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Education In Simplicity

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

THE simple life being, above all, the product of a direction of the mind, it is natural that education should have a great influence in that domain.

We employ scarcely more than two methods of bringing up children.

The first consists in bringing them up for ourselves. The second consists in bringing them up for themselves.

In the first case, the child is considered as a complement of the parents. He forms a part of their belongings and occupies a place among the objects which they possess. Sometimes that place is the noblest; when parents appreciate the life of the affections most. Sometimes also when material interests predominate, the child comes in the second, third or last place. In no case is he some one. Young, he gravitates around his parents, not only from obedience, which is legitimate, but by the subordination of all the initiatives of his being. As he advances in age, this subordination accentuates itself and becomes confiscation in the widening of his ideas, sentiments and everything. His minority perpetuates itself. Instead of evoluting slowly toward independence, man progresses in slavery. He is what they permit him to become, that which commerce, or the industry of his father, or the religious beliefs, political opinion, and aesthetic tastes of his father exact of him. He will think, speak, marry, add to his family, in the sense and limit of the paternal absolutism. This family absolutism may be practiced by people who have no will at all ; it suffices that they shall be convinced that the child shall be the thing of the parents. Lacking energy, they take possession of him by other means, by sighs, supplications or by base seductions. If they cannot enchain him they will take him with bird-lime, and thus entrap him. But he will live in them, by them and for them, which is the only admissible thing to their minds.

This kind of education is not only practiced in the family, but also in the great social organisms whose principal educational function consists in laying the hands on the new arrivals, so to fasten them in the most irresistible fashion in the existing frames. It is the reduction, the trituration and absorption of the individual in a social body, whether it is theocratic, communistic, or simply bureaucratic and given to routine. Seen from the outside, such a system of education would seem to be, above all, simple. These proceedings are, in fact, absolutely so. And, if man were no. body, if he were but a sample of the race, that would be the perfect education. As all the wild beasts and all the fish and insects of the same class and kind have the same line in the same place, so we would be all identical, having the same tastes, the same language, the same beliefs, and the same tendencies. But man is not but a sample of the race ; and it is because of that that this kind of education is far from being simple in its effects. Men vary so much from each other that we must invent innumerable means to reduce, to cause to sleep or quench individual thought. We have but partially succeeded, and even this is being constantly disarranged. At every moment the initiative internal force finds its way out through some fissure with more or less violence, and produces explosions, commotions, and grave disorders. And there, where nothing results, where the force submits to the outward authority, the evil lies at the bottom. Under the apparent order are hidden sullen revolts, tarnishings contracted in an abnormal existence, apathy and death.

It is a bad system that produces such fruit, and how-ever simple it appears, at the foundation it engenders all the complications.

The other system is the opposite extreme. It consists in bringing the children up for themselves. The position is reversed : the parents are there for the child. Scarcely is he born, when he becomes the center. The white heads of the grandparents and the robust one of the father incline before that curly head. His stammering is their joy; a sign from him suffices. If he cries harder than usual in his cradle at night, no fatigue counts, the whole house is up. The newcomer is not long in learning that he holds the full power. Before he walks he is dizzy with it. As he grows that grows with him and embellishes itself. Parents, grandparents, domestics, professors, everybody are at his orders. He accepts the homage, and even the immolation of his neighbor; he treats as a recalcitrant subject whoever does not stand aside as he passes. There is but him. He is unique; the perfect, the infallible one. They discover too late that they have given themselves a master, and what a master! Forgetful of sacrifices, without respect, even without pity, he takes no more account of those to whom he owes all, and goes through life without law or bridle.

This education has its social form, too. It flourishes where the past does not count, where history begins but with the living, where there is neither tradition, nor discipline, nor respect; where those who know the least talk the loudest ; where all those who represent public order become uneasy before the first-corner, whose force consists in talking still louder and respecting no one. It assures the reign of ephemeral passions, the triumph of the inferior arbiter. I compare' these two educations, where one is the exaltation of the center, and the other the exaltation of the individual; the one the absolutism of tradition, the other the tyranny of the new-corners—and I find them as terrible, one as the other. But the most awful of all is the combination of the two which produces half automatons, half despots, balancing ceaselessly between the lamb-like spirit and the spirit of revolt or domination.

Children must not be brought up for themselves nor for their parents ; for man is no more destined to be a great person than a sample. We must bring them up for life. Their education has for aim to aid them to become active members of humanity, powerful brother-hoods, free servants of the city. It is to complicate life, deform it, sow the germs of all the disorders to put in practice an education which is inspired by any other principle.

When we wish to say in one word the destiny of the I child, it is the word future that mounts to our lips. The child is the future. That word says all, sufferings past, present efforts, and hopes. Now the child is in-capable of understanding the meaning of this word at the time when his education begins. For at that moment he is delivered over to the "all-powerful" of his actual impressions. Who, then, will give him the first rays of light, and set him on the road which he should follow? The parents, the teachers. But if they will reflect a little they will feel that their work interests not only themselves and the child but they exercise powers and administrate impersonal interest. The child must constantly appear to them as a future citizen. Under the influence of this preoccupation they will have two cares which will complete each other : the care for the initial individual power, which germinates in their child, and should grow, and the social destination of that power. At no moment of their action on him should they forget that this little being, confided to' their care, should become himself and fraternal. These two conditions, far from excluding themselves, never meet but when combined in one in-dissoluble union. It is impossible to be brotherly, to love, to give one's self if one is not master of himself, and reciprocally no one can possess himself, take possession of himself in whatever he has of distinct personality, without having descended across the accidents of the surface of his existence, to the profoundest springs of his being, where man feels himself attached to man by all that is intimate in him.

To help a child to become himself and fraternal, he must be protected against the violent action and the pernicious forces of disorder.

These forces are both outward and inward. Each outward one is threatened, not only by material dangers, but by the violent meddling of strangers' wills, and inwardly by the exaggerated sentiment of his ego, and by all the fantasies which this sentiment engenders. The external danger is very great and may be born of the abusive influence of educators. The right of might introduces itself into education with an extreme facility. To give an education, one must have renounced this right ; that is to say, create the self-abnegation of this inferior sentiment of our person which transforms us into enemies of others, even of our children. Our authority is good only when it is in-spired by another superior to ourselves. In this case not only is it salutary, but indispensable, and becomes the best guarantee in its turn against the greater inward peril that threatens a being: that of exaggerating his own importance. At the beginning of life, the vivacity of impressions is so great that to establish the equilibrium, we must submit it to the quieting influence of a calm and superior will. The proper educational function is to represent this will near the child, in a manner as regular and as disinterested as possible. The educators represent then all that is respectable in the world. They give to the being who enters life the impression of the something which precedes, passes and envelops them, but does not crush them. On the contrary, their will and all the influences which they transmit to him become nutritive elements of his own energy. To practice thus the influence is to cultivate a fecund obedience, that from which are born free characters. The purely personal authority of parents, of masters and of institutions are to the child like a young plant stifled by brambles beneath which he withers and dies. Impersonal authority, that which is found in the man who is submissive first to the venerable realities before which he wishes to bend the individual fantasy of a child, resembles a pure and luminous atmosphere. It is certainly active and influences us in its fashion, but it nourishes and strengthens our own life. Without this authority, no education. To watch, to direct, to resist, such is the function of the educator. He must appear to the child, not like a barrier of fantasy which, if he wishes, he can jump over, provided the leap is proportioned to the height of the obstacle, but a transparent wall through which he may perceive the immovable realities, the laws, the boundaries, the truths against which no action is possible. Thus is born the respect which is in everybody, the faculty of conceiving that which is greater than himself, the respect which causes us to grow, and enfranchises us in making us modest. That is the law of education in simplicity. It may be summed up in these words : Form men free and respectful, men who are themselves and fraternal.

Let us deduce a few practical applications from this principle.

Just because the child is of the future, we must attach him to the past by piety. We owe it to him to re-clothe tradition in the most practical forms, and those most susceptible of creating a strong impression. In there is the exceptional place which the ancients, in the cult of remembrance, and by extension the history of the domestic hearth-stone, should hold in an education, and a home. It is, above all, toward our children that we fill a duty, when we assign the place of honor to our grandparents. Nothing speaks so forcibly to a child, or develops in him more the sentiments of modesty, than to see his father and mother show towards the old, sometimes infirm, grandfather, an attitude of respect. There is there a perpetual lesson of things which he cannot resist. That it may have its full force, it is necessary that, in a home, a tacit accord reigns among all the adults. In the eyes of the child they are all of one solidarity, held to respect each other, to under-stand each other under pain of compromising the educational authority. And, to the number of those per-sons, we must include the domestics. A servant is a grown person, and it is the same sentiment of respect which is wounded when a child shows a lack of respect to a servant as when he lacks that sentiment towards his father or grandfather. As soon as he addresses one impolite or arrogant word to any one older than him-self, he leaves the path that a child should not quit, and if the parents allow this to happen without letting him know what he has done they will perceive by his con-duct towards them that the enemy has entered into his heart.

They who think that the child is naturally disrespectful are mistaken, when they dwell upon the examples so numerous of irreverence which our youth shows us. At bottom respect is a need for the child. The child aspires confusedly to respect and admire something. But when we do not draw benefit from that aspiration. it loses or corrupts itself. By our lack of cohesion and mutual deference we, the grown people, discredit our own cause and that of all respectable things in the eyes of the child. We inoculate him with a bad spirit whose effects turn against us later.

This sad truth appears nowhere with greater force than in the relations between masters and servitors, such as we have created them. Our social faults, our lack of simplicity and kindness fall on the heads of our children. There are certainly but few of the middle or bourgeois class who understand that it is better to lose a few thousands of francs than to let the children lose the respect for the domestics, who represent the category of the humble ones in our homes. Nothing is truer, however. Maintain as much as you like the conventionalities, and the distances, of this sort of delimitation of social frontiers which permits each one to keep his place and observe the hierarchy. It is a good thing, I am persuaded of that, but on condition that we do not forget that those who serve us are men as well as we are. You impose forms of language upon your domestics, attitudes, external signs of the respect they owe you. Teach also your children and occupy yourself personally with the process which will show your domestics that you respect their personal dignity as you would wish them to respect you. You have there an excellent field for study to draw you towards the practice of mutual respect, which is one of the essential conditions of social health. I fear that we profit too little from it. You exact respect, but you do not practice it. So the most often you obtain but hypocrisy, and you have for supplementary result a very unexpected one: you have cultivated pride in your children. These two factors combined gather great difficulties for that future that you ought to safeguard. I am therefore right to say that you have had a sensible loss the day when you have by your habits and practices brought a diminution of respect.

Why should I not say it? It seems to me that the greater part among us work towards that diminution. Everywhere and in almost all social classes, I notice that they nourish a very bad spirit in children, the spirit of reciprocal scorn. Here they despise someone whose hands are calloused, and who wears working clothes ; there they despise some one who does not war the workman's blouse. Children raised in that spirit will some day make poor citizens. All that is absolutely lacking in that simplicity which causes men of good will in different degrees of a society to collaborate together, without being restrained by the secondary distances which separate them.

If the spirit of caste causes a loss of respect, the party spirit, whatever it is, makes it lose as much. In certain centers they bring up their children in such a manner that they venerate but one country only, theirs ;. one sole politic, that of their parents and masters; one single religion, that which they inculcate. Do they really imagine that they can form beings in this way. respectful to country, religion, law? Is it of good alloy, the respect which reaches only those who touch or be-long to us? Singular blindness of cliques and circles who abrogate with so much ingenuous complaisance the titles of schools of respect, and who aside from themselves respect nothing. At bottom they say: country, religion, law—that is us! Such a teaching engenders fanaticism. Now, if the fanaticism is not the sole anti-social ferment, it is certainly one of the most energetic ones.

If simplicity of the heart is an essential condition of respect, simplicity of life is the best school. Whatever be your condition of fortune, avoid all that may cause your children to believe that they are more than others. Even when your situation permits you to dress them richly, think of the damage that you could cause them in exciting their vanity. Preserve them from the misfortune of ever believing that it suffices to be dressed beautifully to possess distinction, and, above all, do not add to the gayety of their hearts by their costumes and their habits, the distances that separate them already from their fellows. Dress them simply. If, on the contrary, you must make efforts of economy to give your children the pleasure of being elegantly dressed, I beg you to reserve for another and better cause your spirit of sacrifice. You risk seeing it badly recompensed. You scatter your money, while it would be better if you saved it for serious needs ; you prepare for yourself a later harvest of ingratitude. How dangerous it is to accustom your sons and daughters to a manner of life which exceeds your means and theirs. First, that is very bad for the pocket, and next it develops the spirit of scorn in the very bosom of the family. If you dress your children like little lords and give them reason to believe that they are your superiors, is it astonishing if they finish by despising you? You would have fed those of another class. Now, this kind of product costs dearly and values nothing.

There is also a certain fashion of instructing children which for clearest results brings them to despise their parents, their surroundings, and the labors in the midst of which they have grown up. Such an instruction is a calamity. It is good only to produce a legion of discontented ones who separate themselves from their stock, their origin, their affinities, all of which in sum makes the first stuff of a man. Once detached from the robust tree which produced them, the wind of their foolish ambition blows them back and forth like the dead leaves which gather in certain places to ferment and rot one upon the other.

Nature does not move by jumps and bounds, but by slow and sure evolution. Let us imitate her in the manner of preparing a career for our children. Do not confound the advancement with those exercises which they call double somersaults. Let us not bring up our children in such a way that they will come to despise work, aspirations and the spirit of simplicity of the, paternal home ; do not expose them to the evil temptation of being ashamed of our poverty, if they should ever achieve fortune. A society is very sick the day when the sons of peasants forsake the plow, when the sons of sailors desert the sea, or working girls, in the hope of being taken for heiresses, prefer to walk alone in the streets rather than on the arms of their good parents. A society is healthy, on the contrary, when each member applies himself to do about the same thing as his parents are doing, but, better, aiming to lift himself, yet contents himself with the most modest functions, filling them conscientiously.

Education should form free men. If you bring up your children for liberty, do it simply, and do not fear to thus destroy their happiness. Quite the contrary. The more playthings, holidays and extraordinary pleasures a child has, the less he is amused. There is in that a sure indication. Let us be sober in our means of rejoicing and diversions for youth, and above all do not create fictitious needs lightly. Food, clothing, shelter, amusements, let all these be natural and as little complicated as possible. To make life agreeable to children, certain parents give them habits of gluttony and idleness, allow them excitements incompatible with their age ; multiply invitations and spectacles. Poor presents are these! Instead of a free man you raise up a slave. Too accustomed to luxury, he will weary of it, and in spite of it, and when for one reason or another his comfort is gone he will suffer and you with him, and what is worse you will perhaps both be disposed under grand occasions of life to sacrifice human dignity, truth, duty, by pure cowardice.

Bring up your children, therefore, simply—I would say, almost rudely; draw them to fortifying exercises, through privations even. Let them rather be of those who are the best prepared to sleep hard, bear fatigue, than those who love the pleasures of the table, and the comfort of a bed. Thus we shall make of them independent men and solid ones on whom we can count, and who will never sell themselves for a little personal comfort, and who nevertheless, more than any one, will have the faculty of being happy.

A too easy life brings a sort of lassitude of the vital energies. One becomes weary, disillusionized, a young old man, without faculty for amusing himself. How many children and young people are today in this condition. On them are deposited, like a racking mold, the traces of our decrepitudes, our scepticisms, our vices and the bad habits contracted in our society. How many returns on ourselves these faded youths make us take! How many warnings engraved on our brows !

These shadows tell us, even by the contrast, that happiness consists in being a real living being, active. heedless, virgin of the yoke of passions, fictitious needs, unhealthy excitements, having kept in his heart the faculty to enjoy the light of day, the air, and in his heart to have the capacity for loving and to feel with power all that is generous and fine.

Fictitious life engenders fictitious thought and badly assured speech. Healthy habits, strong impressions, ordinary contact with reality naturally lead to frank speech. Falsehood is a vice of slaves, the refuge of cowards and the weak. He who is free and firm is also disfranchised from the collar. Let us encourage in our children that happy courage that tells all without chewing their words. What do we ordinarily do? We turn them inward, we level their natures in view of the uniformity which for the great flock is the synonym of good tone. To think with his mind, feel with his heart, express the real himself, what an impolite thing, what rusticity! Oh, the atrocious education that this is which consists in perpetually stifling in each of us the only thing which gives him his reason for being ! Of how many soul murders are we not guilty? Some are beaten down with blows of the club, others gently smothered between two eiderdowns. Everything con-spires against independent characters. Little, they wish to see us like images or dolls ; grown, they love us on condition that we shall be like the rest of the world, automatons. When we have seen one we have seen all. It is for that that the lack of originality and initiative has won us, and that platitude and monotony are the distinctive marks of our life. Truth will set us free. Teach our children to be themselves, to give their trumpets their own clear sound. Make loyalty a need, and in their gravest mistakes, if they avow them, count it as a merit to have been openly naughty.

To frankness associate innocence in our educational solicitude. Let us have for that companion of infancy, innocence, all possible solicitude; a trifle wild though it be, yet so graceful and beneficent. Do not frighten it away. When it has fled from a place it is rare that it ever returns. This innocence is not only the sister of truth, guardian of the qualities belonging to both ; it is still a great educational and revealing power. I see around us the people so-called positive, who are armed with terrifying spectacles and great scissors to bring forth these innocences and clip their wings. They extirpate the innocence of the world, of thought, of education and pursue them to the very regions of their dreams. Under the pretence of making men of them they hinder them from being children, as though, before the ripened fruits of autumn it did not need the flowers, the perfumes, the songs, the fairy land of spring.

I ask grace for all that which is innocent and simple, not only for its innocent daintiness which darts around the curly heads, but also for the legend, the innocent song, the stories of the world of marvels and mystery. The sense of the marvelous is the first form of that sense of the infinite without which man is like a bird deprived of its wings. Do not wean childhood from the marvelous, with the end in view to guard for him the capacity to lift himself above this earthly earth, and to appreciate later those pious and touching symbols of by-gone ages, where human truth has found expressions which our arid logic will never replace.

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