On Preserving Our Balance

THE CONTRIBUTORS’ CLUB

‘THE great art,’ said the White Knight when he was sticking ‘head-downwards’ in a ditch, ‘is to preserve your balance properly.’ One hears much nowadays, especially in Europe, of a trait known as ‘American get-there ability.’ No two people define this quality alike; yet a general opinion seems to have obtained that as a nation we have a characteristic facility for seizing upon new ideas and turning them into immediate and practical use. But as a matter of fact we don’t ‘get there ’ to stay, if in our haste we lose our power of wise discrimination. In this country we are far from being ‘head-downwards’ on the subject of child-psychology. On the contrary, with shoulders thrown back and colors flying, we have mounted our hobbies and are off and away! Before our children draw their first breath we start closing in upon them with every kind of theory. Theories to the right of them, theories to the left of them, they are often victims, as really as were the immortal Six Hundred, to the fact that ‘Some one has blundered.’ In taking our children conscientiously, why must we let our idea of duty ride rough-shod over common sense?

One wishes we would pause long enough to think things out for ourselves and so instill into the situation a saner judgment and possibly some humor. For over-seriousness imposed on a child may prove a veritable boomerang. A friend of mine, meeting a little girl at Christmas time, said to her, ‘ What did Santa Claus bring you for Christmas?’ To which the child replied, ‘ My father and my mother gave me a desk built on hygienic principles.’ There is an old French saying from the Roman de Renard, ‘D’on fust c’on kint sou vent eston battu.’ — ‘ By his own stick the prudent one is often beaten.’

We have made such undeniable progress in our methods of education that it seems all the more pity we have not stopped long enough here to differentiate between an experiment and a conclusion. Are we not in danger of forcing what is really worth while in our knowledge to such extremes that it defeats its own ends? The old saying that if you go too far east you will find yourself going west is applicable here. Often in listening to teachers of young children one gets a little worn with the superlative praise which attends their pupils’ efforts, and one wonders if the pupils will always have to be surrounded by such an atmosphere to succeed in the struggle of life. The key is pitched too high; and every endeavor, good, bad, and indifferent, is attuned to it. I know a little boy who came home from kindergarten one day with something he had made, so indefinite in shape that his mother, not quite sure what she must praise, asked him what it was. He answered her from the depth of his instinctive wisdom, ‘She [the teacher] talled it a dallant’ ip [gallant ship] but me knows it’s dus a boat.' I wish I could duplicate the scorn and disgust of his baby tone.

We all know how far the idea of Mother Goose as an unmoral book has obtained. In one modern abridged edition, ‘There was an old woman who lived in a shoe’ ends, ‘She gave them some broth and plenty of bread, And kissed them all fondly and sent them to bed.’ Why should the modern child be brought up with the wholly unnatural situation of the heavily burdened mother who behaves exactly as if nothing unusual had occurred? Their literary taste will be ruined if pursued on these lines. ‘Spanked them all soundly and sent them to bed’ is the only possible, logical course for a desperateminded woman who ‘did n’t know what to do.’

One delightful child I know protests against the new version. ‘Oh, please don’t read it that way; I like the old way best.’

‘Why?’

‘Oh, it’s so much jollier that way.’

‘More jolly having broth without any bread, and getting a spanking besides?’

‘Well, there were such lots and lots of them, it could n’t have been a hard spanking, you know, but the kind of a one when some one chases you with a stick and even if you do get a whack on the legs you don’t stop to think how much it hurts, you just run and run. It sounds so jolly, all of them together.’

‘But,’ I object, ‘it says “spanked them all soundly.” That sounds like real spanking.’

‘I like the old way best anyway,’ he affirms stoutly. ‘Real spankings are very nice in the morning.

‘In the morning?’ I ask mystified.

‘I always like the morning after I am spanked the best of all.’

Little philosopher of life, I call him, with a nice literary instinct!

There is a reading book which takes for its theme Mother Goose characters. Old friends, dear to every normal child’s heart, are dragged from between their comfortable covers and made to do duty in a reading book, as even more insufferable prigs than was the Rollo of my own early reading days. Then we knew instinctively that Rollo was a prig, and having put him in his proper place we wrested what wild enjoyment we could from him. But it is distressing to see ‘ Jack and Jill,’ ‘ Mary, Mary,’ and ‘Little Miss Muffet’ taken from their own vignetted setting of four or five lines and stretched out painfully through as many pages of utter twaddle. It is unfair to attack our children in such a way.

In a spelling book in use now in some of our public schools there are quotations from Alice in Wonderland at the head of several of the lessons. For instance, the lesson containing the words addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, is headed with: —

‘“I took only the regular course,” said the Mock Turtle.

'"What was that?” inquired Alice.

‘“Reeling and writhing, of course; to begin with,” the Mock Turtle replied, “and then the different branches of Arithmetic: Ambition, Distraction, Uglification, and Derision.” ’ This is followed by the words, ‘Make a list of your school studies which correspond to the Mock Turtle’s subjects.’ I wondered, when I saw it, how much these few lines, isolated and dislocated from a classic, would add either to the clearer understanding or to the culture of the Roumanians, Slavs, Italians, and the rest, who throng our public schools.

There is a volume of poetry selected for children which also illustrates what I have in mind. The poems are well chosen and the introduction to the work is good, but the whole book is marred by the explanatory notes with which each poem is prefaced. In the notes the idea of giving the children what is best in the thought of the poem has led to ludicrous misrepresentations. In each one the moral side has been the main, and in some, the only interpretation of them. As well stand before one of Monet’s subtle interpretations of water and look for the moral effect of it! It is such distortions as this which cripple the aesthetic value of certain things in education.

Why should we blunder by over-emphasizing the moral of a thing when its real value is preeminently an aesthetic one? It is as bad as playing an exquisite piece of music with a wrong and false accent all through. It is not reading it truthfully. It is artificial.

How Thackeray would have laughed (a laugh with some resentment in it, too) to have his ballad of ‘Little Billee’ introduced to the readers with the following words: ‘It carries a good lesson good-naturedly rendered.’ I cannot for the life of me find the ‘good lesson’ in it. I have tried to turn and twist every part of it into a lesson, but it still evades me. The nearest I can get to it is when ’little Billee,’ about to be eaten by ‘gorging Jack’ and ‘guzzling Jimmie,’ marks time by asking if he may climb to the ‘top-gallant mast-head’ and say ‘ the catechism which my poor mammy taught to me.’ But even then his mind could not have been upon his devotions with one eye carefully peeled for land ahead.

Again take the introduction to ‘Little Orphant Annie.’ It tells us ‘how truly a little child may be overtaxed and yet preserve a brave spirit and keen imagination’! This certainly has the advantage of being able to give Mr. James Whitcomb Riley a totally new point of view.

To ‘The Noble Nature’ of Ben Jonson is appended, ‘Small virtue well polished is better than none.’ The comment on Coleridge’s ‘Ancient Mariner’ is, ‘The lesson of this masterpiece is insensibility to crime.’

Truly the American conscience has run amuck here! The rainbow-colored bubble of one’s imagination has been pricked with a pen!

There seems to be among these unbalanced faddists an anxiety to interpret for the child. They lead him carefully along lest he miss something that would add to his more perfect development. Poor little bound-in feet that were made to fare forth joyously on their voyage of discovery! Cannot these people understand that they are insulting his common sense, that his intuitive perception will by itself lead him close to the spirit of the thing? It is the part of wisdom to lend a hand only when we find him going as far astray as a little boy of six who was reciting ‘Barbara Frietchie’ to me. After reciting the lines, —

‘ Who touches a hair of yon gray head
Dies like a dog! March on! ’ he said, —

with great elocutionary fire, he stopped suddenly; and then, after a moment’s thought, he asked, ‘Do you know why the leader would n’t let his soldiers shoot her?’

‘No,’ I said. ‘Why?’

‘Because he did n’t want to waste any of his dood bullets on dat old gray head!’