Letter XXIX. April 4, 1819

My dear Greaves,

The second rule that I would give to a mother respecting the early development of the infant mind is this: let the child not only be (acted upon), but let him be an (agent) in intellectual education.

I shall explain my meaning: - Let the mother bear in mind that her child has not only the faculties of attention to, and retention of, certain ideas or facts, but also a faculty of reflection independent of the thoughts of others. It is well done to make a child read and write and learn and repeat, - but it is still better to make a child think. We may be able to turn to account the opinions of others, and we may find it valuable or advantageous to be acquainted with them: we may profit by their light: but we can render ourselves most useful to others, and we shall be entitled to the character of valuable members of society, by the efforts of our own mind; by the result of our own investigations; by those views and their application which we may call our intellectual property.

I am not now speaking of those leading ideas which are from time to time thrown out, and by which science is advanced, or society benefitted at large. I am speaking of that stock of intellectual property which everyone, even the most unpretending individual, and in the humblest walks of life, may acquire. I am speaking of that habit of reflection which guards against unthinking conduct under any circumstances, and which is always active to examine that which is brought before the mind; that habit of reflection which excludes the self-sufficiency of ignorance, or the levity of "a little learning;" - which may lead an individual to the modest acknowledgment that he knows but little, and to the honest consciousness that he knows that little well. To engender this habit nothing is so effective as an early development in the infant mind of thought, regular, self-active thought.

Let not the mother suffer herself to be detained from this task by the objections of those who deem the infant mind altogether incapable of any exertion of that kind. I will venture to say that those who propose that objection, though they may be the profoundest thinkers, or the greatest theorists, will be found to have no (practical) knowledge whatsoever of the subject nor any moral interest in the investigation of it. And I, for one, would trust more in the experimental knowledge of a mother proceeding from exertions to which she was prompted by maternal feeling - in that experimental knowledge, even of an illiterate mother, I would trust more than in the theoretical speculations of the most ingenious philosophers. There are cases in which sound sense and a warm heart see farther than a highly refined, cold, and calculating head.

I would therefore call upon the mother to begin her task in spite of any objections that may be raised. It will be enough if she is persuaded to (begin); she will then continue of herself; she will derive such gratification from her task that she will never think of relaxing.

While she unfolds the treasures of the infant mind and uncloses the world of hitherto slumbering thought she will not envy the assurance of philosophers who would have the human mind to be an "universal blank." Engaged in a task, which calls into activity all the energies of her mind and all the affections of her heart, she will smile at their dictatorial speculations, and their supercilious theories. Without troubling herself about the knotty question whether there are any (innate ideas), she will be content if she succeeds in developing the (innate faculties of the mind).

If a mother asks for the designation of the subjects which might be profitably used as vehicles for the development of thought, I would answer her that any subject will do if it be treated in a manner suitable to the faculties of the child. It is the great art in teaching never to be at a loss for the choice of an object for the illustration of a truth. There is not an object so trivial that in the hands of a skilful teacher might not become interesting, if not from its own nature, at least from the mode of treating it. To a child every thing is new. The charm of novelty, it is true, soon wears off; and if there is not the fastidiousness of matured years, there is at least the impatience of infancy to contend with. But then there is for the teacher the great advantage of a combination of simple elements which may diversify the subject without dividing the attention. If I say that any subject will do for the purpose I mean this to be understood literally. Not only there is not one of the little incidents in the life of a child, in his amusements and recreations, in his relations to his parents and friends and playfellows, - but there is not actually anything within the reach of the child's attention, whether it belong to nature or to the employments and arts of life that might not be made the object of a lesson by which some useful knowledge might be imparted, and, what is still more important, by which the child might be familiarised with the habit of thinking on what he sees, and speaking after he has thought.

The mode of doing this is not by any means to talk much to a child but to enter into conversation with a child; not to address to him many words, however familiar or well chosen, but to bring him to express himself on the subject; not to exhaust the subject but to question the child about it and to let him find out and correct the answers. It would be so ridiculous to expect that the volatile spirits of an infant could be brought to follow any lengthy explanations. The attention of a child is deadened by long expositions but roused by animated questions.

Let these questions be short, clear, and intelligible. Let them not merely lead the child to repeat, in the same or in varied terms what he has heard just before. Let them excite him to observe what is before him, to recollect what he has learned, and to muster his little stook of knowledge for materials for an answer. Show him a certain quality in one thing and let him find out the same in others. Tell him that the shape of a ball is called round; and if, accordingly, you bring him to point out other objects to which the same predicament belongs, you have employed him more usefully than by the most perfect discourse on rotundity. In the one instance he would have had to listen and to recollect; in the other, he has to observe and to think. (PSW 26, p.122-125)