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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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The Patience of Parents.

by P. G. O'Connell.
Volume 10, 1899, pg. 781


If any man were to go about informing people that they were intellectually wanting, or, as Carlyle puts it, "mostly fools," he would arouse much resentment; if one were to remark to any parent on the want of physical beauty displayed by his or her children, the remark would almost certainly be looked upon as an impertinence; but when a schoolmaster, in writing a report, asserts, either directly or by implication, that Jones minor is intellectually below the average, the parents of Jones minor very rarely resent the insult. It cannot be that they are "pigeon-livered, and lack gall to make oppression bitter"; it must be either that they look upon school reports as a mere farce, having no connection with real life, or that they have inherited from former generations the habit of surrendering their judgment on these matters to the schoolmaster. The fact remains that they do not resent the insult as they should, and poor Jones minor is led, by both masters and parents, to look upon himself as a dunce. It takes very little to make him so regard himself; for the first impulse of human nature in learning anything new, be it bicycling or embroidery, self-control or statics, is always to exclaim:--"Oh! I shall never learn it!" Self-confidence comes only with the sense of power, and its growth can only be fostered by encouragement.

It is hard to speak temperately of the large army of teachers who endeavour to hide their own incompetence under the pretended dullness of their pupils; but it is well to remember that the parents are primarily to blame. They pay the piper; they should call the tune. Instead of tamely acquiescing in a judgment which dubs their child a dunce, they should investigate the matter themselves, draw their own conclusions, and renounce the idle habit of taking their opinions ready made. If they fail to find any lack of intelligence in their child, let them not hesitate to draw the natural conclusion that the teacher is incompetent. If a doctor's patients habitually died, he would soon lose his practice; in every other profession or trade, incompetence means loss of custom; the teacher alone is above criticism, licensed to kill the young minds which he should have studied how to expand, and to ridicule all sound educational principles as mere theories.

We have recently heard a learned bishop gravely express the belief that education does not help boys to get on in life. He did not mention whether he proposed to substitute demoralization, or to reform education; but it is to be presumed that he was thinking of the spurious article usually supplied to the public, and his testimony is therefore valuable. If the parents of Jones minor, having decided to withdraw their boy from the care of the schoolmaster who insults them, find it impossible to discover a school where the real article--education, as distinguished from cramming--is supplied, let them rather keep their boy at home than send him to a school from which the majority emerge mentally, morally, or physically dwarfed.

It is a question of supply and demand. If there were no demand for butter, the grocers would only sell margarine. If there be no demand for education, or if parents will not learn to distinguish it from cramming, the teachers will only supply the cheaper article. Until parents take some notice of the large amount of unnecessary punishment now inflicted, the majority of boys will continue to be trained in the habit of living in debt, of owing impositions which they do their best not to pay. It seems to me that we may, without taking up too high ground, condemn such training as immoral, and unlikely to lead to success in life.

There are some parents, who not only allow their children to be branded as dunces with impunity, but even go so far as to help in the branding. "They always call me 'dunderhead' at home, sir," said a pupil to me once; and i had the greatest difficulty in convincing him that his intellect was rather above than below average. When little Effie is weeping because she has made so many mistakes in her exercise, her elders often attempt to comfort her by the assurance that they were just as stupid at her age. Note that this implies several fallacies: firstly, that little Effie is as stupid as they are themselves; secondly, that they were even more stupid at Effie's age; and thirdly, that the foolish system, which renders it possible for her to make so many mistakes, is calculated to decrease her stupidity, rather than to produce it. The remark is probably made so sympathetically that little Effie can hardly help believing all that it implies; it is the offspring of that want of thought which often does more harm than want of heart.

There is little doubt that, as at present usually taught, such a subject as algebra is too abstract a science for the average childish mind; but, until parents insist that the abstract shall be taught through the concrete, teachers will continue on the old lines. So thoroughly bad are these lines that it has been seriously maintained by many clever men, who are both mathematicians and chess players, that a study of chess is a better intellectual training than a study of mathematics. I do not suggest that chess should be substituted for mathematics in our schools--that would be the ruin of chess--but I do think that, if mathematics were taught as chess usually is, fewer minds would be found incapable of following the pleasant paths of mathematics. How, then, is chess usually taught by the fond father, the sweetmeat-bringing uncle, or the genial grandfather? The professional teacher will lose nothing by a careful study of their methods. It seems absurd to mention that there is no suggestion of punishment; but it may be well to notice that there is rarely any reward other than the pleasure of learning and the delight of occasionally winning a game. There is little spoken praise, but there is, throughout every game, the indirect encouragement which consists in never playing so well that the child despairs of success. It is by no means uninteresting to the teacher, for it requires great skill to keep the game even, and yet never to make an obviously wrong move. The child's intentions have to be guessed as accurately as if he were a graduate at the game. He is about to mate you with that rook, but he has overlooked your knight: quick! let your knight basely desert his post, ostensibly to threaten a pawn or bishop; three moves later, the creditably conceived plan of attack has been crowned with success.

Let us consider how chess would probably be taught in schools. It is safe to assume that there would be plentiful punishments and occasional rewards. I seem to hear a teacher saying:--"How often have I told you to exchange freely whenever you have the advantage of a piece! You /know/ the rule, you have repeated it correctly hundreds of times, but you /will/ not apply it. Write out the first ten moves of the Ruy Lopez twenty times by six o'clock." All interest in the game, all its mental and moral educational value, would be destroyed by the enforced rote-learning of bookwork. No! We cannot afford to degrade the noble game to the rank of a school subject; we must rather try to raise school subjects to the level of the game.

Turn now to another school subject, English. As a nation we have the finest literature in the world. There is no branch in which we do not stand head and shoulders above all other living nations. The rippling melody of waltzing words, the mighty marshalling of facts and arguments in battle array, the subtle phrases in which volumes are expressed, all these, and more, are to be found abundantly in our literature; yet there is not one Englishman in a hundred who can write good English to-day. We have killed the art by making it a school subject. How long, O ye patient parents, how long will ye suffer this farce to continue; this shameful system of parrot teaching, conceived in ignorance, born in indifference, and living in convention; this mere mockery of education, founded on punishment, relying on rote-learning, and culminating in deliberate insult?