WHAT IS ‘NATURE’?
‘Habit is ten natures,’ went on being proclaimed in my ears; and at last it came home to me as a weighty saying, which might contain the educational ‘Open, sesame!’ I was in quest of. In the first place, what is Nature, and what, precisely, is Habit?
It is an astonishing thing, when we consider, what the child is, irrespective of race, country, or kindred, simply in right of his birth as a human being.
All Persons born with the same Primary Desires.—That we all have the same instincts and appetites, we are prepared to allow, but that the principles of action which govern all men everywhere are primarily the same, is a little startling; that, for instance, the same desires stir in the breasts of savage and of sage alike; that the desire of knowledge, which shows itself in the child’s curiosity about things
and his eager use of his eyes, is equally active everywhere; that the desire of society, which you may see in two babies presented to one another and all agog with glee and friendliness, is the cause, alike, of village communities amongst savage tribes and of the philosophical meetings of the learned; that everywhere is felt the desire of esteem—a wonderful power in the hands of the educator, making a word of praise or blame more powerful as a motive than any fear or hope of punishment or reward.
And Affections.—And it is not only the same desires; all people, everywhere, have the same affections and passions which act in the same way under similar provocation: joy and grief, love and resentment, benevolence, sympathy, fear, and much else, are common to all of us. So, too, of conscience, the sense of duty.
Content of the most Elemental Notion of Human Nature.—Dr Livingstone mentions that the only addition he felt called upon to make to the moral code of certain of the Zambesi tribes (however little they observed their own law) was, that a man should not have more than one wife. “Evil speaking, lying, hatred, disobedience to parents, neglect of them,” were all known to be sin by these dark peoples whom civilised or Christian teaching had never before reached. Not only is a sense of duty common to mankind, but the deeper consciousness of God, however vague such consciousness may be. And all this and much more goes to make up the most elemental notion of human nature.
Nature plus Heredity.—Then, heredity comes in, and here, if you please, is ten natures: who is to deal with the child who is resentful, or stubborn, or reckless,
because it is born in him, his mother’s nature or his grandfather’s? Think of the trick of the eye, the action of the hand, repeated from father to son; the peculiar character of the handwriting, traceable, as Miss Power Cobbe tells us is the case in her family, for instance, through five generations; the artistic temperament, the taste for music or drawing, running in families: here you get Nature with a twist, confirmed, sealed, riveted, utterly proof, you would say, against any attempt to alter or modify it.
Plus Physical Conditions.—And, once more, physical conditions come into force. The puny, feeble child and the sturdy urchin who never ails must necessarily differ from one another in the strength of their desires and emotions.
Human Nature the Sum of certain Attributes.—What, then, with the natural desires, affections, and emotions common to the whole race, what with the tendencies which each family derives by descent, and those peculiarities which the individual owes to his own constitution of body and brain,—human nature, the sum of all these, makes out for itself a strong case; so much so, that we are inclined to think the best that can be done is to let it alone, to let every child develop unhindered according to the elements of character and disposition that are in him.
The Child must not be left to his Human Nature.—This is precisely what half the parents in the world, and three-fourths of the teachers, are content to do; and what is the consequence? That the world is making advances, but the progress is, for the most part, amongst the few whose parents have taken their education seriously in hand; while the rest, who have been allowed to stay where they
were, be no more, or no better than Nature made them, act as a heavy drag: for, indeed, the fact is, that they do not stay where they were; it is unchangeably true that the child who is not being constantly raised to a higher and a higher platform will sink to a lower and a lower. Wherefore, it is as much the parent’s duty to educate his child into moral strength and purpose and intellectual activity as it is to feed him and clothe him; and that in spite of his nature, if it must be so. It is true that here and there circumstances step in and ‘make a man’ of the boy whose parents have failed to bring him under discipline; but this is a fortuitous aid which the educator is no way warranted to count upon.
I was beginning to see my way—not yet out of the psychological difficulty, which, so far as I was concerned, blocked the way to any real education; but now I could put my finger on the place, and that was something. Thus:—
The will of the child is pitifully feeble, weaker in the children of the weak, stronger in the children of the strong, but hardly ever to be counted upon as a power in education.
The nature of the child—his human nature—being the sum of what he is as a human being, and what he is in right of the stock he comes of, and what he is as the result of his own physical and mental constitution—this nature is incalculably strong.
Problem before the Educator.—The problem before the educator is to give the child control over his own nature, to enable him to hold himself in hand as much in regard to the traits we call good, as to those we call evil:—many a man makes shipwreck on the rock of what he grew up to think
his characteristic virtue—his open-handedness, for instance.
Divine Grace works on the Lines of Human Effort.—In looking for a solution of this problem, I do not undervalue the Divine grace—far otherwise; but we do not always make enough of the fact that Divine grace is exerted on the lines of enlightened human effort; that the parent, for instance, who takes the trouble to understand what he is about in educating his child, deserves, and assuredly gets, support from above; and that Rebecca, let us say, had no right to bring up her son to be “thou worm, Jacob,” in the trust that Divine grace would, speaking reverently, pull him through. Being a pious man, the son of pious parents, he was pulled through, but his days, he complains at the end, were “few and evil.”
The Trust of Parents must not be Supine.—And indeed this is what too many Christian parents expect: they let a child grow free as the wild bramble, putting forth unchecked whatever is in him—thorn, coarse flower, insipid fruit,—trusting, they will tell you, that the grace of God will prune and dig and prop the wayward branches lying prone. And their trust is not always misplaced; but the poor man endures anguish, is torn asunder in the process of recovery which his parents might have spared him had they trained the early shoots which should develop by-and-by into the character of their child.
Nature then, strong as she is, is not invincible; and, at her best, Nature is not to be permitted to ride rampant. Bit and bridle, hand and voice, will get the utmost of endeavour out of her if her training be taken in hand in time; but let Nature run wild, like the forest ponies, and not spur nor whip will break her in.