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Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (1863–1944). On the Art of Reading. 1920.

III. Children’s Reading (I)

Wednesday, January 24, 1917

I HAVE often wished, Gentlemen, that some more winning name could be found for the thing we call Education; and I have sometimes thought wistfully that, had we made a better thing of it, we should long ago have found a more amiable, a blither, name.

For after all it concerns the child; and is it quite an accident that, weaning him away from lovely things that so lovelily call themselves ‘love,’ ‘home,’ ‘mother,’ we can find no more alluring titles for the streets into which we entrap him than ‘Educational Facilities,’ ‘Local Examinations,’ ‘Preceptors,’ ‘Pedagogues,’ ‘Professors,’ ‘Matriculations,’ ‘Certificates,’ ‘Diplomas,’ ‘Seminaries,’ ‘Elementary or Primary, and Secondary Codes,’ ‘Continuation Classes,’ ‘Reformatories,’ ‘Inspectors,’ ‘Local Authorities,’ ‘Provided’ and ‘Non-Provided,’ ‘Denominational’ and ‘Undenominational,’ and ‘D.Litt.’ and ‘Mus. Bac.’? Expressive terms, no doubt!—but I ask with the poet

  • Who can track
  • A Grace’s naked foot amid them all?
  • Take even such words as should be perennially beautiful by connotation—words such as ‘Academy,’ ‘Museum.’ Does the one (O, Ode on a Distant Prospect of Clapham Academy!) call up visions of that green lawn by Cephissus, of its olives and plane trees and the mirrored statues among which Plato walked and held discourse with his few? Does the other as a rule invite to haunts (O God! O Montreal!) where you can be secure of communion with Apollo and the Nine? Answer if the word Academy does not first call up to the mind some place where small boys are crammed, the word Museum some place where bigger game are stuffed?

    And yet ‘academy,’ ‘museum,’ even ‘education’ are sound words if only we would make the things correspond with their meanings. The meaning of ‘education’ is a leading out, a drawing-forth; not an imposition of something on somebody—a catechism or an uncle—upon the child; but an eliciting of what is within him. Now, if you followed my last lecture, we find that which is within him to be no less, potentially, than the Kingdom of God.

    I grant that this potentiality is, between the ages of four and sixteen, not always, perhaps not often, evident. The boy—in Bagehot’s phrase ‘the small apple-eating urchin whom we know’—has this in common with the fruit for which he congenitally sins, that his very virtues in immaturity are apt, setting the teeth on edge, to be mistaken for vices. A writer, to whom I shall recur, has said:

  • If an Englishman who had never before tasted an apple were to eat one in July, he would probably come to the conclusion that it was a hard, sour, indigestible fruit, ‘conceived in sin and shapen in iniquity,’ fit only to be consigned to perdition (on a dust heap or elsewhere). But if the same man were to wait till October and then eat an apple from the same tree, he would find that the sourness had ripened into wholesome and refreshing acidity; the hardness into firmness of fibre which, besides being pleasant to the palate, makes the apple ‘keep’ better than any other fruit; the indigestibility into certain valuable dietetic qualities, and so on.…
  • In other words—trench, manure, hoe and water around your young tree, and patiently allow the young fruit to develop of its own juice from the root; your own task being, as the fruit forms, but to bring in all you can of air and sunshine upon it. It must, as every mother and nurse knows, be coaxed to realise itself, to develop, to grow from its individual root. It may be coaxed and trained. But the main secret lies in encouraging it to grow, and, to that end, in pouring sunshine upon it and hoeing after each visitation of tears parentally induced.

    Every child wants to grow. Every child wants to learn. During his first year or so of life he fights for bodily nutriment, almost ferociously. From the age of two or thereabouts he valiantly essays the conquest of articulate speech, using it first to identify his father or his mother amid the common herd of Gentiles; next, to demand a more liberal and varied dietary; anon, as handmaid of his imperious will to learn. This desire, still in the nursery, climbs—like dissolution in Wordsworth’s sonnet—from low to high: from a craving to discover experimentally what the stomach will assimilate and what reject up to a kingly debonair interest in teleology. Our young gentleman is perfectly at ease in Sion. He wants to know why soldiers are (or were) red, and if they were born so; whence bread and milk is derived, and would it be good manners to thank the next cow for both; why mamma married papa, and—that having been explained and thoughtfully accepted as the best possible arrangement—still thoughtfully, not in the least censoriously, ‘why the All-Father has not married yet?’ He falls asleep weighing the eligibility of various spinsters, church-workers, in the parish.

    His brain teeming with questions he asks them of impulse and makes his discoveries with joy. He passes to a school, which is supposed to exist for the purpose of answering these or cognate questions even before he asks them: and behold, he is not happy! Or, he is happy enough at play, or at doing in class the things that should not be done in class: his master writes home that he suffers in his school work ‘from having always more animal spirits than are required for his immediate purposes.’ What is the trouble? You cannot explain it by home-sickness: for it attacks day boys alike with boarders. You cannot explain it by saying that all true learning involves ‘drudgery,’ unless you make that miserable word a mendicant and force it to beg the question. ‘Drudgery’ is what you feel to be drudgery—

  • Who sweeps a room, as for thy laws,
  • Makes that and th’ action fine.
  • —and, anyhow, this child learned one language—English, a most difficult one—eagerly. Of the nursery through which I passed only one sister wept while learning to read, and that was over a scholastic work entitled Reading Without Tears.

    Do you know a chapter in Mr William Canton’s book The Invisible Playmate in which, as Carlyle dealt in Sartor Resartus with an imaginary treatise by an imaginary Herr Teufelsdröckh, as Matthew Arnold in Friendship’s Garland with the imaginary letters of an imaginary Arminius (Germany in long-past happier days lent the world these playful philosophical spirits) so the later author invents an old village grandpapa, with the grandpapa-name of Altegans and a prose-poem printed in scarecrow duodecimo on paper-bag pages and entitled ‘Erster Schulgang,’ ‘first school-going,’ or ‘first day at school’?

  • The poem opens with a wonderful vision of children; delightful as it is unexpected; as romantic in presentment as it is commonplace in fact. All over the world—and all under it too, when their time comes—the children are trooping to school. The great globe swings round out of the dark into the sun; there is always morning somewhere; and for ever in this shifting region of the morning-light the good Altegans sees the little ones afoot—shining companies and groups, couples and bright solitary figures; for they all seem to have a soft heavenly light about them.
  • He sees them in country lanes and rustic villages; on lonely moorlands … he sees them on the hillsides … in the woods, on the stepping-stones that cross the brook in the glen, along the sea-cliffs and on the water-ribbed sands; trespassing on the railway lines, making short cuts through the corn, sitting in the ferry-boats; he sees them in the crowded streets of smoky cities, in small rocky islands, in places far inland where the sea is known only as a strange tradition.
  • The morning-side of the planet is alive with them: one hears their pattering footsteps everywhere. And as the vast continents sweep ‘eastering out of the high shadow which reaches beyond the moon’ … and as new nations with their cities and villages, their fields, woods, mountains and sea-shores, rise up into the morning-side, lo! fresh troops, and still fresh troops, and yet again fresh troops of these school-going children of the dawn.
  • What are weather and season to this incessant panorama of childhood? The pigmy people trudge through the snow on moor and hill-side; wade down flooded roads; are not to be daunted by wind or rain, frost or the white smother of ‘millers and bakers at fisticuffs.’ Most beautiful picture of all, he sees them travelling schoolward by the late moonlight which now and again in the winter months precedes the tardy dawn.
  • That vision strikes me as being poetically true as well as delightful: by which I mean that it is not sentimental: we know that it ought to be true, that in a world well-ordered according to our best wishes for it, it would be naturally true. It expresses the natural love of Age, brooding on the natural eager joy of children. But that natural eager joy is just what our schools, in the matter of reading, conscientiously kill.

    In this matter of reading—of children’s reading—we stand, just now, or halt just now, between two ways. The parent, I believe, has decisively won back to the right one which good mothers never quite forsook. There was an interval, lasting from the early years of the last century until midway in Queen Victoria’s reign and a little beyond, when children were mainly brought up on the assumption of natural vice. They might adore father and mother, and yearn to be better friends with papa: but there was the old Adam, a quickening evil spirit; there were his imps always in the way, confound them! I myself lived, with excellent grandparents, for several years on pretty close terms with Hell and an all-seeing Eye; until I grew so utterly weary of both that I have never since had the smallest use for either. Some of you may have read, as a curious book, the agreeable history called The Fairchild Family, in which Mr Fairchild leads his naughty children afield to a gallows by a cross-road and seating them under the swinging corpse of a malefactor, deduces how easily they may come to this if they go on as they have been going. The authors of such monitory or cautionary tales understood but one form of development, the development of Original Sin. You stole a pin, and proceeded by fatal steps, to the penitentiary; you threw a stick at a pheasant, turned poacher, shot a gamekeeper and ended on the gallows. You were always Eric and it was always Little by Little with you.… Stay! memory preserves one gem from a Sunday school dialogue, one sharp-cut intaglio of childhood springing fully armed from the head of Satan:

  • Q.Where hast thou been this Sabbath morning?
  • A.I have been coursing of the squirrel.
  • Q.Art not afraid so to desecrate the Lord’s Day with idle sport?
  • A.By no means: for I should tell you that I am an Atheist.
  • I forget what happened to that boy: but doubtless it was, as it should have been, something drastic.

    The spell of prohibition, of repression, lies so strong upon these authors that when they try to break away from it, to appeal to something better than fear in the child, and essay to amuse, they become merely silly. For an example in verse:

  • If Human Beings only knew
  • What sorrows little birds go through,
  • I think that even boys
  • Would never think it sport or fun
  • To stand and fire a frightful gun
  • For nothing but the noise.
  • For another (instructional and quite a good memoria technica so far as it goes):
  • William and Mary came to the throne next:
  • When Mary died, there was William alone.
  • Now for a story of incident.—It comes from the book Reading Without Tears, that made my small sister weep. She did not weep over the story, because she did not claim to be an angel.
  • Did you ever hear of the donkey that went into the sea with the little cart?… A lady drove the cart down to the beach. She had six children with her. Three little ones sat in the cart by her side. Three bigger girls ran before the cart. When they came to the beach the lady and the children got out.
  • Very good so far. It opens like the story of Nausicäa [Odyssey, Book VI, lines 81–86].
  • The lady wished the donkey to bathe its legs in the sea, to make it strong and clean. But the donkey did not like to go near the sea. So the lady bound a brown shawl over its eyes, and she bade the big girls lead it close to the waves. Suddenly a big wave rushed to the land. The girls started back to avoid the wave, and they let go the donkey’s rein.
  • The donkey was alarmed by the noise the girls made, and it went into the sea, not knowing where it was going because it was not able to see. The girls ran screaming to the lady, crying out, ‘The donkey is in the sea!’
  • There it was, going further and further into the sea, till the cart was hidden by the billows. The donkey sank lower and lower every moment, till no part of it was seen but the ears; for the brown shawl was over its nose and mouth. Now the children began to bawl and to bellow! But no one halloed so loud as the little boy of four. His name was Merty. He feared that the donkey was drowned.…
  • Two fishermen were in a boat far away. They said ‘We hear howls and shrieks on the shore. Perhaps a boy or girl is drowning. Let us go and save him.’ So they rowed hard, and they soon came to the poor donkey, and saw its ears peeping out of the sea. The donkey was just going to sink when they lifted it up by the jaws, and seized the bridle and dragged it along. The children on the shore shouted aloud for joy. The donkey with the cart came safe to land. The poor creature was weak and dripping wet. The fishermen unbound its eyes, and said to the lady, ‘We cannot think how this thing came to be over its eyes.’ The lady said she wished she had not bound up its eyes, and she gave the shillings in her purse to the fishermen who had saved her donkey.
  • Now every child knows that a donkey may change into a Fairy Prince: that is a truth of imagination. But to be polite and say nothing of the lady, every child knows that no donkey would be ass enough to behave as in this narrative. And the good parents who, throughout the later 18th century and the 19th, inflicted this stuff upon children, were sinning against the light. Perrault’s Fairy Tales, and Madame D’Aulnoy’s were to their hand in translations; Le Cabinet des Fées, which includes these and M. Gulland’s Arabian Nights and many another collection of delectable stories, extends on my shelves to 41 volumes (the last volume appeared during the fury of the French Revolution!). The brothers Grimm published the first volume of their immortal tales in 1812, the second in 1814. A capital selection from them, charmingly rendered, was edited by our Edgar Taylor in 1823; and drew from Sir Walter Scott a letter of which some sentences are worth our pondering.

    He writes:

  • There is also a sort of wild fairy interest in [these tales] which makes me think them fully better adapted to awaken the imagination and soften the heart of childhood than the good-boy stories which have been in later years composed for them. In the latter case their minds are, as it were, put into the stocks … and the moral always consists in good moral conduct being crowned with temporal success. Truth is, I would not give one tear shed over Little Red Riding Hood for all the benefit to be derived from a hundred histories of Jemmy Goodchild.
  • Few nowadays, I doubt, remember Gammer Grethel. She has been ousted by completer, maybe far better, translations of the Grimms’ Household Tales. But turning back, the other day, to the old volume for the old sake’s sake (as we say in the West) I came on the Preface—no child troubles with a Preface—and on these wise words:
  • Much might be urged against that too rigid and philosophic (we might rather say, unphilosophic) exclusion of works of fancy and fiction from the libraries of children which is advocated by some. Our imagination is surely as susceptible of improvement by exercise as our judgment or our memory.
  • And that admirable sentence, Gentlemen, is the real text of my discourse to-day. I lay no sentimental stress upon Wordsworth’s Ode and its doctrine that ‘Heaven lies about us in our infancy.’ It was, as you know, a favourite doctrine with our Platonists of the 17th century: and critics who trace back the Ode Intimations of Immortality to Henry Vaughan’s
  • Happy those early days, when I
  • Shined in my Angel-infancy.
  • might connect it with a dozen passages from authors of that century. Here is one from Centuries of Meditations by that poor Welsh parson, Thomas Traherne whom I quoted to you the other day:
  • Those pure and virgin apprehensions I had from the womb, and that divine light wherewith I was born are the best unto this day, wherein I can see the Universe. By the Gift of God they attended me into the world, and by His special favour I remember them till now.… Certainly Adam in Paradise had not more sweet and curious apprehensions of the world, than I when I was a child.
  • And here is another from John Earle’s Character of ‘A Child’ in his Microcosmography:
  • His father hath writ him as his own little story, wherein he reads those days of his life that he cannot remember; and sighs to see what innocence he has out-liv’d.
  • He is the Christian’s example, and the old man’s relapse: the one imitates his pureness, and the other falls into his simplicity. Could he put off his body with his little coat, he had got Eternity without a burthen, and exchang’d but one Heaven for another.
  • Bethinking me again of ‘the small apple-eating urchin whom we know,’ I suspect an amiable fallacy in all this: I doubt if when he scales an apple-bearing tree which is neither his own nor his papa’s he does so under impulse of any conscious yearning back to Hierusalem, his happy home,
  • Where trees for evermore bear fruit.
  • At any rate, I have an orchard, and he has put up many excuses, but never yet that he was remembering Sion.

    Still the doctrine holds affinity with the belief which I firmly hold and tried to explain to you with persuasion last term: that, boy or man, you and I, the microcosms, do—sensibly, half-sensibly, or insensibly—yearn, through what we feel to be best in us, to ‘join up’ with the greater harmony; that by poetry or religion or what-not we have that within us which craves to be drawn out, ‘e-ducated,’ and linked up.

    Now the rule of the nursery in the last century rested on Original Sin, and consequently and quite logically tended not to educate, but to repress. There are no new fairy-tales of the days when your grandmothers wore crinolines—I know, for I have searched. Mothers and nurses taught the old ones; the Three Bears still found, one after another, that ‘somebody has been sleeping in my bed’; Fatima continued to call ‘Sister Anne, do you see anyone coming?’ the Wolf to show her teeth under her nightcap and snarl out (O, great moment!) ‘All the better to eat you with, my dear.’ But the Evangelicals held the field. Those of our grandfathers and grandmothers who understood joy and must have had fairies for ministers—those of our grandmothers who played croquet through a hoop with a bell and practised Cupid’s own sport of archery, those of our grandfathers who wore jolly peg-top trousers and Dundreary whiskers, and built the Crystal Palace and drove to the Derby in green-veiled top-hats with Dutch dolls stuck about the brim—tot circa unum caput tumultuantes deos—and those splendid uncles who used to descend on the old school in a shower of gold—half-a-sovereign at the very least—all these should have trailed fairies with them in a cloud. But in practice the evangelical parent held the majority, put away all toys but Noah’s Ark on Sundays, and voted the fairies down.

    I know not who converted the parents. It may have been that benefactor of Europe, Hans Christian Andersen, born at Odensee in Denmark in April 1805. He died, near Copenhagen, in 1875, having by a few months outlived his 70th birthday. I like to think that his genius, a continuing influence over a long generation, did more than anything else to convert the parents. The schools, always more royalist than the King, professionally bleak, professionally dull, professionally repressive rather than educative, held on to a tradition which, though it had to be on the sly, every intelligent mother and nurse had done her best to evade. The schools made a boy’s life penitential on a system. They discovered athletics, as a safety-valve for high spirits they could not cope with, and promptly made that safety-valve compulsory! They went on to make athletics a religion. Now athletics are not properly a religious exercise, and their meaning evaporates as soon as you enlist them in the service of repression. They are being used to do the exact opposite of that for which God meant them. Things are better now: but in those times how many a boy, having long looked forward to it, rejoiced in his last day at school?

    I know surely enough what must be in your minds at this point: I am running up my head hard against the doctrine of Original Sin, against the doctrine that in dealing with a child you are dealing with a ‘fallen nature,’ with a human soul ‘conceived in sin,’ unregenerate except by repression; and therefore that repression and more repression must be the only logical way with your Original Sinners.

    Well, then, I am. I have loved children all my life; studied them in the nursery, studied them for years—ten or twelve years intimately—in elementary schools. I know for a surety, if I have acquired any knowledge, that the child is a ‘child of God’ rather than a ‘Child of wrath’; and here before you I proclaim that to connect in any child’s mind the Book of Joshua with the Gospels, to make its Jehovah identical in that young mind with the Father of Mercy of whom Jesus was the Son, to confuse, as we do in any school in this land between 9.5 and 9.45 a.m., that bloodthirsty tribal deity whom the Hohenzollern family invokes with the true God the Father, is a blasphemous usage, and a curse.

    But let me get away to milder heresies. If you will concede for a moment that the better way with a child is to draw out, to educate, rather than to repress, what is in him, let us observe what he instinctively wants. Now first, of course, he wants to eat and drink, and to run about. When he passes beyond these merely animal desires to what we may call the instinct of growth in his soul, how does he proceed. I think Mr Holmes, whom I have already quoted, very fairly sets out these desires as any grown-up person can perceive them. The child desires

  • (1) to talk and to listen;
  • (2) to act (in the dramatic sense of the word);
  • (3) to draw, paint and model;
  • (4) to dance and sing;
  • (5) to know the why of things;
  • (6) to construct things.
  • Now I shall have something to say by and by on the amazing preponderance in this list of those instincts which Aristotle would have called mimetic. This morning I take only the least imitative of all, the desire to know the why of things.

    Surely you know, taking only this, that the master-key admitting a child to all, or almost all, palaces of knowledge is his ability to read. When he has grasped that key of his mother-tongue he can with perseverance unlock all doors to all the avenues of knowledge. More—he has the passport to heavens unguessed.

    You will perceive at once that what I mean here by ‘reading’ is the capacity for silent reading, taking a book apart and mastering it; and you will bear in mind the wonder that I preached to you in a previous lecture—that great literature never condescends, that what yonder boy in a corner reads of a king is happening to him. Do you suppose that in an elementary school one child in ten reads thus? Listen to a wise ex-inspector, whose words I can corroborate of experience:

  • The first thing that strikes the visitor who enters an ordinary elementary school while a reading lesson is in progress is that the children are not reading at all, in the accepted sense of the word. They are not reading to themselves, not studying, not mastering the contents of the book, not assimilating the mental and spiritual nutriment that it may be supposed to contain. They are standing up one by one and reading aloud to their teacher.
  • Ah! but I have seen far worse than that. I have visited and condemned rural schools where the practice was to stand a class up—say a class of thirty children—and make them read in unison: which meant, of course, that the front row chanted out the lesson while the back rows made inarticulate noises. I well remember one such exhibition, in a remote country school on the Cornish hills, and having my attention arrested midway by the face of a girl in the third row. She was a strikingly beautiful child, with that combination of bright auburn, almost flaming, hair with dark eyebrows, dark eyelashes, dark eyes, which of itself arrests your gaze, being so rare; and those eyes seemed to challenge me half scornfully and ask, ‘Are you really taken in by all this?’ Well, I soon stopped the performance and required each child to read separately: whereupon it turned out that, in the upper standards of this school of 70 or 80 children, one only—this disdainful girl—could get through half a dozen easy sentences with credit. She read well and intelligently, being accustomed to read to herself, at home.

    I daresay that this bad old method of block-reading is dead by this time.

    Reading aloud and separately is excellent for several purposes. It tests capacity: it teaches correct pronunciation by practice, as well as the mastery of difficult words: it provides a good teacher with frequent opportunities of helping the child to understand what he reads.

    But as his schooling proceeds he should be accustomed more and more to read to himself: for that, I repeat, is the master key.