The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Two Extremes in Education.

By Lady Frederick Cavendish.
Volume 2, 1891/92, pg. 179-183

It is apparently an inevitable misfortune attending all human life, that every movement of any importance in one direction, whether the direction is a right or a wrong one, is followed sooner or later by reaction to the opposite extreme.

I owe an apology to my readers for beginning my article with so unblushing a truism. But it is a truism that needs to be laid to heart by everyone, and with regard to the special subject of this paper, it has been, I cannot but think, rather disastrously ignored.

Old people, and indeed many of us who are not far past middle-age, will remember the stern discipline of their childish days. The general principle of early training used to be above all things repressive. Children were to be seen and not heard. They were not to ask questions, not to make a noise, not to go nearer the fire than the hearthrug's outer boundary. They were to eat plain food, and be thankful for what was set before them; no preferences being permitted. Early to bed and early to rise was the rule; washing operations involved unmitigated cold water, occasional soap-dashes in the eye, much rubbing of hair and skin the wrong way. Lessons were "stony griefs" indeed, more or less of the type immortalised in "David Copperfield" when he was in the clutches of Mr. Murdstone. Holidays were few and far between, the necessity for "change of air" was undreamt of, and children remained most of the year in one place. Playthings were primitive and scanty: the time-honoured hoop, Noah's ark, box of bricks, spotted horse on four peg-legs, and jointed doll, pretty nearly summed up the contents of the most favoured nursery; and as to treats, picnics, tea-parties, and such-like dissipations, they were hardly known while story-books were few, didactic, and dull. Under this ancien regime there can be no question that children suffered much anguish of spirit. Even where there was essential kindness and affection on the part of their elders and betters, there was little sympathy, little confidence, and no freedom of intercourse between them. Troubles, little and big, small sicknesses, great discomforts, had to be borne in silence, and there were midnight panics seldom known in these days, probably caused in many cases by the old-fashioned cold-stuffiness of the sleeping rooms, and the plan of putting children hungry to bed three hours or more after a very light tea. As advancing years brought the troubles and problems and perplexities of life into the young hearts and heads, how cruelly the habit of reserve, the dread of "asking questions," weighed upon tender minds that "mused upon many things." The feeling of bewilderment, of alarm, of doubt, gave a poor child a sense of being "naughty." If he lay awake at night he was liable to a stern command to "turn his face to the wall, shut his eyes, and go to sleep;" if he ventured to propound some difficult question he was told to "run away and not talk nonsense;" and many a thoughtful boy or girl has experienced more or less the religious terrors of Waldo in "The Story of a South African Farm," and has had no help, no counsel, no guidance. The picture might be painted in even darker shades, as indeed has been recently done in the "Life of Lord Shaftesbury," the miseries of whose childhood manifestly tinged with undying memories of gloom even that noble life, "pierced through and through" though it was "by rays from the Eternal Sun."

When school-life began fresh adversities had to be faced: Spartan diet, bitter cold, mechanical lessons "flogged in," bullying, and other cruelties; but above all the impossibility of either seeking or obtaining fatherly counsel from pastor or master.

I have read a page in a fragmentary autobiography of one who went at a tender age to a great public school about the year 1800, which would move a heart of stone. After mentioning the shameful and demoralising brutalities of the dormitory, and the evil perforce learnt there, the writer says, "Night after night I cried and prayed myself to sleep. . . . And there was not a creature to give me a word of advice or to hold out a helping hand."

I have advisedly dwelt at some length upon this picture of past methods of education to show that I have no admiration for the harshness of those times. But none the less do I deprecate the violence of the reaction that has of late years set in. I would on no account deny that in most respects the change of manners is immensely to the good. It is well that the early years of life should be full of joy, and the nearly total disappearance of harsh discipline is as much a matter for congratulation as the contemporaneous disappearance of black doses and blue pills. But in these days we are not content with abolishing harsh discipline -- all discipline is becoming conspicuous by its absence. We spend time and trouble which ought to be spent on disciplining children, upon over-indulging them. And we carry on the process crescendo as they grow up, especially with boys. Mothers and daughters often bear the brunt of life, while all crumpled rose leaves are smoothed away for the sons and the brothers; and in our anxiety to make everything pleasant for these latter, we forget the danger of leaving out, on their behalf, all the sterner lessons of Christianity. The good side of the old methods, viz., its training of children to "endure hardness," is entirely dropped, along with its bad side.

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 experience 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 fruit and made dishes, holidays, treats, parties, and journeys, to a degree 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.

Now if we wish to steer clear between the Scylla of the old method and the Charybdis of the new, we must strive to find some principle for our guide, which shall keep the ship's head straight. And the principle I would suggest is twofold, yet one, -- love and sacrifice. Love should be the basis of all education. Children should never know a time when they could not love and be beloved. This love, especially between themselves and their parents, should be (as nearly as may be here below) that perfect love which casteth out fear. It should bring about such trust, that in all difficulties the children's instinct should lead them to confide in father or mother; and the parents, on their part, should confide in their children, and meet them with ever ready, never weary, true and comprehending sympathy. Where such love as this exists, it is comparatively unimportant whether the rules of training are strict or not. But the other side of our principle must never be forgotten. Let our very 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 loving spirit and a consistent example," teach them that only by unselfish effort, by brave conflict, by thought and work 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.

One snare there is that lies in the way (most especially perhaps in the way of women), which must be guarded against. Many of us who do practise some sort of self-denial ourselves are curiously loth to recommend it to others. Now, while this is certainly a better method than the opposite one, viz., to urge self-denial on our neighbours and abstain from it ourselves, it yet ought to be qualified by thought for the higher rather than the lower good of others. No one is the better for having every hill of difficulty levelled away, every luxurious taste encouraged, every excuse for exertion removed.

When a man, enslaved by drink, was once told by a physician to resolve against ever again touching what was poisoning him, he helplessly replied, "But it is impossible; you don't know what the sinking within me is." "Sink, then, like a man," replied the physician. Still more inspiring would have been the reply, "Sink, then, like a Christian, to rise again victorious."

In ways innumerable we should learn ourselves, and teach our children, even in the midst of the comforts and delights of happy English homes, to take some humble share in the conflicts of those who of old have for Christ's sake suffered and fought and died.

While, then, we strew our children's path with flowers, let it be the "strait and narrow way" which we so strew. Let us never forget to teach them the glory of effort, of struggle, of renunciation, and let us teach it in the light of the only religion of which the Cross is the symbol, and the Founder "pleased not Himself;" that religion which commemorates daily the "noble army of Martyrs."

"They climbed the steep ascent of Heaven,
Through peril, toil, and pain;
O God, to us may grace be given
To follow in their train!"

Typed by Susan Flowers, Mar 2013