The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Conversation as a Means of Education.

byOscar Browning.
Volume 1, 1890, pg. 652

Educationists are too often apt to underwrite the effect of massive influences. They think much of precept and of example. They cannot be accused of setting too little value upon habit, but they do not sufficiently consider the result of the surroundings of daily life; how almost imperceptibly the environment molds and fashions the mind and character, just as the soil and the climate of a country determine the physical conditions of its inhabitants. If this were not so, we should find many influences brought to bear upon students in our large public schools which are at present neglected. It is highly important that our children should be acquainted with the best art, in painting, sculpture, and music. There was once a public school master who filled his boarding house with photographs of the pictures of the best masters. The people room, the reading room, the walls of the core doors were covered with them. He lent them freely to his people to hang up in their own studies, where they gradually displaced the boating and coaching pictures of an earlier date. When a pupil left, if he happened to have become attached to a particular picture, the master would make him a present of it, and the gift often formed the nucleus of a new collection at Oxford. It would be difficult to exaggerate the effect produced by this wise system. In some cases the pupil himself became an artist, or at least a well educated and competent critic of art. At all events, he learned to distinguish between the good and the bad, and he was rendered less likely to spend his future in buying trash. Accident gave this master an opportunity of estimating the result of a system. A pupil who had left his care at an early age, went afterwards to the University, where he died very young from the effects of a painful accident. His family treasured up the cherished belongings which their lost son had left behind him, and placed the pictures which had adorned his college rooms in the hall of their own house. The master, on a visit there, noticed that they were all of a high artistic value, and were all pictures which his pupil had first become acquainted with in his own house. The influences which had half-unconsciously surrounded the boy of fourteen, eventually formed the taste of the man of twenty.

A similar course might to be pursued with music. There is an impression that classical music is dull, and that it is more natural for a child to like ballads, or comic songs, or Sullivan's operas, than the works of Beethoven or Mozart. But if you take care that these masters are constantly performed in his presence it will be found that they have produced a strong effect without attention having been specially directed towards them. School Masters and parents should not neglect the opportunities which they possess in such perfusion. School rooms and passages, now given up to white wash or to the carving of names, should be decorated with inexpensive copies of the best art, and, if possible, with casts from the best sculpture. The school rooms of Hantor are paneled with costly oak; there are yards of wall, and a mile of corridor; the wall above the oak, too high for the scratching of names, is neatly white washed. A little expenditure of money with a large outlay of thought, might fill these bare walls with the friezes of the Parthenon or with the masterpieces of Thirealdsen and Gibson. Of the moral effect produced by the contemplation of beautiful things I do not speak -- -- I only dwell on the education in art thus cheaply and easily to be secured.

Among those massive influences which are at present so much neglected there is none more potent than conversation; yet parents and teachers suffer the opportunities it offers to pass away unemployed. I am far from wishing to revive the schools of Dr. Blimber abd Mr. Barlow. To regard all intercourse with children and every event of their lives as a means of instruction would, if it produced any effect at all, generate a race of prigs and pedants. It is not to isolated and individual attacks on ignorance and boorishness that I wish to draw attention, but to the massive effect of an abiding environment of culture. Listen to the talk of a number of schoolboys at the dinner table. They rush into the room hot and excited by games. Glasses of beer are tossed off before the meat is served, unless a wise rule prevents it. The chatter begins. Every detail of the game is discussed with eagerness -- how this catch was missed and that kick was well delivered; how Jones was not in form; and how they would have won if it had not been for the empire. But their talk is from the teeth outwards. Listen to it carefully and you will find that it scarcely contains a grain of thought. Sentences are begun before fb speaker knows what he Most schoolmasters feel this,and they try to remedy it in different ways. Many forbid talking at meals altogether. Surely this is a mistake. Conversation is the natural accompaniment of a common meal. Silence produces moodiness, distrust between teacher and pupil, and last but not least, digestion. Some teachers allow their pupils to read at table -- a vile practice, unhealthy, unmannerly, unsociable. Some let the current flow on in its own wayward way, with the results that I have endeavoured to describe. The wise mentor does his best to regulate the torrent, and to substitute something better in its place. A wise mentor will say, "I will have no talk about games, no "athletic shop" in my hearing. Any boy who offends must leave the room." Not that all talk about athletics is contemptible. Games may form the subject of rational conversation as well as politics or literature. But the few who can talk thus sensibly suffer for the fault of the many. The prohibition is not felt to be harsh. Another type of conversation soon grows up. The topics of the day are discussed; small talk and persiflage extend their butterfly wings. The school-table assumes the aspect of a civilised dinner party. The master, if he is competent, knows when to lead and when to follow. He catches up the ball thrown by a happy hit and returns it gracefully, skilful when to suggest a novelty and when to suppress what is becoming a bore.

Much also may be done by the presence of ladies and other visitors. Some masters take their private meals by themselves, and merely appear at hte house dinner as carvers. This is surely wrong. Why should the wit and the fun and the good-sense be kept for the private dining-room, while dulness and ungraceful rusticity is unrestrained in the boys' hall. A good master will make his boys' dinner his own and that of his frineds. He will say to his visitonrs: "If you stay with me, you must live as I live." Those who have not tried do not know the effect which the presence of cultured ladies has on the conduct of the boys' mid-day meal. After a short time shyness disappears. "Game-shop" becomes impossible. The talk, the manners, the conversation become those of a well-ordered home. The result is admirable, and does not cease when the dinner is over.

Englishmen have the reputation of not being good talkers. They are either silent or monosyllabic. They monologise, or they go off in pairs. The essence of good talk is that it is general. Every one says what everyone is interested to hear; each has his turn. No one is too lengthy or too wearisome, or too much absorbed in the point he wishes to make. At the last of the great French salons the lady of the house sat in the centre of a group. She heard everything that was said. If the company was numerous, two groups were formed, but pairing off was not allowed. There is a distinguished club in London, which exists for the purpose of conversation only. But more than three of its members are never seen talking together, rarely more than two, consequently the evenings are very dull. The existence of this national defect should not induce us to acquiesce in it, but should stimulate us to remedy it. Children trained in the habit of rational conversation will not lose it as they grow older.

The encouragement of rational conversation will also tend to check that coarse and vulgar familiarity which is injurious to the finest qualities of the character. The development of mutual respect amongst children is a powerful help to the more subtle virtues. The Jansenists of Port Royal laid great stress upon this, and never allowed ceremonious courtesy to be dropped amongst their pupils. There is no more elevating influence in a society of young people than the idea that each of them has a responsible and perhaps an important part to play in the world, and the consciousness that the limits of each individuality must be duly respected. There are few things more demoralising than the rough-and-tumble good fellowship for which no privacy is sacred, which despises even when it seems to love, and which tends to reduce the standard of all to the level of the lowest. A friendship founded on mutual esteem, and a tender reverence for divergent opinions, strengthens the character and the will far more than the chance camaraderie based on the intimate knowledge of common weaknesses. Conversation may even have higher uses than these. An undergraduate, conspicuous amongst his fellows as much for purity and simplicity of mind as for ability, told me that he had been educated until the age of seventeen, at a school where not only vice was unknown, but where he had never heard anything from his school-fellows which might not have been said before his sisters. No special supervision was exercised, but the pupils, who came generally from well-regulated homes, were told to talk to each other as they would if they were at home. The habit of rational conversation sprang up and became inveterate in the school. The result in the case I here mention was the preservation of the most delicate bloom of manliness. No one was more generally known and more popular in the University, and no one was more fitted to associate in perfect sympathy and dignity with all sorts and conditions of men.

Typed by Angela, Apr 2017