Letter XXIV. February 27, 1819

My dear Greaves,

In the branch of education of which I have been treating in the two last letters, I conceive that to the elements of music should be subjoined the elements of drawing.

We all know from experience that among the first manifestations of the faculties of a child is a desire, and an attempt at imitation. This accounts for the acquirement of language, and for the first imperfect utterance of sounds imitative of music, which is common to most children when they have heard a tune with which they were pleased. The progress in both depends on the greater or smaller portion of attention which children give to the things that surround them, and on their quickness of perception. In the very same way as this applies to the ear and the organs of speech it applies also to the eye and the employment of the hand. Children who evince some curiosity in the objects brought before their eyes, very soon begin to employ their ingenuity and skill in copying what they have seen. Most children will manage to construct something in imitation of a building, of any materials they can lay hold of.

This desire, which is natural to them, should not be neglected. It is, like all the faculties, capable of regular development. It is therefore well done to furnish children with playthings which will facilitate these their first essays, and occasionally to assist them. No encouragement of that sort is lost upon them, and encouragement should never be withheld when it promotes innocent pleasure, and when it may lead to useful occupation. To relieve them from the monotonousness of their daily and hourly repeated trifles, and to introduce variety into their little amusements, acts as a stimulus to their ingenuity and sharpens their observation, while it gains their interest.

As soon as they are able to make the essay, there is nothing so well calculated for this object as some elementary practice of drawing. You have seen the course of preparatory exercises by which some of my friends have so well succeeded in facilitating these pursuits for quite young children. It would be unreasonable to expect that they should begin by drawing any object before them as a whole. It is necessary to analyse for them the parts and elements of which it consists. Whenever this has been attempted, the progress has been astonishing, and equalled only by the delight with which the children followed this their favourite pursuit. My friends Ramsauer and Boniface have undertaken the very useful work of arranging such a course in its natural progress from the easiest to the most complicated exercises, and the number of schools in which their method has been successfully practised, confirms the experience which we have made at Yverdun of its merits.

The general advantages resulting from an early practice of drawing are evident to every one. Those who are familiar with the art, are known to look upon almost every object with eyes different, as it were, from a common observer. One who is in the habit of examining the structure of plants, and conversant with a system of botany, will discover a number of distinguishing characteristics of a flower, for instance, which remain wholly unnoticed by one unacquainted with that science. It is from this same reason that even in common life a person who is in the habit of drawing, especially from Nature, will easily perceive many circumstances which are commonly overlooked, and form a much more correct impression even of such objects, as he does not stop to examine minutely, than one who has never been taught to look upon what he sees with an intention to reproduce a likeness of it. The attention to the exact shape of the whole and the proportion of the parts, which is requisite for the taking of an adequate sketch, is converted into a habit and becomes in many cases productive of much instruction and amusement.

In order to attain this habit, it is very material, and almost indispensable that children should not be confined to copying from another drawing but from Nature. The impression which the object itself gives is so much more striking than its appearance in an imitation; it gives a child much more pleasure to be able to exercise his skill in attempting a likeness of what surrounds him, and of what he is interested in, than in labouring at a copy of what is but a copy itself and has less of life or interest in its appearance.

It is likewise much easier to give an idea of the important subject of light and shade and of the first principles of perspective, as far as they influence the representation of every object, by placing it immediately before the eye. The assistance which is given should by no means extend to a direction in execution of every detail; but something should be left to ingenuity, something also to patience and perseverance: an advantage that has been found out after some fruitless attempts is not easily forgotten; it gives much satisfaction and encouragement to new efforts; and the joy on the ultimate success derives a zest from previous disappointment.

Next to the exercises of drawing come those of modelling, in whatever materials may be most conveniently employed. This is frequently productive of even more amusement. Even where there is no distinguished mechanical talent, the pleasure of being able to do something, at least, is with many a sufficient excitement: and both drawing and modelling, if taught on principles which are founded in nature, will be of the greatest use when the pupils are to enter upon other branches of instruction. Of these I shall here only mention two - geometry and geography. The preparatory exercises by which we have introduced a course of geometry, present an analysis of the various combinations under which the elements of form are brought together, and of which every figure or diagram consists. These elements are already familiar to the pupil who has been taught to consider an object with a view to decomposing it into its original parts, and to draw them separately. The pupil of course will not be a stranger to the materials, of which he is now to be taught the combinations and proportions. It must be easier to understand the properties of a circle, for instance, or of a square, for one who has not only met with these figures occasionally, but who is already acquainted with the manner in which they are formed. Besides, the doctrine of geometrical solids which cannot in any degree be satisfactorily taught without illustrative models, is much better understood, and much deeper impressed on the mind when the pupils have some idea of the construction of the models, and when they are able to work out at least those which are less complicated.

In geography, the drawing of outline maps is an exercise which ought not to be neglected in any school. It gives the most accurate idea of the proportional extent, and the general position, of the different countries; it conveys a more distinct notion than any description, and it leaves the most permanent impression on the memory. (PSW 26, p. 107-110)