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The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
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Plutarch "On the Training of Children": The Earliest Extant Essay on Home Education.

By F. H. Colson, M.A., Head Master of Plymouth College.
Volume 1, 1890/91, pg. 325


The Roman Empire in the first century A. D. is not a society generally credited with high philanthropic and social ideas. Its depravity and hopelessness are stock topics of the pulpit, and it must be allowed that the age has left us such a low estimate of itself, that it cannot complain if it is taken at its word. The casual student is therefore sometimes surprised to find the first century figuring as a great educational epoch. Yet such is the case. To say nothing of the fact that it was a poet of the first century who spake the great saying that "the highest reverence is due to children," it is to this same century that we may trace the origin of State Education. Vespasian, if I remember right, was the first monarch who paid schoolmasters out of the public funds. Above all, this same period has given us the two earliest formal treatises on education -- the great work of Quintilian on the training of the orator, the first two books of which are a charge to schoolmasters, and the essay of Plutarch "on the education of children," which is a charge to parents.

Plutarch, who though perhaps justly known to most people as the prince of biographers, was a very prolific writer on general subjects, begins his essay with exhorting fathers to temperance and chastity before and during marriage for the sake of unborn children. Then he launches into education proper, by which be it observed that he does not mean "schooling," but the whole training of children -- physical, mental, and moral. It would be perhaps tedious to give a fill account of the essay. These are a few of the most salient points.

Three things go to make up character -- nature, instruction, habit. It is a great mistake to over-rate the first of these, and think that it must be paramount. As a matter of fact, training is far stronger than nature.

Parents must be very careful whom they choose as nurses. The nurse must be "Greek," i.e., civilized in language and character. It must be remembered that a large number of slaves (and the nurse of course would be a slave) were "barbarians" from outlying parts of the empire.

Nursery education must not be left to haphazard. Even the fairy tales our children hear should be carefully selected.

Still more care is required in choosing a "pedagogue," -- a servant, that is, who "chaperoned" a boy, took him from and to school, saw that he came to no harm in the street, and generally kept him out of mischief. Many people, says Plutarch, if they have a slave who shows strength of character, make him a farmer, or tradesman, or skipper, or steward; whereas any greedy, tippling, useless fellow will do for a pedagogue.

Above all, choose for teachers men whose lives have no stain, whose characters are beyond reproach, and whose attainments are the highest, and when you have got your teacher don't leave him to himself. Test your children's progress every few days yourself.

As to the course of instruction, philosophy is the main thing. By philosophy Plutarch means what we should call moral and religious education. "Philosophy teaches us," he says, "what is honourable or dishonourable, just or unjust, to reverence the Gods, honour parents, respect the old, obey the laws, be subject to rulers, love our friends, be chaste to women, kind to children, and keep from insolence to slaves." Above all, it teaches us the lesson of the mens aequa in everything. While, then, a gentleman's son should have some knowledge of the "encyclopaedia," or regular course of liberal studies, philosophy is the root of the matter; "For it is well to voyage round many cities, but to fix one's habitation in the best of all."

Fathers must lead their children to what is right be exhortations, and not by blows, which will only stiffen and harden the child's character. They must use praise and blame judiciously; they must not love "too well," as some parents do, and, therefore, in their desire for their children to excel, impose on them long and wearisome tasks, "over-press" them, in fact. They must be patient with faults, and if they must show temper, better be passionate than sullen. "Above all, by abstaining from ill and doing all that is right, fathers must make their lives a pattern to their children, that, looking into their life, as into a glass, they may abstain from evil in word and deed.

Here are a few aphorisms:

The father who piles up money, to leave to his children, but takes no thought for their education, is like a man taking care of his shoe and neglecting his foot.

Beauty is a prize, but fleeting; health is precious, but variable; strength is excellent, but subject to decay; education, of all that we have, is alone deathless and divine.

It is absurd to train children to take their food with the right hand and rebuke them if they use the left, yet take no thought for teaching them right principles.

Teach your children to abstain from bad words -- for words are the shadow of deeds.

Children should learn to give way in disputes; to know how to be conquered is often better than to conquer.

If your son is "wild" get him married; for marriage is the fetter of youth.

A string of platitudes, not a single original idea, it may be said. Even were it so, still platitudes have their beginning, and our gratitude and attention is due to the man who first formulated them, if he did not invent them. But I do not think Plutarch's essay is all platitudes. There underlie it some assumptions which even now are far from being generally recognized.

In the first place let us observe that by education Plutarch means education, not merely "schooling" or "instruction." Throughout, the parent is addressed and his duties discussed. Some of his functions, no doubt, are to be delegated to nurses, pedagogues, and teachers, but even then it is for the parent not merely to choose the delegates but to see by constant supervision that their duties are performed. And by far the most important part of education must evidently, in Plutarch's opinion, be carried out by the parent personally. Now, can it be maintained that this larger idea of education is really accepted in modern England? I think not. In fact it was largely, I take it, to spread this higher conception of education that the Parents' Review and the Parents' Educational Union were established. I remember that at the first meeting of that Society, the chairman, himself a head-master, said that the upshot of the debate was to reduce the school-master to what was no doubt his rightful position, one of insignificance. The words were spoken and received humorously, but really they are little more than sober truth. High as our calling is, compared with that of the parent it is almost insignificant. Heavy as our responsibility is, compared with the parent it is but a feather's weight. We cannot deliver the parent, or make atonement unto God for him.

Observe, too, Plutarch's view about the qualities required of those whom we may call the parents' delegates -- the nurse, the "pedagogue," the teacher. I have quoted his remark that many people made their valuable slaves into stewards, skippers, or what not, while they thought any greedy, tippling, useless fellow could serve as pedagogue. Canon Farrar, in his glaring picture of heathen Rome, [Early days of Christianity] quotes this remark as a proof of the depravity of the age. I venture to think that this is rather unjust. Let us remember that the word "tippling" does not imply the reproach that we attach to it, and that Plutarch's statement simply amounts to this, that many parents (not most) employed their inferior and less dependable slaves as pedagogues. Now the wonder to my mind is not so much that parents should so act, as that Plutarch should see any harm in it. From an ordinary point of view the task of keeping a child out of harm's way does not require skilled labour, and it would be a waste to employ a really able and dependable slave upon it. It is only when we begin to appreciate the immense importance of early association that we begin to modify our views. And are we in England absolutely free from the errors which Canon Farrar deplores in heathen Rome? Does not a cook often command higher wages than a nurse? Are we not disgraced by the fact that, while doctors and lawyers are regularly licensed to practice, any one may set up as a teacher? It is, I think, little more than fifty years since Miss Austen declared through the mouth of the charming and sensible Emma, that "one would be sorry to see refinement in the teacher of a school."

Lastly, let us remark that with Plutarch the father is the parent par excellence. The mother is expected to nurse her child if possible, and the example of a certain Eurydice, who took to study in order to teach her children, is held up to approbation. Frequently, too, when Plutarch speaks of the father's duties, he doubtless means both parents. Still it is clear that he never for a moment contemplates the possibility of the main burden of education being shifted on to the mothers. We have changed all this, doubtless on the whole for the better. We have discovered, what was unknown to the Romans, that the mother's influence is a vast power not only with girls but with boys, not only in the innocence of childhood, but in the temptations and passions of manhood. But one is sometimes tempted to ask whether the pendulum may not have swung a little too far the other way. Is there not a danger of one parent becoming the sole parent? A very short experience as a head-master tends to show me that as a rule the mother, not the father, is supreme in educational matters. In the majority of cases, though of course by no means all, it is the mother who makes inquiries and arranges terms; the mother who grumbles, and the mother who expresses satisfaction; the mother who maintains discipline and the mother who spoils. There is much that is good in this, but it may be carried too far. Perhaps in this, as in other matters, we may learn something from this old-world essay on "Home Education."



Typed by Kristina, Sept 2015