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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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Mental Overstrain in Education

A Paper read to the Richmond and Kew Branch, P.N.E.U.
by G. E. Shuttleworth, B.A., M.D., &c.
Volume 8, 1897, pgs. 365-374


In venturing to make a few remarks to this Society upon a somewhat trite subject I must plead as justification the fact that, notwithstanding much that has been said and written in the way of warning by men and women more experienced than myself, there still exist indications of a tendency to mental overstrain in certain departments of education. In the consideration of the subject it may be well to clear the ground by discussing the questions (1) What is education? and (2) What is meant by education overpressure, or such pressure in education as is likely to result in mental overstrain? and (3) finally, to inquire into the incidence, the causation, and the signs of such overpressure. A few words may follow as regards prevention and treatment.

To answer the question, What is education? it may be useful to consider what it is not. With some so-called educationalists I fear the idea still lingers that it consists in cramming a mind with as much of as many subjects as possible. Our laughing philosopher Mr. Punch has, however, very truly observed that "you cannot ladle grammar, arithmetic, and geography into a child's brain as you would brimstone and treacle into his stomach"; indeed a smattering of philology will serve to show that the word "education" means not "putting in" but "drawing out." As Froebel truly remarks, "The purpose of teaching is to bring ever more out of man, rather than to put more and more into him." And, bearing in mind the physiological interdependence of bodily and mental development, we may say that true education consists in processes of training which will produce in a given individual the most favourable evolution possible of all the faculties both of body and mind. A rational educational system will of course recognise the fact that children are not cast in the same mould, that there are inherent--often inherited--differences in each pupil's powers, and that to attain the best results instruction must be adapted to personal peculiarities, and proportioned to varying capacities. Moreover, the comprehensive and far-reaching character of education must be borne in mind, including as it does--as Paley puts its--"every preparation that is made in our youth for the sequel of our lives." From the theoretical stand-point, indeed, we shall all be ready to reply in the affirmative to the query of Plato, "Is not that the best education which gives to the mind and to the body all the force, all the beauty, and all the perfection of which they are capable?" Overpressure in education may in brief be described as a neglect of the principles just set forth-a neglect which cannot fail to lead to mental overstrain. Thus a cast-iron code imposing for each year of age a definite standard of acquirement, heedless of the varying capacities of children, could not fail to produce it. A disregard of physical conditions underlying mental evolution and of critical epochs of development affecting capacity for exertion is another efficient cause. And the undue excitation of the unstable nerve cells of a child of neurotic heredity to such a pitch of activity as might be harmless in a normal child will, in the case of the former, be apt to constitute overstrain. And let me remark that it is just these children of "highly-strung" parents who are precocious, and liable to be urged on beyond their strength by indiscreet admirers of juvenile genius. Overpressure, indeed, is not an absolute quantity, but has to be estimated in relation to the personal factor in each case. It may therefore be defined, in terms of educational work, as that amount which in a given case is likely to produce excessive strain of the physical or mental system, or both.

We pass now to the consideration of its incidence. Since 1870 every young Briton has been compelled to submit to educational processes of some description or other between the ages of five and fourteen. School attendance is, however, allowed to count towards a grant from the early age of three, and in some schools there are what are called "babies' classes." Formerly the leading idea with regard to these poor juveniles was that the function of school was to teach them to sit still, regardless of the incessant impulse to movement which characterizes all healthy young animals. Charles Kingsley long ago satirized the "foolish fathers and mothers who instead of letting their children pick flowers and make dirt-pies, as little children should, kept them always working, working, working . . . till their brains grew big and their bodies grew small and they were all changed into turnips with little but water inside." And in days not far distant we have heard of hydrocephalus (water on the brain) as an alleged product of mental overstrain in early years; indeed, it is reasonable to conclude that, where a tendency to consumptive disease exists, brain congestion from overstrain and the stuffy germ-laden atmosphere of certain schoolrooms may conduce to tubercular brain affections. To-day a more enlightened view obtains as to the treatment of infants; and the Educational Department now officially directs the fostering of "the spontaneous and co-operative activity of such scholars." The musical drill, kindergarten games, varied occupations, and other exercises now so much in vogue in infant schools, are no doubt extremely beneficial, and in spite of sensational allegations to the contrary, I think we may conclude that with sanitary safeguards the infants in our elementary schools are better off than they would be at home or in the streets, where they would be receiving the dubious education of the gutter. Although precocious children are sometimes injured by being pushed into prominence, it is not in the infant schools that we shall often meet with instances of overstrain. Nor is there nowadays, I think, so much evidence of overpressure in elementary schools for boys and girls as was noticed some twelve years ago by my distinguished confrere, Sir James Chrichton Browne. At that time he proved to his own satisfaction (if not to that of the Education Department) that more than one-third of the children attending elementary schools in London suffered from habitual headache (52.5 of the girls and 40.5 of the boys). He argued, moreover, from the increased prevalence of nervous disease in children-and he cited in support of his argument the increase since the passing of the Education Act in the juvenile mortality from brain inflammation and from certain diseases with marked nervous affinities, and from the frequency with which he had met with chorea, with stammering, and with neuralgia in school children examined-that overpressure certainly existed in connection with compulsory education in elementary schools. In those days it would seem to have affected most severely the backward children, classified by Sir James Crichton Browne as either "dull, starved, or delicate," the code requirements of that date conducing to the whipping up as far as possible of all children to definite age standards. Happily, grants are no longer made on the percentage of passes in standards arranged according to age, but after examination of the scholars by sample. Her Majesty's Inspectors are also authorized to ask the teacher to select a few of the best children for examination in the several subjects, so that the tendency now is not so much to press unduly the dull children as to work up the brighter children to a point that shall dazzle the inspector. Unfortunately (as I have observed) bright precocious children are not unfrequently the offspring of highly-strung parents, and it is just these that are likely to break down under emotional excitement and the pressure of an examination in prospect. From all I have been able to gather from teachers and from the children's hospitals in London, it would seem that it is this class that nowadays furnish cases of school headache, of chorea, and other nervous affections, more particularly about the periods of examination.

Competitive examinations are indeed a necessary evil of this great and glorious Victorian age (which might indeed by dubbed the "saeculum examinativum"); we do not question their necessity in the stage of social evolution at which we have arrived, but nevertheless they have some great drawbacks, both moral, mental and physical. "They make brain-work mercenary, and they often stimulate the wrong sort of brain-work . . . Intellectual improvement for its own sake is at a discount; there is no leisure for general reading (of a voluntary character), for the brain must be encumbered with nothing which does not bring marks." * It is obvious that this is a mean motive for a young boy's educational aspirations; and the risks of mental overstrain under such conditions are great.

I fear I should hardly be justified in saying that in schools for senior boys there is no overpressure, but in the great public schools, and others following their methods, the tendency to brain-strain is counteracted by a goodly proportion of out-door exercise and physical exertion in the way of games. Happily schools of the type of Dr. Blimber's, satirized by Dickens as "a great hothouse in which there was a forcing apparatus constantly at work, and mental green-peas were produced at Christmas, and intellectual asparagus all the year round," are not now so common as formerly. It is remarkable that at the present day the youths most liable to overpressure are those with whom one would have thought that physical fitness should be the paramount consideration--I mean those preparing for army examinations. Yet I find in the New Review a Scottish headmaster complaining: "It is with some difficulty I have secured for our own army class exercise enough to keep them in good health--to say no more. They are exiles from the debating society, and I had to drive them off work on Sunday (!) with the grudgingly conceded exception of geometrical drawing." And Dr. Almond further remarks: "From a national point of view the case is very serious indeed," inasmuch as the process that army candidates must go through to ensure success "tends to weaken, even to abolish, more or less what they have of governing qualities--as robustness, vital energy, nervous force, wholesome temper, strength of will, resource and courage in emergencies, magnetic power over the will of others."

And now I pass, with bated breath, to the delicate and much debated subject of the secondary and higher education of girls. Let me say at the outset that I do not intend to pose as a mere laudatory temporis acti, for the revolution in female education must be accepted as a fait accompli, whether for good or ill. "Mrs. Lemon, at whose school Rosamond Viney learned all the extras, including getting in and out of a carriage," is rapidly becoming an extinct type of schoolmistress (if not already extinct); and now the Latin grammar has replaced the Italian phrase-book, and practical geometry the use of the globes. University training, leading up (in some cases, at any rate) to University degrees, is the necessary trade mark of teachers, as well as the ambition of promising pupils. Methods formerly designated propria quce maribus are now considered the common heritage of both sexes, and girls are expected to learn all that their brothers do at the same age, plus music and feminine accomplishments, and too often (I fear) minus the physical exercise and recreation which form so prominent a feature of boys' public schools. I am aware that there are some excellent boarding schools for girls where the necessities for physical exercise are not disregarded, where indeed some mothers would say the risk is of games being overdone; but if we turn to the High Schools for girls, which are doing so much good work for female education throughout the country, I think we may find in this regard some grounds for friendly criticism. The rapid growth and development which occur in girls from 12 to 16 (out of all proportion to those which occur in boys of corresponding ages) constitute a drain upon the girls' organism, which leaves little reserve of strength for arduous mental exertion. What, however, do we find in the actual curriculum of High School girls at this age? Four hours almost continuous work in the morning, exclusive of extra subjects in the afternoon, with a minimum of from two to three hours' preparation in the after-part of the day. And to this is superadded time necessarily devoted to the practice of music and other pleasing feminine arts. Where, on a winter's day at least, are proper exercise and recreation to come in? The public school-boy has at least two hours' compulsory play (usually in the open air) during the afternoons; it is the exception, I believe, at girls' High Schools to have anything so plebeian as a playground, and though there is a growing tendency to form clubs for tennis, hockey, and other out-door games played at some distance from the school, these are in no way compulsory, and are indeed outside the school routine. The morning interval, nominally of ten or fifteen minutes, is not usually spent in brisk exercise in the open as would be the case with boys, but in munching buns, or nibbling biscuits, or, at the best, in perambulating corridors with arms entwined around companions' waists, after the manner of females. Is it to be wondered at that as the term proceeds, the rose we have been used to associate with English maidens' cheeks, gradually fade and signs of nervous exhaustion show themselves? "Surely" (as has been well remarked by one who has herself had considerable practical experience of the higher schools, I mean Miss Frances Gray), "if we take as our idea a 'perfect woman nobly planned,' a young girl whose brain only has been developed would look as grotesque as a statue with the head of Pallas Athene on the shoulders of an Indian idol."

In these three points then--(1) excessive hours of study, especially during spurts of growth and development; (2) deficiency of systematic out-door exercise and recreation; and (3) disregard of constitutional differences between boys and girls, affecting their respective capacities for work to the disadvantage of the latter--I think the High School system needs amendment. In Women's Colleges of the type of Girton, Newnham, and the Royal Holloway, there is more elasticity in the curriculum and a certain safeguard against overpressure in the way of out-door sports. Even here, however, there is risk in the frequently recurring examinations, which are taken more keenly and conscientiously by young women than by young men of corresponding age; and with those of bad heredity especially there is a tendency to break down under the strain of competition.

We may now briefly consider the factors that may contribute to mental overstrain. First and foremost come a family history showing tendency to nerve trouble, or a predisposition to consumptive disease. So far as I have seen, signs of overpressure are rarely met with except when there is such morbid heredity, whether in elementary or in secondary schools. Secondly, malnutrition. In elementary schools there is no doubt that overpressure often means under-feeding, and even with scholars of the better social grades emaciation consequent on shirking of meals predisposes to mental breakdown. So, as Burn's grace expresses it,

"Some hae meat that canna eat
And some wad eat that want it."

Thirdly, more especially in the female sex, disorders of development, causing irritability and deficient powers of application. Finally, with one or other of these predisposing factors we have the exciting influence of overstimulation of brain cells resulting in subsequent exhaustion.

Amongst physical indications of mental overstrain we may specify the following. In young children a weary, preternaturally old look, to which the furrowed forehead, knitted brow, bagginess around the eyes, and sallow complexion all contribute. A general fidgetiness and irritability--sometimes muscular twitchings especially seen about the angles of the mouth--are noticed; and there is a general want of tone and balance about the muscular system, so that the hand when extended assumes a feeble pose and we may often see or fee finger-twitches. In more severe cases actual jactitations of the limbs occur and the symptoms pass, especially with girls, into well-marked chorea. Headache is frequent and an habitual attitude is with the hand pressed against the brows; sleep is, as a rule, disturbed. With young children transient nocturnal feverishness is not infrequent, and night terrors sometimes occurs. In some cases the tongue and lips are tremulous and speech is stammering. There is, as a rule, evidence of digestive disorder; often we find a distaste for wholesome food, sometimes a perverted appetite, and an overfondness for sweets. In pubescent boys and girls the symptoms of nervous weakness (neurasthenia) tend to be more marked, such as incapacity for sustained attention, feebleness of memory, a tendency to answer exactly opposite to what is known to be correct, neuralgia, and (in girls) hysteria, sleeplessness or somnolence, a want of pluck and general apathy. These symptoms are often associated with such physical signs as a sallow earthy complexion, anaemia, and what has been designated in learned language anorexia scholastica. Aversion to solid food in the early part of the day is a frequent symptom, with a tendency to substitute nerve-titillating tea for more nourishing diet, and (as we have seen) it is not only from want, but frequently from want of appetite, that overpressed children go to school minus their breakfast. Some of us have perhaps had the opportunity of watching a High School girl, naturally of good physical as well as mental development, whose morning appetite, vigorous at the beginning of term, becomes small by degrees and miserably less as work presses and the examination period approaches. I found, in investigating the causes of breakdown in the case of a student of a Women's College, that, though the principal meals were served in hall, the more studious were apt to shirk the solid viands and whip up their flagging powers with tea, made (ad lib.) in their own rooms.

A few words on prevention, which we all know is "better than cure," must close this paper. As regards prevention, much rests with the parents themselves, who are but too apt to shirk responsibility and throw all blame upon the teachers. The poorer classes have indeed but little option as to the sort of education to which they will subject their children, the Education Department acting the part of Providence in prescribing the curriculum. But it has not always been a wise Providence, and its decrees might have been at times more judicious had it been able to avail itself of the assistance of a competent medical adviser. It is a hopeful sign that many of the larger School Boards have appointed medical officers, and as their opportunities of influence increase we may look for an improvement in the hygiene not only of schools but of educational systems. Parents of poor children should, however, themselves make a vigorous stand against home lessons and undue detention, the most common causes of overpressure in elementary schools. As regards secondary schools, parents have more in their own hands. It is indeed hard to resist the fashion of the day, but it is clearly the duty of medical men to protest against anti-physiological practices in schemes of education. Parents who know or who are advised that their children are of unstable nervous temperament, must beware of the dangerous strain of competitive examinations in such cases, especially at critical epochs of development. Much may be done by favourably regulating the home environment of children attending day schools in the way of punctuality at mealtimes, and insistence on sufficient out-door exercise and ample hours of rest, a point being made of going to bed early. Of course, with overstrain as everything else, the rule of action should be obsta principiis, and warning signals, however slight, should not be disregarded.

The condition precedent to successful treatment is naturally the withdrawal of the pupil from conditions known to be injurious, even at the loss of a term's schooling. A term's brain rest is not always time wasted, and to wait for the full development of threatening symptoms in fatuous policy. The late Dr. Octavius Sturge gave (in a paper read at the International Congress of Hygiene, 1891, vol. x., p. 20) the pitiable history of five cases of what he designates as "school-bred chorea." These poor children having been kept with their "noses to the grindstone" in spite of morbid restlessness, the significance of which was not appreciated by the teachers, "were only removed from school when St. Vitus's dance had developed so fully as to render them absolutely incapable of school-work and sometimes even of speech." Had those in charge been aware of the "hand-test," so easily applied, timely relief might have been given and the worst symptoms averted. As to treatment, one may say in a general way, use all means that will invigorate the body and cheer the mind. "A change" is often recommended, but let it be a change with an object, for nothing is worse in mental overstrain than inactivity and leisure for morbid introspection. Physical exercise in some congenial form and taken in moderation (e.g., bicycling, boating, golf, tennis, or skating) may be of great value in restoring the balance of the circulation. A course of light literature is frequently of advantage, and an interest in artistic or manual work, such as painting or wood carving, or, what is still better, some out-door occupation, such as gardening, may be of signal service.

In conclusion, let me press upon parents and teachers alike the necessity of hygienic knowledge in avoiding the causes that lead to mental overstrain, and let me put in a plea for the inclusion of hygiene in the curriculum of schools. "Taking the word hygiene in its largest sense," says the late Dr. Parkes (our greatest writer on the subject), "it signifies rules for perfect culture of mind and body. It is impossible to dissociate the two. The body is affected by every mental and moral action, the mind is profoundly influenced by bodily conditions. For a perfect system of hygiene, we must combine the knowledge of the physician, the schoolmaster, and the priest, and must train the body, the intellect, and the moral soul in a perfect and balanced order."

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* Dr. Almond in The New Review, January, 1897, pp. 94-97.