Chapter 11

I feel a disposition in writing this bagatelle, to introduce something solid, and therefore have contrived to bring about a conversation on the part of the Captain, with the principal of the college. It was on the subject of education: not education generally, but particular points of academic institution.

I do not like, said the Captain, the enjoining, or imposing, to use a stronger term, tasks of original composition. It is well to instruct in grammar, and the elements of writing so far as respects arrangement, perspicuity, and the choice of proper words: and in this I have but one rule, which is to think first, and endeavour to have a clear idea, and then to put it down in such expression as to be best understood. The definition of stile given by Swift, nothing can surpass; “proper words in proper places.” And for this purpose translation is the best exercise. It is absurd to require of youth thoughts before they have any; or at least, correct thoughts. Help me out with my description; assist me with my theme, says one.--What shall I do for an oration, says another?--Is it ever a complaint in common life, that men want tongues? Are you obliged to urge them to write in newspapers? The difficulty is to keep them from it. They will be talking and scribbling before they know what to say, or to write. The seven years silence of Pythagoras was a noble institution. What an excellent improvement it would be in our public bodies, that a man should serve, say two years, before he should have leave to open his mouth, save just to say aye or no!

But we begin our system of errors at the very schools. The student must compose. It is true we have improved upon the system of the last century in this particular; and do not now insist upon it that it shall be in verse. It is sufficient that it be in prose. I mean, that making latin hexameters, or English hendecasyllables, are not now a task. But it still remains that the boys must write.--And yet the poet which you put into their hands says,

Recte scribendi, sapere principium est, et fons,

Good sense is the foundation of good writing.

I do not like much, your declaiming in colleges; though doubtless the ancients had this practice;

----Ut inter discipulos plotres, et declamatio fias,

But is this arbitrary speaking calculated for any other purpose, but to make a pedant? You must stretch out your hand, at this; you must draw up your leg at that. -Here you must say Ah! there, Oh! It is the feeling of the heart only that gives attitudes; it is passion only that can swell out the breast, or agitate the members. I have seen an old woman angry, or moved with grief, play the orator very naturally. The emotions of her spirit, distends the arm and stretches out the muscles. She clenches her fist at the proper period, and lays her emphasis upon the proper words. She says Oh! or Ah! in its proper place, without being taught it by rule, or pedagogue.

Passion blows a man up like a bladder. He grows as big as himself. His hair rises on his head, and his breast heaves. Will rules give a man passion? Will a man that feels, stand in need of rules?

I perceive, Captain, said the Principal, that you are no slouch at supporting a paradox. Polybius tells us, that the Romans exercised themselves on shore, learning to keep stroke, and to feather their oars, while their gallies were building, to encounter the Carthagenians, in the first Punic war. Can it be of no use to stretch the joints a little even without passion? Or cannot passion be called up by the exertion of the speaker, even in a feigned case? It is something to accustom youth to stand up, and face an audience. At all events, it is an amusement, and it can do no harm to the boys to spout a little. At the same time it is no proof of eminence in real speaking that the youth spouts well. For that as you say, must come from sentiment and feeling. But there is something in a habit of declaiming, at least to assist the voice and gesture. But I have always thought it preposterous in our Young Ladies Academies, to put little misses forward to speak. I have thought it an indelicacy to suffer them to declaim. It is unnatural; for what occasion can they have to harangue?

I am of the same opinion, said the Captain. I could never approve in a family to see a little miss called up by a silly mother, or weak father, to hold out her hand, and speak a passage which the blockhead of a teacher had instructed her to commit to memory. It is indelicate, and out of nature.

To what assists the memory, I have no objection. --But for this purpose, there are sentences in the Scriptures, in the Proverbs of Solomon, especially; the Gospels, and the writings of St. Paul. In Shakespeare, are fine thoughts drawn from human nature; moral observations consolatory, or instructive. Let them be got by memory, because recollected, they will guide, conduct, or embellish conversation. These would be a good substitute for catechisms, containing points of faith, which the young mind cannot comprehend; and the divines dispute about themselves. Catechisms might be laid up for grown persons. The fact is, the early catechumeni, were all grown persons. It was not until the time of John Knox that they began to teach children the dogmata of the scholastic theology. The Jews had it in command from Moses, to teach their children sentences; or precepts of the law. They were taught to bind them on their arms, or about their necks in slips of writing which they called phylacteries. But do we hear of teaching them the Talmud of Jonathan, or the Targum of Ben Onkelos? The commentaries of Rabbi David; or Eben Ezra the Jew, never superseded amongst them, the precepts of the decalogue.

I had no idea, Captain, said the Principal, that you had so much knowledge of the Pentateuch.

A little only, said the Captain. But I go on to observe that in Turkey, they commit to memory only the moral lessons of the Koran; or of the Misnud of Persia. The Vedam of India is a book chiefly for the Priests; and so with us ought to be the greater part of the confessions.--At least mature years, only can digest them.

But these dogmata planted in the memory, grow up to fruit in the understanding afterwards, said the Principal.

That is, said the Captain, commit to memory now, what you will understand afterwards. I would have memory and understanding go together. But this leads me to say a word, on memory, as you divines say when you preach. For you talk of saying but a word, when before you are done, you make a sermon out of it. Memory is a thing improveable, and ought to be improved, I do not therefore approve of this thing of taking notes. Your read your lectures, and the student must take notes. It spoils his hand; for trying to keep up with you he writes fast, and runs into scratches like short hand, or the Coptic alphabet.

Sometimes the student copies the lectures, to a great waste of time, and unnecessarily; for learned professors thought they had done a great deal in getting them out of manuscript into print; and now the labour is to get them out of print into manuscript again. But the principal disadvantage, is the neglect of the memory. And when a man gets a thing in his book, he neglects to put it into his head. Let the thing rest in the brain if possible.

Pedagogues that teach the first elements of arithmetic will instruct the youth to work their sums, as they call it, on their slates; and afterwards put down the figures in their books. This is to take home to show to their parents, that they may seem to be doing something, and the master get a good name. But it is a loss of time and paper.

The same pedantry is carried up into higher institutions; and the classes copy lectures, to make themselves, or others, believe that they have been doing something.--

Just at this instant a gun went off, and thinking somebody might have been shot, they broke off the conversation.

A fracas, in the mean time had taken place, at the sign of the New Almanac. The cause of this tumult at the public house, was the circumstance of a disagreement which had taken place between the apothecary and his tumbler, the bog-trotter. The latter having got upon the stage first, insisted that he himself was the doctor, and the apothecary the tumbler; and indeed it seemed to be the most consistent; for the apothecary had the appearance of being, by far, the most alert man. --Active and nimble he could leap like a monkey. It was for this reason, the public took the part of Teague, and insisted that he should retain his station of doctor, and the apothecary should play the part of tumbler. Accordingly, he was under the necessity, however reluctant, to take his place upon the platform, and begin his pranks previously to the opening of the sale of drugs.

The bog-trotter in the mean time, acting in the capacity of doctor Mountebank, had displayed his boxes, papers and phials.

But saying nothing of these he made it known to the multitude, that he had a good will for the people of that village; that having been long absent, he had at length returned, with the knowledge which he had acquired by his travels, and with some wealth which he had encompassed by means of that knowledge; that in consideration of natural love and affection he was about to bestow a dollar upon every man present.

At the sound of the word dollar every ear was erected. No conventicle ever had hearers more attentive.

God love you, said he, my dear country paple and name sakes, hold out your hands, and your purses at the same time, and take dis dollar, dat I hold in my hand before every one o’d you. For here is dat famous powder tyed up so neatly here every paper by itself, which I sell to all de world for two dollars; you shall have, dear honies, and much good may it do you; for nothing at all, but de half o’dat, one dollar a pace, and da devil a worm will ever trouble you afterwards. Here is two dollars going for one dollar; just out of love and kindness to de paple of de place.

The multitude, who had expected the bounty in hard cash, were somewhat disappointed; but nevertheless considering the bargain, the greater part that would muster a dollar, took the gift, and gave it in exchange.

The apothecary was so much pleased with the success of the new partner, that though on his part degraded to the inferior station, he counted it no misfortune; but began to tumble with more good will, if not with a better grace than before; submitting to the doctor mountebank, who affected now and then to chastise him with a cowskin, to teach him manners and alacrity in his profession.