The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."

by Mrs. Dowson
Volume 10, 1899, pg. 514

Friday Morning, May 12th.
At Portman Rooms.

Lady Campbell (Belgravia Branch) presided, and after making a few announcements, called upon Mrs. Dowson to deliver a paper on Personality.

Mrs. Dowson said: Mrs. Franklin has asked me to fill, as far as I can, the vacancy caused by the regretted absence of Miss Helen Webb, who was to have addressed us this morning. It was only two days ago that I knew I should be called upon to give a paper, and I had not sufficient time to prepare one to read to you; I have only had time to jot down a few notes. Further, I had not more than about five minutes--by grace of Mrs. Franklin's messenger--in which to choose the subject of my remarks; and for these reasons I must crave indulgence on your part. It seemed to me, and still seems, that the immediate troubles of child-life, and the immediate means of overcoming those troubles, are to a great extent covered by other people who address you at this Conference; and therefore it was somewhat difficult for me to find anything likely to interest you. But it occurred to me that certain questions coming under the widely-inclusive head of Personality would probably be outside your immediate consideration; questions which in the course of our busy practical lives we are often likely to lose sight of, although they are profoundly concerned with the troubles that are likely to embarrass the life of the child when he is a child no longer. Some of us have, maybe, suffered from such troubles in the immediate past; most of us must know of others who have suffered; and those who have had no more intimate concern with the progress of thought than comes of reading articles about it in the monthly reviews, must see, if they take a look back to the seventies and reflect on the tone of the Nineteenth Century and Fortnightly then, when [William Kingdon] Clifford and [Thomas Henry] Huxley were at the height of their activity, that momentous changes and upheavals took place in those days, leaving their mark, although not the mark that men like Clifford then expected, on the people and the principle of our time. There is no doubt that both have suffered, some of them most seriously, in consequence of the Sturm und Drang [storm and stress] of the sixties and seventies--people for want of preparation, and principles for want of firm foundations.

[Clifford, a mathematician/philosopher, said there was not enough evidence to believe in God in "Ethics of Belief;" Huxley, a Darwinian biologist, published "Evolution and Ethics" and coined the term "agnosticism."]

What bearing, you may ask, has personality upon this matter? I answer that, in just judgment, the right understanding of what personality is gives a clue to the problems that beset some of us in the past, and to those that will beset our children in the future. In trying to penetrate into its meaning and the meaning of our own mistakes, we recognize that there are two great truths upon which there is ever-recurring need to insist; and that in the proper balancing of them, there lies the path of safety for us all. These two great truths are the community of life among men--the organic oneness of humanity; and the freedom, the power of self determination, and, in consequence, the responsibility, of the persons who are linked together in the solidarity of their common humanity. Looking back upon those sixties and seventies, and upon the time that has intervened, we perceive that evolutionary science has brought home to the world with convincing force the first of these truths. The individualism that reigned during the 18th century in politics, economics, and popular religion, has been swept away by the influence of the biological current of thought. Our leaders for many years now have reflected in terms of biology, whereas the leaders in the earlier years of our century had reflected in terms of mathematics. The phrase "Society is an organism," has become our catch-word; and my belief is that in consequence of our human proclivity for swinging from one extreme to its opposite, we have now swung, under biological influence, into precisely the opposite error to individualism, and for some time have been prone to lose sight of the second, but equally important truth that I ventured to lay down, its correlative, I mean the freedom and responsibility of individual personal life. I would not imply that we have ignored this altogether, for nature and practical life are too strong for us, but rather that we have lost sight of it to some important extent in relation to our reflective thought, and to our schemes of management of society and ourselves. We hear so much about environment and hereditary in connection with the social state and the development of character that, quite insensibly, I think, we fall into the habit of looking upon the determination of character in a life as effected by anything and everything except the man himself. The error, for it certainly is an error, works itself out into expression in many ways, but I can only briefly allude to some of the directions in which it may be recognized by its results. This theory of human automatism, for that is what it really amounts to, has taken more or less specious and attractive forms; as, for example, a benevolent and enthusiastic reliance on educational machinery. This excessive reliance is often openly professed in the newspapers, and many of the most devoted and ardent of our reformers have manifest tendency that way. One hears continually the absurd opinion that the spread and the improvement of education will do away with most of the weaknesses of human nature, and much of its sin. Then there is the clamour, and a noisy clamour sometimes, for biological methods of repressing and removing by selection the morally bad and physically inferior members of the race; and, on the other hand, we have among us a great deal of sentimentalism about vicious and corrupt members of society, and about the pain of the world and the evil of the world, which is rationally justified only on some theory of human automatism. There is a marked tendency in certain circles to hold no man responsible for suffering and for evil, and it is a fact that according to the principle underlying it, no man is responsible for anything. The modern theories of crime accepted by the Italian school according to which demand is now being made for the application of therapeutics alone in the treatment of criminals, to the total exclusion of any form of punishment, are dominated by the conception of man as a mere product of natural forces, determined from without instead of from within.

The last example I will speak of now is by no means the least in importance for ourselves. I think there is an endeavour on our part to shield our children from all kids of pain--(applause)--from everything that is true discipline, and from the practical process under which is learnt the right use of freedom and the meaning of one's own personal responsibility. It may be a hard thing to say, but I think that one of the great faults of to-day is that our kindness leads us to forget the higher interests of our children. I would suggest that those interested in the subject, who have the time to spare, should read some really good book on psychology, and I would suggest [William] James's, the two-volume edition [Principles of Psychology, Vol 1, Vol 2], which is most instructive on these points. It is sufficient for me to remind you here that the character for which man must be held responsible is, undoubtedly, that formed through stress and effort, not that which has been put upon him by outward circumstances or by someone else. Man is what he makes himself through his opportunities. (Applause.) Character is the personal scoring of choice upon self; according to the dominance of what [Emanuel] Swedenborg called the "ruling love." Environment is a mere condition changing and falling away, and heredity is a condition, too; neither possesses power in itself to fix what any man shall be. Conditions of all kinds--intellectual or what not--are only opportunities; and what a man makes of himself is what he makes of these opportunities by deliberate choice. What is personal evil? It is direction of personal choice, not attainment of this or that result. There is everlasting time for progress, but only each moment of probation here to fix the direction of our progress. No lesson is more important than this of personal freedom and responsibility for the building up of personal character, for the result of our life upon the world in which we live, and for the interpretation of the problems which that world shows to us all. I think that the due consideration of this, taken in conjunction with the other truths of which I have been speaking, will fortify us and our children in the presence of any error or superstition or fancy of the day. That we have suffered and are going to suffer for our neglect in the past, is plain to see: Nemesis, I think, is upon us. The Nemesis of our forgetfulness of personal power, freedom, and government of self by self, has come upon us in many ways, and with special plainness in the influence of the last new prophet of our time. Nietzsche, or something like Nietzsche, is, probably, what our children will have to reckon with as we have had to reckon with Spencer and the biological thinkers of the last forty years. From the conception of democratic interdependence the pendulum is swinging into a conception of aristocratic personal self-sufficiency. Re-action among interdependent organisms has been the keynote of our thinking these many years. Self-action has been lost sight of, but it is not coming back like a flood to perplex and to mislead the new generation, coming, for example, in the guise of this new doctrine of Nietzsche--that that true nature and function of life is "will-to-power." The "administrative nihilism" of evolutionary science is to be replaced by the aristocratic imperialism of men who have suddenly found out what it may mean to be a Person. The trouble for many of our young thinkers is not an exaggeration of the momentousness of the operations of Nature--the uniformities, the co-existence and sequence of changes in a world of matter and motion and mechanical life--it is an exaggeration of the power of the personal human will, setting up an ideal of action and will instead of a moral ideal, as the end to be sought by man. Strength, power, the supremacy of each person in his world, is that which they are urged to seek. What is called by Nietzsche and his followers, "neighbour morality"--love of others--is scorned as being inspired either by fear or greed, the master passions on which our whole scheme of morals is said to be ultimately based. Nietzsche tells us that since, in the strong man, fear and greed are to be overcome, with them will go the morals and the religion of love, the contemptible superstructure they support. The man who is Master has no fear; the man sufficient to himself has no greed; he stoops no longer to protect himself by fair means or by foul; he worships neither God, nor Man, nor Mammon, nor even Self, because the Self also he rules. Biological ethics are no more; there are no more morals at all--biological or other; their place is to be taken in this new scheme by an im-moralism in which the artificial distinctions of good and bad are done away by the man who is fulfilling himself transcends them both. We can no better afford to neglect this rising tide than in the sixties and seventies we could afford to neglect evolutionary conceptions of the world. If we do neglect it, our children will suffer as some of us have suffered in the past. Let us think out, so far as may be, a just and well-proportioned view of man and his relation to the world of persons and things; let us acquire a rational as well as a devout belief in his relation to a personal God; and let us try to grasp the meaning of our own imperfect personality as being the broken image of His, to be at last restored. Then we shall be able to help our children in their trouble if it comes; or to shield them from it and keep them untouched, helping their less happy fellows, secure in a well-balanced strength, open-eyed in a wide and penetrating vision of the truth which shall make such exaggerations, such distortion and fine superficiality of thought as have over and over again spoilt life for generations, and are now, as ever, active among us, stand out plainly for what they really are.

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Lady Campbell: I feel sure we are all very grateful to Mrs. Dowson for her stimulating and suggestive address--(hear, hear.)--and I hope that someone will now open a discussion upon it.

Mrs. Boole *: I also am extremely grateful to Mrs. Dowson for giving us such an interesting paper. I have been longing for somebody to take up this subject, for I feel that it is one of the questions that requires to be thrashed out. I cannot say how grateful I am to have had the pleasure of hearing this interesting address. I think it is something to remember all one's life. I should like to ask Mrs. Dowson whether she does not think it better for one to take up that particular work which one feels to have been given one to do, and refuse to be driven into a work that someone else considers to be the right one. Is it not best to take such an attitude which enables one to say, "I know what God has given me faculties for doing. I am to do that for the good of all, not for a particular set of people, or for myself"? I should like to mention something which I remember in relation to my own child life. I was never inclined to disobey, and never had from my parents anything like unkind words. I remember my mother saying that I never attempted to disobey her, but I had a tremendous temptation when I was about nine years of age to run away, and try if I could find another girl with similar conceptions to my own, of whom I could make a proper companion. It seemed to me that I had been told by God that I was to do something in the way of Algebra, by making it easier for young people. I was not very clever at such things, but got on simply because I worked hard. Afterwards I got into mathematical society, and they tempted me to join science societies, but somehow I thought that was not what God wanted me to do--that it was not my business to be a hanger-on to those subjects; but rather to try and make the elements of Algebra more interesting to little children. Then I was told that if I loved humanity, I ought to join anti-vaccination societies, and anti-vivisection societies, and I do not know what. (Laughter.) But is it not better to refuse to be tempted away from the work which one feels one is intended to do? Is not that the conclusion at which Mrs. Dowson arrives at, and desires to impress upon us?

* [Mary Everest Boole, 1832-1916, wife of mathematician George Boole, wrote "Philosophy and Fun of Algebra." Boolean search is named after George Boole.]

Mrs. Dowson: That is indeed in accordance with my idea, and a valuable comment on my remarks.

Lady Campbell: There is a small point which I should like just to mention. I mean the danger of the tendency seen in the attitude of many parents towards their children to eliminate all that is unpleasant, all the wholesome dulness in a child's life. I think that is often a great mistake, because pain bravely and quietly faced is often invaluable in bringing about right discipline and restraint. (Hear, hear.) The children of the last generation had to bear a great deal of restraint and dulness, and I think it was very good for them indeed. (Hear, hear.) The children now, I think, might well be taught that they must be silent while their elders are speaking, or sit quiet in church during the service. (Hear, hear.) We can all understand what would be the effect of always giving a child partly digested food. Such a child would quickly break down physically in the battle of life, and never stand much chance of moral or mental growth. It has been said at the end of this century that the child is the king, but I think we might say that it is best for the child also to be the subject. (Applause.)

Mrs. Flint: What Lady Campbell has just said about dulness, applies, I think, very forcibly to what Mrs. Dowson said about the development of a child's own personality. We can force children into right grooves by keeping them at proper occupations, but the idea of keeping a child from being dull often leads to amusing them in so many ways that at last the child does not want to develop its own personality. I think we ought to learn many lessons from the deep paper just given us this morning, and particularly, I think, we ought to learn that personality is a thing which we should respect. (Hear, hear.)

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