Popular Science Monthly/Volume 49/September 1896/A Cambodian Primary School

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1234634Popular Science Monthly Volume 49 September 1896 — A Cambodian Primary School1896Adhémard Leclère



THE Véat, or Buddhist monastery, is in Cambodia very much what the Christian monastery was in Europe in the middle ages—a community of persons devoted to religion, having a chapel, a place of entertainment for strangers, and a school for boys. The schools directed by the mendicants are most generally primary schools, where are taught gratuitously and in a spirit of charity to voluntary pupils reading and writing in the Cambodian language and characters; prayer in the dead language of Maghada (or Pâli), which has become the sacred language of the Buddhists of the Southern Church; reading of the Balery Mokoth, or Maghada texts, which are written in Cambodian characters on palm leaves; arithmetic; and a little religious morals on "earth to earth."

The superior of the monastery is the chief professor and exercises a general direction over the other professors and the pupils, without personally giving much attention to the instruction. Under him is a monk known as the reading professor, who reads on festival days, in the temple or in the hall of the monastery, from the sacred book, the life of Buddha and a few fragments of his teaching, and in the absence of the superior supervises the observance of religious discipline. The other monks, generally spoken of as gentlemen of the clergy, or of the assembly, or of the church, are addressed by the pupils as the professor or my professor.

All the bonzes can read and teach reading, but there are many who hardly know how to write and are absolutely incapable of reading aloud in the assembly of the faithful. Only a few of them are so advanced as to comprehend what they read without pronouncing the words. In short, although the instruction given in these institutions is very elementary, and there is absolutely no discipline, the Buddhist monks are nevertheless the veritable and only teachers of children, their beloved and respected schoolmasters, and their spiritual fathers, to whom it is "good form" to be submissive, the respected educators of the people.

The pupils are of two kinds—those who are dressed like the laity and those who are dressed like the bonzes. The former are designated by terms meaning children who study, who learn, or pupils; the others are novices. But those of both classes who are of the same age pursue the same courses. Those of the second class, the novices, are incipient bonzes. They accompany the monks who go out in the morning to beg, and, like them, hold out the wooden contribution boxes for the alms of boiled rice. tliermore, having been consecrated with a little ceremony which does not always take place in the temple, they are obliged to have their heads shaved like the bonzes and to recite with them certain prayers which they have consequently to learn, and they live in the monastery. While the ordinary pupils may sometimes reside in the monastery under special conditions or for special purposes, they usually live with their parents, and resort every morning to the Véat to take their lesson, go home to breakfast, then return to study and perform a few household duties and play with their comrades for a large part of the day under the eye of their kindly and somewhat too careless professors.

All children who present themselves at the Véat for study are received. It is not even required that their parents bring them or visit them. The newcomer chooses his professor, and, if accepted, begins at once to study under his direction, installs himself in his cell or in the school hall, and becomes his servant. If the professor has already too many pupils, he refuses the new pupil and advises him to choose another teacher; sometimes he guides his choice, directing him to a master who has few or no pupils, or takes him to the superior, who will select a teacher for him. The choice of a professor is always a grave affair, because it is held in Cambodia, as in all Buddhist and Brahmanic countries, that professor and pupil are bound by strong ties of spiritual affinity, and that the pupil ought to respect his master as he does his father and mother. The law inflicts the same penalty upon an offense of the pupil against his master and an offense by a son against his father and mother, and it prescribes that in certain cases the pupil may be the heir of his professor when he has cared for him or supported him or served him when studying under his direction; not only a family bond, but a religious bond, too, is established between them, for the professor makes it his business to teach his pupil the course by which he may earn a more advantageous reincarnation and reach the Nirvana, and becomes his spiritual guide.

Four implements are used in studying: a tablet about two feet by one, blackened with black lacquer; a crayon stick; a bamboo ruler as long as the board, with which to draw the lines at which the tops of the characters must stop; and a cloth for wiping the board when it is full. The pupil generally uses the corner of his scarf or girdle for the last purpose.

The teacher writes on the tablet the characters the pupil is to learn, and names them to him; the pupil learns to write and name them all at the same time. His professor is near him answers him, draws his attention to the often inconspicuous details that differentiate the characters, and to the accents and marks that modify their value, and shows him, writing on the tablet, how to draw them.

I have often witnessed these lessons, and have much admired both the calm patience of the master and the readiness with which the little Cambodians learn. Their memory is extraordinary, and they keep what they have learned much better than our children do. I do not mean that they know better what they know, and that they can draw on a larger part of their knowledge than our children. No, the little that they acquire thus so rapidly continues with them nearly always as unemployed means, as material not put to use, as unproductive elements of knowledge. Their intellectual development in other respects stops early, between sixteen and eighteen years, but their memory still remains surprising. By memory I mean the recollection of sounds, of the eyes, of figures, of words, and of facts. But they do not know, or only know imperfectly, and hardly learn after eighteen years, how to use what they know, to co-ordinate it, to deduce, to draw logical consequences, to generalize; to give their whole mind to a thing. But good sense, delicate discrimination, mingled with some degree of critical judgment regarding all the affairs of current life, are not wanting in them, even in early childhood.

The first series of characters traced by the teacher includes twenty-four vowels, consonants, and diphthongs, and is called the nomo, from the two characters, no and mo, with which it begins, and which together form a Pâli word. These two characters are followed by four others, pont, théa, sét, and them, which with the first two form the phrase Nomo Buddhaya siddhan! or, "Glory be given to Buddha!"—a salutation which resembles that of the Croix de Dieu, or "Cross of God," with which French pupils in the a b c's were formerly accustomed to begin their lessons. The pupil, having learned to read and trace the twenty-four characters of this series, is given the thirty-five characters of the second series, which include various consonants and semi-vowels; then the vowels are given—eighteen hard and eighteen mollified, although the difference is very slight.

These lessons thoroughly learned, the pupil passes to the six hundred and fifty combinations of consonants and vowels, which are very rapidly learned, for the same rule prevails with the combinations of each and all the consonants; so that, when one series is learned, the rest are like it.

When the pupil, after two or three months at the most, has learned all the characters and their combinations, a little sutra, or manual, or treatise on correct morals is put into his hands, which he reads in the presence of the professor or one of the better learned pupils, who corrects him and drills him in the good reading of the work, explaining the meaning if he does not understand it. The first sutra is the "Custom of Youth," and is repeated every day till it is read without hesitation and without mistakes, and till the pupil knows it by heart and can recite it from memory. Then a second sutra is given him-the advice of a grandfather to his grandson, or the "Groups of Customs"—counsels to be followed every day; or the "Customs of Women"-and this book is read till it is as thoroughly learned as the other.

Nothing can be more curious than to attend one of these readings. The pupils are all seated on mats near the door or the windows, each with a different sutra in his hand. They read all at once, as loudly as they can, so that they can hear themselves better, without any concern for their neighbors, and without stopping to breathe. It is deafening, and we can hardly understand how the poor little fellows manage to isolate themselves from the uproar of noisy readers that can be heard a thousand feet from the monastery.

Between times the pupil copies extracts from the things he reads; practices in writing a letter, or drawing up a brief, or in setting forth some claim in a good, clear style. When so far advanced that he can give up his wooden slate and the tracing of large characters, he is given some folding books. He polishes the pages of pasteboard or felt with sand; then holding an iron-pointed stylus, with his hand resting on a cushion, steadying the stylus with the thumb of his left hand, he draws it carefully over the page, so as to cut the fiber without tearing it. When he has written on both sides of his long sheet-eight or ten perpendicular lines-in this manner, he takes some ink made of soot scraped from the bottom of the pot and moistened, rubs it with a cloth across the leaf, and then wipes it with a clean dry cloth. The ink remains in the hollows, and the characters come plainly out, as black as our printed characters. The number of those, however, who succeed in learning the more delicate art of writing on palm leaves is comparatively small. After the pupil has learned to write, he is taught such arithmetic as he is supposed to need, including the multiplication table and the four rules.-Translated for the Popular Science Monthly from the Revue Scientifique.

Mr. Walter B. Harris, in his travels in the region of the Atlas Mountains, observed a peculiar native taste or talent for sculpture among the Berbers. "At Dads," he says, "I saw children modeling in clay little figures of men on horseback. . . . which no Arab or Moor either could or would do. Excellently modeled they were too. I asked a native, and he laughingly replied, 'We all did that when we were small.'"