From the Concrete to the Abstract
No mistake is more common amongst the religious than that of forcing upon their children a premature and precocious familiarity with the highest generalizations of theology and metaphysics. This is an error, however, from which the slightest acquaintance with the canons of educational science ought to be able to save us.
The child who is to be an abstruse mathematician of world famed genius, has to begin by counting things. "Lisping in numbers" happens only in the imaginations of poets. The idea of one, or of two, is a high abstraction, as inconceivable to the baby mind as "holiness" or "justice" or "equality." But two sweets, or one toy, on the other hand, is a concept easily grasped.
Thus the foundations of the sciences of quantity are carefully
laid, in the mind of the rightly-trained student, by years of numbering, grouping, and measuring of concrete objects. And the power of a great mind is nowhere more distinctively shown, than in the fact that the name of a given number-group, in afterlife, instinctively recalls some associated concrete image. The man whose mathematical imagination is saturated with memories of the concrete is the man of soaring power in mathematics, and no other. An instance of this lies in the poetic statement of old Indian problems in Algebra. "So many lotuses grow in a pond, when so and so happens," the proposition will begin, not, "the square of such a symbol minus such another," as in Europe. There can be no question, amongst minds capable of judging, as to which method of statement is sounder and more fertile.
The same problem, of making experience the basis of theory,
has to be worked out by the competent teacher in all branches of education. It has never yet been done with completeness, but attempts are constantly being made. Unless the child can make a plan of the room or courtyard, unless he has made a map of the village-street, and the neighbouring river, we know that atlases and geography-books must for ever remain a sealed book to his inner eye. The wars of history are made real by the contests of the play-ground. Costume, poetry, and drama render every story more vivid, and every memory more enduring.
The point is, that no mind can launch another upon a generalization. All that we can communicate to each other is an element of experience. I cannot make my baby grasp the idea of two. Bui I can guide the chubby hand from eye to eye, cheek to cheek, ear to ear, counting ''one, two, one, two," the while! Thus the mind is trained, and fruitfully trained. The act of counting is thus made into a Sadhana, to lead to the Jnana that realizes two. Even Sri Ramakrishna could not banish social pride, in the abstract, from his own heart at the initial stage. But he could wash the yard of the pariah, and wipe the stones with the hair of his head, night after night. Even he could not leap at once to same sightedness about wealth. But he had to practise it in the concrete, and change earth and gold from hand to hand and finally cast them both away, seeing no difference between them. It was this practice that made his realization so dynamic and powerful—whereas ours is pallid and abstract—when it did come.