How To Promote Higher Culture
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
WE talk a great deal about the "higher culture" of men and women, but too often with little or no sense of what that really means, either in terms of education or of life. It is not enough to have a good technical equipment for the business of life ; nor is it enough to have a profound mass of undigested information, to have achieved the higher culture.
For culture is one of the most elusive things in the world to define. We know when we find a person possessed of it; and we are equally certain when we miss it. We have no doubt of its value, yet often enough we find that it cannot be purchased at any price, spiritual or actual. It is not, fortunately, a thing inseparable from character, for character is a far greater thing than can be affected by the accidents of education and environment. Yet it is indubitably one of the adornments of character, without which goodness and virtue seem stern and painful necessities.
In the development of culture, more than in any other form of education, except moral education, the promptness of the start cannot be insisted upon too much. A child may possess the elements of culture, simply through constant contact with the materials of culture, even though its formal education be no more advanced than the average for its age, when an adult, with perhaps the fullest kind of professional or technical equipment, may lack it utterly. The difference can be traced to the start, which in one case involved the habitual use of the instrumentalities of culture, and in the other was concerned with the tools of practical life. Many a man of mature years has felt this lack in himself, without seeing how to prevent it in his children. He cannot enter into the discussions of educated men and women, because he has missed something in their mental structure—something which it was not in his power to acquire, because of the circumstances in his personal history, but which would have been invaluable to him. The years before he was fourteen might have supplied the need, had he or his parents known how to use them.
Culture begins with the kind of information which a child is permitted to forget. This sounds like a paradoxical statement, but it is one which every teacher will confirm from her own experience. In every classroom there goes on much that the children soon forget, and that they lose all consciousness of, to all outward intents and purposes. Stories, pictures, songs—these are learned for the time being, and when they have served their purposes, pass out of the crowded chamber of the mind. It is right and needful that they should do so, and a wise teacher makes due allowance for them. For among all this mass of "forgotten" information, there will be much which forms a background against which the permanent information shows in its true colors and perspective.
An instance of this will show how it works. Two Raising Children, of very nearly the same age, were approaching the study of American history for the first time.. For them both it began with the discovery of the New World by Columbus, and followed through the Colonial period, with its tales of Indian wars and pioneer settlements. The little girl, whose reading had been limited to fairy stories of a rather weak and insipid type, had nothing to compare with the new ideas which the history had to offer; the boy, whose mind was intensely occupied with Indian fights, log cabins, and all the usual paraphernalia of the conventional boys' story, found in his mind the materials to make the history vivid and a lasting part of his mental furniture. The one child had no conception of a pioneer settlement ; had never heard of John Smith and Pocahontas, and could not, therefore, appreciate the importance, let us say, of friendly relations with the Indians.
This story would be of little importance were it not for the suggestions which it embodies as to the method of providing for this forgetfulness of childhood. Neither of the two children knew history to begin with; but in the one mind there was a mass of uncoordinated detail ready to be welded together by the teacher's information ; in the other there was nothing whatever to begin with. The problem in her case was the problem of explaining, one after another, details which would have to be left in her mind until a sufficient background had been secured to make the real information permanently available..
With the development of articulate speech comes the time to begin laying the foundation for this cultural life. As soon as a child can understand speech, the task should be begun, and from then on should be pursued unceasingly. At first it belongs to the parents to see that it is carried on ; but as the child grows older, the responsibility becomes more and more its own, until at last the individual, in the full possession of his powers, chooses his own standard of culture.
I. CULTURE IN CHILDHOOD
The earliest expression of culture in childhood is shown in the assimilation of the traditional fairy and folk-lore which through numberless agencies is being made available for children everywhere. It is not needful for a mature man to remember the details of the tale of Beauty and the Beast; but never to have known that time-honored history is one of the indications of neglected culture. "Little Red Riding-Hood," "Haensel and Gretel," and others of the children's favorites, have become so thoroughly a part of the accepted background of daily life that their omission is matter for surprised comment.
To cultivate a child's mind, therefore, this traditional material is of the first importance. We view with pity and regret a child who has never read "Alice in the Wonderland," or a tiny tot who has never dealt with Mother Goose.. Without always analyzing the feeling, we are convinced that something infinitely precious, from its very propriety, has been left out. The feeling is akin to that which makes many people scrupulous about observing the children's holidays, though otherwise none too much occupied with the upbringing of their children. It is merely that the two seem inseparable.
This is as it should be. It is the right of every child to begin by believing in fairies, if it will, until in the fullness of time the belief is replaced by an equally fascinating truth. Not that it is necessary to tell the child an untruth in the matter. It is possible to let every child live in two worlds at once, that of realities, which must inevitably crowd out the other in the end, and the fairyland of beasts and birds and elves and goblins. Neither one can lose by the presence of the other.
All this provides the approach to the larger studies and interests of added years. It suggests new avenues of curiosity, satisfies the natural desire for story and action, and stimulates exploration. A child who is full of fairy-lore will sooner or later wish to know why the magic of the tales is impossible ; and in answering this question, new possibilities of delightful investigation are opened.
In the same way the interests which are served by tales of animal life are those which make for a wider culture and an added growth. Like the half-mythical stories of history which children learn before they learn the real history itself, these have a sound influence in developing a child's life. Pocahontas, George Washington's cherry tree, Benjamin Franklin's kite, and innumerable other such legends—all these are the preliminaries to mature knowledge. They should never be mistaken for such knowledge, but they should never be eliminated as worthless, because they are not mature knowledge.
Herein lies the beginning of culture, in the presentation of this kind of information to a child at the stage when it will be of_the greatest value to him. It can hardly come too early, but it may well come too late. The greatest misfortune in the world is for a child to learn such stories after their natural interest has abated, and they become part of a routine course of reading or study. If they cannot come early, therefore, thev will probably never come at all; therefore it should be the aim of every mother to see that her child has full opportunity to become acquainted with such literature before it is too late to do him any good. She will read and read again the old favorites, until in the course of growth something better takes their place.
II. CULTURE IN YOUTH
The transition from childhood to youth is one of the processes which takes place so subtly and silently that often the first indication of it is also the knowledge that it is complete. It is during this period that tastes are formed, standards are created, and comparisons noted for future reference. It is the most fertile period in the development of a real and lasting culture.
From the time it begins to read up to the tenth or twelfth year, the average child is occupied with the acquisition of more or less necessary information. If it is fortunate, it learns to read quickly enough to be able to make use of the books in the family or town library between eight and ten, or earlier in exceptional eases; but the reading is usually far from easy, and its subject matter considerably below the child's real intelligence for that reason. It is as soon as this stage is past that the real transition begins.
One of the dangers of this period is that the child will get overwhelmed by a mass of inferior material such as is poured out in enormous quantities each year for juvenile consumption. True, the standard literature such as we have been discussing is being outgrown ; but this is not the time to substitute in-discriminately selected "girls' books" or "boys' books" to feed the growing intelligence. If you have been striving to read only the best literature to your child, it is rather inconsistent to let him read for himself stories which fall far short of the same standard.
This is the time to begin the interest in the permanent facts of history, of science, of government, of literature and the arts. It is the time to choose the accepted masterpieces of fiction for reading, the great novels of Dickens, of Scott, of Cooper, in order to stimulate as wide a range of interests as possible. Here the mother's duty is largely the invisible one of being able to offer a suggestion at a moment when it may be of service, of guessing the mood of a child's moment and adapting her suggestion to it, of explaining the hard points so that difficulties do not loom mountain high before the child. Often a sentence or so will suffice to smooth away a difficulty; sometimes the reading aloud of an introductory chapter, a provoking suggestion of excitement to come at a later stage in the book, will be enough to help out the flagging interest and to encourage the process of development.
If the work of the preceding years has been well done, this comes with but little difficulty, the child expects books to be his friends, turns to them naturally, and seeks in them the explanation of things he is anxious to know. He chooses wisely between the good and the best, and his preferences are for the better things. He does not reject the things he does not understand with a contemptuous disdain, but pokes into them from time to time, dips into grown-up volumes, and comes back again and again to those that intrigue him. He discards the simpler things with which he has formerly been satisfied, and demands more real information. His curiosity is boundless. Everything he reads is the occasion for a question.
At this time a mother should be specially sure of the genuine literary merit of the books which are occupying her child's attention. Juvenile literature there may be, but in as small a pro-portion as possible; and wherever it is possible to substitute a book of recognized standing for a conventional "boy's book," it should be done. A boy who is eager for adventure and blood-thirsty narrative may find pleasure in a novel like "She" that will more than equal that which he would derive from a boy's series of dubious workmanship. A girl who is interested in boarding school stories will probably like "Villette" as well or better than a story of no such recognized merit. Once the choice has been made, either by the child itself, or by the tactful and thoughtful mother, the second step toward self-culture has been made.
III. CULTURE AFTER LEAVING SCHOOL
Too often with young people who leave school at seventeen or eighteen, and who are by that time emancipated from the home guidance which has until then directed their development, the impulse toward self-culture is overwhelmed in the rush of other interests, duties, desires. If the preliminary work is well done, it will not be killed, and the return will be made at a later time, but only after a loss of time which is regrettable at least. It means the loss of the support and stimulus which comes through contact with the best that life has to offer at a time when such contact should be especially valuable.
It is a fact that with many young people the first impulse toward the enjoyment of poetry comes with the maturing of the emotional growth shown from fifteen years or so onward. They return to poetry which, perhaps, was read to them in childhood, with a new perception, born of their awakening consciousness, and an interest which gains added poignancy from a development in themselves which they feel but do not fully comprehend. It is then that the love of good literature, good music, good pictures, becomes a stay and a refuge—and often a safeguard. A boy struggling in the pangs of puppy-love, finds in the great love-poetry of the world the completest expression of the thing which is absorbing his energies, and one which he can consult without shyness or self-consciousness. He may so stumble upon the explanation which he has not experience to formulate for himself, and which he has not courage to ask of an older man. The contemplation of ideal standards leads him to revise his own, and eventually clarifies his understanding of himself.
Here, as before, the importance of the early training is shown, in that standards are already formed which tend to the wiser and more intelligent choice.. A boy who has always dwelt in contact with good poetry, turns naturally to the best for this kind of self-education, and finds no comfort in the cheap sentiment which is offered to the public. His conceptions are kept pure and lovely. He finds the answer to his questions without seeking tawdry and vulgar means of satisfying his curiosity. And he makes lifelong associations with the best that has been written.
In other direction, the value of cultural studies is plain. Many a young man or woman finds himself or herself attracted to the theatre as a means of satisfying the natural craving for variety and excitement which too frequently finds little or no outlet in our modern, highly specialized life. Without knowledge or training, such a person feels lost in the endeavor to select from the kinds of dramatic entertainment offered that which shall satisfy his instincts normally and healthily. Too often educators and teachers, perceiving the very real dangers of the theatre, warn against it indiscriminatelv, and thus defeat their own ends.
Here the value of the kind of self-education which comes from wide reading is almost immeasurable. The best drama of the world is available in printed form, and the reading of this will soon enable one to form clear judgments and intelligent discriminations. In a work of this kind it is only possible to suggest the kinds of drama which are worth study, and to indicate the lines along which reading may profitably be done. This kind of reading opens the way to satisfactions which are often unattainable by other means, owing to distance, difficulty of transportation, expense, and numerous other factors. It indicates one of the ways in which his culture becomes one of the priceless personal treasures of every individual.
IV. CULTURE IN MATURITY
It is not until mature years have been reached that most persons appreciate the importance of what little culture they have been able to achieve. Most frequently their appreciation is in the nature of a regret for lost opportunity, opportunity that never came, or wasted time. The discoveries that time brings, of the need for resources within oneself, uninfluenced by external circumstances, is one that the younger person cannot accept on faith, but must learn by painful experience. It is futile to urge a boy or girl to fill his or her mind with knowledge, lest in after years an accident to sight or hearing deprive him of the ability to acquire it. It needs the actual occurrence to bring the realization of all that might have been done to prepare for it.
As a rule the accident does not come in such tragically direct form. It takes the simpler, and in some ways more difficult, shape of sudden and unforeseen loneliness, such as besets a woman whose children are grown, and whose household no longer occupies her attention; the isolation which comes from an enforced residence in a remote and unfamiliar district ; the gradual separation which may overtake one who is slowly overtaken by increasing deafness. All these can only be mitigated by the possession of positive and definite resources within oneself, which are in no way affected by the circumstances of outward life. It is then that culture is tested and proved.
In such circumstances, culture shows itself in the ability to find pleasure and relief and comfort in the nearest means possible, and in the exercise of intellectual powers to attain it. A person who has habitually accustomed himself to hearing and studying good music, may, with the aid of modern inventions, solace himself for many a weary hour when overtaxed eyes and brain refuse to function, and when other entertainment is far to seek. A woman shut up in a lonely village may travel to her heart's content without stirring from her fireside, if she has but the cultural resource to do so. Hours of illness may be rendered tolerable through the agency of books, and the reflection which naturally follows a good book.
But in order to have these resources, no man can afford to let them fall into disuse during the period when the pressure of many pleasures and activities makes their exercise not an essential part of the daily life. It need not be that he gives to them a large part of his time; but a portion at least ought to be devoted to them. It is an invaluable exercise to carry about a pocket edition of some great classic, some worth-while volume, for the brief moments when the daily routine lets up for an instant. Or, in another fashion, it is well to take up some special interest or hobby, which will have the effect of broadening and deepening the streams of culture. It need not necessarily be an expensive one, though if one have the means to develop it, it may gain in interest. A curiosity about Colonial furniture, for example, provides an outlet for the development of intimate cultural resources. It opens the way for history, art, social studies, literature—all the complex influences which show them-selves in the articles in the daily use of an earlier time.
Instances of characteristic hobbies which open the way to wide cultural studies might be multiplied indefinitely. The study of old china leads to the study of the artistic development of a given century, leads to investigation of the origins of modern ceramic art, and may carry the amateur as far as he wishes into the art and history of oriental porcelains, and the history of the intercourse of East and West. There is no limit to the range which an amateur mav cover in his investigation. Each new discovery leads to another, and widens the horizon. Here, of course, the greater the information with which a man begins, the greater the possibilities with which he starts; but it is not necessary to begin with a larger equipment than a curiosity and interest in some department of human skill or science. By following this out you will lay up a treasure of interest for the possible time when a personal resource will mean everything to you.
Every such interest is an asset of the most powerful kind. It makes friends and creates congenial occupation; it stimulates investigation, and suggests information worth acquiring; it develops imagination and promotes intelligent outlook upon the world. It keeps the mind healthy, because occupied with other than merely bread-winning studies. A mutually shared hobby is one of the best things that two people can have in common. The value of culture is shown in this, that it enables a man to fill his life with adornments as well as with the solid elements of practical existence.
It is absurd for people to say, as they so often do, that they have no time for such and such cultural studies. The question is not of having the time but of using it. A notable poet has written a description of a visit to a country house where his fellow guests were a priest and a physician. They, with their host, had lived narrow lives there in the country, isolated in large degree from the rest of the world. All three had turned to poetry, and the poet who described the scene confessed that when they began to quote, he soon found himself far beyond his own depth, and left them to themselves. Here is an illustration of what the search for culture may do. For those men, time, space, language were nothing; they had overcome the limitations of their lives through their special interests.
What can be done in one field can be done in another; it is only for the individual to choose that which pleases him the most. The world is full of so many interests that he should find no difficulty in selecting those which he can most easily gratify. He has but to follow his choice out through its many ramifications to provide himself with amusement and interest for many a weary hour.