William Hawley Smith.

Walks abroad and talks about them online

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suit of clothes, he measured me up one side and down the
other, as smart as you please, calling out the inches and
fractions of an inch, of each measurement in a good round
tone, while his clerk wrote all these numbers down in a
book, where they are, even unto this day, showing just
what manner of man I am, so far as size and shape are
concerned, beyond all question or cavil.

We lost some freight, some time since, and asked the
railroad company to look it up for us. So they sent out
a "tracer" for the goods — that is, a letter, that should fol-
low along the same route that the goods were supposed
to have traveled. This letter went, first, to the freight
office from which the goods were originally shipped.
The agent there referred to his record regarding this par-
ticular package of merchandise. He found that he had
received it from the transfer company, and had billed it
out, on a certain train, to a certain station where it was to
be transferred to another line of road. That cleared his
skirts. Then he wrote a letter to the agent at the station
where the package was to have been transferred, described
the goods, told what train they were shipped on, and
asked him to show up what he knew about them. This
agent referred to his record, found out what disposition he
had made of the package, and so on ; till, finally, the
goods were found and laid down at their proper desti-

I saw a drug clerk fill out a prescription, aot long ago


and I noticed that he followed the doctor's written direc-
tions, explicitly; and when he had the mixture com-
pounded, he filed the original prescription, which was
numbered to correspond with the label on the bottle, on
a hook, where if could be referred to, years hence, if
need be.

And when I went to my dentist with a tooth which was
giving me trouble, and which I assured him he had filled
some years before, he astonished me by turning to a
record of the work he had done for me for the past ten
years, and, to use the vernacular, this particular tooth
"wasn't in it" at all. The simple truth was that I was
mistaken, and had forgotten that it was a dentist a thou-
sand miles from here who filled the molar that was now
giving offense.

Once I was in the office of the Youth's Companion and
the manager kindly showed me how they handle their
voluminous mail (thousands of letters a day), with so
much ease and accuracy. Thus, the letters are all opened
by a clerk whose particular business is to do just this
work. He makes a hasty glance at the contents of each
letter, and long practice has enabled him to determine
unerringly, and with great despatch, the proper depart-
ment to which each one should be referred. This done,
he puts his stamp upon the document, showing that it
has been through his hands and referred, and deposits it
in some one of several baskets that are ranged about him,
each basket holding letters for a separate department.
The contents of these baskets are carried to their several de-
partments and there disposed of by the various clerks in
those departments. Every clerk who has anything
whatever to do with any letter that comes into his or
her hands puts his mark and memorandum on the same,
for future reference, if such should ever be required.


When all is done, the letter is filed where it can readily
be referred to, and on its blank spaces there is a zurit-
ten record of every one's hands it has passed through,
and just what each one has done. If there is ever
any trouble, if a mistake has been made, anywhere,
it is an easy matter to trace the whole business up,
and find out just who it was that made the error,
and what the error was that was made. All such errors
are charged, up to the clerks who make them, and
on this record clerks are promoted or deposed. Those
who make few mistakes go up; those who blunder
go down — and out, if the same thing happens more than
a fixed number of times.

Now what I started out io say was, that in all these
instances that I have cited, there isn't as much memory
work, all put together, as is given the average' pupil in our
public schools any half day in the year. In a word, in the
business world it is a fundamental principle not to try to
remember anything. And this means, I take it, that ex-
perience has demonstrated the fact that the memory is such a
treacherous faculty that it is not at all to be relied upon for
exact data regarding the things that are past.

And yet, to what infinite lengths of labor do our
schools and colleges go to "develop the memory." The
question I wish to raise is, is the game worth the candle?
Is this faculty of the human mind of enough importance
to have three-fourths of all the time spent in school de-
voted to its "development"? And, more than all, does
the titanic strain that is put upon the memory by all our
school courses — does this tend to strengthen that faculty;
or, rather, does it not tend to deplete it? To a considera-
tion of this question, " let facts be submitted to a candid

And to get such submission of facts, oh my dear

24 Walks abroad.

reader, all you have to do is to get inside of yourself^ and
take a memory-invoice of what stock of that sort you
have on hand at this day and date. That will tell the
story, so far as you are concerned; and to you, that is
better than the testimony of ten thousand other folks.
So get at it now, and see how it comes out in your case.

And, first, was the game worth the candle, so far as
you are concerned? Did you get net results from burn-
ing the midnight oil, while you strove to meinorize the
area and population of each state in the union, to say
nothing of the rivers, lakes, mountains, towns, cities, and
what not; from getting lists of dates so that you could
say them backwards or forwards or "skipping around;"
from learning atomic weights and combining numbers so
that you could say them without the book ; frorh getting
all the grammar rules so that you could repeat them,
every one, in order ; or from saying over punctuation
rules, which you never did see any sense in, and never
could apply — I say, out of all this monstrous mass of
^memory work that you did in school, have you ever got
enough to pay you for all the time and trouble you went
to, to get good enough marks out of it all to graduate on ?
How is it ?

I have figured the thing through, in my own case, and
have "got the answer." I won't ask you to memorize it,
but I will write it down, right here, where you can refer to
it any time you want to. And this it is : // did not
pay me.

And I do not say this unadvisedly. Look at it in any
way I may, the result is the same. If I say, " How much
of this matter, that I strove so hard to memorize while a
student in school, have I had occasion to use since I left
school ?" I am appalled at the paucity of opportunities
for the utilization of what I worked so diligently to get.


And if I ask, " How much of what I could then recite
without the book do I still hold in my memory ?" I am
startled at the percentage of loss.

Why, I cannot now give the area or population of a
single state in the Union, though I learned them all,
thoroughly, twenty-five years ago. And as for historic
dates, atomic weights, punctuation rules, and the whole
line of similar things that I sat up, night after night, to
learn, they are a blank to me now — an utter blank.

But what do I care for that ? There is a cyclopedia
over there on the shelf (I can almost reach it without
getting out of my chair, as I write), and it holds all these
things without an effort — keeps them ready and waiting
for me, whenever I have occasion to use them. And so,
if I want to know the area of New York, or the popu-
lation of California, all I have to do is to turn to the page,
and, there you are! Right, too. No guess-work. No " I
think it is," or " as I remember it." Nothing of that
sort, but good, honest figures, that time will not blot out
or get mixed up.

And there is the chemistry over there, and here are
the histories (oh, how easy it is for them to hold those
dates, thousands of them ; and what delight it is to me to
go and find them, just right, when I want them). And
the grammar and punctuation-book — though, to be honest,
I never do refer to that. I learned to punctuate after I
got out of school; in such an easy way, too, and wholly
without that book. I was talking, one evening, with a
friend, and he said : " The way to learn to punctuate is
to punctuate." " But," I said, " I can't. I don't know
how. I studied the art for six months, in school ; but,
somehow, I can't do anything at it." " Well," said he,
"I will tell you how to learn to punctuate. Notice, care-
fully, how the articles you read in any good magazine, or


metropolitan newspaper, are punctuated, and stop your
reading every once in a while, and ask yourself why any
given sentence is punctuated as it is, and you will be sur-
prised to find how soon you will learn to punctuate well."

And I did as he told me, and I found it to be even as
he had said. And I see no good reason why my teacher
in punctuation could not have used a sensible method of
this sort, and taught me punctuation so that I could punc-
tuate, instead of spending the time trying to develope my
memory by making me learn punctuation rules and ex-
ceptions — largely exceptions — that I didn't understand
and never could apply ! So, I never refer to the punc-

But I do refer to nearly all the other books in my
library, as I have need. Occasionally I turn the pages of
some old school book, for reference, but I am sure I could
do it equally well now, even if I had not been forced to
memorize the tvhole volume when a student.

No ! to my mind our schools are all wrong in giving
their pupils so much memory work, and I am certain that
their so doing does not strengthen the memory nor culti-
vate the mind. On the other hand, I am convinced that
it debilitates the mnemonic faculty and tends to stupify
the intellect.

It is a well recognized principle in physiology that if
you overtax an organ you thereby weaken it. We over-
burden the memories of our pupils, and thereby weaken
that faculty in them. We give them such memory-loads
to carry that they cannot stand up under them, and so
they throw them off at the very first chance they can get.
All they try to do is to hold on to the matter until they
can pass an examination in it, and then they let it all slip;
as, surely, they are obliged to do, to make room for a new
load. And so it is that they fallinto the habit of forgetting


rather than renievibering — an outcome which is the very
reverse of wliat was promised — and paid for !

Just here I got to v/ondering how it happens that our
schools have fallen into such abnormal ways of teaching,
and here is what'has come to me about it. I wonder if
this predominance of memory-work in our schools is not
a direct descendent from the methods used in the days
wlien there zvere no books / In those times the only way in
which the knowledge of one could be made available by
another was for that other to remember it. The only way
for the pupil to acquire the knowledge which the teacher
had to impart was to commit it to memory, and the only
way the teacher could know that his pupil had acquired
what he had imparted was to test his memory about it.

And this is how " exavisP came into being. They
were all right and proper in their time, and, as such, they
took rank and place in an educational system. But when
the era of books came, they became antiquated methods,
and would long ago have been dropped, but for the per-
sistence of habit. What a powerful force habit is !

Well, if these things are so (and I see no good reason
to doubt them), it is perfectly clear that we ought to let
up, greatly, on the memory work that is now doing in our

"But," some one says, "didn't Edward Everett get
so that he could read a newspaper through, and then fold
it up and recite every word that it contained ? and could
not Prof. Watson recite a full table of logarithms, true to
six places, without ever referring to a book ? etc., and so
on to the end of the chapter. Yes, verily, these men
could do these things; and "Uncle Dick" Oglesby can,
to this day, call by his first name every man in the one
hundred and two counties in Illinois that he has ever been
introduced to ; and I know a man who can charm birds,


and nearly all other animals — make them do almost any-

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Online LibraryWilliam Hawley SmithWalks abroad and talks about them → online text (page 2 of 16)