The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Concentration of Purpose in Education

by George Radford.
Volume 3, 1892/93, pgs. 588-593

Sometimes in the streets are to be seen wonderful and edifying sights. I do not know why it so happened, but the above subject immediately called up before me the figure of a man playing five or six musical instruments with different parts of his body. This active, but not altogether successful, man may perhaps teach us something about "concentration."

Suppose that one of us were to take his place, we should probably commence by blowing the cymbals and clashing flute, beating the fiddle, and drawing a bow across the surface of the drum. This would not do, and we should have to be removed by the police. Children know the difficulty of concentrating their wills upon two or more actions by some of the games they play, where hands and feet and head are required to perform movements not in accord with the usual rhythm of their lives.

I have used this peculiar illustration to suggest that in teaching children we may, with valuable results, condescend to treat them by common-sense methods. We may find it worth while to remove the fiddle when they beat the drum, and hide the cymbals while they attempt the flute. The common-sense method of which I speak so airily is anything but an easy one. The difficulty of the problem is to find out what other forces are acting upon the mind of the child. Is he thinking of marbles, eccles-cakes [a type of turnover with currants], or boats when the master is trying to produce from him the declension of "Musa"; is she dressing her dolls, or having a tea-party in imagination, while the governess is asking for the rivers of England or the spelling of "concentration"? The new system of interesting children in their infant lessons seems to be invaluable from this point of view alone. It is scarcely conceivable that the small minds under discussion should really feel a deep interest in the elementary matters, which are apt to be in all cases bald and uninviting. But it is unfortunate--from the aspect of the speedy manufacture of "scholards" of a uniform pattern--that children differ among themselves so very much. One lad may take with something like avidity to the definitions and axioms of Euclid, another will hate--the majority have certainly hated--them with all his heart to the end of his life. I wonder at what age the successful but unscholarly merchant discontinues scowling at the very memory of the Pons Asinorum [A Euclid proof] and its neighbour, even more despicable in his sight! The preliminary "crux" is here; the mother or father or dominie has to try to impart an interest to the uninteresting, and at the same time to insist upon application and work in spite of lack of interest. The position is, perhaps, saved by the fact that children can be made to take an interest in overcoming the difficulties which are before them. There is inherent in most of us the desire of fighting and beating, and most unalluring subjects are invested with a certain glamour when they loom before the child as citadels to be won. These fights are to be of short duration for the very young. Writers in the Review have from time to time urged this point of the unwisdom and cruelty of making these early races of the youngsters too long; the interest flags, the marbles appear, the mouth waters for the sweets, and concentration is no more. A change of the subject would have imparted fresh energy and inspired new zest.

I am not a believer in royal roads to learning, and I feel convinced that a child does better to go straight to memory for much of his early work than to reason-made-easy. The effort to commit the multiplication table to memory is a strenuous one, but it is more bracing than namby-pamby discussions about oranges and apples, which should only come in as illustrations to amuse or exercises to test the success of the tougher work. I do not wish to be misunderstood. All sorts of manual and semi-maunual instruction may be valuable, but nothing can do away with the necessity for, not be a substitute for the value of, the direct training of the memory.

The absence of concentration is the greatest enemy to the cultivation of the memory, or, to put it conversely, that which destroys the memory as an active agent is want of concentration. There is nothing so important in education, outside moral questions, as this. And mischief which may have been averted from juveniles by wise teaching may creep in later unless the risk is clearly pointed out to those bigger children who are developing into scholars, and who are beginning to think and act for themselves. While a child is learning "Gelert," [the legendary Welsh wolfhound] under the direct influence of a mother, or a schoolmistress, it does not feel tempted to let its thoughts stray to other more congenial topics. The story of the dog interests it, and it has an enthusiasm to make the story its own. But as years go on interests arise which no senior is at hand to put aside, and many a dreamy lad goes through his tasks with his brain really fixed upon none of them. He can still learn in a manner the lessons given him to learn; he may still remain at the top of the class, but his memory is receiving its death-blow as a phenomenal one, and he sinks into an inaccurate scholar, a student without unerring detail, a dreamer spinning clouds from clouds. He has lacked either sufficient communicativeness, or a discerning confidential pedagogue and friend. The things of which his mind was full ought either to have been poured out or drawn out. If he could have had them brought into the right channel and developed, a poet might have been born, or an engineer or lawyer made. But, fuming and smoking amidst a mixture of Greek verbs and Logarithms, a medley has been produced from which there results oftenest an ordinary disappointed man. If this is so, what big-hearted, sympathetic men we want among our teachers! If every lad in England came under the charge--personal and constant--of minds so active and all-embracing that they could love the binomial theorem, and go into ecstasies over a rondeau, could sing the sweet influences of the Pleiades, and teach their boys to bat and swim, how many would take a ten-fold interest in their lives and give a ten-fold better account of them! The best progress is made "one job at a time," and how can the immediate task be performed with the whole mind, if that mind is taken up night and day with some hidden aspiration, some engrossing idea, which appears unattainable? He who would teach concentration must begin by getting confidence; and that which leads to the immediate result of a successful education will, in after life, lead to a still better result. It will lead to a young man unburdening himself to himself, and looking straight into things one by one. And he who can deal without cloudiness with his own problems as they separately arise will be the best able to deal with such groups as may be forced upon him.

In the progress of education from infancy onwards, the two processes are going on of guidance and sympathy from the teacher, and an answering enthusiasm and simplicity from the scholar. How far the teacher ought to yield to a great distaste in the scholar for certain subjects it is impossible in general terms to say. But it is clear that, if that distaste is so extreme that the interest and intelligence seem almost dead upon that particular matter, it is wiser to forego instruction in it, if only for a time, until enthusiasms are satisfied in other directions, and the energies of the mind are brought into full play.

I should like to take a special instance. If the teacher sets out to teach history, it is quite possible for him to do an injury to his pupils at the same time. A certain number of dates are learnt; they may convey no adequate notion whatever to the mind as to the state of things at those times. A certain number of people are mentioned whose personalities are not so much obscure as absolutely misconceived. A certain number of places are spoken about, and no interest whatever is manifested in them beyond the bare recital of their names. How vague everything is! for the history is not given as a piece of literature to be enjoyed for its own sake. From beginning to end the whole is a puppet-show, and when a clever boy has mastered it all, he will, from his wonderful history of the world, produce, perhaps at some academy, a puppet philosophy of things!

It may not be possible to teach everything at once, but this absurd method of "pat-off," history-in-an-hour, William-the-Conqueror-as-seen-by-children style only leads to further misery. It does appear to me that we might learn from science something about these things. If we studied history and geography backwards, and always the two together, we should proceed more safely with our children. Or, if we must begin with early times (and the advantages of this system are great), cannot we use the comparative method, and give clearer views of such times by illustrations such as are before us now? And does not all this difficulty prove the wisdom of beginning with more of the sciences, the trees and birds, which ought to interest the young? These bring about interest, observation, and accuracy: they may almost be made to teach themselves if once set well a-going, for one lad would soon laugh the ignorance out of another lad if he mistook a sparrow's for a linnet's egg.

My store of words is running out, and this most interesting subject, for the suggestion of which many of us will be grateful, is not much cleared up. To come home to ourselves it would be our own concentration which would do most to teach it to the young. But now that we have thought about it, it might be quite possible to encourage the "one thing at a time" principle, even if we are only ancient hulks in this matter ourselves. This world of ours has much to answer for in dissipating our energies. Everything is so interesting, so lovely, and so attractive, that we are tempted to flit like bees from flower to flower, from science to art, from literature to travel, or the state of politics throughout the world. And even in these flittings we may determine "to make a good job of" each question as it comes before us. And the children become in turn our teachers. In deference to their questionings, the various things of the world open up before us for clear definition. Before their searching inquiries we cannot, and we ought not to wish to, do any slipshod work. Dictionaries at least should be at hand that we may not make Bardolph's answer continually: "accommodated; that is, when a man is, as they say, accommodated; or, when a man is,--being,--whereby,--he may be thought to be accommodated; which is an excellent thing." [Shakespeare, Henry IV, Pt 2] Let parents make up their minds to this one Socratic modesty and truthfulness--to confess candidly to their children ignorance and a desire to learn. Then will knowledge and system and pleasure come to both parents and children by leaps and bounds. In one sense it requires maturity to really enter upon study with rest: the presence of the younger inquirer is a charming companionship and fruitful in much to both. If our lads want to know something which is at the moment lying in an unformed state in our minds, we may seize the opportunity of making of this mass some useful product.

Besides example, we may do our best, as I have pointed out, to keep one subject before the mind at a time, and to encourage energy and perseverance in studying and discussing the one point to which we have narrowed the inquiry. More valuable, perhaps, than all is to be so at one with the little minds, that, if necessary, we may take from them for safe custody for the time being those other wants and aims and aspirations which impede the forced march necessary at a crisis of the campaign. If we are so sympathetic as to be able to relieve them of such other cares as prevent the focussing required--until these, too, come in their turn under discussion to be dealt with thoroughly and promptly--we shall have accomplished nearly all. As it "pays" even in examinations to finish one question before so much as looking at the next, so in all affairs of life it will be of untold value to the young to be brought up upon the ancient motto of St. Paul: "This one thing I do."

Proofread by LNL, August, 2023