The Young Philosopher - A Sketch for Parents

Sylvanus Cobb Jr | published Jul, 1852

added May 25, 2024
cover Image
First Date of Publication
Jul, 1852
Original Source
Gleason's Pictorial
Additional Publication Information
See Publication history below.
Original Source Type
Short Story
Original Language
Kasman Review
Not in ISFDB
Summary: A short work which highlights the prevailing scholastic attitude in the early nineteenth century, with apathy toward finer subjects like philosophy in favor of harder sciences.

Story Tag Line: “What book is that you are reading ?”
“It’s a work on philosophy, sir.”
“A work on fiddle-sticks! Go put it away this instant, and then get your slate, and don’t you let me see you away from your arithmetic again until you can work out these roots.”

Longer Publication History:

• “The Young Philosopher - A Sketch For Parents”, Sylvanus Cobb, Jr., The Gleason Pictorial was published in July, 1852
• “The Young Philosopher - A Sketch For Parents”, Anonymous, in “The Palmer Journal” on Jan 20, 1855
• “The Young Philosopher”, Anonymous, in The Quincy Patriot, April 7, 1855
• Anonymous – The Young Blacksmith - The Youth’s Companion – Sep 20, 1860
• “The Young Philosopher - A Sketch For Parents”, Anonymous, in the book, “R.I. Schoolmaster = Rhode Island School Master”, published in Jan, 1863
• “The Father’s Error”, Anonymous, in Maine Farmer, Sep 9, 1871
• “A Father’s Error”, Anonymous, in The New York School Journal, Aug 24, 1872

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  • Vijay Fafat
    Published on

    Another short story which highlights the prejudices the society had toward the measure of “intelligence” and the inability to recognize the large range of human abilities at a young age, where the stress was often placed on obtaining a mastery over hard sciences over softer subjects. Such an attitude, though now significantly weakened over the past 20 years in an Eastern culture like India, prevailed when I was studying engineering way back in the 90s, where an ability to solve questions in mathematics and physics was an automatic imprimatur of “high intelligence” while subjects related to business, commerce, and arts were considered second and third tier (medicine was an orthogonal pursuit, “noble”, not to be confused with “intelligence”…)

    Mr. Solomon Winthrop “was a plain farmer—an austere, precise man, who did everything by established rules, and could see no reason why people should grasp at things beyond what had been reached by their great grandfathers. He had three children, two boys and a girl. There was Jeremiah, seventeen years old, Samuel fifteen, and Fanny, thirteen.”

    He had one myopic side:

    “Mr. Winthrop was a thorough mathematician— he never yet came across a problem he could not solve, and he desired that his boys should be like him, for he considered that educational perfection lay in the power of conquering Euclid ; and he often expressed the opinion that, were Euclid living then he could “give the old geometrician a hard tussle.” He seemed not to comprehend that different minds were made with different capacities, and what one mind grasped with ease, another of equal power would fail to comprehend.”

    His elder son, Jerry, had a good mind for mathematics, though Samuel had little interest in it – his thoughts flew elsewhere. A typical conversation around this mismatch from one evening went as follows:

    “Sam,” said the father to his youngest boy, “have you worked out that sum yet?”
    “No, sir,” returned the boy, hesitatingly.
    “Didn’t I tell you to stick to your arithmetic till you had done it ?” uttered Mr. Winthrop, in a severe tone.” Samuel hung down his head, and looked troubled.
    “Why haven’t yon done it ?” continued the father.
    “I can’t do it, sir,” tremblingly returned Samuel.
    “Can’t do it? and why not ? Look at Jerry, there, with the slate and pencil. He had ciphered farther than you have, long before he was as old as you are.”
    “Jerry was always fond of mathematical problems, sir, but I cannot fasten my mind on them. They have no interest for me.”
    “That’s because you don’t try to feel an interest in your studies. What book is that you are reading ?”
    “It’s a work on philosophy, sir.”
    “A work on fiddle-sticks! Go, put it away this instant, and then get your slate, and don’t let me see you away from your arithmetic until you can work out those roots. Do you understand me?”

    The dismissal of “philosophy” as “fiddle-sticks” is quite telling of the attitude (which, to be fair, must also be seen in the context of the olden times and the likely limited-means economic condition of Mr. Winthrop)

    Jerry offered to do the assigned math work for Sam, but Sam quite bravely insisted on doing it himself so as not to “deceive” his father, even though he said “I will try to do the sum, though I fear I shall not succeed.”.

    And indeed, he did not succeed:

    “Samuel worked very hard, but all to no purpose. His mind was not on the subject before him. The roots and squares, the basis, hypotenuse and perpendiculars, though comparatively simple in themselves, were to him a mingled mass of incomprehensible things, and the more he worked, the more he became perplexed and bothered.”

    Mr. Winthrop could never see beyond his tunnel vision of his assumed importance of mathematics in everyday life, and never conversed with his son to understand his perspective. What he did feel was that Sam was “idle and careless” because of his lack of mathematical skills and treated him with disdain, as such. As the story-teller astutely notes,

    “…nor did his father see, either, that if he ever wished his boy to become a mathematician, he was pursuing the course to prevent such a result. Instead of endeavoring to make the study interesting for the child, he was making it obnoxious.”

    Unbeknownst to Mr. Winthrop, Sam was very gifted in the area of machinery and tool-building. Over the years, Sam got by on his own, under constant castigation of his father, but he kept honing his skills at carpentry and metal-working. In due course, his father got him a position at Mr. Young’s factory as a young workman.

    One day, Mr. Young stumbled upon Sam building some contraption with springs and slides and decided to make him a machinist to give him a better environment for development of skills. And then, as the story continues:

    “Time flew fast. Samuel was twenty-one. Jeremiah had been free almost two years, and was one of the most accurate and trustworthy surveyors in the country. Mr. Winthrop looked upon his eldest son with pride, and often expressed a wish that his other kid should have been like him.
    Samuel had come home to visit his parents, and Mr. Young had come with him.”

    What did Mr. Winthrop find out, to his utter amazement?

    That Sam had invented the “Winthrop Power Loom” which had “taken all the manufacturers by surprise”. The father slowly grasped that his “good-for-nothing” son had been a prodigal progeny:

    “[…] father, that the loom is mine,” returned Samuel, with conscious pride. “I have invented it and taken a patent right, and have already been offered ten thousand dollars for the patent right in two adjoining States. Don’t you remember that clap-trap you crushed with your foot, six years ago?”
    “Yes,” answered the old man, whose eyes were bent to the floor, and over whose mind new light seemed breaking.
    “Well,” continued Samuel, “that was almost a pattern, though, of course, I have made much alteration and improvement, and there is room for more.
    “And that was what you were studying, when you used to stand and see me weave, and then fumbled about my loom so much?” said Mrs. Winthrop.
    “You are right, mother. Even then I had conceived the idea which I have since carried out.”
    “And that is why you could not understand my mathematical problems,” uttered Mr. Winthrop, as he started from his chair and took the youth by the hand ; “Samuel, my son, forgive me for the harshness I have used toward you. I have been blinded, and now see how I misunderstood you. While I have thought you idle and careless, you were solving a philosophical problem I could never have comprehended. Forgive me, Samuel —I meant well enough, but lacked judgment and discrimination.”

    The story ends with its moral:

    “Of course, the old man had long before been forgiven for his harshness, and his mind was opened to a new lesson in human nature. It was simply this:—Different minds have different capacities, and no mind can ever be driven to love that for which it has no taste. First, seek to understand natural abilities and dispositions of children, and then, in your management of their education for life, govern yourself accordingly. George Combe, the great philosopher, could hardly reckon in simple addition, and Colburn, the mathematician could not write out a common-place address.”