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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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The Object of a Girl's Education

by Mrs. Arthur Butler
Volume 11, 1900, pgs. 593-600


The subject before us will be of interest, because it is one that anyone who has to deal with girls must have thought about, and may be willing to discuss. I am not going to try and exhaust this inexhaustible subject, and fear even that my view will seem a very common-place one. But that is because the common-places of life are, when all is said and done, the true foundations of society.

I said this is an inexhaustible subject, and yet the question seems to have only one answer. The object of a girl's education is to make her a good and useful woman, and to do this she must have every side of her nature developed in fair proportion and symmetry. I will further define the question by saying that a good woman is one who is capable of being a good wife and a good mother. I do not mean that all will, or are likely, to have the chance; but, unless she is capable of succeeding in this, her education is a failure. For those girls who will make the best wives are the most capable of fulfilling any other vocation that is open to women. The greater includes the less, and the girls who, on the one hand, will be the best wives and mothers of later generations, would also be the best schoolmistresses, hospital nurses, missionaries, guardians of the poor, or anything else.

The qualities which lead to excellence in the one sphere are the same that lead to excellence in all; and the absence of those qualities will equally weaken any influence and spoil any career. I am speaking now of those qualities which are within the reach of all, but which a faulty education can easily warp and replace by a mistaken code of less valuable, though perhaps more obvious, attainments. But the development must take place on every side of the girl's nature, and it will be disastrous if she is not allowed to use all her faculties to the full--mental, moral and physical. If I dwell more on the necessity for cultivating the domestic virtues in this paper, it is not because the others are not necessary so much as that modern education seems to endanger the growth of these.

"This ought ye to have done and not to leave the other undone" is true of many of the questions that meet us. If our girls grow up without tenderness, the power of sympathy, graciousness, tact, self-control, dignity, faith, it will not make up for the lack of these that they are self-reliant, hard-working, hard-headed, business-like and ready-witted. These latter qualities will be very useful to them, but I maintain that excellence in any situation to which fate may call them is not to be attained without the essentially womanly qualities. Do you say that many girls must work for their living and fulfil stations which will call out chiefly the "business" qualities, which I place in the second rank, or that a girl with a decided talent, as artist, musician, lecturer or dressmaker, is bound to develop that talent at the expense of stunting the other side of her nature? Surely not. Let us for a moment picture a girl who has found a profession quickly after she is grown up, say, as lecturer at a lady's college. She will have to live in lodgings, or else at a hostel, where there is no trouble about procuring the necessaries of life. In either case, she can arrange her time as she likes, shut herself up for hours without fear of interruption to work at her lectures, and choose her own friends and her own amusements without any need to consult anybody else's convenience. She will spend part of her holidays at home, it is true, but, for the sake of the argument, we will suppose it to be an uncongenial home, and, as it has produced little sympathy for her pursuits, so on her side she has little sympathy to bring back to it. She wonders how she could ever have lived at home, and her eyes are keenly open to the intellectual deficiencies that surround her, as well as to the actual discomforts there may be, and the sordid efforts to make both ends meet, which are evident in many homes. She has forgotten how it felt to need the shelter and protection of the older judgment, and she feels rather "out of it" when the younger members of the family claim her love and care. Some day, one of the home events, a marriage or a funeral, will take place, and she will be sent for as a matter of course, but may very likely find that the springs of joy and sorrow are dried up: she will be charming to other people, but not really at her ease with her own. It is too early for this generation to foresee the effects of this isolated life in later years; but there are few women who will not, without some softening influences, become hardened, cynical and narrow. Moreover, as this girl will be the sort of woman that men do not like, she will not have much chance of altering the conditions: and when the vigour of her life is past, will subside into an old age, unloving and unloved.

This is only an imaginary picture; but those parents who make everything give way to a special training for their girl are preparing a more or less selfish life for her. Has she a talent for painting? She will soon want a studio away from home; then she will suggest living at the studio and coming home for Sundays, and so the process begins. Or the girl with musical talent will spend the most critical years of her life in Germany and come home keen to be "a professional"; her proud parents encourage her, and she gets into a musical set and also becomes more or less useless for the home life. It depends on the influence of the parents whether the deteriorating process makes progress, or whether other ideas and duties are strong enough to counteract it. It is quite possible for a girl to work, and to work for money, and yet to keep her affections sound and true. If she takes up some definite home duty or keeps a certain part of her time for the indefinite duties that make up so much of life, and if her parents will give up their time to listen to her account of the days spent away from home, and will enter as much as they can into her outside life, with its trials and disappointments, hopes and encouragements, they will find that, in spite of all modern improvements, their girl will rather be at home than anywhere else, and that it is possible for a mother to be her fastest friend as well as her first. It is well for us to remember in these days, when so many careers are open to women, that home training is quite as important as special training. The "home arts and industries" will make her the real woman after all, and these are what she will carry away with her into whatever sphere of work she enters.

Women are invited now to be poor law guardians, not because of their intimate acquaintance with the poor law--why a mere man can learn that!--so much as because of their influence in dealing with matters that concern women. What would be the use of their visiting workhouses if they could not look tenderly on the pauper children and old and infirm people?

It is so obvious that all who wish to be distinguished in the teaching profession must really understand and love children, that one need not dwell on that now. A hospital nurse without the saving grace of humanity had better renounce her profession in spite of her diplomas, for the sick person is sensitive in mind as well as in body, and does not always want to ask for small wants and comforts to be remembered, or like to have the door ostentatiously shut when the groan of pain escapes from time to time. Once more, if a girl takes up missionary work, which now offers such varied and important employment for women in different parts of the world, will it not matter more when she is living in India or Japan if she brings with her the traditions, the memories the culture of an English Christian home, than if she is merely a zealous teacher or an ardent proselytizer? She has to make friends with ignorant, unenlightened heathen women, and she will have no chance of influencing them for higher things unless she can take an interest in their homes, their children and their lives.

This suggests what is, after all, the important matter not to be omitted from our girls' education, that which of itself will carry with it the characteristics insisted on above. It is the absence of religious feeling, of a living practical faith, which has the most effect in producing a hard, cynical, unsympathetic woman. It appears to matter much more to women than to men when they give up even the externals of religion; partly, perhaps, because women are more emotional, and require a method of expressing their feelings; partly, also, because a man always has, or ought to have, a woman to come home to, and woman satisfies the sentimental side of his nature when he thinks he can do without the something beyond. But a woman who has left hold of her faith is a pitiable object indeed, and quite unfit to face the problems of life, the sorrows, may be the heart-break, for which we must be prepared in our daughters' lives. It will not make up for it if she ceases to have a heart in later life. Just now is a time of personal loss and grief to many women of all ranks. At the beginning of the war, a touching letter from lady Symons was published when General Symons lay mortally wounded, in which she said: "I do not know how I can bear the suspense"; and what she felt, hundreds are feeling now, as thousands have done before, and still the only thing we can do to comfort them is to say, "God help them."

Greater freedom of thought, and a more highly developed intelligence, ought not to bring with it contempt of all that we hold most sacred, but ought, on the contrary, to produce a higher standard of duty and to increase the capabilities of the home. In many cases, no doubt, this is so, where the daughters bring in fresh interests from outside, and the parents are not afraid to welcome new ideas and gladly take the part of those who look on, when they recognize a new power in the daughters they have trained to be as the polished corners of the temple. The pity is that so much of the newer education seems to have a tendency to produce the opposite result. Is it not partly that the idea of duty seems to be relaxed? Everyone now thinks it a reason for doing things or for not doing them, that they want or do not want to do them; and the more conscientious people persuade themselves that they have a higher duty which interferes with the obvious one, but which generally turns out to be their own pleasure. To keep to the subject under consideration, is it not lamentable that the girls who have been to college should so often make difficulties about returning to the hum-drum duties of life, when their work at home is waiting for them to come and ennoble other lives as well as their own? The head of one of the ladies' colleges, when talking about this one day, said that over and over again she has been confronted by girls with this difficulty: "What shall I do? It is quite impossible for me to live at home." She said she used to say to them, "Is it really so very bad? Don't you think you might try?" and that, in nearly every instance where they took her advice and did try, the difficulties vanished by degrees. I believe the seeds of this self-pleasing are sown often very early, and are fostered by our delightful modern plans of teaching children, which, in injudicious hands, may easily become spoiling. The child who says, "I can't." when told to write a French letter or do a harder sum than she is used to, for instance, must find out she has to try, even at the cost of those tears which go to our heart, or she will some day say, "I can't," when the choice is put before her of the selfish life of developing her energies by herself, or of making a sacrifice, it may even be of the right hand or of the right eye to help her people at home. She must, of course, have plenty to do if she is to be healthy in body, soul and spirit, and when there are several grown-up daughters at home, they will, of course, take different lines. The thing to be remembered is that, like the spokes of a wheel, all the lines should have a common fixed centre to lead back to. Modern education, and everything that may be represented by the word bicycle, is intended, not only to take our girls out to fresh woods and pastures new, but to bring them home again. Give them a high ideal of home, and when they have homes of their own, whether married or single, they will be centres of good to all around them. The age of unrest has spread its influence in too many homes already, and there is not the feeling that there used to be against the mother of the family going out for the day and leaving the children alone with servants. Has the object of a girl's education been attained when she asks for pleasure to come first, and shirks even the duties and responsibilities of motherhood because they interfere with her amusements? Surely there is no greater sign than this of the degeneracy of a race.

Let us guard the true interests of our womanhood at the risk of being thought "slow" or of feeling a little dull. The great nations of the world have always attached great importance to the domestic hearth, and it was not for nothing that the Romans made offerings to their Lares and Penates, who represented their most worthy ancestors, and were regarded as protectors of peace and happiness. When a young bride entered the house of her husband, her first duty was to make an offering to the Lar, which was an image of some departed member of the family who had been a good man in his life-time. The Lar was inseparable from the family, and when the latter moved into another house, the Lar was also transferred with them to the new abode. The public Lares and Penates were worshipped in the central part of the city, and the private ones had their place at every hearth, where a fire was kept continually burning in their honour; and when the inhabitant of a house was going from home, he saluted the images as if they were living personages, and hung up his armour by their side. We can smile at these superstitions, but at least they represented a principle, the principle of the divinity in the household, and shew us that the Romans regarded the domestic hearth as a shrine to be honoured and reverenced, and a more enlightened age should not come behind them in this respect.

It would seem that no girl's education can be called complete till she has learnt to live at home, and all that home life means, with its ceaseless interruptions, the give-and-take with different members of the family--above all, the love and kindness that should pervade like an atmosphere. This was why Sister of Mercy remarked in conversation that it was almost necessary for one in even her profession occasionally to spend a few days in a household where the daily life goes on simply and naturally, in order to get a true balance in her own life of devotion and work for others. It is another way of expressing what a representative writer and thinker of this century meant when he says (I quote from a translation), "To think is often to go wrong, and the thinker who strays must, in order to regain his path, constantly return to the place where those who think little have remained sitting around the silent, but necessary, truth. These guard the hearth of the tribune; the others light their torches at it, and when the torch begins to burn dimly in a rarified atmosphere, it will be well for them to come near the hearth again. Indeed, the thinker will only go on thinking rightly if he never loses touch with those who do not think at all."

No doubt Maeterlinck means those who do the duty that comes nearest without stopping to analyze their motives. For is not the ideal woman

                    "A being breathing thoughtful breath--
                    A traveller between life and death."

The highest career open to a woman is that of being the centre of a home. It will call out all her highest faculties, and it will require the most complete development of body, soul and spirit--the physical, intellectual and spiritual sides of her nature. I am not thinking of the people who we say are "excellent wives and mothers," while we think they are nothing but the most limited and ordinary types of the same; rather of those who can be companions and help-meets for their husbands, write letters for them, prepare speeches, keep accounts, and understand mankind, and bring their intelligence to bear on the daily menu and the other details of every-day life. With the children, boys and girls, old and young, she will need all her energies to keep pace with the first-rate teaching of modern times, so as to take a due amount of interest in their studies, debating societies and games, as well as to have a voice in their aspiration for a future career. It is very easy to let things slide and be only the nominal referee, and it is very difficult to fill the place she ought to fill in the household, and no mean ambition to aim at it.

Remember, too, that on the rising generation of our girls, the girls we are training today, depends the future generation of Englishmen. We are bound to teach our girls to think highly of the highest good, so that they may know how to help their husbands and their sons and their brothers in the various fields of life. After all, though women may be pioneers in great social movements, and though their indirect influence is of untold value, yet the work of the world must mainly be done by men. But those men will only be fit for the work, whether of philosophers, statesmen or heroes, if the right kind of women are there to help them. Whether it be the married or the single life that lies before our girls, the same principle applies; and we need not fear any of the new fields of work which this century has thrown open to women, or any that the future has in store, if we guard well the sanctuaries of life.