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An essay by John Brown

Education Through The Senses

Title:     Education Through The Senses
Author: John Brown [More Titles by Brown]

{Proton chorton, eita stachyn, eita plere siton en to stachui}.

One of the chief sins of our time is hurry: it is helter-skelter, and devil take the hind-most. Off we go all too swift at starting, and we neither run so fast nor so far as we would have done, had we taken it _cannily_ at first. This is true of a boy as well as of a blood colt. Not only are boys and colts made to do the work and the running of full-grown men and horses, but they are hurried out of themselves and their _now_, and pushed into the middle of next week where nobody is wanting them, and beyond which they frequently never get.

The main duty of those who care for the young is to secure their wholesome, their entire growth, for health is just the development of the whole nature in its due sequences and proportions: first the blade--then the ear--then, and not till then, the full corn in the ear; and thus, as Dr. Temple wisely says, "not to forget wisdom in teaching knowledge." If the blade be forced, and usurp the capital it inherits; if it be robbed by you its guardian of its birthright, or squandered like a spendthrift, then there is not any ear, much less any corn; if the blade be blasted or dwarfed in our haste and greed for the full shock and its price, we spoil all three. It is not easy to keep this always before one's mind, that the young "idea" is in a young body, and that healthy growth and harmless passing of the time are more to be cared for than what is vainly called accomplishment. We are preparing him to run his race, and accomplish _that_ which is one of his chief ends; but we are too apt to start him off at his full speed, and he either bolts or breaks down--the worst thing for him generally being to win. In this way a child or boy should be regarded much more as a mean than as an end, and his cultivation should have reference to this; his mind, as old Montaigne said, should be forged, as well as--indeed, I would say, rather than--furnished, fed rather than filled,--two not always coincident conditions. Now exercise--the joy of interest, of origination, of activity, of excitement--the play of the faculties,--this is the true life of a boy, not the accumulation of mere words. Words--the coin of thought--unless as the means of buying something else, are just as useless as other coin when it is hoarded; and it is as silly, and in the true sense as much the part and lot of a _miser_, to amass words for their own sakes, as to keep all your guineas in a stocking and never spend them, but be satisfied with every now and then looking greedily at them and making them chink. Therefore it is that I dislike--as indeed who doesn't?--the cramming system. The great thing with knowledge and the young is to secure that it shall be their own--that it be not merely external to their inner and real self, but shall go _in succum et sanguinem_; and therefore it is, that the self-teaching that a baby and a child give themselves remains with them forever--it is of their essence, whereas what is given them _ab extra_, especially if it be received mechanically, without relish, and without any energizing of the entire nature, remains pitifully useless and _wersh_. Try, therefore, always to get the resident teacher _inside the skin_, and who is forever giving his lessons, to help you and be on your side.

Now in children, as we all know, _he_ works chiefly through the senses. The quantity of accurate observation--of induction, and of deduction too (both of a much better quality than most of Mr. Buckle's); of reasoning from the known to the unknown; of inferring; the nicety of appreciation of the like and the unlike, the common and the rare, the odd and the even; the skill of the rough and the smooth--of form, of appearance, of texture, of weight, of all the minute and deep philosophies of the touch and of the other senses,--the amount of this sort of objective knowledge which every child of eight years has acquired--especially if he can play in the lap of nature and out of doors--and acquired for life, is, if we could only think of it, marvellous beyond any of our mightiest marches of intellect. Now, could we only get the knowledge of the school to go as sweetly and deeply and clearly into the vitals of the mind as this self-teaching has done, and this is the paradisiac way of it, we should make the young mind grow as well as learn, and be in understanding a man as well as in simplicity a child; we should get rid of much of that dreary, sheer endurance of their school-hours--that stolid lending of ears that do not hear--that objectless looking without ever once seeing, and straining their minds without an aim; alternating, it may be, with some feats of dexterity and effort, like a man trying to lift himself in his own arms, or take his head in his teeth, exploits as dangerous, as ungraceful, and as useless, except to glorify the showman and bring wages in, as the feats of an acrobat.

But you will ask, how is all this to be avoided if everybody must know how far the sun is from _Georgium Sidus_, and how much of phosphorus is in our bones, and of ptyalin and flint in human spittle--besides some 10,000 times 10,000 other things which we must be told and try to remember, and which we cannot prove not to be true, but which I decline to say we _know_.

But _is_ it necessary that everybody should know everything? Is it not much more to the purpose for every man, when his turn comes, to be able to _do_ something; and I say, that other things being equal, a boy who goes bird-nesting, and makes a collection of eggs, and knows all their colors and spots, going through the excitements and glories of getting them, and observing everything with a keenness, an intensity, an exactness, and a permanency, which only youth and a quick pulse, and fresh blood and spirits combined, can achieve,--a boy who teaches himself natural history in this way, is not only a healthier and happier boy, but is abler in mind and body for entering upon the great game of life, than the pale, nervous, bright-eyed, feverish, "interesting" boy, with a big head and a small bottom and thin legs, who is the "captain," the miracle of the school; dux for his brief year or two of glory, and, _if he live_, booby for life. I am, of course, not going in for a complete _curriculum_ of general ignorance; but I am for calling the attention of teachers to drawing out the minds, the energies, the hearts of their pupils through their senses, as well as pouring in through these same apertures the general knowledge of mankind, the capital of the race, into this one small being, who it is to be hoped will contrive to forget much of the mere words he has unhappily learned.

For we may say of our time in all seriousness, what Sydney Smith said in the fulness of his wisdom and his fun, of the pantologic master of Trinity--Science is our _forte_; omniscience is our _foible_. There is the seed of a whole treatise, a whole organon in this joke; think over it, and let it simmer in your mind, and you will feel its significance and its power. Now, what is _science_ so called to every 999 men in 1000, but something that the one man tells them he has been told by some one else--who may be one among say 50,000--is true, but of the truth of which these 999 men (and probably even the teaching thousandth man) can have no direct test, and, accordingly, for the truth or falsehood of which they, by a law of their nature, which rejects what has no savor and is superfluous, don't care one fig. How much better, how much dearer, and more precious in a double sense, because it has been bought by themselves,--how much nobler is the knowledge which our little friend, young Edward Forbes, "that marvellous boy," for instance--and what an instance!--is picking up, as he looks into everything he sees, and takes photographs upon his retina--the _camera lucida_ of his mind--which never fade, of every midge that washes its face as a cat does, and preens its wings, every lady-bird that alights on his knee, and folds and unfolds her gauzy pinions under their spotted and glorious lids. How more real is not only this knowledge, but this little knowledger in his entire nature, than the poor being who can maunder amazingly the entire circle of human science at second, or it may be, twentieth hand!

There are some admirable, though cursory remarks on "Ornithology as a Branch of Liberal Education," by the late Dr. Adams of Banchory, the great Greek scholar, in a pamphlet bearing this title, which he read as a paper before the last meeting of the British Association in Aberdeen. It is not only interesting as a piece of natural history, and a touching cooeperation of father and son in the same field--the one on the banks of his own beautiful Dee and among the wilds of the Grampians, the other among the Himalayas and the forests of Cashmere; the son having been enabled, by the knowledge of his native birds got under his father's eye, when placed in an unknown country to recognize his old feathered friends, and to make new ones and tell their story; it is also valuable as coming from a man of enormous scholarship and knowledge--the most learned physician of his time--who knew Aristotle and Plato, and all those old fellows, as we know Maunder or Lardner--a hard-working country surgeon, who was ready to run at any one's call--but who did not despise the modern enlightenments of his profession, because they were not in Paulus Agineta; though, at the same time, he did not despise the admirable and industrious Paul because he was not up to the last doctrine of the nucleated cell, or did not read his Hippocrates by the blaze of Paraffine; a man greedy of all knowledge, and welcoming it from all comers, but who, at the end of a long life of toil and thought, gave it as his conviction that one of the best helps to true education, one of the best counteractives to the necessary mischiefs of mere scientific teaching and information, was to be found in getting the young to teach themselves some one of the natural sciences, and singling out ornithology as one of the readiest and most delightful for such a life as his.

I end these intentionally irregular remarks by a story. Some years ago I was in one of the wildest recesses of the Perthshire Highlands. It was in autumn, and the little school supported mainly by the Chief, who dwelt all the year round in the midst of his own people, was to be examined by the minister, whose native tongue, like that of his flock, was Gaelic, and who was as awkward and ineffectual, and sometimes as unconsciously indecorous, in his English, as a Cockney is in his kilt. It was a great occasion: the keen-eyed, firm-limbed, brown-cheeked little fellows were all in a buzz of excitement as we came in, and before the examination began every eye was looking at us strangers as a dog looks at his game, or when seeking it; they knew everything we had on, everything that could be known through their senses. I never felt myself so studied and scrutinized before. If any one could have examined them upon what they thus mastered, Sir Charles Trevelyan and John Mill would have come away astonished, and, I trust, humble. Well then, the work of the day began; the mill was set a-going, and what a change! In an instant their eyes were like the windows of a house with the blinds down; no one was looking out; everything blank; their very features changed--their jaws fell, their cheeks flattened, they drooped and looked ill at ease--stupid, drowsy, sulky--and getting them to speak, or think, or in any way to energize, was like trying to get any one to come to the window at three of a summer morning, when, if they do come, they are half awake, rubbing their eyes and growling. So with my little Celts. They were like an idle and half asleep collie by the fireside, as contrasted with the collie on the hill and in the joy of work; the form of dog and boy are there--he, the self of each, was elsewhere (for I differ from Professor Ferrier in thinking that the dog _has_ the reflex ego, and is a very knowing being.) I noticed that anything they really knew roused them somewhat; what they had merely to transmit or pass along, as if they were a tube through which the master blew the pea of knowledge into our faces, was performed as stolidly as if they were nothing but a tube.

At last the teacher asked where Sheffield was, and was answered; it was then pointed to by the dux, as a dot on a skeleton map. And now came a flourish. "What is Sheffield famous for?" Blank stupor, hopeless vacuity, till he came to a sort of sprouting Dougal Cratur--almost as wee, and as glegg, and as tousy about the head, as my own Kintail terrier, whom I saw at that moment through the open door careering after a hopeless rabbit, with much benefit to his muscles and his wind--who was trembling with keenness. He shouted out something which was liker "cutlery" than anything else, and was received as such amid our rapturous applause. I then ventured to ask the master to ask small and red Dougal what cutlery was; but from the sudden erubescence of his pallid, ill-fed cheek, and the alarming brightness of his eyes, I twigged at once that _he_ didn't himself know what it meant. So I put the question myself, and was not surprised to find that not one of them, from Dougal up to a young strapping shepherd of eighteen, knew what it was.

I told them that Sheffield was famous for making knives, and scissors, and razors, and that cutlery meant the manufacture of anything that cuts. Presto! and the blinds were all up, and eagerness, and _nous_, and brains at the window. I happened to have a Wharncliffe, with "Rodgers and Sons, Sheffield," on the blade. I sent it round, and finally presented it to the enraptured Dougal. Would not each one of those boys, the very boobiest there, know that knife again when they saw it, and be able to pass a creditable competitive examination on all its ins and outs? and wouldn't they remember "cutlery" for a day or two! Well, the examination over, the minister performed an oration of much ambition and difficulty to himself and to us, upon the general question, and a great many other questions, into which his Gaelic subtilty fitted like the mists into the hollows of Ben-a-Houlich, with, it must be allowed, a somewhat similar tendency to confuse and conceal what was beneath; and he concluded with thanking the Chief, as he well might, for his generous support of "this aixlent CEMETERY of aedication." Cemetery indeed! The blind leading the blind, with the ancient result; the dead burying their dead.

Now, not greater is the change we made from that low, small, stifling, gloomy, mephitic room, into the glorious open air, the loch lying asleep in the sun, and telling over again on its placid face, as in a dream, every hill and cloud, and birch and pine, and passing bird and cradled boat; the Black Wood of Rannoch standing "in the midst of its own darkness," frowning out upon us like the Past disturbed, and far off in the clear ether, as in another and a better world, the dim Shepherds of Etive pointing, like ghosts at noonday, to the weird shadows of Glencoe;--not greater was this change, than is that from the dingy, oppressive, weary "cemetery" of mere word-knowledge to the open air, the light and liberty, the divine infinity and richness of nature and her teaching.

We cannot change our time, nor would we if we could. It is God's time as well as ours. And our time is emphatically that for achieving and recording and teaching man's dominion over and insight into matter and its forces--his subduing the earth; but let us turn now and then from our necessary and honest toil in this neo-Platonic cavern where we win gold and renown, and where we often are obliged to stand in our own light, and watch our own shadows as they glide, huge and misshapen, across the inner gloom; let us come out betimes with our gold, that we may spend it and get "goods" for it, and when we can look forth on that ample world of daylight which we can never hope to overrun, and into that overarching heaven where, amid clouds and storms, lightning and sudden tempest, there is revealed to those who look for them, lucid openings into the pure, deep empyrean, "as it were the very body of heaven in its clearness;" and when, best of all, we may remember Who it is who stretched out these heavens as a tent to dwell in, and on whose footstool we may kneel, and out of the depths of our heart cry aloud,--

Te Deum veneramur,
Te Sancte Pater!

we shall return into our cave, and to our work, all the better of such a lesson, and of such a reasonable service, and dig none the worse.

Science which ends in itself, or still worse, returns upon its maker, and gets him to worship himself, is worse than none; it is only when it makes it more clear than before who is the Maker and Governor, not only of the objects, but of the subjects of itself, that knowledge is the mother of virtue. But this is an endless theme. My only aim in these desultory hints is to impress parents and teachers with the benefits of the _study_, the personal engagement--with their own hands and eyes, and legs and ears--in some form or another of natural history, by their children and pupils and themselves, as counteracting evil, and doing immediate and actual good. Even the immense activity in the Post-Office-stamp line of business among our youngsters has been of immense use in many ways, besides being a diversion and an interest. I myself came to the knowledge of Queensland, and a great deal more, through its blue twopenny.

If any one wishes to know how far wise and clever and patriotic men may occasionally go in the way of giving "your son" a stone for bread, and a serpent for a fish,--may get the nation's money for that which is not bread, and give their own labor for that which satisfies no one; industriously making sawdust into the shapes of bread, and chaff into the appearance of meal, and contriving, at wonderful expense of money and brains, to show what can be done in the way of feeding upon wind,--let him take a turn through certain galleries of the Kensington Museum.

"Yesterday forenoon," writes a friend, "I went to South Kensington Museum. It is really an absurd collection. A great deal of valuable material and a great deal of perfect rubbish. The analyses are even worse than I was led to suppose. There is an ANALYSIS OF A MAN. First, a man contains so much water, and there you have the amount of water in a bottle; so much albumen, and there is the albumen; so much phosphate of lime, fat, haematin, fibrine, salt, etc., etc. Then in the next case so much carbon; so much phosphorus--a bottle with sticks of phosphorus; so much potassium, and there is a bottle with potassium; calcium, etc. They have not bottles of oxygen, hydrogen, chlorine, etc., but they have cubical pieces of wood on which is written 'the quantity of oxygen in the human body would occupy the space of 170 (_e. g._) cubes of the size of this,' etc., etc." What earthly good can this do any one?

No wonder that the bewildered beings whom I have seen wandering through these rooms, yawned more frequently and more desperately than I ever observed even in church.

So then, cultivate observation, energy, handicraft, ingenuity, _outness_ in boys, so as to give them a pursuit as well as a study. Look after the blade, and don't coax or crush the ear out too soon, and remember that the full corn in the ear is not due till the harvest, when the great School breaks up, and we must all dismiss and go our several ways.

[The end]
John Brown's essay: Education Through The Senses