Samuel Johnson Teaches Composition: The Preceptor

After our discussion of Carrie’s ungrateful “remnant,” I thought it would be helpful to recall one of the eighteenth century’s most famous failed schoolmasters, Samuel Johnson. In his Preface to the Preceptor (1748), Johnson gives us a description of the eighteenth century schoolroom (all male, of course) that sounds mighty familiar to me:

Every man, who has been engaged in teaching, knows with how much difficulty youthful minds are confined to close application, and how readily they deviate to any thing, rather than attend to that which is imposed as a task. That this disposition, when it becomes inconsistent with the forms of education, is to be checked, will readily be granted; but since, though it may be in some degree obviated, it cannot wholly be suppressed, it is surely rational to turn it to advantage, by taking care that the mind shall never want objects on which its faculties may be usefully employed. It is not impossible, that this restless desire of novelty, which gives so much trouble to the teacher, may be often the struggle of the understanding starting from that to which it is not by nature adapted, and travelling in search of something on which it may fix with greater satisfaction.

It is fascinating how Johnson turns this discussion of the classroom toward one of his favorite themes, the danger of boredom. For Johnson the ex-schoolmaster, one of the chief causes of schoolboys’ inattention must be the demand that they read as a group from an identical text, even while they demonstrate widely varied capacities:

For, without supposing each man particularly marked out by his genius for particular performances, it may be easily conceived, that when a numerous class of boys is confined indiscriminately to the same forms of composition, the repetition of the same words, or the explication of the same sentiments, the employment
must, either by nature or accident, be less suitable to some than others; that the ideas to be contemplated may be too difficult for the apprehension of one, and too obvious for that of another: they may be such as some understandings cannot reach, though others look down upon them, as below their regard. Every mind, in its progress through the different stages of scholastick learning, must be often in one of these conditions; must either flag with the labour, or grow wanton with the facility of the work assigned; and in either state it naturally turns aside from the track before it. Weariness looks out for relief, and leisure for employment, and, surely, it is rational to indulge the wanderings of both.

Johnson seems to regard this lack of coordination, and the kind of boredom it engenders, as completely predictable consequences of the classroom. His solution is simply to offer a treatise like The Preceptor to the public, with essays on many different subjects, and with the hope that students with different capacities and temperaments will find what they need.

Perhaps he was not such a bad teacher, after all.

Happy New Year.



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