The Life of the Mind grows upon Ideas

          Sow and act, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny.’

          Summary of the Preceding Chapter.—The last chapter closed with an imperfect summary of what we may call the educational functions of parents. We found that it rests with the parents of the child to settle for the future man his ways of thinking, behaving, feeling, acting; his disposition, his particular talent; the manner of things upon which his thoughts shall run. Who shall fix limitations to the power of parents? The destiny of the child is ruled by his parents, because they have the virgin soil all to themselves. The first sowing must be at their hands, or at the hands of such as they choose to depute.

          Educational Conceptions of the Past.—What do parents sow? Ideas. We cannot too soon recognise what is the sole educational seed in our hands, or how this seed is to be distributed. But how radically wrong is all our thought upon education! We cannot use the fit words because we do not think the right thing. We have perhaps got over the educational misconception of the tabula rasa. No
one now looks on the child’s white soul as a tablet prepared for the exercise of the educator’s supreme art. But the conception which has succeeded this time-honoured heresy rests on the same false bases of the august office and the infallible wisdom of the educator. Here it is in its cruder form:

          Pestalozzi’s Theory.—‘Pestalozzi aimed more at harmoniously developing the faculties than at making use of them for the acquirement of knowledge; he sought to prepare the vase rather than to fill it.’

          Froebel’s Theory.—In the hands of Froebel the figure gains in boldness and beauty; it is no longer a mere vase to be shaped under the potter’s fingers; but a flower, say, a perfect rose, to be delicately and consciously and methodically moulded, petal by petal, curve and curl; for the perfume and living glory of the flower, why these will come; do you your part and mould the several petals; wait, too, upon sunshine and shower, give space and place for your blossom to expand. And so we go to work with a touch to ‘imagination’ here, and to ‘judgment’ there; now, to the ‘perceptive faculties,’ now, to the ‘conceptive’; in this, aiming at the moral, and in this, at the intellectual nature of the child; touching into being, petal by petal, the flower of a perfect life under the genial influences of sunny looks and happy moods.

          The Kindergarten a Vital Conception.—This reading of the meaning of education and of the work of the educator is very fascinating, and it calls forth singular zeal and self-devotion on the part of these gardeners whose plants are the children. Perhaps, indeed, this of the Kindergarten is the one vital conception of education we have had hitherto.

          But Science is changing Front.—But in these days of revolutionary thought, when all along the line—in geology and anthropology, chemistry, philology, and biology—science is changing front, it is necessary that we should reconsider our conception of Education.

          As to Heredity.—We are taught, for example, that ‘heredity’ is by no means the simple and direct transmission, from parent or remote ancestor, to child of power and proclivity, virtue and defect; and we breathe freer, because we had begun to suspect that if this were so, it would mean to most of us an inheritance of exaggerated defects; imbecility, insanity, congenital disease—are they utterly removed from any one of us?

          Is Education Formative?—So of education, we begin to ask, Is its work so purely formative as we thought? Is it directly formative at all? How much is there in this pleasing and easy doctrine, that the drawing forth and strengthening and directing of the several ‘faculties’ is education? Parents are very jealous over the individuality of their children; they mistrust the tendency to develop all on the same plan; and this instinctive jealousy is right; for, supposing that education really did consist in systematised efforts to draw out every power that is in us, why, we should all develop on the same lines, be as like as ‘two peas,’ and (should we not?) die of weariness of one another! Some of us have an uneasy sense that things are tending towards this deadly sameness; but, indeed the fear is groundless.
         We may believe that the personality, the individuality, of each of us, is too dear to God, and too
necessary to a complete humanity, to be left at the mercy of empirics. We are absolutely safe, and the tenderest child is fortified against a battering-ram of educational forces.

          ‘Education’ an Inadequate Word.—The problem of education is more complex than it seems at first sight, and well for us and the world that it is so. ‘Education is a life’; you may stunt and starve and kill, or you may cherish and sustain; but the beating of the heart, the movement of the lungs, and the development of the faculties (are there any ‘faculties’?) are only indirectly our care. The poverty of our thought on the subject of education is shown by the fact that we have no word which at all implies the sustaining of a life; education (e, out, and ducere, to lead, to draw) is very inadequate; it covers no more than those occasional gymnastics of the mind which correspond with those by which the limbs are trained: training (trahere) is almost synonymous, and upon these two words rests the misconception that the development and the exercise of the ‘faculties’ is the object of education (we must needs use the word for want of a better).

          An Adequate Definition.—Observe how it covers the question from the three conceivable points of view. Subjectively, in the child, education is a life; objectively, as affecting the child, education is a discipline; relatively, if we may introduce a third term, as regards the environment of the child, education is an atmosphere.
         We shall examine each of these postulates later; at present we shall attempt no more than to clear the ground a little, with a view to the subject of this chapter, ‘Parents as Inspirers’—not ‘modellers,’ but ‘inspirers.’

          Method, a Way to an End.—It is only as we recognise our limitations that our work becomes effective: when we see definitely what we are to do, what we can do, and what we cannot do, we set to work with confidence and courage; we have an end in view, and we make our way intelligently towards that end, and a way to an end is method. It rests with parents not only to give their children birth into the life of intelligence and moral power, but to sustain the higher life which they have borne.

          The Life of the Mind grows upon Ideas.—Now that life, which we call education, receives only one kind of sustenance; it grows upon ideas. You may go through years of so-called ‘education’ without getting a single vital idea; and that is why many a well-fed body carries about a feeble, starved intelligence; and no society for the prevention of cruelty to children cries shame on the parents. Some years ago I heard of a girl of fifteen who had spent two years at a school without taking part in
a single lesson, and this by the express desire of her mother, who wished all her time and all her pains to be given to ‘fancy needlework.’ This, no doubt, is a survival (not of the fittest), but it is possible to pass even the Universities Local Examinations with credit, without ever having experienced that vital stir which marks the inception of an idea; and, if we have succeeded in escaping this disturbing influence, why, we have ‘finished our education’ when we leave school; we shut up our books and our minds, and remain pigmies in the dark forest of our own dim world of thought and feeling.

          Rise and Progress of an Idea.—“We can recall no incident of human history that impresses the imagination more deeply than the moment when Columbus on an unknown ocean, first perceived that startling fact, the change of the magnetic needle. How many such instances occur in history when the ideas of Nature (presented to chosen minds by a Higher Power than Nature herself) suddenly unfold, as it were, in prophetic succession, systematic views destined to produce the most important revolutions in the state of man! The clear spirit of Columbus was doubtless eminently methodical. He saw distinctly that great leading idea which authorised the poor pilot to become a ‘promiser of kingdoms.’”

          An Idea may exist as an ‘Appetency.’—Ideas may invest as an atmosphere, rather than strike as a weapon. ‘The idea may exist in a clear, distinct, definite form, as that of a circle in the mind of a geometrician; or it may be a mere instinct, a vague appetency towards something, . . . like the impulse which fills the young poet’s eyes with tears, he knows not why.’ To excite this ‘appetency towards something’—towards things lovely, honest, and of good report, is the earliest and most important ministry of the educator. How shall these indefinite ideas which manifest themselves in appetency be imparted? They are not to be given of set purpose, nor taken at set times. They are held in that thought-environment which surrounds the child as an atmosphere, which he breathes as his breath of life, and this atmosphere in which the child inspires his unconscious ideas of right living emanates from his parents. Every look of gentleness and tone of reverence, every word of kindness and act of help, passes into the thought-environment, the very atmosphere which the child breathes; he does not think of these things, may never think of them, but all his life long they excite that ‘vague appetency towards something’ out of which most of his actions spring. Oh,
the wonderful and dreadful presence of the little child in the midst!

          A Child draws Inspiration from the Casual Life around him.—That he should take direction and inspiration from all the casual life about him, should make our poor words and ways the starting-point from which, and in the direction of which, he develops—this is a thought which makes the best of us hold our breath. There is no way of escape for parents; they must needs be as ‘inspirers’ to their children, because about them hangs, as its atmosphere about a planet, the thought-environment of the child, from which he derives those enduring ideas which express themselves as a life-long ‘appetency’ towards things sordid or things lovely, things earthly or divine.

          Platonic Doctrine of Ideas.—Have we not here the corollary to, and the explanation of, that law of unconscious cerebration which results in our ‘ways of thinking,’ which shapes our character, rules our destiny? Thoughtful minds consider that the new light which biology is throwing upon the laws of mind is bringing to the front once more the Platonic doctrine, that “An idea is a distinguishable power, self-affirmed, and seen in its unity with the Eternal Essence.”

          Ideas alone matter in Education.—The whole subject is profound, but as practical as it is profound. We must disabuse our minds of the theory that the functions of education are, in the main, gymnastic. In the early years of the child’s life it makes, perhaps, little apparent difference whether his parents start with the notion that to educate is to fill a receptacle, inscribe a tablet, mould plastic matter, or nourish a life; but in the end we shall find that only those ideas which have fed his life are taken into the being of the child; all the rest is thrown away, or worse, is like sawdust in the system, an impediment and an injury to the vital processes.

          How the educational Formula should run.—This is, perhaps, how the educational formula should
run: Education is a life; that life is sustained on ideas; ideas are of spiritual origin; and,
                                    God has made us so’
that we get them chiefly as we convey them to one another. The duty of parents is to sustain a child’s inner life with ideas as they sustain his body with food. The child is an eclectic; he may choose this or that; therefore, in the morning sow thy seed, and in the evening withhold not thy hand, for thou knowest not which shall prosper, whether this or that, or whether they both shall be alike good.
         The child has affinities with evil as well as with good; therefore, hedge him about from any chance lodgment of evil ideas.
         The initial idea begets subsequent ideas; therefore, take care that children get right primary ideas on the great relations and duties of life.
         Every study, every line of thought, has its ‘guiding idea’; therefore, the study of a child makes for living education in proportion as it is quickened by the guiding idea ‘which stands at the head.’

          ‘Infallible Reason’; what is it?—In a word, our much boasted ‘infallible reason’—is it not the involuntary thought which follows the initial idea upon necessary logical lines? Given, the starting idea, and the conclusion may be predicated almost to a certainty. We get into the way of thinking such and such manner of thoughts, and of coming to such and such conclusions, ever further and further removed from the starting-point, but on the same lines. There is structural adaptation in the brain tissue to the manner of thoughts we think—a place and a way for them to run in. Thus we see how the
destiny of a life is shaped in the nursery, by the reverent naming of the Divine Name; by the light scoff at holy things; by the thought of duty the little child gets who is made to finish conscientiously his little task; by the hardness of heart that comes to the child who hears the faults or sorrows of other spoken of lightly.

[1] The writer has not been able to trace the phrase in question , but this attribution persists in her memory.

[2] We beg pardon for the use of this insolens verbum, but it is one of which our language stands in great need’ (Method—S.T. Coleridge).

[3] Isaiah xxviii.

[4] Method—S.T. Coleridge.

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