Nursery Classics in School
THERE is, in many of our cities, a form of charity which touches one by its beauty and by its pathetic suggestion. A Day Nursery provides for those little children who need and want a mother’s care. While the mother is absent from home, earning her day’s living, her small folk are deposited in the friendly house, where, with their neighbors in poverty, they have warmth, sunshine, food, and the care which make the nursery in all well to-do homes the most sheltered spot in creation. Meanwhile, the pity of it is that harsh necessity separates the mother and child when each needs the other most, and that the companionship which braids spiritual cords stronger than the natural ligament just severed, is brief, hurried, and inadequate. A stranger takes the mother’s place, and orphanage becomes a half-normal condition.
A like misfortune, with somewhat fuller compensation, befalls the children not of the poor alone when the toddling age has passed. By means of the kindergarten the period of school life has been pushed back of its old limits, and the forces of our society conspire in a hundred ways to place children early in school, and to keep them there; the poor go scarcely sooner than the rich, but they leave earlier. The organization of education goes on, and, if one dares to say so, the disorganization of the family goes on also. Every year more is exacted of the school. It must teach the hands as well as the head ; it must teach the domestic arts, the rudiments of trade, the latter half of the ten commandments, the sermon on the mount, but not the life behind it. Character must there be formed as well as mental habits ; and as for religion, there is the Sunday-school. The notion of what constitutes education has not so much expanded as the notion of the place of education. The school-house is becoming the American temple ; it borrows from the church and the family, leaving one dry and the other weakened.
So far has this gone that the school has even begun to assert its authority over the family, and by so doing has conferred an unexpected blessing. After being used to sending the child to school to learn whatever is needed, the parent discovers the school sending the child home to learn extra lessons. It is a question whether the possible injury of overwork is not counterbalanced by the necessity laid on the parent of helping the child, learning its lessons with it, and so once more getting entrance into a domain from which he had voluntarily shut himself out. It is not the worst thing that can happen to a father or mother to be forced into intellectual companionship with their child.
In this increasing monopoly of the child by the school there is a loss also of tradition. In games, to be sure, it still holds. In spite of all the Boys’ Own Books and American Girls’ Books, and the like, children still learn from each other, and know marble time and kite time without reference to the almanac. But books supersede tradition in literature, and from the brothers Grimm to the present industry of folklore societies the constant cry is to save the stories of the people before they have died out of memory. Thus the only tradition which children have, for the most part, is that which concerns the family. They learn from the lips of their parents and grandparents what adventures fell within the narrow range of their personal experience, but for all else they are sent to books. It would be a curious inquiry, but no commission for the purpose is likely to be appointed, how few children to-day know the story of Cinderella as told to them, and how many know it from hearing it read or from reading it themselves.
Since, then, it is to books that we must go for the stories which have grown smooth from being rolled down the ages of Indo-European peoples, and since the school so largely controls the child’s mental growth, it follows that if these stories are to remain as a substantial possession of childhood of all sorts in America, they must be conserved by school methods. The Bill of Rights for children has never been formally drawn, but one of its articles is unquestionably the right to enjoy these tales. Not all children have an equal aptitude for appropriating them, but the instances known of those who are absolutely indifferent to the charm of nursery classics at the proper age are so few that they may be pronounced abnormal, or referred to some extremely perverse conditions of nurture. But the right is one which children cannot well assert for themselves, though there have been many instances where the joy has been snatched covertly and in a spirit of independence. It is the business of their guardians, therefore, to see that children are not deprived of this right; and, as already intimated, the present guardians of children in America are teachers, superintendents, school-committees, boards of education, publishing - houses, agents, makers of school-books, and occasionally parents. The teachers have the fullest control, and the influence diminishes along the line of the remaining forces. It will probably be said, and by none more earnestly than the teachers themselves, that they are bound and hampered by all the other powers, but my observation leads me to think that pretty much all the genuine improvement in educational methods has sprung from the brains and practical work of teachers.
A prime reason for introducing these nursery classics into the early years of school life is in the economy of resources. At present the child passes from the primer to what are known as graded readers. These readers continue through the school course in most cases, and form the body of literature to which children are introduced in school. In the higher grades of these readers there are often classic poems and passages from the works of masters of prose; the proportion of lasting work to ephemeral is small: still it exists, and many children have known bits of real literature only from their readers. But in the lower grades, that is in the first, second, third, and even fourth readers, there is scarcely a piece of genuine literature ; the proportion of ephemeral to lasting work is enormous. Yet it is in the years when these grades are read that the great majority of children pass their school life. After the fourth or fifth year of school the number of attendants rapidly diminishes. For the most part, children close their school life with absolutely no introduction to literature. They have learned to read, but they have had nothing to read.
There is a great waste, then, in the present system of reading. Hours, days, and weeks are spent in the dreary droning over books which are as much left behind as the boy’s jacket or the girl’s pinafore, when outgrown. What child ever remembers the matter-of-fact, trivial, and commonplace incidents and shadowy personages that occupy the pages of its early school readers ? Yet merely for the purpose of training the child in the art of reading, good literature is as serviceable as lean; and since good literature sticks in the memory when lean has faded away, the child that has been given something notable to read, when learning the art, has practiced a true economy, for it has stored a force as well as acquired an art.
What, then, is at the disposal of the teacher and the child, when the primer and the blackboard have done their work ? What constitutes the child’s natural introduction into that great world of literature, for the sake of which all these labors in mastering twenty-six characters and their combinations have been undertaken ? All great literature represents a continual process of selection; the sifting goes on unceasingly, and in the higher grades of school work the principle is unhesitatingly accepted of placing before the pupil the works which are first in rank in their respective classes. The rank has been determined by the accordance of the best minds in all ages, acting upon their generation. Thus Homer, Herodotus, the Tragedians, Plato, Aristotle, Virgil, Cæsar, Cicero, hold indisputable command, and, whatever excursions may be allowed, these are fixed stations. Precisely in the same way there are certain classics for children which have stood the test of generations of use, and are accepted not as candidates for favor, but as established favorites. The testing still goes on, and in the gradual softening of manners certain rude, not to say brutal features in these classics are either causing the stories containing them to fall into disuse, or are sloughed off in modern versions. The wolf in Little Red Riding Hood has been the mark for the arrows of the maiden’s brothers, and Jack the Giant-Killer falls behind in nursery popularity.
These distinctions are to be noted between nursery classics and the major classics, that the former have no inviolable form and no individual authorship. Probably the stories of the Iliad and the Odyssey had no fixed form till Homer, or “ another man of the same name,” determined it; but the stories of the nursery are still in the traditional, fluent period, and probably never will secure a permanent literary shape. Perrault largely determined the specific structure of some of them, and the Grimms came as near as any to fixing others ; but later raconteurs have felt under no obligation to preserve the form of words of Perrault and Grimm, or the nameless writers of chap-books, though they have rarely departed widely from the traditional structure of the stories, with the exception of Cruikshank, who had the whim to turn the tales into use as temperance tracts.
The absence of personal authorship is a happy argument in favor of using these stories in the early education of children. It is during the very period when the nursery classics fit into its life that the child is oblivious to the fact of authorship in any story. To it a story is a story, and it is absolutely incurious as to who wrote the story. Only when its interest has begun to take note of some personal relation of author to work does the child need to pass from the realm of the great unknown stories to that of the known, and the transition is fortunately made by a familiarity with Hans Andersen, whose stories belong in general kind to those of unknown authorship, while his own personality steals out to attract and even fascinate the young reader.
The drawback to the use of these nursery classics in the school-room has undoubtedly been in the absence of versions which are intelligible to children of the proper age, reading by themselves. The makers of the graded readingbooks have expended all their ingenuity in grading the ascent. They have been so concerned about the gradual enlargement of their vocabularies that they have paid slight attention to the ideas which the words were intended to convey. But just this gradation may be secured through the use of these stories, and it only needs that they should be written out in a form as simple, especially as regards the order of words, as that which obtains in the reading-books of equivalent grade. At present we are met by this difficulty : that these stories in their customary form, while not too hard for a child to understand who hears them read, are too hard for the child to read at the age when they are most enjoyable and fix themselves most securely in the imagination. They ought, we will say, to be read by a child who is in the second and third readers ; by the time the child is in the fourth and fifth readers he is ready for more mature forms of literature. Thus they are liable to be lost out of life altogether ; they are too difficult when the child could best read them ; their attractiveness is lost when the child becomes able to read them.
It must not be forgotten that the school is to many children a harbor of refuge during their early years. From their teachers they hear commands unenforced by blows and unaccompanied by foul words. They get glimpses of a world of order and neatness. For a few hours each day squalor and noise and cruelty are remote and forgotten. To such children the school may also be an admission into a world of beauty, and like Cinderella, in the tale, they may until twelve o’clock strikes, be dancing with the Prince in the palace. But without separation of social states, it may be said of all children in the tender age that their lives need to be enriched and enlarged, and that it is the gracious office of the imagination to do this. In this plea for the introduction of nursery classics into the school-room, I have assumed that the finest use to which the power of reading can be put is in the enlightenment of the mind, not in its information; and I hold that this use must be steadily kept in view from the first day of school life to the last. There will be many ways by which reading may serve the end of imparting knowledge, but unless the definite end of ennobling the mind through familiarity with the literature of the spirit is recognized in our school curriculum, the finest results of education will be lost. The use of reading is not exhausted when the child has been enabled to read the daily newspaper or the Constitution of the United States. The preparation for citizenship which regards oidy the education of the understanding will be as inadequate as the resulting conception of national life will be. The education of the spirit through religion has been left with the church and what remains of the higher family life; the education through literature must be taken up by the schools, else a great and irremediable defect will appear in the development of character and spiritual force, and this education must begin at the earliest period with the properest material. The child that has spent the hours devoted to reading, in its primary course, over fables, fairy-tales, folk-tales, and the best of such stories as go to make up the Gesta Romanorum and Christian mythology has had a foxtndation laid for steady progress into the higher air of poetry and all imaginative, creative, and inspiring literature.
H. E. Scudder.