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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 31

An Illustration

An Illustration

What is the method of a child's first lesson book? Take an illustration. My little child is curious about the origin of the loaf on the breakfast table—wants to know where the bread came from. If I am a wise man, and not a pedant, what I tell him is something like this:—"There is a man called a fanner, and he has a field. He scratches up the field with a great iron hook, and when he has made a nice soft bed, he puts in it the seed, which is called the corn. The seed sleeps there for a little while, and then the sun and the rain come and waken it. Then the seed sends up a tiny point like the grass. 'Come up,' says the sun, 'higher—higher' still.' So it grows and grows, till at last the corn comes out of the top of it. Then the farmer takes a great knife and cuts it down. Next he carries it to the miller. Now the miller has a great wheel fixed by a river, and he says to the river, River, turn my wheel.' So the river turns his w heel, and the wheel turns two great stones, and the great stones grind the corn into flour. Then the flour is taken to the baker, and the baker bakes it into bread, and brings it round in his cart for breakfast."

Now, would this account be true? Nay, would it not be in reality the very truest I could give? Would not such an account be a thousand times more rational and intelligible than if I assumed the style of a University Professor—talked learnedly about agricultural chemistry, gave the botanic name of the corn plant, described its dependence on the ammonia of the soil and the carbon of the atmosphere, stated the exact date of its sowing and the months of its growth, exhibited a diagram of a plough, explained the mechanism of a mill, and expounded the principles of hydraulics upon which the motion of the wheel depends? And would there be any sacrifice of dignity in thus talking to a child within the range of a child's ideas and capacity?

But what sad havoc is made with my little history if it is treated in what may be called the theologic spirit—the spirit in which we are accustomed to construe the first chapters of Genesis ! The "hook," then, is a literal hook, such, doubtless, as we see sticking in walls or in butchers' shops. Then the seed "sleeps," and in "a bed," and is "wakened,"—all to be taken au pied de la lettre, as the French say—with literal exactitude. Moreover, the sun and the rain talk, it seems,—mysterious, but true, or the page 12 narrator is unveracious, and we could not trust a word he says! And so on, in the fashion we know so well.

Equally disastrous is the effect if the story comes under the handling of the scientific critic. To him, of course, it is false at every point. The "hook" was not a hook at all, but a plough. Moreover, a plough is dragged by horses, of which agency the history said nothing, but even suggested that the farmer dragged it himself. The talk of the sun and the rain is plainly mythical. Then nothing was said about the thrashing—a most momentous omission. In short, my history is proved "unhistorical" from first to last.

And yet, after all, I am right, whilst both the commentator and the critic are wrong.