Developing Mental Power
George Malcolm Stratton

[Childhood Education, 1922]


With this glance at the savage instincts become civilized, one may well turn to the will, ask what a strong will really is, and by what forging it has its temper.

1. And first we shall see that there are three features in a will that is trained, and that we must not think too exclusively of its sheer force. Violent, stormy children and adults have ample force, yet with wills undisciplined. An effective will has vigor; but, besides, it has steadiness; and, still more, rightness of aim. The will is not schooled until it has been brought to right measure in all these three respects, so that it is at once forcible, unswerving, and aimed a little above the very center of the target.

2. Steadiness has ten times the worth of sheer weight of blow. A friend of mine, a mere child, standing on the dock at Lake Tahoe, and leaning against a vessel there, gradually and without knowing it pushed the vessel away until she fell into the water. Had she rushed against the craft, she might have dashed herself to pieces without budging it. So with the mind; the child's will is the wind's will, at first gusty and variable, until it can blow true, like the trades.

Steadiness not only has ten times the effect of violence, it is ten times more readily attained. We can expect by training to make the will constant, where we can do little to alter its original force of attack. Let us then carry our admiration from the strong to the constant will. "It's dogged as does it!"

3. Steadiness of will means power to do the irksome, to resist the lure of the easy and the comfortable. The child must be psychically toughened, ready to defy his present sensations. Spartan youths were taught to stand pain. Their Athenian critic said that they and all other lads had better be taught to stand pleasure where character so often breaks down.

This does not mean that there is no need to enlarge the circle of the agreeable; or that, with Mr. Dooley, it does not matter what you study so long as you hate it. More tasks can be made pleasant, but there will remain many unpleasant tasks that should not be avoided. The world will soon enough assign work which will be distasteful and must for success be labored into and through. Young Grenfell taking to the North Sea and then to Labrador, young Lincoln training himself where all was uninviting - such men show the spare sinews of the will contemptuous of the merely pleasant.

4. Within reason, a decision once made should be held to tooth and nail. It may be that the purpose should be changed, but there should be prejudice against this. In general we can trust a child to adjust his will to new evidence, new experience, new opportunities; we can less securely trust him to escape the loss from that common trick of the mind by which upon committing one's self to a course, whatever it be, that course comes to seem rough and sunless. The vacillation which results is wasteful from the start, and grows to a habit of dropping things hardly begun. Children in whom this fickleness is not trained out, grow into men and women forever remodeling their houses before they are half-built.

5. Interruptions will occur; the will must swing back to its old direction, like a compass needle when the obstruction goes. Steadiness of will can in practice never mean an unbroken advance to the goal. It means a forgetting of the break, a homing again and again. Exercises could and should be conceived to bring the child spontaneously and of habit back to the unfinished work, to keep active in his subconsciousness the old interest, ready to stand forth and summon him back to what is incomplete. Discouragement because of interruption 's disastrous and avoidable; it should be forestalled by becoming expectant of breaks, and prepared to meet them on their own ground.

6. Will depends upon habits of muscular action and of thinking, along with habits of feeling and emotion. An effective will requires the support of an organized group of habits, habits of hand, of speech, of weighing and deciding, of steady attachments and aversions, in a thousand forms and directions. Will has built into it habits; and unless they be for us they will be against us. No one can conquer who has not an army of such helpers that can be depended upon - no more than can a general, a genius in strategy, but without troops.

7. There must be a right direction of the will. It is not enough that the will be powerful and unswerving. The hunter of steady aim must aim at the right thing; and not, as did one in the Sierra, who wounded a friend of mine, mistaking him for a bear! Napoleon, Bismarck, of almost irresistible purpose, lacked some powerful ingredient to complete their will.

The defect is not so much a failure to see the facts, as a failure to appraise the facts seen; a true scale of valuation is lacking. Until this is supplied by an imparting of taste, morals, and religion, the will has only a form of training, and lacks substance. Without wisdom, then, the will is a powerful instrument whose effect is all insecure. Guidance must enter into the constitution of will; its impulses must be subject to a love of the Best.

8. The desired qualities of will should be sought not alone by maxim, encouragement, and command; graded exercises there should be, suited to the age of the child. Parents and teachers might well invent and assign things to be done, rewarding in themselves, and chosen, perhaps, from cooking, drawing, modeling, painting, acting, reading, or any other of a hundred things - but now used in order to make habitual the right ways of purpose, applicable in any work.

These right ways might here be set down, with another purpose than was guiding us earlier in this section, as: (a) suitable forethought; (b) speed and energy of attack, once the decision is made; (c) perseverance in what is undertaken; (d) economy of action, elimination of waste effort, "form"; (e) excellence of result in the product; (f) restoration of order when the work is done, putting away of tools and materials, clearing and cleaning up.

Each of these six phases of the process should receive due attention - perhaps one at a time, as Benjamin Franklin practiced the virtues - but recurring, and with different degrees of difficulty. There should be brief explanation before and after the fact, that the idea of what is sought should come with the practice, and should help to make the practice itself more fruitful and ready to reappear spontaneously in new places. And whatever is approved elsewhere as a means to interest and progress might be used here; if "marks," rewards, praise, or rivalries are good to spur on in numbering or writing or any other study, this present learning to will aright is as worthy of their incentive.

9. As an exercise in suitable forethought, the following might serve as a door to something better. There is, let us say, but ten minutes left, and the child must choose between cutting some design in paper and making candy; and the choice is then appraised, with explanation, according as the child has stopped to think, to look ahead, before deciding. Or, again, having at hand only some modeling wax, a pair of scissors, and some very narrow strips of thin colored paper, one must decide whether to build a paper house or make the figure of a dog.

Or still again, the child, without actual materials at hand and with the use only of his imagination, must say - with no change of vote permitted - which line of conduct is suitable, either in cases like those just given, or where some one of a thousand other situations is described - where, perhaps, a child has visiting playmates who have come walking from afar and up a long steep hill; shall they at first play "authors" or play "tag"?

10. For an exercise in persistence, the child, having started upon something which he himself, perhaps, has chosen, is "marked," is praised or left unpraised, according to the full constancy with which he continues to its end the work in hand. For the earlier and easier steps in such an exercise, that can be matched in its duration and in all else to the child's years and progress, there will be an absence of intentional distraction and temptation that must be resisted; there will be enough to contend with in the spontaneous prompting to slow up, to stop, to do something else.

But when self-control has reached its proper pitch, the set task will be to continue without remission when things lie at hand to play with, or when the other children are at attractive work or at play. If it is known beforehand to be a trial of constancy, joyously announced as a chance to show the stuff one is made of, with praise and reward waiting on success, the child can delight to stand the test, as a young Redskin schooled and glad to endure pain.

Good workers often seem to need something to struggle against, some challenge that wakes and nerves them to put their muscles and brain in fighting trim. With fuller mastery there must also be actual interruptions, with free return to the work as soon as possible. Power to remember and re-attack work broken into is central to all excellence.

11. It is clear that a will fully trained is in truth a character trained. It is an organization of many, indeed all, of our different impulses, native and acquired, colored by all our conscious interests and affections, colored and guided by experience and knowledge and formulated principles of action.

All the parts and forces of will should come within our planning, should be dealt with by a system that draws from the imagination and from the findings of careful experiment. Many and great are the trained will's requirements: to be intelligent, escaping at once the missteps that come from stupidity and from inexperience; to be self-reliant, yet receiving the help of others which no one can forego; to be a seeker of possessions, but mainly of the kind that no one can steal; to be cheerful and of good-will; to have conscience lit with knowledge. The teacher's task is thus to remake the child entire, to make of him a person; it is, to use Stevenson's words, a task for all that a man has of fortitude and delicacy.

The task is, indeed, difficult and demands the talent of creative artists. Not in one generation nor in two will the means be discovered and brought to bear. But whatever comes of the best family life or of fortunate friendships or of great public opportunity and need - whatever comes to the mind's benefit from these is clearly within the aim of right education.

Whatever can be wrought by happy environment can in some measure be wrought by the school, which is an environment planned and chosen. The result may be of less amount than comes from beyond school, but it need have no different quality. And most of all where the world beyond school promises the child not the best, but only the worst family life, with no fortunate friendships and only the bleak prospect of factory and mill and mine, then is the demand insistent that we neglect nothing that will even slightly remake the mind into what is right and whole.

Men persevered at aviation from the days of Daedalus, closing their ears to the wagging gray-beards who cried "impossible." An honored professor of mine, a physicist of distinction, used to demonstrate to us that the attempt to make a flying machine was absurd; even as others had proved that slavery was part of the eternal ordinance of God. But once recognize the demand, and the inventive will of man is indomitable. So in education we shall have faith in things to come; we shall welcome all manner of experimental schools, especially those which look steadily to true understanding and to the will and the affections, out of which are the issues of life. Effectively to love what ought to be loved and to hate what ought to be hated requires, not heart alone, but brain and hand and tongue.

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