Jacksonian Miscellanies, #79

March 30, 1999

Abbott's Gentle Advice to Teachers

Copyright by the editor, Hal Morris, Hopatcong, NJ 1999. Permission is granted to copy, but not for sale, nor in multiple copies, except by permission.

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Jacob Abbott (1803-1879) was one of several remarkable brothers who grew up in southern Maine, attended Bowdoin College, and contributed to education -- particularly for women, and popular literature - much of it designed for children.  He and two of the brothers, John Stevens Cabot Abbott (1805-1877), and Gorham Dummer Abbot (1807-1874) (Gorham kept the old spelling of the family name, while Jacob and others taking his lead added a "t") are represented in the Dictionary of American Biography.

Jacob attended the Andover Theological Seminary and for a while, did some preaching, but primarily in his early career, he taught - first, in 1820, at the Portland Academy, then at Beverly, MA in 1823, and from 1824-28, the year of his marriage, he was, first tutor and then professor of mathematics and natural philosophy, at Amherst.  This experience is reflected in one of his most popular books, The Corner Stone, which was featured in Jacksonian Miscellanies, Issue #4: February 4, 1997 "School Days", and Issue #70: September 22, 1998 "Revival (In the Old Sense) at Amherst".

In 1828 or 29, he founded the Mount Vernon School, an important early effort at providing substantial education for women.  In 1836, he wrote the work represented here, The Teacher: Moral Influences Employed in the Instruction and Government of the Young (online at http://www.umdl.umich.edu/cgi-bin/moa/sgml/moa-idx?notisid=AJB2427, as part of the wonderful Making of America web project - http://www.umdl.umich.edu/moa/).  In it, Abbott delicately dissects unproductive attitudes that many teachers had (especially in this period when so many were teaching who never thought of that as a career), and attempts to provide the key to making teaching effective and pleasurable.

He wrote over 200 books, 28 of them in the Rollo series of children's books, which apparently still had a considerable reputation in the 1930s, when the Dict. of Am. Biog. was written. In the second, printed in 1835, Rollo Learning to Read, Abbott expresses his philosophy of how children's textbooks should be written:

"The difficulty with most books intended for children just learning to read, is, that the writers make so much effort to confine themselves to words of one syllable, that the style is quaint and uninteresting, and often far more unintelligible  than the usual language would be. The  author's design here has been, first to interest  the little reader, hoping, by this interest, to  allure him on to the encounter of the  difficulties in the language, and to the  conquest of them. Hence the more difficult  words and phrases, in common use, are not  avoided, for the very object of such a reading book should be to teach the use of them.  They are freely introduced, and rendered
intelligible by being placed in striking  connections, and familiar, by being frequently
repeated. by a wonderful provision in the  structure of the mind, children thirst for
repetition;--the very thing essential to give  security and permanence to the knowledge
they acquire.

"The subjects of the articles, accordingly, and  the method of treating them, are in the
highest degree juvenile. But the language is  mature. For it is language which we wish to  teach them, and consequently we must keep,  in language, a little above them, advancing  continually ourselves, as they advance."

But now it's time to get to what he had to say to teachers.




A most singular contrariety of opinion prevails in the community in regard to the pleasantness of the business of teaching.

Some teachers go to their daily task merely upon compulsion; they regard it as intolerable drudgery. Others love the work: they hover around the school-room as long as they can, and never cease to think, and seldom to talk, of their delightful labors.

Unfortunately, there are too many of the former class, and the first object which, in this work, I shall attempt to accomplish, is to show my readers, especially those who have been accustomed to look upon the business of teaching as a weary and heartless toil, how it happens that it is, in any case, so pleasant. The human mind is always essentially the same. That which is tedious and joyless to one, will be so to another, if pursued in the same way, and under the same circumstances. And teaching, if it is pleasant, animating, and exciting to one, may be so to all.

I am met, however, at the outset, in my effort to show why it is that teaching is ever a pleasant work, by the want of a name for a certain faculty or capacity of the human mind, through which most of the enjoyment of teaching finds its avenue. Every mind is so constituted as to take a positive pleasure in the exercise of ingenuity in adapting means to an end, and in watching the operation of them -- in accomplishing by the intervention of instruments what we could not accomplish without -- in devising (when we see an object to be effected which is too great for our direct and immediate power) and setting at work some instrumentality which may be sufficient to accomplish it.

It is said that when the steam-engine was first put into operation, such was the imperfection of the machinery, that a boy was necessarily stationed at it to open and shut alternately the cock by which the steam was now admitted and now shut out from the cylinder. One such boy, after patiently doing his work for many days, contrived to connect this stop-cock with some of the moving parts of the engine by a wire, in such a manner that the engine itself did the work which had been intrusted to him; and after seeing that the whole business would go regularly forward, he left the wire in charge, and went away to play.

Such is the story. Now if it is true, how much pleasure the boy must have experienced in devising and witnessing the successful operation of his scheme. I do not mean the pleasure of relieving himself from a dull and wearisome duty; I do not mean the pleasure of anticipated play; but I mean the strong interest he must have taken in contriving and executing his plan. When, wearied out with his dull, monotonous work, he first noticed those movements of the machinery which he thought adapted to his purpose, and the plan flashed into his mind, how must his eye have brightened, and how quick must the weary listlessness of his employment have vanished. While he was maturing his plan and carrying it into execution -- while adjusting his wires, fitting them to the exact length and to the exact position -- and especially when, at last, he began to watch the first successful operation of his contrivance, he must have enjoyed a pleasure which very few even of the joyous sports of childhood could have supplied.

It is not, however, exactly the pleasure of exercising ingenuity in contrivance that I refer to here; for the teacher has not, after all, a great deal of absolute contriving to do, or, rather, his principal business is not contriving. The greatest and most permanent source of pleasure to the boy, in such a case as I have described, is his feeling that he is accomplishing a great effect by a slight effort of his own; the feeling of power; acting through the intervention of instrumentality, so as to multiply his power. So great would be this satisfaction, that he would almost wish to have some other similar work assigned him, that he might have another opportunity to contrive some plan for its easy accomplishment.

Looking at an object to be accomplished, or an evil to be remedied, then studying its nature and extent, and devising and executing some means for effecting the purpose desired, is, in all cases, a source of pleasure; especially when, by the process, we bring to view or into operation new powers, or powers heretofore hidden, whether they are our own powers, or those of objects upon which we act. Experimenting has a sort of magical fascination for all. Some do not like the trouble of making preparations, but all are eager to see the results. Contrive a new machine, and every body will be interested to witness or to hear of its operation. Develop any heretofore unknown properties of matter, or secure some new useful effect from laws which men have not hitherto employed for their purposes, and the interest of all around you will be excited to observe your results; and, especially, you will yourself take a deep and permanent pleasure in guiding and controlling the power you have thus obtained.

This is peculiarly the case with experiments upon mind, or experiments for producing effects through the medium of voluntary acts of others, making it necessary that the contriver should take into consideration the laws of mind in forming his plans. To illustrate this by rather a childish case: I once knew a boy who was employed by his father to remove all the loose small stones, which; from the peculiar nature of the ground, had accumulated in the road before the house. The boy was set at work by his father to take them up, and throw them over into the pasture across the way. He soon got tired of picking up the stones one by one, and so he sat down upon the bank to try to devise some better means of accomplishing his work. He at length conceived and adopted the following plan: He set up in the pasture a narrow board for a target, or, as boys would call it, a mark, and then, collecting all the boys of the neighborhood, he proposed to them an amusement which boys are always ready for -- firing at a mark.

The stones in the road furnished the ammunition, and, of course, in a very short time the road was cleared; the boys working for the accomplishment of their leader's task, when they supposed they were only finding amusement for themselves.

Here, now, is experimenting upon the mind -- the production of useful effect with rapidity and ease by the intervention of proper instrumentality -- the conversion, by means of a little knowledge of human nature, of that which would have otherwise been dull and fatiguing labor into a most animating sport, giving pleasure to twenty instead of tedious labor to one. Now the contrivance and execution of such plans is a source of positive pleasure. It is always pleasant to bring even the properties and powers of matter into requisition to promote our designs; but there is a far higher pleasure in controlling, and guiding, and moulding to our purpose the movements of mind.

It is this which gives interest to the plans and operation of human governments. Governments can, in fact, do little by actual force. Nearly all the power that is held, even by the most despotic executive, must be based on an adroit management of the principles of human nature, so as to lead men voluntarily to co-operate with the leader in his plans. Even an army could not be got into battle, in many cases, without a most ingenious arrangement, by means of which half a dozen men can drive, literally drive, as many thousands into the very face of danger and death. The difficulty of leading men to battle must have been, for a long time, a very perplexing one to generals. It was at last removed by the very simple expedient of creating a greater danger behind than there is before. Without ingenuity of contrivance like this, turning one principle of human nature against another, and making it for the momentary interest of men to act in a given way, no government could stand.

I know of nothing which illustrates more perfectly the way by which a knowledge of human nature is to be turned to account in managing human minds than a plan which was adopted for clearing the galleries of the British House of Commons many years ago, before the present Houses of Parliament were built. There was then, as now, a gallery appropriated to spectators, and it was customary to require these visitors to retire when a vote was to be taken or private business was to be transacted. When the officer in attendance was ordered to clear the gallery, it was sometimes found to be a very troublesome and slow operation; for those who first went out remained obstinately as close to the doors as possible, so as to secure the opportunity to come in again first when the doors should be re-opened. The consequence was, there was so great an accumulation around the doors outside, that it was almost impossible for the crowd to get out. The whole difficulty arose from the eager desire of every one to remain as near as possible to the door, through which they were to come back again. Notwithstanding the utmost efforts of the officers, fifteen minutes were sometimes consumed in effecting the object, when the order was given that the spectators should retire.

The whole difficulty was removed by a very simple plan. One door only was opened when the crowd was to retire, and they were then admitted, when the gallery was opened again, through the other. The consequence was, that as soon as the order was given to clear the galleries, every one fled as fast as possible through the open door around to the one which was closed, so as to be ready to enter first, when that, in its turn, should be opened. This was usually in a few minutes, as the purpose for which the spectators were ordered to retire was in most cases simply to allow time for taking a vote.

Here it will be seen that, by the operation of a very simple plan, the very eagerness of the crowd to get back as soon as possible, which had been the sole cause of the difficulty, was turned to account most effectually to the removal of it. Before, the first that went out were so eager to return, that they crowded around the door of egress in such a manner as to prevent others going out; but by this simple plan of ejecting them by one door and admitting them by another, that very eagerness made them clear the passage at once, and caused every one to hurry away into the lobby the moment the command was given.

The planner of this scheme must have taken great pleasure in witnessing its successful operation; though the officer who should go steadily on, endeavoring to remove the reluctant throng by dint of mere driving, might well have found his task unpleasant. But the exercise of ingenuity in studying the nature of the difficulty with which a man has to contend, and bringing in some antagonist principle of human nature to remove it, or, if not an antagonist principle, a similar principle, operating, by a peculiar arrangement of circumstances, in an antagonist manner, is always pleasant. From this source a large share of the enjoyment which men find in the active pursuits of life has its origin.

The teacher has the whole field which this subject opens fully before him. He has human nature to deal with most directly. His whole work is one of experimenting upon mind; and the mind which is before him to be the subject of his operation is exactly in the state to be most easily and pleasantly operated upon. The reason now why some teachers find their work delightful, and some find it wearisomeness and tedium itself, is that some do and some do not take this view of the nature of it. One instructor is like the engine-boy, turning, without cessation or change, his everlasting stop-cock, in the same ceaseless, mechanical, and monotonous routine. Another is like the little workman in his brighter moments, arranging his invention, and watching with delight the successful and easy accomplishment of his wishes by means of it. One is like the officer, driving by vociferations, and threats, and demonstrations of violence, the spectators from the galleries. The other like the shrewd contriver, who converts the very desire to return, which was the sole cause of the difficulty, to a most successful and efficient means of its removal.

These principles show how teaching may, in some cases, be a delightful employment, while in others its tasteless dullness is interrupted by nothing but its perplexities and cares. The school-room is in reality a little empire of mind. If the one who presides in it sees it in its true light; studies the nature and tendency of the minds which he has to control; adapts his plans and his measures to the laws of human nature, and endeavors to accomplish his purposes for them, not by mere labor and force, but by ingenuity and enterprise, he will take pleasure in administering his little government. He will watch, with care and interest, the operation of the moral and intellectual causes which he sets in operation, and find, as he accomplishes his various objects with increasing facility and power, that he will derive a greater and greater pleasure from his work.

Now when a teacher thus looks upon his school as a field in which he is to exercise skill, and ingenuity, and enterprise; when he studies the laws of human nature, and the character of those minds upon which he has to act; when he explores deliberately the nature of the field which he has to cultivate, and of the objects which he wishes to accomplish, and applies means judiciously and skillfully adapted to the object, he must necessarily take a strong interest in his work. But when, on the other hand, he goes to his employment only to perform a certain regular round of daily toil, undertaking nothing and anticipating nothing but this dull and unchangeable routine, and when he looks upon his pupils merely as passive objects of his labors, whom he is to treat with simple indifference while they obey his commands, and to whom he is only to apply reproaches and punishment when they do wrong, such a teacher never can take pleasure in the school. Weariness and dullness must reign in both master and scholars when things, as he imagines, are going right, and mutual anger and crimination when they go wrong.

Scholars never can be successfully instructed by the power of any dull mechanical routine, nor can they be properly governed by the blind, naked strength of the master; such means must fail of the accomplishment of the purposes designed, and consequently the teacher who tries such a course must have constantly upon his mind the discouraging, disheartening burden of unsuccessful and almost useless labor. He is continually uneasy, dissatisfied, and filled with anxious cares, and sources of vexation and perplexity continually arise. He attempts to remove evils by waging against them a useless and most vexatious warfare of threatening and punishment; and he is trying continually to drive, when he might know that neither the intellect nor the heart are capable of being driven.
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