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Educational Journal of Virginia.
Richmond, Va., January, 1885.
Ingenuity in the School-Room.
By PRINCIPAL A. F. ONDERDONK. Ingenuity, as defined by Webster, is the quality or power of ready invention, quickness or acuteness in combining ideas, or in forming new combinations; skill. Popularly, the term is restricted to mechanical contrivances; but it admits of a much wider range of meaning, and many of its best examples are to be found far beyond the limits of the workshop. We can speak with as much propriety of an ingenious author as of an ingenious mechanic. Besides an ingenious machine, there is such a thing as an ingenious definition, an ingenious expedient, an ingenious plan andan ingenious policy; and every teacher knows that it is not unfrequently necessary to resort to ingenious strategy in order to expose an ingenious lie. One invents a machine for sharpening pencils, while another has a way of giving point to remarks and questions; both are ingenious. The ingenuity of one who makes a parallel ruler may be paralleled by that of another who simply makes a rule. In the same number of a recent educational periodical, one writer calls attention to the ingenuity displayed in the construction of a patent map-support, and another says: "A teacher needs more ingenuity to keep this re-memorizing of the multiplication-table bright, pleasant and effective work from September to Christmas, than in any other work in those grades during the whole year.”
It is in the broad sense, thus indicated, that the term ingenuity is used on the present occasion; including in it, not only all material and tangible educational devices, from a planetarium to a pen-holder, but also all those exhibitions of skill in discipline, management and instruction that can be given by mind alone, with little or no assistance from matter.
Now, in the industrial world, to what intent are tools, implements, machines and other materializations of inventive genius devised? To lighten labor; to avoid trouble; to save time; to apply, direct and economize energy; to do some things better than they could otherwise be done; and to accomplish other things that were otherwise impossible. The ingenious man, by taking advantage of the substances and the laws of nature, compels her to minister to his necessities, his convenience, his comfort, his pleasure or his profit; and he who does not or cannot do this for himself, or who through ignorance, negligence or indolence, fails to avail himself of the ingenuity of others, labors under immense disadvantages, and, in the race of life, falls hopelessly behind his more alert and enterprising competitors. He attempts by muscle what others accomplish by brain; applies unintelligent brute force, where others merely exercise "sleight of hand ;' and exhausts himself while others enlist or impress the forces of nature. He rows his boat while others propel their's by sail or steam or electricity. A huge bowlder is to be reduced to fragments : Dullness takes a sledge and belabors it for days : Ingenuity covers it with burning fagots, and sits aside and takes his ease while listening to the crackling brush above and the cracking stone beneath. It is desirable to detach a mass of rock from a ledge: Dullness attempts it with his crow-bar and pronounces the task impossible : Ingenuity drives a few wedges of dry wood into a crevice, pours water upon them; and capillary attraction does the rest. Dullness continues to ply the primitive needle: Ingenuity invents a sewing machine. Dullness travels by team: Ingenuity, by steam. Dullness carries on his correspondence by letter: Ingenuity, by lightning.
Now let the foregoing be transferred, by analogy, from the world at large to the school-room. There, too, labor can be lightened; time can be saved; usefulness can be vastly increased; effort can be rendered more effective; and much euphemistic profanity can be suppressed, by the exercise of the inventive faculties.
The reasonable limits of an evening essay forbid extended descriptions of specific methods of dealing with all the details of professional work. It will not be possible to do more than to indicate, in a general way, how skill can be profitably exercised, and to give a few typical examples by way of illustration; to endeavor to show that it sometimes pays " to set the wits to work" devising ways of accomplishing, by either manual or mental dexterity, what is too often attempted (and unsuccessfully at that) by dull, tedious plodding, hard work and blind blows; and to show, also, that in school-craft as in state-craft, war can often be averted by diplomacy.
A most excellent example of the superiority of finesse to force is the way in which corporal punishment was abolished in the public schools of a city not a thousand miles from Albany. It might have been done by a formal resolution of the Board of Public Instruction, or the fiat of the Superintendent; but such a course would, in all probability, have been followed, for a time, at least, by such an assumption of license on the part of the pupils as would have been productive of serious trouble; and might have resulted in this instance, as it has in many others, in the restoration of the rod
How was it done? By simply adding these six words to the blank on which teachers made out their monthly reports: “Number of cases of corporal punishment." The right to punish was not in the least degree abridged. The public and the pupils heard the school authorities proclaim to teachers : “Punish as much as you think necessary;" but, mingling with that louder utterance, was a "still, small voice,” heard by teachers only, counseling them not to do it. The practice was continued; but the number of cases diminished by consecutive years as follows; 1,236, 677, 336, 33; and, during the first month of the next year, in a daily attendance of over 10,000, there were none. Verily, Bulwer was right : “ The pen is mightier than the sword.”
This suggests, at once, a most excellent subject for the exercise of ingenuity. There was a time when all the ills that school-boy flesh was heir to was attempted by what some one has called “the miraculous method”: namely, “by the laying on of hands.” But the days of miracles are past. There is a growing demand that corporal punishment, if not abandoned altogether, shall be reduced to a minimum. This ought always to have been done; the best teachers always have done it, by ingeniously operating upon the moral and emotional nature of the child, or by ingenuous appeals to his interest or his sense of right and duty; but, after all this has been done, it still remains true that "it must needs be that offenses come.” There are too many like adamant and too many like sand: no impression can be made on the former; and the slightest wind or wave is sufficient to obliterate any made on the latter. What can be done with such cases? Unfortunately, there are too many teachers who yield to what they regard as the inevitable, without putting forth an effort. Assuming that the commission of offenses cannot be prevented, they go on, day after day, consuming their time and energies in acting as detectives and judges and executioners. They classify the whole science of discipline under two heads—detection and punishment. The best that can be said of their method is, that it possesses the qualities of directness and simplicity, furnishes an abundance of amusement
for the school, and insures the teacher against the charge of idleness. Many teachers of this class possess a large fund of valuable but misdirected ingenuity ; but they waste in detection what might be most usefully employed in prevention.
“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Some cynic has defined virtue as “want of opportunity;" and Shakspeare makes one of his characters say: "How oft the sight of means to do ill deeds makes ill deeds done.”
The play ground of a school was covered with a coarse gravel that abounded in pebbles just large enough to make excellent missiles. After many panes of glass had been broken from neighboring windows, and many boys had been punished for it, the principal, at the suggestion of his more ingenious assistant, sent out a score of little pupils, who, in fifteen minutes, removed all the means for the commission of an offence he had been fighting for as many weeks.
The pupils of another school had a way of chewing the ends of their pen-holders. The teacher requested them not to do so; but it had grown into a habit, and was done, not maliciously, but uncon. sciously. Finding request and remonstrance vain, she provided a new set of holders and dipped their tips, to the depth of about a quarter of an inch, in creosote. Those who have employed this substance to cauterize an aching tooth, and who, consequently, know how much care must be exercised to prevent its coming in contact with the lips, will believe that at the next exercise in writing each pupil indulged in the old habit but once, and-never again.
A teacher was at one time exceedingly annoyed in all the following ways: Pupils endangered their lives, and created much noise and disorder by sliding down the banisters; the larger boys flooded the basement by turning on all the water at once, or, contrariwise, turned it off so tightly that the smaller children could not drink ; by a malicious manipulation of the faucets, they would project jets of water into the faces of their fellow pupils, or against the ceilings and walls; they interfered with the operation of the furnaces by meddling with the dampers; and, lastly, they nullified the rules relating to the use of the front door, by tampering with the night-lock. Things being allowed to remain as they were, it would have required the "eternal vigilance of at least three persons to prevent the commission of the offenses enumerated; and, if, prevention being impossible, detection and punishment were resorted to, the teacher would have found time for little less than the entertainment of complaints and the infliction of penalties. Ingenuity was summoned to his relief. He abated the