Popular Science Monthly/Volume 10/November 1876/Prenatal and Infantile Culture

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TO educate children for themselves is rare in Europe, and is considered rather quixotic. The youth of the people are merchantable commodities, soon to be credited to the party which puts its stamp upon them. Therefore, when they are worth having, they are picked up as eagerly as nuggets. Priests pretend to teach them to think, yet care only to impose upon them a belief which implies obedience to their craft; Kaisers claim their direction, not to elevate them, but to put them among their droves of subjects; bourgeois and manufacturers give them a minimum of instruction, just sufficient to insure their working dependence, and to qualify their own sons to be fed at the public expense; while the working-men themselves—demoralized by such examples—put their apprentices at menial employment, and cheat them out of their rightful technical training.

From this standpoint we consider European children as in four groups: those who receive no education; those who do not receive the education they need; those who receive an education which disqualifies them for work; and those whose education prepares them for work. From another point of view we saw that the European children enter the school younger, are trained longer, and are advanced further, than the Americans. As a consequence of this last contrast, we shall have less to say about the primary and grammar schools, and more about the infantile and the professional. We will leave the other consequences to issue naturally from observation.

1. The Cradle.—At the Vienna Exposition there was a pavilion de l'enfant (infant pavilion), a room replete with the necessaries of the nursery—and also with its superfluities—intended altogether to represent the unbounded wishes of a mother for her baby's comfort and happiness. This palace of luxurious nursing ought, in the estimation of the writer, to have been accompanied by a little manual of what is necessary to protect and to prepare life before nativity, in relation to what may be called fœtal education.

During this first period the feelings come mainly through reflex impressions from the mother, a process which not only lays the foundation of health and vitality, but which forms the deeper strata of the moral dispositions and of the so-called innate ideas. The managers of the world "from behind the screens" know this, for it is at this time that they impose on plebeian women pilgrimages and ecstatic "novenas,"[2] and keep those of a higher class under more stringent impressions. Here, in Vienna, for instance, from the time of the Emperor Charles V. till quite recently, when an heir to the throne was expected, the empress was given in charge of a special director, who would regulate all her actions and surroundings, in view of commencing the course of submissive education of the contingent monarch, as early as the first evolution from the yolk-substance of the human egg during embryogenesis. Similar influence is now claimed for an object diametrically opposed to the degeneracy thus arrived at in the house of Hapsburg. It can be attained by counsels printed either in book-form or on scrolls, as are the sentences of the Koran. But, whatever may be the form given to this magna charta of the rights of the unborn, let it be found precisely where these rights ought to be kept most sacred, in the nursery; where their enforcement would protect the mother and elevate her function, at the same time that it would insure her fruit against the decay resulting from wrong prenatal impressions.

We know that a cold contact with the mother makes the fœtus fly to the antipode of its narrow berth; that a rude shock may destroy it, or originate life-long infirmities; that, the emotion of fear in the mother is terror or fits within; that harsh words vibrate as sensibly in the liquor of the amnion as in the fluid of the labyrinth of the ear. For instance, when a mother has lulled her home-sorrows with strains of soothing music, her child, too often an idiot, shows wonderful musical proclivities amid the wreck of all the other faculties of his mind. For thirty-five years the writer has furnished his share of the facts, which abound in modern books on physiology, in support of this doctrine.

It is useless to give here the illustrations detailed in the report; but experienced physicians will testify that, when their hands receive a new-comer, they plainly read upon his features the dominant feelings and emotions of its mother during that intra-uterine education whose imprints trace the channel of future sympathies and abilities. Therefore, if it is noble work to educate or to cure the insane, the idiot, the hemiplegic, the epileptic, and the choreic, how much higher is the work of preventing these degeneracies in the incipient being, by averting those commotions which storm him in the holy region intended for a terrestrial paradise during the period of evolution! To teach him reverence toward the bearer of his race, to instruct her in the sacredness of bland and serene feelings during the Godlike creative process, is educating two generations at once—this is the highest education of the nursery.

From this, the true cradle of mankind, let us look at that made for the baby. There was no end of cradles in the pavilion de l'enfant; and we may find more philosophy in them than the upholsterer intended to put there. Therein the infant will at first but continue his ovum-life; and for this the cradle must be fitted. Let us see. The head is bent, the extremities are drawn up, and the body shaped like a crescent. This attitude gives to the muscles the greatest relaxation, and to the cartilages, which cap the bones, the position most favorable to nutrition and growth. Generally, the baby rests on the right side, to free the heart from pressure and to facilitate its movements. In this mode of reclining, the left hemi-cerebrum will contain more blood than the right, which is compressed by the pillow. Attitudes concordant with the sleepy habits of the first months, and the activity of the mind during this long sleepiness, indicate the future preponderance of the mental operations of the left over the right side of the brain, the approaching superior nutrition and dexterity of the right over the left hand, and later even the causation of paralysis on the left. For the present, and for some time yet, the infant will live mainly in his sleep; during which, more than when awake, he will be seen angry, smiling, or thinking, even in his well-defined dreams.

How important it is, then, that the cradle be formed in accordance with these natural indications! A transitory abode between the basin and the bed, it should be a warm, soft, yet supporting recipient, ampler than the former, better defined in its shape than the latter, with curves less short than circles, and more varied than ovals. An egg, vertically split, would make two such cradles, or nests, suited either for child or bird.

But as soon as the nursling awakes to the world, and wants to be introduced to everything, his couch must be enlarged and enlivened, and must look more and more like a school and play-room. Otherwise it becomes a prison, whence, Tantalus-like, baby looks at his surroundings. Here is his first lesson of practical sociability. To see, and not be able to reach, to perceive images, with no possibility of seizing the objects, renders him impatient, fretful, or unconcerned, and opens an era of exaction upon others, or of diffidence of himself, or of indifference for any attainment, which unavoidably ends in immorality or incapacity, or in both. Viewed from this standpoint, these cradles, so varied, so elegant, so easy to keep clean, and to carry from the light of the window by day to the recess of the alcove at night—the best being of French and Austrian manufacture—are yet very imperfect in their bearing on education. Let us mark some of their shortcomings.

Little ones have an instinctive horror of isolation. Whoever studies them knows that when they awake they look not, at first, with staring eyes, but with searching hands; they seek not for sights, but for contacts. This love of contact, whence results the primary education of the most general sense, the touch, is ill-satisfied with the uniformity of the materials at hand, as exemplified at Vienna or Paris. (In November last I saw a similar exhibition, a pavilion de l'enfant, in the Champs Élysées, but it was no improvement on that of the Prater.)

In this respect, the child of poor people fares better, having the opportunity of amusing himself for hours in experiencing the rude or soft, warm or cold, contacts of his miscellaneous surroundings; whereas the hand of the offspring of the rich finds all around the sameness of smooth tissues, which awake in his mind no curiosity; he calls for some one to amuse him, gets first angry, then indifferent, and does not improve the main and surest sense of knowledge, his touch.

But soon other senses are awakened: audition—of which hereafter—and vision, for the enjoyment of which the cradle becomes a kind of theatre. For a mother must be very destitute or despondent who does not try to enliven it with some bright things laid on, or flapping above. One may benevolently smile at the extravagancies of colors and patterns intended to express this feeling, but these exaggerations must also give a serious warning.

Physiologically viewed, this is a grave matter. The form of the cradle demands fitness; its ornamentation requires a more extended knowledge. When planning it, a mother must remember that the fixity of the eye upon any object—particularly upon a bright one, and more so if that object is situated upward and sideways from the ordinary range of vision—and through the eye the fixedness of the mind while the body is in a state of repose, constitute a concurrence of conditions eminently favorable to the production of hypnotism, and its terrible sequels, strabismus and convulsions. Hypnotism, which, when unsuspected, is not controlled, is often mistaken for tranquil happiness or natural sleep.

Psychologically viewed, the decoration of the cradle is of equal moment. To surround an infant with highly wrought or colored figures, often grotesque, or at least untrue to Nature, may, by day, attract more attention than his faculties of perception can safely bestow; hence fatigue of the brain, or worse; but it will, by night, evoke other than the perceptive and rational powers, for, when the lights and shadows of dusk alter all the forms and deepen every color, the faculty of imprinting images being led astray, it photographs distorted imprints from confused, often moving, sometimes rustling, ornaments. In this way the mind is made the subject of hallucinations, which it accepts as objective, without inquiring into their causes, till it comes to the fatal credo quia absurdum (I believe, because it is absurd). The seeds of most of the insanities are sown at or before this time.

These were the first impressions that forced themselves upon my mind in the pavilion de l'enfant. Here is, in a few words, a résumé of them: Paucity of the material upon which the inexperienced yet inquisitive baby can exercise, with interest and profit, his sense of touch; profusion, bad taste, and dangerous disposition of the objects which speak to the eye, if not always with the intention, at least with the almost uniform result, of giving wrong or dangerous impressions.

Attention was next called to what had been done, and to what had been left undone, for the cultivation or the satisfaction of the other senses of the infant. But here it was soon perceived that our inquiries went beyond the sphere of what was exhibited. There were plenty of Farina's and Rimmel's volatilities, some of Alexander's, Debain's, or Smith's sighing accordeons, but no means of cheering and educating the nascent yet already inquisitive senses. Further examination showed that the perfumes were there as an attenuation and the music as a distraction, and both intended for other senses than the infant's. From these and other omissions it was concluded that nursery arrangements are as yet intended rather for the mother's and nurse's comfort than for the baby's improvement.

2. The Crèche.—This pavilion de l'enfant ought to contain at least one model crèche.

Crèche is the French name of the public nursery where workingwomen leave their little ones in the morning, and whence they bring them home at night. The crèche! Horrid necessity! Beginning of the communistic inclined plane upon which those who pay and do not receive rents slide with a fearful rapidity; yet a kind institution for those already fallen into the gulf. Since, therefore, crèches must be, their latest improvements should have been represented at the Vienna Exhibition next to the appliances of the most luxurious nursing. There could have been tested the action of colors, of light, and its various attributes, on the organ of vision; the influence of varied sounds, of harmonies and melodies on the virgin audition, the mind, and the sympathetic centres; the power of primary perceptions to awaken first ideas, to impel to determinations of the will, and to raise or calm the various passions; the effects of diet upon those passions; the effect of modification of food and digestion; the influence of rest and sleep on the body's temperature, on the pulse and respiration; the influence of the artificial, the moist, or the dry heat of the nursery on the too precocious development of the nervous centres, and, subsequently, on the prevalence of chronic or acute meningitis, diphtheria, and croup; besides many other problems whose solution depends on the early study of phenomena which can be found in the crèche as surely as the flower in the bud. There, better than anywhere else, they may be studied with profit to all parties. Let us bear in mind that the rich man can never flatter himself that he does a gratuitous charity, since from its poor recipient comes many times its worth in useful experience, directly benefiting the would-be benefactor. We do not overlook the fact that many mothers, particularly among those both educated and fruitful, pay the closest attention to these questions, and become expert therein, but, as they lack the means of record and transmission of their observations, their experience dies, so to speak, with each generation. Hence the nursing of babies continues to be a work of devotion, but does not become the coordinated and progressive art it ought to be in well-organized crèches open to criticism in public exhibitions. Thus in Vienna, at least, an opportunity was lost.

  1. Extracts from the Report of the Commissioners of the United States to the International Exhibition held at Vienna, 1873.
  2. A nine days' season of prayer.