"Now, let us address ourselves to the serious business of the evening. Here we are:
"'Six precious (pairs), and all agog,
To dash through thick and thin!'
Imprimis––our desire is for reform! Not reform by Act of Parliament, if you please; but, will the world believe?––we veritably desire to be reformed! And that, as a vicarious effort for the coming race. Why, to have conceived the notion entitles us to sit by for our term of years and see how the others do it!"
"Don't be absurd, Ned, as if it were all a joke! We're dreadfully in earnest, and can't bear to have the time wasted. A pretty President you are."
"Why, my dear, that's the joke; how can a man preside over a few friends who have done him the honour to dine at his table?"
"Mrs. Clough is quite right. It's 'Up boys, and at it!' we want to be; so, my dear fellow, don't let any graceful scruples on your part hinder work."
"Then, Henderson, as the most rabid of us all, you must begin."
"I do not know that what I have to say should come first in order; but to save time I'll begin. What I complain of, is, the crass ignorance of us––of myself, I mean. You know what a magnificent spectacle the heavens have offered these last few frosty nights. Well, one of our youngsters has, I think, some turn for astronomy. 'Look, father, what a great star! It's big enough to make the night light without the moon. It isn't always there; what's its name, and where does it go?' The boy was in the receptive 'How I wonder what you are' mood; anything and everything I could have told him would have been his––a possession for life.
"'That's not a star, it's a planet, Tom,' with a little twaddle about how planets are like our earth, more or less, was all I had for his hungry wonder. As for how one planet differs from another in glory, his sifting questions got nothing out of me; what nothing has, can nothing give. Again, he has, all of his own wit, singled out groups of stars and, like Hugh Miller, wasn't it?––pricked them into paper with a pin. 'Have they names? What is this, and this?' 'Those three stars are the belt of Orion'––the sum of my acquaintance with the constellations, if you will believe it! He bombarded me with questions all to the point. I tried bits of book knowledge which he did not want. It was a 'bowing' acquaintance, if no more, with the glorious objects before him that the child coveted, and he cornered me till his mother interfered with, 'That will do, Tom: don't tease father with your questions.' A trifling incident, perhaps, but do you know I didn't sleep a wink that night, or rather, I did sleep, and dreamt, and woke for good. I dreamt the child was crying for hunger and I had not a crust to give him. You know how vivid some dreams are. The moral flashed on me; the child had been crying to me with the hunger of the mind; he had asked for bread and got a stone. A thing like that stirs you. From that moment I had a new conception of a parent's vocation and of my unfitness for it. I determined that night to find some way to help ourselves and the thousands of parents in the same ignorant case."
"Well, but, Henderson, you don't mean to say that every parent should be an astronomer? Why, how can a man with other work tackle the study of a lifetime?"
"No, but I do think our veneration for science frightens us off open ground. Huxley somewhere draws a line between science and what he calls 'common information,' and this I take to mean an acquaintance with the facts about us, whether of Nature or of society. It's a shameful thing to be unable to answer such questions as Tom's. Every one should know something about such facts of Nature as a child is likely to come across. But how to get at this knowledge! Books? Well, I don't say but you may get to know about most things from books, but as for knowing the thing itself, let me be introduced by him that knew it before me!"
"I see what you mean; we want the help of the naturalist, an enthusiast who will not only teach but fire us with the desire to know."
"But don't you find, Morris, that even your enthusiast, if he's a man of science, is slow to recognize the neutral ground of common information?"
"That may be; but, as for getting what we want––pooh! it's a question of demand and supply. If you don't mind my talking about ourselves I should like just to tell you what we did last summer. Perhaps you may know that I dabble a little in geology––only dabble––but every tyro must have noticed how the features of a landscape depend on its geological formation, and not only the look of the landscape, but the occupations of the people. Well, it occurred to me that if, instead of the hideous 'resources'––save the word!––of a watering-place, what if we were to study the 'scape' of a single formation? The children would have that, at any rate, in visible presentation, and would hold a key to much besides.
"My wife and I love the South Downs, perhaps for auld sake's sake, so we put up at a farmhouse in one of the lovely 'Lavants' near Goodwood. Chalk and a blackboard were inseparably associated; and a hill of chalk was as surprising to the children as if all the trees were bread and cheese. Here was wonder to start with, wonder and desire to know. Truly, a man hath joy in the answer of his mouth! The delight, the deliciousness, of pouring out answers to their eager questions! and the illimitable receptivity of the children! This was the sort of thing––after scrawling on a flint with a fragment of chalk:––
"'What is that white line on the flint, Bob?'––'Chalk, father,' with surprise at my dulness; and then the unfolding of the tale of wonder––thousands of lovely, infinitely small shells in that scrawl of chalk; each had, ages and ages ago, its little inmate––and so on. Wide eyes and open mouths, until sceptical Dick––'Well, but, father, how did they get here? How could they crawl or swim to the dry land when they were dead?' More wonders, and a snub for that small boy. 'Why, this hillside we are sitting on is a bit of that old sea-bottom!' And still the marvel grew, until, trust me, there is not a feature of the chalk that is not written down in le journal intime of each child's soul. They know the soft roll of the hills, the smooth dip of the valleys, the delights of travellers' joy, queer old yews, and black-berrying in the sudden 'bottoms' of the chalk. The endless singing of the lark––nothing but larks––the trailing of cloud-shadows over the hills, the blue skies of Sussex, blue as those of Naples––these things are theirs to have and to hold, and are all associated with the chalk; they have the sense of the earth-mother, of the connection of things, which makes for poetry.
"Then their mother has rather a happy way of getting pictures printed on the 'sensitive plate' of each. She hits on a view, of narrow range generally, and makes the children look at it well and then describe it with closed eyes. One never-to-be-forgotten view was seized in this way. 'First grass, the hill-slopes below us, with sheep feeding about: and then a great field of red poppies––there's corn, but we can't see it; then fields and fields of corn, quite yellow and ripe, reaching out a long way; next, the sea, very blue, and three rather little boats with white sails; a lark a long way up in the sky singing as loud as a band of music; and such a shining sun!' No doubt our little maid will have all that to her dying day; and isn't it a picture worth having?"
"Mr. Morris's hint admits of endless expansion; why, you could cover the surface formations of England in the course of the summer holidays of a boy's school-life, and thus give him a key to the landscape, fauna, and flora of much of the earth's surface. It's admirable."
"What a salvage! The long holidays, which are apt to hang on hand, would be more fully and usefully employed than schooldays, and in ways full of out-of-door delights. I see how it would work. Think of the dales of Yorkshire, where the vivid green of the mountain limestone forms a distinct line of junction with the dim tints of the heather on the millstone grit of the moors, of the innumerable rocky nests where the ferns of the limestone––hart's-tongue, oak fern, beech fern, and the rest––grow delicately green and perfect as if conserved under glass. Think of the endless ferns and mosses and the picturesque outlines of the slate, both in the Lake Country and in Wales. What collections the children might form, always having the geological formation of the district as the leading idea."
"You are getting excited, Mrs. Tremlow. For my part, I cannot rise to the occasion. It is dull to have 'delicious' 'delightful!' 'lovely!' hailing about one's ears, and to be out of it. Pray, do not turn me out for the admission, but my own feeling is strongly against this sort of dabbling in science. In this bird's-eye view of geology, for instance, why in the world did you begin with the chalk? At least you might have started with, say, Cornwall."
"That is just one of the points where the line is to be drawn; you specialists do one thing thoroughly––begin at the beginning, if a beginning there be, and go on to the end, if life is long enough. Now, we contend that the specialist's work should be laid on a wide basis of common information, which differs from science in this amongst other things––you take it as it occurs. A fact comes under your notice; you want to know why it is, and what it is; but its relations to other facts must settle themselves as time goes on, and the other facts turn up. For instance, a child of mine should know the 'blackcap' by its rich note and black upstanding headgear, and take his chance of ever knowing even the name of the family to which his friend belongs."
"And surely, Mr. Morris, you would teach history in the same way; while you are doing a county, or a 'formation'––isn't it?––you get fine opportunities for making history a real thing. For instance, supposing you are doing the––what is it?––of Dorsetshire; you come across Corfe Castle standing in a dip of the hills, like the trough between two waves, and how real you can make the story of the bleeding prince dragged over the downs at the heels of his horse."
"Yes, and speaking of the downs, do you happen to know, Mrs. Tremlow, the glorious downs behind Lewes, and the Abbey and the Castle below, all concerned in the story of the great battle; and the ridge of Mount Harry across which De Montfort and his men marched while the royal party were holding orgies in the Abbey, and where, in the grey of the early morning, each man vowed his life to the cause of liberty, face downwards to the cool grass, and arms outstretched in the form of a cross? Once you have made a study on the spot of one of those historic sites, why, the place and the scene is a part of you. You couldn't forget it if you would."
"That is interesting, and it touches on a matter which I find very suggestive; have you noticed that in certain districts you come across, not only the spots associated with critical events, but monuments of the leading idea of centuries? Such as these are the ruined abbeys which still dominate every lovely dale in Yorkshire; the twelfth-century churches, four or five of which––in certain English counties––you come across in the course of a single day's tramp, and of which there is hardly a secluded out-of-the-way nook in some counties that has not its example to show; such, again, are the endless castles on the Welsh border, the Roman camps on the downs, each bearing witness to the dominant thought, during a long period, whether of war, or, of a time when men had some leisure from fighting."
"And not only so. Think of how the better half of English literature has a local colouring; think of the thousand spots round which there lingers an aroma of poetry and of character which seems to get into your brain somehow, and leave there an image of the man, feeling of his work, which you cannot arrive at elsewhere. The Quantocks, Grasmere, Haworth Moors, the Selborne 'Hanger,' the Lincolnshire levels––it is needless to multiply examples of spots where you may see the raw material of poetry, and compare it with the finished work."
"All this is an inspiring glimpse of the possible; but surely, gentlemen, you do not suppose that a family party, the children, say, from fifteen downwards, can get in touch with such wide interests in the course of a six weeks' holiday? I doubt if, even amongst ourselves, any but you, Mr. Meredith, and Mr. Clough, have this sort of grasp of historical and personal associations."
"We must leave that an open question, Mrs. Henderson; but what I do contend for is, that children have illimitable capacity for all knowledge which reaches them in some sort through the vehicle of the senses––what they see and delight in you may pin endless facts, innumerable associations, upon, and children have capacity for them all: nor will they ever treat you to lack-lustre eye and vacant countenance. Believe me ''tis their nature to' hunger after knowledge as a labouring man hungers for his dinner; only, the thing must come in the first, the words which interpret it, in the second place."
"You mean that everything they see is to lead to a sort of object lesson?"
"Indeed I do not! Object lesson! talkee, talkee, about a miserable cut-and-dried scrap, hardly to be recognized by one who knows the thing. I should not wonder if it were better for a child to go without information than to get it in this unnatural way. No, let him see the thing big and living before him, behaving according to its wont. Specimens are of infinite use to the scientist whose business it is to generalize, but are misleading to the child who has yet to learn his individuals. I don't doubt for a minute that an intelligent family out for a holiday might well cover all the ground we have sketched out, and more; but who in the world is to teach them? A child's third question about the fowls of the air or the flowers of the field would probably floor most of us."
"That's coming to the point. I wondered if we were meant to touch our subject again to-night. To skim over all creation in an easy, airy way, is exciting, but, from an educational standpoint, it is comic to the father with a young swarm at home who care for none of these things."
"Of course they don't, Withers, if they have never been put in the way of it; but try 'em, that's all. Now, listen to my idea; I shall be too glad if any one strikes out a better, but we must come to a point, and pull up the next who wanders off on his own hobby. Each of us wishes to cover all, or more, or some of the ground suggested in our desultory talk. Difficulty, we can't teach because we don't know. We are in a corner with but one way out. We must learn what we should teach. How? Well, let us form ourselves into a college, or club, or what you like. Now, it's simply the A B C of many things we wish to learn. Once organized, we shall see our way to the next step. Even in the small party here to-night, some know something of geology, some are at home in the byways of history; what we cannot evolve from our midst we must get from outside, and either amateur recruits or professional folk must be pressed into service; recruits would be much the best, for they would learn as well as teach. Then, when we are organized, we may consider whether our desire is to exhaust a single district in the way suggested, or to follow some other plan. Only, please, if it be a district, let it be a wide one, so that our intercourse be confined to 'speaking' in passing, like ships at sea. Don't, for pity's sake, let it be a social thing, with tennis, talk, and tea!"
"Suppose we do enroll ourselves, how frequent do you think should be our meetings?"
"We'll leave that question; in the meantime, those in favour of Mr. Morris's motion that we form ourselves into a society for the consideration of matters affecting the education of children––the parents' part of the work, that is––will signify the same in the usual way."