Children are not born bad but with possibilities for good and for evil.


A well-known educationalist has brought heavy charges against us all on the score that we bring up children as ‘children of wrath.’ He probably exaggerates the effect of any such teaching, and the ‘little angel’ theory is fully as mischievous. The fact seems to be that children are like ourselves, not because they have become so, but because they are born so; that is, with tendencies, dispositions, towards good and towards evil, and also with a curious intuitive knowledge as to which is good and which is evil. Here we have the work of education indicated. There are good and evil tendencies in body and mind, heart and soul; and the hope set before us is that we can foster the good so as to attenuate the evil; that is, on condition that we put Education in her true place as the handmaid of Religion. The community, the nation, the race, are now taking their due place in our religious thought. We are no longer solely occupied in what an Irish woman called ‘saving yer dirty sowl.’ Our religion is becoming more magnanimous and more responsible and it is time that a like change should take place in our educational thought.
We find ourselves in open places breathing fresher air when we consider, not the education of an individual child or of a social class or even of a given country, but of the race, of the human nature common to every class and country, every individual child. The prospect is exhilarating and the recognition of the potentialities in any child should bring about such an educational renaissance as may send our weary old world rejoicing on its way.
          Physicians and physiologists tell us that new-born children start fair. A child is not born with tuberculosis, for example, if with a tendency which it is our business to counteract. In the same way all possibilities for good are contained in his moral and intellectual outfit, hindered it may be by a corresponding tendency to evil for every such potentiality. We begin to see our way. It is our business to know of what parts and passions a child is made up, to discern the dangers that present themselves, and still more the possibilities of free-going in delightful paths. However disappointing, even forbidding, the failings of a child, we may be quite sure that in every case the opposite tendency is there and we must bring the wit to give it play.
          Parents have this sort of mother-wit more commonly than we outsiders, teachers and the like. Of course, we know of the mothers and fathers who can’t do anything with Tom and hope the schoolmaster will lick him into shape. But how often on the other hand are we surprised to see how much more of persons Bob and Polly are in their own homes than at school! Perhaps this is because parents know their children better than do others and for that reason believe in them more; for our faith in the divine and the human keeps pace with our knowledge. For this reason it behoves us teachers to get a bird’s eye view of the human nature which is present in every child. Everybody knows that hunger,
thirst, rest, chastity are those natural endowments of the body by means of which it grows and functions; but in every child there are tendencies to greediness, restlessness, sloth, impurity, any one of which by allowance may ruin the child and the man that he will be.
          Again, our old friends, the five senses, require direction and practice. Smell, especially, might be made a source of delicate pleasure by the habit of discriminating the good smells of field and garden, flower and fruit, for their own sakes, not as ministering to taste, which, unduly pampered, becomes a man’s master. But there is little that is new to be learned about the body and those various body-servants with which it is equipped. Education already does her part in training the muscles, cultivating the senses, ordering the nerves, of all children, rich and poor; for in these days we perceive that the development which is due to one child is due to all. If we make a mistake in regard to physical education it is perhaps in the matter of ordering the nerves of a child. We do not consider enough that the nourishment, rest, fresh air and natural exercise, proper for the body as a whole, meet the requirements of the nervous system and that the undue nervous tension which a small child suffers in carrying a cup of tea, an older boy or girl in cramming for an examination, may be the cause later of a distressing nervous breakdown. We are becoming a nervous, overstrained nation and though golf and cricket may do something for us, a watchful education, alert to arrest every symptom of nervous over-pressure, would do much to secure for every child a fine physique and a high degree of staying power.
          A snare which attends the really brilliant teacher is the exhausting effect upon children of an overpowering personality. They are such ardent and responsive little souls that the teacher who gives them nods and becks and wreathed smiles may play the Pied Piper
with them. But he or she should beware. The undue play of the personality of the teacher is likely to suppress and subdue that of his scholars; and, not only so, children are so eager to live up to the demands made upon them that they may be brought to a state of continual nervous over-pressure under the influence of a ‘charming personality.’ This sort of subjection, the Schwarmerei of the Germans, was powerfully set forth in a recent novel in which an unprincipled and fascinating mistress ‘ran’ her personality with disastrous results. But the danger does not lie in extreme cases. The girl who kisses the chamber door of her class mistress will forget this lady by and by; but the parasitic habit has been formed and she must always have some person or some cause on which to hang her body and soul. I speak of ‘she’ and ‘her’ perhaps unfairly, because ever since the Greek youth hung about their masters in the walks of the Academy there have been teachers who have undermined the stability of the boys to whom they devoted themselves. Were his countrymen entirely wrong about Socrates? A tendency to this manner of betrayal is the infirmity of noble minds, of those who have the most to give; and for this reason, again, it is important that we should have before us a bird’s eye view, let us call it, of human nature.


          There is a common notion that it is our inalienable right not only to say what we please but to think as we please, that is, we believe that while body is subject to physical laws, while the affections, love and justice, are subject to moral laws, the mind is a chartered libertine. Probably this notion has much to do with our neglect of intellect. We do not perceive that the mind, too, has its tendencies both good and evil and that every inclination towards good is hindered and may be thwarted
by a corresponding inclination towards evil; I am not speaking of moral evil but of those intellectual evils which we are slow to define and are careless in dealing with. Does the teacher of a large class always perceive that intellect is enthroned before him in every child, however dull and inattentive may be his outer show? Every child in such a class is open to the wonders that science reveals, is interested in the wheeling worlds of the winter firmament. “Child after child,” said a schoolmistress, “writes to say how much they have enjoyed reading about the stars.” “As we are walking sometimes and the stars are shining,” says a girl of eleven in an Elementary School, “I tell mother about the stars and planets and comets. She said she should think astronomy very interesting.”
          But we teach astronomy, no, we teach ‘light and heat’ by means of dessicated text-books, diagrams and experiments, which last are no more to children than the tricks of white magic. The infinitely little is as attractive to them as the infinitely great and the behaviour of an atom, an ion, is a fairy tale they delight in, that is, if no semblance to a fairy tale be suggested. The pageant of history with its interplay of characters is as delightful as any tale because every child uses his own film to show the scenes and exhibit the persons. We fuss a good deal about the dress, implements and other small details of each historic period but we forget that, give the child a few fit and exact words on the subject and he has the picture in his mind’s eye, nay, a series, miles long of really glorious films; for a child’s amazing, vivifying imagination is part and parcel of his intellect.
          The way children make their own the examples offered to them is amazing. No child would forget the characterisation of Charles ix as ‘feeble and violent,’ nor fail to take to himself a lesson in self-control. We may not point the moral; that is the work proper
for children themselves and they do it without fail. The comparative difficulty of the subject does not affect them. A teacher writes (of children of eleven),—“ They cannot have enough of Publicola and there are always groans when the lesson comes to an end.”
          I have said much of history and science, but mathematics, a mountainous land which pays the climber, makes its appeal to mind, and good teachers know that they may not drown their teaching in verbiage. As for literature—to introduce children to literature is to instal them in a very rich and glorious kingdom, to bring a continual holiday to their doors, to lay before them a feast exquisitely served. But they must learn to know literature by being familiar with it from the very first. A child’s intercourse must always be with good books, the best that we can find. Of course, we have always known that this is the right thing for children in cultivated homes, but what about those in whose dwellings books are little known ? One of the wise teachers in Gloucestershire notes that a recognition of two things is necessary in dealing with this problem. First, that,—
          “ To explain the meaning of words destroys interest in the story and annoys the child. Second, that in many instances it is unnecessary. Although a child’s dictionary knowledge of words is lacking it does not follow that the meaning of a sentence or paragraph is unknown to him. . . . neither is the correct employment of the words beyond him in writing or narrating. Two examples of this power to sense the meaning were observed last term. There is a particular boy in Form IIB who has not hitherto been looked upon as possessing high intelligence. Classified by age he ought to be two Forms higher. Last term in taking the story of Romulus and Remus, I found that in power of narrating and degree of understanding (that is, of ‘sensing’ a paragraph and either translating it into his vocabulary or in using the words read to him) he stood above the others and also above the majority in the next higher Form.”
          “What has surprised us most,” said the Headmaster of A., “is the ready way in which boys absorb information and become interested in literature, literature which we have hitherto considered outside the scope of primary school teaching. A year ago I could not have believed that boys would have read Lytton’s Harold, Kingsley’s Hereward, and Scott’s Talisman with real pleasure and zest or would study with understanding and delight Shakespeare’s Macbeth, King John and Richard II; but experience has shown us we have underrated the abilities and tastes of the lads we should have known better.”
          That is the capital charge against most schools. The teachers underrate the tastes and abilities of their pupils. In things intellectual, children, even backward children, have extraordinary ‘possibilities for good’—possibilities so great that if we had the wit to give them their head they would carry us along like a stream in spate.
          But what about intellectual tendencies, or ‘possibilities for evil’? One such tendency dominates many schools notwithstanding prodigious efforts on the part of the teachers to rouse slumbering minds. Indeed, the more the teacher works, the greater the incuria of the children, so the class is prodded with marks, the boys take places, the bogie of an oncoming examination is held before them. Some spasmodic effort is the result but no vital response and, though boys and girls love school, like their teachers and even their lessons, they care not at all for knowledge, for which the school should create enthusiasm. I can touch here on no more than two potent means of creating incuria in a class. One is the talky-talky of the teacher. We all know how we are bored by the person in private life who explains and expounds. What reason have we to suppose that children are not equally bored? They try to tell us that they are by wandering eyes, inanimate features, fidgetting hands and feet, by every means at their disposal ; and the kindly souls among us think that they want to play or to be out of doors. But they have no us
for play except at proper intervals. What they want is knowledge conveyed in literary form and the talk of the facile teacher leaves them cold.
          Another soothing potion is little suspected of producing mental lethargy. We pride ourselves upon going over and over the same ground until the children know it’; the monotony is deadly. A child writes,—“Before we had these (books) we had to read the same old lot again and again.” Is it not true? In the home schoolroom books used by the grandmother are fit for the grandchildren, books used in boys’ schools may be picked up at second-hand stalls with the obliterated names of half-a-dozen successive owners. And what of the compilations, neither books nor text-books, which do duty in Elementary Schools? No wonder Mr. Fisher said, in opening a public library, that he had been “surprised and pained when visiting Elementary Schools to find that there was nothing in them which could be called a book, nothing that would charm and enlighten and expand the imagination.” And yet, as he went on to say, the country is “ full of artistic and literary ability and always has been so.” If this ability is to be brought into play we must recognise that children are not ruminants intellectually any more than physically. They cannot go over the same ground repeatedly without deadening, even paralysing results, for progress, continual progress is the law of intellectual life.
          In matters of the mind again Habit is a good servant but a bad master. Specialisation, the fetish of the end of the last century, is to be deprecated because it is at our peril that we remain too long in any one field of thought. We may not, for example, allow the affairs and interests of daily life to deprive the mind of its proper range of interests and occupations. It is even possible for a person to go into any one of the great
fields of thought and to work therein with delight until he become incapable of finding his way into any other such field. We know how Darwin lost himself in science until he could not read poetry, find pleasure in pictures, think upon things divine; he was unable to turn his mind out of the course in which it had run for most of his life. In the great (and ungoverned) age of the Renaissance, the time when great things were done, great pictures painted, great buildings raised, great discoveries made, the same man was a painter, an architect, a gold- smith and a master of much knowledge besides; and all that he did he did well, all that he knew was part of his daily thought and enjoyment. Let us hear Vasari on Leonardo,—
          “Possessed of a divine and marvellous intellect and being an excellent geometrician, he not only worked at sculpture . . . . but also prepared many architectural plans and buildings . . . . he made designs for mills and other engines to go by water; and, as painting was to be his profession, he studied drawing from life.”
          Leonardo knew nothing about Art for Art’s sake, that shibboleth of yesterday, nor did our own Christopher Wren, also a great mathematician and master of much and various knowledge, to whom architecture was rather a by-the-way interest, and yet he built St. Paul’s. What an irreparable loss we had when that plan of his for a beautiful and spacious London was flung aside because it would cost too much to carry it out! Just so of our parsimony do we fling aside the minds of the children of our country, also capable of being wrought into pleasaunces of delight, structures of utility and beauty, at a pitifully trifling cost. It is well we should recognise that the business of education is with us all our lives, that we must always go on increasing our knowledge.
          Of the means we employ to hinder the growth of mind perhaps none is more subtle than the questionnaire. It is as though one required a child to produce for inspection
at its various stages of assimilation the food he consumed for his dinner; we see at once how the digestive processes would be hindered, how, in a word, the child would cease to be fed. But the mind also requires its food and leave to carry on those quiet processes of digestion and assimilation which it must accomplish for itself. The child with capacity, which implies depth, is stupified by a long rigmarole on the lines of,—“If John’s father is Tom’s son, what relation is Tom to John?” The shallow child guesses the riddle and scores ; and it is by the use of tests of this kind that we turn out young people sharp as needles but with no power of reflection, no intelligent interests, nothing but the aptness of the city gamin.
          Imagination may become like that cave Ezekiel tells of wherein were all manner of unseemly and evil things; it may be a temple wherein self is glorified; it may be a chamber of horrors and dangers; but it may also be a House Beautiful. It is enough for us to remember that imagination is stored with those images supplied day by day whether by the cinema, the penny dreadful, by Homer or Shakespeare, by the great picture or the flaming ‘shocker.’ We have heard of the imaginative man who conceived a passion for the Sphinx !
          In these days when Reason is deified by the unlearned and plays the part of the Lord of Misrule it is necessary that every child should be trained to recognize fallacious reasoning and above all to know that a man’s reason is his servant and not his master ; that there is no notion a man chooses to receive which his reason will not justify, whether it be mistrust of his neighbour, jealousy of his wife, doubts about his religion, or contempt for his country.
          Realising this, we ‘see reason’ in the fact that thousands of men go on strike because two of their body have been denied permission to attend a certain
meeting. We see reason in this but the men themselves confound reason with right and consider that such a strike is a righteous protest. The only safeguard against fallacies which undermine the strength of the nation morally and economically is a liberal education which affords a wide field for reflection and comparison and abundant data upon which to found sound judgments.
          As for that æsthetic ‘appetency’ (to use Coleridge’s word) upon which so many of the gentle pleasures of life depend, it is open to many disasters: it dies of inanition when beauty is not duly presented to it, beauty in words, in pictures and music, in tree and flower and sky. The function of the sense of beauty is to open a paradise of pleasure for us; but what if we grow up admiring the wrong things, or, what is morally worse, arrogant in the belief that it is only we and our kind who are able to appreciate and distinguish beauty? It is no small part of education to have seen much beauty, to recognize it when we see it, and to keep ourselves humble in its presence.


          As the body is provided with its appetites, by undue indulgence of any one of which a man may make ship-wreck, but which duly ordered should result in a robust and vigorous frame; so, too, the spiritual part of us is provided with certain caterers whose business it is to secure that kind of nourishment which promotes spiritual or intellectual growth in one or another direction. Perhaps in no part of our educational service do we make more serious blunders than in our use of those desires which act as do the appetites for the body’s service. Every child wants to be approved, even baby in his new red shoes; to be first in what is going on; to get what is going; to be admired; to lead and manage the rest; to have the companionship of children and grown people;
and last, but not least, every child wants to know. There they are, those desires, ready to act on occasion and our business is to make due use of this natural provision for the work of education. We do make use of the desires, not wisely, but too well. We run our schools upon emulation, the desire of every child to be first; and not the ablest, but the most pushing, comes to the front. We quicken emulation by the common desire to get and to have, that is, by the impulse of avarice. So we offer prizes, exhibitions, scholarships, every incentive that can be proposed. We cause him to work for our approbation, we play upon his vanity, and the boy does more than he can. What is the harm, we say, when all those springs of action are in the child already? The athlete is beginning to discover that he suffers elsewhere from the undue development of any set of muscles; and the boy whose ambition, or emulation, has been unduly stimulated becomes a flaccid person. But there is a worse evil. We all want knowledge just as much as we want bread. We know it is possible to cure the latter appetite by giving more stimulating food; and the worst of using other spurs to learning is that a natural love of knowledge which should carry us through eager school-days, and give a spice of adventure to the duller days of mature life, is effectually choked; and boys and girls ‘Cram to pass but not to know; they do pass but they don’t know.’ The divine curiosity which should have been an equipment for life hardly survives early schooldays.
          Now it has been demonstrated very fully indeed that the delightfulness of knowledge is sufficient to carry a pupil joyfully and eagerly through his school life and that prizes and places, praise, blame and punishment, are unnecessary in so far as they are used to secure ardent interest and eager work. The love of knowledge is sufficient. Each of those other stimuli should no doubt
have its natural action, but one or two springs of action seem to be played upon excessively in our schools. Conduct gives opportunity for ‘virtue emulously rapid in the race’ and especially that part of conduct known as ‘play’ in which most of the natural desires come into action; but even in play we must beware of the excess of zeal which risks the elimination of the primary feelings of love and justice. In the schoolroom, without doubt, the titillation of knowledge itself affords sufficient stimulus to close attention and steady labour; and the desire of acquisition has due play in a boy who is constantly increasing his acquirements.



[1] See Ourselves, our Souls and Bodies. By the Writer. (P.N.E.U. Office.)

[2] Ourselves, our Souls and Bodies. By the Writer.

‘Noli me tangere’ is a Latin phrase which can be translated ‘touch me not’, ‘stop clinging to me’, or ‘cease holding on to me.’ It references John 20:17. Here Jesus speaks to Mary Magdalene after his resurrection. This scene has been portrayed in numerous works of art including Tissot’s Touch Me Not (Noli me tangere)

Revolutionary America used the phrase in the Gadsden flag and the First Navy Jack flag with their ‘Don’t Tread on Me’ captions.

Information and pictures from wikipedia Noli me tangere.

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