The Parents' Review
A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture
"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Reverence, or the Ideal in Education.
[Thomas Godolphin Rooper, 1847-1903, was an inspector of schools and personal friend of Charlotte Mason; much of his writing was for her P.N.E.U. meetings. His essay "Lyonesse" describes his time as a student at the Harrow boarding school. After he died (of spinal tuberculosis at the age of 56), Mason wrote a chapter in his honor which appears in her book, "Formation of Character," vol 5 of her series. He never married.]
In a certain respect there is a correspondence between Faith as a practical consciousness of God and the artist's consciousness of an Ideal.--T. H. GREEN.
Considering how much there is in the education of a child which by reason of the expansion of science during the last hundred years must needs be new, it is occasionally worth while to dwell upon the still larger and more important portion of the child's training which must needs be old.
While we are in doubt what sciences or what languages we ought to teach children, whether to develop handwork more and headwork less, whether to curtail the labour of the pedagogue and to introduce in his place the carpenter, the doctor, and the cook; while we are puzzled by the multiplicity of subjects every one of which ought to be studied if we look to the advantage which the knowledge of it contributes to success in life, it may save us from the despair which arises out of the perpetuity of the problem to reflect how very little human nature changes after all from one generation to another. Is it not a striking fact that a touch of human nature in Homer, who wrote perhaps 3000 years ago, should be as full of meaning to us who live so long after, as a similar touch of human nature in the works of Lord Byron or Lord Tennyson? This continuity in the character of the human race is cheering reflection to the educationist, because it follows as a consequence from it that there are numerous and weighty branches of education which are not really newer, more doubtful, or more perplexing to-day than they were in the days of Plato or St. Paul, or the mediaeval writers on the subject.
Now, I propose to leave out of sight the education of the future and ask you to listen for a few moments while I dwell upon those parts of training which are not new, and are scarcely affected by modern changes, whether political, social, or scientific. I speak of this as the ideal in education, because I wish to distinguish it from the discussion of those very practical matters which, however much vexed and disputed, admit nevertheless of a definite solution. Whether, for instance, you are to teach a child Greek or French is doubtless a matter of controversy, but whichever way you finally decide it, there is no difficulty in acting upon the decision. Either language can be taught. When, however, you begin to deal with the elements of that high character which we desire every child to attain, the opposite holds true, for then there is a general agreement as to the virtues which we should try to implant or cherish, the only uncertainty is as to the success of our efforts. By the right use of the imagination, the mind can create ideals at which to aim, but experience shows that man can only advance a little way in the direction of these ideals , for strive as he may to attain to it, the goal he makes for remains very far off. Indeed, so imperfect is human nature that the attainment of one ideal often seems inconsistent with the complete possession of another. I ask you to join me in contemplating ideals, and not to fear the reproach of being unpractical, for the contemplation of an ideal, even if unattainable, is a help to the humblest action. If you have to cross a strange and intricate country, the best way to keep the right road is to fix your eye steadily upon a distant object, and to make directly for it, disregarding intervening deviations. Such a guide to us are the ideals constructed long ago by great men, and illuminated for us by the experience of many generations. The ideas of such men are very practical things, because without great thoughts there are no great deeds.
Now the central thought of all that I am going to lay before you is summed up in the word "reverence." In one of Goethe's masterpieces upon education he takes his reader to a secluded monastery, situated in a romantic country, where a few children are being educated upon an unusual system. On nearing the old monastic buildings, which, instead of being in the hands of the clergy, are now occupied by special teachers, the visitor is struck by the peculiar antics with which the children greet him as he approaches. He notices three different gestures. Sometimes the children stand having their arms crossed on their breast, and looking up to heaven with gladness; sometimes they turn their eyes to earth, smiling and keeping their hands crossed behind their back as if tied there; while in a third kind of greeting they run together, stand side by side, and look straight before them.
Naturally the visitor asks his guide to interpret to him the meaning of these strange gestures. "Children," answers the interpreter, "bring with them into the world many gifts of Nature. These it is our duty to cherish. Often, however, natural gifts develop best when left to themselves. One thing there is that no child brings with him into the world--one habit of mind that only comes by training--and yet it is the most important of all for the making of a perfect man." "And what, pray, is that?" says the visitor. "Reverence," answers the interpreter. The visitor is still puzzled. "Yes, reverence," continues the other; "all want that--you yourself perhaps. There are three kinds of reverence which we teach here in succession, but which exert their full influence only when united in one character, and the three gestures which you have seen are outward symbols corresponding to these three kinds of reverence. To begin with, the young child crosses his arms on his breast and casts a joyous look heavenwards. That action indicates reverence for what is above him. Thus young children learn that God is above them, and reveals Himself to them in their parents and others who are set in authority over them. Next, the children learn to cross their hands as if bound behind their backs and incline their face with a smile earthwards. This action indicates reverence for earth, and reminds them of two things: first, that earth is the source of life and untold happiness; and secondly, that it is also the source of infinite misery, for from the earth arise pain and sorrow, and earthly wills are unruly, and man is in danger of suffering and doing ill all his life long. In these two first stages of our training, the children are taught to stand alone and apart; but in the third stage they join each other, stand side by side, as comrades, and, thus united, look straight before them, facing the world with a bold front. Until man has learnt to associate with other men for a common purpose there prevails between him and his fellows nothing but suspicion and mistrust."
"But," says the visitor, "you say reverence is not inborn, and needs to be implanted. Surely every savage fears the great and evident forces of Nature, and learns through them naturally to fear a Being greater than himself." "True," replies the guide; "but fear is not reverence: the two things are distinct. What a man fears he either seeks to meet and vanquish, if he be strong, or to avoid and shirk, if he be weak; but what a man reverences he seeks to attain or to imitate." This is Goethe's famous illustration of reverence. Now I hope that while much remains doubtful and disputable in education, we have in this word reverence, as thus interpreted, one thing fixed and certain, one thing which is not obscure or new, but repeated a hundred times in the world's literature, and proved in practice, as long as history records the doings of the human race, to be a solid and substantial basis for nobility of character. We must implant in children a feeling of reverence. The next point is, What are children to learn to reverence? and I propose to try to answer this question. Following Goethe, I will deal with reverence for things above, reverence for things on earth, and reverence for man in society; but I will take them in the reverse order. I begin with the last--reverence for man in society--the most important element of which is man's reverence for his native country.
I know that the word patriotism is often distrusted and discredited. Like all high conceptions, the spirit of patriotism has been debased, and the national strength to which it gives rise may be and has been abused to tyrannies over the weak or to insult the oppressed. But the true spirit of patriotism is not one of false pride and conceit, not of self-laudation and exaltation; but such an appreciation of his country's greatness as leads a man to be humble, modest, ready to sacrifice himself as an insignificant portion for the good of the whole community. It leads a youth to feel how much others, living and dead, have done for him, and to aspire to make that return which lies in his power by keeping himself temperate and well disciplined in mind and body, that he may, when called upon, support the public interest even if he must sacrifice his own. This spirit leads a man to live for the good of others, and not for himself or his family alone; this supplies a motive for developing his faculties, instead of destroying them either by vice or idleness, or even by a fruitless asceticism like that of some oriental fakir sitting out his life in dreaming and contemplation; this leads him to respect all his fellow countrymen, whether rich or poor, and to remember that all of them, however divided in their several aims, must have a common interest as Englishmen. This is the spirit that might replace the prevalent feeling of class hatred, that canker of national life. This is the spirit which we may implant in children, partly by making them acquainted with stirring passages in English literature which are inspired by it, and partly by telling them stories of those men and women who have consecrated their lives to their country's good, and have believed that a profitless comfortable life is scarcely more worth living than a life of vice.
Oh, gentlemen, the time of life is short;
Connected with patriotism is reverence for disciplined life, and therefore the next ideal in education which I will hold up before you is that of hardihood, strictness, and simplicity of living. Compare the means of comfort within reach of almost all people in these days with the opportunities for avoiding hardship which existed a hundred years ago, and you will realize the imminent danger of yielding to the temptation of soft living and then to softness of life. I am not thinking of a frigid discipline which is often a substitute for zeal, and which may throw some of the best impulses of a child into an atrophy, or at least freeze up the healthy flow of his animal spirits, but of that discipline which develops the manlier virtues. On this subject I will quote a passage from Taylor: "Otherwise," says he, "do fathers and mothers handle their children. These soften them with kisses and imperfect noises, with the pap and the breast milk of soft endearments; they rescue them from tutors and snatch them from discipline; they desire to keep them fat and warm, and their feet dry and their bellies full, and then the children govern and cry and prove fools and troublesome, so long as the feminine republic does endure. But fathers, because they design to have their children wise and valiant, apt for counsel and for arms, send them to severe governments and tie them to study and to hard labour and afflictive contingencies. Softness for slaves and beasts and domestic pets and useless persons, for such as cannot ascend higher than the state of a fair ox or a servant entertained for vainer offices. Labour," he continues, "obedience, and discipline, these are the three guides in attendance upon the high way of the cross; unpleasant are they, but safe."
There never was a time when the numerous distractions of town life were more insidious, and when, therefore, it was more necessary to dwell upon the virtues of singleness of aim and simplicity in life. No doubt a knowledge of miscellaneous affairs is useful to most people, but at what a risk such knowledge is obtained in youth. Let us think of the biographies of men like Bunyan or Wesley, and pay heed how much they were content to forego of that which most people devote all their lives to acquiring or enjoying, and that in order to obtain a large store of spiritual treasure which many of us half despise, and most of us are very willing to dispense with. Then we may realise how important an ingredient in the noble nature is simplicity of life.
I know come to that kind of reverence which Goethe describes as reverence for man in society, for civic life. It is not the most important end of education to train a child to become a successful wage-earner, because "making his own living" is not really the most important part of his future life. The real educational problem is not a mere industrial question. We want to know how we can make it possible for all, even the poorest, to lead a life which, however humble, shall not want its share of dignity. The boy grows to be a man and will become a workman or a professional man, but he will also be a member of a community and and Englishman. Our problem is how to enable him to play a man's part in that community and in that country. I cannot better explain to you the meaning of this ideal than by quoting a portion of the oath which young men took in Athens when they arrived at man's estate. "I will do battle," they swore, "for our altars and our homes, whether aided or unaided. I will leave our country not less but greater and nobler than she is entrusted to me. I will reverently obey the citizens who shall act as judges. I will obey the laws which have been ordained and which in time to come shall be ordained by the national will."
This is the spirit that pervaded civic life 2000 years ago. How infinitely grander it is than the spirit which pervades a large part of modern society. It is a common fashion now to despise the past, to belittle great characters, and to magnify present opinion and practice by comparison. There are many who believe that if they do not agree with the expressed national will, they are philosophic and scientific in disregarding, disobeying, and defying it. For admiration, reverence, and humility, they substitute a spirit of cynicism, assumption, and self-conceit. Then I turn to a greater work than the pages of Greek History, I mean the Books of the Bible, and read those words of Elijah, when worn out with the care of what seemed a hopeless struggle with evil, he cried, "It is enough. Now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am not better than my fathers." How much nobler, truer, and more worthy is such a spirit than the state of mind of those for whom the past has no title to regard, nor the law of the land any sacred sanction. Such a spirit is the highest result of reverence for man in society, and the way to implant it in the mind of the child is by encouraging reverence for the heroic character. We are cynically told that it is no reproach to a man that he is not a hero. At any rate, let children be assisted to admire heroism in all its forms, because some elements of the heroic character are necessary to every good man. The contract between a heroic death and a feeble, discontented, self-indulgent life, cannot fail to be a bracing contemplation. Few children who have learnt to admire devotion and self-sacrifice in the life of another, will be content with mere ease and enjoyment in their own.
The next ideal I would bring under your notice is reverence for beauty, which is the chief of "things on earth." I think a good many English people have great doubt about the value of a love for beautiful objects. They look upon all such as toys and trifles, playthings for people with leisure and money to devote to them, as an interest of which the best that can be said is that it is harmless; hence they think that it is, to say the least of it, superfluous to make children acquainted with vanities. Yet Goethe, one of the greatest and most thoughtful of writers, has said boldly--"The beautiful is greater than the good." How can we reconcile these conflicting opinions? We know that the study of Art may be made a frivolous pursuit, but it is a perversion of it:
Ah! Believe me there is more than so,
A painting of "The Mother and her Child" by Raphael; a landscape by Turner, as seen in the midst of the eternal peace of sunset; a carved marble by Greek artist, who has fixed for ever in stone the transient grace of muscular movement or (with intense vividness) the working of the mind, showing itself in the fleeting expression of the countenance; an oratorio by Handel, a solemn service by Bach--these works of Art body forth for us in a way that nothing else can the union of what things are true, beautiful, and good. If this be the lesson that can be learned from Art, it is no mere "crackling of thorns under a pot," but a sober, serious pursuit that may, if rightly followed, brace and strengthen, as well as enlarge and elevate the mind. But to get real good from this study, it should be begun early in life, and continued long, for a sense of beauty cannot be snatched up in a moment in our later years. This study, in Shakespeare's words:
Is like the Heaven's glorious sun,
The process is long and slow, and if it begins with a child's delight in a pretty colour, it may end long afterwards with a masculine and severe joy in beautiful scenes and objects, filling the soul with power. Of course I do not expect too much from Art. I do not hope to make children moral merely by teaching them to draw, nor do I suppose that the right remedy for rotten and rat-riddled tenements is a scarlet geranium or an artistic wall paper, but I do believe that moral beauty is not different from but really one with the beauty which is made manifest by artists, and that if you teach a child to see beauty in a shell or a flower, in a picture or a carving, you are helping him to see the beauty of right conduct, and what is more, the ugliness of the opposite.
A great number of the Parents' Review supplies me from its invaluable appendix, which contains actual observations on the minds of children, with two illustrations of the unexpected influence of a sense of beauty upon moral behaviour. In the first case a mother describes the repugnance which grew up in a little child of four years old to saying prayers, and explains the difficulty of treating this temper. "One day," she continues, "I took the little girl into a room where several tall lilies were arranged in pots, and asked her would she like to kneel by them and thank God for making such beautiful things." She at once consented, and her interest being awakened, has continued ever since, adding a word of praise for the lovely lilies, and thus a good habit has driven out a bad one. Who can fail to see in this description a touching illustration of one of the most exquisite passages in the Sermon on the Mount? Another mother states that to quiet a child in a passion at three, four, and five years old, she would take her to look at Holman Hunt's "Light of the World," which had a calming effect that no words would produce. Often a first sign of regret was asking to be taken to see it.
The love of Art has often been thought inconsistent with hardihood, the last ideal which I dwelt on. If art is devoted to providing comforts and luxuries for private use it may be so, but the art which builds and adorns public buildings, raises monuments to great men and great deeds, or interprets and reveals to men beauty which might escape them, will never lead to selfishness or self-indulgence. There is an ascetic devotion to art and an ascetic enjoyment of this earth's delights, and it is this truth that Goethe adumbrates when he describes with quaint but telling imagery the gestures of those who look with joy upon the earth and yet, at the same time, stand with their hands tied behind their backs. The beauty of earth we ought to learn to reverence, but it cannot be enjoyed without restraint, so that parents and guardians must follow that shepherd who said, "And I took unto me two staves, the one I called Beauty and the other I called Bands, and I fed the flock." Zech. xi.7.
I have dealt with reverence of two kinds, as suggested by Goethe's famous allegory--reverence for things on earth, and reverence for man in society. There remains one more ideal, the greatest of all, one that may change, but never will decay; an ideal that is ancient and yet ever modern, most well known and yet never carried into act without being original; an ideal that is most worthy of being dwelt upon in a time when so many are inclined to disregard it, because, say they, "Old things are passed away; behold all things are become new." The chief part of education is reverence for the Christian life. I mean by a Christian life an eternal act of death into life done by Christ, a life in which all may share, a life which has been shared in by countless numbers of persons calling themselves Christians during the last 1800 years. The evidence and the substance of the death of Christ, and all the varied doctrines that have prevailed in connection with it are acts of Christian love. Tongues cease, prophets die, science changes; ecclesiastical systems flourish and decay; the act of love that seekers not his own abideth. Amid fretfulness, discontent, sophistry, ambition, the roar of the street and the din of the market, we may easily forget or ignore this ancient and simple theology. Yet which of us has not known in the flesh some living example of Christian life. I do not now mean a Gordon or a Nightingale, or an Arnold Toynbee, whose fame resounds as far as the English tongue is heard; but one whose narrow stage has been the sick room or a disorderly and teasing household, and who has discharged lowly, painful, and laborious duties with such cheerfulness and perfection as to make us envy the beauty of their character, and desire, amid despair, to derive from them something of their spirit, which exhibits in power the crucified and risen life described with burning eloquence by St. Paul. It is when we come to know persons like this that we are forced to grasp (what we are slow and loath to credit) that great men do mean what they say.
Such then are the ideals that we ought to teach children to venerate--patriotism, civic life, beauty, and the Christian life--and they are, as I said at the outset, the chiefest part of education. Great as is the importance of other objects, "the rudiments of the world," yet if we bear these in mind dispute about the rest will dwindle into insignificance. Whether we succeed in instructing children exactly in the fashion of the latest and most approved science, yet, projecting this light from the past on the darkness of the future, we shall find it possible to train them to lead a life which is simple, good and true, and we shall find that while their human faculties are slowly unfolding and developing they are continually increasing the increase of God.
Typed by mlgthompson, Sept 2017
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