The Works of the Rev. Jonathan Swift/Volume 16/Of the Education of Ladies

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OF THE

EDUCATION OF LADIES.

THERE is a subject of controversy which I have frequently met with, in mixed and select companies of both sexes, and sometimes only of men; "Whether it be prudent to choose a wife, who has good natural sense, some taste of wit and humour, sufficiently versed in her own natural language, able to read and to relish history, books of travels, moral or entertaining discourses, and be a tolerable judge of the beauties in poetry?" This question is generally determined in the negative by the women themselves; but almost universally by the men.

We must observe, that in this debate, those whom we call men and women of fashion are only to be understood, not merchants, tradesmen, or others of such occupations, who are not supposed to have shared in a liberal education. I except likewise all ministers of state during their power, lawyers and physicians in great practice, persons in such employments as take up the greater part of the day, and perhaps some other conditions of life which I cannot call to mind. Neither must I forget to except all gentlemen of the army, from the general to the ensign; because those qualifications above-mentioned in a wife, are wholly out of their element and comprehension; together with all mathematicians, and gentlemen lovers of musick, metaphysicians, virtuosi, and great talkers, who have all amusements enough of their own. All these put together will amount to a great number of adversaries, whom I shall have no occasion to encounter, because I am already of their sentiments. Those persons whom I mean to include are the bulk of lords, knights, and squires, throughout England, whether they reside between the town and country, or generally in either. I do also include those of the clergy who have tolerably good preferments in London or any other parts of the kingdom.

The most material arguments that I have met with, on the negative side of this great question, are what I shall now impartially report, in as strong a light as I think they can bear.

It is argued, "That the great end of marriage is propagation: that consequently, the principal business of a wife is to breed children, and to take care of them in their infancy: That the wife is to look on her family, watch over the servants, see that they do their work: That she be absent from her house as little as possible: That she is answerable for every thing amiss in her family: That she is to obey all the lawful commands of her husband; and visit or be visited by no persons whom he disapproves: That her whole business, if well performed, will take up most hours of the day: That the greater she is, and the more servants she keeps, her inspection must increase accordingly; for, as a family represents a kingdom, so the wife, who is her husband's first minister, must, under him, direct all the officers of state, even to the lowest; and report their behaviour to her husband, as the first minister does to his prince: That such a station requires much time, and thought, and order; and, if well executed, leaves but little time for visits or diversions: That a humour of reading books, except those of devotion or housewifery, is apt to turn a woman's brain: That plays, romances, novels, and love-poems, are only proper to instruct them how to carry on an intrigue: That all affectation of knowledge, beyond what is merely domestick, renders them vain, conceited, and pretending: That the natural levity of woman wants ballast; and when she once begins to think she knows more than others of her sex, she will begin to despise her husband, and grow fond of every coxcomb who pretends to any knowledge in books: That she will learn scholastick words; make herself ridiculous by pronouncing them wrong, and applying them absurdly in all companies: That in the mean time, her household affairs, and the care of her children, will be wholly laid aside; her toilet will be crowded with all the under-wits, where the conversation will pass in criticising on the last play or poem that comes out, and she will be careful to remember all the remarks that were made, in order to retail them in the next visit, especially in company who know nothing of the matter: That she will have all the impertinence of a pedant, without the knowledge; and for every new acquirement, will become so much the worse."

To say the truth, that shameful and almost universal neglect of good education among our nobility, gentry, and indeed among all others who are born to good estates, will make this essay of little use to the present age: for, considering the modern way of training up both sexes in ignorance, idleness, and vice, it is of little consequence how they are coupled together. And therefore my speculations on this subject can be only of use to a small number: for, in the present situation of the world, none but wise and good men can fail of missing their match, whenever they are disposed to marry; and consequently there is no reason for complaint on either side. The form by which a husband and wife are to live, with regard to each other and to the world, are sufficiently known and fixed, in direct contradiction to every precept of morality, religion, or civil institution: it would be therefore an idle attempt to aim at breaking so firm an establishment.

But, as it sometimes happens, that an elder brother dies late enough to leave the younger at the university, after he has made some progress in learning, if we suppose him to have a tolerable genius, and a desire to improve it, he may consequently learn to value and esteem wisdom and knowledge wherever he finds them, even after his father's death, when his title and estate come into his own possession. Of this kind, I reckon, by a favourable computation, there may possibly be found, by a strict search among the nobility and gentry throughout England, about five hundred. Among those of all other callings or trades, who are able to maintain a son at the university, about treble that number. The sons of clergymen, bred to learning with any success, must, by reason of their parents poverty, be very inconsiderable, many of them being only admitted servitors in colleges, and consequently proving good for nothing: I shall therefore count them to be not above fourscore. But, to avoid fractions, I shall suppose there may possibly be a round number of two thousand male human creatures in England, including Wales, who have a tolerable share of reading and good sense. I include in this list all persons of superiour abilities, or great genius, or true judgment and taste, or of profound literature, who, I am confident, we may reckon to be at least five and twenty.

I am very glad to have this opportunity of doing an honour to my country, by a computation which I am afraid foreigners may conceive to be partial; when, out of only fifteen thousand families of lords and estated gentlemen, which may probably be their number, I suppose one in thirty to be tolerably educated, with a sufficient share of good sense. Perhaps the censure may be just. And therefore, upon cooler thoughts, to avoid all cavils, I shall reduce them to one thousand, which, at least, will be a number sufficient to fill both houses of parliament.

The daughters of great and rich families, computed after the same manner, will hardly amount to above half the number of the male: because the care of their education is either left entirely to their mothers, or they are sent to boarding-schools, or put into the hands of English or French governesses, and generally the worst that can be gotten for money. So that, after the reduction I was compelled to, from two thousand to one, half the number of well-educated nobility and gentry must either continue in a single life, or be forced to couple themselves with women for whom they can possibly have no esteem; I mean fools, prudes, coquettes, gamesters, saunterers, endless talkers of nonsense, splenetic idlers, intriguers, given to scandal and censure, * * * * * * * * * * * * *