Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 7/Short cuts




Did you ever know a path across a level field to be straight, when formed by the feet of wayfarers alone? There is the opposite stile which you seek, there is nothing to turn you to the right hand or to the left, but your own swerving fancy; and that makes the field-path crooked, invariably. It seems as if no one could walk straight alone, nor indeed correct himself, once for all, when wrong. The moment he becomes conscious of a deviation from the true track, he leaves it again in the other direction. When the object to be reached is obvious, corrections are more frequently repeated. So it comes to pass that the fresh-stamped path over the mould is never straight, but a calendar of successive mistakes. Thus difficult is it to take the shortest cut. None but a ploughman can do so; and he can do little or nothing, except it be after long years of patient experience.

Walking the other day for some miles through fields, in which the track from gate to gate had been marked out by the passengers themselves, and lay always crooked on the ground, I fell into such an entanglement of thought about short cuts that, like as with a tune which you can get rid of only by humming it again and again, I found myself putting some of them on paper when I came home. And if the great excuse for an essay or soliloquy is its power of arousing reflections which the reader accepts as his own, perhaps my familiar reverie may not be uttered without some such effect. Short cuts: let me first beg the privilege of using them now, and whenever I see a fresh thought, make straight for it, though I may risk a blunder, and leave the correct progress of meditation.

Somebody said once that “there was no royal road to geometry,” and that neat reproof to a vulgar king has been caught up by so many, that no doubt there is a great principle involved in the saying. The principle is, that money will not buy genius; that the splendour of rank does not necessarily make the brain shine. But the philosopher’s rebuke is telling only on the assumption that regal power is external alone.

I hold it as certain, that there is a royal road to most ends, if the traveller be a born king. Every successful short cut is made by a regal mind. Some object has been hitherto approached only by tedious pains. The wise and the weak, alike, labour and wait. All at once the labyrinth in whose turns they are creeping is burst through, and one man’s force of brain and will destroys the inviolable hedge. Others follow over the gap; his short cut becomes in a common way but a royal road, for it was a king who first found it out.

Indeed, every true leader and ruler of mankind guides them thus. No nation will ever advance far at the word of command. The national wit stagnates, the schools hang on hand. The tutors teach the old formulas. The pupils thumb the old books. Everything is done, and must be done, with true conservative pains: no princely patronage can quicken the pace or the thought of the workers.

But all at once some mighty mind makes a short cut; invents a steam engine, say, and the whole nation, prince and all, masters and scholars, tutors and taught, follow in the wake of the new guide. The four Georges in succession might have patronised, bribed, threatened the united coachmakers of the kingdom, without finding any route from St. James’s to Windsor which a well-mounted butcher-boy could not take as well as they. But at last a great king came, and before long the successors of the Georges and their subjects sat behind Stevenson. There was a short cut: a royal road. Had there been no pains taken before this to carry travellers to their destination at the highest possible speed? Was not the posting system elaborated? Were not the coaches swift? What could you do more? There was a limit to motion. Horses have but four legs, and the suggestive whipcord fails beyond a certain point. But the commanding brain summons an iron steed, swifter and stronger than the fabled Pegasus himself. Possibly, however, some servant may be hereafter found better for our purposes than steam itself.

There is generally a long pause after a discovery. It is as if the energies of invention spend themselves, and need a lapse of years for another effort. The wheel and axle were an incalculable addition to our means of locomotion. Steam used and developed their powers: may be, however, our successors will see the railroad superseded, and future historians entertain their readers with accounts of the clumsy complication of locomotives, iron ruts, and express trains.

Generally, the royal road becomes at last not only vulgar but tedious, and then the independent genius makes a new short cut. But they must be made naturally. The stream which has to gain the ocean through a long tract of country, may not be taken without danger by a sudden leap into the sea. It may have its waterfalls and rapids, but it has duties to perform by the way; the meadow has to be irrigated, the mill to be turned. The cattle must be watered—nay, the linen must be washed. Don’t say that the sole object of the stream is to reach the sea. There is a gain in occasional slowness. So with man’s mind, with the progress of the sciences and arts. There may be sudden leaps or waterfalls, but it is well to pause when stage after stage of advance is gained. People must have time to take the good things in as they are found out. When the river has watered the fields of wholesome fruit and food, it takes another plunge; then the short cut is natural and right. Delay has done its healthy work; the last discovery has been understood and digested—we may make a fresh start. But if you force the journey, you may fail before the end. The river which circles slowly through the fiat, receives as much as it gives. Rain and rivulets have time to make an impression, whereas if it goes whisking by in a cataract, it issues from the chasm of smaller bulk than it descended. The fertile stream of progress must give itself time to be fed.

There is another thing to be remembered about short cuts. You may take them selfishly, uselessly, except as far as you yourself are concerned. The heavy diligence surmounts the Alps by a series of patient zigzags. It grinds on, climbing slowly up above itself with many halts, with much sweat and cracking of whips. Now, of course, if you choose, you can get down and cut off the corners of the road; but you do not thus help the party of travellers; nay, as often as not, you are hotter and more blown than they when at the summit you all take your seats for the descent. Besides, you have broken your shins and torn a large triangular rent in the back of your coat. Short cuts like these are generally mistakes. Indeed, as a rule, any invention, which you cannot share with others, is no gain in the long run. The construction of the zigzag was a short cut if you will; before that, the pass could be traversed only by men on foot or lines of mules, picking out an ill-marked, circuitous and jolting route; now that you have made your broad zigzag, however tedious it may seem, you can carry the contents of an hospital or a warehouse over the Splugen. If you are to help others, you must be content to make your short cut with deliberation and breadth. It is the same coming down-hill, if you want to do more than come down, for there are short descending cuts which land you speedily at the bottom, and—break your neck.

There are many other false short cuts. The most deceptive of all is an inherited good fortune or position in society. Don’t suppose I am going to jest at these things; they carry genuine influence, and are supposed by many to introduce the possessor at once to legislative and political power. They facilitate intercourse with the wit and wisdom of the country. Much of what others, little people, learn by books, these, fortunately born, acquire in the daily society of their lives. They mix with philosophers, statesmen, and lions. But do the noblest beasts themselves thus grow to be famous? Can you learn to roar merely from living in the Zoological Gardens? Do you suppose a man gets to the head of affairs from being familiar with the celebrities of his day? Have our greatest statesmen risen thus? Did the men who have the greatest influence in Parliament and literature learn it all of philosophers in their boyhood? Pooh! Great men have been their own masters. They have generally learnt much more from the toes than the heads of society. Skill in interpreting the complaints of the small, ears to hear, and sense to understand them, give political power more than the wise sentences and maxims of the great. There is no short cut to be made to statesmanship by living in the society of the rulers alone.

Of all short cuts, though, protect us most from any epitome, abbreviation, or analysis of a book. It is sad to think how numerous they are. Crams are the curses of education. If a book is so diffuse that it can be cut down to one-fourth of its size without loss of influence, the residue is sure not to be worth the trouble bestowed upon it. Reading the analysis of a good book, instead of the book itself, is like swallowing a meal without mastication or decent delay. The facts are there, inside you, no doubt; but the genius of the interior can make nothing of them. They are too solid. They have come in too suddenly. They are dry, tasteless, and unmanageable.

Suppose we had doors to us—like patent stoves—and could put in our dinners, all at once, as we do coals on a fire, with a scoop; do you think we should save either time or digestion? But this is what the cram does. He pops a shovelful of dates, conclusions, formulas and likely facts into the pupil’s head just where he thinks the examiner will dip in his net. They no more belong to the pupil than the goods which are brought over-night by train and are carried away next morning by the van to the goods-station do to the porter. The pupil is no better than he. He is not so good—he is not so honest. The porter merely transfers the parcel from one man to another; the pupil is encouraged to put a new direction on the hamper and make the receiver believe that it came from him,—that it was his; that he packed it full of his own honest property; that it is a sample of his own possessions. In fact, the tutor sends a load of learning to the examiner, with instructions for the bearer to cheat the latter, if he can. Of course the examiner can say nothing if the right answer is given to the question he puts, though he may feel sure that it no more comes from the examinee than a telegram does from the sparrow which sits upon the wire. The reply passes under the pert little animal’s claw or hand while his empty head has no conception of the reservoirs of intelligence and learning at either end of the course on which he is perched. He flies off, when it is all over, in conceited ignorance of the science whose machinery he has grasped for a minute.

If the student must have an analysis, let him make it himself. An epitome is tolerable only for a grown-up man, whose education has been fragmentary,—who has got together a good many facts and gained experience of the world, but wants some pegs in the storehouse of his memory to hang his goods upon. But to a boy, it is like supplying a larder with nothing but pegs. When dinner-time comes, lo! the safe is empty. At the most, he has some dry bones instead of solid ribs of beef and legs of mutton. I pity the man, however, who thinks he is compelled, by sheer want of years, to make any short educational cut. It is like learning to skate after you are grown up. You fall heavily, and likely enough make a fool of yourself, perhaps before your wife and children. Better stay on the bank and honestly admire what you cannot, or at least, do not choose to try to perform. Who knows but that you might have made a famous skater!

Some short cuts are temporary and legitimate, or at least legal. The barrister must not unfrequently “cram” the language of a trade or profession in order to examine a witness; but, in this case, the quickly acquired knowledge is dismissed from the brain without harm or reproach. It is wanted only for an hour. It serves its purpose, and may go. It would be impossible for a man to master thoroughly the details of any business he might be mixed up in. He has not time enough for such a course. Instead of it he cultivates the power of cram; of a vigorous grasp which can catch the passing situation. Thus a barrister is retained by a “Patent Ramoneur Society;” give him a day, and he will cross-examine an expert among sweeps in the professional language and details of his business. Twenty-four hours beforehand, probably he could not have told you how often his chimneys were swept: certainly not what became of the soot.

As the last toast is “the Ladies,” I can’t help repeating the stale remark, that women are best in making short, common-sense cuts. They don’t reason;—pardon me, I am not rude. They do not find it necessary to set that machinery of judgment in operation of which man is so vain. They have a way of their own—an instinct peculiar to their sex—a gift which elevates them. Within certain limits and on certain subjects they pounce with unerring aim upon a truth. They can’t give reasons for their conclusions. They are, at least, very silly if they try to do so, and not improbably disturb the successful impression of their impromptu sentence. If they are wise they give no reasons but an answer; and, if sudden, it is probably right. They have a power of discernment in many things not possessed by man. With them it is no guess, but a common instinctive perception. To most men it is a mysterious faculty, and redeems the short cuts of common life from the general charge of fool-hardiness or chance.

H. J.