The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
An Oration on Sex in Education

by Sir James Crichton-Browne, M.D., LL.D., F.R.S., Member of the Council of the P.N.E.U.
Lord Chancellor's Visitor.
Volume 3, 1892/93, pgs. 254-266

[James Crichton-Browne, 1840-1938, was a leading Scottish psychiatrist and neurologist. He corresponded with Charles Darwin.]

Delivered at the Medical Society of London on May 2nd, 1892

[We feel it to be our duty to parents to reproduce in full (save for technical passages) Sir James Crichton-Browne's invaluable address on the education of girls. (See The Lancet, May 7th.) We do so, not be way of endorsing any implied censure of High Schools; rather, it seems to us, the position of the speaker is, If these things be done in the green tree, what shall be done in the dry?--if High Schools err on the lines indicated, may not even greater risks be run where the education of girls is less carefully regulated, whether at school or at home? Any way, parents are not without responsibility in the matter, for it appears that it is in their "home-work" girls are most conscious of over-strain. Now, this is how the matter stands: certain home-work is given, to be done in a prescribed time, the parents being required to testify that it is done within that time. But, says Sir James Crichton-Browne, "the truth seems to be that the checks imposed upon home-work are nominal and not real," and this because of the right and loyal feelings to girls entertain towards their class and their form-mistress. But good intentions do not convert wrong into right. We earnestly urge every parent who has daughters at a High School to enforce rigidly the school rule about home lessons. This will work well in two ways: the girls will be put upon their mettle to finish their tasks in the time prescribed, a great gain, because mooning over books is far more exhausting than downright application. Next, every willing and obedient girl who fails to get the prescribed work done is party to a protest that the work set is too much; and, whatever the girls may think, their parents should know that no such reasonable protest is lost upon the thoughtful heads of the High Schools. If parents will not co-operate with teacher in enforcing the counsels of prudence and common sense, at whose door does the breakdown of a promising girl lie? Parents must needs concern themselves with practical educational questions like this. Another matter which we hope to bring seriously before parents in our next number is that of a collective appeal to school authorities that Hygiene may be taught to every girl. If the laws of health are, so to speak, in circulation for the school atmosphere, it will do a good deal to hinder the evils treated of in the following paper, as well as to train a race of future mothers, qualified in one respect, anyway, to bring up their children.--Ed.]


When that eccentric father of a family of geniuses, the late Rev. Mr. Brontë, desiring that his children should speak freely and without timidity, put them behind a mask and questioned them on various subjects, he was told by his son Branwell, then seven years old, in answer to one of his interrogations, that the best way of knowing the difference between the intellects of men and women is by considering the difference between them as to their bodies. That deliverance of the precocious boy seemed to his father at the time a wise saying, worthy of being recorded, and I daresay it seems the same to us as medical men to-day; but it is incontestable that there are now large numbers of cultivated persons to whom it must sound as foolishness, and a mere infantile echo of a barbarous prejudice. Their reply to Mr. Brontë's question would be that it is impossible to distinguish between the intellects of men and women, as there is no difference between them. Bodily differences cannot be overlooked; they are still obtrusive and are admitted. Certain emotional differences are perhaps conceded; but, as regards intellect, we are told that in its pure atmosphere all gross sexual characteristics disappear. The intellect of woman, it is maintained, except in so far as it has been enfeebled by long ages of subjection, is as good as that of man, if not better. And even where this extreme view is not theoretically held, it is often practically acted on, for those who admit that there are certain differences between the male and female intellect still not rarely advocate the co-equal and co-ordinate employment of men and women in all intellectual exercise and pursuits. There is a growing tendency around us to ignore intellectual distinction between the sexes, to assimilate the education of girls to that of boys, to throw men and women into industrial competition in every walk of life, and to make them compeers in social intercourse and political privileges. And as to my thinking, this tendency is unphysiological, and likely, if indulged, to lead to some unfortunate results, I seize the opportunity to vindicate the wisdom of Master Branwell Brontë, to insist that there are differences between the intellects of men and women, and that these are best understood by a study of the differences in their bodies, and to suggest that forgetfulness of these differences is already doing injury in one department of education--I mean the high-school education of girls.

Now, to catalogue in the briefest way the bodily differences between men and women which underlie their intellectual disparities would be to exhaust the time at my disposal. They are universal and intimate, and involve every organ and tissue. They extend from cuticular appendages to the marrow of the bones, from the crown of the head--for, according to Broca, the female cranium is less elevated than that of the male--to the sole of the foot; for, according to Delaunay, woman has a plantar arch flatter than that of men, which perhaps accounts for her partiality for high-heeled boots. I shall not attempt such an extensive anatomical survey. My present purpose will be served by directing your attention to certain sexual differences in one bodily organ--the brain--differences which have been greatly lost sight of, which much require further investigation, but which are of peculiar significance in connection with intellectual manifestations.

And first amongst cerebral differences between the sexes I would refer to mass and weight, qualities with which one almost insensibly associates power and strength. Now, it is a matter of common observation that women have smaller heads than men, and it is a matter of scientific observation that in all peoples and races, without exception, the absolute weight of the entire brain is on the average greater in men than in women, though of course individual women do sometimes possess larger and heavier brains than individual men. But it is also a matter of scientific observation that there is a co-relation between brain weight and stature, and, laying hold of this fact, the advocates of women's rights and mights have argued that the deficiency in her brain weight when compared with that of man is no more than is to be accounted for by her fewer inches. But this position is quite untenable . . . All available evidence points to the conclusion that the male brain exceeds the female brain in weight in this country to an even greater degree than has been hitherto supposed. And that the smaller size of the female brain is a fundamental sexual distinction, and is not to be accounted for by the hypothesis that environment, educational advantages, and habits of life, acting through a long series of generations, have stimulated the growth of the cerebrum in one sex more than in the other, is made clear by the fact that the same differences in brain weight between men and women has been found in savage races.

I have said that an extra ounce of brain matter within the cranium might involve an enormous mental difference. It would do this were it generally and equally distributed, and it would do so in a still more striking manner were it localised in a certain region of the cerebrum; and there are grounds for believing that there is a difference in the balance of parts in the male and female brains respectively, and this difference I adduce as the second sexual distinction between them; the occipital lobes, certainly sensory in their functions, are larger in the female than the male. It is in the internal structure of the brain, in the depth and arrangement of its grey matter, in the size, form, and connectins of the cortical cells in different areas, that the most essential differences between the male and female brain in all probability reside; but the internal structure of the brain in this relation is as yet uninvestigated.

And there is still another brain difference between men and women which I must submit to you, and that a very momentous one--namely, vascular supply. During the last four years Dr. Sydney Martin and I have, as opportunity has offered, carried on an inquiry as to the size of the great arteries that supply the brain, and it is certain that the result of the difference in the diameter of these in the two sexes which I have recorded is this: that the anterior region of the brain is comparatively more copiously irrigated with blood in men and the posterior region in women. And vascular supply is in some degree a measure of functional activity, the flow of blood to an organ or part having always a relation to its working power. But the region of the brain which in men is most richly flushed with blood is that which is concerned, we have reason to believe, in volition, cognition, and ideo-motor processes; while the region which in women is most vascular is that which is mainly concerned in sensory functions, and we thus see that there is a relation between size of the cerebral arteries, and what observation has taught us as to the intellectual and emotional differences of the sexes.

The structural differences between the male and female brain, which I have briefly referred to, justify the conclusion that they are organs broadly distinguished from each other, and that they have to some extent different kinds of work to do, and an inquiry into the functional relations of each with other viscera of the body, did time permit it, would strongly confirm this view. All through life the male brain differs from the female in capacities, aptitudes, and powers. Differences early assert themselves. Thackeray has said that little girls make love in the nursery and practise the arts of coquetry on the page-boy who brings the coals upstairs; and as for the page-boy, it is certain that his pugnacious propensities are already fully developed and have brought him into conflict with his brother buttons. And differences are most patent of all in the prime of life, when man "for contemplation and for valour formed," by "his fair large front eye and sublime" declares "absolute rule," and when women, "grace in her steps, heaven in her eye, in every gesture dignity and love," stands conspicuous for "softness and sweet attractive grace." And differences subsist to the last. The aged spinster, left in "maiden meditation fancy free," lavishes her altruistic emotions on cat, poodle, or parrot; and the hoary veteran, fidgety and irascible, concentrates his egotistic attention on his own liver. And these differences in brain structure and function, which at every stage of existence separate the sexes, have, as I shall presently show, a special pathological significance at the period when sexual divergence is taking place most rapidly, and when education is being pushed forward with most vigour.

Education from first to last can only be safely conducted in the light of cerebral physiology, but unfortunately, those charged with the conduct of education too often dispense with that light, or regard it as misleading. It is to point out to you the risks that are run by dispensing with that light at a particularly dark and tortuous part of the educational highway that I am here this evening. I am going to notify for warning and guidance some of the perils to health which seem to me to attend the high-school education of girls, which is now so popular. I have no wholesale indictment to bring against high schools for girls. They have done good service to sound education, have widely diffused its benefits, have supplanted second-rate boarding and venture schools which were hot-beds of namby-pambyism, and have opened up to girls interests and helpful attainments which were formerly denied them, thus saving some of them from a vapid and weary existence. But, at the same time, it seems to me that these schools have serious drawbacks attending on them, and that their work is apt to involve very grave dangers to health--dangers immediate and prospective--which have not yet been sufficiently appreciated.

Even from an educational point of view, the work done by high schools for girls is not all pure gain. Their eulogists would have us believe that they have led forth great hosts of girls from a wilderness of ignorance and ineptitude into a land flowing with wit and learning. But that is sheer nonsense. What they have done is to conduct them from the unkempt meadows of natural growth into the trim gardens of artificial culture. Excellent are orchids and camellias in their way, but do not let us forget the buttercups and daisies. Before the high-school era dawned, girls lived and learned and reasoned in a way, and in introducing them to the higher erudition, these schools have withdrawn them to a large extent from homely household occupations which were not without their educational value, and have substituted the dogmatic teaching of the hireling for the precept and example of the mother. So much is this the case, and so impossible is it for growing girls, exhausted by five or six hours of schoolwork and private study daily, to make themselves acquainted with domestic economy, that it seems to me essential that high schools, if they are faithfully to prepare their pupils to become efficient wives and mothers, should add housewifery in all its branches to their present curriculum. Two years ago I met in the country a high-school girl who was reading Lucretius for her recreation, but she failed lamentably in the task I prescribed for her--that of boiling a potato. Now I am sure much more of the happiness and wholesomeness of life hinges on the boiling of potatoes than on the interpretation of Lucretius and his dark and doubtful sayings. And not only do high schools for girls deprive their pupils to a considerable extent of home-lore and practice in the simple but captivating arts of the kitchen and the stillroom, but they tend to induce in them sameness and narrowness of intellect. These schools cannot vary or adapt their teaching to individual tastes and talents, but have one keynote for all, and so sacrifice by clearness of utterance many delicate inflections and cadences of faculty. They tend to make education mechanical. Then they so absorb the energies of their pupils, and so persuade them of the paramount importance of their school work, that these pupils have neither inclination nor strength to travel beyond their compulsory studies. With brains like wrung sponges, and well assured that there is nothing worth knowing beyond the attainments of the sixth form, high-school girls rarely leave the groove in which they find themselves. It will not be denied that home-reared girls read much more widely than do high-school girls. "They browse unconfined," to quote Mrs. Gaskell, "on the wholesome pasturage of English literature," while high-school girls are stall fed on condensed primers; and the result is that there is often a breezy freshness and interesting diversity about these home-reared girls that contrasts not unfavourably with the dry precision and monotonous uniformity of their more systematically educated sisters.

But it is not about the educational advantages or drawbacks of high schools for girls that I wish to speak, but about the dangers to health which lurk in their aims and methods--dangers very real, very serious, very imminent--all arising out of forgetfulness of sexual differentiation, and out of the futile attempt to educate boys and girls on exactly the same lines. Now, I do not hesitate to affirm that over-pressure is rampant in high schools for girls in this country to-day. Of course there are high schools and high schools. Much depends on the head mistress. If she is judicious and sympathetic, over-pressure is reduced to a minimum. If she is hard and keen, it is raised to a maximum. But, whatever the disposition of the head mistress may be, over-pressure exists, and is promoted by directors jealous of the honour of their schools and not averse to dividends; by parents anxious about their daughters' prospects in life, earnest to obtain the best possible return for fees paid, or not unwilling to hide their own dullness under the luster of having clever children; and by the girls themselves, who, when the spirit of emulation is stirred in them or the fear of failure conjured up, strain eagerly forward and ignore all warning and restraints. I willingly admit that in high schools for girls generally there is a sincere desire to avoid over-pressure, and that precautionary measures to prevent it are adopted; and I have no doubt that during the last five or six years there has been considerable mitigation of it, as a consequence of a limit put to the scramble after examinations and certificates. But I am confident that, notwithstanding all precautions and mitigations, over-pressure still prevails in these schools extensively, and sometimes acutely, and that it will prevail as long as they imitate schools for boys, fail to recognize sexual distinctions, and to modify their methods in accordance with these. They are, as I have said, pushed on to over-pressure by certain extraneous forces; but the tendency to it is inherent in their constitution, and will assert itself from time to time with greater or less violence, apart from outside influences, until that constitution is altered. I have no doubt that this statement of mine, that over-pressure exists in high school for girls, will be strenuously, perhaps scornfully, denied. These schools have many attractive features, and are doing good work; the girls seen streaming in and out of them look healthy and happy enough, and those who are content to judge by superficial appearances will pronounce them sound to the core. Stethoscopy and endoscopy medically applied are necessary to get at their weak points. Then, again, there are those who believe that over-pressure is merely a medical myth; that there never was or could be such a thing in the beneficent realm of education, and they will, of course, dispute my thesis. I read some time ago a paper by a distinguished authority on educational subjects, Dr. Emily Bryant, in which she argued that it is impossible to overwork girls, their inherent indolence and frivolity being proof against any stimulus that can be applied to them. Well, I would answer Dr. Emily Bryant that it is possible to overwork horses--witness splints, curb, thorough-gain, and back sinew; and surely girls are not more obdurate than horses. And I would tell her further that a cloud of competent witnesses can be summoned against her, for while many high-school mistresses will doubtless deny that girls are overworked in the establishment under their care, they will one and all admit that overwork is a contingency against which they have to be constantly on their guard. Some high-school mistresses of the more enlightened type frankly admit and deplore the existence of over-pressure even now. One of them said to me not long ago: "Certainly some girls in the upper forms are delicate, owing to too close application to their studies, and it is terrible to contemplate the ruin that might be wrought amongst them were they to be ruthlessly urged on and subjected to competitive excitement."

For obvious reasons it is difficult to get direct and trustworthy evidence about over-pressure in high schools. These schools are naturally disinclined to permit the exposure of blots on their own escutcheons, and individual cases of over-pressure have to be delicately handled. But, thanks to the kindness and magnanimity of the head mistress of one English high school--one, too, in which special precautions against over-pressure were taken--I obtained a few years ago a return which I regard as of great interest, and which throws some light on the matter. (See Table I.)

Table I.

The facts on which this return is founded were got at by questions, put and answered in writing, the answers sent in by each girl being afterwards tested by private cross-examination by her form-mistress, and in some cases by communications with parents, so that the return is, I believe, absolutely reliable; and it is certainly not a little remarkable to find from it that of 187 girls belonging to the upper and middle classes, well fed and clad and cared for, and ranging from ten to seventeen years of age, as many as 137 complained of headaches, which in sixty-five instances occurred occasionally, in forty-eight frequently, and in twenty-four habitually. Sir Richard Owen once said to me: "Children have no business with headaches at all, and if you find that these occur frequently in any school, you may depend on it there is something wrong there." And so, I take it, there must be something radically wrong in high schools that produce so copious a crop of cephalalgia. That the heachaches dealt with in this return were connected with school work is, I think, made probable by the fact that, while in twenty-six cases they are stated to have occurred in the morning, in as many as seventy-six they are set down as of most frequent occurrence in the afternoon and evening, when, as you will notice, according to an immense majority of the girls, the hardest part of the day's work falls on an already jaded brain. And there are other significant facts in this return, besides those relating to headaches, for you will observe that as many as thirty-seven of the 187 girls were short-sighted, and that four of them exhibited choreic movements. And this return represents an exceptional state of things. Inquiries made quite lately satisfy me that a very large proportion of high-school girls still suffer from headache, that neuralgia is common amongst them, and that they display multifarious indications of nervous exhaustion. It is no infrequent occurrence, I am told, for the more delicate girls, who return after the holidays looking tolerably well, to break down in the middle of the term, to be absent from school for a few days or weeks, to return and struggle on with their work, but finally to shirk the examination at the close of the term. But if we had no evidence of suffering or disability immediately resulting from high-school training as it is now carried on, we, as medical men, should not hesitate to pronounce that training in some respects pernicious, from a consideration of its character alone. Two-thirds of high-school girls will attest that the hardest part of their work--preparation, which involves the opening up of new ground, an advance on what has been already learnt, and effort in surmounting obstacles--has to be performed in the evening, when they are already worn out, at the very time when in the cycle of daily life their brains are least capable of exertion. And no inconsiderable number of high-school girls will attest that this arduous work of preparation is often carried on until ten, sometimes even until eleven o'clock at night. Within the last month I came upon two girls attending a London high school, bright, clever, ambitious girls of fifteen, high in their classes and determined to hold their places, who admitted that, in spite of all restrictions, they were working up till ten o'clock two or three nights a week, and in one of them I could discern, in stunted growth, round shoulders, and intense nervous susceptibility, the effects of this ill-timed diligence in study. A friend of mine in the north of England tells me that he has recently removed his two daughters from a high school and placed them under private tuition, because he found that they were regularly working up till ten o'clock at night.

The high-school authorities will of course pronounce such proceedings irregular, and endeavour to shift the responsibility for them on to the shoulders of parents. Their rules as to home work look reasonable enough on paper. This work, they will tell us, should be done during the afternoon, either in school or at home; but girls who have been in school from nine till one, using their brains, are not disposed to resume work immediately after their mid-day meal. They need change, fresh air, and exercise, which in this climate must, for a great part of the year, be taken in the afternoon, if at all; and many of them continue brain work in the afternoon under the veiled form of accomplishments, such as music and drawing. For these reasons, as well as from the claims of family and social intercourse, it comes about that a large proportion of high-school girls postpone their preparation until the evening, when they do it slowly, laboriously, with least benefit and most risk. The work which was calculated to occupy two or three hours is spread over three or four, and perturbs the brain just when it should be subsiding to rest. The time-tables or cards issued to pupils and parents, defining with the utmost nicety the number of minutes that are to be devoted to preparation in each particular subject on each particular day, fixing a maximum duration of home work (generally from two to three hours), which is not to be exceeded without an intimation of the fact to the head mistress, are practically useless, and sometimes worse than useless, for they lead to deception. Not one girl in ten steers by these charts; not one parent in ten reports the transgression on their terms. Girls work at very different rates, and at very different rates in different subjects, and the number of minutes allowed for Euclid, Latin, German, History or Science, respectively, which may be amply sufficient for a girl of nimble wits, may be altogether inadequate for one of slow comprehension, and hopelessly ill-adjusted for one of special gifts. The relation between the time allotted is often very difficult to discover, and the highly conscientious girl who tries rigidly to adhere to the instructions given will generally find herself at a disadvantage at school. Parents for the most part ignore the school time-tables. They do not always know the exact length of time given by their daughters to home work; it is sometimes secretly prolonged when they supposed it to be finished; and they find that any expostulations as to its amount which they may address to the head mistress are highly distasteful to their daughters, who fear that they will be regarded as stupid or as a drag on the class for failing to accomplish their tasks in the prescribed time, or that blame for over-burdening them will be laid on their form-mistress, and of course blame does not conduce to amiability of feeling towards those who have procured its infliction.

The truth seems to be that the checks imposed upon home work are nominal and not real, and that what high-school authorities have to do is largely to reduce it in amount, and, in the case of young girls, to abolish it altogether. The drudgery of education should be done in school with skilled assistance, when the brain is in its prime vigour, not at home unaided, or with only precarious parental help, when the brain is already fatigued. I feel strongly that no girl from ten to seventeen year of age should have any forced brain work to do after seven P.M., and that a reduction is required in the number of hours that high-school girls are now called on to give to brain work. Our brawny colliers clamour to have their bodily labour restricted to eight hours a day. Shall we permit our fragile girls to engage in mental toil for an even longer shift?

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