The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Developmental Exercise at School.

by George Smith, M.A.,
Headmaster of Merchiston Castle School
Volume 15, 1904, pg. 524-535

[George Smith, 1868-1957, began as a teacher at Rugby, and was appointed Headmaster of Merchiston Castle School in Scotland from around 1893-1914. He married Mary Campbell Edgar, who later wrote the popular Scottish dialect poem "The Boy in the Train."]

I fear that I must preface the reading of this paper with an apology as well as an explanation. I should like to explain that I do not intend to give any methodical or scientific account of the system of physical training by games and otherwise which obtains as a rule at public schools; and I should like to apologize for the title of the paper, which certainly seems to promise something much more thorough and scientific than I can hope to reach, or indeed than I intend to aim at. Perhaps even the word "developmental" itself requires an apology. It is, I think, a word of somewhat obscure origin and doubtful history. I am not sure that it has even been formed on proper principles; and I am glad to think that it has not yet become a portion of the vocabulary of classical authors. It seems to belong to the vocabulary of biology, and is, I fear, misleading as I have used it.

If I have to explain why I chose the word "developmental," I shall have to confess that it was probably due to the fatal fascination which is exercised over the non-scientific man by those blessed words of science, "development," "evolution," and "environment." They sound wise even when they are least euphonious, and so they get used in most unsuitable places, as in the title of this paper.

I must hasten to disclaim any intention of making an attempt to treat the subject in a complete and scientific way. Indeed my only reason for choosing such a subject was, that it seemed to fit in not unnaturally with the subjects of the other two addresses which you heard this morning, from Dr. Leslie Mackenzie and from Dr. Clouston. They were to deal with certain aspects of the physical nature of boys at the stage of school life. I thought that it might be not unsuitable at least to open the question how far the schools set themselves to strengthen the weaknesses of the human constitution at the stage of school life, and with what success. I cannot, of course, speak as an expert. I have not the specialized knowledge of the physician. I can only speak as an amateur who has had some experience in arranging school curricula and who has taken considerable interest in this side of school activity.

The purpose that I set before myself in writing this paper is simply to suggest several general principles which seem to lie at the bottom of any system of physical education at school, to point to several broad aspects of physical exercise on which, as it seems to me, enough stress has not usually been laid, and to deal by way of hint and suggestion rather than by way of reasoned argument, with some of the main criticisms that are made on the methods of physical education which are most in vogue.

The most important feature of school exercise is perhaps simply the fact that it is a corporate function and minimizes the individual and selfish activity. This is a feature, by the way, which belongs not merely to the physical side of school life, but to the intellectual and moral also. The great element in which school education differs from other forms of education is simply the fact that much of the school activity is carried on in company with others, and a great many things are done simply because others do them and because it is the rule of the school. Now it is the easiest thing in the world to criticise that element in school life. It is an element which in some departments of activity is constantly tending to become a fault, a vice. In school morality, high ideals and larger aims tend to be discountenanced by the school community, because they are not on a level with the ideas and aims of that community. In intellect, intelligent interests and intellectual hobbies tend to be in some measure discountenanced because they do not run along the main lines of a school curriculum, and in physical exercise, physical employments which are otherwise harmless and in many ways excellent, tend to be discountenanced because they do not take the school, or large sections of it, together in a corporate capacity, but leave each person to play his own game and travel his own way. Such criticism as this is, as I have said, obvious, and is very frequently made. It is a perfectly fair criticism, so far as it goes. It would be a crushing criticism if it were not that there are counterbalancing advantages which, if they do not outweigh the disadvantages and weaknesses, are at least themselves well worth weighing before we decide the question. Thus, in the matter of school character, a traditional standard of duty and honour is in some ways a hindrance, because the best boys may be content with that traditional standard, whereas they are capable, by inherited character and education, of going beyond it. But against this one must remember that there are other boys to whom the pressure of the public opinion of the school acts as a stimulus and a restraint. Further it is to be noticed that, after all, school is intended to be a preparation for life. In life there is no greater moral danger to the man of more than average moral possibilities than the danger of conforming to the ordinary public opinion of the world around him. Now the whole science of education in morality consists in giving a boy experience in such temptation, under such circumstances as make success in resisting it not difficult, and failure not irretrievable. When we are, then, inclined to think that ordinary public school life makes for a comparatively mediocre standard of character, that its ideal is only an average ideal, where courage and honour and candour do indeed find a large place, but where kindness and gentleness and humility are not appreciated at their true value, it is well for us to remember that, at least in those matters, the school is a miniature of the later life and so far a preparation for it.

Then again, in intellectual matters, it is often said that the tendency of public schools is to turn out a good average, but that the tendency to depress genius to the level of the average is just as strong as that to raise the dullard to the same level. There is undoubtedly something of truth in this criticism, and it is a criticism which can easily be presented in a rhetorical way, as it frequently has been. It can almost be made to seem that if only educationists would find the proper line of study for a boy and would let him work at that, every boy would be interested in something; and it is taken for granted that, being interested, he would be able to learn it and would find it worth learning. It is not my purpose, as indeed it is not my duty, now to discuss this position. I would only say in regard to it that I wish I could believe that there could be found for every boy some intellectual exercise in which he could be successful. I wish also that I were quite sure that, even supposing a boy has found a subject in which he is interested, it necessarily follows that it is to his interest to allow him to pursue that subject exclusively or mainly. And, lastly, I wish that the public schools could never have any more serious charge brought against them than the repression of genius. I have no great sympathy indeed with all this accusation. The intellectual originality which can be repressed by ordinary school training was hardly worth cultivating; and the fact that it could be repressed shows that it was accompanied by a very poor will and could never have made its way in the world alone. There is a great deal of peril involved in taking too seriously and too literally sage advice to "study what you must affect." That is advice to be given to a young man of leisure, who is engaged in improving his own mind. It is not the advice to be followed in the education of a boy. Even supposing that the study affected is one which is in itself harmless, it very frequently happens that it is also one which could not be called helpful. How many boys, if they were allowed to study what they most affect at the age of fourteen, would proceed to make careful collections of stamps, or of the names and dimensions of the principal locomotives on the railway which they admire most? And how many of them will find that such knowledge so gained is of any use to them or to others in after life? And even if we grant that the study which they affect is not merely harmless, but useful, yet to pursue that study exclusively or mainly may be to be indulging a merely selfish interest. We may be cultivating the boy's intellect at the expense of his character. We may be training him to caprice instead of to wisdom of choice.

Happily in the matter of physical training, there can hardly exist any doubt that the more nearly a boy's physical activity can be made to approximate to the normal and average activity of the community in which he lives, the more satisfactory is his physical development likely to prove. There are two reasons for this. The first reason is that the average physical activity of the average school reaches without pressure, sometimes indeed in spite of repression and discouragement, a high standard. This claim could not perhaps be made with equal truth for the moral and intellectual activity. These will always leave something to be desired, something which only the maturer wisdom and the riper will of the adult can supply. But there is seldom any cause to deplore lack of athletic ambition in an average school community.

In the second place, neither parents nor schoolmasters have any desire to encourage and elicit originality in physical development. In the sphere of physical development, the quality of originality is happily known by other names which do not flatter it by begging the question so naively. Parents are indeed inclined to call it sensitiveness and to be perhaps a little proudly apprehensive that their child is not like other boys. But the other boys are inclined to call it slackness and funk; and between the two opinions, a balance may be struck. That the striking of this balance is often a matter of extreme delicacy I fully admit. Careful modifications of the corporate exercise will be needed so as neither to demand too much nor too little of any individual boy. Careful classification into teams, each of which will contain boys about the same size, weight and skill, will be necessary; careful adjustment of gymnastic drill so as to avoid overstrain, which would cause discouragement if it caused no more serious evil. But in all the arrangements, one main object at least is attained; to keep the boy side by side with his fellows, not to let him feel himself an exception, but one with his comrades in powers and possibilities. He feels, unconsciously it may be, that a certain general standard of physical fitness is supposed to be within the reach of all boys, and that to his own efforts such physical fitness is in great part due; and the demands of the general standard elicit the individual effort and the physical fitness is in some measure attained.

Thus the corporate character of school exercise tends to diminish the tendency to morbidness and self-consciousness. It is soon enough for us when we grow old, too soon even then perhaps, to hug to ourselves the pleasing thought that we are differently constituted than other people, that nobody quite understands us, and that ours is a peculiar case. There is, I admit, a certain glow of satisfaction in that thought, but it emphatically does not make for efficiency in the work of life. A unique personality may be in character and intellect an admirable possession; in the realm of physique it is a pathological condition and brings no gain or glory to its possessor.

The first point, then, which is noticeable, and perhaps the chief element that is valuable in any school system of physical training, however imperfect, is the solidarity of the community. I do not at present emphasize the more purely ethical results which flow from that fact that a boy, even in his physical exercise, is breathing an atmosphere of patriotism. He is playing, or training to play, for his team, his house, his school, for some entity that is at least wider than his own individuality. It may be a narrow enough community that secures his patriotism, and his devotion to it may easily partake largely of the nature of selfishness. Still, it is not pure self, and in so far as it is something wider, it is bound to be welcomed. After all, the only way to a cosmopolitanism that is worth anything is through a vivid patriotism.

On the ethical training, however, which is involved in the corporate character of school exercises, I lay no stress here. I wish merely to call attention to the great influence they wield as a corrective to morbidness, to indulgence of weakness, and to any tendency, more frequent perhaps than is generally supposed among boys, to hypochondria.

Before leaving this part of the subject, it is advisable to guard against misconception. I have emphasized the advantage of treating boys en masse, because I think that in these days there is a tendency to deny or forget that advantage. Individual treatment is in danger of being exalted at the expense of work in classes (corporate activity). Now both are good, and the best results in physical as well as in moral development are obtained when the two are wisely combined. One has all manner of sympathy with the parent who is impressed with the fact that his boys is not like other boys. I never met a boy who was. Each is unique and peculiar. Some allowance, some modification must always be made: but it is just those boys for whom exceptional allowances have to be made who most need to be convinced by habitual companionship that they are, after all, ordinary members of society. Only in this way are they likely to develop into men of normal nerves and free from abnormal self-consciousness.

If the solidarity of the community is the first aspect of school exercise that strikes us, the second must be the unity of the individual, the fact of the indissoluble connection between, the inevitable interaction of, body and spirit. I fear that this is sadly commonplace: but I see no way of avoiding the commonplace here except by adopting the false, and commonplace seems preferable. Besides commonplace is so indisputably true that it is generally thought well able to take care of itself, left unstated and so forgotten; and hence arises paradox and much confused thinking. It is well to have it restated sometimes, lest we forget it altogether.

If the individual cannot be separated from the community without producing a morbid development of personality, no more can one side of personality be separated from the rest without producing equally harmful results. We find it, for dialectic reasons, convenient to separate human nature into faculties, and we discuss the development of physique apart from the development of intellect, and that again apart from the development of character. It is, as I have said, convenient to do so. To discuss all of them simultaneously would tend to produce confusion. At the same time, it must be constantly remembered that these are only three different aspects or sides of a personality which is one, and that in discussing any one of them we must not wholly abstract it from the others, but must consider its relationship to the whole organism. This danger is perhaps especially obvious in dealing with the question of what should be the subjects of curriculum in intellectual matters. So many subjects clamour for admission and so very frequently the plea on which the claim for admission is based is merely the statement, possibly undeniable, that the subject is, considered as a mere intellectual study, a good one. It is not sufficient that that should be proved. It must also be proved that the balance of advantage to the body and the character, as well as to the intellect, is on the right side, and that the inclusion of this subject does not imply the rejection of another where the balance of advantage is greater.

The same principle exactly holds in determining what forms of exerise should be admitted into a school system of physical training, and in what degree. It is not necessarily sufficient to prove that a certain form of exercise is, let us say, good in itself for a certain set of muscles, though that is frequently the only point that is considered in advocating certain systems. We must also ask ourselves what effect it has on the healthy activity of the nerves, on the fuller development of the framework of the body and on the healthy functioning of the important organs. But even that is not sufficient. We must also take account of the effect which that form of exercise will have on the intellectual and spiritual sides of a boy's nature. We must prove, as in the former case, that the balance of profit and loss to the boy's whole nature falls on the right side, that the inclusion of the exercise does not imply the rejection of another, the balance of which would be still more satisfactory. Thus the question of physical exercise may not be so simple as at first sight it seems. It is possible to set exercises which, though excellent in themselves, have a tendency to produce dullness and mechanical movement. We may be, for instance, producing an excellent development of muscle or a satisfactory expansion of the chest at the expense of alertness of nerves and vivacity of interest. Or, again, it is possible to set exercises which are so varied, so cunningly varied, that they keep the mind always on the alert and train the pupil to expect a prompt nervous response to every will-message. But it may be that by using such exercises we may cause a physical overstrain. Again there are some exercises, the main excellence of which lies in their moral effect. I should be inclined to count that very common form of school excercise called "long runs" among these. Long runs are a much maligned form of school excercise. For my own part, I see very little to object to in them except their name. Under the best organization they are not "runs" and they are very seldom "long." They consist of progression, in fairly light clothing, for a distance varying from two to four miles. Most of the progression is done by way of walking, but every now and again, say at intervals of a quarter of a mile, there is a quick burst to be done at top speed. This form of training-run is perhaps one of the best, so far as physical results are concerned. There is not much chance of overstrain to any average boy, because the running is indulged in for such a very brief time. There is no danger of a fast runner spoiling his pace by being compelled to plod along for a great distance. And yet I am not sure that these training-runs, in changing their character, have not lost something of their ethical effect. In the old days a "long run" was a long run, in fact as well as in name. The distance varied from three to seven miles, and as far as possible it was done at running pace. That, at least, was the ideal of the small boy. Now, that form of training considered as a physical exercise had grave defects. It was distinctly bad for pace. It was very likely to produce overstrain and it was in consequence an extremely unpopular form of exercise. But it should not be altogether condemned, because it tended to elicit better than any other form of exercise I know, grim and dogged determination, a feeling that, if the exercise was mechanical, it was worth while seeing how far one's will could hold out against the natural force of the universe and the natural weakness of one's organization.

These, then, are the two main aspects of school exercise--first, companionship and solidarity, which tends on the physical side to produce a healthy state of nerves and to correct any tendency to isolation and self-consciousness, and, on the ethical side, to the education of corporate feeling: and secondly, the recognition of the unity of the individual, which tends to produce a healthy care for the body as an integral part of the man, and to create a larger and more practical conception of duty as something that governs the management of all vital activities. If these two aspects are kept well in view in the organization of physical exercise, and if at the same time judicious and, as far as possible, unobstrusive modifications are made for boys who need such modifications, we are likely to secure satisfactory results.

It is not necessary to describe or discuss any model scheme of physical exercise for schools. There are only one or two points that may be mentioned as necessary to any satisfactory scheme.

First, any scheme should make use of games as well as gymnastic drill. Each of these elements is imperfect without the other. Games are primarily play and recreation: gymnastic exercise is primarily work. Games, such as football, hockey, cricket, fives and the like, encourage the joy of healthy living and of arduous strife: they foster rapid co-ordination, initiative in thought and alertness in action. But in themselves they tend to specialisation--specialisation in games as opposed to work, which, when carried to extremes, we call athleticism and rightly deprecate, and specialisation in some particular game which may, and often does, leave some useful side of physical activity undeveloped. This tendency is analogous to the tendency in intellectual education to specialize too soon in life on some subject or group of subjects for which a boy's aptitudes seem to fit him. And just as in intellectual education the remedy to be applied is the insistence on the necessity of a sound general education on which special knowledge may afterwards be built, so in physical education the remedy lies in insisting on the necessity of a sound general development: and this is got by way of gymnastics. By means of a good system of gymnastic exercises, individual weaknesses are strengthened and defects cured. They can be made into a much more complete system of physical training than games can, and they have the added advantage that, again, they bring clearly before the consciousness the fact that physical fitness is a duty. On the other hand, a system of training which consisted of gymnastic exercises merely would be, if conscientiously carried out, a severe strain and intolerably dull; and so, in any good system, we should have both games and systematized gymnastics.

Another point on which I should be inclined to lay much stress is the excellent results that spring from the use of military drill. I do not refer so much to results that are purely physical, such as uprightness of carriage, rhythm in movement, and general muscular development, as to the training that this form of drill gives in concentration of attention and promptness of muscular response to brain suggestion. I refer, of course, mainly to the old-fashioned military drill, the drill of the parade ground rather than that of the field-day. It is probable that as a direct and practical training for the art of war, its value was considerably overestimated in earlier generations; but I think that as an indirect and most practical training for the art of life, especially that most difficult section of it which consists in throwing your whole attention into whatever you are doing, there are few forms of exercise which are so good as military drill. The same results can be obtained in a measure by any form of combined movement and drill where promptness of response is insisted on. I feel sure, however, that in hardly any system has the standard expected of those who are drilling been so high as under a system of military drill. The drill-sergeant has generations of tradition behind him and a standard of absolute uniformity and absolute promptness, which have made his name somewhat of a by-word in an age which is not disinclined to encourage originality even on the parade ground. For my own part, I frankly confess that I think his methods, though they are not likely to turn out brilliant soldiers, are most suitable for employment at times with boys. The standard that he expects simply astounds them at first: afterwards they are astounded at the comparative success with which they approach that standard.

It might be said, but why could not the gymnastic instructor work some analogous gymnastic drill in which he might demand the same standard of promptness and in which there might be employed some more suitable movements for the development of the physique? The answer is simply, first, that none of the movements in ordinary parade drill are harmful; most of them, indeed, are useful for development and as such are too frequently neglected in ordinary gymnastic drill; and, in the second place, the gymnastic instructor, even if he be a soldier himself, cannot exact in gymnastics the standard that the drill-sergeant will exact on the parade ground. It is necessary to form the boys into companies, to assign to each of them his rank, to give officers and non-commissioned officers to command them; and then, after you have drawn them up on the parade ground and called them "company," you have behind you the force of a hundred years' accumulated tradition to make the standard of alertness that is demanded the highest and the response to it unquestioning.

It is hardly necessary to say that physical training will form an integral part of the school curriculum. It will not be a voluntary extra, but a compulsory subject. Time will be allotted to it in the weekly routine of the school for each boy, the time allotted to gymnastics being considered as work and that allotted to games as play. As everyone knows, to learn a new exercise in gymnastic drill will probably produce as much mental strain as to learn an ordinary lesson; and although some recreative influence is felt owing to the quicker circulation and fuller oxygenization of the blood, yet the gymnastic lesson is a lesson, and not a game, and should be counted as such. But not only will the exercise form a compulsory part of the school curriculum, it will also be enforced upon every boy that it is his duty to exercise himself without apparatus or with the very lightest dumb-bells for one short period every day at least. It is not necessary that such exercise should be at all elaborate or should take very long. The very simplest expansion movements and breathing exercises, and any series of movements which involves the use of the larger muscles of the back and loins, these will be quite sufficient. For the actual physical benefit which results from this daily exercise, though important in itself, is only one half of the result achieved. The other half consists in the increased feeling that the care of the body is a moral duty.

It is to this point that I return in concluding my paper. I have mentioned incidentally that in the introduction of physical exercise into schools, we have run the risk of developing athleticism, the existence of which we all rightly deplore. Any extreme generates its opposite; and there are consequently many of us who, conscious of the dangers of an over-devotion to athletics, conscious too of the futility of that parasitic interest in athletics which shows itself in spectating rather than in playing, are inclined to belittle all physical exercise. I would not for a moment deny the danger and the abuse of athleticism; but I do think that the remedy for it lies along lines which will tend to make the culture of the body take its proper place as a duty, not as a self-indulgence.

Typed by Danielle Driscoll, Oct. 2023; Proofread by LNL, Oct. 2023