did I acquire the knowledge till, some years subsequently, I took up the matter for myself. How often it is the case in our schools that memory passes for knowledge, leading to the belief that the possessor has mastered a subject, when in fact scarcely an inkling of it is obtained! They make admirable recitations, but so does a parrot.
It may be said that, although at the time a subject is not understood by the child, the memorizing of the words in which the details of it are expressed helps him in after-life to comprehend it. This I am sure is erroneous. The exact language used is of no consequence; time is wasted in acquiring it—time that might be much more profitably employed in obtaining ideas. And very often it happens, from the inability of the compilers of school-books to write good English, that the words used are not such as best express the idea sought to be conveyed, and indeed are sometimes altogether wrong. Thus, for instance, in a recently published history of the United States "pyrites" is defined as "a yellowish mineral of no value, but from its likeness to gold sometimes mistaken for it." This is almost as bad as the definition of crab given by the French academicians as "a small red fish, which goes backward." As Cuvier remarked, this is correct, except in three respects—a crab is not red, it is not a fish, and it does not go backward. In the same book "knighthood" is defined as "a rank in nobility." Such errors as these, as I have ascertained by inquiring, are not corrected by the teachers.
The "cramming" process not only results in injuring the brain, but it tends to give only superficial ideas of many subjects instead of a thorough knowledge of a few. It is greatly to the detriment of society that it should contain, as it does, a large proportion of persons who have imbibed a superficial acquaintance with branches of learning that, in the ordinary courses of their lives, they are not likely to make use of. As remarked by General Fry, in his admirable address, a few days ago, before the Military Service Institution, they are often tempted to employ their acquirements in the perpetration of crimes requiring some, though perhaps very slight, scientific knowledge, and again in concealing the evidence of their unlawful acts. It is very certain that such crimes were never so common as at the present day, when almost every person has at least a smattering knowledge of physics, chemistry, and toxicology.
The men and women who have made the most of themselves are those who have begun to study hard after they have reached adult life, when the brain and nervous system have more nearly arrived at their fully developed stage. It is true that the world has seen many geniuses, who have taken their education into their own hands, regardless of schools and teachers; but mankind is not made up of geniuses. I doubt if there be a single one in any school in the city of New York, and therefore in a paper like this it is not necessary to take them into consideration.