"Experiencing These Effects And Sinking Under Them" (Edu-vice from 1850)

Ira Mayhew CoverWhat follows are excerpts from Popular Education: For The Use Of Parents And Teachers, And For Young Persons Of Both Sexes. Prepared and Published in Accordance with a Resolution of the Senate and House of Representatives of the State of Michigan, by By Ira Mayhew, A.M. – Superintendent of Public Instruction (New York: Harper & Brothers, Publishers, 82 Cliff Street. 1850)

Say what you like about old books, they sure titled their titles. 

And 1850? Let’s get a little perspective on that date… 

The very concept of taxpayer-funded public schooling was less than a generation old, and all but non-existent in many areas - including most of the South. Millard Fillmore was President. California became the 31st State of the Union. Slavery was still entrenched in half the nation, and Harriet Tubman was beginning her work as a ‘conductor’ on the ‘Underground Railroad’ in defiance thereof. P.T. Barnum was screwing people out of their nickels and dimes – a much less romantic pursuit than we seem to have made of it postmortem. Electricity wasn’t really a thing yet, nor was recorded music, radio, etc. Fancy travel meant your wagon was covered, or in rare cases you rode on a train. Internet was still dial-up. 

It was a long #$%@ing time ago is what I’m saying. 

And Supt. Mayhew was commissioned – by an act of the State Legislature, no less – to write a book on learnin’. Which he did. 

He breaks down a proper education into three critical elements - the physical (health and body), the intellectual (brain stuff), and the moral (used interchangeably with spiritual). Other than the anachronisms associated with his constant reference to scripture and man’s soul, it’s fairly dry reading – until I got to this part. I ‘bout spilt my coffee in recognition of the issues confronting Supt. Mayhew and his teachers in 1850. 

Excerpt from Chapter V: The Nature of Intellectual and Moral Education

It is generally known that the eye, when tasked beyond its strength, becomes insensible to light, and ceases to convey impressions to the mind. The brain, in like manner, when much exhausted, becomes incapable of thought, and consciousness is well-nigh lost in a feeling of utter confusion. At any time in life, excessive and continued mental exertion is hurtful; but in infancy and early youth, when the structure of the brain is still immature and delicate, permanent injury is more easily produced by injudicious treatment than at any subsequent period… 

I don’t actually know how physiologically true this is, but experientially I at least get the ‘tired brain’ part. I do know enough about early childhood development (hey, I had to take those classes in teacher school same as you) to know there are certain things kids just can’t do at some stages, and that it’s generally harmful to over-try. 

It’s interesting to me how similar this language was to arguments explaining why girls shouldn’t be given complicated toys, like puzzles, or be allowed to over-exert themselves physically by doing things like swimming for more than eight seconds at a time – they might be damaged, you see. I bring this up despite it detracting from the case I’m about to make, partly because I’m SO intellectually honest, but mostly because – like so many things – it’s all about best guesses on sliding scales. Balance in a changing world. 

In this respect, the analogy is complete between the brain and the other parts of the body, as we have already seen exemplified in the injurious effects of premature exercise of the bones and muscles. Scrofulous and rickety children are the most usual sufferers in this way. They are generally remarkable for large heads, great precocity of understanding, and small, delicate bodies. 

OK, I mostly just kept this part because I’m amused by the phrase “scrofulous and rickety children” and picturing their big ol’ heads. Yes, you may add that to the list of reasons I’m probably going to teacher hell. 

But in such instances, the great size of the brain, and the acuteness of the mind, are the results of morbid growth, and even with the best management, the child passes the first years of its life constantly on the brink of active disease. Instead, however, of trying to repress its mental activity, as they should, the fond parents, misled by the promise of genius, too often excite it still further by unceasing cultivation and the never-failing stimulus of praise; and finding its progress, for a time, equal to their warmest wishes, they look forward with ecstasy to the day when its talents will break forth and shed a luster on their name.  

This is when I first began to recognize tendencies not unfamiliar today – although the over-achieving parent stereotype is fading a bit as we've begun to recall there being more to life than GPA and college prep in kindergarten. But as a culture of ‘reform’ and ‘high standards’, we are certainly still enthralled by the potential of over-farming young soil. 

But in exact proportion as the picture becomes brighter to their fancy, the probability of its becoming realized becomes less; for the brain, worn out by premature exertion, either becomes diseased or loses its tone, leaving the mental powers feeble and depressed for the remainder of life. The expected prodigy is thus, in the end, easily outstripped in the social race by many whose dull outset promised him an easy victory.

Again I must question the physiology of this statement, while supporting its spirit. Whether or not the young brain becomes ‘diseased’ or ‘loses its tone’ through excessive intellectual demands in early development, the young brain-owner may certainly become disconnected, and lose his or her connection to the wonders of learning in those early years (when they still liked us and wanted to know stuff - secondary people forget this was ever a thing). When we beat our young pegs so incessantly into pre-shaped holes, we may get some of them wedged in, but we lose them in all the important ways.

We lose them for a long, long time – sometimes for life.

Those allowed to develop at a more flexible pace, nurtured but not machine-tilled, often not only catch up but sail right on past the rest. Not always, but enough that those high stakes 3rd grade tests look pretty stupid in retrospect. 

One of my favorite stories from a former state superintendent was her account during a TV interview of her own son, who struggled to learn as a kid and had all sorts of trouble in school. He was never ‘held back’, but instead was surrounded by dedicated teachers who supported and encouraged him until, one year, he suddenly started to ‘get it’. By high school he was on level and above in every area and is now a happy, employed, successful citizen. That’s how it works sometimes.

(This story was told as evidence we should hold kids back in an eternal 3rd grade loop of shame and disparagement, which I didn’t really understand – but then, she was an odd duck like that.) 

I’m going to skip ahead a bit. It’s a history thing – we pick and choose the bits of evidence that make our case and ignore the rest. We learned it from our friends who teach science. 

There can be little doubt but that ignorance on the part of parents and teachers is the principal cause that leads to the too early and excessive cultivation of the minds of children, and especially of such as are precocious and delicate. Hence the necessity of imparting instruction on this subject to both parents and teachers, and to all persons who are in any way charged with the care and education of the young.

As in, state legislators? 

This necessity becomes the more imperative from the fact that the cupidity of authors and publishers has led to the preparation of "children's books," many of which are announced as purposely prepared "for children from two to three years old!" I might instance advertisements of "Infant Manuals" of Botany, Geometry, and Astronomy! 

He was kidding. Imagine him visiting The Learning Tree today!

There's also a Common Core joke just waiting to be made here, but it just seems like piling on at this point - like making fun of Nixon, or a good 'Ozzy Osbourne' joke. 

In not a few isolated families, but in many neighborhoods, villages, and cities, in various parts of the country, children under three years of age are not only required to commit to memory many verses, texts of Scripture, and stories, but are frequently sent to school for six hours a day. Few children are kept back later than the age of four, unless they reside a great distance from school, and some not even then. 

Imagine what it took in a big city in 1850 to seem like you were being TOO HARD on young people. We’re not that far past Dickens or much ahead of Newsies here – these were not years of pampered youth. Send them to the factories and coal mines if you must, but DON’T BE SO CRUEL AS TO OVERDO THE TEST PREP at such a young age!

Perspective, much? 

At home, too, they are induced by all sorts of excitement to learn additional tasks, or peruse juvenile books and magazines, till the nervous system becomes enfeebled and the health broken. "I have myself," says Dr. Brigham, "seen many children who are supposed to possess almost miraculous mental powers, experiencing these effects and sinking under them. 

What a powerful phrase – “experiencing these effects and sinking under them.” Take a moment and mourn over that. 

Some of them died early, when but six or eight years of age... Their minds, like some of the fairest flowers, were 'no sooner blown than blasted;' others have grown up to manhood, but with feeble bodies and disordered nervous system, which subjected them to hypochondriasis, dyspepsy, and all the Protean forms of nervous disease; others of the class of early prodigies exhibit in manhood but small mental powers, and are the mere passive instruments of those who in early life were accounted far their inferiors." 

Imagine a society in which that early cult of accomplishment led to stressed out high schoolers trying to make it into the right stressed out colleges to get the stressed out jobs where they must accomplish pass do prove make achieve… what? What’s the end goal? What’s the point of any of it? What test is the last one before you ‘win’?

Good thing we headed that off in 1850. Close call, that. 

Jumping ahead again…

In youth, too, much mischief is done by the long daily periods of attendance at school, and the continued application of mind which the ordinary system of education requires. 

I realize letting your kid play outside results in visits from the police and DHS these days, but it’s still a pretty good idea. 

The law of exercise already more than once repeated, that long-sustained action exhausts the vital powers of an organ, applies as well to the brain as to the muscles. Hence the necessity of varying the occupations of the young, and allowing frequent intervals of active exercise in the open air, instead of enforcing the continued confinement now so common. This exclusive attention to mental culture fails, as might be expected, even in its essential object; for all experience shows that, with a rational distribution of employment and exercise, a child will make greater progress in a given period than in double the time employed in continuous mental exertion. 

If a long-dead superintendent from 1850 understood the value of a varied, balanced life – not only for personal happiness, but because it MAKES YOU A BETTER STUDENT – why are we so stubbornly ignorant of this 165 years later?

Tell your kids – your own, personal kids – to skip their homework tonight and go play outside, or ride their bikes, or exercise. Not video games or even books – although both are yay – but go DO something. Take fewer AP classes so they can stay in Drama or Soccer. Be happy with that state university so they have time to hang out with friends from church or volunteer at the animal shelter. 

Chill the f#$% out. It’s better for them. Ira said so:

It is worse than folly to shut our eyes to the truth, and to act as if we could, by denying it, alter the constitution of nature, and thereby escape the consequences of our own misconduct… Such persons might be saved to themselves and to society by early instruction in the nature and laws of the animal economy. They mean well, but err from ignorance more than from headstrong zeal. 

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I'll keep you company in teacher hell. Right after I do my stint in parent hell for making fun of my own kids constantly.
Lots to think about here. Even 150 years ago, they were still not convinced that less is more and quality over quantity and all that jazz...

One of the best compliments I can give writing is "thick and good." This is thick and good. It's a slow, worthwhile read.


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