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True Meaning and Value of Creative Work.

BY THEODORE STEARNS.

If there is any one place in which true creative work is needed it is in the matter of teaching. To the average instructor who has little or no initiative the term “creative” seems to refer exclusively to composition, literature, or art. As a matter of fact, probably no composer, artist, or novelist ever lived who was not the direct result of creative work on the part of some one who influenced him, either personally or through previous publications that served as the first inspiration. We are all accustomed to hear that in music this is pre-eminently the case. Beethoven drew on Haydn and Mozart. Wagner followed and was inspired by Beethoven and Weber. Berlioz worshiped Gluck. The long line of creative work extended in an unwavering stream of influence that of necessity must be progressive.

But in the daily routine of teaching true “creative work” plays its most important rôle. It is here that the kernel lies,—dormant in most cases, it is true,— and to the one who has the mental courage to lift the veil the secret of successful teaching is bared instantly. What teacher has not found, to his or her despair, that merely explaining a lesson does not suffice?

But this is not all. Not to utilize the creative power inherent in each member of the race is worse than a mistake. To use this power one must delve more deeply than merely correcting mistakes. It becomes obvious that the reason of the correction must be made manifest to the pupil. The student should be inspired constantly. Beckon instead of pushing him. It is not enough that the nail is driven part way in; it should be securely hammered down. To attain this end and to awaken so-called dull pupils into fresh activity and ambition, an almost exhaustless material is at the teacher’s disposal. It must be cultivated assiduously, it is true, but the extra thought and care put on the subject can end in but one result: profit and gain to both.

The power of illustration has been the keenest incentive to progress possessed by the human race. History, art, science, since man was, demonstrates this. Added to this is the rich gift of anecdote possible to everybody. The babe prattles of its first tiny excursions, is listened to, is made to feel that it will be a substantial factor in life, and progress is the result. The school-child is taught by illustration. That Columbus discovered America in 1492 is of small importance to him. With the picture of the landing, however, the information is firmly fixed in his mind, and subconsciously he demands more information. Interest is created by skillful use of illustration. Again, imagine a geography devoid of pictures. Think how dreary would be the dry perusal of mere maps and uninteresting statements about climate, produce, and exchange. Wise minds have realized that, in order to fix this information firmly, other means must be employed. Thus, when the boy or girl reads that the equatorial district is hot, a picture of luxuriant jungle is produced, and the fact is twice conveyed to the mind, with the result that the pupil is satisfied and cannot easily forget the lesson. All this is true creative work; for it quickens the sensibilities and magnifies the interest. In many cases this scheme also awakens ambition. The pupil desires to travel where those minarets and curiously gowned crowds are so picturesquely commingled on the pictured page before him.

The idea is to employ similar means in other branches of teaching. Not to use pictures especially, but to associate some difficult or distasteful lesson with a story, anecdote, or illustration that will remain solidly and worthily in the mind of the pupil and which will help him. Memory is not an atom. It is always a train of thought following one object after another—from suggestion to suggestion—until the desired point is reached. If the pupil can say to himself “My teacher said this and that; I recollect that story or illustration,” his difficulty in remembering just how a certain passage should be played or sung is immeasurably decreased.

A little girl was puzzled to understand the relation between printed notes and the corresponding ones on the piano-keys. When the notes went “up” in the music her fingers, like as not, played the passage in a descending sequence. The teacher was in despair. Finally the child was given the obvious suggestion that the high notes were “in the garret” and the bass notes “in the cellar.” The next lesson was a success. “Now I must go upstairs” said the pupil gravely, as she played an ascending passage correctly. The point was gained; the pupil grasped the situation perfectly. This was creative work on the part of the teacher.

But it works both ways,—this creative work,—just like gunpowder. Be sure that the muzzle and not the breech is pointing the way. If the effort to command and crystallize the attention is vague and uninteresting it may serve only to confuse instead of to elucidate. If an illustration be used make it a homely one; surround it with matter that is familiar in the life of the pupil. Stephen Crane’s short stories and the reportorial work of Richard Harding Davis were always interesting, because both writers described events by allusions and similes that every reader could understand and instantly appreciate. “The effect of a shell bursting in the trenches resembled a broken ash-barrel with the garbage strewed about” wrote one war-correspondent. Few of the millions of readers had seen a shell burst, but probably all of them knew what an ash-barrel looked like.

Beyond a doubt there are pupils who are not susceptible to suggestions. Yet the emotion can be aroused in them if you keep at them. A delegation once called on Abraham Lincoln during the most strenuous part of his early presidency. One of the men was determined to gain a certain concession if he had to ride roughshod over the whole administration. Lincoln had been told repeatedly that the man was an impossible proposition and would not listen to reason. Lincoln made his caller listen to logic, but the effort was a big one. Asked how he succeeded, “Abe” told one of his inimitable anecdotes. A certain farmer back in the days of the president’s early struggles had a log in one of his pastures. This log was “too big to split, too heavy to haul, and too soggy to burn.” One day he came to Lincoln with the information that at last he bad gotten rid of the obstruction.

“How did you do it?” asked Lincoln.

“Well,” replied the farmer, “I plowed around it.”

Plough around your dull pupil. Loosen up the ground and get some fresh earth about the roots. After awhile he will be sure to grow just as potatoes will under the influence of the hoe. It will do no good merely to tell him a thing is wrong. He is too liable to be wrong continually.

Whip the lagging interest into active curiosity if nothing else. Hermann Ritter is known throughout Europe as a wonderful lecturer on musical history, yet it must be said that he spends three-fourths of the lesson-hour in relating apparently irrelevant stories that seemingly have little bearing on the subject. But his classes are always crowded. I have seen dull, ignorant pupils from surrounding peasant villages who scarce knew the difference between a horse and a cow, gape open-mouthed at Ritter and his stories. “I just want you to remember the date of this composer’s death,” said he on one occasion. “Just remember that he lived in Italy—where the Pope lives—and when barbers and shoe-makers played in the theaters and sang on the stage.”

Notwithstanding all this the average for musical history is higher than that of any other study in the Würzburg Conservatory, where Ritter teaches.

Your one helpful suggestion may assist a struggling pupil more than a whole term of expensive tuition.

I have met hundreds of teachers and pupils in obscure corners—in way towns, on the plains—far from the crowds—who were dissatisfied with their lot in life. And, apparently, they were buried, for they were beyond the reach of concerts, opera, and the pleasure of conversation with intelligent equals.

One said: “My pupils are so ignorant, so unappreciative! What incentive have I to perfect myself or to complete my ambition? Now, if I were among talented pupils, in New York or Chicago, what couldn’t I accomplish?”

See how illogical this person is. It is easy to make a name with all the means at your command. No difficult task to pluck a rose from the pathway hedges. But the one who braves the Alpine heights, who climbs steadily onward and upward until the edelweiss of success is gained; he who takes the material at hand, poor as it may seem, and wrests success from it, may know that he has done well—may feel that his work has created something that will last for all time. Why, I have seen a “dull” pupil work energetically for six months over the inspiration given her by the simple relating of an apt tale that illustrated a difficult passage in the music which had been given her to study. Her teacher was not tired out. That teacher created what is far more important than publishing a song or a symphony: a desire and ambition to work in one who may afterward repeat the lesson to another.

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