PROBABLY there is not in all educational literature a more mischievous phrase than “the child.” Formerly we had children, — actual entities, real beings. Now we have psychology and an abstraction — “ the child.” He is not a real being. The Lord never made him. He has not been created but excogitated. He is like nothing in heaven or earth. Children have endless variety. “ The child ” has no variety except such as marks the different psychological sects that have manufactured him. “ The child,” we are told by one school, “ must reproduce the experiences of the race.” Primeval man had mythologies. Therefore the nineteenth - century child must go through his “ mythological age.” But when we really set to work to teach him those Egyptian, Greek, Roman, and Norse mythologies, we find a great deal that we really could not impart to our children, besides a great deal that we had better not. By the time we have expurgated the legends of all the envy, revenge, cruelty, falsehood, and some other things, there is often so little sparkle left that eager young souls find them rather flat. How if we were to conclude that our children were born quite recently, and do not need to start in the prehistoric ages ? As a matter of fact, when our far-off ancestors are supposed to have been given up to dreamy legends, they were originating missile weapons, picking flints to a knife-edge for arrowheads, and rifling them withal, so that the arrow would hold its way like a Krag-Jorgensen bullet. They were inventing rapid transit by corralling and bridling horses that had run wild since the creation. They were conquering rivers and seas in log canoes, and laying the foundations of astronomy by the telescopes of their unspoiled eyes looking from mountain tops. Awhile later they were learning to fuse and forge metals out of various queer sorts of earth and rock. They seem to have been, indeed, among the most practical and matter-of-fact people that ever lived, — those Yankees of prehistoric times.
Suppose we try the theory on the materialistic basis. Our ancestors passed through the stone age. Our children must do the same since “ the child repeats the experience of the race.” We will take away their knives and forks and spoons, and give them sharp pieces of flint to cut their viands with. We will furnish them hammers made of rounded pebbles, with which they may pound up corn and wheat, and bake the same on hot stones in the back yard, to prepare their digestion for the assimilation of modern bread and biscuit. But if our children are “ heirs of all the ages,” why not, in the name of common sense, let them come straight into their inheritance, without hewing their way through primeval barbarism ?
Who knows that “ the child repeats the experience of the race ” ? What proof is there of it ? Is it anything more than a scholastic dictum, like Aristotle’s explanation of the bending of the body in rising from a sitting position ? “ The right angle,” said the old Greek, “ is the angle of fixity ; in sitting the body forms two right angles ; hence, in order to rise, the feet must be drawn in and the body bent forward, to change the right angles into acute angles, because the acute angle is the angle of motion.” The ancient dogma seems fully as good as the modern. If our children are actually driven through æons of barbaric development in the first six or eight tender years, prove it; but permit us to be very skeptical of any assumptions that take this preposterous thing for granted. Perish the theories ! Give us facts !
Another school lays great stress on the “ Greek period ” and the “ Roman period ” as eras of transition for “ the child.” The Greeks were somewhat volatile and fickle, while the Romans were inflexible and determined. That was because the Greeks came first. If the Romans had come first they would have been fickle and the Greeks would have been determined. Our children must go through the Greek into the Roman period. The “ Greek period ” for “ the child” is fixed at about the sixth year. Why, the psychologists only know. There rises to view one little American whose curls his mother cannot be persuaded to cut off, who has developed, from the time whereof the memory of man runneth not to the contrary, a store of that trait which we admire as “ firmness ” when it goes our way, and condemn as “ obstinacy ” when it crosses our inclination. This supposably plastic, ductile, and malleable little creature has actually determination enough to have served the Roman Horatius at the Bridge, or, for that matter, Miltiades and his Greeks at Marathon, or even Leonidas and his Greeks at Thermopylæ. Nature has such reckless disregard for the most perfect theories.
Another school will have “ the child ” at five and six occupied wholly with aimless doing, — “ activity for the sake of activity.” He is supposed to be “ incapable as yet of planning for a future ” — “ of doing one thing with the distinct purpose of accomplishing another.” “In this condition,” we are told, “when the child is not interested in things or results for their own sake, only in the doing, he has no consecutive plan of consecutive doing ; hence he is not capable of propounding problems to himself. This is the kindergarten stage. Later on his actions are put in sequence, when he sees that . . . something else must be done before he can do the other something. He must do A before he does B. . . . The age of five or six will bring some capacity to regulate activities looking toward the future. But it is a growing opinion that it is near the age of eight that the child begins to see the end to be gained in contradistinction to something to be done.”
Well, if it takes the psychological “ child ” so long to get to the stage of consecutive reasoning and of planning for future results, the less we have to do with the psychological“ child ” the better. The assumption is not true of real children. The present writer knew, for instance, a little cherub of two years’ terrestrial experience, who found the cat in his high chair after he had left it, and went to eject her. The cat objected, and scratched his hand, whereupon he withdrew to think it over. That high chair was of the dislocating kind that can become a low easy-chair by pulling a handle. Two-year-old walked round the table, came up behind Pussy’s strategic position, pulled that handle, and brought the whole fortification down. The cat made a leap such as could only have been inspired by a conviction of the approaching end of all things ; and young humanity had established forever the “ dominion ” given him in Genesis over the “ beast of the field.”
On another occasion, a small boy scarcely beyond the age of three participated in the following dialogue : —
Older Sister. Now, Jamie, you must be ever so good, because I am making you some little biscuits.
Jamie (reflectively). Well, Mary, when you don’t make me any little biscuits, I don’t have to be ever so good.
The kindergarten or primary teacher who begins with that little boy at six, with the idea that she has two years to practice upon him “ before his reasoning powers develop,” will soon be disastrously undeceived.
Now comes a learned instructor with the “ fetich,” which he brings forward on the authority of the eminent philosopher Comte. Our ancestors were not only barbarians but savages. They had some objects which they considered incarnations of demons, which they worshiped because they were afraid of them. All primitive people must have done it because some tribes of savages do now. Hence there must be the fetich — the symbol of devil-worship — in the life of “ the child.” Where shall we find it ? Why, manifestly, in the little girl’s doll! We appeal to our readers of the gentler sex for the facts. Do you remember, ladies, a time when you used to worship your dolls because you were afraid of them, and thought they were incarnations of evil spirits ? But the learned specialist ought to know, and, according to him, that is what you must have done when you were little savages.
The mistake of all these systems is the attempt to treat “the child ” as an entity when God and nature have given us only children. “ The child ” is an abstraction simply evolved out of some professor’s inner consciousness, with no troublesome limitations of fact. Hence you can assert almost anything about “ the child,” and find something somewhere to fit the theory after it is made.
Let us try this method with “ the horse.” Here are two essays from two rival schools on this useful and interesting animal: —
THE HORSE. NO. I.
The horse is a heavy and powerful animal capable of drawing great loads, but not capable of high speed. He should not be driven faster than a walk, as there is danger of injuring his shoulders and making him permanently lame.
THE HORSE. NO. II.
The horse is a light, fleet, elegant animal capable of a very high speed, but not adapted for heavy draying. He should never be made to move great loads, as these will strain his delicate muscles, while the cramping of his activity will harm his sensitive nerves.
In proof of No. I., the author will point you to a draft horse, and No. II. shall be illustrated by a racer, with a reserve for the hunter that will gallop all day across country, sailing over all the fences and ditches he may find in his way.
Or, one may write a pair of essays on “ the fish,” thus: —
THE FISH. NO. I.
The fish is a tiny but elegant creature very shy of man and difficult to allure within his reach.
THE FISH. NO. II.
The fish is a huge marine animal of frightful aspect, often twenty feet in length, very fond of man, whom he is able to swallow in two bites.
Either of these descriptions can be proved absolutely true, but either would become arrant nonsense for the fisher who should flee in terror from the open mouth of a spotted trout or dangle a fly before the cavernous jaws of a shark.
What has been said is not with the purpose of decrying true “ child study.” A gifted woman has published a book called A Study of a Child. That is in the right direction. She has taken one real, living being and observed his traits, till she knows something of one child. If we can put enough such observations together we may have a helpful study of children. When Dr. Shaw conducts spelling tests with more than five thousand living children, and tabulates the results, he is working in the world of fact, and his conclusions have the authority that attaches to actual experiment. His discoveries let in new and helpful light upon the spelling problem. This is scientific, — gathering facts and combining them to form a theory. The opposite method — the forming of a theory first, evolving an abstract conception out of evolution and what not, and then going out to find something in children to fit the theory —is eminently unscientific. There is more value in the practical observations of a teacher who has taught year after year fifty or sixty children from the streets, just as they are caught, than in the closet theory of the most learned professor.
Life always transcends theory. By a priori reasoning, for instance, we should say that the learning of language would be one of the last attainments of the growing human being. Such a tax upon arbitrary memory in learning the thousands of words that make up the vocabulary ; so many various inflections, differing without reason, to express such nice shades of meaning, so that merely to conjugate the irregular verbs requires wearisome study; synonyms to be so finely differentiated ; homonyms, alike in sound, but different in meaning, — surely none but a mature mind can grasp all this, and one should not begin the study of language before the age of twenty-one.
But, in fact, children are found to have a marvelous natural aptitude for just this work. Their power of remembering words and retaining delicate shades of sound is not less, but far greater, than that of the adult. The professor takes his little children to Paris or Berlin, and while he is slaving over grammars and phrase books, they are chattering French or German like magpies. Moreover they acquire a perfect foreign accent, while his English tongue betrays him the moment he opens his mouth. The grown man can by no manner of means learn a new language so that his learning will match the easy familiarity that he gained in childhood with his “ mother tongue.” The fact is the exact reverse of what a priori theory would have reasoned out. So in countless instances of our dealing with children, our business is not to reason what must be, but to inquire what is.
Among the elements that give real children their charming diversity is the fact that they are boys and girls. “ The child ” is of no sex, though compendiously classified as “ he.” In real life, brothers and sisters grow up side by side, yet each with the typical tendencies of the sex. The little boy will get a stick, the emblem of mastery, the “ rod ” or “ staff ” of the chieftain of the olden time. He gets another for his sister, but it has no use or meaning for her, till she wraps a little garment around it, when it becomes a doll, to be tenderly cherished. So in one family, at least, it came to pass that if the carving-knife or the potato - masher was suddenly missing, the mother would look in the doll’s cradle, and there find it wrapped in a little gown and snugly tucked to rest. When, in a game of romps, the brother and sister were fleeing from an imaginary bear, the sister threw open a door and called, “ Oh, Harry, come in here and hide ! ” The brother spied a broom, seized it, and faced about, crying, “ No, Mary, here’s something to bang with ! ” The bear promptly resumed the human form. It is not science that ignores all this. What can be a greater absurdity than to obliterate these distinctions of taste and feeling of real boys and girls in the impersonal abstraction of “the child.”
The doctrine of heredity also has a hand in the make-up of the psychological “child.” To follow certain speakers and writers, one would think that if we knew the characteristics of a child’s parents we could cipher out his necessary character as easily as a sum in addition. But each of these parents has numerous traits of body and mind, which are capable of blending in infinitely varying shades. No man can predict just what or how that blending shall be. Then, as we trace the stream of heredity backward, we find that each child has had four grandparents, and eight great-grandparents, and combining their characteristics according to the law of permutation, we have at least forty thousand possible combinations. When our own little one is put into our arms, we do not know which one of these forty thousand permutations we have to deal with. Often our wonder comes to be how many of the forty thousand this little being includes at once. We give up all attempt to cipher him out by his ancestry, glad if we can but deal wisely with him for what he is.
When we reach that point, we are at once sensible and scientific. True science proceeds from the observed fact to the general law. Any system that would start with a general law by which to discern the individual fact is scholasticism or charlatanism, but not science. When science has gathered instances enough, it may formulate its general law, though even then the “ white blackbird ” is always likely to appear and spoil the wisest induction. Among human beings, the white blackbird — the unpredicable quantity — is likely to be the Shakespeare, the Newton, the Wordsworth, the Lincoln, or other doer of the unexpected. How many of these geniuses have been spoiled by being “ licked into shape,” to suit some supposedly universal proposition, passes computation. The parent or teacher wants nothing to do with any psychology that is not elastic enough to make room for the newest and rarest specimen.
We sometimes hear parents say, “I don’t see why my children have turned out so differently, when I have trained them all exactly alike.” That is reason enough. No two are alike, and the training that is right for one is ipso facto wrong for another. There is the sluggish who needs to be roused. There is the fiery and impetuous who would be almost maddened by the same excitements. There is the poetic and tender, to be guided largely through the affections. There is the practical and businesslike, to be dealt with chiefly on matter-of-fact grounds. Thus the training of real children calls out all the most various resources of parent or teacher, and is a wonderfully uplifting and developing process for one who accepts it rightly. But the study of “ the child ” as an abstraction can be done with a cold heart on unvarying maxims, amid which the theorist’s soul is continually contracting till you can hear the dry bones rattle, — pedagogy, pedagogics, pedagogical, psychology, psychological, apperceptions = mass !
For the teacher, the personal variation among the real children is increased by the varying influence of race, environment, and home life. Out of every nation under heaven they are poured into the public schoolroom. Some are accustomed to fear nothing but blows ; some are gently and tenderly reared. The check that would be necessary for one would be downright cruelty to another. So some theorists destroy all discipline by prescribing for the street Arab the mildness and sweetness and milk-and-water that might do for some child of tender nurture ; while others who have dealt mostly with the ruder element harrow the feelings, spoil the temper, and embitter the souls of gentle, thoughtful children, who need but a loving word of reproof or caution. In the school or in the home, we must individualize and deal with children, — not with “ the child.” Real children can receive sympathy and love, and give love and sympathy in return. But who can love an abstraction ? The psychologist does not think of such a thing. To him any young individual human being is simply a specimen of the abstract category called “ the child ; ” and he would be a much more satisfactory specimen if the psychologist could stick a pin in his back, fasten him on a card, put him in his “ mythological age,” or in his “ Greek period ” or “ Roman period,” and have him stay where he was put, — as a real child will not do. Love, on the contrary, is individual and personal. All of us who are parents love our dear little ones, with all their virtues and all their faults, — not as psychological specimens, but each as a personality, — for his or her own dear sake ; and in home, in school, or in the world, love is the mightiest of all moulding and transforming powers.
The great novelists and poets — whose power is in their deep knowledge of human nature — have ever given us individual children, never “ the child.” How perfect in this, as in all other respects, is the wisdom of the Great Teacher ! Christ never spoke of “ the child,” but said, “ Suffer the little children to come unto me.” “ He took them up in his arms, put his hands on them and blessed them.” He said : “ Whosoever shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven ; ” and “ Whosoever receiveth one of such children in my name receiveth me.”
James Champlin Fernald.