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Intellectual “Cramming” of Boys by Amelia Edith Huddleston Barr

From, Maids Wives and Bachelors

A little girl, who made a study of epitaphs, was greatly puzzled to know “where all the bad people were buried.” Perhaps just as great a puzzle to a reflective mind is, What comes of all the promising boys?

We will allow, first, that a great deal of “promise” exists only in the partiality of parents; that a bright, intense childhood is frequently so different from the mechanical routine of adult life that the simple difference strikes the parent as something remarkable, whereas it is, perhaps, only a strong case of contrast between the natural and the artificial. This is proven by the fact that as the boy becomes part and parcel of the every-day world he gradually falls into its ways, adopts its tone, and in no respect attempts to rise above its level.

Fortunately, however, the change is so gradual that parents scarcely perceive when or how they lost their exalted hopes; and by the time that Jack or Will has imbibed a fair amount of knowledge, and settled contentedly down to his desk and high stool, they also are well pleased and inclined to forget that they had ever dreamt the boy might sit upon the bench, or, perhaps, fill with honor the Presidential chair.

Allowing such boys a very respectable minority, and allowing also a large margin for that unfortunate class who

  “Wise so young, they say, do ne'er live long,”

there is still good reason for us to ask, What becomes of all the promising boys?

We are inclined to arraign as the first and foremost of deceivers and defrauders in this matter the modern educational art of Cram. It is to education what adulteration is to commerce. It is far worse, for here it is not money that is stolen, it is a parent's best and highest hopes; it is a boy's whole future life and its success. For the system rests upon a fallacy, namely, that it is possible for boys of twenty to know everything, from the multiplication-table to metaphysics, from Greek plays to theological dogmas.

To the average boy such intellectual feats are simply impossible; but he is plucky and fertile in expedients; he is neither disposed to be beaten nor able really to overtake his task, so he uses his brains carefully, and makes the greatest possible show on the greatest possible number of subjects.

Perhaps nothing in our present system of education is so demoralizing and unjust as the custom of public examinations. In them interest and vanity play into each other's hands; genuine acquirement and principle “go to the wall.” The teachers and the boys alike know that they are never true criterions of progress, that they are seldom even fair representations of the actual course of study. Weeks, months are spent in preparations for the deceitful display; even then true merit, which is generally modest by nature, does itself injustice, and vain self-assurance comes off with flying colors.

The Cram teacher scatters seed over a large amount of mental surface, instead of thoroughly cultivating the most promising portions; and he brings before the parents and the public the few ears gleaned on all the acres as samples of crops which he knows never will be gathered. Yet to his own pedantic vanity, or his self-interest, he sacrifices the prime of many a fine boy's life. Therefore we are disposed to believe that if parents would inexorably refuse to sanction these pretentious public displays, there would be probably a much less accumulation of bare facts, but a far greater cultivation of natural abilities, and a far more thorough development of decided aptitudes.

Mechanical drudgery, instead of intelligent labor, is the inevitable method where cramming a boy, instead of educating him, is the favorite system. No mental faculties, except the memory, receive any discipline, and the knowledge disappears as fast as it was gained. All taste for laborious habits of thought are lost, and if a boy originally possessed a love for learning he is soon disgusted at what his simple nature tells him is pretence and unreal, and judging the true by a false standard he conceives an honest disgust for intellectual labor, and pronounces it all a sham.

Few boys can even mentally go through a course of “cramming” and come out uninjured. The majority of the finest intellects develop tardily, and their superiority is in fact greatly dependent upon the staying powers conferred by physical strength and wisely considered conditions. There are of course exceptions, where an inherited force of genius stamps the boy from the first and defies all systems to crush it. But it is the average boy, and not the exceptional one, that must be considered in all methods of education.

In this matter boys are not to be blamed. They naturally accept the master's opinions as to the value of his plan; they rather enjoy a neck-and-neck race with each other in superficial acquirements, and the whole tendency of our social life supports the tempting theory. Every one wants to possess without the trouble of acquiring; every one would have a reputation without the labor of earning it. In an age which prides itself upon the speed with which it does everything, which makes a merit of doing whatever is to be done in the shortest and quickest way possible, it is easy to perceive how a certain class of teachers, and parents too, would be willing to believe that the old up-hill road to knowledge might be graded and lined and made available for rapid transit.

But nothing can be more illogical than to apply social rules and conditions to mental ones. The former are constantly changing, the latter obey fixed and immutable laws. There is not, there never has been, there never will be, any short cuts to universal knowledge; and the boy who is made to waste time seeking one will have either to relinquish his object altogether, or else, turning back to the main road, find his early companions who kept to it hopelessly ahead of him. Learning is a plant that grows slowly and whose fruit must be waited for. It is a long time, even after having learned anything, that we know it well.


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