The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Holiday Tasks

by J. S. Mills, M.A.
Volume 4, 1893/94, pg. 510

"Quippe etiam festis quaedam exercere diebus Fas et jura sinunt,"--

Which, being interpreted, is "The laws neither of gods nor of men forbid a certain amount of work to be done during the holidays." But the question is, what sort of work and how much of it? Is the schoolmaster to insist that a certain amount of moods and genders, and dates and sums is to be cultivated during the long summer vacation, so that his boys may at least maintain the degree of progress reached at the end of term? Or must he recommend some study of a higher and more entertaining king to be the subject of a purely voluntary examination at the beginning of the autumn term? Or, finally, is he to rely entirely upon the parent for any instruction or discipline during the inter-terminal period? I think we may at once put aside the first of these alternatives. I am distinctly against all compulsory holiday lessons. I can hear, in fancy, a chorus of shrill and enthusiastic "hear, hears" as I write that sentence. But I am not merely bidding for popularity. I have a reason for what I say. An enforced holiday task will always, unless a boy is very amendable to duty and discipline, be postponed to the end of the holidays--postponed, however, not forgotten; the memory of it, and its non-performance always being present as a sort of reproach and a qualification of the pure pleasure of the holiday time. It will be done badly and in a hurry at the eleventh hour. And in such a state will seriously modify the pleasure a boy ought to feel in returning to school, or intensify the horror of returning, if such unfortunately exists. I state these facts as being "in nature." I know a model boy would carefully apportion to each day its appropriate share of the vacation's work, and lo! At the end of the same the task would stand completed. But such a boy I have never yet met, and I am justified in believing he is a type as yet undeveloped. Compulsory holiday tasks, then, drawn from ordinary school studied I hold to be mischievous and useless. I am not at all afraid of retrogression during the holidays. A boy's mind is so absorbent and impressionable that a holiday of eight weeks is sufficient for him to forget only very superficially the lessons of a term; and I feel sure that, as a rule, if a boy were set at the beginning of a term to repeat the exercise in Latin or French Grammar he had last done, his additional eight weeks' age and experience, and general growth of faculty would enable him to do it at least as well as on the former occasion. It is merely a truism to say that, in the course of teaching, one reaches rules and difficulties which certain boys at a certain age cannot physically master, and which demand not so much perseverance in teaching as simple lapse of time and general development of faculty. I would therefore, during the longer vacations, free a boy entirely from the mechanical drudgery of rule and fact, and leave him to the development of his senses, his observation and his general life experience of life. I shall point out shortly, however, how this development may be guided into a profitable and fruitful direction by the help of sympathetic parents and friends.

With regard to the second alternative of appointing certain books or portions of books as an optional study with a view to a prize on examination early in the autumn term I can see no objection, except that an over-conscientious or over-ambitious boy may be diverted from more genial and therefore for the above holiday purpose more fruitful occupations by a determined "cram" of the set subjects. Such prescribed reading should be a real change from ordinary school work, should be very moderate in quantity, and its quite optional character especially enforced. I hope I shall not be accused of a want of humour for insisting upon the last condition.

My conclusion is, however, that we have and ought to rely chiefly on parents themselves for any education school-boys may receive during vacation. It is a lamentable fact that so many parents are still unwilling or unable to help efficiently in this way. The summer vacation with its country or seaside trip affords admirable opportunities for practical outdoor study of some branch or branches of natural science. The word study is misleading. My experience has never yet produced a boy who would not be as much interested in hunting for fossils in a quarry as in any occupation you could possibly devise or he possibly chose for himself. We have had a series of natural history excursions at Leamington this term, and I have been surprised at the unwearied and almost passionate interest of the boys in specimen hunting of any sort. How desirable it is then that parents should themselves be sufficiently interested and instructed in the sights and sounds of nature to awaken and foster in the hearts of their children this resourceful and delightful interest. Not a rounded pebble or the beach, not a grain of sand but may be used as set evidence or illustration of a whole geological age.

And yet how many grown-up people there still are indifferent and deaf to such "sermons in stones." It is lamentable to think how few are still able to explain such obvious phenomena as the ebb and flow tides, to name and describe some remarkable rock, or will take the trouble to read such a book as Prof. [Thomas Henry] Huxley's Physiography, for information on the most ordinary and daily occurrences. I am delighted to hear that the Parents' Education Union is endeavouring to provide parents with opportunities of self-culture in these respects, and that many are feeling the advantage of them. Thousands of English boys and girls flock to the coast of Wales in summer time. I wonder how many include in their amusements a visit to the raised beaches of Moel Tryfaen [Wikipedia], and understand what they tell us of the geological history of our island.

I have been interested during my visits to Wales is the excellently organised system of evangelical services for children, conducted by University men at the several watering-places along the shore. I confess I am somewhat out of sympathy with much that I have noticed in the manner of presenting religious truths to children on these occasions. But it has struck me that something of the same organization in providing scientific field-classes and picnics for children staying in those interesting districts, might be very successful and profitable. I need hardly say how important it is to cultivate in early years some strong objective interest, to be an unfailing source of amusement and profit. We often hear of holidays doing little good, or producing a reaction almost as painful as the preceding weakness and depression:

In culpa est animus qui se non effugit unquam. [Google translate: "There is a mind in guilt that never escapes from itself."]

Some absorbing interest which shall keep our minds and senses healthily occupied and lead us to evergrowing knowledge of God's universe, will add to the healthfulness of a holiday, for the simple reason that we shall have less leisure to brood over its effects upon our little private distresses and ailments. It is of first-rate importance, then, to teach children as soon as possible to use their eyes, and to acquire some hobby which shall lead them to the country and sea-shore, and keep them interested there in the innocent pursuit of knowledge and truth.

For all this we have to rely chiefly upon the parent. All we ask is simply that a geological map and hammer, or even a microscope, should more often find its place in the equipment considered necessary for a summer's holiday. The vacation indeed being quite free from the fetters of convention and examinations might be productive of better work in the way of pure education than term-time itself. Nobody is more aware than the liberal-minded schoolmaster that a very large--perhaps the greater part of his teaching is scarcely educative at all, but represents simply a sacrifice to convention and tradition often very foolish and unjustifiable. Only the other day I heard of a lady complaining that necessity compelled her to send her children to school, "It interfered so"--to use her own caustic expression--"it interfered so with their education." In spite of the criticisms implied in such a remark, I wish there were many more parents conscious in the same way of the defects of our school-system, and of their own precious opportunities for supplementing that system during the weeks of the summer and winter vacation. And I am sure where school instruction, and especially that of the unfortunate boys who are still the victims of the old classical side, needs to be supplemented is just in this matter of scientific interest and information. Our school curriculum, even that of the modern side, is still far too literary. The particular educational value of the knowledge that in French a bridge is masculine and a river feminine, or that in Latin, quamvis has a predilection for the subjunctive, and quamquam for the indicative, is hard to determine. It is true no single fact in life or nature is quite uninteresting and wholly divorced from relativity to some universal truth or law.

Nevertheless, it is possible to choose and to distinguish. Compare, for instance, the ordinary facts of grammatical gender or syntax with some such fact of common observation as the grooves and scratchings on a granite boulder, so momentous in their evidence of an entire glacial age, and in their contribution to a subject of no less importance than the history of the universe. The educational effect of observing and understanding such facts as these is immediate and direct; whereas for the fruition of grammatical facts, the scholar has to wait for what he generally never reaches, that is the point at which his genders and tenses belong. It is the perception of this difference that afflicts a language-master with ever-recurring suspicions of the barrenness of much of his work; while the science-master is perpetually cheered by the consciousness that the "travail of his soul" bears immediate fruit in the development of his boys' powers of intelligent observation, and even of the higher faculty of scientific induction, and not only acquaints them to some extent with the present position of human knowledge and opinion, but, what is better, may produce in them a sobering sense of the problems that beset human thought, and of the "iron laws" which, in every department of life, demand instant and implicit obedience. To an educational reformer it is obvious that our school-curriculum is still too literary. Reform, however, in this direction is out of the question so long as public examinations demand a smattering of so many languages. Latin, French, and German have still to be retained out of all proportion to other subjects proper to a "modern education," so long as these languages are employed to straiten the gate into the learned professions. Much of the teaching in our schools, though immediately necessary, must still needs be ultimately unproductive; many subjects of first-rate importance, such, for example, as Physiography, have still to receive only niggard time and attention, or be entirely excluded from the curriculum. The pressure of the several branches of natural science can, however, not long be resisted; and I am pleased to hear that a new school of a large endowment has just constructed its modern-side curriculum without Latin--a very bold and interesting experiment.

It is an unfortunate fact, then, that the schoolmaster is unable to adopt in practice that scientific and rational arrangement of studies which he theoretically approves. A parent must remember that if he finds his boy deficient in information on common and important matters, the fault is not entirely the school master's, but rather that of the conditions in which he is compelled to work. A wide scope is left for the parent to supplement a boy's school instruction, and it is the purpose of this paper to insist upon the parent's duty to prepare himself for this educational function, and to perform it honestly and efficiently.

A few words are necessary on the choice of subjects prescribed by a school for optional study during vacation. It should aim generally at an entire change from ordinary school-subjects. Chemistry and physics, with their mathematical adjuncts, may be entirely dispensed with; the languages of France, Germany, Greece, and Rome need not be so much as be alluded to, at any rate for boys still in the grammatical stage. Many other subjects remain which the school curriculum is obliged to disregard. Geology, one of the most entertaining and least mathematical branches of science, is well adapted for holiday study. [Archibald] Geikie's little Primer for younger boys [Science Primers: Geology], and his smaller text book for older ones [Text-book of Geology], are admirable introductory books for this purpose. Tides, currents, winds, clouds, which are presented so especially to our observation during a seaside holiday, will be found simply but scientifically explained in Prof. [Thomas Henry] Huxley's Physiography, another book well adapted for a vacation task. In English, a boy may generally be left to forage for himself. The stirring tales of [Robert Louis] Stevenson, [Arthur Conan] Doyle, [Rudyard] Kipling, need no recommendation. If, however, it is thought desirable to introduce some slight sentiment of duty into a boy's English reading, there can be no objection to prescribing a few plays of Shakespeare and a few novels of [Sir Walter] Scott; for I am afraid nowadays perhaps both these names lie just outside the literary frontiers, within which a boy is spontaneously and impulsively happy. It is, of course, desirable that a schoolboy should have access to as wide a choice of healthful literature as possible, and he may generally be trusted to choose for himself. But there is no doubt that a great amount of harm is done, and much educational work of the best kind neutralized by the cheap and worthless periodical literature, which has attained such enormous circulation. I do not refer simply to fiction of a vulgar sensational sort, but to papers which consist almost entirely of short excerpts, serious or comic, each of which is calculated to produce an agreeable titillation for the morbid itch of our sensational and jaded taste. I can imagine nothing more directly adapted to destroy any love of continuous reading, and patience and sympathy with the natural gradations of mood and interest in a consistent work of literary art, than the long strings of abrupt and disconnected paragraphs, of which these papers consist. The news-sheets of our railway-stations, the nature of the subjects held out as a bait for loose coppers and vacant minds, are sufficient indication of the class of literature to which I refer. It is true that an insurance-policy accompanies several such papers, but I am not certain that a man is justified in providing for the distant possibility of physical damage, at the cost of an immediate certainty of intellectual harm. Here, I think, a guardian may reasonable exercise a little supervision and control. Reading, like many other gifts, may be harmful in exact proportion to its possible benefit. I have no objection to some amount of light and entertaining reading: but I am convinced that much of our periodical literature is so apt to produce in our minds a habit of reading as a mere assistance and alleviation to moments of indolence and vacancy, that the sinews of our minds are relaxed and our palates spoilt for the pure bread of an inspired literature. "Die auszurottende Journalistik" ["The journalism to be eradicated" - Google Translate] is not an entirely unreasonable cry.

In conclusion, then, while freedom and spontaneous enjoyment should still be distinctive of our holiday-season, there are ways in which, without any sacrifice of the spirit of either, a parent or tutor may give a direction to a boy's impulses which shall lead him to unfailing sources of delight and improvement. There are many subjects which demand no especial faculty, and which minds of the most divergent complexion may study with almost equal profit and success. And need I say that the earlier such interests are acquired, the more permanent and unfailing will be their refreshment in later years?

Proofread by LNL, June, 2023