs for all the numbers and quantities which are to be considered.

It is not from idleness, it is not from stupidity, it is not from obstinacy, that children frequently show an indisposition to listen to those who attempt to explain things to them. The exertion of attention, which is frequently required from them, is too great for the patience of childhood: the words that are used are so inaccurate in their signification, that they convey to the mind sometimes one idea and sometimes another; we might as well require of them to cast up a sum right whilst we rubbed out and changed the figures every instant, as expect that they should seize a combination of ideas presented to them in variable words. Whoever expects to command the attention of an intelligent child, must be extremely careful in the use of words. If the pupil be paid for the labour of listening by the pleasure of understanding what is said, he will attend, whether it be to his playfellow, or to his tutor, to conversation, or to books. But if he has by fatal experience discovered, that, let him listen ever so intently, he cannot understand, he will spare himself the trouble of fruitless exertion; and, though he may put on a face of attention, his thoughts will wander far from his tutor and his tasks.

"It is impossible to fix the attention of children," exclaims the tutor; "when this boy attends he can do any thing, but he will not attend for a single instant."

Alas! it is in vain to say he will not attend; he cannot.

[7] Some of these lessons, and others by the authors, will shortly be printed, and marked according to this method.

[8] See Priestley's History of Vision, vol. i. p. 51.

[9] "Art de Penser."

[10] See Condillac's Art de Penser. In the chapter "on the use of signs," this young man is mentioned.

[11] Vol. II.

[12] Rousseau.

* * *

(← Keyboard shortcut) Previous Contents (Keyboard shortcut →)
 Novels To Read Online Free

Scan the QR code to download MoboReader app.

Back to Top

shares