Read CHAPTER VII - WILL of Spontaneous Activity in Education , free online book, by Maria Montessori, on ReadCentral.com.

When the child chooses from among a considerable number of objects the one he prefers, when he moves to go and take it from the sideboard, and then replaces it, or consents to give it up to a companion; when he waits until one of the pieces of the apparatus he wishes to use is laid aside by the child who has it in his hand at the moment; when he persists for a long time and with earnest attention in the same exercise, correcting the mistakes which the didactic material reveals to him; when, in the silence-exercise, he retains all his impulses, all his movements, and then, rising when his name is called, controls these movements carefully to avoid making a noise with his feet or knocking against the furniture, he performs so many acts of the “will.” It may be said that in him the exercise of the will is continuous; nay, that the factor which really acts and persists among his aptitudes is the will, which is built up on the internal fundamental fact of a prolonged attention.

Let us analyze some of the co-efficients of will.

The whole external expression of the will is contained in movement: whatever action man performs, whether he walks, works, speaks or writes, opens his eyes to look, or closes them to shut out a scene, he acts by “motion.” An act of the will may also be directed to the restriction of movement: to restrain the disorderly movements of anger; not to give way to the impulse which urges us to snatch a desirable object from the hand of another, are voluntary actions. Therefore the will is not a simple impulse towards movement, but the intelligent direction of movements.

There can be no manifestation of the will without completed action; he who thinks of performing a good action, but leaves it undone; he who desires to atone for an offense, but takes no step to do so; he who proposes to go out, to pay a call, or to write a letter, but goes no farther in the matter, does not accomplish an exercise of the will. To think and to wish is not enough. It is action which counts. “The way to Hell is paved with good intentions.”

The life of volition is the life of action. Now all our actions represent a resultant of the forces of impulse and inhibition, and by constant repetition of actions this resultant may become almost habitual and unconscious. Such is the case, for instance, with regard to all those customary actions, the sum of which constitute “the behavior of a well-bred person.” Our impulse might be to pay a certain visit, but we know that we might disturb our friend, that it is not her day for receiving, and we refrain; we may be comfortably seated in a corner of the drawing-room, but a venerable person enters, and we rise to our feet; we are not much attracted by this lady, but nevertheless we also bow or shake her hand; the sweetmeat to which our neighbor helps herself is just the one we desired, but we are careful to give no sign of this. All the movements of our body are not merely those dictated by impulse or weariness; they are the correct expression of what we consider decorous. Without impulses we could take no part in social life; on the other hand, without inhibitions we could not correct, direct, and utilize our impulses.

This reciprocal equilibrium between opposite motor forces is the result of prolonged exercises, of ancient habits within us; we no longer have any sense of effort in performing these, we no longer require the support of reason and knowledge to accomplish them; these acts have almost become reflex. And yet the acts in question are by no means reflex actions; it is not Nature but habit which produces all this. We know well how the person who has not been brought up to observe certain rules, but has been hastily instructed in the knowledge of them, will too often be guilty of blunders and lapses, because he is obliged to “perform” there and then all the necessary coordination of voluntary acts, and there and then direct them under the vigilant and immediate control of the consciousness; and such a perpetual effort cannot certainly compete with the “habit” of distinguished manners. The will stores up its prolonged efforts outside the consciousness, or at its extreme margin, and leaves the consciousness itself unencumbered to make new acquisitions and further efforts. Thus we cease to consider as evidences of will those habits in which we nevertheless see the consciousness, as it were, hanging over and watchful of each act, that it may accord with the perfect rule of an external code of manners. An educated man who acts thus is merely a man in himself, merely a man of “healthy mind.”

It is, in fact, only disease which can disintegrate the personality organized upon its adaptations, and induce a man of society to cease to act in a becoming manner; it is well known that a neurasthenic subject who begins to show the first symptoms of paranoia, may at first seem to be merely one who fails in good breeding.

But he, on the other hand, who remains within the limits of good breeding, is nothing more than a normal man. We will not venture to call him “a man of will”; the consciousness of such a man is always being put to the test, and the mechanisms stored up in the margin of consciousness no longer possess a “volitive value.”

But the child is making his first trial of arms, and his personality is a very different thing from that just described. In comparison with the adult, he is an unbalanced creature, almost invariably the prey of his own impulses and sometimes subject to the most obstinate inhibitions. The two opposite activities of the will have not yet combined to form the new personality. The psychical embryo has still the two elements separate. The great essential is that this “combination,” this “adaptation,” should take place and establish itself as a supporting girdle at the margin of consciousness. Hence it is necessary to induce active exercise as soon as possible, since this is essential to such a degree of development. The aim in view is not to make the child a little precocious “gentleman,” but to induce him to exercise his powers of volition, and to bring about as soon as possible the reciprocal contact of impulses with inhibitions. It is this “construction” itself which is necessary, not the result which may be achieved externally by means of this construction.

It is, in fact, merely a means to an end: and the end is that the child should act together with other children, and practise the gymnastics of the will in the daily habits of life. The child who is absorbed in some task, inhibits all movements which do not conduce to the accomplishment of this work; he makes a selection among the muscular coordinations of which he is capable, persists in them, and thus begins to make such coordinations permanent. This is a very different matter to the disorderly movements of a child giving way to uncoordinated impulses. When he begins to respect the work of others; when he waits patiently for the object he desires instead of snatching it from the hand of another; when he can walk about without knocking against his companions, without stamping on their feet, without overturning the table then he is organizing his powers of volition, and bringing impulses and inhibitions into equilibrium. Such an attitude prepares the way for the habits of social life. It would be impossible to bring about such a result by keeping children motionless, seated side by side; under such conditions “relations between children” cannot be established, and infantile social life does not develop.

It is by means of free intercourse, of real practise which obliges each one to adapt his own limits to the limits of others, that social “habits” may be established. Dissertations on what ought to be done will never bring about the construction of the will; to make a child acquire graceful movements, it will not suffice to inculcate “ideas of politeness” and of “rights and duties.” If this were so, it would suffice to give a minute description of the movements of the hand necessary in playing the piano, to enable an attentive pupil to execute a sonata by Beethoven. In all such matters the “formation” is the essential factor; the powers of will are established by exercise.

In education, it is of very great value to organize all the mechanism useful in the production of personality at an early stage. Just as movement, the gymnastics of children, is necessary, because, as is well known, muscles which are not exercised become incapable of performing the variety of movements of which the muscular system is capable, so an analogous system of gymnastics is necessary to maintain the activity of the psychical life.

The uneducated organism may be easily directed towards subsequent deficiencies; he who is weak of muscle is inclined to remain motionless, and so to perish, when an action is necessary to overcome danger. Thus the child who is weak of will, who is “hypobulic” or “abulic,” will readily adapt himself to a school where all the children are kept seated and motionless, listening, or pretending to listen. Many children of this kind, however, end in the hospital for nervous disorders and have the following notes on their school reports: “Conduct excellent; no progress in studies.” Of such children some teachers confine themselves to such a remark as: “They are so good,” and by this they tend to protect them from any intervention, and leave them to sink undisturbed into the weakness which threatens to engulf them like a quicksand. Other children, whose natural impulses are strong, are noted merely as creators of disorder, and are set down as “naughty.” If we enquire into the nature of their naughtiness, we shall be told almost invariably that “they will never keep still.” These turbulent spirits are further stigmatized as “aggressive to their companions,” and their aggressions are nearly always of this kind: they try by every possible means to rouse their companions from their quiescence, and draw them into an association. There are also children in whom the inhibitory powers are dominant; their timidity is extreme: they sometimes seem as if they cannot make up their minds to answer a question; they will do so after some external stimulus, but in a very low voice, and will then burst into tears.

The necessary gymnastic in all these three cases is free action. The constant and interesting movement of others is the best of incitements to the abulic; motion directed into the channel of orderly exercise develops the inhibitory powers of the too impulsive child, and the child who is too much in subjection to his inhibitory powers, when liberated from the bondage of surveillance, and free to act privately on his own initiative in other words, when he is removed from all external inducements to exercise inhibition, is able to find an equilibrium between the two opposite volitional forces. This is indeed the way of salvation for all men: that wherein the weak gain strength that wherein the strong attain perfection.

The want of balance as between impulse and inhibition is not only a familiar and interesting fact in pathology; it is further met with, though in a minor degree, among normal persons, just as frequently as deficiencies of education are to be met with in the external social sphere.

Impulse leads criminals to commit evil actions against other men; but how often normal persons have to regret thoughtless acts and nervous outbursts which have sad consequences to themselves! For the most part the normal impulsive person harms himself only, compromises his career, and is unable to bring his talents to fruition; he suffers from a conscious servitude, as from a misfortune from which he might perhaps have been saved.

He who is pathologically the victim of his own powers of inhibition is certainly the more unhappy sufferer; he remains immobile and silent; but internally he longs to move. A thousand impulses which can find no outlet torture the soul which aspires to art, to work; and eloquent speech on his own misfortunes would fain flow from his lips to implore help from a physician, or comfort from some lofty soul; but his lips are sealed. He feels the horrible oppression of one buried alive. But how many normal persons suffer from something of the same kind! On some propitious occasion in their lives they ought to have come forward and shown their worth, but they were unable to do so. A thousand times they have thought that a sincere expression of feeling might have straightened out a difficult situation; but the heart has closed and the lips have remained mute. How passionately they have longed to speak to some noble soul who would have understood them, illuminated and comforted them! But when they have been face to face with this person, they have been unable to speak a word. The longed-for individual encouraged them, questioned them, urged them to express themselves, but the sole response to the invitation was an internal anguish. Speak! Speak! said impulse in the depths of their consciousness; but inhibition was inexorable as a resistless material force.

It is in the education of the will by means of free exercises wherein the impulses balance the inhibitions that the cure of such subjects might be found, provided such a cure could be undertaken at the age when the will is in process of formation.

Such an equilibrium established as a mechanism at the margin of consciousness, which makes a man of the world “correct” in his conduct, is by no means that which constitutes the “person of will.” It has been said above that the consciousness remains free for other voluntary requirements. The most refined and aristocratic lady might nevertheless be a person “without will” and “without character,” although she might have acquired the most rigorous mechanisms productive of a mechanical will directed solely to external objects.

There is a voluntary fundamental quality upon which not only are the superficial relations between man and man based, but on which the very edifice of society is erected. This quality is known as “continuity.” The social structure is founded upon the fact that men can work steadily and produce within certain average limits on which the economic equilibrium of a people is constructed. The social relations which are the basis of the reproduction of the species are founded upon the continuous union of parents in marriage. The family and productive work: these are the two pivots of society; they rest upon the greatest volitive quality: constancy, or persistence.

This quality is really the exponent of the uninterrupted concord of the inner personality. Without it, a life would be a series of episodes, a chaos; it would be like a body disintegrated into its cells, rather than an organism which persists throughout the mutations of its own material. This fundamental quality, when it embraces the sentiment of the individual and the direction of his ideation, that is to say, his whole personality, is what we have called character. The man of character is the persistent man, the man who is faithful to his own word, his own convictions, his own affections.

Now the sum of these various manifestations of constancy has an exponent of immense social value: persistence in work.

The degenerate, even before he gave way to criminal impulse, before he betrayed the inconstancy of his affections, before he broke his word, before he made havoc of all the convictions that ennoble the soul of man, had a certain stigma which marked him as one lost and disintegrated: this was laziness, incapacity to persist in work. Directly an honest and well-behaved man begins to suffer from brain-disease, before he shows any violent impulses, disorder in conduct, or signs of delirium, he has a premonitory symptom: he can no longer apply himself to work. Among the masses, it is justly thought that a girl will make a good wife when she is industrious, and a man is said to be an honest fellow and one who can offer good prospects to the girl who is to be his wife, when he is a good workman. This goodness is not a matter of ability; it implies steadiness, perseverance. For instance, a pseudo-artist of great skill in producing small artistic objects, but lacking the will to work, would not be considered a good match. Every one knows that he is not only incapable of economic production, but that he is a suspicious and dangerous character, that he might become a bad husband, a bad father, a bad citizen. On the other hand, the humblest artisan who “works” undoubtedly contains within himself all the elements which make for happiness and security in life. This unquestionably was the meaning of the great Roman encomium: “She stayed indoors and spun the wool,” that is to say, she was a woman of character, a worthy companion for the conquerors of the world.

Now the little child who manifests perseverance in his work as the first constructive act of his psychical life, and upon this act builds up internal order, equilibrium, and the growth of personality, demonstrates, almost as in a splendid revelation, the true manner in which man renders himself valuable to the community. The little child who persists in his exercises, concentrated and absorbed, is obviously elaborating the constant man, the man of character, the man who will find in himself all human values, crowning that unique fundamental manifestation: persistence in work. Whatever task the child may choose it will be all the same, provided he persists in it. For what is valuable is not the work itself, but the work as a means for the construction of the psychic man.

He who interrupts the children in their occupations in order to make them learn some pre-determined thing; he who makes them cease the study of arithmetic to pass on to that of geography and the like, thinking it is important to direct their culture, confuses the means with the end and destroys the man for a vanity. That which it is necessary to direct is not the culture of man, but the man himself.

If persistence be the true foundation of the will, we nevertheless recognize decision as the act of the will par excellence. In order to accomplish any conscious act whatever, it is necessary that we should decide. Now a decision is always the result of a choice. If we have several hats, we must decide which one we will put on when we go out; it may not in the least matter whether it be the brown hat or the gray, but we must choose one of them. For such a choice we must have our motives, whether they be in favor of the gray or the brown; but finally one of the motives will prevail and the choice will be made. Obviously, the habit of taking a hat and going out will facilitate our choice; we are almost unconscious which of the motives stirred and struggled within us. It is the question of a minute and leaves no impression of effort. Our knowledge as to which hat will be suitable for the morning or the afternoon, for the theater or for sport, saves us from any mental conflict.

But this will not be the case if, for instance, we are about to spend a certain sum of money on a present. What shall we buy among the various objects from which it will be possible to choose? If we have no very definite knowledge of the things, our task may become an anxiety. We should like to choose something artistic, but we do not know much about art, and we fear to be deceived and so to cut a sorry figure; we know not what is customary and have no idea whether a piece of lace or a silver bowl would be suitable. We then feel the need of some one to enlighten us as to all these unknown details, and we go to ask advice. It does not, however, follow that we shall take the advice we receive. To tell the truth, the advice was to deal with our ignorance; we required an aid to knowledge rather than an incitement to an effort of the will. Volition is something which we jealously reserve for ourselves, and is a very different matter from the knowledge indispensable to a decision. The choice which we make after the advice of one or more persons will bear our own impress, it will be the decision of our ego.

The choice which the mistress of a house will make to prepare a dinner for guests is of the same nature; but there she has a perfect knowledge of the subject, and good taste, and the decision will be made with pleasure and without any extraneous aid.

But who does not know that in every case this making a decision is an internal labor, a genuine effort; so much so that persons of feeble will try to avoid it, as a thing irksome to them. If possible, the mistress of the house will leave the decisions to the cook, and to a dressmaker all the arguments necessary to make one of the many motives that come into play in the choice of a gown prevail over the rest; the dressmaker, seeing that a decision will only be reached after long hesitation, will say at a certain moment: Choose this which suits you so well, and the lady will agree, more to evade the effort of a decision than because the garment pleases her. Our entire life is a continual exercise of decisions. When we go out of the house after having locked the door, we have a clear consciousness of this act, a certainty that the house is well protected, and we decide to step out and walk away from it.

The stronger we are in such exercises, the more independent we shall be of others. Clarity of ideas, the mechanism of the habit of decision, give us a sense of liberty. The heaviest chain, which may bind us in a humiliating form of slavery, is an incapacity to make our own decisions, and the consequent need to refer to others; the fear of making “a mistake,” the sense of groping in the dark, of having to bear the consequences of an error we are not certain to recognize, makes us run behind another person like a dog on a chain. Finally, we shall fall into an extremity of dependence; we shall no longer be able to despatch a letter or buy a pocket-handkerchief without asking advice.

But when an actual conflict arises in such a consciousness, and the decision has to be instantaneous, irresolution is the portion of one whose weakness has placed him in subjection to another stronger will, and then we behold a subjection which has almost imperceptibly become an incubus: the victim has taken the first step towards an abyss where the feeble in will run the risk of perdition. Thus the more the young are placed in subjection, without power to exercise their own wills, the more easily do they fall a prey to the perils of which the world is full.

That which gives strength to resist is not the moral vision, it is the exercise of will-power; and this exercise is to be found in the routine of life itself. The mother of a family, much occupied in her mission of domestic work, and accustomed to decide in all matters pertaining to the daily round, is more likely to gain the victory in the event of moral conflict than a childless woman who lives in an enervating atmosphere of domestic idleness, and has accustomed herself to accept her husband’s will as her own. Yet both of these women might have the same moral vision. The first-mentioned, if left a widow, might make herself conversant with business and carry on the undertaking managed by her husband; but the second in like circumstances would require tutelage, and would run every risk of disaster. To ensure moral salvation, it is primarily necessary to depend on oneself, because in the moment of peril we are alone. And strength is not to be acquired instantaneously. He who knows that he will have to fight, prepares himself for boxing and dueling by strength and skill; he does not sit still with folded hands, because he knows that he will then either be lost or he will have to depend, like the shadow of a body, on some one to protect him step by step throughout his life, which in practise is impossible.

One single moment served to conquer us,

says Francesca, in Dante’s Inferno.

Temptation, if it is not to conquer, must not fall like a bomb against another bomb of instantaneous moral explosions, but against the strong walls of an impregnable fortress strongly built up, stone by stone, beginning at that distant day when the foundations were first laid. Persistent work, clarity of ideas, the habit of sifting conflicting motives in the consciousness, even in the minutest actions of life, decisions taken every moment on the smallest things, the gradual master over one’s actions, the power of self-direction increasing by degrees in the sum of successively repeated acts, these are the stout little stones on which the strong structure of personality is built up. This may then be inhabited by morality, as by a princess who lives among the embattled towers and moats of a medieval fortress that is in a perpetual state of defense, always under arms, but with every probability of remaining the “lady,” the “chatelaine.” If to “build up the house” which morality will inhabit, some mastery of the body is also necessary, such as abstinence from alcohol, which is the chief example of poison taken from without and tending to weaken, and movement in the open air, which facilitates material recuperation by freeing us from the poisons which we ourselves manufacture and which weaken us, how much more essential must be the continual exercise of the will as a vivifying means of psychical recuperation?

Our little children are constructing their own wills when, by a process of self-education, they put in motion complex internal activities of comparison and judgment, and in this wise make their intellectual acquisitions with order and clarity; this is a kind of “knowledge” capable of preparing children to form their own decisions, and one which makes them independent of the suggestions of others; they can then decide in every act of their daily life; they decide to take or not to take; they decide to accompany the rhythm of a song with movement; they decide to check every motor impulse when they desire silence. The constant work which builds up their personality is all set in motion by decisions; and this takes the place of the primitive state of chaos, in which, on the other hand, actions were the outcome of impulses. A voluntary life develops gradually within them; and doubt and timidity disappear, together with the darkness of the primitive mental confusion.

Such a development of the will would be impossible if, instead of allowing order and clarity to mature in the mind, we should seek to encumber it with chaotic ideas, or with stores of lessons learnt by heart, and then prevent children from making decisions by deciding everything for them. Teachers who adopt these methods are justified in saying that “a child ought not to have a will of his own,” and in teaching him that “there is no such plant as ‘I will.’” Indeed, they prevent the infantine will from developing. Under such conditions children are conscious of a power which inhibits all their actions; they become timid, and have no courage to undertake anything without the help and consent of the person on whom they depend entirely. “What color are these cherries?” a lady once asked a child, who knew quite well that they were red. But the timid, nervous child, doubtful as to whether it would be right or wrong to answer, murmured: “I will ask my teacher.”

The volitive mechanism which prepares for decision is one of the most important mechanisms of the will; it is valuable in itself, and should be established and strengthened in itself. Pathology illustrates it for us apart from the other factor of the will, and thus places it before our eyes as a pillar of the great vault which supports the human personality. The so-called “mania of doubt” is one of the most frequent phases in the degenerative forms of psychopathy, and sometimes precedes certain obsessions, which urge the sufferer on irresistibly to the commission of immoral or harmful acts. But there may also be a mania of doubt simple and genuine, which is confined to the impossibility of taking a decision, and which produces a serious state of distress, though it induces no moral lapses, and may even arise from a moral scruple. In a hospital for nervous disorders I once encountered a characteristic case of the “mania of doubt” which had a moral basis. The patient was a man whose business it was to go round to houses collecting refuse; he was seized with misgivings lest some useful object should have accidentally fallen into the rubbish-baskets, and that he would be suspected of appropriating it. Hereupon the unhappy man, just when he was about to go off with his load, climbed all the stairs again, and knocked again at all the doors, asking whether something valuable might not perhaps have chanced to be in the baskets. Going away after assurances to the contrary, he would return and knock again, and so on. In vain he applied to the doctor for some means of strengthening his will. We told him repeatedly that there was nothing of any value in the baskets, that he might be quite easy on this point, and carry on his business without any preoccupations. Then a gleam of hope shone in his eyes. “I may be quite easy!” he repeated, going away. In a minute he was back again. “Then I may really be easy?” In vain we reassured him. “Yes, indeed, quite easy.” His wife led him away, but from the window we saw the man stop at a certain point in the street, struggle with her, and come back in great agitation. Once more he appeared at the door to ask: “I may be quite easy then?”

But how often normal persons harbor in their minds the germs of such a mania! Here, for instance, is a person who is going out; he locks the door and shakes it; but when he has gone a few steps he is assailed by doubt: did he fasten the door? He knows that he did, he perfectly remembers having shaken it, but an irresistible impulse makes him go back to see if the door is really fastened. There are children who, before getting into bed at night, always look under it to see if there are any animals there cats, for instance; they see there are none, and quite understand there are none. Nevertheless, after a while they get out again “to see if there is anything.” These germs are carried about enclosed like tubercular bacilli in some tiny lymphatic gland; the whole organism is weak. But the mischief is hidden and causes no uneasiness, just as the pallor of the face may be concealed for a time by rouge.

If we consider that the will must manifest itself in actions which the body must carry out effectively, we shall understand that a formative exercise is necessary to develop it by means of its mechanisms.

There is a perfect parallel between the formation of the will and the coordination of movement of its physiological structure, the striated muscles. It is evident that exercise is necessary to establish precision in our movements. We know that we cannot learn to dance without preliminary exercises, that we cannot play the piano without practising the movements of the hand; but prior to this, the fundamental coordination of movements, that is to say, ambulation and prehension, must have already been established from infancy. It is not yet so evident to us that similar gradual preparations are necessary to develop the will.

In the purely physiological functions of the muscular apparatus, our voluntary muscles do not all act in the same manner, but rather in two opposite senses; some, for instance, serve to thrust the arm out from the body, others to draw it near; some serve to bend, others to straighten the knee; they are, that is to say, “antagonistic” in their action. Every movement of the body is the result of a combination between antagonistic muscles, in which now one, now the other prevails in a kind of collaboration by which the greatest diversity of movements is made possible to us: movements energetic, graceful, elegant. It is thus we are enabled to establish not only a noble attitude of the body, but a delightful motor correspondence with musical rhythm.

To bring about this intimate combination between antagonistic forces, all that is necessary is exercise in movement. True, we can educate movement; but this only after the natural coordination has already taken place; then we can “provoke” special movements as in sporting games, dances, etc., which movements must, however, be repeatedly executed by the performer himself in order to produce in him the possibility of new combinations of movement. Not only in the case of movements of grace and agility, but also in those of strength, it is necessary that the performer himself should act repeatedly. The will certainly comes into play here: the performer wishes to devote himself to sport, or to dancing, or to the arts of self-defense, to compete in matches, etc.... but in order to will this it is necessary that he should have practised continually, thus making ready the apparatus on which the volitive act will finally depend, and to which it will issue its commands. Movement is always voluntary, both when the first movements established by “muscular coordination” take place, and when exercises designed to produce fresh combinations of movements (skill) follow each other as, in short, when the will acts like a commander whose orders are carried out by a well organized, disciplined, and highly skilled army. Voluntary action, in respect of its “powers,” increases in degree as its dependent muscles perfect themselves and so achieve the necessary conditions for seconding its efforts.

It would certainly never occur to any one that in order to educate the voluntary motility of a child, it would be well first of all to keep it absolutely motionless, covering its limbs with cement (I will not say fracturing them!) until the muscles become atrophied and almost paralyzed; and then, when this result had been attained, that it would suffice to read to the child wonderful stories of clowns, acrobats and champion boxers and wrestlers, to fire him by such examples, and to inspire in him an ardent desire to emulate them. It is obvious that such a proceeding would be an inconceivable absurdity.

And yet we do something of the same kind when, in order to educate the child’s “will,” we first of all attempt to annihilate it, or, as we say, “break” it, and thus hamper the development of every factor of the will, substituting ourselves for the child in everything. It is by our will that we keep him motionless, or make him act; it is we who choose and decide for him. And after all this we are content to teach him that “to will is to do” (volere e potere). And we present to his fancy, in the guise of fabulous tales, stories of heroic men, giants of will, under the illusion that by committing their deeds to memory a vigorous feeling of emulation will be aroused and will complete the miracle.

When I was a child, attending the first classes of the elementary schools, there was a kind teacher who was very fond of us. Of course, she kept us captive and motionless on our seats, and talked incessantly herself, though she looked pale and exhausted. Her fixed idea was to make us learn by heart the lives of famous women, and more especially “heroines,” in order to incite us to imitate them; she made us study an immense number of biographies; in order to demonstrate to us all the possibilities of becoming illustrious and also to convince us that it was not beyond our powers to be heroines, since these were so numerous. The exhortation which accompanied these narratives was always the same: “You, too, should try to become famous; would not you, too, like to be famous?” “Oh, no!” I answered one day, drily; “I shall never do so. I care too much for the children of the future to add yet another biography to the list.”

The unanimous reports of the educationists from all parts of the world who attended the last pedagogic and psychological international congresses lamented the “lack of character” in the young as constituting a great danger to the race. But it is not that character is lacking in the race; it is that school distorts the body and weakens the spirit. All that is needed is an act of liberation; and the latent forces of man will then develop.

The manner in which we are to make use of our strong will is a higher question, which, however, can rest only upon one basis: that the will exists that is, has been developed, and has become strong. One of the examples usually given to our children, to teach them to admire strength of will, is that of Vittorio Alfieri, who began to educate himself late in life, overcoming the drudgery of the rudiments by a great effort. He, who had hitherto been a man of the world, set to work to study the Latin grammar, and persevered until he became a man of letters, and, in virtue of his ardent genius, one of our greatest poets. The phrase by which he explained his transformation is just the phrase every child in Italy has heard quoted by his teachers: “I willed, perpetually I willed, with all my strength I willed.”

Now, before he made the great “decision,” Vittorio Alfieri was the victim of a capricious society lady whom he loved. Alfieri felt that he was ruining himself by remaining the slave of his passion; an internal impulse urged him to raise himself; he felt the great man latent within him, full of powers not yet developed, but potential and expansive; he would fain have turned them to account, responded to their inner call, and dedicated himself to them; but then a scented note from the lady would summon him to join her in her box at the play, and the evening would be wasted. The power this lady exercised over him overcame his own will, which would gladly have resisted. Nevertheless, the rage and weariness he endured as he sat through the silly performances at the theater caused him such acute suffering that at last he felt that he hated the fascinating lady.

His determination took a material form: he resolved to create an insurmountable obstacle between himself and her; he accordingly cut off the thick plait of hair which adorned his head, the badge of gentle birth, without which he would have been ashamed to leave the house; then he had himself bound with ropes to his armchair, where he spent several days in such agitation that he was unable even to read a line; it was only the material impossibility of moving, and the thought of cutting a ridiculous figure, which kept him there, in spite of the impulse to hasten to the beloved one.

It was thus that he “willed, willed perpetually, with all his strength,” and so left the man within him free to expand; it was thus he saved himself from futility and perdition and worked for his own immortality.

And it is something of the same sort that we desire to bring about in our children by the education of the will; we wish them to learn to save themselves from the vanities that destroy man, and concentrate on work which causes the inner life to expand, and leads to great undertakings; we wish them to work for their own immortality.

This loving and anxious desire inclines us to draw them along shielded by us. But is there not within the child himself a power which enables him to save himself? The child loves us with all his heart and follows us with all the devotion of which his little soul is capable; nevertheless he has something within himself which governs his inner life: it is the force of his own expansion. It is this force, for instance, which leads him to touch things in order to become acquainted with them, and we say to him, “Do not touch”; he moves about to establish his equilibrium, and we tell him to “keep still”; he questions us to acquire knowledge, and we reply, “Do not be tiresome.” We relegate him to a place at our side, vanquished and subdued, with a few tiresome playthings, like an Alfieri in the box at the theater. He might well think: Why does she, whom I love so dearly, want to annihilate me? Why does she wish to oppress me with her caprices? It is caprice which makes her prevent me from developing the expansive forces within me, and relegate me to a place among vain and wearisome things, merely because I love her.

Thus, to save himself, the child should be a strong spirit, like Vittorio Alfieri; but too often he cannot.

We do not perceive that the child is a victim and that we are annihilating him; and then we demand everything from his nullity by a fiat, by an act of our omnipotence. We want the adult man, but without allowing him to grow.

Many will think, when they read the story of Vittorio Alfieri, that they would have wished something more in their sons; they would have wished it to be unnecessary to set up material obstacles against temptation, such as the cutting off of the hair and the binding to the armchair with ropes; and would have hoped that a spiritual force would have sufficed to resist it. Like one of our great poets who, singing of the Roman Lucrezia, reproves her for having killed herself; since she ought to have died of grief at the outrage, had she been even more virtuous than she was.

Now that father with the spiritual ideals would not, in all probability, ask himself what he himself had done to enable his son to become strong and rise to the level of spiritual aid. Very likely he is a father who did his utmost to break the will of his son and make him submissive to his own will. No earthly father can make the spirit rise to such heights; this can only be accomplished by the mysterious voice which speaks within the heart of the man in the silence. A voice which is strident because it is raised against the laws of Nature, like the voice of the father who wishes to subdue another creature to himself, disturbs that “silence” where, in peace and liberty, the divine works are being accomplished. Without the “strong man” all is vain.

It is recorded that a priest once presented to Saint Teresa a young girl who wished to become a Carmelite nun, and who, according to him, had angelic qualities. Saint Teresa, accepting the neophyte, replied: “See, my father, our Lord has given this maiden devotion, but she has no judgment, and never will have any; and she will always be a burden to us.”

One of the greatest of contemporary theologians, who during the proceedings to obtain the canonisation of Joan of Arc had made a profound study of her personality, says, in reference to the suggestion that she was simply the instrument of divine inspiration: “Let no one deceive himself. Joan of Arc was no blind and passive instrument of a supernatural power. The liberator of France had entire command of her personality; she gave proof of this by her independent action, both in decisions and in deeds.”

I believe that the work of the educator consists primarily in protecting the powers and directing them without disturbing them in their expansion; and in the bringing of man into contact with the spirit which is within him and which should operate through him.