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. 335-344

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

Part II

I have given prominence to the question of home work in connection with high-school education, because I regard it as one of the chief evils of the system; but in connection with the school work there are several topics that are eminently worthy of medical consideration. A criticism of the curriculum and of the subjects taught cannot be undertaken here; but a word must be said about the competition which is still encouraged in some quarters. Nineteenth-century girls at the age of puberty cannot stand competition. It is intellectually and morally injurious to them, and disturbs the equilibrium of health. "Nothing," says Ruskin, "is ever done beautifully which is done in rivalship, nor nobly which is done in pride," and nothing, I would add, is ever done safely by girls which is done in emulation. That should be banished from their education, and marks, places, and prizes tabooed. And examinations, too, which harass and agitate, should be as much as possible avoided. For girls who have to earn their own living examinations may be necessary trials of fitness; but for the bulk of high-school girls they are gratuitous miseries, or mere opportunities of vainglorious display.

I have admitted that, in some high schools, the authorities are on the alert on the subject of over-pressure, and according to their lights, do their best to ward it off. But it is a melancholy fact that some of the expedients resorted to with this purpose tend to aggravate rather than abate it. One head-mistress told me proudly that her practice was, whenever the girls in any form began to get very sluggish and drowsy at their work, to close the books and give them ten minutes' hard drill. She thought I was joking when I said that she had much better put them to bed and give them caudle [a hot sustaining drink]; but I was quite serious, for muscular fatigue is not the remedy for cerebral exhaustion, although it is very commonly believed to be so. Indubitably, there is temporary easement in shifting a burden from place to place. A man who has been standing on one leg for some time finds it a relief to change to the other; but the expenditure of nervous energy is going on all the time, and the brain that is well nigh drained dry needs rest, and will not be replenished by merely altering the channel of outflow. Drill is highly to be commended in its proper place--so are gymnastics, so are games; but they will not create a tolerance of mental over-pressure, or counterbalance its evils. It is quietism, not athleticism, that has to be preached in high schools in the first place. I have even my doubts about compulsory hockey and cricket in the country on half-holidays. I cannot help thinking that a girl should have just a little scrap of her own life left to her to do with exactly what she likes, and with all respect of physical education--the boom of which is upon us--I have more faith in the life-saving qualities of a good, merry, spontaneous, exuberant romp than in all its ingenious, elegant, and hygienically designed exercises.

The evils resulting from over-pressure in high schools for girls--whether that over-pressure be due to home work, or competition, or examination strain--are brought about through its influence on the cells of the brain, and it is not difficult to understand how these cells are affected. It is unquestionably true of all cells that when they are in any way stimulated in excess of their powers of taking up nutriment, or deprived of an adequate supply of nutriment, they utilise as food material their own protoplasm, and so induce disordered metabolic processes with subsequent degeneration. When the cells of the brain are stimulated in excess of their powers of taking up nutriment, as they are during forced mental labour, or when suitable supplies of nutriment are cut off from them, as may be the case during the impairment of digestion, which forced mental labour not rarely entails, then the metabolism in these cells is, we may infer, altered, and they degenerate and secondarily induce widespread degenerative changes throughout the system. The group of symptoms which is characteristic of the mental failure which follows upon severe over-pressure, and which may be summed up as acute or apathetic dementia, is almost identical with that seen in cases in which mental failure has followed upon acute specific diseases, and in mental failure of the former kind, not less than in the latter, we have also sometimes dilatation of the heart and changes in the liver, kidneys, and voluntary muscles; and in both kinds of mental failure recovery takes place if the fatty degeneration has not so far advanced that the active protoplasm of the cells is absorbed, whenever the cells which have had extra work thrown upon them are allowed absolute rest, and are placed in favourable conditions as regards nutrition.

I have referred to acute or apathetic dementia as the most characteristic of the pronounced mental changes which severe and continued over-pressure acting on a neurotic subject may induce, and the slight mental changes which are similarly induced are most generally akin to it, and are but the buds of the symptoms which it presents full blown. Thus it is no uncommon event to hear overworked high-school girls complain that their power of acquisition and attention is impaired, that they take far longer to their work than they used to do, that they cannot remember what they have learnt, that they read their lessons without understanding them, that they sometimes lose themselves and forget where they are, and that what they call "queer thoughts," keep coming into their minds, while the observation of these girls at the same time reveals that they are languid and irresolute, or unusually irritable. Such slight departures from normal mental states for the most part go no further, but are rectified by the holidays; but now and again they advance into that mild coma which corresponds with apathetic dementia. But, besides apathetic dementia, there are, of course, many other mental aberrations to which over-pressure may lead up, the nature of these in each case being determined by the inherited tendencies, antecedents, or environment of the girl. We may have cyclones of mania, or anticyclones of melancholia, hurricanes of morbid impulses, or the settled bad weather of moral perversion. And, as regards certain minor mental changes which thus arise, it is noteworthy that they are often concealed by girls who do not comprehend, and can scarcely describe them. This is particularly the case with reference to those voluminous mental states described by Dr. Hughlings Jackson, which are sometimes the harbingers of epilepsy.

I cannot pretend to classify or describe the vagaries of nervous disturbance that present themselves to medical observation in girls these days, and in the production of which over-pressure plays some part; but I would name insomnia of the commonest occurrence, often of evil import, sopor or sleep so deep and difficult to break, as to be almost cataleptic in nature, neuralgia, chorea, and hysteria. And, besides nervous disturbances, there are many ailments and diseases begotten or fostered by over-pressure which medical men are familiar with in high-school girls in these days. Chief of these are anaemia and general delicacy. Women suffer from anaemia in far larger proportion than men. In the ten years 1881 to 1890 the deaths from anaemia, chlorosis, and leucocythaemia in England and Wales were 33.29 per 1,000,000 amongst men, and 54.83 amongst women. And, as is well known, chlorosis and anaemia show themselves in girls from ten to twenty years of age more frequently than at any other period of life, and may be induced by mental worry or excitement, which causes a diminished production of blood-corpuscles. In his very able investigation into the physical and mental condition of school children, Dr. Francis Warner has satisfied himself that mental stimulus applied to children "does lower their general nutrition." He found that pale and delicate looking children are proportionately more numerous in schools attended by children of an upper social class and presumably well fed, than in schools attended by children of the poorer class, presumably not well fed; and the only explanation of this he has to offer is that better-class children are subjected to more mental stress than children of a poorer class. A single glance at some high schools, and the complexions of the girls assembled in them, convinces that they are deficient in red corpuscles, however rich they may be in blue stockings.

The anaemia encountered in high-school girls is sometimes due to the direct action of mental tension on the blood-forming apparatus; but it is sometimes due also to the action of that tension on the digestive functions. Large numbers of high-school girls suffer from loss of appetite; a certain number go to school without breakfast. Worn out, they oversleep themselves, and leave scant time for the morning meal, or, after a night of broken rest, they rise unrefreshed, swallow a cup of tea, the neurotic properties of which they have already discovered, but decline solid food, or merely trifle with it. They labour under a gastric disorder now so common that it might receive a distinctive appellation, and be called anorexia scholastica, in which the lessened flow of energy from the exhausted nerve centers retards the functions of all the abdominal viscera. Buns in the forenoon--a regular institution at all high schools now--are very well in their way, but they do not compensate for a lost breakfast, and I hold that no girl who has shirked that meal should be allowed to go to school or engage in brain work. It is an axiom that nutrition comes before education.

I have spoken of some of the immediate evil effects of over-pressure in high schools--effects which medical men have long recognised, which parents are beginning to perceive--and I wish now to direct your attention to what will probably be its remote effects if it be allowed to go on--effects for which we must wait, but which we have grounds to anticipate with some confidence. The ailments of girlhood which we have ascribed to over-pressure, do not always end with the cause that induced them, but are apt to plant themselves permanently in the system they have infested, or to blossom into something worse. The headachy girl is not unlikely to grow into the migrainous and invalid woman. A voluminous mental state may develop into epilepsy, somnambulism may lead to hysteria, insomnia lay the foundation of insanity, and anaemia at the growth period may entail lifelong debility. Over-pressure operates upon the high-school girl at a great epoch of her life, when momentous changes are taking place in her body and mind, and when a wave of irritability sweeps through her nervous system. The increase of stature and weight of the girl, according to Dr. Bowditch's recent observations, goes on much more rapidly than that of the boy from the tenth to the fourteenth year. This epoch, from the tenth to the seventeenth year, is unquestionably the plastic period--it is the golden opportunity for education; but the education that goes on then is not limited to the higher cerebral centers, as teachers fondly imagine, but pervades the tissues. Functional habits are being everywhere formed, and vicious habits of thought are too assiduously practised. The grand truth to be inculcated in all high-school authorities is this--that they have to deal with girls at a period of life when vital resistance is greatly reduced, when the liability to disease is proportionately augmented, and when physiological indiscretions are peculiarly hazardous.

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Now the distribution of phthisis [tuberculosis] mortality, especially when viewed in connection with the fact that the reduction in it, which is happily going on at all ages, has been proportionately less of late years amongst females than amongst males from five to fourteen, is highly significant. It is not, of course, suggested that high-school operations have had anything to do with this diminished reduction. The total number of girls attending these schools is so small in comparison with the population that no amount of mischief they could do would appreciably affect the Registrar-General's returns. But the fact that there is a special proclivity to phthisis in girls from five to twenty years of age, and that girls between these ages are not sharing as fully as boys in the benefits of the preventive measures which we owe to modern sanitation, viewed in connection with the conditions of high-school work, suggests very pointedly that one of the remote evils of over-pressure in them will be the propagation of phthisis in those who have been subjected to that over-pressure. The nervous erethism [abnormal irritability] which is characteristic of the growth period in girlhood obviously much increases the liability of the sex to phthisical disease, and as over-pressure aggravates that nervous erethism, it must still further increase that liability. The connection between states of the nervous system and pulmonary tuberculosis has not yet been clearly defined, but this much may be taken as established, that nervous depression and exhaustion alike open wide the door for the invasion of the tubercle bacillus. And so it is that the nervous exhaustion due to over-pressure in high schools for girls may be expected to induce a peculiar vulnerability of the pulmonary tissue, which must be intensified by the conditions of work in these schools. The in-door life of the girls, their sedentary habits, and the stooping posture in which they pass much of their time, bring the lungs into a state that is favourable to tuberculous infection. The lungs are comparatively immobile, and there is consequent inactivity of the respiratory current in them, with a tendency to congestion and catarrh [drainage].

If it were our object to secure an abundant harvest of phthisis, I do not know how we could better set about it than by providing for general over-pressure in schools for girls. Keep a large member of town-bred girls in a constant state of nervous tension, so as to abbreviate sleep and impair appetite, deprive them as much as possible of fresh air, insist on their writing and poring over books for prolonged periods, and scatter amongst them a few cases of tubercular disease, and you will inevitably in the fulness of time have a rich growth of phthisis. My own experience is necessarily of the most limited description, but I have seen a case of phthisis in a high-school girl and two cases in high-school mistresses which I was disposed to attribute to high-school life; and of this I am sure, that phthisis must be one of the most certain and disastrous of the more remote effects of the over-pressure of girls during their growth period. But the special proclivity to disease of girls at the growth period, and the influence of the nervous erethism by which they are then visited, may be traced out not only in zymotic [infectious] diseases and in phthisis, but in nervous diseases themselves. Suicides which spring from causes identical with those that are productive of insanity, and which are an expression of mental disorder, are four times more numerous amongst men than women, and the male death-rate from suicide is much greater than the female at all ages, except, strange to say, from fifteen to twenty, when the female death-rate rises considerably above the male. The rate of increase of suicides during the last twenty years has been much higher amongst women than amongst men. Chorea [abnormal involuntary movement], which is at all ages more fatal to females than to males, reaches a rate of mortality amongst females from ten to twenty years of age that is phenomenal when contrasted with the rates at other ages and in connection with the mortality from this disease; it is of extreme interest to note that, while the male mortality due to it has declined during the last thirty years, the female mortality has risen, and has risen rapidly, during the last ten years. Chorea is seldom fatal, and the increase of the death-rate from it amongst girls must betoken a large increase of the malady in its milder forms. And chorea, be it remembered, is a malady which, perhaps more than any other, may be directly attributed to over-pressure and nervous strain.

I might go on enumerating nervous and other diseases the mortality from which amounts up from ten to twenty years of age in girls, but enough has been said to show that there is a dangerous instability of the nervous system at this epoch. And indeed the most convincing proof of this instability is to be found, not in the mortality returns, but in the extraordinary prevalence, during this section of female life, of functional nervous disorders, which do not kill, but cripple and perplex, and are often the source of misery long drawn out. Man is at all ages more prone than woman to organic diseases of the nervous system, but woman is more prone than man to certain functional disorders, and especially to such functional disorders as display themselves about the period of puberty. Then it is that women succumb to epilepsy, neuralgia, hysteria in all its protean shapes, chorea, migraine, neurasthenia, the milder form of insanity; then it is that the nervous system is unstable and explosive in a peculiar degree, and especially liable to the influenced, for weal or woe, by the treatment to which it is subjected. Judicious treatment at this time gives it balance, and perhaps steadies it for life. Injudicious treatment--and what treatment can be more injudicious than over-pressure?--either makes it topple over at once or sets it swaying in a way that must mean final overthrow on the occurrence of any further interference, however slight. Let high-school authorities ponder all this.

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The study of the effects of over-pressure, immediate and remote, on the monthly rhythm, and on the fitness and capacity of the woman to reproduce the species and to bear healthy children--health implying both bodily and mental vigor--must be kept for separate examination at some other time. So also, must a study of the effects of secondary over-pressure, as applied, in colleges and halls, to young women at from eighteen to twenty-four years of age. Admirable culture is supplied in these colleges and halls; but they too, have their risks, notwithstanding that their pupils are all picked lives. The suicide of a pupil, who had just undergone examination at one of them, was reported two months ago. I must, however, even now express my belief that the University of St. Andrews, in deciding, as it has lately done, to open all its classes in arts, science, and theology to women as well as men, has taken not a retrograde step--for our ancestors never did anything so foolish--but a downhill step towards confusion and disaster. Its now empty benches may be thronged with pupils, its professors may batten for a time on duplex fees; but the attempt to educate young men and women, not only on the same lines but in the same couches, cannot but prove injurious to both. "What was decided amongst the prehistoric protozoa cannot," it has been well said, "be annulled by Act of Parliament," and the essential difference between male and female cannot be obliterated at a stroke of the pen by any Senatus Academicus. To essay such work is to fly in the face of evolution.

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And with this divergent differentiation of the sexes has come more reciprocal dependence and higher harmony. It is no question of superiority or inferiority of the one sex to the other. Each sex is higher; each is lower; together they make up the perfect whole. Separate they are infirm; in union they are strong; in competition they are mutually destructive. It is in the sympathetic accord of the differentiated sexes that human progress can alone be hoped for.

      "He is a half part of a blessed man,
      Left to be finished by such a she,
      And she a fair divided excellence,
      Whose fulness of perfection lies in him."

And blindness to this complementary relation of the sexes, so patent to Shakespeare, it is that leads wise men--wise but ignorant, or contemptuous of biology--to sanction intersexual competition in education, and for subsistence with its ruinous effects. Men and women are constitutionally adapted to do different work in the world. To set them to do the same work is wasteful, and detrimental to the sex that is less adapted to it. It is impossible to contemplate with complacency some of the experiments in this direction which are being carried out, and it is impossible to speculate, from a medical point of view, without apprehension what the outcome of such experiments may be, or what high-school, and college, and hall education may do for the country in a few generations, if they be pushed on with relentless zeal.

Those tall, graceful, lovely English girls whom we see around us so plentifully to-day--and never in the world's history has woman's beauty been so beautiful as it is in England to-day--those tall, graceful, lovely girls are the offspring of mothers who had not the advantage of a high-school education. What will the next generation of English girls be like? I saw a vision once that has haunted me ever since. It was of a score of sweet girl graduates from a celebrated college standing together in a group on the platform of a provincial railway station waiting for trains to carry them home at the end of the term. Sweet they were I doubt not; most of them carried musical instruments, but they were not, upon the whole--well, just not--"fairest of the fair" to look upon. I am afraid I shall be called ribald and profane, but I should describe them as pantaloon-like girls, for many of them had a stooping gait and withered appearance, shrunk shanks and spectacles on nose. Let us conserve the beauty of our English girls very jealously. I would rather they remained ignorant of logarithms than that they lost a jot of it.

Proofread by LNL, August, 2023