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Some Special Problems Of Involution

( Originally Published 1916 )


There is an old Icelandic myth which tells of the discomfiture that the god Thor underwent at the hands of the giants, who set him the task of lifting the Midgard Serpent, a snake so great that it reached round the entire earth, but by illusion was made to appear the size and shape of an ordinary cat. Our failure to solve the education problem is due to a similar misconception—what we take for the child-mind is a psychic entity as world-embracing as the Midgard Serpent, and, like the mighty Thor, we have need to summon all of our divine power if we would wrestle with it effectively.

Never before in the history of civilisation has the crowd taken so important a place in the affairs of mankind. The substitution of the unconscious action of groups for the conscious activity of individuals is the most marked characteristic of our age. The collective mind is coming to be an ever-greater menace to the individual. Of no country is this truer than of our own, the land of the common school. We train our children to gregarious habits of thought and action, and then are surprised that they fail to meet the intellectual and moral standards of individual growth and development. Our education system is indeed out of joint, and in a far deeper sense than we are aware.

It is a recognised fact that an agglomeration of men will present, under certain influences, characteristics very different from those of the individuals composing it. Children are " but men of lesser growth," and, inasmuch as their individuality is not yet established, are all the more subject to collective impulses. In the bringing together of large numbers in schools, we set in operation most powerful forces making for the crowd-mind. The process of integration thus prematurely inaugurated is sufficient to account for the qualities we all deplore in our Rising Generation. In the study that follows, I have based my conclusions upon the characteristics of the group-mind as determined by Le Bon in his notable work, " The Crowd."

There is a certain aligning power in association itself, especially when association is frequent and of long standing. That this holds of the school-room, witness the class-spirit with which the child is imbued almost from his first day at school. The unaccustomed numbers induce a crowd-consciousness. This quickly breaks down whatsoever individuality may have been attained. At the same time the child receives from it a new sense of power and with that sense comes the tendency to cast aside all control. Instincts which have been kept under restraint gain the mastery. Finding himself one of many, the child also loses what little sense of responsibility he may have acquired. The danger of mental is quite as great as that of bodily contagion. Sentiments and actions spread with great rapidity, as we all know.

Add to association, as the school-room does, the direct action of a common physical environment, the participation in common tasks, and, above all, the same directing personalities of teacher and class-leaders, and the outward conditions are certainly complete for a homogeneous whole. The subjective conditions are likewise right for the overthrow of the Self ; obedience, the orientation of attention, the attitude of expectancy, the narrowing of the field of consciousness, the inhibition of voluntary activity, and all the other prerequisites of good class-instruction.

The most potent factors for mental unity are, without doubt, suggestion and imitation. Suggestibility is at its maximum in children. Binet tells us that nearly all children over the age of seven are hypnotisable, and we need no authority to speak of the imitativeness natural to all children. The inhibitive power can be maintained only if the suggestions received differ from one another ; if the suggestions reinforce one another, as they do in the classroom, no personal resistance can withstand them. Men of strong character are carried off their feet by the volume of suggestion that emanates from numbers ; how much more so children ! When we stop to think that fatigue accentuates suggestibility, we must realise the utter powerlessness of any but the exceptional child to cope with the mighty forces at work in our schools to draw him into the vortex of the super-conscious. There is, in fact, no assignable limit to the mastery of the crowd-self over its unfortunate constituents. Nor does the effect of this dominance end with the separation of the individuals forming the group. Not only is their individuality greatly weakened, but the crowd-habit is likely to persist throughout life. The large number of fraternal orders and societies of all kinds testify to the truth of this assertion. Ours is indeed an " era of crowds."

We talk much of personality because we are losing it. Whoever are the individuals composing the group, however diverse their mode of life, their temperament or intelligence, they are so dominated by the collective mind as to think, feel and act as one, and in a manner quite different from that of each individual of them in a state of isolation; this is the law of the mental unity of crowds. Its confirmation is found in the fact that our youth must read the same book and wear the same necktie. And because that uniqueness which marks a well-defined personality is denied them, they seek pitifully after some freakishness in manner or dress for the distinction that was their birthright.

The young people of the present are generally arraigned as shallower, feebler, more flippant and less intellectual than their grandfathers. In their cause I would answer that the collective mind is intellectually very inferior to the individual mind. It is not an average even of the elements composing it, but simply possesses those qualities which racially they have in common. For instance, to quote Le Bon: " The decisions affecting matters of general interest come to by an assembly of men of distinction, but specialists in different walks of life, are not sensibly superior to the decisions that would be adopted by a gathering of imbeciles. The truth is they can bring to bear in common on the work in hand only those mediocre qualities which are the birthright of every average individual. In crowds it is stupidity and not mother-wit that is accumulated."

It is also true that our young people were never so thirstily avid of pleasure as now, nor so irresponsible and devoid of a sense of duty. But the wonder would be if this were otherwise, for the special characteristics of the group-mind are defined as irresponsibility, incapacity to reason, absence of judgment and of the critical spirit. In consequence, its members lack the virtues born of self-control: veracity, prudence, thrift, perseverance, respect for another's right, obedience to law. The individual isolated possesses the capacity of inhibiting his reflex action, but the individual of the crowd is the " creature of his spinal cord." The Sunday Supplement and the cheap show foster, but do not create, the trivialness by which they flourish. They are simply indications of a mental reversion to a lower thought-form of development.

But with all its faults, it is conceded that the Rising Generation is amiable, attractive and lovable. This should not surprise — it also follows as a natural result of socialisation. Crowds are impulsive ; suitably influenced, they are ready to sacrifice them-selves for an ideal. They exaggerate the sentiments ; sympathy quickly becomes adoration. While the crowd-mind is always intellectually inferior to the isolated individual, its emotions and acts may be better, for the suggestion determines their character. Appeals to sentiments of glory, honour and patriotism are particularly likely to influence the individual forming part of a crowd. In fact, collectivities alone are capable of great disinterestedness and devotion. From this aspect of their nature has come the power of our schools to assimilate and make good citizens of the riff-raff cast upon our shores. And because of this, there are those who would solace themselves that we have a broader, instead of a more deeply thoughtful, intellectual life, a more socialised ethics instead of stronger individual virtues. The philosophy of the day would abandon intellect and fall back upon in-tuition. We are to lose ourselves in the creative flow, but such an abandonment to instinct is merely a reversion to the gregarious impulse of our animal ancestry. The integration that marks progress for us can come only through the bonds of a deeper in-sight. Each is able to take his place in a whole only as he is uniquely himself. One's duty to others as well as to one's self is to attain the most complete selfhood that is possible.

The emphasis in education has perforce been placed on the memory faculties, not because our teachers do not realise the importance of developing the reasoning faculties, but because such faculties are lost to the group-mind. Our children cannot spell or write correctly, for the group-mind again lacks observation, sees things as a whole and is blind to distinctions. They become nervous and " fall down " in examinations because they have learned to do team-thinking. In later life they make sycophants and demagogues, inasmuch as they are but fitted to take what place they may in the great community. The class-mind is likewise accountable for the fact that the " best students " usually amount to little in after life — they are the ones most plastic to suggestion and consequently leave school with correspondingly diminished individuality. Unless a place is made for them in the world of affairs, they rarely secure one.

That this evil has fallen upon our day and country is not ascribable to teacher or parent, or above all to the children. A more conscientious, able body of people than the teachers of our public schools does not exist ; instruction has never been better than to-day. The young people are innately as earnest and anxious to meet life efficiently as their parents or grandparents were. With the scientific advancement in all lines, the influences making for mental quickening have greatly increased. Parents are taking a more vital, because a more intelligent, interest in the education of their children than did their ancestors. The spiritual and ethical influences are more potent for the upbuilding of character than in former times, notwithstanding the crumbling of old beliefs. Search as we may elsewhere, the great fault of our education is to be found in our present class system of instruction. Our devotion to the ideal of democracy, combined with our loyalty to what we justly consider our greatest institution, our school system, has closed our eyes to the real issue in the education problem ; this, I repeat, is not a question of method or of curriculum, but of the massing of children.


There are those who maintain that in the course of evolution the home must disappear — that as an institution it is archaic, having come down to us from those primitive times when physical conditions demanded close living for protection and warmth. They say that the sanctity with which it has been enveloped has kept it from evolving synchronously with our other institutions, that its manners and customs belong in consequence to a remote period.

This may be true, but the time has not yet come when we can afford to dispense with the home. In-deed, it has an augmented significance for the particular stage of development through which we are now passing. Not only does human nature need for its idiosyncrasies the protecting shelter of the hearth-stone, but human progress requires that it should have that shelter. Now that Darwinism has given way to Mendelism we may no longer hope to perfect human character through a gradual process of modification, but must look to spontaneity of expression for the realisation of our vision. Hence, with our laws, our work, our very feelings even, fast becoming socialised, we cannot have too much of individual expression. Let the home be what it may, it holds for us the one bit of life that in this day of the mass we can claim as distinctly our own. Outside its doors we are of necessity as other men; the law of averages strips us of aught distinctive and we fall into this category or into that. The increase of institutions makes all the more imperative our need of the home. To counteract this menace of fewer personalities, our youth must have such individual upbringing as only the home can give.

We need the home. How are we to keep it? An organ becomes atrophied only through disuse; so an institution dies but with the purpose it subserves. The disappearance of the home may be hastened by easy divorce or the high cost of living, but the disappearance itself finds its raison d'être in the fact that the home has ceased to function as it should for the general welfare. The loosening of the marriage bond is an effect, not a cause, of its disintegration. How blind we are when it comes to causal relations ! We lament the passing of the home, and yet rejoice in every bit of advance that the State makes towards assuming the province of the parent. What is the significance of the manual training school, the cooking school, the sewing class, the public playground, the school garden? Simply this, that the home is failing to function for the child as was its wont.

That the home no longer fulfills the purposes of its existence is due largely, I fear, to a blindness on the part of the woman as to what constitutes her true worth and significance in the life economy. Having laboured for centuries in the preparation of the food and clothing for the family, woman naturally thinks that with the going of this work from the home has gone her only occupation, and that she must follow it or become a parasite in the system of things. She overlooks the possibility of family needs other than these physical ones, needs that she alone can supply. With the increasing complexity and strain of industrial life, the man requires as never before the quiet of a well-regulated home. The children, compelled to struggle for their individuality with the subtle and amalgamating influences of school and playground, are in growing want of the constructive faith and direction of a wise mother.

The conserving of the goods of the family has ever fallen to the care of woman, but with the advance of civilisation these goods have become largely spiritualised. To this the woman has not awakened. In her eagerness for activity she has emphasised the superficial rather than the tender and more intimate needs of her family. The woman has yet to see that the cost of living is largely determined by the standards which the home sets; that the servant problem can be solved only by her, its mistress ; that the true rescue of the girl lies with the mother ; that there would be no social evil if the boy received from his home the right ideals of life; that her husband is the slave-that-she-deplores of the industrial system because of her demands. When the home has done its work, there will be little need of social service. If the woman is to fill her place properly she must indeed be educated and fully abreast of the thought of the age, but her highest work is still in the home, not out of it.

We all need some one to believe in us, the strongest man as well as the smallest child. That so many of our young people " go to pieces," or rather never find themselves, is for lack of just this constructive faith. Our grandmothers did more than bake and brew. They believed in the boy, and this part of their work cannot be consigned to factory or school; it must be done at home by hand. Living is becoming too machine-made ; the stitches are big, ends are unfinished — what wonder that happiness becomes so easily unravelled !

The life process is a synthesis throughout. The child comes into the world a bundle of potentialities, some good, some bad; the good must be co-ordinated, the bad eliminated. This requires much loving thought and attention. The Greek realised this and sought the wisest man to be found as the architect of his boy's character. Ah, here is a calling for woman that was deemed worthy of an Aristotle !

The process of gestation is by no means finished with the birth of the child. After God had made man in His own image He still found it necessary to breathe into him the breath of life. But mothers are too apt to think that their creating is finished with the body; they overlook the spirit. Nor can this matter of the spirit be entrusted to some one else; the mother, having brought forth the body, should know best with what spirit to inform it ; and a most intimate process, too, is this of breathing into a child the breath of life. It can be done only by close companionship and much giving of time.

The mother who is occupied with business or professional duties must of necessity give the child over to governesses and teachers. She justifies herself that he receives better training from these specialists than she can give him. But no amount of skill on the part of others can have the same constructive force for the making of character as mother-love if combined with culture and training. All who have gardened know how plants respond to love and attention ; much more so children — yes, and husbands too. O ye women who cry aloud that your work has been taken from you, there is for you still in the home the greatest of all work, the upbuilding and strengthening of purpose and character in those who are dearest to you ! It is yours to give to that home what no one else can : the warmth of a constructive personality.

It will be urged that woman has a right to the discipline which comes from participation in the affairs of the world; that only through such rational responsibility may she attain the full development of her personality. But not only does the home need the woman ; the woman needs the home. Her largest self-hood is not to be realised through high specialisation, but through the all-round-faculty and adapt-ability that the home life requires. The Chinese honour most the woman who is able to hold together the greatest number of persons in an harmonious family life. The woman of the Occident may draw a lesson therefrom.

In order that woman may accomplish this, her no-blest work, she must be free to attempt every accessible height both of personal cultivation and of political influence. When the sex has demonstrated its ability to achieve success in other professions, and woman as an individual becomes a homemaker of choice and not of necessity, then and only then will the home take on a dignity equal to these professions. Moreover, women must have the right to work out-side the home if they are to regard it a privilege to work in it. Nor does motherhood necessarily imply that woman should be barred from other activities, but if she is a mother that is her first loyalty. Only by being true to it can she attain to that higher loyalty of personal service to humanity to which she most earnestly aspires.

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