Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 2/The student: his health

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Once a Week, Series 1, Volume II (1859-1860)
The student. His health
by Harriet Martineau
2656606Once a Week, Series 1, Volume II — The student. His health
1859-1860Harriet Martineau


How much truth is there in the popular notion of the effects of a student life? The ordinary conception of “a bookworm” (as every man is liable to be called whose life is spent amongst books) is of an uncomfortable-looking personage who cannot hold up his head, nor tread firmly, nor see a yard before him. His limbs are lank: his hair is limp: his shoulders are shelves to hold dust: his head droops forward: his face works nervously in conversation: there is scarcely anything that he can digest: he is disconcerted if any visitor, any news, or household incidents break in upon his habits and his plans. Nothing seems to him worth such a sacrifice; for he has long been convinced that nothing in the world is of so much consequence as the particular subject which occupies him: and it follows of course that to obstruct his labours upon it is to do the greatest possible injury to the world. If he is married, it is a mistake; for he gives his wife only the second place in his heart after his books; and the children are very disturbing little people. If he is too much absorbed to hear their voices in play or in grief, they may jog his chair, or even shake the room; and no bookworm can stand that. If they are ever so well disciplined, they are occasionally ill; or one may even die—and that is a painful and irresistible interruption. I need say no more. A mere outline will call up the image of the recluse student, as it is presented to the minds of the practical people of everyday life.

“Is it true?” is the first question. Yes, it is. For ages there have been such persons; and there are such at this moment. We may comfort ourselves with the certainty that the number diminishes; and at present so rapidly, that we may fairly hope that a true specimen of the bookworm will soon be a subject of investigation as interesting as the dodo in Madagascar—setting naturalists to work to ascertain whether a known specimen is really the last of its species.

The next question is, Why we may expect the species to die out? And this involves the fundamental inquiry of all, How such a thing came to exist?

The bookworm is a transformation from the proper type of man, wrought by the too strong action of some law of nature, in the exclusion of other laws which it is a folly and a crime to evade. In the course of the education of the human race, there must be a period during which books must have a higher value than they can have in the long run: and during that period, there must be men who overrate the value of books in general, and sacrifice themselves individually to the worship of some particular class of them. Such a period must necessarily occur before men understand their own nature and position well enough to perceive how they may make the best use of books, as of everything else; that is, as means and not as an end. During the bookish ages which originated and followed the invention of printing, men were unaware that the brain is the organ by which “we live and move and have our being;” and that no part of it (and therefore of our frame) can work as well as it might do unless the whole is exercised sufficiently for its health. Our growing knowledge and understanding of the structure and functions of the brain, and of the laws of health generally, is our security against a perpetual succession of bookworms. We may hope that intemperance in study will in time become rare, like other kinds of intemperance which we believe that men will outgrow, sooner or later. For some time past we have been accustomed to look into Germany for perfect specimens of the bookworm; yet even in Germany there is a strong conviction of the value of schools of physical training, in counteraction of the tendencies of study. This is right: for Germany has afforded the richest specimen perhaps of the bookworm in modern times; and to balance this, it is fair that she should furnish founders of gymnasia, at home and abroad. Eichhorn is one of the latest examples we have of the recluse student of the bookish ages of the world. If I remember right, he lived for twenty-five years shut up in his study, never crossing the threshold (except, I suppose, to go to bed), and never having worn coat or shoes during that time. If ever seen at all, he was seen in gown and slippers. One would like to know how many human faces he did see—how many voices of his own kind he heard during those years. With all his learning, he certainly missed the great truth that the man who makes no use of his environment lives but half a life, or more probably scarcely anything of a life at all, but rather a waking dream.

What, then, is the student to do? There must be men whose business lies in the library and at the desk. Such men are honoured by the wise, and most honoured by the wisest. Is this really an unfortunate destiny?

Not if they are wise. Not if they are aware that to exercise their limbs and senses, to cultivate their social faculties, and to lay a firm grasp on some practical business in life, is the true way to get the greatest value out of book-study. It is not necessary for them, any more than for other people, to be always thinking about their health, and consulting their own welfare. That is in itself a morbid habit. What they have to do is to plan their ordinary life in obedience to the laws of nature, as far as circumstances admit; and then they are free to think no more about it.

Such a plan is something like this,—proceeding on what we know of the differences of sleep in the light and in the dark; of the condition of the brain at different periods of the day; of the relation between the stomach and the brain, and generally of the animal functions and the brain; and, again, of the relation between the man altogether and the objects and influences which surround him.

The student should rise early. To my mind, after careful observation, and after a long experience, the thing is proved. It is the fashion now to say, that early rising might be wise and pleasant in former states of society, but that our existing social habits make it disagreeable and pernicious, if not impracticable. I am not writing for members of parliament, nor for people who pay visits every night. The great majority of Englishmen, and I suppose all students, have the power of arranging their own day, and obeying the laws of nature in the disposition of it. If I had room, I should like to give some account of the results of philosophical observation in regard to the quality of sleep in daylight compared with that of the dark hours. The differences in regard to the circulation and the action of the brain are very marked—the indications being in favour of sleeping in the dark hours.

It is of great importance to persons of sedentary occupations to obtain brisk exercise as the first act of the day. Whether it shall be walking, or some vigorous exercise at home, is a matter of choice; but a man will study all the better after breakfast for having cheered his spirits, and quickened his circulation by a walk; and I will add, by what some people would call an unpleasant one. I speak from experience here. For thirty years my business has lain in my study. The practice of early rising was, I am confident, the grand preservative of health, through many years of hard work—the hours gained being given, not to book or pen, but to activity. I rose at six, summer and winter; and (after cold bathing) went out for a walk in all weathers. In the coldest season, on the rainiest morning, I never returned without being glad that I went. I need not detail the pleasures of the summer mornings. In winter, there was either a fragment of gibbous moon hanging over the mountain, or some star quivering in the river, or icicles beginning to shine in the dawn, or, at worst, some break in the clouds, some moss on the wall, some gleam on the water, which I carried home in the shape of refreshment. I breakfasted at half-past seven, and had settled household business and was at my work by half-past eight, fortified for seven hours’ continuous desk-work, without injury or fatigue.

The bookworm makes no choice of hours for his studies. He begins when he gets up, and leaves off when he goes to bed. More moderate students will do well to choose the morning hours for study. I believe they are all well aware of this, though many excuse their practice of night study by the ordinary pleas of quietness and a supposed favourable state of brain. If we do not question their assertions, we have the strong ground for remonstrance that they are sacrificing duration to quality at a tremendous rate. They will lose more by injuring their nerves, sleep, and digestion by night study, than they can possibly gain by any supposed aptitude in the brain for the labours of the lamp. I am myself convinced that the brain is more obedient to wise calls upon it than we are accustomed to suppose. I am confident that a vast amount of energy, thought, and time is wasted in fastidious consultation of the brain’s likings; and that men who make their brain their servant, instead of their master, may train it to punctuality and obedience. The way to obtain the needful “inspiration” for writing, and clearness for reading, is surely not to question whether it is there, or whether it is coming, but to sit down in confidence that it must come, if the faculties and feelings which accompany it are put in action. If the student is out of order,—if his digestion is wrong—if his feelings are agitated, or he is benumbed by want of exercise—then, of course, he must betake himself to the best means of setting himself right. In his normal condition, however, he will find the fresh, strong, light hours of morning the most favourable to close attention, vigorous thought, and unfaltering achievement. Such is, I believe, the testimony of those who have tried whether or not the hours of vigour are best suited to the primary task of the day.

It is scarcely necessary to point out the familiar danger of night study: the recourse to stimulants or sedatives to force the brain action or compose the nerves. The dismal story of the intemperance of students is too well known to need to be dwelt on here. We have heard enough of strong coffee, of green tea, of wine, of tobacco, of opium, and even, as in Mrs. Elizabeth Carter’s case, of wet towels round the head, to keep the faculties awake. Mrs. Elizabeth Carter’s recompense for such inveterate study was a besetting, maddening head-ache, frequently recurring for the rest of her life. I have never forgotten a dismal spectacle that I saw, and some pathetic words that were uttered, when I was sitting, in 1834, beside Kosciusko’s monument on the Hudson River.

Two students of the West Point Military Academy were telling me about their college-life, in which very hard study was required. Both were thin and pale, and both obviously accustomed to tobacco-chewing. One walked a few paces away to look for the approaching steamboat, when the other made some remark which justified me in asking whether his health would not be better for abstinence from the juice which showed itself at the corners of his mouth. He assented instantly and heartily.

He said it was a dreadful bondage; it was wearing out his stomach and ruining his nerves; he would give all he had in the world, and undergo any suffering, to get rid of the curse he had taken upon himself in mere imitation on entering the college; but he “could not afford it now.” He could not study without it; it would take him a fortnight to learn to study without it, and the loss of a fortnight would prevent him from passing in his year, and would injure his prospects for life.

What became of him I never knew; but the one certain thing about him was, that he had not nerves which could be expected to stand the stress of life for its ordinary term.

There are physicians who are much to blame in the counsel they give to persons who place themselves under artificial conditions for the sake of study.

When I was young, and under a course of hard literary work, a physician said to me one day in my study:

“You have a convenient cupboard there, at your elbow. You ought to keep a bottle of hock and a glass there (I would not recommend an alcoholic-wine). You should help yourself with a glass of hock when you feel exhausted—say, by eleven o’clock at night, or when you feel a sinking.”

“No, I thank you,” said I. “If I begin with a glass by myself, will you warrant my not getting on to a bottle? Cold water is my restorative; only that I never want one, beyond regular meals.”

What would not a physician have had to answer for who should have advised the West Point student to chew tobacco? And how much less rash is it to recommend a recourse to wine in solitude, as a consequence of preceding intemperance in study? If some physicians were more careful in their advice, no one perhaps could say, as a London literary clergyman said to me twenty years ago,—that he did not know one single author except our two selves who did not resort habitually to some sort of stimulant or sedative,—strong coffee or tea, snuff, wine, or spirits, or opium in some form,—as a necessity of student life. We may hope that the intervening twenty years have made a great difference; but the true preventive—muscular exercise, securing good digestion and circulation—is not nearly so much valued as it will be hereafter.

Here comes in the question, how much of the day may be given to study—book and pen-work—without injury to health?

It would be absurd to offer any precise answer to this, because much depends on individual constitution and intellectual habit, and much more on the way in which the rest of the day is spent.

As to the constitutional and habitual differences—we have seen how Eichhorn lived; and a good many scholars have approached very near to him in devotion to books. Dr. Chalmers tried, above a quarter of a century since, to induce me to promise that I would not write, nor study, more than two hours per day. He said, he had tried various proportions; and that he was satisfied nobody could write or study more without injury. He was right to confine himself to that limit, under such an experience: but the case might be, and is, very different to others. I had to reply to a similar remark from Dr. Channing afterwards. He was about to write an essay when I was his guest in Rhode Island, and he told me that he could not keep well enough to write at all if he did not stop at the end of every hour, and walk round the garden or converse with the family. I could not promise what either adviser wished, for the fact is, I have never felt seven or eight hours’ continuous work too much; and moreover have always found that, up to this limit, each hour was worth about two of the preceding. It is a matter in which no one can lay down a rule for another. Due provision being made for the exercise of other faculties than those engaged in study, the student must decide for himself how soon he ought to quit his desk.

The preliminary arrangements are very simple. Good meals at moderate intervals, and the stomach left at rest between. Some interval—an interval of active exercise is best—between books and food. A leisure hour for dinner, and cheerful conversation after it. A short nap, for those who need or like it, after dinner. Light occupation in the evening—literature, or correspondence, with more or less social intercourse, music, or other recreation. These are each and all highly desirable; but the most indispensable of all is strenuous and varied bodily exercise.

Many men believe, even now, that they are fully discharging their duty by quitting their books an hour or so before dinner; buttoning up their coat, taking their umbrella, and going forth for a constitutional walk. A man who goes out in this way, alone, along a familiar stretch of road, and unable to escape from the same thoughts he has been engaged with all the morning, had really better be asleep at home. His brain would get more varied action by sleep than by such exercise as this.

A man who does nothing more or better than this for his muscles, and the part of the brain which is appropriate to them, will find but few dinners which he can digest. He must not touch this or that which he sees other people enjoying. After dinner he cannot sit upright or get any ease for hours. He craves an easy chair or a sofa; and if they relieve his back, there is still the miserable uneasy stomach,—the headache, the spell of troubled and anxious sleep. Then tea and coffee make him sleepless; yet he does not know how to do without them. Then follows the night, with nightmare, fearful dreams, intellectual labour without any fruit but nonsense; or a leaden sleep which portends a morrow lost for study, or strongly unfavourable to it. What moral trials attend a suffering of this kind I need not show.

All considerate and good-natured people are ready to make allowance for the moods and tempers of a dyspeptic man; but the most generous treatment cannot give him self-respect under his frailties, nor such affection from those about him as is enjoyed by the amiable and cheerful friend who is not at the mercy of his own moods.

It is now the middle-aged student only (or chiefly) who can do nothing for exercise but walk. Boys and young men can either ride or row, or play cricket or fives. Those who cannot may derive much increased benefit from their walks, if the exercise is not expressly one merely for health’s sake, but for some ulterior object; and if the object be benevolent the gain is great. Active business is a good antagonism to close study; and if the business be in the service of others, so much the more complete is the truce to besetting thoughts.

Nothing is so beneficial as the combination of muscular exercise with social enjoyment. “What does that mean?” some may ask.—“Dancing? Running races? Hunting? These are not at command, or are incompatible with a day’s study.”

Certainly they are. But we now have means of physical training in which exercise of the most exhilarating kind may be taken in company with comrades. I do not mean volunteer rifle-corps—in the first place—though they are admirable for the purpose. Some preparation for that drill is necessary, if not for all the members, for those of them whose employments are sedentary, and especially for students. A student, accustomed to a daily constitutional walk, joins a corps with all possible willingness, with good walking power, perhaps, and intelligence which gives him quickness and readiness; but his arms fail him altogether. Having wielded nothing but the pen (except his knife and fork) he is confounded by the impossibility of handling his rifle. He does not see what he can do but give it up altogether. There is a remedy, however, if he lives within reach of a gymnasium such as several of our towns are now supplied with. We ought to have one in every place where any sort of education is provided for: for physical education is of at least as much consequence as anything that is taught in our schools. Under the instruction of a master of physical exercise, the weak part of any man’s anatomy may be brought up to an equality with the rest in a very short time.

The blessing to Oxford men of the great gymnasium there—the best in the kingdom, if not in Europe—is altogether inestimable. It is a resource which has restored health to many a man too old to begin learning the sports of the undergraduates. It has made the middle-aged man feel his youth renewed by giving him the full use of his muscles again—perhaps a fuller use than he ever had in his life.

One of the most striking evidences of Mr. McLaren’s science and skill in physical-training is the benefit he renders to children, on the one hand, and elderly men on the other. Many boys at our public schools are injured by the violent exercises to which they are tempted there,—the long and desperate running especially. In the holidays they are taken to Oxford, and put under Mr. McLaren, who at once discovers the seat of the mischief, and soon and infallibly redresses the balance of the muscular action. And so also with his oldest pupils. He measures the chest, he detects the enfeebled muscle, and by gentle and appropriate exercises strengthens the weak part, till the spindle-arms become muscular, the chest expands, the back becomes straight, with the head properly set on the top of it; there is an end of the need of easy-chair and sofa after meals; nothing comes amiss at dinner, and there is no indigestion to make it remembered afterwards.

Mr. McLaren’s pupils have lately expressed their gratitude to him by a splendid gift of plate, and words of strong acknowledgment. His best services of all will have been the establishment of scientific physical training among us, if his Oxford pupils will exert themselves in their respective future homes to promote the opening of a gymnasium in every place where men have not the full natural training of diversified country sports.

So much for the physical life of the student. But the completest prudence in regard to daily habits of food, sleep, exercise, and study, may be baffled by deficient discipline in another direction. It is commonly observed and agreed upon that the most amiable, equable, cheerful-tempered class of men in society are the scientific men, and especially the naturalists; while, on the other hand, the most irritable and uncertain are first the artists, and next the literary people. If this is true, more or less, the reasons are sufficiently obvious. Scientific men, whose business lies among the tangible facts of the universe, have the combined advantages of intellectual exercise and a constant grasp of realities; whereas the artists—though they partly share the same advantage—are under special liabilities from the exercise of the imagination for purposes of mere representation, and from tho inevitable mingling of self-regards with their labours. The literary men have to deal with words, and with the abstractions of things, instead of with things themselves; and there is easy opportunity and strong temptation to implicate egotism with their work.

When naturalists get into controversy they arc sometimes as irritable as literary men: and when men of letters are engaged on great questions, and pass beyond considerations of self, they may be as gay and placid as the happiest savant. It is unnecessary to say more; for it is clear enough to all eyes that a candid, unselfish temper and well-amused mind tend to good sleep at night, and healthful moods during the hours of study and sociability. If the case is a higher one than this, and the studies are of the lofty kind which relate to the welfare of mankind, or the development of human intellect by the extension of abstract science, the daily life is not only amused but blessed in a very high degree; and the temper and spirits should be so disciplined as to correspond with the privilege. If the half-dwarfed, morbid, egotistical student is one of the most pitiable members of the human family, the well-developed, lofty-minded, calm-tempered enthusiast in the pursuit and propagation of true knowledge, and high literary art, is surely one of the supreme order of men. It can do no harm to any of us, of any class of workers, to mark the extent of the difference between the two.

Harriet Martineau.