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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 Equilibrium.

by M. Cruikshank, M.D.
Volume 10, 1899, pg. 785


I have chosen a somewhat wide subject which I must limit to the consideration of what is meant by mental equilibrium, and some methods of attaining it. People who are deficient in mental balance are to be met with everywhere. I do not mean by this, a want of ability, or deficiency of brain power, but lacking that proper adjustment by which every quality is supported and equalized by another. The over-development of one faculty to the exclusion of others equally important is generally the result of an imperfect and partial upbringing. Men of genius are an exception to this and must not be classed among ordinary minds, their mental equilibrium is sacrificed to their special talent. We can isolate parts of our personal experience by exclusive attention; but this always involves a process of limitation or abstraction which removes us from the totality of truth. A tea-taster or piano-tuner confines his attention to particular sensations; a pure mathematician to abstract thought; while an artist will employ different faculties from a soldier, and a soldier from a judge. And it is so very easy to be so biassed by our special occupation that we become incomplete one-sided fragmentary men like Wordsworth's philosopher--

"One that would peep and botanize,
Upon his mother's grave . . .
A reasoning, self-sufficing thing,
An intellectual all in all."

We know that in the life-time of the individual, increased use of structures leads to an increase of their functional efficiency, and that structure which is over-developed will absorb energy and nutrition which ought to be distributed throughout the whole body. On the other hand disuse leads to atrophy, The arms of a blacksmith and the legs of a mountaineer are familiar instances of development from use. In the animal kingdom the well-known example of the mole, whose subterranean life with constant disuse of his eyes has led to such complete atrophy that they can be stripped off with the skin.

If we start from the principle that every human faculty exists in the brain of a child, the object of education will be to favour the normal, complete and harmonious development of each and all of these faculties which will soon enough have their equilibrium disturbed by life itself. It is of the utmost importance that at the moment of taking a decisive step in life a young man should be aware of what he is and all that he is, in order that he may not follow one path more than another or abandon himself to the dominant faculty, if he has one, without the full knowledge of the reason why. Besides, the most favourable condition for the ultimate dominance of any one faculty is that it should feel itself sustained by every other faculty. In a word, education prepares the soil, the seed will be sown at a later period when the time arrives for professional education; but for the seed to rise the ground as a whole must be prepared, for who can tell the exact spot at which it will germinate? Education may be likened to a pyramid, the wide spreading base of which must be well grounded before the apex can be finished and perfected.

Quyan says, "If the first necessity is to live, surely the second is to obtain the means of so doing, i.e., of adapting himself to his environment. Now man being made to live among men, we cannot go too far in the process of moulding the child for social life, in counteracting his egotistic instincts when they first unfold by the development of altruistic and social instincts, which ought some day to play so important a part in his individual life. The preservation of the individual is certainly indispensable to the species, and education ought to tend to ensure the maintenance, the development and the energy of physical life, because upon which depends the hereditary vigour of the race. A strong physique one may therefore say is the primary necessity, the basis of all others. This was recognized by the Greeks, who worshipped physical beauty, and strove in every way to attain to perfection in it." He considers that, "Moral development ought to be thought as much of, or even more than physical development. It is the supreme end of the individual and the essential condition of social existence. If children are left to themselves, ignorant of the laws of health, they will become healthy or unhealthy as their circumstances or constitutions make them, and likewise they will become moral or immoral unless more is made of systematic means, and the moral education thought more of than is the case at the present time. The intellectual and scientific education of children may be built up on the foundation of physical and moral sanity. The true object of intellectual education is to instil with the least possible expenditure of energy the greatest number of generous and fruitful ideas. The common characteristic of modern methods lies in the endeavour to conform education to the natural progress of evolution in the child. Education has its scientific basis in psychology, and a knowledge of this is of the first importance in the formation of a child's wonderful and delicate mind. It is by the careful study of evolution that we learn the gradual way in which a child's mind is evolved, and Darwen's hypothesis may be applied to mental life, namely, the life history of its ancestral species. There is a time for every faculty to shew itself and we must not anticipate the slow and sure methods of nature.

Education has advanced rapidly during this century, but side by side with it goes a terrible increase in nervous diseases of all kinds. This has been attributed to the complexity of modern life and over-pressure, but I maintain that it is largely due to lack of mental equilibrium in the individual. Every civilized man furnishes at the present time from five to thirty-five times as much work as was demanded of him sixty years ago. But it is not work which hurts nor nerve expenditure. It is work combined with physical weakness, anxiety or disregard of the laws of health. Many of those melancholy breakdowns, which, alas! are common enough among hard workers, might often have been prevented by living hygienically, but change of work, and taking proper holiday. Thus, a well-balanced mind would avoid these failures by ordering his life aright. It is inaction that wears, not work. Looking back, for example on the past and present condition of women, we have a life which is changed for the better--it is busier, more active, they are freed to live their own lives and educate their own faculties, their bodily vigour and nervous spirits are better, and instead of the neurotic inactive home pet, with a life limited by the shawl, the sofa, and woolwork, we have the independent happily occupied woman of the present day. Give the mind the restfulness of a life work instead of the restlessness of the unoccupied; give them the foster care of others instead of morbid craving for sympathy. Satisfy the intellectual acuteness of these sufferers by the joy of self-development. Educate them widely, thus their knowledge will yield hobbies which will interest them in the days of inaction and old age. Take the life of one who poisons his nerves and blood with excessive eating and drinking, "feeds his mind with vulgar shows and the dreams of avarice, finds his recreation in evil literature and society journals," and then complains that the nineteenth century is too much for his nerves--is it to be wondered at? It is his very emptiness and soullessness which makes him seek stimulation from without. Carlyle well said, "There is nothing in the world that will keep the devil out of one but hard labour." Nervous tension like muscular tension or any other such function may be pushed to extreme fatigue, especially if the impressions be too uniform. Fatigue is averted by change of work and different calls upon our attention.

Our fault is not that our superficial nerves are too keen, but that we stop there--ministering only to the impressions--which are skin-deep and transitory, leaving vast inner tracts of the nervous system unexplored. The secret of heath and the secret of virtue which is the health of the mind are happily one, and it lies in the ability of the active intellect to draw the sensations from without beyond the sphere of superficial reflexes into that marvellous constructive imagination of man. Watch the movements of a child in school. They are valuable signposts as to nerve condition and brain action. Some movements are directly produced by and follow stimulation from without. Spontaneous ungoverned movements are the chief characteristics of the condition called chorea. A disorderly brain in overaction is seen in stammering, in fidgets, in foolish-looking habits, as twisting the hands, shrugging the shoulders, puckering the brows, so commonly seen in nervous children. The principles employed for the classification of movements are interesting, not only as affording means of grouping many of the nerve signs which you observe, but also in understanding the brain action corresponding to what you see, and the brain changes accompanying the other emotions and mental states, while they may help you in economizing the child's nerve force and preventing brain fatigue. Thus these signs of brain exhaustion must be readily detected by parent or teacher, or they will end in a disastrous lack of mental equilibrium. We might pass on now to mention a few points in the training of a normal mind so as to attain a mental balance. Character is more important than knowledge, for a strong character will soon gain knowledge for itself and adapt it to varying circumstances. True success in life will not be found to depend on the number of facts stored in a child's mind, these are of good only in so far as they have brought out certain qualities of the mind. True education leads the child to educate itself, it awakens his speculative imagination and arouses dormant faculties. The formation of the character is the child's work, the training of the mind is the parent's or teacher's; formation of character consists in self-knowledge and the intentional action of the child itself will form character, but the suggestion of such action will come from the teacher, and a good character is the habit of intentional right doing. The best education is that which is not merely instructive, but suggestive and consequently directive. We can train by influence, but direct action or by selective environment.

It is singular that the one part of the character which needs training from the beginning is often left to struggle untrained and uncared for. I refer to the control of the emotions, not their repression, for no character can be complete without proper development of its emotional side. The emotions have their origin in brute instincts whose impulses are quickly and easily followed, hence the difficulty of training in this respect which must begin very early and continue unceasingly. We are born with a large amount of brute instinct which may be likened to a disorderly heap of bricks, which must be levelled to the ground before being built up again into a orderly palace of the emotions. Every act which in its initial stage is a thought or sentiment instead of being a simple answer to a brute sensation--everything which is raised above a simple reflex action assumes a moral character and thus helps towards mental equilibrium.

I have said nothing as yet about the physical training of children, which can be adapted to improve the brain.

Dr. Francis Warner has brought good evidence forward to show that the effects of good physical training in school are to diminish the number of cases with signs of brain disorderliness and the number of dull children. By all means place children in conditions favourable to the highest physical activity, but do not make a fetish of mere healthy animalism.

Let me finish with the following which sums up what I have wished to convey:--"The chief end of life to which all means are subservient is living. The chief end of man is manhood. Look at the perfect man, healthy in body, intelligent in mind, joyous in spirit, helpful towards his fellow-men. The chief end of man is to glorify God, and he can best do so by being perfect."