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VALUE WITH CHILDREN.
the naturalist, the politician, or the artist, will naturally take a different direction, according to the different class of facts they are in search of; and though we be neither naturalists, politicians, nor artists, we must equally know what we want to observe, if we wish to derive any information from our observations. The next point is, that we should seek in every object or fact for its leading features, the characteristics which distinguish it specifically from other objects or facts. The power of doing this rapidly and accurately is that which constitutes a good observer, and is an important element of judgment, the soundness of which must depend on our correct appreciation of the facts before us. Such observation as this includes the exercise of two other very important faculties, namely, comparison and abstraction. The latter separates those qualities in an object which are common to it with other objects, from those which are peculiar to itself, and which, therefore, constitute its character or individuality. Comparison brings together the objects so distinguished, in order to see what relation they may bear to each other, or to some third object; and the exercise which the habit of observation gives to faculties so important, constitutes its chief advantage, when viewed with reference to the cultivation of reason.
The value of acute observation to all those engaged in the labour of education, makes the proper training of this habit peculiarly important to women. The characteristics, whether bodily or mental, of children, manifest themselves by such slight indications, that they escape the eye of any but an acute observer. In the case of illness, we all know the importance of detecting the first symptoms of the disease, and the same care and vigilance are yet more important with regard to the moral health of the child. The germs of error, nay, of vice, lie concealed under the demonstrations of childish feeling; the seeds of violent passions, of rooted prejudices, are sown at an early age, and fostered by circumstances to which an unobservant person attaches no importance; such a one will laugh at an exhibition of childish wrath or jealousy, vanity, or petty malice, in which another would read with pity and alarm a long tale of future guilt and misery. The evil which is not seen is, of course, not checked; and it silently increases till it has gained a height which baffles the remedies applied at last, but too late.
The indications of peculiar talent are in the same manner perceptible only to the observing, and hence we daily see children tied down to studies repulsive to their tastes and inclinations, while strictly debarred from others for which they have natural dispositions. It is true that where there is real genius, it breaks through all restraints. Parental blindness could not prevent
REFLECTION AND ATTENTION.
Petrarch from earning immortal fame as a poet, nor Pascal from taking the rank nature had assigned him among mathematicians; but more ordinary talents are more easily stifled; and we are inclined to attribute much of the mediocrity which afflicts the world, to the want of intelligent observation in [parents and teachers, owing to which the natural talents of children are crushed or misdirected,
THE office of observation is to supply us with information with regard to external objects, and to observe well necessarily implies a certain exercise of attention. But attention requires a more continued effort of the mind; it does not pass, like observation, from object to object, but chooses one on which to fix itself, to the exclusion of all others. Children begin to observe in early infancy, but it is not till much later that they are capable of continued attention. Nor is it to outward objects only that attention can be directed; it may be turned inward to the operations of the mind and the succession of thought. Reflection is an act of continued attention, keeping certain points before the mind, just as certain objects are kept before the eyes, till our purpose in detaining them is fulfilled. This is the highest effort of attention. Outward objects force themselves on our notice, and easily arrest it; in reading, the forms of the letters, the visible images of thought, help to fix the wandering mind; but to call up thought, unassisted by sight or sound, to arrest its rapid course, or turn it into a different channel, shut out the world of sensation in order to examine the workings of the world within, requires a mental effort which long practice can alone make easy. The results, however, are worth the labour they cost, for without this power of continued attention we are incapable of reflection, of connected thought, and therefore of reasoning.
In every attempt at education, attention is necessarily trained up to a certain point. The first lesson he learns, teaches the child that without attention he can accomplish nothing; but the mental effort required of him is often unwillingly made, and the consequence is, that unless the teacher can find means by exciting his interest, to make him give a willing attention, he will exercise the faculty only under the pressure of external constraint, and no habit will be formed in his mind. In later years, when the external restraint is removed, the mind, unused to voluntary exertion, accustomed to follow the impulse of the moment, and yield to each impression given to the current of thought by ex
ternal objects, cannot exercise the self-control needful to concentrate its attention for more than a few moments; and after hours of apparent study, it will be found that those short moments are all that have been really spent to any purpose.
Without by any means assenting to the common theory that whatever is seriously attended to will remain impressed on the memory, we may boldly affirm the converse proposition, that nothing which has not excited attention can be remembered. This fact is so obvious, that most people conscious of habits of inattention feel the necessity of correcting them, though they may not set to work with sufficient vigour or a good choice of means. But besides the intellectual deficiencies it entails, there is in inattention a want of earnestness of purpose, which, if allowed to become habitual, even in trifling things, is hurtful to the mind. We are inattentive only because we are uninterested, and we should augur ill of the moral state of any one who is habitually uninterested. Attention is a kind of intellectual sincerity; it proves that we are in earnest in what we undertake, and its absence may therefore be regarded as an indication of more serious defects.
In speaking of method, we have shown how important it is to those who, like women, are liable to constant interruptions from domestic matters requiring immediate attention, to have the power of turning to the latter at once, and completely from one subject to another. This habit is of great value, not only as facilitating pursuits, which without it could not be carried on, but as aiding us to gain that control over our own faculties which is an essentual element of presence of mind, and ensures the free and undisturbed use of reason whenever it may be required. Great concentration of thought, producing abstraction, will make this habit very difficult to acquire; but there are few who can plead such an excuse for not possessing it, and the more general causes of its deficiency are sluggishness of mind and absence of self-control.
The first step towards gaining command over our attention is to acquire the habit of steady application to whatever matter we have in hand. Some studies are in this respect preferable to others; arithmetic or geometry, for instance, to history; and, generally, whatever gives something to do,-something which forces the mind to act,-instead of leaving it to follow passively the narrative or reasonings of others. We must watch and check the habit of inattention in ourselves as we should in a child we were teaching; questioning and examining ourselves as to the progress we have made, and testing it by the power of giving, in words or writing, the results of the day's study, or at least of some definite portion of the day's study.* Different minds will,
* See Chap. on "Study."
of course, require different methods, but any one earnestly bent upon curing the defect will readily find the means best suited to himself. When the habit of application is formed, then follows the more arduous task of learning to reflect and to control the succession of thought.
If it be difficult to fix our attention when we have the help of visible objects to assist it, it is certain that we shall find it still more difficult to fix it on the subtle process of thought, the action of which is so continued and habitual, that we are almost as unconscious of it as of the pulsation of the heart. We all know how easy it is to carry on any familiar occupation without a conscious effort of attention. Many persons can even read out loud, giving the proper expression and punctuation to what they read, while their thoughts are occupied with a wholly different subject, and the words convey no distinct impressions to their minds. If habit can make us thus perform, almost unconsciously, an operation which was once attended with both toil and difficulty, how much greater must be its power in rendering us inattentive to the rapid and ceaseless action of the mind which began with the earliest dawn of intelligence, which continues even when the visible world is shut out in sleep, and which is truly the life of life! There is the same difference between reflection and that involuntary current of thought, as between seeing and observing; we cannot avoid seeing what passes before our eyes, but it may pass unheeded for want of observation; and in like manner we cannot check the flow of thought, but its aimless activity may make our waking thoughts as incoherent as our dreams, for want of that power of reflection which should give them purpose and connection. In a word, the mind continues to receive impressions, whether controlled or uncontrolled, but it works only when directed by the will, consciously exercised towards a definite purpose.
The ravings of delirium are not more different from the speech of the orator, than the rambling of uncontrolled thought from the efforts of reflection; hence few of the bad habits into which people fall, from ignorance or carelessness, are more fatal to the due exercise of moral or mental power, than that of allowing the mind to run on at random, passing from one half-formed image to another without fixing attention upon any. Such vague, discursive wandering, if habitually indulged, weakens the power of steady attention, till it becomes difficult to fix it upon anything. We fear, however, that a large proportion even of educated persons allow their thoughts, without scruple, to ramble in this manner whenever they are not engrossed in some active pursuit, and it is to this habit, perhaps, that we may attribute the general dislike to studies that require any continued effort of reflection,
as compared with those in which the mind remains almost passive, the mere recipient of facts or images. Many people, even, who are not deficient in attention while reading, and are capable of reflection when a subject is brought, as it were, tangibly before them, have yet no idea of controlling the succession of thought when the immediate object of study is withdrawn, or of carrying out a train of reasoning or speculation. They are all more or less in the situation of the gentleman who said he did not know what people meant by thinking, and that when he saw a tree he thought it was a tree.
This subject is one of great importance to women, with whom needle-work so often employs the hands for a large portion of the day, without in any way exercising the mind, so that thought is free to ramble, while the plea of occupation prevents any selfreproach on the ground of lost time. The encouragement thus given to vain and idle fancies tends, in no small degree, to foster the frivolous tone of mind which is so unfortunately prevalent.
Let it not be supposed, however, that we require a continual labour of thought. The mind cannot be ever on the stretch, but must have rest as well as the body; its task being done, it must be released from the control of the will, and allowed to wander as freely and carelessly as a bird through the pathless air. All we ask is, that this shall be its relaxation, not its habit; and that it shall be so disciplined, as to be recalled at will from its wildest flights and fixed on any point where its energies are wanted. At first, any length of meditation upon one subject will be found impossible, nor should it be attempted; but as soon as any weariness is felt, the thoughts, instead of being allowed to wander away, should be roused at once, and fixed by some active external occupation. It will assist a beginner, in this difficult task, to select in the morning some special topic of reflection for the day,—some aphorism, perhaps, from which it may be useful to draw deductions, some opinion which strikes the mind as new and doubtful, and therefore requires examination,—some poetical passages, which deserve close attention or comparison with others, some sentence which may not have been fully understood, and the words of which will help to fix attention as in reading. It will be found safer to make this kind of provision for thought, than to leave an undisciplined mind to the impulse of circumstances. Having done so, we feel, as it were, under an engagement to ourselves, more binding, because more positive, than any general resolution to reflect. The obligation may be strengthened by making it a rule to set down every night, in writing, the result of the day's meditation upon the particular subject chosen,- -a practice in itself favourable to habits of reflection, not only from the greater pre