The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Random Shots and What We May Learn From Them

by One who has Tried "To Teach the Young Idea How to Shoot"
Volume 3, 1892/93, pgs. 250-253

When the question was asked of Demosthenes, "What was the chief part of an orator?" he answered, "Action." "What next?" "Action." "What next again?" "Action."

Perhaps after careful study of some of the startling answers given to apparently simple questions by young children, we should be compelled to acknowledge that the answer to the question, "What is the chief duty of a teacher?" certainly of a teacher who aims at reaching the understanding, and is not satisfied with mere parrot-like repetition, would suitably be, "Explain, explain, and again explain."

Probably one of the most difficult problems to be faced by such an instructor, is how to follow the advice inculcated in the title of one of Charles Reade's novels, "Put Yourself in His Place." If it is supposed to be desirable that we should, now and then, "see ourselves as others see us," it certainly would be a very great advantage if we could see any subject as it presents itself before the mental vision of a small person for the first time.

Unless we can be quite certain what impression is being produced, ten chances to one that little brain is busy weaving some fanciful deductions very unlike those which we wished it to draw.

For instance, it is not easy to imagine how the very simple words of the following lines could be liable to misconstruction:

      "Once in a pleasant garden
      God placed a happy pair,
      And all within was peaceful,
      And all around was fair."

And yet when it occurred to me to ask the little fellow who had repeated it, "What is meant here by the word pair?" promptly, without a shade of hesitation, came the answer, "A fruit tree!" What more likely than that garden and pear should suggest this association of ideas, and what a nice foundation was being laid for future misapprehension.

That same child had become firmly convinced of the fact that Pontius Pilate had suffered death by crucifixion. A little questioning revealed the cause of the mistake to have been the misunderstanding of the sentence in the Apostles' Creed, "Crucified under Pontius Pilate"; that boy firmly believed that there were on Calvary four crosses, one above, one under it, with those of the thieves on either side.

On another occasion this child was so vehement in asserting that King David had been "a very wicked man," that he was asked to give his reason for such a very emphatic expression of opinion. The answer was wholly unexpected: "Because he said in his haste, all men are liars." Possibly previous experience of having plainly stated his doubts as to some person's veracity, and a lively recollection of the reproof incurred by so doing, had gone far towards forming this little fellow's estimate of character. Most people can look back to a time when their ideas of a king consisted of a gorgeously attired personage seated in perpetual state upon a regal throne, holding a golden scepter, and wearing a jewelled crown, so that they could easily sympathise with the serious problem of a king trying to unite England and France under one ruler. "How could he sit upon two thrones at the same time?" There is a grave difficulty here, when one comes to think of it, especially with the Straits of Dover to be taken into consideration. Evidently the common phrase "ascended the throne" needs to be broken down into simpler words.

Figurative or poetic language often creates difficulty; for instance, after repeating with apparent appreciation the lines--

      "The spearman heard the bugle sound,
             And cheerily smiled the morn,
      And many a brach, and many a hound
             Attend Llewelyn's horn,"

the little elocutionist gravely asserted, in answer to the question, "Who smiled?" "The huntsman!"

Some wrong answers are amusing, because of the evidence they bear of the dense stupidity of the perpetrator of the blunder, while others are interesting for the reason that, behind the mistake can be detected, if searched for carefully, some glimmering of sense. Professor Ball, in his fascinating book "Starland," tells a story of three students, whose self-confidence in presenting themselves for examination in astronomy could only be equalled by their total ignorance of the subject. In answer to the query, "Does the earth go round the sun, or does the sun go round the earth?" The first man promptly responded, "The sun goes round the earth." Without making any remark the examiner gravely propounded the same question to the second student, who, suspecting that his companion had come to grief, and hoping to profit by his mischance, chose the other alternative, announcing as his belief that "the earth goes round the sun."

Still the examiner made no comment, but submitted the question once more to the third aspirant for collegiate renown, and he, at least, deserves to be credited with some ingenuity, for, seeking to avoid all uncertainty, he coolly answered, "Sometimes one, sir, and sometimes the other!" These were random shots of the very worst kind, showing no knowledge and no thought, a sort of reckless guessing which has been defined as "aiming at nothing and hitting it." Surely there was considerably more sense in the answer given by a child to a somewhat similar question, "What are the two motions of the earth?" "It goes round the sun by day and round the moon by night." Evidently that small brain was working, and some confused idea of the cause of day and night was accountable for the decidedly novel epitome of scientific facts.

Some random shots, though flying very wide of the mark, may help us to realise the magnitude of some of the gigantic boulders which lie on the difficult road to learning. It is not easy for us always to remember that much of what has become familiar to us is almost incomprehensible to children. They accept the state of civilisation which surrounds them as a matter of course, and cannot readily grasp the idea of progress and all that it implies. A class of small children were being taught the early history of England, in the times of the Britons; the teacher thought she had fully explained the difference between the habits and surrounding of our ancestors and those of the nineteenth century--she had dwelt at length upon the primitive customs, the style of, or want of, clothing, ignorance of the arts and sciences, the total absence of good roads &c. At the conclusion of the lesson a little girl of seven volunteered a question (children's questions are delightfully suggestive). Being encouraged to propound her difficulty, she did so by demurely asking, "Had the Britons not even tramcars?" It did not strike her that there was anything ludicrous in her query, nor that what seemed to her the most ordinary mode of conveyance would be slightly incongruous when associated with road-dyed, skin-clothed savages. This same child gave an amusing answer to the question: "What kind action did Jacob perform for Rachel?" Probably she had never seen a well, and the idea of rolling away the stone not conveying any clear idea to her mind, she answered, in words which she evidently considered to have fully explained the situation: "He turned on the tap for her."

The conditions of environment have a great influence upon children's answers; a boy brought up amid bricks and mortar may be as ignorant of the ways of country life as the town mouse in the fable. How can a child who has never seen the sea be supposed to form anything like an adequate idea of the dangers of a storm? It is by no means an easy matter to make the miracle on the Sea of Galilee at all real to children in the Midland counties, when the first step must be to describe what a boat is like? The use of colloquialisms in answers is often amusing. For example: in the North of Ireland there is a common expression, "to clod with turf," which means the use as missiles of the oblong blocks of turf used for fuel. A Sunday-school boy, being asked to tell how Saul in his fury attempted to murder David, graphically described his action by saying: "Please, sir, he clod him with javelins!"

Another Sunday-school incident may fitly close this little paper, as it strikes again the key-note with which we began--the necessity for frequent explanation.

Teacher (examining a class on the passage of the Jordan): "Boys, can you tell me the meaning of the words, 'The children of Israel passed clean over Jordan'?"

Small boy (with confident alacrity): "Yes, sir, it means that they had purified themselves."

Proofread by LNL, Sept. 2023