The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
A Dull Child. Why?

By A Parent.
Volume 1, 1890/91, pg. 437

How many parents know the meaning of the word "Hypermetropia"?

Probably few, though this can scarcely be a subject for surprise, since I believe that the particular infirmity which is described by this Greek word is one which has only recently become familiar even to medical men.

Yet it is possible that this word, or that which is understood by it, may prove of the greatest interest to many a parent, of the deepest import to many a child.

There are, happily, many families in which the parents may with just pride declare that all their children are exactly as they would have them to be; that their mental and physical powers are alikes vigorous and fully developed; that so far as man can foresee, proper and sufficient exercise of body and mind will bring forth certain fruit; and that the instructor's task will be easy and pleasant.

But here and there we come across a household in which it is tacitly admitted that, while the above gratifying description applies generally, it must be slightly modified with regard to this or that particular child, who, either in bodily vigor or in elasticity of mind, is not quite on par with his brothers and sisters, and who, no matter what may be the desire to treat all the children alike; obviously requires special attention.

In the majority of cases, probably, the inferiority of one child in a family is due to physical causes which are easily understood, and which may either be remediable by proper treatment, or must be frankly acknowledged and accepted accordingly.

But with physical remedies for ailments in themselves clearly physical we are not now concerned.

I wish rather to invite the attention of those parents who, after careful observation and anxious watching, have unwillingly allowed themselves to be convinced that one of their children is, for some reason not clearly understood and in some way not quite easily defined, different in mental capacity from the rest.

I speak thus of one differing from others in the same family, because a proud and fond parent is likely to recognise the deficiencies of one backward child among its brighter brethren, while he might remain profoundly unsuspicious of any failing whatever in an only child which compared directly with no other.

But instead of imagining cases let me describe one which has come under my observation.

The child I speak of is a boy of eight years old, of a slight build, and apt to strike a hasty observer as more fragile than he actually is, owing to the fairness of his hair, and the delicacy of his skin.

While of normal height, he is below the average weight proper to his age; but though in no sense what could be called robust, he is perfectly healthy, and not easily fatigued by outdoor exercise.

I mention these details merely to show that there is nothing specially deficient in his bodily powers; but in his capacity for apprehension, concentration of thought; and ability to learn, he undoubtedly presents a strong contrast to his brothers and sister.

While to them learning was easy and pleasant, to him it was laborious and weary; the subjects which interested them would by him be quite unheeded; while some utterly trivial incident would from time to time be evidently regarded as of highest importance.

Now, the mere fact that lessons were more distasteful to him than to his brethren, and that his aptitude for learning was duller, would of itself have suggested nothing beyond the reflection that some people are quick while others are slow; that the intelligence of one child, even without pressure, will develop early, while the mind of a second will refuse to expand until a later period of life.

It may well be, indeed, that the child whose mind has lain dormant during its earlier years has the best of it, and starts with a fuller reservoir of mental power when the time for exercising its faculties does arrive. And if the boy in question has shown nothing but comparative dullness, comparative inability to learn, there would have been no ground for uneasiness; but he displayed also a certain vacuity and inability to appreciate the proportion of things, which the mere repose of latent intelligence did not seem to justify, or his youthful age to excuse. He laboured also under difficulties with regard to enunciation, being unable to pronounce some sounds at all, and rendering others in a way peculiar to himself.

The suggestion was made, based on the experience of a somewhat similar case, that there might be some obstruction in the upper part of the nose which would account at once for the imperfection of speech and for the little cloud which seemed to dimly interfere with the full scope of his mental vision.

He was accordingly taken to an eminent surgeon whose specialty lies in diseases of the eye, ear, and throat; and his father who accompanied him, full expected, on the strength of a previous conversation with the surgeon--in the absence of the boy--that a painful operation might be necessary.

However, after careful examination of the patient, the surgeon declared that he found nothing to suggest that such a step should be taken. A strong light thrown in the mouth revealed a palate of extraordinary height, which fully accounted for the difficulties of articulation.

This defect, the surgeon explained, could be remedied by artificial means, but he recommended leaving it to nature and time to cure. An examination of the nose betrayed no such obstruction as had been suggested, and after a long and patient investigation the verdict virtually was that there was nothing which visibly accounted for the boy's dullness and far-away manner, and that doubtless time and care would eventually find a remedy.

No doubt this verdict seemed rather flat, helpless, and disappointing; but before the words were well spoken, the surgeon added: "As he is here, we may as well look at his eyes, though no complaint is made about them."

Accordingly the room was darkened, and scarcely had the surgeon got his glass to bear well into the eye, now alone exposed to a strong light, than to all intents and purposes he cried: "εὕρηκα."

Now, I am not scientific, and I shall make no attempt to repeat in scientific terms what the doctor told me; but for the benefit of other parents who may be puzzled to account for the dullness of a child, let me try to explain in commonplace language what I understood his meaning to be.

Between the back of the eye itself and the extremity of the cavity in which it is seated is a certain space in which the rays case on the retina of the eye by objects in front of it are collected and focussed.

In most cases this operation is instantaneously and unconsciously performed, and the focus so made no less instantaneously conveys to the mind the mental photograph of what the eye has seen.

But the distance between the back of the eye and the extreme limit of the cavity differs in different people, and in the case of the boy under consideration was abnormally short.

It followed, therefore, that there was not sufficient room for the rays at the back of the eye to form a true focus in a natural manner; and in order to obtain the focus required the boy was obliged--unconsciously, of course, but still not less obliged--by a muscular effort to use such inward lateral contraction as would mechanically lengthen for the instant the space in which the rays were collected.

And not until this mechanical effort had been made, and an elongation of the ray-space forcibly effected, could the clear focus of the object be transmitted to the mind.

It was not, then, that the boy was short-sighted; on the contrary, his distant vision is remarkably good. It was not that he could not see an object close to him as well as another.

In reading, for instance, his eye could see the letter A without difficulty, but to convey the image of the letter so seen by his external eye to the eye of his mind he would have to go through the exhausting physical process described above, a process from which his highly extolled brothers and sister are entirely relieved.

I think I understood the surgeon to say that the additional labour and friction thus involved meant that this boy must try three times as hard, or three times as long, to apprehend a given thing as is necessary for his more fortunate brethren, who do not suffer from "hypermetropia."

Is there, then, a remedy for this? Yes. The surgeon ordered mild spectacles, of a power which he determined, to be worn during lessons and when reading, and at such times only.

No need for the spectacles to see a bird's nest; but when it was necessary to bring eye and mind seriously into partnership, then they were to be put on.

Well, seven months have elapsed since this simple order was given, and it has been scrupulously carried out.

We do not look for miracles, nor for a perfect cure in half a year; but it seems not premature to assert that the good effect has already been most remarkable.

Parents, friends, and schoolmaster alll perceive a distinct difference, and, it may be added, the boy perceives it himself.

Lessons are no longer a terror; sums, including mental arithmetic, make good progress; reading is a pleasure. And, above all, the air of vacuity is apparently passing away, and an interest can be awakened on many subjects which formerly seemed quite beyond reach.

I am most anxious not to exaggerate the results of what is, after all, only half a year's experience; but a change there certainly is, and I am glad to offer the benefit of my experience short though it be, to those who, with the best of intentions, may be inclined to whip a boy for "stupidity," when possibly a pair of spectacles would answer better than a cane.

June 5th, 1890.

Typed by Brenda, January 2016