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Ch. 7: Unconscious Schooling

A small boy came from an old-fashioned city,—a city where he went to school from day to day, and sat with his fellows in rigid rectangular rows, gazing on bare whitewashed walls adorned with a broad stripe of blackboard; where he did interminable "sums" on a smeary little slate, and spelled in sing-song chorus "Baker! Baker! b, a, bay; k, e, r, ker,—Baker!" He came to a new-fashioned city, where the most important business on earth—the training of children—was appreciated. The small boy did not know this. He saw that the city was clean and bright and full of wide spaces of grass and trees; and he liked it. It pleased him, as a child: it was the kind of place that looked as if it had been planned with some thought of pleasing children. Soon he came to a great open gate, with shady walks and sunny lawns inside, buildings here and there in the distance, and, just at hand, some strange figures among the bushes.

A pleasant-looking lady sat reading in the shade, with a few children lying in the grass near by, reading, too. Our small boy stood irresolute; but the lady looked up, and said: "Come in, if you like. Look around all you want to." Still he felt shy; but one of the reading little boys rose up, and went to him. "Come on," he said cheerfully. "I'll show you. There's lots o' things you'll like. Oh, come on!" So he entered with uncertain steps, and made for one of the queer figures he had seen in the shrubbery. "It's an Indian!" he said. "Like a cigar store!" But the resident little boy resented his comparison. "'Tisn't, either!" cried he. "It's ever so much nicer! Look at his moccasins and his arrows, and see the scalps in his belt! See the way he's painted? That shows he's a Sioux. They are great. One of the best kinds. They live up in the North-west,—Minnesota and round there; and they fight splendid! That one over there is a Yuma Indian. Look at the difference!"

And he took the visitor about, and showed him an interesting collection of samples of American tribes, giving off rivers of information with evident delight. From Indians their attention was taken by a peculiarly handsome butterfly that fluttered near them, pursued hotly by an eager little girl with a net.

"That must be a—well, I forget the name," said the resident little boy. "Do you like bugs?"

"What kind o' bugs?" inquired the visitor, rather suspiciously.

"Oh, tumble bugs and burying beetles and walking-sticks, and all kinds."

"Walking-sticks! What's that got to do with bugs?"

"Didn't you ever see the walking-stick one? Oh, come on in! I'll show you! It's this way." And off they run to a big rambling building among the shady elms. The visitor hangs back, somewhat awed by the size and splendour of the place, and seeing grown people about; but his young guide goes in unchecked, merely whispering, "Got to keep still in here," and leads him down several passages into a large, quiet hall, lined with glass cases.

Such a wealth of "bugs" as were here exhibited had never before been seen by the astonished visitor; but, when the walking-stick insect was pointed out to him, he stoutly denied that it was a "bug" at all. A whispered altercation resulted in appeal to the curator, a studious youth, who was taking notes at a large table bestrewn with specimens. Instantly dropping his work, he took the object under discussion from its case, focussed a magnifying glass upon it, and proceeded to exhibit various features of insect anatomy, and talk about them most interestingly. But, as soon as he detected the first signs of inattention and weariness, he changed the subject,—suggested that there was some good target practice going on in the West Field; and the two boys, after a pleasant walk, joined a number of others who were shooting with bows and arrows, under careful coaching and management. "I can't shoot except Saturdays," said the guide, "because I haven't joined a team and practised. But, if you want to, you just put your name down; and by and by you can hit anything. There's all kinds of old-fashioned weapons—and the new ones, too."

"What do you call this, anyhow?" demands the visitor.

"Call what? This is the West Field: they do all kinds of shooting here. You see that long bank and wall stops everything."

"Yes,—but the whole place,—is it a park?"

"Oh, yes, kind of. It's Weybourne Garden. And that was the museum we went to,—one of 'em."

"Is it open always?"


"And you don't have to pay for anything?"

"No. This part is for children. We learn how to do all sorts of things. Do you know how to build with bricks? I learned that last. I built a piece of a real wall. It's not here. It was one that was broken on the other side, and I built a good piece in!"

A big clock struck somewhere. "Now I must go to dinner with mother," said the guide. "The gate you came in at is on my way. Come on!" And he showed the wondering visitor out, and left him at his own door.

The young stranger did not know where he had been. He did not faintly imagine it. Neither, for that matter, did the other children, who went there every day, and with whom he presently found himself enrolled. They went to certain places at certain hours, because they were only "open" then with the persons present who showed them how to do desirable things.

There were many parks in the city, with different buildings and departments; and in them, day by day, without ever knowing it, the children of that city "went to school."

The progressive education of a child should be, as far as possible, unconscious. From his first eager interest in almost everything, up along the gradually narrowing lines of personal specialisation, each child should be led with the least possible waste of time and nervous energy. There would be difficulties enough, as there are difficulties in learning even desirable games; but the child would meet the difficulties because he wanted to know the thing, and gain strength without losing interest. So soon as a child-house is built and education seen to begin in earliest babyhood, so soon as we begin to plan a beautiful and delicately adjusted environment for our children, in which line and colour and sound and touch are all made avenues of easy unconscious learning, we shall find that there is no sharp break between "home" and "school." In the baby-garden the baby will learn many things, and never know it. In the kindergarten the little child will learn many things, and never know it. He will be glad and proud of his new powers, coming back to share the astonishing new information or exhibit the new skill to papa and mamma; but he will not be conscious of any task in all the time, or of special credit for his performance. Then, as he grows, the garden grows, too; and he finds himself a little wiser, a little stronger, a little more skilful every day—or would if he stopped to measure. But he does not measure. His private home is happy and easy, with a father and mother interested in all his progress; and his larger home—the child-world he grows up in—is so dominated by wise, subtle educational influences that he goes on learning always, studying a good deal, yet never "going to school."

In the wise treatment of his babyhood, all his natural faculties are allowed to develope in order and to their full extent, so that he comes to a larger range of experiment and more difficult examples with a smooth-working, well-developed young mind, unwearied and unafraid. The legitimate theories of the kindergarten carefully worked out helped him on through the next years in the same orderly progression; and, as a child of five or six, he was able to walk, open-eyed and observant, into wider fields of knowledge. Always courteous and intelligent specialists around him, his mental processes watched and trained as wisely as his sturdy little body, and a careful record kept, by these experienced observers, of his relative capacity and rate of development.

So he gradually learns that common stock of human knowledge which it is well for us all to share,—the story of the building of the earth, the budding of the plant, the birth of the animal, the beautiful unfolding of the human race, from savagery toward civilisation. He learns the rudiments of the five great handicrafts, and can work a little in wood, in metal, in clay, in cloth, and in stone. He learns the beginnings of the sciences, with experiment and story, and finds new wonders to lead him on, no matter how far he goes,—an unending fascination.

For his sciences he goes to the museum, the laboratory, and the field, groups of children having about the same degree of information falling together under the same teacher. For the necessary work with pen and pencil there are quiet rooms provided. He has looked forward to some of these from babyhood, seeing the older ones go there.

Each child has been under careful observation and record from the very first. His special interests, his preferred methods, his powers and weaknesses, are watched and worked with carefully as he grows. If power of attention was weak at first, he is given special work to develope it. If observation was loose and inaccurate, that was laboured with. If the reasoning faculty worked with difficulty, it was exercised more carefully. He has been under such training from babyhood to twelve or fifteen years old as to give a full and co-ordinate development of his faculties,—all of them; and such a general grasp of the main lines of knowledge as to make possible clear choice of the lines of study for which he is best adapted. With such a childhood the youth will have much more power of learning, and a deep and growing interest—an unbroken interest—in his work.

The natural desire of mankind to know, and also to teach, and the steadily enlarging field of knowledge open to us, should make education the most delightful of processes. With our present methods the place of teacher is usually sought merely for its meagre salary, by women who "have to work," instead of being eagerly aspired to as the noblest of professions, and only open to those best fitted. The children are so overtaxed and mishandled that only the best intellects come out with any further desire to learn anything. Humanity's progress is made through brain-improvement, by brain-power. We need such schooling as shall give us better brains and uninjured bodies. Fortunately for us, the value of education is widely felt to-day, and new and improved methods are rapidly coming in. Our school-houses are more beautiful, our teachers better trained and more ambitious, and the beneficent influences of the kindergarten and of the manual training system are felt everywhere.

But, while much is being done, much more remains for us. With such honour and such pay as show our respect for the office of teacher, and such required training and natural capacity as shall allow of no incapables, we could surround our children from birth with the steady influence of the wisest and best people. More and more to-day is the school opening out. It connects with the public library, with art and industry, with the open fields; and this will go on till the time is reached when the child does not know that he is at school,—he is always there, and yet never knows it.

Where residence was permanent, the teachers of different grades could constantly compare their growing records, and the child's unfolding be watched steadily, and noted with a view to still further improvement in method. Travelling parties of children are not unknown to us. These will become more common, until every child shall know his earth face to face,—mountain, river, lake, and sea,—and gain some idea of political division as well.

Two main objections to all this will arise at once: one, that of expense; the other, that a child so trained would not have learned to "apply himself,"—to force himself to do what he did not like,—that it was all too easy.

The ground of too much expense cannot be held. Nothing is too expensive that really improves education; for such improvement cuts off all the waste product of society,—the defective and degenerate, the cripple, thief, and fool, and saves millions upon millions now spent in maintaining or restraining these injurious classes. Not only that, but it as steadily developes the working value of humanity, turning out more and more vigorous and original thinkers and doers to multiply our wealth and pleasure. Grant the usefulness of improved methods in education, and they can never be expensive. Even to-day the school-children become far better class of citizens than the street Arabs who do not go to school; and such school advantages as we have lower our expense in handling crime and disease. When we provide for every child the very best education,—real education of body, brain, and soul,—with the trained hand and eye to do what the trained will and judgment command, it is difficult to see where the "criminal class" is to come from.

As to its being too easy, and not developing sufficiently stern stuff in our youngsters, that has two answers. In the first place, this proposed line of advance is not without its difficulties. Whether a child is learning to sew or to shoot or to lay bricks, to solve examples in fractions or to play chess, there are always difficulties. To learn what you don't know is always a step up.

But why need we add to this the difficulty of making the child dislike the work? "Because it is necessary in this world to do what you don't like!" is the triumphant rejoinder.

This is an enormous mistake. It is necessary in this world to like what you do, if you are to do anything worth while. One of the biggest of all our troubles is that so many of us are patiently and wearily doing what we do not like. It is a constant injury to the individual, draining his nervous strength and leaving him more easily affected by disease or temptation; and it is a constant injury to society, because the work we do not like to do is not as good as it would be if we liked it.

The kind of forcing we use in our educational processes, the "attention" paid to what does not interest, the following of required lines of study irrespective of inclination,—these act to blunt and lower our natural inclinations, and leave us with this mischievous capacity for doing what we do not like.

A healthy child, rightly surrounded with attractive opportunities, the stimulus of association, and natural (not forced) competition, will want to learn the things most generally necessary, just as he wants to learn the principal games his comrades play. He has his favourite games, and does best in them, and will have his favourite studies and do best in them, which is no injury to any one.

In this unconscious method the child learns with personal interest and pleasure, and not under pressure of class competition, reward, or punishment. He knows, of course, that he is learning, as he knows when he has learned to swim or to play golf; but he is not laboriously "going to school" and "studying" against his will. The benefit of such a process is that it will supply the world with young citizens of unimpaired mental vigour, original powers and tastes, and strong special interests, thus multiplying the value and distinction of our products, and maintaining the health and happiness of the producer.

As a matter of practical introduction, we are already moving in this direction, with the "laboratory method," the natural sciences now taught so widely, and all the new impetus through the study of pedagogy.

But those most capable and most interested, those who see the value of this trend and are doing all they can to promote it, are most keenly conscious of the difficulties which still confront them. These difficulties are not far to seek. They lie in the indifference, the criminal indifference, of our citizens, notably the women. Sunk in the constant contemplation of their own families, our female citizens let the days and years pass by, utterly ignoring their civic duties. While women are supported by men, they have more time to spare for such broad interests than men have; and one would naturally think that even the lowest sense of honour would lead them to some form of public usefulness in return for this immunity. As the English nobleman—the conscientious one—sees in his wealth and leisure, his opportunities for study and cultivation, only a heavy obligation to serve the State which so well serves him, so should our women of leisure—the thousands of them—feel in their free and sheltered lives a glorious compulsion to serve the best interests of that society which maintains them.

The care of children is certainly the duty of women. The best care of children means the best education. The woman who has not done her best to improve the educational advantages of her city, State and country,—of the world,—has not done her duty as a citizen or as a woman. And, as education comes through every impression received by the child, we must improve home and street and city and all the people, to make a clean, safe, beautiful world, in which our children may receive the unconscious schooling to which they have a right.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman