THE HABIT OF IMAGINING
The Sense of the Incongruous.—All their lessons will afford scope for some slight exercise of the children’s thinking power, some more and some less, and the lessons must be judiciously alternated, so that the more mechanical efforts succeed the more strictly intellectual, and that the pleasing exercise of the imagination, again, succeed efforts of reason. By the way, it is a pity when the sense of the ludicrous is cultivated in children’s books at the expense of better things. Alice in Wonderland is a delicious feast of absurdities, which none of us, old or young, could
afford to spare; but it is doubtful whether the child who reads it has the delightful imaginings, the realising of the unknown, with which he reads The Swiss Family Robinson.
This point is worth considering in connection with Christmas books for the little people. Books of ‘comicalities’ cultivate no power but the sense of the incongruous; and though life is the more amusing for the possession of such a sense, when cultivated to excess it is apt to show itself in a flippant habit. Diogenes and the Naughty Boys ofTroy is irresistible, but it is not the sort of thing the children will live over and over, and ‘play at’ by the hour, as we have all played at Robinson Crusoe finding the footprints. They must have ‘funny books,’ but do not give the children too much nonsense-reading.
Commonplace Tales; Tales of Imagination.—Stories, again, of the Christmas holidays, of George and Lucy, of the amusements, foibles, and virtues of children in their own condition of life, leave nothing to the imagination. The children know all about everything so well that it never occurs to them to play at the situations in any one of these tales, or even to read it twice over. But let them have tales of the imagination, scenes laid in other lands and other times, heroic adventures, hairbreadth escapes, delicious fairy tales in which they are never roughly pulled up by the impossible—even where all is impossible, and they know it, and yet believe.
Imagination and Great Conceptions.—And this, not for the children’s amusement merely: it is not impossible that posterity may write us down a generation blest with little imagination, and, by so far, the less capable of great conceptions and heroic
efforts, for it is only as we have it in us to let a person or a cause fill the whole stage of the mind, to the exclusion of self-occupation, that we are capable of large-hearted action on behalf of that person or cause. Our novelists say there is nothing left to imagine; and that, therefore, a realistic description of things as they are is all that is open to them. But imagination is nothing if not creative, unless it see, not only what is apparent, but what is conceivable, and what is poetically fit in given circumstances.
Imagination Grows.—Now imagination does not descend, full-grown, to take possession of an empty house; like every other power of the mind, it is the merest germ of a power to begin with, and grows by what it gets; and childhood, the age of faith, is the time for its nourishing. The children should have the joy of living in far lands, in other persons, in other times—a delightful double existence; and this joy they will find, for the most part, in their story-books. Their lessons, too, history and geography, should cultivate their conceptive powers. If the child do not live in the times of his history lesson, be not at home in the climes his geography book describes, why, these lessons will fail of their purpose. But let lessons do their best, and the picture-gallery of the imagination is poorly hung if the child have not found his way into the realms of fancy.
Thinking comes by Practice.—How the children’s various lessons should be handled so as to induce habits of thinking, we shall consider later; but this for the present: thinking, like writing or skating, comes by practice. The child who never has thought, never does think, and probably never will think; for
are there not people enough who go through the world without any deliberate exercise of their own wits? The child must think, get at the reason-why of things for himself, every day of his life, and more each day than the day before. Children and parents both are given to invert this educational process. The child asks ‘Why?’ and the parent answers, rather proud of this evidence of thought in his child. There is some slight show of speculation even in wondering ‘Why?’ but it is the slightest and most superficial effort the thinking brain produces. Let the parent ask ‘Why?’ and the child produce the answer, if he can. After he has turned the matter over and over in his mind, there is no harm in telling him—and he will remember it—the reason why. Every walk should offer some knotty problem for the children to think out—“Why does that leaf float on the water, and this pebble sink?” and so on.