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government, are chiefly important on account of the light they throw on the progress of political science, and the hope they give of the advance of mankind towards justice and equality. But the real life of a nation is preserved in its literature; and the student who is familiar with the personal memoirs, letters, plays and songs of any era, has a better knowledge of the character and condition of the people than all the formal histories can give him.
But I do not forget that this is an assembly of instructors, and that it is properly expected, in an essay upon the study of literature, that some practical suggestions should be made respecting its pursuit in public schools. Let us endeavor to find the proper place in a popular course of instruction for beginning the study of literature.
We shall suppose that the art of reading intelligently has been acquired,—that arithmetic has been begun,--that the general outlines of geography have been made familiar, and that the relations of words in sentences are understood. At this point the judicious teacher should consider what further subjects are of the most importance to the average pupil. The studies commonly pursued next in an English course, besides using higher reading-books,—are the higher mathematics, history, physical geography, some departments of natural science, the first elements of physics, rhetoric and mental philosophy, English literature has rarely found a place.
It is undoubtedly the judgment of the best teachers, that mathematics should be continuously studied,
and form a part of every day's routine. Next in order come the elements of physical geography, and such branches of natural science as the school has facilities for teaching, - special prominence being given to physiology,-or rather to so much of physiology as applies to the proper care of the body and its surroundings.
Whatever we may think of literature as the embodiment of thought-of rhetoric, which fills a sort of tailor's place to fit out thoughts in smooth garments, and is often, like other tailors, inclined to think more of the elegance of the clothes than of the soul of the wearer,--and of mental philosophy, which has been groping in mists, from Plato down to Herbert Spencer, and has never found the Ego, nor got a step nearer the First Cause,--all these interior processes and furnishings must yield in point of utility to the sciences that put us into intelligent relations with the world we inhabit.
A gentleman told me of a rambling excursion he once made in company with Horace Mann and one or two other friends, in the fields and woods of Virginia, near Washington. “Don't you think it shameful,” said the great educator, “that we have been so badly brought up? Here are we, all of us pronounced to be Masters of Arts or Doctors of Laws, by the authority of College faculties. But what arts are we masters of? We scarcely know a tree or shrub, fruit or flower, bird or animal, especially out of our native State ; and we dare not taste a strange berry, or smell a new blossom for fear of being poisoned. If we were starving, we should not know how to satisfy our hunger. Nature is a sealed book to us ; and yet the earth is fruitful, the woods and fields are full of life. We alone have no place at the table where all are fed."
To dwell upon the subjects suggested in this conversation would consume too much of our time at present. Let us pass on to consider a few other branches of study. As for rhetoric, it would seem to be a waste of time to study it formally,--at least, in any short course. Any competent teacher ought to be able to point out to pupils the correct use of language, and the propriety of figures of speech,and this should be done as a part of the daily exercise in reading. The style which is commended by such pedants as Blair, is what all our best writers strive to avoid. Mental and moral philosophy cannot be pursued with advantage by immature pupils, and should certainly be postponed to near the end of the course. There remain the two topics of history and literature. I do not see that history is entitled to any great precedence. If a pupil has such an acquaintance with English history as he would gain from the small but admirable work of Charles Dickens, it would seem best that he should next get a knowledge of the writers of the various epochs, and that the political and literary events of the country should thereafter be taken in connection. The same remark may be made with regard to the history of the United States. If you attend an examination of a Boston grammar school, you will find one or more of the blackboards covered with anno domini dates; and boys and girls will be eager to give you some fact, more or less important, that is associated with every date. But if they were asked by some foreigner, who was just beginning to read our literature, when Irving was born, or what works he had written, who Jonathan Edwards was, whether Cooper was a greater novelist than Mrs. Southworth, whether the “ Atlantic Monthly” was equal in merit to the “N. Y. Ledger," and whether Emerson wrote often for the “Waverley Magazine,” —what answers would he get? But surely, in any point of view, a knowledge of our chief poets, historians, and essayists is of as much consequence as the opinion and doings of James K. Polk, Wm. H. Harrison, Franklin Pierce, and similar persons with whom our historic muse is occupied.
One of the grave errors in our system is in the persistent reading and re-reading of books that are intended mainly for exercises in elocution. It is true that many of these series of readers have been compiled by scholars, and contain many admirable selections ; although I have seen an advertisement by one publisher who claims as the peculiar glory of his set of books, that the pieces they contain are mostly original; as though the style of a mediocre person should be preferred, as a model for students, to the finished sentences and poetic gems from works of genius!
But the best of our school reading-books are merely a kind of literary hash ; and I am much of
the opinion of the Frenchman who had become tired of the mysterious article bearing that name in his boarding-house, and who exclaimed to the landlady, “I do not like 'ashes, I prefer cólmeat. Please take avay ze 'ash, and give me some cólmeat.”
Now reading occupies a part of every day in school, and should receive even more attention than it does. But it must be admitted that the miscellanies we place before children,-half a dozen in a course,-are not on the whole very attractive; and they are certainly not useful, considering the time they occupy. On one page is a goodish poem; on another a bit of a sermon; bere a tolerable story; there a speaker's peroration. The facts belong to no one age or country, and the style is as various as the matter. How utterly unphilosophical this proceeding is, either for the acquisition of knowledge, or for the formation of taste, this assembly of teachers ought to know.
And this leads to the last point and the main purpose of this essay,—which is to urge that the course of daily reading in grammar schools be wholly reformed and utilized ; that after two or three preliminary collections have been gone through, and the pupils' are able to read with tolerable fluency, the subsequent or higher reading-books be discarded, and their further daily practice be in systematic works that will not only give proficiency in reading, but inspire a love of nature, impart useful knowledge, and cultivate a taste for literature. A good example has already been furnished in