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Even those who set themselves to instruct youth, too often forget that their aim should be to unfold and discipline and strengthen the minds of their pupils, to inspire them with a love of knowledge, and to improve their faculties for acquiring it, not merely to ad and stuff with a certain ready-made quantity of knowledge; for "knowledge is power” only when it is living, firmly grounded, reproductive, and expansive, I fear there is a moment of broken lights in the intellectual day of civilised countries, when, amid the manifold refractions of knowledge, wisdom is almost lost sight of.
In all schools in which a zealous endeavour is made to infuse life and spirit into the routine of elementary instruction, the possession of a good set of reading-books, adapted to the various stages of progress of the several classes, has for some time been felt to be a point of capital importance. Not only is it difficult or impossible, without well-selected lessons, to teach the art of reading and inspire a taste for it, but the reading-books used by a teacher necessarily take such a prominent place in what may be termed his educational apparatus, as to have a decisive influence, for good or for evil, on the general tone and character of his school. The reading lesson and the lessons which are naturally and properly associated with it, constitute the main work of the day in all the elementary stages of instruction; and if the book from which these lessons are taught is dull or unsuitable -- if it is in itself flat and uninteresting, or if it is not adapted to the mental condition of the pupil, the very aspect of it begins inevitably, in the course of a little time, to generate a feeling of listlessness or aversion. This feeling is a powerfully contagious one, and, when it becomes apparent, the teacher knows that he must do his utmost to counteract it. It will be much if he succeed: if he do not, the rest of his labor, on that occasion, will simply go for nothing; but whether he is or is not successful, it is certain that the toil of resisting the influence of a bad readingbook costs him such an expenditure of energy in a merely negative direction, as cannot but abstract largely from his power of positive usefulness. Waste of this kind is deplorable, and yet is of every day occurrence; and it is from a strong conviction that a remedy may be supplied for it, that the present series of reading-books takes its origin.
Every one who is competent to form an opinion on the subject will admit that the reading-books in current use are at least fundamentally defective when they are not something still worse. Taken altogether, their contents are found to run with singular evenness and regularity in two well-worn tracks. Either they consist of what are regarded as fine pieces of rhetoric or edifying and elegant compositions on questions of abstract morality; or, on the other hand, they bristle all over with hard facts bearing upon the most practical and material departments of life. The former of these two kinds of books is the more old-fashioned, and its marked tendency towards the abstract and idea) produced, as a natural reaction, the uncompromising realism of the latter. Experience, however, has proved that neither the one class nor the other meets, even in a moderately respectable degree, the requirements of schools.
With regard to the former of the two classes specified, it is hardly possible to condemn too strongly the total misapprehension of the method of education which it tends to foster. The compass of thought and feeling to which highly finished pieces of rhetoric appeal, is considerably beyond the range of the young pupil, and the sweeping generalisations with which they abound far outrun his experience. But, it is sometimes alleged, the style, at least, of the pieces is itself a work of consummate art, and in order that the learner's own style may be harmoniously “ formed,” it is necessary to put before him the most approved and elegant models. Just as if we should teach a boy drawing by setting him to copy a Claude or a Turner. No one will deny that the pomp and brilliance of the rhetorical extracts of which we speak are frequently very beautiful in their way; but their beauty is precisely of that kind which a youth can hardly appreciate, which he will seldom spontaneously admire, and which unquestionably he should never be taught to imitate. The truth is, that he cannot without injury to himself be asked to consider the style at all as separate from the subject-matter, and he should not be expected to admire a piece of literary composition for any other reason than because it conveys to him a clear comprehension or a vivid picture of the things of which it treats. If his reading-lesson does this, he will be likely to read well; but if his mind is not occupied with the sense of what he reads, or moved by the feelings which it should call forth, no amount of elocutionary drilling will avail to give his speech the tone and cadence of nature. This objection is fatal to what we have called the rhetorical class of reading exercises. They are not understood or appreciated, they inspire no living interest, and therefore they are, and must be, invariably ill read.