Developing Mental Power
George Malcolm Stratton

[Childhood Education, 1922]


But the emotions are not alone in need of care. The impulses and the will cry out their own neglect. This is the more important, for they too lead us beyond the thought of independent functions and faculties, until we see the mind's worth as something decided largely by the quality of its organization, and we see, too, that this organization can be directed toward the better or the worse. The neglect and the opportunity here invite our full attention.

All children, if we look closely at their conduct, show a number of inborn traits - among others, an interest in possessing things, an attachment to other persons, a desire to shine in one's own and in others' eyes, a curiosity, a driving toward contention and domineering. And according as these native impulses, similar in all children and youths, are bound together in one or another way, there result men that stand opposite to one another like day and night. Let us take extremes to see the difference clear.

In one kind of youth these various impulses act almost in independence. Each pushes toward its goal with hardly a touch from the others; unchecked, the youth drives straight at what he would possess; when curious he prowls and pries without let or hindrance; now he is all affection and generosity, now he is wholly the bully and braggart.

In another youth these impulses are made the slaves of one of their roughest number. The interest in possessions, let us say, or in self-aggrandizement, has become a ruling passion; and if curiosity is still alive, it lives only to serve this master.

In still a third youth the impulses are strong and united, but in a freer way, keeping watch upon one another; no one of them can stir without ears pricked up in all the rest; and its behavior is subject to their urging and restraint. But our present youth is, indeed, a fortunate youth, for in him the sense of attachment to others, expanded and refined into obligation, speaks the last word to all the competing interests.

Curiosity is free, the love of admiration, the love of property, is free, and is encouraged to fresh life; each may summon the rest to its assistance; but always this free life is within the wide bounds fixed by respect for other persons. Such a mind is not in chains; its love of distinction is not dead, neither is it inordinate; there is a desire to shine, but not at any cost or in any manner.

Instead of vanity and the craving for notoriety (the rank growth of aggrandizement in fops and in some criminals), the love of admiration has been trained to fine strength. The native impulses have been brought to their place and proportion, each active, each tempered by its neighbors, each contributing to the right expression of the whole, each trained like the soldiers of the Tenth Legion both to command and to obey.

Such training is both private and social. The Individual is enriched and also the community. For in a man so trained the instincts that either devastate or upbuild our common life, the instincts of pugnacity and of sex, have become not enemies, but friends of the general good. Disloyalty to this great interest, even that exceptional treachery which takes the form of crime, is usually from neglect or misguidance.

Few, if any, men are born with truly ungovernable passions. The criminal is usually one in whom the right relation, the right organization, of his own deep promptings has been possible, but has never been attained. He has remained uneducated, even though his mind may have been filled with useful knowledge - used in his case for perverse ends.

It is thus evident that the mind is not a mere assembling of powers side by side; it is an organization of powers, some within others, some ruling others, using others as their instruments. There is a hierarchy of functions; and we must see to the regnant ones, making sure that the right impulsions rule, and that they are also made skillful and given concrete knowledge so that they may rule aright.

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Now, the possibility and the need of care and organization of these deep impulses, called instincts, until they attain a right form of will, hardly appear in many a picture of the mind. Neither a group of independent faculties nor a group of independent functions reveals this constitution and opportunity.

The mental disciplinarian, all eyes upon observation, memory, and reasoning, would strike into the depths of intellect, but misses those still lower depths of the affection, the instincts, and the will. Advocates of "contents" declare that the mind needs no care for its form and organization; it needs only to be filled.

Such a mistake is Not made by William James when he says that "there is reason to suppose that if we often flinch from making an effort, before we know it the effort-making capacity will be gone"; and that "the man who has daily inured himself to habits of concentrated attention, energetic volition, and self-denial in unnecessary things ... will stand like a tower when everything rocks around him, and when his softer fellow-mortals are winnowed like chaff in the blast." [1]

[1. Both quotes are contained in Psychology, the Briefer Course, 1920, at Google Books and Google Books ]

We might well regard the mind as inviting, and indeed requiring, not only particular training and useful information, but also a profound redirecting and strengthening of its inner order, not wholly unlike religious conversion. Such a change will usually not be sudden or marked by emotional storm, but gradually and in calm there will come a new perception and a new attachment of the affections and a striving toward a new goal. Something like this is in Plato's thought, that true education is that which leads us to love what we ought to love and to hate what we ought to hate from the beginning to the end.

Changes in the direction of the affections, even changes that seem instantaneous, are not confined to religion, but are general possibilities of our nature. A friend of mine, working ably in science, veered round to poetry, which thereafter remained his chief and lifelong interest. Another man, a successful merchant, was converted to learning, and selling all that he had, began years of further schooling.

The interest which in such cases turns the man around has of course not been created on the instant; it was active all the while, but subordinate; and the conversion is but the final stage of a long struggle within. A new ordering of old interests and impulses has at last come, and a new stability is the result - as with an iceberg that by long melting below the ocean's surface must find a lost balance, and with a plunge shows to the air a new side.

Such changes with most of us, when they occur, are less cataclysmic, although no less real and profound. They are invited in early childhood and in the years when school and college are working in us good or ill. No system of education can afford to miss them and the constitution of the mind which they imply.

The mind as we study it begins to reveal an immensity and an inner life hardly dreamt of by many who repeat solemnly what they take to be the final word of science. Each man's mind is doubtless as varied and deep and wide, in its own way, as is the physical world. Its soundings and its sweep will forever exceed description, yet we can already dimly discern some of the forces that bind and move and strain the whole, a view which does not contradict but corrects those who notice only what is local and minute.

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