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Delivered before the American Institute of Instruction, August, 1830.
When I had the honour of being invited to make some remarks at this meeting on the subject of physical education, I felt much hesitation in undertaking the task. This hesitation arose from the apprehension that professional occupations would render it impracticable for me to present the subject in such a form as to excite the interest it demands. Aware, however, that the course of my pursuits had put me in possession of facts having an important bearing on the present modes of education, and feeling anxious that these facts should be made known to instructors and parents, and others concerned in the management of the rising generation, I felt myself called on to waive the consideration of the objections to this labour, and to trust the results of my experience, in such a dress as I could afford to give them, to the candour of those to whom they were to be submitted.
Nature has destined that the physical and intellectual education of man should be conducted in very different modes. The culture of the mind requires the early, constant, and well-directed efforts of an artificial system. That of the physical faculties is fully effected by the powers of unassisted nature. All that she asks is, that
we would leave her free and unconstrained. Unhappily, our state of civilization, while it has copiously supplied the means of intellectual improvement, has, nearly in the same ratio, raised obstacles to the development of the physical powers; and if we wished to restore to those their original spring, we should either revert to our primitive condition, or find substitutes in art for the modes employed by nature.
Considerations of this description have presented themselves occasionally, as I have been called to observe the evils arising from the prevalent systems of education, and also from too steady an application to literary pursuits in those whose education was completed. At one period, my attention was excited to the unfavourable influence of studious and sedentary habits on health, by the occurrence of alarming indisposition among the members of the sacred profession, a number of whom became its premature and much-lamented victims. At another, I witnessed the effects of a mistaken system, on the constitution of multitudes of the fairest work of creative power. I have had the misfortune to behold, when it was too late to apply a remedy, numerous instances of decay in the most vigorous constitutions, and of distortion in the best proportioned forms.
The importance of health to the regular exercise of the faculties of mind, as well as those of body, is very well understood in theory, and very generally neglected in practice. We are daily seen to accumulate the treasures of science on intellects where the physical machinery is disordered and made useless by the burden. What is the value of a brilliant genius, or a highly cultivated mind, to a weak and labouring frame? Let us suppose the existence of such a case in either of thę
learned professions. If it occur in the minister of religion, the organs of utterance are enfeebled, and the power of instructing his hearers is diminished or destroyed. The thoughts that should speak remain unembodied in language, and the words that should burn are extinguished on his lips. His usefulness is impaired in the moment of his' full career; and even if his days are not cut off at an early period, he finds his mental abilities prematurely chained down by bodily weakness.
If it happen in the interpreter of the law,- the powerful workings of the mind in the investigation of obscure points, and the elaboration of profound arguments, break down a sickly and yielding organization, and bring on a train of nervous affections and perverted imaginations, as permanent perhaps as life, and less supportable than death,
Again, a bad constitution in a professor of the heal. ing art keeps him at variance with all bis duties. How can he heal others, in whom the springs of health act feebly and imperfectly? A laborious and active course of duty demands a bodily vigour that can endure all kinds of unseasonable labour; a steadiness of fibre that can bear without agitation the sufferings of others, while attempting to relieve them; and a firmness of health able to resist the attacks of those malignant epidemics that prostrate a whole community.
When we regard the influence of a debilitated body on the more delicate sex, we find it not less distressing: A young female, at the age of twelve or fourteen, presents a beautiful figure, rosy cheeks, an airy step, and the fulness of life and happiness in every movement,
As she advances, her vivacity naturally lessens; but, as if it would not be soon enough extinguished, it must be repressed by art. The lively motions of the body and limbs must be checked, the spirits must be restrained, and a sort of unnatural hypocrisy made to conceal every ingenuous movement. The activity of disposition is destroyed; by confinement she loses the inclination for exercise, and passes from her school to a state of listlessness at home, or to frivolous and useless amusements, or perhaps to fresh tasks. By this regular repression of the physical powers, their energy is at last broken. Various organs lose their tone and their healthy action. Even the most solid parts are gradually impaired, and, being unable to support their ordinary burden, they sink under its weight, and bring on unchangeable deformity. Perhaps the exterior of health may remain a little longer, although the destroying principle is working in the heart. Should she be called on to be a mother, then comes the trial of her strength. The fruit, so fair without, is then found decayed within when scarcely matured. Next, the roses of the countenance wither; the limbs are feeble and tottering; the vivacity is extinguished; the whole system undermined, and ready to fall on the first impulse. Of what use now are all the finery of accomplishment, and the rich stores of literature and of science, the fruits of so many years' labour ? They are all wasted, and perish unemployed.
What I have now stated as the result of the mode of female education in use at present is not a picture of the imagination; it is a fair representation of what we are compelled to encounter in almost daily experience.
My wish now is to point out some of the principal
ways in which literary pursuits may be destructive to health ; and also to show what measures might be adopted to prevent these pernicious consequences.
Action is the object for which organization was created. If the organs are allowed to remain inactive, the channels of life become clogged ; and the functions and even the structure get impaired. Young animals are filled with the desire of motion, in order that the fluids of the body may be forced rapidly through their tubes, the solids thus elongated and enlarged, and every part gradually and fully developed.
The immediate consequences of action on the bodily frame are familiar and visible to daily experience. Observe the sinewy arm of the mechanic. The muscles are large and distinct; and when put in motion they become as hard as wood and as strong as iron. Notice those who are accustomed to carry considerable weights on the head. The joints of the lower limbs are close-set and unyielding; the frame perfectly erect, and the attitude commanding. In the cultivator of the soil, though the form may be vitiated by neglect, you may observe that the appearance of every part is healthful, vigorous, and well fitted for labour.
While all of us are desirous of possessing the excellent qualities of strength, hardiness, and beauty, how defective are our systems of education in the means of acquiring them ? In the present state of civilization, a child, soon after it can walk, is sent to school; not so much for the purpose of learning, as to relieve its parents of the trouble of superintending its early movements. As he grows older the same plan is incessantly pursued and improved on, till a large part of his time is passed in sedentary pursuits and in crowded rooms. In