The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
The Open Road

by Frances Blogg
Volume 11, 1900, pgs. 772-774

"To travel deliberately through one's ages, is to get the heart out of a liberal education."
R.L. Stevenson (Dedication of the Vol. Virginibus Puerisque)

In reading the essays and delightful letters of that "child curious innocent," as Henley so aptly called his friend R.L.S., one is struck more and more each time with the extraordinarily elemental personality of the man. We all know the way in which children give themselves up to the matter in hand, and the utter impossibility that grown-up people find of explaining to a child that the charm of jumping off the table into the arms of the patient nurse or sister ceases after the ninth or tenth time. "Again," or "more," is all the answer one receives. Stevenson, realizing that he possessed "the knowledge sure he should endure a child until he died," perhaps consciously cultivated this power of intentness on the matter under consideration--this getting to the heart of things which, he maintained, could only come by a full and fixed determination on the part of each human being to go through life in the spirit of the true explorer.

This one remark of Stevenson's, which I have quite at the head of this little paper, seems to me so full of meaning and of courage, that I have thought it worth while to try and piece together some of the many suggestive hints it seems to hold as to this very essential aspect of education.

No one who has read the now famous essays on "Child's Play," and the "Lantern Bearers," can doubt that Stevenson knew the child, that he possessed that primary qualification of a teacher, the comprehension of the other point of view. In no strict sense can we say that he ever tried to teach anything; but the fact remains, that his power of getting at the root of things made him, as it has made many great men and women before him, the true inspirer.

Unlike other teachers, though, Stevenson regarded education in the same exciting and adventurous spirit as he regarded all the other experiences of life; and it is this marvellous and courageous outlook upon existence that makes his work of such infinite value. "My mistress still the open road and the bright eyes of danger," was an exclamation forced from him from the point of view of physical existence, and this mistress of his, the open road and danger's bright eyes, led him nearer and nearer as time went on in the weary round of constant illness and weakness to the very elements of which his restricted life was as much composed as any fine sea-faring adventurous forefather of his own of the Elizabethan age.

Education, then, to him was a journey, full of the delights of wide landscape, fresh invigorating air, or alternate sunshine and shadow, the great wide road stretching infinitely before--leading to that heart of its own, the beat of which he so longed to hear. There can be no liberal education when the eyes are closed or the ears sealed. In this, as in everything else, the wayfarer must live to the full extent of his being. Pitfalls he must find on that journey, blind paths perhaps, but through it all the philosophy of belief in the essential goodness, the actual significance of things created, the state of being "in love with life." This, I take it, was Stevenson's idea in curious opposition to the view of those many young decadents, his contemporaries, with regard to this poor worn-out old world. What sort of an existence can that be out of which we make no attempt to get the heart? To go through life, to experience childhood and youth, love and parenthood, middle age and old age, sorrow and death; to see nature, and to be acquainted with all that is best in art and literature, and not to know the meaning of these revelations, is not this to be truly uneducated? In such a case, we have not wrenched the heart from life, or compelled it to yield its secret--and how can we deal with these essentials if we know nothing but the outside appearances of things? And how are we to get this knowledge itself and its appearance? Stevenson's answer to the question is, "by travelling deliberately through one's ages." In another essay ("Virginibus Puerisque 1.") he still further enlarges upon this idea. "We advance in years," he says, "somewhat in the manner of an invading army in a barren land; the age that we have reached, as the phrase goes, we but hold with an outpost, and still keep open our communications with the extreme rear and first beginnings of the march. There is our true base; that is not only the beginning but the perennial spring of our facilities; and Grandfather William can retire upon occasion into the green enchanted forest of his boyhood."

The conception of life as a journey is an old and much worn-out allegory, but, in Stevenson's hands, the conception becomes somewhat different. I fancy we all remember the delightful sensations of childhood produced by the knowledge that a journey was about to be undertaken. The true meaning of packing, of ticket taking, of stations and porters, has perhaps never dawned upon us since, but, to the child, there is no doubt of the extraordinary significance of each act in connection with the exciting event. We can all believe that a child really lives through each moment of that enchanting time and is unendingly surprised at the want of interest shown by the grown-ups.

And this journey through life Stevenson conceived in much the same spirit; it was, to him at least, a deliberate conscious undertaking on the part of the individual, and there seems to have been one possibility in his mind for the supposition that this journey was a being driven forward by some unknown power towards some infinitely distant goal.

Let us face facts, he appears to say. At present I am young, but I shall soon be middle-aged, and even old--let me at least understand each step of the way, miss nothing of the sights and sounds around; let me frequently look back at the portion of the road already traversed, that I may still, at all events, recognize that which was once so extraordinarily familiar; let me look forward, too, sometimes, that the road may not astonish me with its length or apparent difficulties.

This surely is deliberate travel. To accept each stage as it comes, to be unseparated by any barrier from the past, to be wholly at one with the present, and to hold out a hand of welcome to the future. Those people who possess this power of being in touch with existence at any given point are they of whom the Greeks wrote long ago, "those whom the Gods love die young;" to them, at least, there is no getting old. Each step is but the completion of the one that went before.

And is it not possible that we may inspire children with a little measure, at least, of this brave and deliberate spirit? Can we not do something towards helping them to look upon life with that sense of adventure and anticipation in which they regard their childish journeys?

The difficulties with respect to education seem to become greater the nearer we grow to any conception of the real meaning and importance of the word. And yet "pluck" in this, as in most other things, seems to be the means by which alone we even dare to attempt to educate. There seems to be, in many children of the present day, a lack of the power of "grip," and, instead, a peculiar faculty for wandering all round a subject without getting to the essential meaning of it, not only with regard to the problem of learning ,but in dealing with the actualities of existence which surround the child on all side--too little idea of the meaning of words, of the significance of actions. It is, I think, because we grow accustomed to doing every-day things without ever, or at any rate very seldom, realizing the spiritual significance of the acts, that this dulling of the perceptions arises. We believe in the formation of habits of order, cleanliness and regularity. Is there not sometimes a danger that the very ease with which the children have learnt to be orderly, clean and punctual may lead them to think these things of no weight, or, rather, that these trivial acts have no special or more inward significance? After all, why should we grow used to getting up every morning, or washing our hands before meals? It surely would not matter if we reminded ourselves and the children, now and then, that these little acts which we repeat so lightly day by day, are, after all, ceremonies of very real meaning, and that to "grow used" to the symbolic actions of getting up and washing is akin to that grudging spirit that takes for granted all the wonders of creation.

In order that the flavour and scent of existence may not be lost, we must have within ourselves some consciousness of this impelling power that may lead us to travel deliberately through our ages, realizing that the most wonderful adventures are not those which we go forth to seek. We shall then, perhaps, have some glimmering idea of what Stevenson himself meant when he said, "whether the past day was wise or foolish, to-morrow's travel will carry me body and mind into some different parish of the infinite." The conception of ourselves and our children as citizens of the "parish of the infinite" is undoubtedly one that must give us pause.

Proofread May 2011, LNL