Friday, April 3, 2015

The Natural Education of an Esperantist

Young Winifred teaching
children of wealthy parents
I’ve been delinquent. In reviewing the newspapers of the spring of 1915 that (ersatz British noblewoman) Winifred Sackville Stoner was in New York promoting her accomplishments as an educator. A year before (1914), she had published her book, Natural Education. Her daughter, the younger Winifred Stoner, was the test subject and embodiment of her mother’s educational theories. A quick glance at the book shows that Stoner referenced Esperanto about thirteen times in her book.

Her devotion to the Esperanto movement was rewarded. Despite that it’s neither in nor about Esperanto, Amerika Esperantisto gave a review of it (in English) in their September 1914 issue. It’s also clear that Mrs. Stoner pushed Esperanto as a vital part of early education, giving a bit of a promotion to the Esperanto movement. By twelve, little Winifred was set to teaching yet younger children, an activity that included instruction in Esperanto.

The New York newspapers reported on things as Mrs. Stoner was drawing the crowds. Her activities gathered enough attention to end up in the Washington Post which wrote about Mrs. Stoner in their April 3, 1915 edition.

When hundreds of women stormed the entrance way of a New York theater in aa vain attempt to get in to learn how Mrs. Winifred Sackville Stoner educated her infant prodigy, both the intensity and the limitations of mother love were conspicuously displayed. It is understood that Winifred, jr., who is but 12 years old, speaks eight languages fluently and quite a number more fairly well, plays four musical instruments, is an adept in algebra and geometry, and attacks the universals through the instrumentality of Esperanto. Her mother devoted her lecture to telling how these monumental powers were developed.

Of course, not one of the women in attendance nor one of those deprived of the high treat through lack of standing room cared a snap for their own shortcoming in languages, figures, or instruments. Under their critical observation the prodigy herself must have been doomed to come in for deprecating comment. Here along could the detracting emotion of envy find a field for its workings. And it needed by the transference, in imagination, of the remarkable acquisitions of little Winifred to any of the smaller members of the various households represented by the onlookers, to deepen the hue of the green-eyed monster. Certainly Marguerite had all the capacity of the marvel whose achievements were being so freely exploited, while the evidences of more than human intelligence displayed by the tender Beatrice, scare out of her cradle, pointed to great things ahead.

None of which, doubtless, can shake Mrs. Stoner’s pride in her own young Winifred, nor her faith in the superiority of her own methods of teaching. As for the public exhibition, apart from its acknowledged edifying qualities, what are prodigies for except to be exhibited? It’s tough on plain, ordinary, everyday kids, as a matter of course, especially when they have mothers afflicted with inordinate ambitions to live again a fuller and better life in their offspring. And the race once begun, there’s no let-up. Didn’t Elihu Burritt, who died and left them all behind, master 70 languages in the course of a long and apparently humdrum career?

That little Winifred may escape the fate of so many prodigies, who spring up as Jonah’s gourd, and wither with equal facility, is our earnest wish. As for the commonplace kiddies, comfort is found in what Abraham Lincoln said of common folks in general, God must care for that kind, seeing that He has made so many of them.

Child prodigies on display. It’s hard to avoid the suspicion that the children brought forth as examples of superior education were, in fact, just parroting things that they had been told to say, without actually knowing anything. Teach a small child a few French poems by rote, and even if they don’t understand a word of what they’re saying (in which case, definitely use something by Rimbaud), and they should be able to fake it admirably. “Recite your favorite poem for the nice man, you know, Le bateau ivre.’

Winfred did not meet the hopes of the Post. Within a few years, she seems to have abandoned intellection enterprises, though she did claim that she was a normal child who had had the benefit of a wonderful education. One thing was quite clear: Mrs. Stoner’s educational theories didn’t scale up. The articles on the use of her principles of “natural education” made it clear that this was an educational system for the children of the wealthy.
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