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The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
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Gaiety in Education: Or, A Study in Augustine and Calvin

by Author Name
Volume 7, 1896, pgs. 39-45


Few will deny in these days that gaiety has a leading place in education. The belief in gaiety as an important factor in the training of a child has not always prevailed. A joyless childhood has been, and perhaps occasionally is still, the lot of many children. This is apparent in many biographies, and is confirmed by common observation. There have always been some persons who start children on the voyage of life by reading to them a funeral service. They had better cheer the little craft as it clears the harbour bar, because the heavens will grow black often enough before the other shore is reached, and abundance of animal spirit is needed to weather the storms of life in safety.

Although our mental states are closely dependent upon physical health, brief experience is enough to demonstrate the frequent triumph of a cheerful mind over great bodily infirmity; and among mysteries there is none more unaccountable than the power possessed by the human spirit of continuing strong, healthy and creative in an ailing, crazy and rickety frame. The merriest in a group of people is often he who has the least cause for mirth and greatest excuse for depression of spirit. Gaiety of heart is of course often an advantage of natural disposition; but, like most other virtues, it is for average human beings largely a matter of training.

It has always been the view of some, that children have by nature too much animal spirit, and that so far from cultivation, what is needed is continuous repression. Disinterested spectators for the most part disapprove such repression, and delinquencies in later life are often justifies or excused by the remark that "as children, the delinquents were kept in hand very tightly at home," "fast bind, fast find," or similar, more of less, sympathetic comments. A joyless childhood will seldom be followed by a frank and straightforward manhood. Most children are by nature inclined to be gay, and their gaiety approves itself to common sense. What cause then leads some parents and guardians to frustrate nature? There are some even who agree with a certain farmer's advice about boys: "Whenever you see a boy, beat him. If he is not naughty, he is going to be." Some grown persons who are not sympathetic become easily wearied with the mirth of a child, which bubbles over in froth and clamour and noisy activity. Other people, again, note how quickly in some children mirth becomes over-excitement, and is followed by an inevitable reaction of depression, and may fear this tidal flow of animal spirits as injurious to mind and body.

Other people again, knowing that in most cases a child's feelings towards his parents must be a mixture of love and fear, find it easier to work on the fears than on the affections of their offspring. Hence they are a little afraid of laughter when he comes "holding both his sides." Laughter seems to them the mutiny of the flesh against the sovereignty of reason. Yet of we judge from the effects on the body of a hearty laugh, we must own that there is medicine in it. The biologist tells us that "laughter is a series of short expirations more or less accompanied with noise, depending chiefly on vigorous contractions of the diaphragm, and accompanied by involuntary contractions of the facial muscles, especially the zygomatic."

Most animals can make a noise of some kind, but only men can laugh. From a physical point of view, doubtless the definition which is given above covers all kinds of laughter; but it is probably impossible to bring within the limits of a definition all its psychological aspects, often as this has been attempted, from the days of Aristotle until now.

It has been said, with some show of truth, that the character of the laughter is apparent in the vowel sound which is audible in his laugh. For instance, laughter in "a" (or "a" sounded as in father), Ha, ha, ha," marks a choleric temperament like that of Sir Anthony Absolute. Laughter in "o" is the sign of a generous, hearty and sanguine nature. Then there is the melancholy laugh and the nervous laugh, which are vocalized respectively with the sound of "a" in late, and "e." lastly, there is the laugh of rogues, hypocrites and cynics, where the vowel sound is half smothered, and may be expressed as "u," spoken like the French diphthong "eu."

Some poisons, such as belladonna, were said to cause artificial laughter, by contracting the muscles mechanically, and as these toxic plants grew in Sardinia, men spoke of forced laugh or grin as Sardonic. This paper deals only with laughter which is an expression of mirth. Children should have only to do with laughter in "o." the expression of their mirth should be round and complete and full-breathed. No feeling of anger or sorrow or hypocrisy, should check the full expression of their vocal chords. Then we can say with Rabelais,

"Oh, sweet and heavenly sound to hear them laugh." Laughter is really a necessary factor in physical education, and is of no less consequence in the other two braches of education described respectively as intellectual and moral training, for physiologists tell us that laughter is conducive to health, because it facilitates digesting, strengthens the frame, and is a remedy against feelings of fatigue and weariness of spirit. Laughter helps both the heart and lungs to do their duty better, and tends to improve circulation and digestion. Food becomes more nourishing under its influence, and the blood is better purified, for the blood of the laughter has no time to linger in the great organs, as it loves to do in persons of morose temperament, but as under the spell of Mercury (the god I mean and not the drug) dances forward, "and runs trickling up and down the veins. Such virtue hath that idiot laughter."

But laughter playing such a chief part in physical training, it would be strange if there were nothing corresponding to these benefits in its effect on the child's moral welfare, as though it were only medicine for the body. What sort of a child is it that never laughs? It is either one who has no vital energy to spare and requires all his little stock of vital force to keep his body and soul together, or else one who morbidly concentrates all his physical strength upon particular and limited spheres of reflection; a brooding child, whose book of life is edited without the lighter chapters, which so much enliven the rest of the pages; an early genius, or perhaps a budding lunatic. A sad child is a sad specimen of childhood, for the child who seldom laughs is apt to brood over small social troubles such as must arise from daily intercourse with his companions, and also over mental perplexities which are suggested to him unwittingly, through remarks which are made in his presence by parents, teachers and others, or by chance conversation and general reading. The child who never laughs is apt to be morose, sullen and un forgiving, remembering wrong and planning little schemes of revenge.

Yet laughter is the right way to allay the natural irritation arising from small acts of injustice, whether intentional or otherwise, which throw frequent shadows across the path of life, from the font to the lychgate. The worst lesson which a child can learn from the teaching of the world is the laugh of the cynic, because it tends to make trifles of things serious. On the other hand, one of the best of lessons, is the mirth of Mark Tapley, which makes trifles of serious troubles, and not merely grins and bears, but bears with lightness of humour.

I sometimes think English people find it harder to get over small annoyances with levity than French people do. I once saw a party of English people in holiday attire, approach incautiously too near a llama in the Zoological Gardens. Of course the gentle creature spit at them in his peculiar way, and spoilt their smart clothes. They too went away quite spoilt in temper for the rest of the afternoon. Soon after a still smarter party of French people were treated by the llama with the same attention, and instead of exhibiting any sign of irritation the ladies laughed till the cause for annoyance was completely forgotten.

The spirit of fun arises in a child in a different way from that which it originates in grown-up people. When we cease to be children, what makes us laugh is amusing thoughts. While we are children, what amuses us is amusing sights. Of fun in the child we may say "it is engendered in the eye, and is by gazing fed." A young school boy may get as far as to enjoy what Sidney Smith allowed to be the lowest kind of wit, claiming for it in consequence the right to be called the foundation of all wit, namely, a pun; but there is a previous stage, where mirth is born only of unexpected turns in things visible. If the wind carries off a man's hat , and he has to chase the same down the street, the small boy will have no compassion for the misfortune. He simply laughs without constraint. If a pompous alderman, or policeman in his solemn pacing down the pavement, happens to slip and fall, so that instead of walking onwards he sits on a flag-stone, the small boy will laugh till tears roll down his cheeks, not that he is amused because someone is in trouble, but because the unexpected transition from a position of assured superiority to one of little dignity, tickles the boy's fancy.

We must not be disappointed if young children's jokes seem to us, of riper years, no laughing matter; nor if we find on the other hand, that what amuses us, bores them to death. It is wise to look at the outside world as much as possible from their point of view. After all, much good may be learnt, even in riper years, by looking at some things with the eyes of a child. A sense of fun would save many a dignitary from attacks of excessive dignity. Biography shows that the more childlike the man, often the more manlike his conduct. The fact is, a child needs a large reserve of gaiety. His life is apt to appear to him a constant succession of small checks to his wishes, which he finds opposed either by the constitution of things, as when he cries for the moon, or the will of his elders, as when he is forbidden to sit up till midnight. If he cannot take all these small hindrances to contentment laughing, he will be liable to pass a rather unhappy time in childhood. How then, once more, has laughter come to be looked upon by some with suspicion? Clemens of Alexandria, for instance, wrote that laughter does not become a Christian; and the second Council of Carthage uttered anathema on jokes which move laughter (Verba joculatoria risum moventia). The Preacher, too, deprecated mirth—"Sorrow is better than laughter, for as the crackling to thorns under a pot, so is the laughter of fools."

Of course laughter forms no exception to human endowments. It is liable to abuse. Can anything be rational which cannot be used rationally? Laughter weakens the will for the moment, and therefore in bad company it is well avoided. But because a soldier is prudent who wears his armour in the midst of the enemy, shall he never take it off even among friends?

Laughter, again, as a mere expression of coarse sensuality cannot be defended; such laughter is unworthy of a Christian. There is, too, a merriment which loosens moral fibre, as laughter at vice, or laughter at other people's infirmities, or at the suffering of animals. There is, too, a peculiarly hateful laughter arising from a sense of physical or intellectual superiority,--the "insolens loetitia" or "hubris" of the ancient Romans and Greeks.

But, after all, though life is a thorn-bush there are roses on it. I suppose the Calvinists have, since the Reformation period, been among those who have brought up youth after the strictest methods. They held mirth in suspicion. There is much in the life of a modern child which to an old Calvinist would have appeared wrong, because he would have thought it distracting and deleterious to concentration and simplicity.

The Calvinists loved to simplify life. They aimed, as it were, at dignity of outline, such as is seen in a fine building when viewed at a distance, rather than at the infinite grace of workmanship, in minor details, which crowd on the sight when the spectator approaches nearer. Music, for instance, and dancing and drawing, and the love of colour and form and harmonious sound, appeared to them dangerous occupations for children. Such delights seemed to be distracting, and at any rate superfluous. The theatre, the novel, and the poem, are likely, they thought, to lead the mind away from the main purpose of life and the "chief end of man." It was different in the Medieval Church. This absence of gaiety was no part of the precept or practice of the church. The impression which many persons receive from a Gothic cathedral is one of gloom and sadness. For myself I am no more struck by the revelation of sympathy with the varied exuberance of life which I find expressed in them. It is true that the focus of all design is centered on the Cross and the solemnity of the Passion, but in minor details there is an evident determination to assimilate the world as a whole and take it as it is, the evil with the god. Every column is covered with fruit or foliage, and the wall spaces are filled with carvings of scenes of harvest or vintage, or other common pursuits of mankind. Quaint birds and animal peep out from among the leaves, and even human frailties receive their share of the artist's attention, while types of laughing faces are frequent enough, not to mention endless grotesques, which move to merriment. In the present day we seem to be somewhat over oppressed by the mystery of pain, while in those days the sense of this unfathomable mystery was tempered by a rich feeling of sympathy with the abundant manifestations of joy in creation. Christendom would then have understood Kant's view, that children must be accustomed to unrestrained laughter, because mirth stamps a merry look on the face, and by degrees stamps itself also on the mind and leads to a disposition to friendliness, gaiety and benevolence. At the present day, perhaps, in the mystery of things, joy, not pain, is the greatest. We seem now-a-days so familiar with the sense of effort in creation and the struggle, that we forget the other scenes in life's drama. Many seem to be so depressed as to feel that sorrow is the only fact in the order of things. The only text all seem to take to heart is, "The whole creation groaneth and travaileth together in pain." The fact is, children in many cases require a training in gaiety of spirit as much as in the development of other faculties. "Fast bind, fast find," as Hood wittily put it. The influence of the gloomy genius of Mr. Calvin has been the wreck of many a young person, although in those that survived the effect of it, how strong was their character, how determined in purpose, how tenacious in discouragement, and how obstinate in opposition.

Regarding this type of character everyone must feel some respect for the rigid spirit which would develop the nature of the child by repression, and secure concentration of the light of life by cutting off all the side rays.

(To be continued.)