Letter XVIII. March 27, 1819

My dear Greaves,

If a mother is desirous of taking an active part in the intellectual education of her children, I would first direct her attention to the necessity of considering, not only what sort of knowledge, but in what manner that knowledge should be communicated to the infant mind. For her purpose, the latter consideration is even more essential than the former; for, however excellent the information may be which she wishes to impart, it will depend on the mode of her doing it whether it will at all gain access to the mind or whether it will remain unprofitable, neither suiting the faculties nor being apt to excite the interest of the child.

In this respect, a mother should be able perfectly to distinguish between the mere action of the memory and that of the other faculties of the mind.

To the want of this distinction I think we may safely ascribe much of the waste of time, and the deceptive exhibition of apparent knowledge, which is so frequent in schools, both of a higher and of lower character. It is a mere fallacy to conclude, or to pretend that knowledge has been acquired, from the circumstance that terms have been committed to the memory, which, if rightly understood, convey the expression of knowledge. This condition, (if rightly understood), which is the most material is the most generally overlooked. No doubt, a proceeding of this sort, when words are committed to the memory, without an adequate explanation being either given or required, is the most commodious system for the indolence or ignorance of those who practise it as a system of instruction. Add to which the powerful stimulus of vanity in the pupils, - the hope of distinction and reward in some, - the fear of exposure or punishment in others, - and we shall have the principal motives before us owing to which this system, in spite of its wretchedness, has so long been patronized by those who do not think at all, and tolerated by those who do not sufficiently think for themselves.

What I have said just now of the exercise of the memory, exclusive of a well-regulated exercise of the understanding, applies more especially to the manner in which the dead languages have long been, and in some places still are, taught; a system of which, taking it all in all, with its abstruse and unintelligible rules and its compulsive discipline, it is difficult to say whether it is more absurd in an intellectual, or more detestable in a moral point of view.

If such a system, enforcing the partial exercise of the memory, is so absurd in its application and so detrimental in its consequences, at a period when the intellect may be supposed to be able to make some progress at least, without being so constantly and anxiously attended to; an exclusive cultivation of the memory must be still more misapplied at the tender age when the intellect is only just dawning, when the faculty of discerning is yet unformed and unable to consign to the memory the notions of separate objects in their distinction from each other. For a mother to guard against an error of this kind, the first rule is to teach always by things rather than by words. Let there be as few objects as possible named to the infant, unless you are prepared to show the objects themselves. If this is the case the name will be committed to the memory together with the recollection of the impression which the object produced on the senses. It is an old saying, and a very true one, that our attention is much more forcibly attracted, and more permanently fixed by objects which have been brought before our eyes than by others of which we have merely gathered some notion from hearsay and description, or from the mention of a name. But if a mother is to teach by things, she must recollect also that to the formation of an idea more is requisite than the bringing the object before the senses. Its qualities must be explained; its origin must be accounted for; its parts must be described, and their relation to the whole ascertained; its use, its effects or consequences, must be stated. All this must be done, at least, in a manner sufficiently clear and comprehensive to enable the child to distinguish the object from other objects, and to account for the distinction which is made.

It is natural that the degree of perfection with which the formation of ideas on this plan can be facilitated depends upon circumstances which are not always under the control of a mother; but something of the kind should be attempted, and must be, wherever education is intended to take a higher character than mere mechanical training of the memory. Of objects which cannot be brought before the child in reality, pictures should be introduced. An instruction founded on pictures will always be found a favourite branch with children, and if this curiosity is well directed and judiciously satisfied, it will prove one of the most useful and instructive.

Whenever the knowledge of an abstract idea, which will not of course admit of any representation of that kind, is to be communicated to the child, on the same principle an equivalent of that representation should be given by an exemplification, through the medium of a fact laid before the child. This is the original intention and the use of moral tales; and this, too, agrees with the excellent old adage "that the way by precept is long and laborious, that by example short and easy." (PSW 26, p. 119-122)