The Parents' Review
A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture
"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Our Relations with Literature.
by Mr. J. Russell.
[J. Russell was a Froebelian schoolmaster. He may be the "John Russell B.A., 1855-1930 Assistant Master in University College School, London" who translated Roger de Guimps' book on Pestalozzi, and who wrote "The Student's Pestalozzi" in 1888.]
"The most precious gift--the most precious intimacy--that the acquaintance with literature can give us is such an intimate knowledge of good--in its manifold forms--that we can never be betrayed into setting up evil in its likeness."
It is my misfortune to have heard none of the papers in the series of which mine is the last. It may therefore happen that my manner of treatment--and even my interpretation--of the set theme may differ more widely than I could have wished from that of the speakers who have preceded me.
I base my remarks--as I am expected to do--upon the words of the synopsis: "We are educated by our acquaintances animate and inanimate; among these we must find the intimacies which shapes our lives."
That is a true and helpful statement, but, for my present purpose, I should prefer to amplify it. We are influenced--for good or for evil--(educated or diseducated) by all our acquaintances, animate and inanimate. Among these, our parents and educators--especially our parents--must distinguish between the influences that are likely to shape our lives, and the influences that are likely to misshape them, and while helping us to ripen the former into intimacies, must also help us betimes to avoid or break with the latter.
Of all sources of intimacies (intimacies of both kinds, the helpful and the harmful), literature--though it nowhere brings us into direct contact with real things--is in one sense the richest source, because in so far as it is a complete picture of life, it includes within itself all other possible sources.
Our Fellow-creatures (including the Children), Ourselves, The Unseen, Music and Art, Nature, History--I take the list from the titles of the previous papers--all these every-day realities are also to be found mirrored and interpreted in literature. But we must not confuse realities and unrealities. The unrealities of literature and of art--you must allow me the word--can never be educators (or happily, diseducators) in the sense that the realities of life can. Is it not now generally held that the first intimacies to be fostered must be intimacies with concrete things, upon which all subsequent intimacies, if they are to be effective, must be based?
We should all vote the would-be natural scientist a madman who, ignoring Nature herself, based his theories solely upon other men's statements and other men's interpretations. But is not that exactly what we would-be human scientists--we who would fain know how to live and teach our children how to live--is not that precisely what our favourite methods come to? We read--and some of us write--book upon book, now statements of facts, now interpretations of facts, and we gradually form life-shaping--or life--mis-shaping--intimacies without any attempt to verify the facts for ourselves, or discover how far the interpretations are vitiated by tradition, or social bias, or incompetence.
Intimacies with real things, with the sequences of cause and effect, with the fundamental facts of life, undistorted by false words and unobscured by fine ones, these are the intimacies that I, as an educator, most desire for my children--and myself--and these are intimacies that literature alone--that mere words, however true and however splendid--can never give us. But what can literature do for us if it can do none of these essential things? To give a complete answer would require another complete conference. I can only briefly put my own view of its significance.
Just as science is the great investigator of life, so literature is, to me, the great interpreter of life. Life needs interpreting no less than investigating. The little child in love with his realities asks two questions: What they are made of and what good they are. The grown man asks the same questions. It is by question and answer that men have distanced the animals--alike in the production of wealth and in the production of the sense of duty. And every answer on the non-material plane has been an interpretation of life. Literature is the sum of such recorded interpretations, a marvellous encyclopoedia of the beauty and mystery of life, the higher laws and possibilities and demands of life, as they have appeared to the best and greatest minds of all ages. We shall first put our children, then, into touch with realities--"Nature, the dear old nurse," is always ready and waiting--but we shall see that literature, the great interpreter, is always within hail.
I am not forgetting that there are two methods of interpreting--the direct, which says believe, and the indirect which says look--and that for young children the indirect method, which interprets only by artistic presentation, is the sole interpretation we should seek for in literature. In childhood and early school days, direct interpretation will come with much more force from the words and personality of the living teacher.
One more prefatory remark. The first thing I ask of a man who offers me views on education is some account of his views on life, and it would seem unreasonable not to treat an audience as I should wish any member of that audience to treat me. I therefore feel bound to disclaim any higher aim in life--for myself or my children--than right action. All material things, all science, art and literature, do but contribute as incidentals to the one supreme end--good life.
I do not of course deny the value of the joys that the incidentals may bring, from the joy of little Jack Horner to the joy of the "watcher of the skies when a new planet swims into his ken."
All human joys have their purpose, they are all means to a high end, and are all to be ranked among the best of life, if they do not end in mere emotion but justify themselves in action. Jack Horner become an adult is guilty of gluttony, of moral self-slaughter, unless he thinks more of what he does with his victuals--as Carlyle puts it--than of the victuals themselves; and even the watcher of the skies, unless he be thrilled less at the wonder and harmony of the universe than at the promise of increase in man's capacity to understand and adapt himself to it, is indulging in a joy which may be noble, but not so noble.
Right action, then, is, for me, the end--and may be made the touchstone--of education. Would you know whether education has succeeded or failed? Observe the behaviour of the so-called educated classes. That that behaviour still leaves much to be desired, no one who is not a fool would venture to deny. Every educational society is a proof of it. For what other reason are we gathered here in conference to-day? Not so much in support of this view, as in pious memory of the writer, I venture to remind you of some memorable words written more than 30 years ago by John Ruskin:--"Education does not mean teaching people to know what they do not know, but teaching them to behave as they do not behave. It is not teaching the youth of England the shapes of letters and the tricks of numbers, and then leaving them to turn their arithmetic to roguery and their literature to lust. It is training them into the perfect exercise and kingly continence of their bodies and souls--by kindness, by watching, by warning, by precept, and by praise--but, above all, by example." [from "The Future of England" included in the book The Crown of Wild Olive]
"But, above all, by example"--by the example, we may understand him to mean, of men and women now living upon the earth (our own lives, however obscure, among them); by the example of men and women who have lived upon the earth, and whose good deeds live after them; and lastly, by the example of those other men and women who have been bodied forth in imagination along, and to whom the "poet's pen" has given "a local habitation and a name."
Our own lives--our children's lives--will be the stronger for personal intimacies established in these three circles of acquaintances, provided always that the intimacies call out the best that is in ourselves.
Here, then, is another thing that literature does for us. In addition to reflecting and interpreting life, it enlarges our circle of personal acquaintances, and permanently surrounds us--if we will--with such a band of lovable, wise, brave, and inspiring men and women as life itself could never bring into one household or one environment. And although we can never in any true sense make friends of or establish communications with these unsubstantial fellow-creatures, yet we may often find in their doings and sayings the counsel and comfort, the illumination and inspiration, that we do not find in the stress and turmoil of the living world.
I may now try to answer the three questions I suppose I am here to answer:--
I. What are the specific intimacies that we hope to see established by our children in their relations with literature?
II. Out of the enormous mass of world-literature (practically all the books that have ever been written upon life as interpreted by the imagination), what shall we choose to set before our children; and
III. In what manner shall we set it before them?
First, as to the sort of intimacies we desire. I need only consider writings of two sorts: those in which the ethical tendency is direct, and those in which it is indirect. With books that have no ethical tendency of either sort, we are obviously not concerned. From books that directly aim at teaching how to live, the intimacies that we shall value most will be intimacies with ideas, with great conceptions of duty, with convincing analyses of human motives, with the trumpet-call of inspired leaders of men.
But, as I have already intimated, if the direct appeal is to be made to young children, I think it will always be most effective in the living voice of those they trust and love.
Books in which there is no direct--and sometimes even no conscious--ethical aim may be grouped roughly in three classes:--
(a) Pictures of real life, past or present (distinguished from history chiefly by the emotion with which they are coloured).
(b) Pictures of imaginary life (or fiction).
(c) Pictures of nature as interpreted by the artist (not as dissected by the scientist).
Pictures of life, real or imaginary, will not only familiarize us with ideas, but also with stirring examples of noble conduct, will provide us with data upon which to form moral judgments (fuller often than would be easily obtainable in real life), will help to expose social fallacies, and often lead us to the discovery--and so the remedy--of unsuspected illness in our own hearts. Moreover, they persuade men. "Not the wretchedest circulating novel," says Carlyle, "which foolish girls thumb and con in remote villages, but will help to regulate the actual practical weddings and households of those foolish girls." And we all know the danger of the Penny Dreadfuls--the moral of which is too obvious to point.
Lastly, if we are at all intimate with Nature herself, pictures of nature, whether real or imaginary --such is the magic of beautiful words--will often touch us to emotions as deep as the realities themselves, and often open our eyes to beauties that we should miss if left to go alone. To open the eyes is indeed a very essential part of the interpretation that I have spoken of as the chief function of literature. Not so much to show us new facts as to put old facts in a new light; to transfigure commonplace that it can never be commonplace again; to fit--not noble music to noble words--but the noble music of words to some noble aspect of nature. There are passage of pure description even in prose--notably in Ruskin--that never fail to make the heart swell and the eyes fill. That is the sort of intimacy we may well desire for our children, and I believe that we need not desire in vain.
There is one other intimacy we can form with literature--perhaps the truest intimacy of all--the intimacy with great passages of prose or verse, till they become, in a sense, part of our being. We are not all made alike, but to me, in my moments of deepest happiness or highest exaltation, there is sure to come almost unbidden some great line of poetry or some great phrase of music that sets, as it were, a seal upon my mood. And I am in the habit of accounting that man most blessed who has the largest stock of these precious possessions. I owe some of mine to my teachers, but had they been wiser, I think I should have owed more. Wisdom--in this particular respect--seems to me to consist in making learning by heart a privilege rather than a task, in selecting--or rather, in leading your children to select--only really great passages, and in not minding how short the passages are. The beauty of the single line is not infrequently imperilled by the context.
Now as to our choice of the material upon which these intimacies are to be based.
Much will, of course, depend upon the age of the children, but there are certain general considerations which seem to me to be of the highest importance whatever their age.
The first is that the pictures and interpretations of life presented to the child at any age shall be calculated to furnish him with wholesome mind-food and to stimulate him to healthy mental activities; that the intimacies he is led to make shall be helpful, life-long intimacies, not intimacies that he will some day regret, that will some day put fetters about his feet.
The personal interpretation of life differs so widely that we cannot expect to find entire agreement either as to the things or the ideas that constitute the most desirable intimacies for children. The essential point, it seems to me, is to be clear in our own minds of three things:--
First, that whether we choose well or ill, or do not choose at all, we are sitting at the springs of our children's future, shaping or misshaping their lives. We cannot repudiate our responsibilities.
Second, that unless we have succeeded in mapping out our own lives, we shall be hardly likely to succeed in mapping out theirs.
And third, that it is not a question of subordinating our children to the fashion in literature, but of subordinating literature to the needs of our children. We must first make up our minds as to the sort of life-intimacies we desire for them, and then make diligent search for the literature that is most likely to help us.
As an instance of what I mean, I may say that my everyday experience of the workings of the human mind leads me to desire for young children--what I believe Mr. Gradgrind [Dickens' Hard Times] before me chiefly desired--intimacies with realities, with facts. So long, therefore, as there was any risk of confusion between the possible and the impossible, I should rigorously exclude all literature--even the greatest--that made things falsely true. And this would not only apply to such obvious unrealities as fairies and gorgons and talking plants, but to the far more subtle and far more dangerous unrealities of the magic production of wealth, and the magic removal of obstacles. The first law of animal life is effort, and the first law of moral life is personal effort; and the sooner intimacies are established with realities such as these the better.
Another important consideration is that a large part of the material chosen shall be representative of other nations and other ages, and further, that it shall have stood the test of time and become part of the recognized spiritual wealth of the world--not because guidance and inspiration are never to be found elsewhere, but because the thought, the emotions and the aspirations that make the whole world kin serve a higher purpose than those that merely touch the individual soul.
A third consideration is that the literary material shall (as far as possible) be in close relation with the historical material upon which the historical intimacies are to be based.
All literary material should, I think, be presented to children in its historical setting. Much literature is history--the picture and interpretation, that is, of actual incident--and all literature is a part of history. If we are to form literary intimacies we must know something of the time, country and circumstances of our intimacies, and every added association will be an added rivet to the intimacy. I believe I am not alone in deriving more inspiration from some writers than from their writings--Dante and Milton, for instance. In such a case the intimacies are perhaps rather historical than literary, or shall we say both, and so doubly secure.
Such literary intimacies as we should desire our children to possess may be found in many books, and I have not ventured to draw up a list. But before discussing methods of presentation, it will be well for me to indicate--if only in a few words--the sort of material I should choose for the three ages into which childhood seems naturally to fall:--The nursery and kindergarten age, the early school age, and the later school age.
In the nursery and kindergarten age, or at least up to the age of clear distinction in every-day things between the possible and the impossible, I would admit (as I have already said) no unrealities, but would use simple stories and rhymes based on the knowledge of life already acquired and being acquired--on the ways of flowers and birds, of wind and water, of sun, moon and stars; of happy boys and girls, and cheery, active men and women--of farmers and bakers and merchant sailors (not fighting sailors or soldiers), and other useful folk, with some reference to other countries and the differences and likenesses to be found there. The aim at this stage is to lay up in the mind rich stores of such associations as will be likely to be on the side of right in the after years. A spare daily diet of simple intelligible prose and verse, spoken with as much beauty of tone and expression as the speaker was capable of--or sometimes sung--would, I believe, lay sure foundations for a love of the music of words and for a sense of the dignity of words as the embodiment of thought. The healthy intimacies with real things would be fostered and strengthened by the play of imagination about them, and precious ideas would be unconsciously assimilated that in the guise of warning or precept might never gain admittance. I am only saying badly what Froebel said long ago, and except that I would exclude the impossible, I am only asking for what I suppose every Kindergarten in the country has been doing for years. There can be no question in this age, I think, of literature proper. The books that will help us most will be some of the books--not all--that are written for the purpose. I should myself expect to find most help in Froebel's own Mother's Songs, Games and Stories, and some of its imitators, in the children's poems of Christina Rossetti, Stevenson and Eugene Field, and in the stories of Mrs. Ewing and Kate Douglas Wiggin. But I should joyfully gather material wherever I could find it, and never hesitate to reject anything of anybody's I felt to be unsuitable to my purpose.
In the second age (say from 8 to 13) I should still make the literature of fact or reality my chief ally, but I should now sparingly introduce the fabulous, and always in the first instance in a historical setting, and with a clear statement as to its unreality, and some explanation of how such unrealities came to be written. In this period, though we shall still be glad to make use of stories and verses written for children, we shall begin to make our acquaintance with the great literature. Translations of Homer and Vergil (preferably in prose) will be supplemented by Kingley's Heroes and Macaulay's Lays. Extracts from Beowulf and Morte d'Arthur will be supplemented by Morris and Tennyson. Aesop and La Fontaine (in English) will prepare the way for Mrs. Gatty's Parables from Nature, Kipling's Jungle Book, and other books of that order. Careful selections from the Arabian Nights and [Hans Christian] Andersen and Grimm may be followed by equally careful selections from [Andrew] Lang and [Joseph] Jacob. Gulliver's Travels may provide an introduction to serious allegory, but few teachers will care to face the difficulties of interpretation of the Pilgrim's Progress and the Faerie Queene at this early stage.
In the literature of real life the key-note of the whole period will be Action--honourable, brave and useful. Acquaintance will be made with Shakespeare through [Charles] Lamb and Quiller Couch (the latter too little known). Much use will be made of Robinson Crusoe. [Walter] Scott will provide both prose and verse; [Robert Louis] Stevenson also. [William Ernest] Henley's Lyra Heroica is a fine collection of inspiriting verse. For the quieter note I have made much use of Longfellow--but the field of choice is so wide that we can choose very differently and yet well.
In the third period (ages 13 to 16 or 18) the literature of action, both in prose and verse, will still form the chief part of the material to be presented, but reflective, critical, and even didactic pieces will now be introduced. Side by side with Shakespeare--read with the minimum of interpretation and the minimum of annotation--I should present, in English, a few classical plays of other countries. Side by side with Paradise Lost and the Faerie Queene I should introduce, in English prose, Dante, reading neither poem right through, and emphasizing such passages only as I myself felt to contain valuable criticism of life as we know it. Bacon, Addison, Burke, and Macaulay would lead to Carlyle, Emerson, and Ruskin; Coleridge and Wordsworth to Tennyson and Browning, Schiller and Goethe. At this stage I should make much use of the novelists: Jane Austin, Scott, Dickens, Thackeray, and Victor Hugo.
By 16, I should expect the best minds among my pupils to be ready for a new set of intimacies--intimacies with the broad outlines of philosophical thought--and either in the history class or the literature class I should introduce them--with as much discretion as I was master of--to one or two of the great world-philosophers. I have spoken of literature as the interpreter of life, but it can only interpret truly when philosophy is a fellow-interpreter.
In this brief enumeration of suitable material, I have intentionally omitted some time-honoured names, and perhaps unintentionally omitted others. School days are too short and too full for us to dream of covering the whole field of literature. A few great writers there are, intimacies with whom are almost as essential to full living as the power to read and to write, but for the rest I incline to agree with Stevenson, that "our culture is not measured by the greatness of the field which is covered by our knowledge, but by the nicety with which we can perceive relations in that field, great or small." Power to perceive relations in a small field is all that school can be expected to give. That done well, the field will broaden of itself.
It has often been said--I think with truth--that how we teach is nearly always of more importance than what we teach, and so, however well selected our literary material may be, we shall fail in our main object unless we understand how to present it effectively. I avoid the word "teach." We can teach writing, and arithmetic, and grammar, and even painting and music--we can teach children, that is, to form letters, to manipulate numbers, to distinguish between noun and verb, subject and object, to copy a flower on paper, to play the piano--these are all processes of imitation--but we cannot in the same sense teach them responsiveness to beauty, to suffering, to noble action, to high thought. This is a different process, the final secret of which has not yet been revealed to us, but an essential element in which must always be the well-timed and well-balanced presentation of the things we would have felt or admired.
The presentation must be well timed. You will bore a little child with pictures, and stories, and ideas that would fascinate a big one; much more will you bore a big one with things that are too childish.
The timeliness of the season, and appropriateness of the presentation, must also be taken into account. See that your literary selections are suggested and supported by the world outside. Sing songs of spring in the spring, tell stories of shipwreck in wild weather, celebrate the birthdays of great men, the anniversaries of great events, with passages from the great writers.
I would even say to parents--who are free to choose--choose the timely hour of the day for your presentations--the morning for the stirring story or ballad of adventure, the evening for the quiet appeal to the heart. The schoolmaster has less freedom of choice, but even he would be the better for believing that there is such a thing as the "psychological moment" and for trying to find out where it hides.
The presentation of literary matter must also be well balanced. An attempt must be made to keep a due proportion between action and reflection, the preferences of the general child-mind as well as of the particular child-mind being never lost sight of.
Schoolmasters--and, I have no doubt, parents--are often reproached with their over-zeal for "improving the occasion." But I have no hesitation in declaring that "improving the occasion" seems to be to be the schoolmaster's chief business. The trouble is that he so often fails to improve it even when he is trying his hardest. His concern for the child's moral nature often blinds him to the fact that the child's moral nature must ultimately depend upon itself, and also to the further fact that there is a mind and body to be cared for, and that upon their health very largely depends the health of the whole.
When my children are playing cricket, I know, though I do not tell them so, that they are taking healthy moral exercise as well as physical, and it is my duty, silently, to "improve the occasion," so far as I can, by seeing to the conditions under which they play. But I leave the cricket to preach its own sermon, and so keep the balance between physical and moral undisturbed. And I would treat literature in the same way. Take infinite pains to choose the best, and infinite pains to present it worthily, and then trust it to point its own moral and set up its own effects. I am such a believer in the importance of worthy presentation that I never allow my own children, little or big, to read or say beautiful words in prose or verse with halting and stammering and indistinctness and misunderstanding. They practise reading on words of less significance, and the bigger ones never say a poem til they can both read it well and write it out correctly by heart. The little ones often learn to say verses without stumbling before they can read them without stumbling, but in that case they learn them not from the book, but from me. I believe, too, that is is best--unless one has the rare gift of simple, beautiful speech--never to tell stories in one's own ineffective words, but always to read them, and read them--even to the youngest children--as beautifully as possible. Telling is apt to lead to the piling up of incident, whereas, if you show that you take pleasure, not only in the incidents of a story, but in the way in which it is told, your pleasure will soon be shared. You will, in fact, best teach your children of all ages to love books by showing that you love them yourselves. But do not feign love. Present to them only the things within their understanding that really interest you. There will always be many such at all ages. One of the worst bits of work I ever did was to take a class of big boys through Johnson's Vanity of Human Wishes--to me, one of the dullest sermons ever penned, in prose or verse. The same sincerity is essential throughout. Do not allow a story to be thought true, unless you think it true, do not allow an action to be admired unless you think it admirable, and, above all, do not condone the loose use of significant words, even when the greater writers are the offenders. The heroisms of heroes well provided with magic shields and swords are not heroisms at all, and must not be vaunted as such. Patriotism must be analysed and the spurious not allowed to pass for the true. And so with justice and the other virtues. Better not read the Merchant of Venice, unless you are prepared to take exception on moral grounds to the device of the caskets and the treatment of Shylock.
The most precious gift--the most precious intimacy--that the acquaintance with literature can give us is such an intimate knowledge of good--in its manifold forms--that we can never be betrayed into setting up evil in its likeness. But this we shall never attain unto even for ourselves--much less for our children--if we slur over moral questions either on the ground that times have altered, or on the more specious ground that it is unsafe to unsettle young minds. If any story involves moral judgments that you are not prepared to discuss with your children, then don't read it with them; and, if you can do so without too much show of grandmotherliness, don't let them read it for themselves.
How much freedom is to be allowed to children of different ages in the choice of books is a vexed question that hardly falls within the scope of my paper. I will only say that I should myself be far more afraid of the results of too little freedom than of too much. Prohibition often defeats its own purpose.
But how children may best be encouraged to read books for themselves, to choose them well and to read them well, is closely connected with my subject, inasmuch as the intimacies actually formed in school, precious as they often are, should be, at the best, but an earnest of the deeper intimacies to be formed when school is over.
In the interest of private reading, I have sometimes tried the plan of having two books going in a class at the same time, one for ordinary class purposes, and another of a lighter character, which certain of us would undertake to read at home at the rate of so many chapters a week, bringing difficulties and criticisms to be solved at an appointed period in school. It is a surprise to many boys to find that there is anything in an ordinary book to be talked about. They read, but they neither mark, learn, nor inwardly digest, and their reading as often as not does them more harm than good. A well-managed school library can do much, but class talks, I am satisfied, can do far more.
My own methods of dealing with books have always been influenced by two main considerations:--One, that nothing is worth reading at all that is not worth reading well; and two, that a boy will only turn to books of his own free will, who has found pleasure in the books that have been thrust upon him. No device that has ever yet been invented can, I believe, ensure that he will take pleasure in the books that are thrust upon him, but it seems to be pretty certain that he will not, unless they are chosen because they are likely to please him (not because they ought to please him), unless their individuality as works of art is respected, and they are presented as pictures of glorious life, and not as puzzles in parsing and analysis and word-building; and lastly, unless they can be presented for their own sakes, without reference to marks, or prizes, or examiners--or canes. Whatever literary intimacies we may succeed in setting up will certainly carry with them many associated intimacies, and we shall have defeated our own ends if the latter are of such a character as to rob the former of their virtue.
One word more. I have been speaking as a schoolmaster, and though my audience is presumably composed chiefly of parents, I have not had the grace to refer explicitly to the significance of the parental factor in education.
I have often said elsewhere--and I desire to say here again to-day--that so far as the education of character is concerned, I regard the schoolmaster's task as a well-nigh hopeless one, unless the parent has laid sound foundations for him to build upon, and unless he can rely upon sympathetic and intelligent parental co-operation while he is building.
Schools are often gauged by the honours--academical, professional, political--that fall to them. For me, such lists of honours will have little or no significance til they are accompanied by corresponding lists of dishonours. I judge of a school in a different way. But honours or dishonours, is it much less on the school than on the home that the chief praise or blame must fall.
I can believe that there have existed--that there may still exist--false schoolmasters who have done much negative injustice to their pupils by neglecting their opportunities, and some positive harm by the presentation of unworthy ideals, but I cannot hold the schoolmaster responsible for the moral mischief that is still so rampant on every hand. For that I would arraign the false parent, who dishonours his child's babyhood by neglecting every educational precaution, who dishonours his childhood by policing him with coarseness and ignorance, and who dishonours his boyhood by dishonouring his schoolmasters.
Do not say there are no false parents left. They are now--thanks to your society--being startled from their apathy, but your good work has only begun.
MRS. FRANKLIN: We have listened to such a very beautiful paper that I think many here will feel with me very sorry that with a certain part of the paper we must in toto disagree. May I just point out a few of the points which I think most of us here would wish to combat. Naturally, one would agree most heartily with regard to the deep joy we are giving our children if we give them an appreciation of literature and encourage them how best to read in after life. Also, I am most grateful to Mr. Russell for having emphasized the desirability of giving the children the books themselves and not telling the stories in the more or less imperfect teacher's words. But when he says that we should only put before little children exactly what they can understand, I feel sure he will not carry many of us with him. How are we always to gauge what they exactly understand? And are we to be the arbitrators and always to sift and choose just which portion of the children's heritage of literature we think they are ready to take? Do we not make an unnecessary fetish of "understanding"? How often an idea will lie dormant unsuspected in the mind and bear fruit in after years. Is it too a safe doctrine to always "suggest" admiration and condemnation? Shall we not thus manufacture little copies of ourselves and little prigs who only admire what they are supposed to admire? We must just put them into the right relation with beautiful things and trust that they will gradually develop their own opinions and their own tastes. Of course, as a Froebelian, Mr. Russell would naturally look at this subject from a different psychological point of view from most of us here. He would be more inclined to hedge in the children and to give them ready prepared peptonized food. We, on the contrary, hold that, as Miss Mason worked out in her first paper, we are not to stand as the high priests of knowledge, and alone possessing the key to unlock a little here and there. We want to put the children into the right relation with literature as with everything else so that their natural affinities may reach out to what they need. Another part of his address with which we shall most of us probably differ is where he condemns our giving to children anything to read which in way deals with the "impossible." In that case, I do not quite know what we are to read to them; I cannot see that even the nursery rhymes, which Mr. Russell says he would permit, comply with the condition; nor do even all Stevenson's poems which he recommended. I do not think that if children read only stories about animals and plants--beautiful as they may be--or still more about boys and girls exactly like themselves, they will become the literary enthusiasts that we desire them to be. The natural outcome would be that they would begin, I suppose, with such books as Mrs. Molesworth's stories for children, and go on to a course of [G. A.] Henty, L.T. Meade and the boys' detective stories. That is always what we are trying in the P.N.E.U. to avoid. Our principle is that children should have had their imaginative power fed early by healthy fairy tales and good stories of long ago, so that they would simply reject the bad literature, the magazines, &c., that so many of us do read. We entirely agree, I believe, with the books recommended for the second period, but we would introduce them to the children very much earlier. You will think, perhaps, that I am very bold in standing up and discussing Mr. Russell's paper so freely, but as his experience is admittedly with children of a school age, I may be perhaps allowed to speak of what the younger children like and how one can foster their literary feeling. We live in an every-day world and I do not think we can make any mistake in allowing the children to wander for a little part of their life in the realms of imagination. We do not wait till the second period before introducing them to Homer, Shakespeare and Dante; if so, as Canon Lyttleton not long ago told us, we shall have waited too long; if they have not learnt how to listen or how to read good books before they are twelve, they will hardly ever do so. There is so very much more I should like to say, but unfortunately time presses.
MR. RUSSELL: I knew, of course, that in particular parts of my paper, I was treading on very dangerous ground, but it is too big a question, even if the time were not already exhausted, for me to deal with now. The one thing which Mrs. Franklin said which, with me, did indisputably carry weight was that she herself has proved from her own experience that is is possible to train children on what I should have called the old-fashioned lines with perfectly satisfactory results. I have never doubted the possibility of doing this; what I doubt is whether the average child would not be better trained on the lines that I have suggested to you. It is a big, psychological matter. I am dissatisfied with things as they are and want things modified, and it seems to me the best way to modify them is to begin at the earliest period of life. However, I do not attach so much value to theory as to results, and if your Society can bring forward entirely satisfactory results, then you are doing a very good work.
Typed by CarleyM, Jan. 2021; Proofread by LNL, Apr. 2021
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