“What good were it for me to manufacture perfect iron while my own breast is full of dross? What would it stead me to put properties of land in order, while I am at variance with myself? To speak it in a word: the cultivation of my individual self, here as I am, has from my youth upwards been constantly though dimly my wish and my purpose.”
“Men are so inclined to content themselves with what is commonest; the spirit and the senses so easily grow dead to the impressions of the beautiful and perfect; that every one should study to nourish in his mind the faculty of feeling these things by every method in his power. For no man can bear to be entirely deprived of such enjoyments; it is only because they are not used to taste of what is excellent, that the generality of people take delight in silly and insipid things, provided they be new. For this reason, he would add, ‘one ought at least every day to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and, if it were possible, to speak a few reasonable words.'”– Goethe
We have been often asked by certain of the Temperance Societies to give them some advice on Self-Education. Lately we promised one of these bodies to write some hints as to how the members of it could use their association for their mental improvement.
We said, and say again, that the Temperance Societies can be made use of by the people for their instruction as well as pleasure. Assemblies of any kind are not the best places either for study or invention. Home or solitude are better—home is the great teacher. In domestic business we learn mechanical skill, the nature of those material bodies with which we have most to deal in life—we learn labour by example and by kindly precepts—we learn (in a prudent home) decorum, cleanliness, order—in a virtuous home we learn more than these: we learn reverence for the old, affection without passion, truth, piety, and justice. These are the greatest things man can know. Having these he is well; without them attainments of wealth or talent are of little worth. Home is the great teacher; and its teaching passes down in honest homes from generation to generation, and neither the generation that gives, nor the generation that takes it, lays down plans for bringing it to pass.
Again, to come to designed learning. We learn arts and professions by apprenticeships, that is, much after the fashion we learned walking, or stitching, or fire-making, or love-making at home—by example, precept, and practice combined. Apprentices at anything, from ditching, basket-work, or watch-making, to merchant-trading, legislation, or surgery, submit either to a nominal or an actual apprenticeship. They see other men do these things, they desire to do the same, and they learn to do so by watching how, and when, and asking, or guessing why each part of the business is done; and as fast as they know, or are supposed to know, any one part, whether it be sloping the ditch, or totting the accounts, or dressing the limb, they begin to do that, and, being directed when they fail, they learn at last to do it well, and are thereby prepared to attempt some other or harder part of the business.
Thus it is by experience—or trying to do, and often doing a thing—combined with teaching or seeing, and being told how and why other people more experienced do that thing, that most of the practical business of life is learned.
In some trades, formal apprenticeship and planned teaching exist as little as in ordinary home-teaching. Few men are of set purpose taught to dig; and just as few are taught to legislate.
Where formal teaching is usual, as in what are called learned professions, and in delicate trades, fewer men know anything of these businesses. Those who learn them at all do so exactly and fully, but commonly practise them in a formal and technical way, and invent and improve them little. In those occupations which most men take up casually—as book-writing, digging, singing, and legislation, and the like—there is much less exact knowledge, less form, more originality and progress, and more of the public know something about them in an unprofessional way.
The Caste system of India, Egypt, and Ancient Ireland carried out the formal apprenticeship plan to its full extent. The United States of America have very little of it. Modern Europe is between the two, as she has in most things abolished caste or hereditary professions (kings and nobles excepted), but has, in many things, retained exact apprenticeships.
Marriage, and the bringing up of children, the employment of dependants, travel, and daily sights and society, are our chief teachers of morals, sentiment, taste, prudence and manners. Mechanical and literary skill of all sorts, and most accomplishments, are usually picked up in this same way.
We have said all this lest our less-instructed readers should fall into a mistake common to all beginners in study, that books, and schooling, and lectures, are the chief teachers in life; whereas most of the things we learn here are learned from the experience of home, and of the practical parts of our trades and amusements.
We pray our humbler friends to think long and often on this.
But let them not suppose we undervalue or wish them to neglect other kinds of teaching; on the contrary, they should mark how much the influences of home, and business, and society, are affected by the quantity and sort of their scholarship.
Home life is obviously enough affected by education. Where the parents read and write, the children learn to do so too, early in life and with little trouble; where they know something of their religious creed they give its rites a higher meaning than mere forms; where they know the history of the country well, every field, every old tower or arch is a subject of amusement, of fine old stories, and fine young hopes; where they know the nature of other people and countries, their own country and people become texts to be commented on, and likewise supply a living comment on those peculiarities of which they have read.
Again, where the members of a family can read aloud, or play, or sing, they have a well of pleasant thoughts and good feelings which can hardly be dried or frozen up; and so of other things.
And in the trades and professions of life, to study in books the objects, customs, and rules of that trade or profession to which you are going saves time, enables you to improve your practice of it, and makes you less dependent on the teaching of other practitioners, who are often interested in delaying you.
In these, and a thousand ways besides, study and science produce the best effects upon the practical parts of life.
Besides, the first business of life is the improvement of one’s own heart and mind. The study of the thoughts and deeds of great men, the laws of human, and animal, and vegetable, and lifeless nature, the principles of fine and mechanical arts, and of morals, society, and religion—all directly give us nobler and greater desires, more wide and generous judgments, and more refined pleasures.
Learning in this latter sense may be got either at home or at school, by solitary study, or in associations. Home learning depends, of course, on the knowledge, good sense, and leisure of the parents. The German Jean Paul, the American Emerson, and others of an inferior sort, have written deep and fruitful truths on bringing up and teaching at home. Yet, considering its importance, it has not been sufficiently studied. Upon schools much has been written. Almost all the private schools in this country are bad. They merely cram the memories of pupils with facts or words, without developing their judgment, taste, or invention, or teaching them the application of any knowledge. Besides, the things taught are commonly those least worth learning. This is especially true of the middle and richer classes. Instead of being taught the nature, products, and history, first of their own, and then of other countries, they are buried in classical frivolities, languages which they never master, and manners and races which they cannot appreciate. Instead of being disciplined to think exactly, to speak and write accurately, they are crammed with rules and taught to repeat forms by rote.
The National Schools are a vast improvement on anything hitherto in this country, but still they have great faults. From the miserably small grant the teachers are badly paid, and, therefore, hastily and meagrely educated.
The maps, drawing, and musical instruments, museums and scientific apparatus, which should be in every school, are mostly wanting altogether. The books, also, are defective.
The information has the worst fault of the French system: it is too exclusively on physical science and natural history. Fancy a National School which teaches the children no more of the state and history of Ireland than of Belgium or Japan! We have spoken to pupils, nay, to masters of the National Schools, who were ignorant of the physical character of every part of Ireland except their native villages—who knew not how the people lived, or died, or sported, or fought—who had never heard of Tara, Clontarf, Limerick, or Dungannon—to whom the O’Neills and Sarsfields, the Swifts and Sternes, the Grattans and Barrys, our generals, statesmen, authors, orators, and artists, were alike and utterly unknown! Even the hedge schools kept up something of the romance, history, and music of the country.
Until the National Schools fall under national control, the people must take diligent care to procure books on the history, men, language, music, and manners of Ireland for their children. These schools are very good so far as they go, and the children should be sent to them; but they are not national, they do not use the Irish language, nor teach anything peculiarly Irish.
As to solitary study, lists of books, pictures, and maps can alone be given; and to do this usefully would exceed our space at present.
As it is, we find that we have no more room and have not said a word on what we proposed to write—namely, Self-Education through the Temperance Societies.
We do not regret having wandered from our professed subject, as, if treated exclusively, it might lead men into errors which no afterthought could cure.
What we chiefly desire is to set the people on making out plans for their own and their children’s education. Thinking cannot be done by deputy—they must think for themselves.