A happy half-century and other essays/The Educator

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The Schoolmaster is abroad.—Lord Brougham.

It is recorded that Boswell once said to Dr. Johnson, "If you had had children, would you have taught them anything?" and that Dr. Johnson, out of the fulness of his wisdom, made reply: "I hope that I should have willingly lived on bread and water to obtain instruction for them; but I would not have set their future friendship to hazard for the sake of thrusting into their heads knowledge of things for which they might have neither taste nor necessity. You teach your daughters the diameters of the planets, and wonder, when you have done it, that they do not delight in your company."

It is the irony of circumstance that Dr. Johnson and Charles Lamb should have been childless, for they were the two eminent Englishmen who, for the best part of a century, respected the independence of childhood. They were the two eminent Englishmen who could have been trusted to let their children alone. Lamb was nine years old when Dr. Johnson died. He was twenty-seven when he hurled his impotent anathemas at the heads of "the cursed Barbauld crew," "blights and blasts of all that is human in man and child." By that time the educator's hand lay heavy on schoolroom and nursery. In France, Rousseau and Mme. de Genlis had succeeded in interesting parents so profoundly in their children that French babies led a vie de parade. Their toilets and their meals were as open to the public as were the toilets and the meals of royalty. Their bassinettes appeared in salons, and in private boxes at the playhouse; and it was an inspiring sight to behold a French mother fulfilling her sacred office while she enjoyed the spectacle on the stage. In England, the Edgeworths and Mr. Day had projected a system of education which isolated children from common currents of life, placed them at variance with the accepted usages of society, and denied them that wholesome neglect which is an important factor in self-development. The Edgeworthian child became the pivot of the household, which revolved warily around him, instructing him whenever it had the ghost of a chance, and guarding him from the four winds of heaven. He was not permitted to remain ignorant upon any subject, however remote from his requirements; but all information came filtered through the parental mind, so that the one thing he never knew was the world of childish beliefs and happenings. Intercourse with servants was prohibited; and it is pleasant to record that Miss Edgeworth found even Mrs. Barbauld a dangerous guide, because little Charles of the "Early Lessons" asks his nurse to dress him in the mornings. Such a personal appeal, showing that Charles was on speaking terms with the domestics, was something which, in Miss Edgeworth's opinion, no child should ever read; and she praises the solicitude of a mother who blotted out this, and all similar passages, before confiding the book to her infant son. He might—who knows?—have been so far corrupted as to ask his own nurse to button him up the next day.

Another parent, still more highly commended, found something to erase in all her children's books; and Miss Edgeworth describes with grave complacency this pathetic little library, scored, blotted, and mutilated, before being placed on the nursery shelves. The volumes were, she admits, hopelessly disfigured; "but shall the education of a family be sacrificed to the beauty of a page? Few books can safely be given to children without the previous use of the pen, the pencil, and the scissors. These, in their corrected state, have sometimes a few words erased, sometimes half a page. Sometimes many pages are cut out."

Even now one feels a pang of pity for the little children who, more than a hundred years ago, were stopped midway in a story by the absence of half a dozen pages. Even now one wonders how much furtive curiosity was awakened by this process of elimination. To hover perpetually on the brink of the concealed and the forbidden does not seem a wholesome situation; and a careful perusal of that condemned classic, "Bluebeard," might have awakened this excellent mother to the risks she ran. There can be no heavier handicap to any child than a superhumanly wise and watchful custodian, whether the custody be parental, or relegated to some phoenix of a tutor like Mr. Barlow, or that cock-sure experimentalist who mounts guard over "Émile," teaching him with elaborate artifice the simplest things of life. We know how Tommy Merton fell from grace when separated from Mr. Barlow; but what would have become of Émile if "Jean Jacques" had providentially broken his neck? What would have become of little Caroline and Mary in Mary Wollstonecraft's "Original Stories," if Mrs. Mason—who is Mr. Barlow in petticoats—had ceased for a short time "regulating the affections and forming the minds" of her helpless charges? All these young people are so scrutinized, directed, and controlled, that their personal responsibility has been minimized to the danger point. In the name of nature, in the name of democracy, in the name of morality, they are pushed aside from the blessed fellowship of childhood, and from the beaten paths of life.

That Mary Wollstonecraft should have written the most priggish little book of her day is one of those pleasant ironies which relieves the tenseness of our pity for her fate. Its publication is the only incident of her life which permits the shadow of a smile; and even here our amusement is tempered by sympathy for the poor innocents who were compelled to read the "Original Stories," and to whom even Blake's charming illustrations must have brought scant relief. The plan of the work is one common to most juvenile fiction of the period. Caroline and Mary, being motherless, are placed under the care of Mrs. Mason, a lady of obtrusive wisdom and goodness, who shadows their infant lives, moralizes over every insignificant episode, and praises herself with honest assiduity. If Caroline is afraid of thunderstorms, Mrs. Mason explains that she fears no tempest, because "a mind is never truly great until the love of virtue overcomes the fear of death." If Mary behaves rudely to a visitor, Mrs. Mason contrasts her pupil's conduct with her own. "I have accustomed myself to think of others, and what they will suffer on all occasions," she observes; "and this loathness to offend, or even to hurt the feelings of another, is an instantaneous spring which actuates my conduct, and makes me kindly affected to everything that breathes. … Perhaps the greatest pleasure I have ever received has arisen from the habitual exercise of charity in its various branches."

The stories with which this monitress illustrates her precepts are drawn from the edifying annals of the neighbourhood, which is rich in examples of vice and virtue. On the one hand we have the pious Mrs. Trueman, the curate's wife, who lives in a rose-covered cottage, furnished with books and musical instruments; and on the other, we have "the profligate Lord Sly," and Miss Jane Fretful, who begins by kicking the furniture when she is in a temper, and ends by alienating all her friends (including her doctor), and dying unloved and unlamented. How far her mother should be held responsible for this excess of peevishness, when she rashly married a gentleman named Fretful, is not made clear; but all the characters in the book live nobly, or ignobly, up to their patronymics. When Mary neglects to wash her face—apparently that was all she ever washed—or brush her teeth in the mornings, Mrs. Mason for some time only hints her displeasure, "not wishing to burden her with precepts"; and waits for a "glaring example" to show the little girl the unloveliness of permanent dirt. This example is soon afforded by Mrs. Dowdy, who comes opportunely to visit them, and whose reluctance to perform even the simple ablutions common to the period is as resolute as Slovenly Peter's.

In the matter of tuition, Mrs. Mason is comparatively lenient. Caroline and Mary, though warned that "idleness must always be intolerable, because it is only an irksome consciousness of existence" (words which happily have no meaning for childhood), are, on the whole, less saturated with knowledge than Miss Edgeworth's Harry and Lucy; and Harry and Lucy lead rollicking lives by contrast with "Edwin and Henry," or "Anna and Louisa," or any other little pair of heroes and heroines. Edwin and Henry are particularly ill used, for they are supposed to be enjoying a holiday with their father, "the worthy Mr. Friendly," who makes "every domestic incident, the vegetable world, sickness and death, a real source of instruction to his beloved offspring." How glad those boys must have been to get back to school! Yet they court disaster by asking so many questions. All the children in our great-grandmothers' story-books ask questions. All lay themselves open to attack. If they drink a cup of chocolate, they want to know what it is made of, and where cocoanuts grow. If they have a pudding for dinner, they are far more eager to learn about sago and the East Indies than to eat it. They put intelligent queries concerning the slave-trade, and make remarks that might be quoted in Parliament; yet they are as ignorant of the common things of life as though new-born into the world. In a book called "Summer Rambles, or Conversations Instructive and Amusing, for the Use of Children," published in 1801, a little girl says to her mother: "Vegetables? I do not know what they are. Will you tell me?" And the mother graciously responds: "Yes, with a great deal of pleasure. Peas, beans, potatoes, carrots, turnips, and cabbages are vegetables."

At least the good lady's information was correct as far as it went, which was not always the case. The talented governess in "Little Truths" warns her pupils not to swallow young frogs out of bravado, lest perchance they should mistake and swallow a toad, which would poison them; and in a "History of Birds and Beasts," intended for very young children, we find, underneath a woodcut of a porcupine, this unwarranted and irrelevant assertion:—

This creature shoots his pointed quills,
And beasts destroys, and men;
But more the ravenous lawyer kills
With his half-quill, the pen.

It was thus that natural history was taught in the year 1767.

The publication in 1798 of Mr. Edgeworth's "Practical Education" (Miss Edgeworth was responsible for some of the chapters) gave a profound impetus to child-study. Little boys and girls were dragged from the obscure haven of the nursery, from their hornbooks, and the casual slappings of nursery-maids, to be taught and tested in the light of day. The process appears to have been deeply engrossing. Irregular instruction, object lessons, and experimental play afforded scant respite to parent or to child. "Square and circular bits of wood, balls, cubes, and triangles" were Mr. Edgeworth's first substitutes for toys; to be followed by "card, pasteboard, substantial but not sharp-pointed scissors, wire, gum, and wax." It took an active mother to superintend this home kindergarten, to see that the baby did not poke the triangle into its eye, and to relieve Tommy at intervals from his coating of gum and wax. When we read further that "children are very fond of attempting experiments in dyeing, and are very curious about vegetable dyes," we gain a fearful insight into parental pleasures and responsibilities a hundred years ago.

Text-book knowledge was frowned upon by the Edgeworths. We know how the "good French governess" laughs at her clever pupil who has studied the "Tablet of Memory," and who can say when potatoes were first brought into England, and when hair powder was first used, and when the first white paper was made. The new theory of education banished the "Tablet of Memory," and made it incumbent upon parent or teacher to impart in conversation such facts concerning potatoes, powder, and paper as she desired her pupils to know. If books were used, they were of the deceptive order, which purposed to be friendly and entertaining. A London bookseller actually proposed to Godwin "a delightful work for children," which was to be called "A Tour through Papa's House." The object of this precious volume was to explain casually how and where Papa's furniture was made, his carpets were woven, his curtains dyed, his kitchen pots and pans called into existence. Even Godwin, who was not a bubbling fountain of humour, saw the absurdity of such a book; and recommended in its place "Robinson Crusoe," "if weeded of its Methodism" (alas! poor Robinson!), "The Seven Champions of Christendom," and "The Arabian Nights."

The one great obstacle in the educator's path (it has not yet been wholly levelled) was the proper apportioning of knowledge between boys and girls. It was hard to speed the male child up the stony heights of erudition; but it was harder still to check the female child at the crucial point, and keep her tottering decorously behind her brother. In 1774 a few rash innovators conceived the project of an advanced school for girls; one that should approach from afar a college standard, and teach with thoroughness what it taught at all; one that might be trusted to broaden the intelligence of women, without lessening their much-prized femininity. It was even proposed that Mrs. Barbauld, who was esteemed a very learned lady, should take charge of such an establishment; but the plan met with no approbation at her hands. In the first place she held that fifteen was not an age for school-life and study, because then "the empire of the passions is coming on"; and in the second place there was nothing she so strongly discountenanced as thoroughness in a girl's education. On this point she had no doubts, and no reserves. "Young ladies," she wrote, "ought to have only such a general tincture of knowledge as to make them agreeable companions to a man of sense, and to enable them to find rational entertainment for a solitary hour. They should gain these accomplishments in a quiet and unobserved manner. The thefts of knowledge in our sex are connived at, only while carefully concealed; and, if displayed, are punished with disgrace. The best way for women to acquire knowledge is from conversation with a father, a brother, or a friend; and by such a course of reading as they may recommend."

There was no danger that an education conducted on these lines would result in an undue development of intelligence, would lift the young lady above "her own mild and chastened sphere." In justice to Mrs. Barbauld we must admit that she but echoed the sentiments of her day. "Girls," said Miss Hannah More, "should be led to distrust their own judgments." They should be taught to give up their opinions, and to avoid disputes, "even if they know they are right." The one fact impressed upon the female child was her secondary place in the scheme of creation; the one virtue she was taught to affect was delicacy; the one vice permitted to her weakness was dissimulation. Even her play was not like her brother's play,—a reckless abandonment to high spirits; it was play within the conscious limits of propriety. In one of Mrs. Trimmer's books, a model mother hesitates to allow her eleven-year-old daughter to climb three rounds of a ladder, and look into a robin's nest, four feet from the ground. It was not a genteel thing for a little girl to do. Even her schoolbooks were not like her brother's schoolbooks. They were carefully adapted to her limitations. Mr. Thomas Gisborne, who wrote a much-admired work entitled "An Enquiry into the Duties of the Female Sex," was of the opinion that geography might be taught to girls without reserve; but that they should learn only "select parts" of natural history, and, in the way of science, only a few "popular and amusing facts." A "Young Lady's Guide to Astronomy" was something vastly different from the comprehensive system imparted to her brother.

In a very able and subtle little book called "A Father's Legacy to his Daughters," by Dr. John Gregory of Edinburgh,—

He whom each virtue fired, each grace refined,
Friend, teacher, pattern, darling of mankind![1]

—we find much earnest counsel on this subject. Dr. Gregory was an affectionate parent. He grudged his daughters no material and no intellectual advantage; but he was well aware that by too great liberality he imperilled their worldly prospects. Therefore, although he desired them to be well read and well informed, he bade them never to betray their knowledge to the world. Therefore, although he desired them to be strong and vigorous,—to walk, to ride, to live much in the open air,—he bade them never to make a boast of their endurance. Rude health, no less than scholarship, was the exclusive prerogative of men. His deliberate purpose was to make them rational creatures, taking clear and temperate views of life; but he warned them all the more earnestly against the dangerous indulgence of seeming wiser than their neighbours. "Be even cautious in displaying your good sense," writes this astute and anxious father. "It will be thought you assume a superiority over the rest of your company. But if you happen to have any learning, keep it a profound secret, especially from men, who are apt to look with a jealous and malignant eye on a woman of great parts and cultivated understanding."

This is plain speaking. And it must be remembered that "learning" was not in 1774, nor for many years afterwards, the comprehensive word it is to-day. A young lady who could translate a page of Cicero was held to be learned to the point of pedantry. What reader of "Cœlebs"—if "Cœlebs" still boasts a reader—can forget that agitating moment when, through the inadvertence of a child, it is revealed to the breakfast table that Lucilla Stanley studies Latin every morning with her father. Overpowered by the intelligence, Cœlebs casts "a timid eye" upon his mistress, who is covered with confusion. She puts the sugar into the cream jug, and the tea into the sugar basin; and finally, unable to bear the mingled awe and admiration awakened by this disclosure of her scholarship, she slips out of the room, followed by her younger sister, and commiserated by her father, who knows what a shock her native delicacy has received. Had the fair Lucilla admitted herself to be an expert tight-rope dancer, she could hardly have created more consternation.

No wonder Dr. Gregory counselled his daughters to silence. Lovers less generous than Cœlebs might well have been alienated by such disqualifications. "Oh, how lovely is a maid's ignorance!" sighs Rousseau, contemplating with rapture the many things that Sophie does not know. "Happy the man who is destined to teach her. She will never aspire to be the tutor of her husband, but will be content to remain his pupil. She will not endeavour to mould his tastes, but will relinquish her own. She will be more estimable to him than if she were learned. It will be his pleasure to enlighten her."

This was a well-established point of view, and English Sophies were trained to meet it with becoming deference. They heard no idle prating about an equality which has never existed, and which never can exist. "Had a third order been necessary," said an eighteenth-century schoolmistress to her pupils, "doubtless one would have been created, a midway kind of being." In default of such a connecting link, any impious attempt to bridge the chasm between the sexes met with the failure it deserved. When Mrs. Knowles, a Quaker lady, not destitute of self-esteem, observed to Boswell that she hoped men and women would be equal in another world, that gentleman replied with spirit: "Madam, you are too ambitious. We might as well desire to be equal with the angels."

The dissimulation which Dr. Gregory urged upon his daughters, and which is the safe-guard of all misplaced intelligence, extended to matters more vital than Latin and astronomy. He warned them, as they valued their earthly happiness, never to make a confidante of a married woman, "especially if she lives happily with her husband"; and never to reveal to their own husbands the excess of their wifely affection. "Do not discover to any man the full extent of your love, no, not although you marry him. That sufficiently shows your preference, which is all he is entitled to know. If he has delicacy, he will ask for no stronger proof of your affection, for your sake; if he has sense, he will not ask it, for his own. Violent love cannot subsist, at least cannot be expressed, for any time together on both sides. Nature in this case has laid the reserve on you." In the passivity of women, no less than in their refined duplicity, did this acute observer recognize the secret strength of sex.

A vastly different counsellor of youth was Mrs. West, who wrote a volume of "Letters to a Young Lady" (the young lady was Miss Maunsell, and she died after reading them), which were held to embody the soundest morality of the day. Mrs. West is as dull as Dr. Gregory is penetrating, as verbose as he is laconic, as obvious as he is individual. She devotes many agitated pages to theology, and many more to irrefutable, though one hopes unnecessary, arguments in behalf of female virtue. But she also advises a careful submission, a belittling insincerity, as woman's best safeguards in life. It is not only a wife's duty to tolerate her husband's follies, but it is the part of wisdom to conceal from him any knowledge of his derelictions. Bad he may be; but it is necessary to his comfort to believe that his wife thinks him good. "The lordly nature of man so strongly revolts from the suspicion of inferiority," explains this excellent monitress, "that a susceptible husband can never feel easy in the society of his wife when he knows that she is acquainted with his vices, though he is well assured that her prudence, generosity, and affection will prevent her from being a severe accuser." One is reminded of the old French gentleman who said he was aware that he cheated at cards, but he disliked any allusion to the subject.

To be "easy" in a wife's society, to relax spiritually as well as mentally, and to be immune from criticism;—these were the privileges which men demanded, and which well-trained women were ready to accord. In 1808 the "Belle Assemblée" printed a model letter, which purported to come from a young wife whose husband had deserted her and her child for the more lively society of his mistress. It expressed in pathetic language the sentiments then deemed correct,—sentiments which embodied the patience of Griselda, without her acquiescence in fate. The wife tells her husband that she has retired to the country for economy, and to avoid scandalous gossip; that by careful management she is able to live on the pittance he has given her; that "little Emily" is working a pair of ruffles for him; that his presence would make their poor cottage seem a palace. "Pardon my interrupting you," she winds up with ostentatious meekness. "I mean to give you satisfaction. Though I am deeply wronged by your error, I am not resentful. I wish you all the happiness of which you are capable, and am your once loved and still affectionate, Emilia."

That last sentence is not without dignity, and certainly not without its sting. One doubts whether Emilia's husband, for all her promises and protestations, could ever again have felt perfectly "easy" in his wife's society. He probably therefore stayed away, and soothed his soul elsewhere. "We can with tranquillity forgive in ourselves the sins of which no one accuses us."

  1. Beattie's Minstrel.