Popular Science Monthly/Volume 8/December 1875/Reading as an Intellectual Process
|READING AS AN INTELLECTUAL PROCESS.|
LANGUAGE possesses a double imperfection. It is incomplete as an expression, as a product, as a symbol; it is imperfect, also, as a cause, as an excitant. It is inadequate both to perfect expression and to perfect impression. It fails to receive fully all that the mind would put upon it, neither does it faithfully deliver all which it fairly received. The soul, struggle as it will, cannot embody itself in form. Expression cannot equal conception. Language suffers this imperfection in common with every plastic art. To the great master how feeble must have seemed his glorious "Ninth Symphony" as an expression of that heavenly harmony which must have filled his soul! What forms and colors, beyond the powers of matter to present, must have possessed the spirit which produced "The Last Judgment!" So with the great masters of literature. To how little of what they must have felt and thought have they been able to give a "local habitation and a name!" And then, even at our best, what a feeble hold do we lay upon what they have bequeathed!
Now, this full interpretation and appreciation of an author, the perfect work of the apparatus which should take the impression, constitute reading of the highest order. In such reading perception becomes intuition, divination. It is not baffled the inherent weakness of language, but feels that "more is meant than meets the ear."
Of course, reading of this kind assumes, to a large extent, equality of mental stature in author and reader. Indeed, it is quite true that, from a book, as from any work of art, we receive that only which is a reflex of ourselves, the counterpart of what we are. Words and sentences do not receive their interpretation from the writer alone. The reader himself becomes an unconscious author, loading the vehicle according to his own calibre and character. It is even a question to what extent great authors "have built better than they knew," so ingenious and profound have been their commentators. Lowell says; "Goethe wrote his 'Faust' in its earliest form without a thought of the deeper meaning which the exposition of an age of criticism was to find in it; without foremeaning it he had impersonated in Mephistopheles the genius of his century." Some one has said: "No man is the wiser for his books until he is above them." Milton expresses the same in "Paradise Regained," b. iv., line 322:
Incessantly, and to his reading brings not
A spirit and judgment equal or superior,
(And what he brings what need he elsewhere seek?)
Uncertain and unsettled still remains,
Crude or intoxicate, collecting toys,
And trifles for choice matters, worth a sponge;
As children gathering pebbles on the shore."
Notwithstanding their seeming inconsistency, these sentiments certainly contain a large portion of truth. It would be interesting to have the great poet's answer to his own parenthetical question. His devotion to books and his acquaintance with all literature and learning are a striking comment upon his query. Every reader must realize that the nearer his own intellectual grasp and sympathy coincide with his author's, the more nutriment he receives. Carlyle says, "We are all poets when we read a poem well."
In this reading well there is another element of very great importance, and exceedingly rare among ordinary people, not to speak of children. It is closely allied to the preceding. It is expressed in the phrase, "Reading between the lines." It is the perception of what is implied, as well as what is explicitly stated. It is the discovery, not of meanings purposely or carelessly hidden, but of thoughts which, in the highest symmetry and completeness, must have accompanied the one expressed. This power is needed in the proper reading of all good authors; but it is called forth most largely by our twin philosophers. Bacon and Shakespeare.
But there are elements more fundamental than these; so fundamental, in fact, that the thought seems seldom to occur to us that there can be any weakness in regard to them. The first of these, probably, is the knowledge of the meaning of words. How we obtain this knowledge is not so simple a question as it may seem.
We have a complete understanding of a term, when in our mind the association is so perfect between the arbitrary sign and the thing signified that the sign spontaneously suggests the thing. It is undoubtedly true that the first words addressed to a child are interpreted to him, and the idea fixed in his mind by the language of action and of circumstance which accompanies them. It is precisely the process by which a dog or a monkey is taught to perform its antics. The idea is associated directly with the phrase which strikes the ear, without a suspicion that there are any components, any words. The child's attention is engaged with complete propositions, and not with individual words; he grasps the whole, not realizing that there are parts. He hears you say, "Take care," "Come to mamma;" your actions and the circumstances associate the full thought with the proposition.
A process quite similar to this is employed by us largely through life. We get, and can get, the meaning of words to a great extent from their connections only. "Words are living things," says President Porter, "only when they are parts of the sentence. They cannot be fully understood except as seen in their connection." The power to appreciate these connections, to feel their force, is a valuable acquisition, and one in which our youth are sadly deficient. It is a power, for want of which no amount of use of the dictionary will compensate; it is most requisite where the dictionary is not thought of, and should not be, in cases where common words are used with modified or figurative meanings. The intellect is not so robust under our modern methods, as when every boy ciphered for himself, and overcame his difficulties as best he could. The power to grasp another's thought seems to have deteriorated with the other faculties. Now every thing has to be explained. The ability to see through good English without the aid of commentary, tone and inflection, seems to be a lost art in our schools. Recently a large class in one of the best high-schools in the country showed itself to be entirely unable to comprehend such sentences as these: "Words are the counters of wise men; the coin of fools." "Worth makes the man; the want of it the fellow." In such cases nothing will avail but the perfect appreciation of the words from their connections. I would not encourage the habit of "jumping at the idea," but I would encourage the habit of digging it out by main strength. There is such a thing as wrestling with a thought until it seems to unfold itself to our comprehension: and he is not worth much as a reader who does not know by experience what it is to grapple with a passage, and to hold on to it until light breaks from within it. Our education tends to shield us entirely from such contests. We are taught to hasten to the quarto oracle. When it fails to respond, we give up in despair. We do not learn the use of native strength; too much assistance has shorn us of our locks.
Although there is this important duty to be performed quite independent of the dictionary, it by no means lessens the value of that book. Because it is the custom to dilute thoughts until their vigor is gone, and to explain text-books until no thought is required to comprehend them, it does not follow that explanation is never of use. The old adage is simply to be recalled: "A place for every thing, and every thing in its place." There is a place for explanations and for definitions; but there is a larger place for active thought, for strong, unaided wrestling with the printed page, for a keen appreciation of the connections of words.
There is no guarantee of thorough scholarship and character so sure as the proper use and appreciation of the dictionary. It is an infallible omen as to the future of any boy or girl. The right habit is acquired only painfully and slowly. It represents a most high and valuable degree of self-discipline, as well as of intellectual activity. Much more can be, and should be, done for it in our upper schools than is accomplished. Any course of training is defective from which pupils pass without that appreciation for the dictionary and that interest in it which they feel for a worthy teacher, full of knowledge, always accessible, and ever in the best humor.
Asking questions is not necessarily a good thing. There must be reflection and an active use of the senses accompanying every inquiry of any value to the querist. And so it is in looking for definitions. To do this impulsively, and to be satisfied with synonyms, is not effective work. The element of thought and of association is wanting. Meanings thus acquired do not become a permanent acquisition: whereas thorough effort seldom allows the necessity of referring to a definition a second time.
The power to read well is also in proportion to the development of the power of association. This is a faculty in which we differ very greatly, and yet it is largely a matter of education. To one person a statement in physics will stand unsupported, until common facts are brought to his notice, while to another instances in support will flock unbidden from the household or the wayside. To some minds, passages in one author will spontaneously suggest passages in another; while other minds will fail to perceive the relation until accident or design brings it directly to their notice. It is true that memory is a large factor in this matter; but, independent of this, there is a readiness of association which may be acquired, and which is very essential. It is a quickness to levy on our own observation and experience when another's ideas are presented. Bacon advises, "Read to weigh and consider." When we do this, association is the most prominent faculty at work. In fact, according to our strength in this faculty we will weigh and consider. An author's sentiment will be flanked, as it were, on both sides, by phenomena from our experience to support or attack him. The degree of this faculty distinguishes the strong from the weak; the teacher from the learner; culture from crudeness. It means digestion, assimilation. It is in this faculty that genuine learning differs from mere memorizing; thorough acquisition from cramming. It vivifies knowledge; it is almost wisdom. This faculty is quite subject to cultivation, and no acquisition will so well repay the labor expended upon it. The attention is not given to it in our education which should be. To childhood and youth the different subjects of study stand as unrelated wholes. There is no interchange of thoughts and associations between different branches. An idea occurring in one subject does not bring up a closely-related idea in another subject. Pupils are not taught nor led to connect their knowledges. It is so by the force of circumstances. Every class-room has its own presiding genius which fellowships with no other. Every specialist tends to reproduce himself. Furthermore, there is a feeble association between what is learned from books and what is learned from practice. Life in the school-room and life out of it are separate existences. In the popular notion, book-learning is a sort of mystery, a peculiar power quite distinct from the common-sense and common experience of everyday life. The "connection of the physical sciences" has become a familiar idea. When shall we realize that there is a connection between all sciences and all knowledge, and that one truth really becomes ours only in proportion as it is surrounded and illuminated by other truths already ours? But, in spite of all untoward circumstances, the power of association in reading can be, and should be, trained carefully.
The power to read well depends, likewise, upon our power of perception, of mental perception; upon the readiness with which we discover the relation between ideas. The degree of this faculty, more than any other one thing, constitutes the difference between dull and sharp minds. Also, it seems to be, more than any other faculty, a native endowment. However, training will show here as plainly as elsewhere. Persons blindfolded have described the contents of rooms, the position of doors, windows, etc., with such accuracy that the credulous have attributed to them a superhuman power; whereas, their whole secret lay in the development of their perceptive faculties. Circumstances unnoticed by others gave them information and the power of inference. The same difference may be observed among readers. One person at a single reading will grasp the thought precisely as it was expressed; for another, even time and study are not sufficient to impress all the modifications and the exact form of the idea. Our Federal Constitution affords a good opportunity to test this power of perception in reading. "No person except a natural-born citizen, or a citizen of the United States at the time of the adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the office of President; neither shall any person be eligible to that office who shall not have attained to the age of thirty-five years, and been fourteen years a resident within the United States." Upon once perusing this, a fair reader would instantly recognize the difference between the two classes of citizens spoken of, and also consciously notice that in the last line it is not "citizen," but "resident," and he will distinctly perceive the difference in the meaning of these words. But this is just what a vast number of those who ought to be good readers will not do. They will not perceive these distinctions until study or comment brings them to their attention. I say a good reader will consciously perceive these differences; he will think of them as he goes along: for many persons will retain in a physical chamber of the mind, as it were, an echo of the words, and repeat them verbatim, but these distinct ideas will not penetrate their consciousness. Submit to the average readers of Byron this line upon the Gladiator:
Consents to death, but conquers agony,"
and judge of the quickness and clearness of their perception.
A large part of the function of this faculty consists in the perception of analogies. Such is its chief office for the student of literature The feeling of likeness in one way or another is the foundation of all similes and metaphors, which make up so large a part of language. Here perception largely depends upon the power of reflection. Weakness often comes from neglect, or inability to hold the mind steadily to the thought. If you would be convinced of the general feebleness of perception of analogies and of their appreciation, experiment with a simple and beautiful couplet like this from Goldsmith:
And keep the flame from wasting by repose."
Or, this most perfect metaphor from Grattan on the failure of the Irish Government:
It is true that this power depends very largely upon maturity of mind and amount of experience. But it is the vigorous exercise of observation and perception, and not length of days, which gives maturity and experience.
Another faculty, and the foundation of all, upon which good reading depends, is the power of attention. Upon it directly depend the powers of association, of perception, and of memory. It is said that Sir Isaac Newton attributed his discoveries entirely to his habit of complete concentration of mind, and not to any superior quality of mind.
It is not a rare experience to most persons to find that they have read a passage, and yet that they are entirely unconscious of its contents. The physical man seems to have done its part perfectly; but the mind was employed upon other errands. Years are wasted before many of us discover that most of our ordinary reading is performed with not more than one-half of the mind, without real mental activity. There are persons who have been hard of hearing all their lives without realizing it, simply because experience has not given them an idea of a power more acute than their own. It is somewhat so in the matter of attention. It is rather a discovery to us when we first realize what may be accomplished by concentration of force; when we feel that attention is not passivity, but energy. It is a fortunate day for us when this awakening comes, and we begin the earnest endeavor to hold our mind to its work as though it were a truant school-boy.
We are told that we must appeal to curiosity to arouse this attention; that we must always read and study with interest. Good counsel, so far as it goes. But mere curiosity is quite inadequate to the great work of education. It may lead through "Nicholas Nickleby," but it rarely carries us through algebra or geometry. Something more reliable than a mere impulse is needed to make a strong mind. Back of all must stand a strong will, with the ability and disposition to use it. M. Marcel well says, "The great secret of education lies in exciting and directing the will." In later mental acquirements we realize the omnipotence of will. It is the want of this prime element which makes our attention so weak in the period of immaturity. In childhood, attention is a direct product of curiosity. As we grow older, curiosity is sated, and becomes weak as a motor. Nothing takes its place until we discover that attention is under the control of the will, and until, by perseverance, we acquire the power of thus controlling it. It is only then that we make rapid conquests, and that genuine mental discipline shows itself. There is no reason why it should be so late in life before this force becomes a substitute, as it were, for curiosity. From want of this mastery of the will over attention, the great majority of our youth close their school-life without realizing of what they are really capable.
Instead of aiding to impart this power, ordinary school-work does positively the reverse. Humdrum repetition is made a substitute for attention. By dint of drilling and memorizing, recitations are prepared, but without concentration of thought. Our children simply mark time; they do not advance. They know of no means of acquisition but "study," in the school-room sense. To them it is not quality of effort, but quantity. They can appreciate exertion only in the bulk. They know little of intensity of labor, or of its rewards. To them simple reading means a very feeble, unsatisfactory hold upon the matter read. With the mind only thus half awake, comprehension of the author is very feeble; and, as a consequence, we find substantial, profitable reading a dull exercise to many who, by their training, as we think, ought to find pleasure in it.
It is to be observed that just in proportion to the intensity of our mental action in grappling the thought, just to that extent does the language vanish from our view, and the thought only remain. The mind is not conscious of having seen words, but only of having perceived ideas. Any one must realize, upon reflection, that, when studying with a purpose of verbal reproduction, there is a diversion of effort from the thought. Ordinary memorizing, instead of aiding, is the direct enemy of thought. As we are impressed by the peculiarities of language, the vigor of the sentiment loses. The best reader, so far as seeing the author's mind is concerned, is the poorest proof-reader in regard to mere typographical errors—attention to the vehicle is so much withdrawn from the content. Hence, that study or reading is not entirely worthless which fails to give us the power to reproduce. The power of expression generally lags behind the power of thought. The slightest observation of a child will convince that he often thinks and feels what he cannot declare. Unquestionably there may be good ground for the remark, "I know, but cannot tell." He is to be pitied who, even in mature years, never finds his soul pregnant with a thought, while he feels that the words adequate to convey it are wanting. There may be mental perception without the power to reflect it. This is a dangerous fact with which to allow children to become impressed, because of the universal proneness to find refuge behind it from that wholesome effort at expression so essential to growth, and the clear apprehension of thought. For, without doubt, an idea is more firmly grasped and retained, and becomes negotiable only, by its clear enunciation. Generally speaking, "what we know, but cannot tell," is held by a very uncertain tenure. Thus, while the pupil should be urged to make his title good by the clear expression of his thought, he should realize that the most perfect reading fails to perceive the language consciously, or to retain it, leaving the thought disembodied, as it were, until the exigencies of communication require us to clothe it.
In connection with this matter of attention, the primary school affords abundant opportunity for remark. For instance, the habit of miscalling words. From what does it arise? Supposing the thought and language to be easily within the child's comprehension, it arises in this way: His attention has been exclusively occupied with individual words, in his struggle to master them He has' failed to grasp the thought, or so much of the thought as he might have grasped up to the point of difficulty. Now, when circumstances bring the impulse to articulate a certain word, he is entirely unable to perceive whether or not the word coheres with what he has already uttered. In fact, he does not think, and cannot think, in regard to the sentiment of the sentence. His mind labors to recognize the words in their individual capacity only, and not at all in their connections. If he actually grasped the thought, although he might announce a word other than the one printed, still it would be impossible for him to announce a word which in the connection would be totally irrelevant or absurd. Now, in such a case, what is the teacher to do? To tell the child the word? To practically erase all the rest of the sentence, and to impress that individual form upon his mind? By no manner of means. This, however, is the universal practice; and from this practice partly results the abominable failure of our schools to teach our children to read fully and truly. It is the teacher's duty to get the child's mind on to the thought; to repeat the sentence, or to have it repeated, up to the point of difficulty, and to lead him by his own intellect to suggest a word, or the word, which will harmonize with the previous words. Indeed, he may not pronounce the word before his eyes, but, with any proper training, he will be far from suggesting a vocable which will present a solecism to his infantile perception. It is impossible to conceive of learning to read without miscalling words; but it is possible to conceive of a child's learning to read without pronouncing a word, among all his blunders, which his own powers are able to see is entirely absurd in the connection. Could that much be achieved, a great good would be done for us in after-life. One-half of the want of perception and attention which we now exhibit would be corrected.
Later in school-life teachers encounter this thing as a difficulty. In "easy reading," children do not call the words printed, but others partly synonymous, or at least consistent. How is this to be looked at? It is a very trifling fault, so far as the real intellectual part of reading goes; the part we need in life, and which of all things should be taught. This fault, as it is called, is a good omen. You do not find the sluggards and the blockheads guilty of it. They continue the infantile fault first spoken of. This substitution of equivalent terms for those printed is done, and can be done, only by the bright, the active, the thoughtful. Observation will prove that this is invariably so. This fault teachers can well afford not only to tolerate, but to encourage. It indicates the presence of the only thing that is wanted—the clear grasping of the thought. It arises only because the pupil so fully comprehends that he is able by anticipation to supply a word for the author, if not the word. Such mistakes are worthy of remark, and, for the purpose of actually learning to read, there cannot be a better recitation than one made up entirely of such errors. Twenty reading-lessons devoted to this paraphrasing, and kindred work, to one of the ordinary kind of lessons, would work a wonderful change in the mental status of our children.
It is true, in the abstract, that words are the signs of ideas; but it is not true that the utterance of words by children is a sign that they possess the idea. We are taught in childhood upon the assumption that every sentence pronounced leaves its distinct and proper counterpart in our mind. None can know so well as teachers how far this is from being true; and how much more reliable as an indication of full mental perception, tone, inflection, emphasis, feature are, than the recital of the words. There is no fact which so loudly calls for the consideration of teachers as this—that the reading or reciting of words is a very uncertain sign that the idea is lodged in the child's mind. There is need for a new exercise and method in the teaching of reading; an exercise for teaching pure mental reading; a means of instruction in which things more reliable than words shall be taken as proof that the idea is grasped; a test of the accuracy of mental perception in which such unreliable evidence shall not be heard. There are devices which partly answer this purpose, but they cannot be described here.
If the real object to be aimed at in teaching reading were apprehended, there would be more use made of maxims, forms, riddles, etc. Every philosophic teacher must perceive their utility. They are of value only as a means of discipline; but there is nothing which so easily and strongly stimulates concentration of thought. They afford an opportunity to judge infallibly whether or not the learner clearly perceives. He is a rare child, indeed, who can read a pun, or any joke, to himself, and whose countenance will not promptly reveal to the slightest observation whether or not he "sees it." This cannot be said of ordinary sentences.
Furthermore, when wit does strike, it strikes with such effect, that the child himself cannot fail to discover whether he is hit or not; he cannot help but feel that he does or does not comprehend the idea. He may not be conscious that he does not clearly get an ordinary thought; but he can hardly remain so in regard to an epigram like this, upon a conceited person. He will either "see it," or know that he does not "see it:"
To any enlightened lover of pelf,
Is to buy Tommy up at the price he is worth,
And sell him at that he puts on himself."
Or in regard to any of Lord Bacon's apothegms like this one. Dionysius gave do ear to the earnest suit of the philosopher Aristippus until the latter fell at the tyrant's feet. A by-stander afterward said to Aristippus, "You a philosopher, and to be so base as to throw yourself at the tyrant's feet to get a suit?" Aristippus answered, "The fault is not mine, but the fault is in Dionysius, who carries his ears in his feet."
What will so bring thought to a focus, and so develop the comprehension of words from their connections as a riddle like this from Dean Swift, and which Mr. Garvey, in his "Manual of Human Culture," mentions as an illustration upon this point:
No lady alive can show such a skin.
I'm bright as an angel, and light as a feather,
But heavy and dark when you squeeze me together.
Though candor and truth in my aspect I bear.
Yet many poor creatures I help to ensnare.
Though so much of heaven appears in my make,
The foulest impressions I easily take.
My parent and I produce one another,
The mother the daughter, and the daughter the mother."
Of course, such material, of which the active teacher will find abundance, must be used judiciously. The purpose must be to develop, not simply to entertain. Such specimens must be carefully adapted to the capacity of the class. Time must be given, and encouragement to "weigh and consider." Every contrast, comparison, and lurking sense, must be hunted out. No exercise in science or classics can equal this as a sharpener of the wits (to say nothing of wit). The child is made to realize what real comprehension is. He becomes familiar with the sensation which accompanies a clear perception, and is more sensitive to its absence when dealing with more ordinary thoughts. It is in this way that the study of Shakespeare, now being introduced into our high-schools, is going to do more for good common-sense in the comprehension and use of language, than all the grammar taught in a century. It must be observed that a valuable part of the study of Shakespeare is of the same nature as this of which I have been treating. The study of the poet is largely a process of simply unfreighting words; an exercise in obtaining impressions from language under unfavorable circumstances, but with every thing to stimulate and reward the effort. We cannot find him lowered to the comprehension of young minds, as we can this scattered wit and wisdom, or he would be a perfect substitute for it.
It is pertinent to ask how we know, how we become certain, that we correctly conceive the idea of a word or a sentence. The only answer which can be given is, that our judgment seems to rely upon the general symmetry of the whole thought, a harmony of parts, a connection through and through which satisfies the mind that it is right. The judgment may err here as well as elsewhere. The accuracy of this mental perception depends wholly upon the general power and activity of the reader. The great thing is, that the reader should obtain a clear, consistent, and reasonable idea, taking into consideration all the circumstances and connections.
But there is a thing which education can invariably secure, and that is a ready consciousness that we do or do not obtain a clear, coherent idea from what we read. It would be unreasonable to demand that education should give us the power to understand all that we read; but it is perfectly reasonable to demand that it should give us the power to discriminate quickly between what we understand and what we do not understand; that it should develop that kind of attention which notifies us at once when we fail to get or comprehend clearly an author's thought. The failure here is one of the saddest features connected with the subject of reading, and, indeed, with the whole matter of common-school education. From the lowest grades to the highest our children read, learn, and recite passages, without comprehending them, and, what is far worse, without realizing their want of comprehension. Any close observer and questioner can satisfy himself of this by a short visit to the school of his own district. This is an unpardonable weakness in the methods of instruction. It is a shame, and there can be no defense for it. From every thing that he reads or learns, the child can, and should get, not necessarily a correct idea, but an idea intelligible and coherent according to his powers; or else he should be. perfectly conscious that he gets no such idea.
It has become chronic with college presidents, professors, and examiners generally, to complain of the inability of our youth to speak and write the language. If these wise men were as wise as they ought to be, they would discover that they have not yet reached the fundamental evil. They must probe deeper if they would reach the bottom. The foundation of the trouble lies in the want of ability, or rather in the want of the habit of understanding language fully.
In spite of all our systematic education, there is a fearful lack of accurate comprehension of good English; and this ever underlies the defect of expression. Of all the young men of whom the complaint is so justly made, I do not believe there is one to be found who has the faculties well developed which are necessary to a good reader. The primary fault is not to be found in the instruction in composition, but in the instruction in reading, and this last includes every subject in which the pupil has a book to use. Show me a person who is a good reader in the real sense of the terra, one who has a strong power of attention, quick perception, active association, and other requisites to a fair mental reader, and I will show you a person who will not come far short of reasonable demands in his composition. The one follows the other naturally and invariably. This statement will be fully supported by any class after six months of faithful study of the English classics.
Of this want of comprehension there are several sources which are unwittingly fostered:
1. While children, we are compelled to study and read over and over again the same lessons. The mastery of words is made the end and the only end, in the view of both teacher and pupil, instead of remaining to each as a means only, a subordinate matter. Curiosity, at that age the natural governor of attention, is destroyed; and nine-tenths of our task-reading is performed with an indifference and weakness of thought which do not deserve the name of reading. This will continue so until the reading-matter put into our schools is greatly increased in variety and amount. Rarely, and only at long intervals, should a lesson be read more than once. The habit of seeming to read, of performing the physical part, while the mental faculties lie as dead, is easily formed. But it should be resisted. The problem before the primary teacher is this: To keep firmly fixed in the child's mind that the chief thing is the idea, while at the same time he is duly impressed with forms and words. Not only must the tongue utter, but the spirit must see what we read.
2. Also, in childhood we are allowed or required to read what we do not understand. A common illustration of one form of this evil occurred recently in the closing exercises of a first-class normal school. The pupil-teacher was to exhibit her power by means of a lesson in writing to a large class of bright boys about seven years of age. She had placed upon the black-board, as her copy, those four familiar lines—
"Work while you work,
Play while you play," etc.
The writing was certainly most admirable; but the inquiries of the lady-principal revealed the fact that the children had not the least conception of the first two lines. Most, indeed, seemed not to have thought any thing about the meaning. This is a sample, taken, however, from normal training, of the vast number of ways in which as children we are permitted or required to handle words without associating any meaning with them. The same may be seen in the thoughtless singing of our Sabbath-schools. Thus words become the only things which we think of; and we lose the feelings which accompany clear comprehension, or the want of comprehension. Accustomed to a dull tool, we lose the consciousness that it is dull. But let us rarely have a dull one in our hands, and how intolerable it seems to work with it! Blunt our keen perceptions upon things which we do not or cannot penetrate, and we become insensible to the fact that our instrument is dull, and fails to perform its proper work. It is better, by all means, that the child should attach wrong ideas to all he reads, than that he should form the habit of reading without attaching any ideas. Let any friend of education look upon the stolidity of the average product of our schools, which comes from this mechanical, absolutely thoughtless reading, and he cannot but feel that we are producing a large amount of artificial stupidity. I do not say that pupils should never be required to read or learn what they do not comprehend; but I do say that such should never be the requisition so long as they are in danger of falling into the habit of which I speak, nor until they have the habit of reading with the distinct realization that they do comprehend or that they do not.
3. I have said that the power of expression is possible only after a proper development of the capacity to receive impressions. The power and the habit of conveying thought will follow as a consequence of, and in proportion to, the power and the habit of receiving thought. This plainly indicates the plan which should be adopted by any rational system of primary instruction in reading. As a matter of fact, however, the universal practice of teachers is in direct opposition to this principle. It is assumed on all hands that the practice of reading can have no other object than to impart elocutionary skill; to cultivate the power of oral expression. The great question which governs the method in this branch is not. Do we understand others? but, How to make others understand us. It is taken for granted that distinctness of articulation, correctness of inflection, etc., surely indicate the presence of the thought within. Pupils are drilled almost daily in reading from the time they are six until they are sixteen, and yet they cannot read. They pass over that which to them is intelligible and that which is not intelligible alike, without the least discrimination. Words, words merely, are their only currency. Professors of elocution, and teachers, of reading, do not impart the power we need. They teach us an accomplishment, but neglect our necessity. They make oral reading a high and important end, while it is simply a means, and should so be used. Our children are taught as though a large portion of their existence were to be spent in reading aloud; whereas, probably not one-fiftieth of all the reading done by people in ordinary circumstances is of that kind. For most of us, it is our intellectual business in life to understand, to receive, to unload, as it were, that which others have put aboard. At least ability in this line is what we need infinitely more than the mere art of conveying thought. The number is comparatively small of those who are called upon to create, to body forth the soul either as orators or writers. The truth is, within the proper and legitimate sphere of school-reading, the cultivation of the organs of speech should be strictly subordinate to the great end of acquiring and retaining thoughts. The voice and ear have just that kind of work to do, and no other, which is performed by the gauge upon the steam-boiler, viz., to afford a means of judging of the condition of things within—the one of the pressure of steam, the other of the clearness and coherence of ideas. The paramount object in learning to read is to acquire the power of obtaining from the printed page, and by means of the eye only, ideas clearly and quickly. This should be the foremost thing with every teacher. Tone, emphasis, inflection, and general expression are, or should be, only the test-marks to indicate to the teacher whether or not the thought as presented by the printed words is fairly lodged in the mind of the learner. This perfectly subsidiary character of oral reading and the actual comprehension of the thought are almost entirely lost sight of. The subject is taught as a fine art, an art of expression only, the same as music, instead of the art of soul-perceptions, the art of seeing and feeling ideas and sentiments.
Such are some of the faculties which need attention in making good readers, and some existing faults which need correction.