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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."
First Principles

by The Lady Frederick Cavendish
Volume 3, 1892/93, pgs. 801-804

It is a terribly well-worn subject that I have been asked to talk about, and it is quite impossible that I should say much, if anything, that is new about it. But there always will be things that want saying, and listening to, and remembering, on so very great and important a matter; and education must certainly not be allowed to go out of fashion until children go out of fashion too.

Certain principles there are that should never be lost sight of, however much times and manners change; at least, if they are lost sight of, we shall inevitably have disastrous results. We may build a beautiful superstructure, quite up to date in style, but if strong foundations are lacking, there will come a time when, under stress of storm and flood, it will fall, and its fall will be grievous in proportion to its past glory and beauty. Allow me to mention some of these main principles upon which all education should be founded, apologising for laying down what you may all justly characterise as truisms, on the ground that truisms are invaluable as starting-points, and are too often forgotten because they are so true.

(1) First and foremost, we must never forget the children in the theories and methods we adopt. And therefore it should be an absolute bar to any one becoming a teacher, that she does not care for children, or feel an interest in each and every child that comes her way. If any mother interviews a would-be governess, let her begin by asking the preliminary question, "Do you love children?" and, by love, I mean much sympathy, understanding, patience, and discrimination. There are many other important questions to ask, but this should be the first.

(2) We should teach only what we thoroughly know ourselves. From which, of course, it follows that teachers of all grades and kinds should themselves be well taught. This to start with; but perhaps there is no calling in which the saying that an ounce of practice is worth a pound of theory is so true as in education, unless it is in cooking or swimming. It is in the process of teaching that we learn most; before we take pupils in hand, we may be completely finished with the requisite book-knowledge, but we have learnt as little of the art of teaching as the famous man learnt of swimming, who placed a frog before him in a basin of water and copied its movements as he lay on a table.

(3) As we want water to swim in before we can swim, so we want the electric fluid of sympathy between soul and soul, mind and mind, before we can teach. So the third of my truisms is, learn to be in touch with every pupil. Never lump up all children together as little machines that can all be made to grind just in the same way. Where there is true love of children, there is likely to be discrimination, yet it is sometimes lacking at home; the brilliant child will be stimulated, and the slow one discouraged, when it ought to be "the other way up." In home-teaching it should be easy for a governess to know and to work with each child's nature; in such small classes as those held here, nearly as easy. But I have seen it marvellously carried out in a large High School, where the head-mistress seemed to have intimate and personal acquaintance with each pupil, so that none was overlooked or left behind. That head-mistress is herself a mother, and who can say how great an advantage that may have given her?

(4) Another foundation principle is, Give each pupil something to pull against; let him, I mean, learn to put forth powers, to make efforts. I need hardly say how cautiously and tenderly we should apply this principle to young children. Until they are four or five I doubt if they should be, even in the least degree, pressed to reason; and I would of all things avoid puzzling a little child. But a minute or two spent in a real effort is surely good, even for a very young child; it is the beginning of training, the exercise of the muscles of the mind; yes, and of the muscles of the soul too, if I may use the expression. I once had charge of a little nephew of mine, a boy of about two years old. One day, when it was quite dusk, I sent him into the next room to fetch a picture-book that he knew, but when he reached the door he came back, saying, "Dark, dark." I encouraged him and sent him back again, but he returned with the same words. "Now, Little One," I said, "what does it matter about the dark? If you go and find that book, Auntie will say, 'What a dear, clever, brave little boy!'" So he went off the third time, and returned with it in triumph. If we make such an appeal to children with gentle brightness, encouraging and cheering them, never frightening or driving them, we shall wake up courage in their hearts. There is one passage, at all events, worth laying to heart in that most dismal of books, J.S. Mill's Autobiography, where he, undeterred by the bitter experiences of the cruel grind of his own childhood, deprecates the absence of anything like painful effort in present-day methods of education. It is not only "reading" that is nowadays taught "without tears," all paths of knowledge are strewn with flowers; children's enjoyments are indefinitely multiplied, their toys and story-books are Legion, and they revel in pastry and made dishes, holidays, treats, parties, and journeys beyond their grandparents' wildest dreams. The pleasures and sports of grown-up life are discounted in boyhood, and thus a race of young men is produced to whom life appears to be "played out" before they are twenty-five, and who, even if there is no particular harm in them, seem incapable of anything like zeal, energy, hard or uphill work. This pampering at home, especially in the case of boys (for, in my experience, mothers pet their sons, even if they rule their daughters with a rod of iron), weakens the moral fibre, and induces that "softness" which more than anything else renders them an easy prey to the terrible temptations that await them at school, at college, and on entering into life. On this point I have had strong confirmation from the head-master of one of our leading public schools. Instead of accustoming boys to self-indulgence, and encouraging them in the idea that everything must yield to their pleasure and convenience, let us lead them in the nobler path of self-denial and self-control, and teach them to take delight in enduring "hardness as good soldiers of Jesus Christ." Let our love for our children stimulate us to draw them upward to those heights of goodness only reached by the paths of self-sacrifice; let us appeal to what is noblest in their nature; let us, not by coercion, but by the mighty influence of "a living spirit and a consistent example" teach them that only by unselfish effort, by brave conflict, by thought and word for others--nay, by suffering and cross-bearing, can we attain to the full dignity of our high calling. There is in every human heart a God-given sense to which such principles appeal. The school-bully has often become the defender of the weak, simply through an appeal to the latent spark of chivalry within him; the self-indulgent have been shamed into endurance by being called to bear privations for the sake of others; the coward has become brave, the loiterer diligent, the feeble-willed have been nerved to action by the same trumpet-call.

Whether or not, then, you have the opportunity and the power of making the full use we desire of the educational opportunities offered you by this Society, let me appeal to each and all to put this one high aim in the very foremost place among your responsibilities--the aim of setting before your pupils in your daily and hourly intercourse with them a noble and a religious moral standard, by word and precept, by warning and discipline, but most of all by the gentle shining of your own example. What can be more inspiriting--what can more cheer us on our course, amid the many discouragements and difficulties that beset us all, than the pressing forward, and the encouraging of others to press forward, towards the highest good?

(Notes of an Address)
"A sacred burden is the trust ye bear--
Look on it, lift it, bear it solemnly,
Stand up and walk beneath it steadfastly;
Fail not for sorrow, falter not for sin,
But onward, upward, till the goal ye win;
God guard you, and God guide you on your way,
Ye, who in faith and hope set forth to-day."
[from Lines addressed to the Young Gentleman leaving the Lenox Academy, Mass., by Frances Anne Kemble]

Proofread by Stephanie H. 2008