The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
The Claims of the Literary Side in Education

by Miss [Agnes Ann] O'Connor
Head Mistress of the Clapham High School [London]
Volume 8, no. 3, 1897, pgs. 146-150

In these days there is a special danger that the literary side in education should be neglected or wilfully set aside. The strong tide of feeling in favour of science which prevails at present is, to some extent, the outcome of a state of mind which especially requires the tonic of literary training. There is a desire to throw overboard all authority, and the new methods of scientific teaching encourage this tendency. I do not refer to the study of Astronomy, for in that man sees his own impotence, and in the vast distances of time and space unrolled before his mental vision he must learn his own insignificance.

    "The undevout astronomer were mad."

But we must not close our eyes and ears to what is avowed openly with regard to ordinary science teaching in schools, -- that it is planned to destroy Christianity. One writer says: "Those who are in touch with the scientific world know that a strenuous effort is now being made to revolutionize elementary education. The new principle discountenances all teaching with authority, encourages that inquisitive spirit which refuses to take things on trust, but wants to know the how, the why, and the wherefore of everything, and the scientific spirit is in diametrical and irreconcilable opposition to the spirit that exalts unquestioning faith and implicit obedience to authority into the place of the highest virtues." We are thus brought face to face with at least two evils:

    I. The encouragement given to lawlessness
    II. The disbelief in a life beyond the grave. "Let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we may die."

"God is a spirit," and no chemical analysis will reveal Him. The spiritual world lies far above the realm of science, and we must turn to the literary side of education to develop those powers which have most sympathy with the spiritual.

As Bacon says, "It is true that a little philosophy inclineth men's minds to atheism, but depth in philosophy bringeth men's minds about to religion. For while the mind of man looketh upon second causes scattered, it may sometimes rest in them and go no further; but when it beholdeth the chain of them confederate and linked together, it must needs fly to Providence and Deity." [Francis Bacon, Of Atheism]

Let me not be misunderstood. I fully recognize the claims of science in the life of the adult, but I am dealing with the question of teaching in schools, and of how far we are to allow science to absorb such a proportion of time that literary training suffers. I consider that the real study of science should be after the period of school life, and be pursued at the University or Technical College. The elementary part of Physical Science is suitable for the school curriculum, and for schools in the country, Botany is good; but it has comparatively little charm for children when the specimens have to come from the florist, and cannot be seen growing. The children of the present day suffer, to an extent that parents rarely realize, from reading, or rather skimming, a chaotic mass of story-books and novels, some good, others worthless. These they do not digest, neither in some cases is it desirable that they should, but the habit of reading without remembering or even grasping, weakens the mental power, and renders it difficult for them to read carefully and digest any book. The result of this weakness of mental grasp and the power of attention shows itself painfully, when, after the most careful teaching in class, the child has carried away little or nothing of the lesson.

The old practice of making children of a Sunday afternoon repeat the substance of the morning sermon, had one advantage. It cultivated a habit of attention, and quickened perception, as understanding the main drift of the sermon was necessary in order to remember the words. There is not enough backbone in the children of to-day. Life is made so smooth for them that many of them are quite helpless in the most ordinary details of life. They dislike grappling with difficulties, and when a lesson requires more thought than they care to give, such as Euclid and German, there comes the request for that subject to be dropped. The way in which a girl on entering a room selects the most comfortable easy chair she can find and curls herself up in it, completes the picture of physical and mental inertia. Children possess generally a fair amount of imagination, but unless this be trained, they remain quite incapable of applying it to any useful purpose, and sometimes the power is quite lost. History and poetry are especially valuable in training the imagination. History affords training in so many ways that I will deal with it first. The literary side of education lays before us mankind, its history, its physical surroundings, its political and social relations, its literature, its religion, its arts. Here we have a wide field for the powers of imagination, not by striving to invent but by endeavouring to throw ourselves back into the times we study, making use for that purpose of their chronicles, poems, and works of art. The intellectual memory is strengthened, and the mind trained to study the relation between causes and effects. Deeds of heroism arouse our admiration and incite to imitation. Injustice and selfishness excite indignation and contempt. We learn to suspend judgment until both sides are heard. We learn humility. We are warned not to boast too much of the works of the present when we review the works of the past. Compare, for example, in engineering the Eiffel Tower and the Pyramids. Conceit is generally the result of ignorance. Can we surpass the splendour of the Gothic Cathedrals of the middle ages, or the elegance and beauty of the Parthenon and Erectheion sculpture? Greek art is still our model. In hydraulics they evidently had experts. Homer, Plato, Socrates, Demosthenes, but suggest a crowd of poets, philosophers, and orators not surpassed in our day. History was well represented. Manufactures reached a high standard of excellence, and their works in metal and pottery are imitated in our day.

In one branch they were far behind us, in the manufacture of explosives. Fortunately for themselves and us they do not seem to have used dynamite, or the world of classic art might have been lost to posterity.

We can by history point out one strong characteristic of our own times. The great development of the humanizing influence introduced by Christianity. The slow, gradual leavening of the tone of public opinion in countries long called Christian, and also in those they influence. "Do unto others as ye would that they should do unto you," is not in accordance with human nature. The arts cannot produce humanity; witness the ancient Greeks. Man is by nature a fighting animal, and requires Christianity to direct this power in the right way. The Auto de Fé's in Spain, the persecutions in the Netherlands, and the martyr fires of Smithfield were not the results of Christ's teaching on the part of the oppressors, but were simply the original savage nature of man coming out, assuming a false name, and sometimes perverting some text in the Old or New Testament to sanction their cruelty.

By means of history and literature patriotism should be cultivated.

Patriotism is abused by those who don't know what it is. "Honour thy father and thy mother, that thy days may be long in the land, etc.," is not understood to require children to force and abuse, insult, or injure all who were not their parents. Still they would be expected to defend their own parents when in danger, and support them in every possible way. The remark that patriotism makes us hate and injure other countries is just as unfounded. True patriotism is a holy feeling --

    "Lives there a man with soul so dead,
    He never to himself hath said
    This is my own, my native land."

Patriotism is in accordance with the command to love our neighbour, as it is (in ordinary circumstances), our fellow-countrymen who are our neighbours. In a case of assault no one thinks it is his duty to present his cheek for a second blow, nor to permit a thief to take his coat as well as his cloak provided he can prevent it, yet if he considers all the personal directions, given by our Lord to His disciples, to be equally binding on all Christians, it would be his duty to act thus. This would be encouragement to violence and theft. But we are not commanded to offer the cheeks of our friends to the smiter. History and national poetry rouse us to defend our countrymen from injustice and violence. Hardenberg, Scharnhorst, and Stein would have had a much harder task in freeing Prussia, with its weak and incapable king, from the insolent tyranny of Napoleon, had they not been aided by the stirring national songs of Arndt and Körner. History teaches us to prize our English liberty. No other country can compare with us in this respect. It inspires us with a noble pride in the vast empire which our forefathers built up with many a struggle and heroic endurance of hardships. In denouncing the petty wars by which this position was partly won, the advocates of peace appear to be ignorant of the frightful loss of life which attends smiling peace in this country alone. "On our rail-ways alone, between 1874 and 1892, 12,000 persons were killed and 160,000 injured." In 25 years half a million perished in various industries.

Professor Henry Sidgwick*, in his essay on "The Theory of a Classical Education," where he has been pointing out that the classics (as they used to be taught, at any rate) often failed to be effective as a literary education, says: "Let us demand that all boys, whatever be their special bent and destination, be really taught literature: so that, as far as is possible, they may learn to enjoy intelligently poetry and eloquence; that their interest in history may be awakened, stimulated, guided; that their views and sympathies may be enlarged and expanded by apprehending noble, subtle, and profound thoughts, refined and lofty feelings; that some comprehension of the varied development of the human nature may ever after abide with them, the source and essence of a truly humanizing culture. Thus, in the prosecution of their special study or function, while their energy will be ever stimulated, their views and aims will be more intelligent, more central; and, therefore, their work, if less absorbing, not less effective."

(Not written for publication)

* The educational philosopher Professor Henry Sidgewick's name is sometimes spelled Sedgwick elsewhere; you may read more about him from these websites.

Biography of Sidgewick's life and work; also, Wikipedia

Very brief article about the educational theories of J. S. Mill, Henry Sedgwick, and Edward Thring

"The Theory of Classical Education." Originally published in Essays on a Liberal Education, edited by F.W. Farrar (London: Macmillan, 1867). The book is at, and the essay begins on page 81.

A longer article on his philosophy

Some texts here, though not the one referenced in the article; also here

Typed and proofread by Nicole Capehart