The Folk-Lore Journal/Volume 1/Folk-lore in relation to Psychology and Education


F all the proverbs on the earth, "Train up a child in the way he should go" is the one which would seem to admit of the least doubt as to its meaning. We all of us know the way—we have trodden it ourselves; we all of us know the child—our neighbour's, if not our own. Yet seldom has there been a more complete transformation than that which the interpretation of this proverb has undergone in the last decade of years. The educators of Tom Tulliver and Tom Brown knew of only one subject of instruction, and only one method of teaching it. Their type of a scholar was Mr. Casaubon; beyond the Greek and Latin classics they knew of no education, and attempted none. But educators are now beginning to see that their duty is not to merely impart instruction in some one subject, valuable though that subject may be, but to call forth the varied capacities of the young minds; not to mould all children in one and the same branch of study, but to train the faculties for the performance of the various functions that the members of a highly-developed society are required to discharge. The ideal of the new educator is Mr. Phœbus, the Aryan.

But this progress to a higher interpretation of the 'way' brings with it a revelation of our ignorance of the 'child.' We begin to see how little we really know of a child's mind, its capacity, its direction, and rate of growth, the lines of least resistance into it for each element of instruction. Yet a knowledge of all these things is an indispensable pre-requisite for a competent educator, and therefore it is little wonder that a systematic investigation is being made into the problem, What is a child? The inquiries that have to be made travel into regions already occupied by various groups of researchers, philologists, physiologists, psychologists, and, not least, folk-lorists, with whose relation to educationists I now proceed to deal.

I.—Folk-lorists will readily understand that one of the principal means of imparting instruction to young children is stories and games, and that, therefore, Prof. Stanley Hall, who has taken the lead in America in inquiries into the psychology of children, is now making preparation for "an extensive and systematic collection of children's stories, based on their preferences, by a method not yet clear to me, but which should give their preference free scope:

"A collection of their games as actually played, from actual study, including the formulas (often in rhyme) of the Mother Goose order:

"A good graded collection of proverbs, in rhythm or otherwise, and also of maxims, as one element of moral training."[1]

It will be seen at once that folk-lorists can give great help to educationists in this work, because the collections asked for are just those which the Folk-Lore Society is now making. The tabulation of folk-tales will, when it has approached some degree of completion, afford precisely what Prof. Hall wants. The tales which appear in the great collections of folk-lore are tales, as I take it, that have survived from age to age because they have delighted generation after generation, not only of men and women, but of children. Thus the frequency, the approach to universality, of a folk-tale, shows very fairly the extent to which it has met with general approbation; and when we find the same outline and the same plot repeated with endless variations we may fairly conclude that that plot will please again if the details are once more changed. And not only will the folk-tale classification give us a very good indication of the kind of tale that pleases most, and a series of model plots which we can adapt to our own uses, it will also give us valuable hints in the construction of our stones. Nothing is more remarkable in folk-tales than the dramatic skill with which the materials are handled. Nothing is lacking; nothing is superfluous. Each incident arises in its proper place, the plot develops itself without dragging, and yet without hurrying, up to the denouement. No art is more necessary to the story-teller than that of grouping the incidents properly round the centre of interest, and no training is more likely to give skill in it than a careful study of the anatomy of standard folk-stories, as they will appear in our Society's tabulation.

With respect to proverbs, it is equally obvious that much has been done by folk-lorists in the direction of classifying proverbial sayings. But we want proverbs classified, not merely according to their connection with each other, but also in their relation to the different periods and orders of society, so that we may light at once on the group best suited to the various points of morality that we desire to instil. And this is important, because, from the research I have myself been able to make, I think that if a classification by subjects and periods, similar to that suggested by Mr. Long, were carried out, we should find that proverbs will fall of themselves into social groups, and that, as one period of society gives way to another, new proverbs come up without always driving out the earlier ones. We thus get contradictory proverbs, and it is very necessary to the educator who deals in proverbs to know which form contains the highest social morality.

Even more important than either the story or the proverb alone is the combination of the two into the moral story. It is not easy to construct a good story, but a moral story is almost always a failure. Either the story is undramatic or the moral dubious; and not infrequently a bad moral is tagged on to a worse story. I lately read a choice specimen which was printed in a German educational periodical as a model for kindergarten teachers. It narrated the fortunes of two spiders, one of whom was an uralte spinnenmadam,[2] to whom another and younger spider paid a morning call. This apparently polite attention irritated the elder lady to such an extent that she fought the younger one, and after a prolonged struggle slew her and sucked her blood, afterwards returning thanks in the historical German manner that she knew how to help herself in time of need. The proceedings had been watched with intense interest by a cheerful sparrow (ein munteres spätzchen) on a neighbouring twig, who, after remarking that a fat spider with the essence of another one inside it was precisely what he desiderated for a morning meal, hopped down and partook of the same. "This," says the moralist, "is the way of the world, and thus does each of us serve the other in the economy of nature."[3]

After this glorification of "the good old rule, the simple plan," under the mask of Cosmic Service, I will ask the reader to turn to the foot of the page and read the old folk-story which impresses the three-fold rule of keeping the high road, holding one's tongue, and thinking twice before acting once.[4] I do not hold up this practical worldly-mindedness as the highest morality that might be inculcated; but I venture to think that for both literary and ethical excellence the folk-story far exceeds the Weltdienst of modern Teutonic sentimentality. Yet the publication of this extraordinary spider story as a model shows how very far teachers are from understanding the conditions under which a moral story can be successful, and how very much they can learn from a study of those ethical folk-stories which it is one object of our Society to preserve.

II.—But, if folk-lore thus affords a valuable training to educators and moralists, the results of educational and psychological inquiries are no less valuable to folk-lore. For, in the last resort, the interpretation of folk-lore involves important questions of psychology. We have two schools of interpretation of the traditions of early man: the one holding that they should be taken literally, the other that they should be taken metaphorically. For instance, inkosi in Zulu means a king, and zulu the sky; but when the words are conjoined—inkosi pezulu—^do they mean the king in the sky, or the Lord in Heaven? Lexical considerations fail us entirely. To sum up the times that inkosi by itself means king and zulu by itself sky, in order to infer by numerical majority the probable meaning of the words in conjunction, begs the question, which is precisely whether by being conjoined they may not have developed a new meaning. To take a parallel instance from a modern language: herr im himmel cannot be rendered the gentleman in the sky, although the ordinary meaning of herr is certainly gentleman, and of himmel sky. The question, in short, is not one of vocabularies and roots, but of our notion of what is reasonable or unreasonable in savage thought, of the extent to which savages are likely to use metaphorical language, the capacity they have attained for abstract thought: in one word, of our theory of the psychology of early man.[5]

The difficulties in the way of constructing such a theory, which would be simply a science of comparative psychology, are obvious. Competent inquirers are few and far between, their opportunities are comparatively restricted, and the gulf between them and their catechumens must always be a great one. And, when these difficulties have been more or less surmounted, the results have to be interpreted by stay-at-home students who are debarred from the remotest acquaintance with the environment of savage life, and whose difficulties are consequently increased ten-fold.

It is just at this point that aid is forthcoming in the form of investigations into the psychology of modern children. Not only have we considerable scientific support for the conjecture that the children of to-day reflect in their mental growth the stages of the mental growth of their race, but we have the direct testimony of competent observers to the childlike character of many of the lower races, so that we may reasonably expect to have some light thrown upon the psychological state of the lower races by an examination of the psychology of our own children.[6] The conditions too under which the inquiry is made are of the most favourable character. There is no lack, nor is likely to be, of children; and capable observers can be trained in any number. Moreover, both observers and observed live in the same social environment and speak the same tongue, so that the facilities for intercourse are as complete as they can well be, aiid, if the experiments are made on a sufficient scale, the probability of error in the results will be very small. We shall, of course, use the results with discretion, and not look on them as an infallible standard of early man's development, though to do that would be better than to take the standard from our own developed intellect.

Now it happens that considerable progress has already been made in the collection of psychological facts about children, and Professor Stanley Hall permits me to quote somo from a forthcoming paper of his in the Princeton Review, giving the results of an inquiry into the ideas of some school-children at Boston, U.S.A. I shall quote them without comment. Every anthropologist will see that they bear a remarkable analogy to various reported beliefs of the lower races, and will form his own conclusions as to the bearing the former have on the interpretation of the latter. As regards the sun:

"Some thought the sun went down at night into the ground or just behind certain houses, and went across on or under the ground to go up out of or off the water in the morning, but forty-eight per cent, of all thought that at night it goes or rolls or flies, is blown or walks, or God pulls it up higher out of sight. He takes it into heaven, and perhaps puts it to bed, and even takes off its clothes, and puts them on in the morning, or again it lies under the trees, where the angels mind it, or goes through and shines on the upper side of the sky, or goes into or behind the moon as the moon is behind it in the day. ..."[7]

Lightning —

"is God putting out his finger, or opening a door, or turning a gas quick, or (very common) striking many matches at once, throwing stones and iron for sparks, setting paper afire, or it is light going outside and inside the sky, and stars falling. God keeps rain in heaven in a big sink, rows of buckets, a big tub or barrels, and they run over, or he lets it down with a water-hose through a sieve, a dipper with holes, or sprinkles or tips it down or turns a faucet."

As for babies,—

God "lets them down or drops them, and the women or doctors catch them, or he leaves them on the side-walk, or brings them down a wooden ladder backwards and pulls it up again, .... or they fly down and lose off their wings in some place or other and forget it. They were also often said to be found in flour-barrels, and the flour sticks ever so long, you know, or they grow in cabbages, or God puts them in water. ..."

Quotations like these could be multiplied to any length, but those I have given will be enough to show the kind of evidence which psychology will place at the service of folk-lorists, and of the value of that evidence there can hardly be a doubt,

III.—But out of this reciprocal aid grows a third consideration of the good which may be effected if the students of folk-lore, of psychology, and of education, will go together through the world, like the famous six in the märchen. In studying the origin of folk-tales we are very apt to look upon folk-lore as something quite dead and ancient, a relic to be preserved, and not a custom to be maintained. And yet, if we think of it, nothing is more certain than that every folk-story was once alive in the sense that for the people who told it it had a real present meaning, and was told among them, not because it referred to the heavenly bodies, or had been handed down from ancient times, but because it reflected the daily life of the villagers, their ideas of right and wrong, their hopes and fears, the means to ward off harm from their cattle, and to make the crops bear rich fruit.

There are two great collections of folk-tales which have been formed by reason of this capacity of the living folk-tale to reflect the daily life of man. I refer to the Buddhist Jātakas and the Gesta Romanorum. Different as they are in many respects, these two great gatherings are alike in the fact that they are composed of floating tales which lent themselves readily to allegorization by the preachers of a new creed. The Buddhist birth-tales are just the popular stories of the East without any alteration save the addition of the tag that the hero is Buddha in some former life, and that, for doing thus and thus, such and such things afterwards happened to him in another birth. In the Gesta, stories of the most Rabelaisian sort are retold with a calm disregard of propriety, and then moralised with " Carissimi, this signifies the " soul, or the heart, or whatsoever else may have seemed good to the holy fathers. In each case, it is the faithfulness with which the stories reflected oriental or mediæval life that rendered them so suitable for theological allegorization.

But, though these great collections give us an idea of the value of a folk-tale as one factor of social life, we shall perhaps gain a clearer view of the folk-tale as the natural expression of village opinion by analysing a single sample. I will take No. 258 of Wolf's Hessische Sagen:

There were once too many storks in Griesheim, and the moot accordingly directed the village servant to drive them away with a stick wherever they showed themselves. But the villagers soon complained that their crops of corn, rape, and hemp were being destroyed, and the moot met again to consider how the storks might be driven away without the servant's treading down the fields to get at them. They deliberated long, till one cried at last, "I have it." He had a ladder brought, and stood the servant on it, while twelve men carried the ladder whither he would. Thus the servant trod down no more com. But, while he was driving away the storks in front, one came and sat on the ladder behind as if to scorn him. Whereupon the bailiff, who held it his bounden duty to care for the welfare of the villagers, got himself mounted on another ladder carried by a second dozen of men. In this way they drove away the storks, and, though the fields were entirely trodden down by the people, they had the satisfaction of showing the storks that villagers are not to be treated with contempt.

The joke is palpable to the most untechnical reader; but to a student of the village community every line of the story reflects village life. The village servant, the gemeindediener represents the common-tender, field-grieve, or by whatever name the officer was called who had charge of the cultivated meadows. The villagers' lots are scattered all over the village land, so that the servant in scaring the birds would trample down everybody's crops; and in the bailiff's following him to see that all is right we have again a reflection of communal life; for it frequently happened that one villager's plot was wholly surrounded by those of others, so that no path led to it, and consequently access could only be had by recourse to the bailiff, "who, if necessary, treads down a path to the specified farthing dole."[8] In the same way the trampling of the two dozen men is legalised by the presence of the bailiff.

There are many more stories which show, like this one, that the folk-tale is the natural accompaniment of folk-life, reflecting all its phases from day to day. Nor has the folk-tale ceased entirely out of the land. It lives on in the satirical picture-stories of Punch, it has its full development in the ethical novel of writers like George Eliot. And any one who has ears to hear can learn that the spirit of folk-lore is still vigorous among the folk. All that is wanted is a little guidance to call that spirit into renewed activity. Shall that guidance be lacking? Philosophy after philosophy rises and passes away, leaving no mark behind it; our moralists are discussing—and seem likely to go on discussing—whether or not we ought to be moral; but no one marks that the ancient tales which kept the morals of the folk sweet and pure are passing away, and that new ones are not filling up their place. Non oportet, fratres mei, haec ita fieri.

  1. Extract from a letter from Professor Hall to me.
  2. "Unter umständen," says the narrator, "können die spinnenmadamen alt, ja, uralt werden." Possibly!
  3. Erziehung der Gegenwart, April, 1883, p. 8.
  4. The story, as given in Gonzenbach's Siciliänische Märchen (No. 81)—the only version I have at hand—is that of a youth, who leaves his widowed mother, and takes service abroad with a Cardinal. At the end of his service, he pays back all his wages to his master for the three pieces of advice mentioned above. By keeping the high road he escapes the clutches of a band of highwaymen who infest the byways and short cuts. By holding his tongue he escapes being murdered by an eccentric host, who amuses himself by shortening the career of over-curious guests. By thinking twice before acting once he himself escapes the guilt of murder; for as he comes home he sees a strange man standing on the mother's doorstep where he ought not. The son's first thought is to slay the intruder, but, happily deferring the deed till the morning, it is discovered that the two are brothers.
  5. It is curious that this point is entirely overlooked by those Sanskritists who accuse anthropologists of neglecting the study of the Vedas. Yet every page of the translations of the Vedas shows that Sanskritists are not at one with themselves as to the mental characteristics of the poets they are translating. Prof. Max Müller states the difficulty very fairly in his note on R.V. i. 64, ii. (R. V. translated, vol. i. p. 93), where he decides to translate "the boys of Dyu: the bulls of Dyu." But, as Prof. Ludwig translates without personification, we may conclude that he does not accept the eminent Oxford scholar's reasoning. Both translations are equally grammatical, so that the question is a purely psychological one; and until Sanskritists settle it, and declare which translation they will abide by, it is impossible for non-Sanskritists to attempt to use the Vedas.
  6. E. Ray Lankester, Degeneration, p. 20 et seqq.; Spencer, Principles of Sociology, vol. i. pp. 102, 103, where the parallel is worked out in detail.
  7. Italics represent the children's own words.
  8. Gomme, Vill. Comm. in Municipal Institutions, Archaeologia, vol. xlvi. p. 412. For the keeper of the crops in England cf . Gomme, Index of Municipal Offices, p. 31; in India, Campbell, Modern India, p. 84; Tupper, Punjab Customary Law, vol. iii. p. 145. The spreading of a villager's share over the sections of the village land is a familiar feature of communal economy. On the entire question of the relation of folk-tales to popular morality I may refer to my Early Hebrew Life, p. 8l, et seqq.