On Secondary Instruction, as relating to Girls

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On Secondary Instruction, as relating to Girls  (1865) 
by Emily Davies

A paper read at the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science, York Meeting, 1864. Published 1865 in the Transactions of the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science, York Meeting, 1864, pp. 394–404.

On Secondary Instruction, as relating to Girls.
By Emily Davies.

In the great controversy, which having been begun by the debates on the Report of the Public Schools' Commission, is now extending itself over almost the whole department of secondary instruction, there is an omission which seems to call for remark. Throughout the discussion, voluminous as it has been, the question has hitherto been treated exclusively in reference to boys, it having been tacitly assumed that male education only is a matter of concern to the general community. This feature is the more remarkable, inasmuch as it is peculiar to the present agitation. In the effort made some years ago for the improvement of primary education, ignorant boys and ignorant girls were recognised as having similar needs and similar claims. National and British Schools for girls are inspected, mistresses are trained, female pupil-teachers are apprenticed, and speaking generally, the education of the daughters of the labouring classes is as carefully watched over as that of their sons. Why is the case altered when we advance a few steps higher in the social scale? With regard to the public schools, the reason is obvious enough. As there are no Etons for girls in existence, they could not be made the subject of investigation. Probably the sisters of public school boys are, for the most part, taught by governesses at home. Their education is therefore clearly beyond the scope of a commission of inquiry, and though it does not follow that it is a matter in which the nation has no interest, it is natural enough that it should not appear in the discussion called forth by the Commissioners' Report. But this consideration does not apply to the daughters of the middle-class, and it is difficult to understand why their early training should be regarded as a matter of less importance than that of their brothers. That it is so regarded appears to be implied by the almost total silence of the thinkers and writers to whom the nation looks for guidance. It is needless to bring proofs of what no one will deny. It is a simple fact, that in the mass of speeches, articles, reviews, pamphlets and volumes which have lately been before the public on the subject of secondary instruction for boys, there is scarcely so much as a passing allusion to that of girls. This side of the question has been, by general consent, completely ignored.

There is no reason for attributing this silence to ungenerous motives. It no doubt arises in a great degree from a sort of inadvertence. Public writers are occupied with the busy world around them, in which men only are to be seen, and it is perhaps not much to be wondered at, if they think only of training the boys, who are hereafter to do the more conspicuous part of the world's work. Some, and those the men most worth listening to, are unwilling to speak of what they imperfectly know, and it is difficult for them to know much about girls or women. When they speak of boys, they have at any rate their own experience to go upon, and it is not unnatural that they should by preference confine themselves to that side of the subject of which they have personal cognisance. Others are no doubt insensibly influenced by the view of education which regards it merely as a means of making a living. It has been remarked that "a great part of the confusion in which the question of education is involved, arises from the division of public feeling as to the value of knowledge." There are many persons who value it only as a weapon to be used in the struggle for material existence, and as women are, theoretically, never required to fight, it may seem superfluous to supply them with arms.

Women, on their part, are largely responsible for the general carelessness. It could scarcely be expected that they should very keenly appreciate advantages of which they have had no experience, and they are generally ready enough to profess themselves perfectly satisfied with things as they are, and to echo doubts as to whether "so much education is necessary for girls." Some, who are conscious of their own deficiencies, are afraid that the manifestation of a desire to help others may be mistaken for an assumption of great enlightenment in themselves. Others, who by unusual energy and perseverance have succeeded in gaining knowledge and the power that it brings with it, are, by their very superiority, cut off from the multitude. They look down from their heights, with little sympathy, on the mass of women tamely giving way before difficulties which they have known how to overcome. Others again shrink from prominence in any cause whatever; their dread of publicity is so overpowering that they would rather see a whole generation drowning before their eyes in ignorance and sloth, than run the slighest risk of being spoken of as having taken part in the rescue. I should be sorry to speak of this reserve with anything like disrespect; I believe it is seldom absent from the finest natures. But I submit that it is one of the duties imposed upon the women of this generation to speak out, careless of the cost, on those questions of which they can most fitly judge. Silence and inaction are not justified by any of the reasons here suggested; for whatever may be the causes—or the excuses—the result is the same. The impression is conveyed to the public mind that the education of girls is an affair of very little consequence—that it is, in fact, one of the things which may safely and properly be left to take care of themselves. It is no wonder that so agreeable an untruth should meet with ready acceptance.

In venturing to raise a protest against both the doctrine itself and the policy which it involves, I do not propose to enter upon an inquiry into the condition of girls' schools, and the systems of teaching pursued. It is one of the results of the prevailing indifference, that nobody knows enough of the interior of girls' schools to speak with authority about them. The data for forming a general conclusion are not within the reach of any individual. But there is a method by which we may test the quality of the schools,—we can look at the quality of the thing produced. Anybody, or at least any woman, may know what girls are after leaving school, and we may fairly judge of the process by its results, making allowance, of course, for extenuating circumstances in the shape of vitiating home influences.[1]

I ask then, what are girls worth when their education is finished? What are they good for? Are they in vigorous health of mind and body? What is there that they care about? How are their lives filled up? What have they to talk about? What do they read? I am speaking, let it be remembered, not of children, but of grown-up women. Does anybody care for their opinions on any but the most trivial matters? Have they a thought beyond the circle of petty cares?

To all these questions favourable answers might be returned as regards many exceptional women. But if we look at the great mass, we shall find much to be ashamed of. On all sides there is evidence that, as regards intelligence and good sense, English women of the middle class are held in small esteem. "A woman's reason" means, in popular phrase, no reason at all. A man who lets it be known that he consults his wife, endangers his own reputation for sense. A habit of exaggeration, closely verging upon untruthfulness, is a recognised feminine characteristic. Newspaper writers, expressing the prevailing sentiment, assume towards women an indulgent air which is far from flattering, giving them credit for plenty of good intentions, but very little capacity, and the tone in which many ladies speak of the capabilities of women is still more depreciatory than that adopted by men. No doubt this is partly exaggerated and unjust. All classes, as such, are now and then maligned, and so long as women are unfortunately regarded as a class, they will come in for their share of ridicule. But without taking the current raillery too much au sérieux, it will be admitted that the popular estimate of a woman's mental worth is somewhat low.

This condition of mental weakness might not be looked upon as so very grave a misfortune, if it was made up for by bodily strength. We are learning more and more the importance of physical health to the life of a nation, and a training which should produce a thoroughly sound physique, even at the expense of feebleness of mind, would have much to recommend it. But women are not healthy. It is a rare thing to meet with a lady, of any age, who does not suffer from headaches, languor, hysteria, or some ailment showing a want of stamina. Shut out, in towns especially, from wholesome sources of excitement, they either resort to such as are unwholesome, or else fall into indolent habits, losing strength from want of exercise, and constantly requiring change of air and scene, as a substitute for the healthy stimulus of regular exertion. Dulness is not healthy, and the lives of ladies are, it must be confessed, exceedingly dull. Men recal pictures of homely households in earlier times, and imagine that such things are, or might be, going on still. They forget the prosaic fact that the continually increasing use of all sorts of machinery for the supply of household wants, has completely altered the aspect of our domestic interiors. The rounded life of our grandmothers, full of interest and variety and usefulness, is a thing of the past. Some of us may look back upon it with regret, but it can never be recalled. How can women, living in towns where they can buy almost every article in domestic use cheaper than they could make it, unless they reckon their time and eyesight as worth nothing at all, work with spirit at tasks which are obviously futile? It is not in human nature. It is not in women's nature even, mysteriously inconsequent as that nature is believed to be. I may seem to be wandering from the point, but it will be seen, I hope, that if the old avocations, involving abundant exercise of all the faculties, are being taken away, it becomes necessary to supply their place by new interests and occupations. A hundred years ago, women might know little of history and geography, and nothing at all of any language but their own—they might be careless of what was going on in the outer world—ignorant of science and of art—but their minds were not therefore necessarily inactive. Circumstances provided a discipline which is now wholly wanting, and which needs to be supplied by wider and deeper cultivation. I dwell upon this point because I am sure that busy people, and especially busy men, have a very faint and feeble conception of what dulness is. They overtax their own brains, and by way of compensation they have invented the doctrine of vicarious rest, according to which men are justified in wearing themselves out so long as women can be kept in a state of wholesome rust. We hear a great deal of the disastrous effects which would follow if women were to abandon the habits of elegant leisure by which the balance is supposed to be redressed. The otium sine dignitate of drawing-rooms presents itself to men's minds in enviable contrast with the bustle and turmoil of an active career. They "hearken what the inner spirit sings, There is no joy but calm." And they think dulness is calm. If they had ever tried what it is to be a young lady, they would know better.

The system tells in different ways, according to the individual character. Some girls fret and pine under it; others, satisfying their souls with husks, are content to idle about from morning till night, acquiring, as has been already said, indolent and desultory habits, hard to break through when in later life the demand for steady methodical exertion comes upon them. Some take to works of charity, doing some harm, and no doubt also some good. Their usefulness is at any rate seriously lessened by the want of the cultivated judgment to guide and control benevolent impulse. Some, I gladly admit, lead noble lives, filling their leisure with worthy pursuits, and in spite of difficulties, tracing out for themselves a useful and happy career.

It may seem to be entering upon somewhat low ground to speak of women's talk, but it may not be out of place, seeing that, as things are, it forms a chief part of their business. And what do ladies talk about at morning calls and evening parties? Children, servants, dress, and summer tours—all very good subjects in themselves, but so treated, partly through sheer ignorance, that as the conversation advances, tedium grows, till at last all signs of intelligence disappear, and the weary countenances too faithfully reveal the vacancy within. Of literature, women of the middle class know next to nothing. I am not speaking of religious literature, which is extensively read by some women, and to which they owe much. I speak of general literature, and of ordinary women, whose reading is for the most part confined to novels, and of novels not the best. The catalogue of a bookseller's circulating library, in which second-rate fiction largely preponderates, is a fair criterion of the range and the taste of middle-class lady readers. Newspapers are scarcely supposed to be read by women at all. When the Times is offered to a lady, the sheet containing the advertisements, and the births, deaths, and marriages, is considerately selected.

This almost complete mental blankness being the ordinary condition of women, it is not to be wondered at that their opinions, when they happen to have any, are not much respected. In those cases, indeed, where natural sagacity is a sufficient guide, women often form just conclusions, but manifestly, wherever a knowledge of facts is required, they are almost sure to be at fault. And very few questions of any importance can be decided without such knowledge. Of what is going on in the world women know little and care less. When political or social questions are forced upon their notice, they commonly judge them from some purely personal point of view. Right and wrong are elements which scarcely enter into the calculation.

In taking this melancholy view of the middle-class female mind, I am aware that I lay myself open to the attacks of two classes of objectors. By one class the picture will be condemned as a caricature; by the other it will be accepted as faithful, but it will be maintained that the defects pointed out are traceable, not to want of education, but to the natural inferiority of the female intellect. To the first I can only reply that I speak from personal knowledge, supported by the experience of other observers, and that, for all that has been said, I could, if space permitted, adduce abundant evidence. The second objection is not easy to meet, in the paucity of material for proof on either side. I believe I may say, however, on behalf of the advocates of female education, that any objector is welcome to assert anything he likes about the inferiority of the female intellect, if only he does not rate it so low as to be incapable of improvement by cultivation. We are not encumbered by theories about equality or inequality of mental power in the sexes. All we claim is that the intelligence of women, be it great or small, shall have full and free development. And we claim it not specially in the interest of women, but as essential to the growth of the human race. This is not the place to discuss whether women have, or ought to have, any other than merely domestic relations. I take the commonly received theory that except as wives, mothers, daughters or sisters, women have no raison d'être at all; and on this neutral ground I urge the impolicy of neglecting female education. For now, more than ever before, the mutual influence of the sexes makes it impossible to serve one without the other. Of this fact, often enough asserted in theory though little regarded in practice, the revelations of the Royal Commission have furnished a new and striking demonstration. In one of the recent debates, it was pointed out by Mr. Gladstone that the idleness and ignorance of public school boys are largely attributable to the over-indulgent atmosphere of the homes in which they are brought up, and the Commissioners' Report contains repeated testimonies to the same effect. Mr. Matthew Arnold says of our highest class that its culture has declined. Young men at the universities exhibit "a slackness," "a sleep of the mind," which he traces to "a torpor of intellectual life, a dearth of ideas, an indifference to fine culture or disbelief in its necessity, spreading through the bulk of our highest class and influencing its rising generation. * * * * Never," he says, "in all its history, has our whole highest class shown such zeal for enjoying life, for amusing itself." Is this surprising? Is it not precisely what might have been expected in a society which, for at least one generation, has been content to bring up its girls to be more elegant triflers? Is it not true that to amuse themselves and other people is the great object in life of women of the non-working classes, and is it possible that their sedulous devotion to this one object can fail to react upon the men with whom they associate? Who gives the tone to the lax and luxurious homes of the wealthy? Who teaches the boys that hard work is foolish self-torture, that an easy life is more to be desired than the fine gold of intellectual attainment? Not their fathers, for though they too may be led away by the prevailing passion for play, they have had a nobler ideal set before them. What is the ideal presented to a young girl? Is it anything higher than to be amiable, inoffensive, always ready to give pleasure and to be pleased? Could anything be more stupefying than such a conception of the purposes of existence? And is it likely that, constituted as society now is, young men will escape the snare which has been spread for their sisters?

In a lower social grade, the temptations assume a more sordid character. We get the trifling without the elegance. Mr. Arnold has told us in the most eloquent and convincing language, what the middle class wants. Its virtues and its defects, what it has and what it needs, have been held up to view, and those whose knowledge of that great class is most intimate will most promptly recognise the admirable faithfulness of the portrait. We are told that it is "traversed by a strong intellectual ferment,"—that it has "real mental ardour, real curiosity." Whether it will attain to "a high commanding pitch of culture and intelligence," depends on "the sensibility which it has for perfection, on its power to transform itself." And "in its public action this class has hitherto shown only the power and disposition to affirm itself, not at all the power and disposition to transform itself." Here again, we are reaping what our fathers have sown. A young man of the middle class, who enters upon life with generous instincts and aspirations after perfection, is apt gradually to lose them. He becomes day by day less public-spirited, more engrossed by selfish aims. The more home-loving he is, the more likely is this to be the case. In his best moments, where is he to look for sympathy? His highest thoughts and feelings cannot be shared by those nearest and dearest to him. Any expression of them is likely to be met by a blank, uncomprehending stare. If there is any question of a small sacrifice to be made for the good of his town or parish, he is advised against it. That his first duty is to think of his children, or, in other words, always to make the aggrandisement of his own family his primary consideration, is a maxim about which his wife feels not the slightest doubt, and which she never fails to impress upon him. In the home circle, the conversation is inevitably restricted to petty subjects. The master of the house may discourse upon politics, or literature, or any other topic that may interest him, but there can be no intelligent response, no interchange of thought, no pleasant discussion of things worth talking about. He may lay down the law on matters of which he knows nothing whatever, betraying the grossest ignorance of elementary facts, in full confidence that his conclusions, whether true or false, will be accepted with equal indifference. He will learn unconsciously, but very surely, that the great thing for him to do is to stick to his business, think of nothing else, talk of nothing else, aspire after nothing else. Making money and getting on in the world by means of it, are things that his wife and his mother and his daughters can understand and care for. They know all about the advantages of having a carriage and servants, and "a position," and plenty of money to do what they like with. If he wants to please them, the way is plain. It may not be the way he would have chosen. He may have had unselfish impulses, some "aptitude for ideas," some longings after a nobler career. But a fire which for fuel is perpetually fed with cold water, soon dies out. The man who was teachable, impressible, growing,—hardens into the mere man of business, worldly-minded, narrow-hearted, self-satisfied. I do not mean this statement to be taken in a universal sense. Of course it is sometimes the other way. The wife is cultivated and aspiring, and the husband drags her down. But I believe I have given a tolerably accurate account of the tendencies in the great mass of English homes of the middle class.

Why should this unsatisfactory state of things be allowed to continue? Why should not our English homes be animated by a spirit of truth and of sacrifice—pervaded by an atmosphere of light and warmth in which all high thoughts and generous impulses should live and grow, all mean and selfish ends be, by common consent, disowned and utterly renounced? Why might not the family circle be a place where "example teacheth, company comforteth, emulation quickeneth"—our daily domestic intercourse like iron sharpening iron, mutually kindling, and stimulating to noble thoughts and deeds? What a change would then come over the whole aspect of our national life! What problem would be solved, what terrible enigmas disappear! How little need should we then have of philanthropic schemes for elevating the poor! How naturally would they share in all social reforms, how inevitably would they be refined and civilised by the insensible influence—the best of all influences—of the employing class, whose ideas, unconsciously communicated to their subordinates, gradually leaven all the classes below them. Masters and mistresses reveal in their everyday life in what their ideal of blessedness consists, and that ideal becomes, with some modifications, that of the humbler homes of working men and women. I say with modifications, because working men are through their mutual association subject to counteracting influences, and it is chiefly in so far as that of wives and mothers prevails over others scarcely less strong, that the ideas of the employing class penetrate and govern. That through this medium they do act, inconspicuously but most powerfully, on the labouring class, will probably be admitted. It cannot, I am afraid, with truth be denied, that the principle, "Every man for himself"—or, to say the least, every family and order for itself—of which mistresses complain so loudly when it is adopted by servants, but upon which they too commonly rule their own households, is by their example extended into circles far beyond the range of their direct and conscious influence. The want of hearty sympathy, not only between the classes which are divided by broad and easily recognised distinctions, but between those which are separated by lines so shadowy that, looked at from above or below, they are scarcely discernible—is one of the most serious impediments to social progress, and it is one which a better and more widely diffused culture might do much to remove. Not, indeed, that the education of youth, even taking the word in its deepest sense, is to be regarded as the only, or even the chief, agency for the improvement of society; but it happens to be the point towards which attention is at this moment directed. We are taught to expect great things from a reform in secondary instruction, and this being so, it is surely reasonable to ask that such reforms as may be possible shall be on the widest basis, not omitting any really important section of society.

It will be understood, I hope, that those who make this appeal on behalf of girls, are not proposing the introduction or the enforcement of any particular scheme of instruction. It may be that the curriculum most commonly pursued, or at least professed, is as good as any that is likely to be devised, and that we only want better methods and more encouragement. On questions of detail we are not in the least inclined to dogmatise. It would be rash indeed to fix upon any particular course of instruction as absolutely the best for girls, while as to that of boys, on which so much more thought has been bestowed, we are still in a state of confusion and bewilderment. There seems to be as yet no body of opinion formed out of the floating mass, unanimous enough to be authoritative and competent to pronounce upon what branches of study are in themselves most worthy, what are most useful as educational instruments, what proportion of time should be allotted to each, and the many other complicated questions which must be answered before a scheme of education can be produced. When that happy discovery shall at last have been made, it will probably be found also that the same course is, in the main, the best for both boys and girls, the object being substantially the same, that of awakening and strengthening and adorning the human spirit. That this great work should at least be well begun during the period allotted to secondary instruction, is especially necessary in the case of women, because with this first stage their education ends. I do not mean, of course, that a girl necessarily lays aside all study on leaving school, any more than a man does on taking his degree, but that the end of the school course is the same kind of educational terminus to a woman that graduation is to a man. When a girl leaves school, her strictly professional studies assume a greater prominence. In using the word professional, I do not refer to any trade or business, but to the profession which absorbs the great majority of women, that of marriage. For this calling, some technical preparation is required. The amount cannot be great, as under existing social arrangements, a thorough acquaintance with needle-work and cookery—the very easiest of arts—includes I believe all the special knowledge required by the mistress of a household. But setting aside the question, whether it is desirable that the merely professional training should begin so early—"the second and finishing stage of a liberal education" being altogether omitted—it seems obvious enough, that if regular, methodical instruction is to cease at the age of eighteen, it is the more imperative that the culture, up to that period, should be wide and deep and humane in the highest possible degree. A man has some chance of making up at the university the deficiencies of his school training; or if he passes direct from school to business, there is a possibility that he may find in his daily work something of the mental and moral discipline that he needs. But a girl who leaves school unawakened, is not likely to be roused from her lethargy by anything in her home life. The dissipation to which, in the absence of any spur to wholesome activity, so many girls give themselves up, completes the deadening process begun at school.

I have endeavoured to set forth, very imperfectly, but at least without exaggeration, some of the reasons for devoting to this subject more attention than has hitherto been bestowed upon it. Once again I would venture to urge, with the utmost insistance, that it is not a "woman's question." Let me entreat thinking men to dismiss from their minds the belief, that this is a thing with which they have no concern. They cannot help exerting a most serious influence upon it. Silence sometimes teaches more eloquently than words, and while they refrain from giving encouragement, their apparent indifference damps and chills. The matter is in their hands, whether they choose it or not. So long as they thrust it aside, it will not come before the mind of the nation as worthy of serious thought. The Scriptural maxim, "That the soul be without knowledge is not good" will still be interpreted as applying to the souls of men only. We want to have the question settled. If the proposition, often enough vaguely affirmed, that the true greatness of a nation depends as much on its women as on its men, be anything more than a rhetorical flourish, let it be acted upon. Let it be accepted as a fact, if it be a fact, and if not, let it be contradicted and disproved, that in so far as education is worth anything at all, it is just as desirable for girls as it is for boys. We have little fear but that when once the question gets its fair share of consideration, something, and probably the right thing, will be done. Some efforts have indeed already been made, and so far as they have gone the results have been encouraging. In London, the ladies' colleges, in which men of the highest ability take part, have done much, not only within their own walls but by their influence over other teachers, to raise the standard and improve the tone of education generally. In the country, we have the school at Chantry, near Frome, founded in 1857 by Mr. Allen and Mr. Fussell—the training-school for governesses at Bolham, in Devonshire, where "teaching to teach" is made a prominent study—Miss Clough's school at Ambleside—and others of greater or less importance, all steps in the right direction. But these isolated attempts require to be followed up. The provision of secondary instruction for girls is impeded by the usual hindrance, the want of funds. It is found very difficult to supply really good teaching on such terms as middle-class parents are able and willing to pay, and there is scarcely any assistance forthcoming in the shape of old endowments. The 547 ancient grammar schools scattered throughout England are, as is well known, almost entirely filled by boys. The other endowed schools, of which there are about 2,000, take in a much larger proportion of girls, but they are of the poorer class. The endowed schools which are attended by pupils of the upper and middle classes do not include girls. It may be a question for consideration whether some of these endowments might not, without much divergence from the intentions of the original donors, be used for the foundation of a few first-rate girls' schools, or in some other way be made available for the advancement of female education. At any rate, wherever a new institution, such for instance as the Albert Memorial School, in Suffolk, is being founded, it would seem reasonable to make a fair division of the funds, of course taking into consideration any special local circumstances. Again, where we have a St Nicolas' College, or a first-rate proprietary school, for boys, let there be some corresponding foundation for girls. Let schemes of examination and inspection designed to raise the character of boys' schools be extended to girls also. In a word, let female education be encouraged—let it be understood that the public really cares whether the work is done well or ill—and the minor practical questions will ere long find for themselves a satisfactory solution.

  1. In fairness to the schools it ought perhaps to be remarked that they are moulded by public opinion. Many school-mistresses supply what society demands, very much against their own judgment and inclination.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1926.

The author died in 1921, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 99 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.