The Object Lesson by James Whitcomb Riley

Story type: Literature

Barely a year ago I attended the Friday afternoon exercises of a country school. My mission there, as I remember, was to refresh my mind with such material as might be gathered, for a “valedictory,” which, I regret to say, was to be handed down to posterity under another signature than my own.

There was present, among a host of visitors, a pale young man of perhaps thirty years, with a tall head and bulging brow and a highly intellectual pair of eyes and spectacles. He wore his hair without roach or “part” and the smile he beamed about him was “a joy forever.” He was an educator–from the East, I think I heard it rumoured–anyway he was introduced to the school at last, and he bowed, and smiled, and beamed upon us all, and entertained us after the most delightfully edifying manner imaginable. And although I may fail to reproduce the exact substance of his remarks upon that highly important occasion, I think I can at least present his theme in all its coherency of detail. Addressing more particularly the primary department of the school, he said:–

“As the little exercise I am about to introduce is of recent origin, and the bright, intelligent faces of the pupils before me seem rife with eager and expectant interest, it will be well for me, perhaps, to offer by way of preparatory preface, a few terse words of explanation.

“The Object Lesson is designed to fill a long-felt want, and is destined, as I think, to revolutionize, in a great degree, the educational systems of our land.–In my belief, the Object Lesson will supply a want which I may safely say has heretofore left the most egregious and palpable traces of mental confusion and intellectual inadequacies stamped, as it were, upon the gleaming reasons of the most learned–the highest cultured, and the most eminently gifted and promising of our professors and scientists both at home and abroad.

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“Now this deficiency–if it may be so termed–plainly has a beginning; and probing deeply with the bright, clean scalpel of experience we discover that–‘As the twig is bent the tree’s inclined.’ To remedy, then, a deeply seated error which for so long has rankled at the very root of educational progress throughout the land, many plausible, and we must admit, many helpful theories have been introduced to allay the painful errors resulting from the discrepancy of which we speak: but until now, nothing that seemed wholly to eradicate the defect has been discovered, and that, too, strange as it may seem, is, at last, emanating, like the mighty river, from the simplest source, but broadening and gathering in force and power as it flows along, until, at last, its grand and mighty current sweeps on in majesty to the vast illimitable ocean of–of–of–Success! Ahem!

“And, now, little boys and girls, that we have had by implication, a clear and comprehensive explanation of the Object Lesson and its mission, I trust you will give me your undivided attention while I endeavor–in my humble way–to direct your newly acquired knowledge through the proper channel. For instance:–

“This little object I hold in my hand–who will designate it by its proper name? Come, now, let us see who will be the first to answer. ‘A peanut,’ says the little boy here at my right. Very good–very good! I hold, then, in my hand, a peanut. And now who will tell me, what is the peanut? A very simple question–who will answer? ‘Something good to eat,’ says the little girl. Yes, ‘something good to eat,’ but would it not be better to say simply that the peanut is an edible? I think so, yes. The peanut, then, is–an edible–now, all together, an edible!

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“To what kingdom does the peanut belong? The animal, vegetable, or mineral kingdom? A very easy question. Come, let us have prompt answers. ‘The animal kingdom,’ does the little boy say? Oh, no! The peanut does not belong to the animal kingdom! Surely the little boy must be thinking of a larger object than the peanut–the elephant, perhaps. To what kingdom, then, does the peanut belong? The v-v-veg–‘The vegetable kingdom,’ says the bright-faced little girl on the back seat. Ah! that is better. We find then that the peanut belongs to the–what kingdom? The ‘vegetable kingdom.’ Very good, very good!

“And now who will tell us of what the peanut is composed. Let us have quick responses now. Time is fleeting! Of what is the peanut composed? ‘The hull and the goody,’ some one answers. Yes, ‘the hull and the goody’ in vulgar parlance, but how much better it would be to say simply, the shell and the kernel. Would not that sound better? Yes, I thought you would agree with me there!

“And now who will tell me the color of the peanut! And be careful now! for I shouldn’t like to hear you make the very stupid blunder I once heard a little boy make in reply to the same question. Would you like to hear what color the stupid little boy said the peanut was? You would, eh? Well, now, how many of you would like to hear what color the stupid little boy said the peanut was? Come now, let’s have an expression. All who would like to hear what color the stupid little boy said the peanut was, may hold up their right hands. Very good, very good–there, that will do.

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“Well, it was during a professional visit I was once called upon to make to a neighboring city, where I was invited to address the children of a free school–Hands down, now, little boy–founded for the exclusive benefit of the little newsboys and bootblacks, who, it seems, had not the means to defray the expenses of the commonest educational accessories, and during an object lessen–identical with the one before us now–for it is a favorite one of mine–I propounded the question, what is the color of the peanut? Many answers were given in response, but none as sufficiently succinct and apropos as I deemed the facts demanded; and so at last I personally addressed a ragged, but, as I then thought, a bright-eyed little fellow, when judge of my surprise, in reply to my question what is the color of the peanut, the little fellow, without the slightest gleam of intelligence lighting up his face, answered, that ‘if not scorched in roasting, the peanut was a blond.’ Why, I was almost tempted to join in the general merriment his inapposite reply elicited. But I occupy your attention with trivial things; and as I notice the time allotted to me has slipped away, we will drop the peanut for the present. Trusting the few facts gleaned from a topic so homely and unpromising will sink deep in your minds, in time to bloom and blossom in the fields of future usefulness–I–I—-I thank you.”

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