The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
The Influence of the Home on the School

by B. L. Kennett
Volume 12, 1901, pgs. 426-436

It is surely superfluous to explain that this little paper is not addressed to those people who hold that all school education is a mistake, nor does it presume to try to make of these irreconcilables converts to the opposite view. Indeed, such people will make short work of any discussion on the topic indicated in the title of this paper, by the simple declaration that their way of influencing schools will be to ignore, empty and so, ultimately, end them. What I have to say this afternoon is, therefore, necessarily addressed to those people--the great majority--who are in some measure committed to a continuance of the school system. This majority will include the holders of varying shades of opinion: in it will be found those who are enthusiasts for the communistic--as opposed to the individualistic theories of education, and, on the other hand, those whose allegiance to the school system is only half-hearted, being dictated by considerations of expediency, economy, convenience, or even sometimes by an indolence or a selfishness which is glad, at any cost, to be relieved of the continual presence of children at home.

From school adherents of this last and least worthy class we need expect no very useful contribution to the solution of the problem which we have chosen for our afternoon's discussion. It is just these people who tend to make the entente cordiale between home and school so difficult of achievement. For, in such cases, the attitude of the home towards the school will be one of more or less complete indifference, so long as the school performs its supposed function of keeping the children out of the way; and if this negative attitude ever yields to a more positive one, it is to be feared that this latter will be somewhat hostile in character, being aroused, in all probability, by some contravention on the part of the school of that supposed function to which I have alluded. To give an instance: the school will, perhaps, give offence by excluding, for a time, in the interests of the community, children to whom attaches some slight suspicion of taint from infectious illness. But even when relations are not so far strained (and of course I am considering an extreme case), what positive help for teachers can be forthcoming from parents or guardians of this class? What hope, for example, can one have of one's ability to evoke sympathetic co-operation in the principles of Froebel, from those parents who regard a kindergarten merely as a crèche, in which upper and middle-class infants can be comfortably housed during the morning hours, to the sole end that their nurses may be set free for dressmaking or housework?

There is no need to dwell upon such extreme cases. They can generally be found and used as evidence by either party in a controversy. We have all heard of and condemned that rash head mistress who felt herself goaded into expressing, to a colleague, the fervent wish that her pupils were all orphans! And, on the other hand, we can, doubtless, multiply instances of schoolmasters and schoolmistresses, whose attitude has been too much that of the well-known Oxford rhyme:--

My name is Benjamin Jowett;
What there is to know, I know it.
I am the master of this College;
What I don't know isn't knowledge.

It would, of course, be as grossly unfair and untrue to assert that parents for the most part are incapable of taking any but a purely selfish view of the functions of school, as to assert that teachers for the most part are actuated by none but commercial motives. I am anxious to avoid the assumption that, in questions open to controversy, parents and teachers will necessarily be found in opposing camps. I am mindful of the fact that my audience and myself are alike members of an association, pledged, as is the P.N.E.U., in its five-fold avowal of its objects, to the principle of the mutual helpfulness between home and school.

We assume, then, that parents and teachers honestly desire to be mutually helpful, and the question for settlement is, How best can the home influence the school? How far should this influence for good be passive, showing itself in an abstention from interference; and when, and it what extent, should it take upon itself the active functions of criticism and of suggestion?

I am afraid there has been some tendency with teachers to regard the passive influence as that which alone is desirable. An ideal parent, from the school point of view, has been the one who "has never interfered." And, indeed, if the home is truly to help the school, the doctrine of non-interference has its place. There can be no doubt that there are occasions on which it is for the good of the school that the parents' personal feeling and private preference, in matters of detail, should be suppressed. I was reading the other day Professor Welton's instructive Synthesis of Herbart and Froebel, in which the following passage occurs:--

"A person is not a mere individual, but equally a member of a social organism. And into the life of this organism he is born as surely as he is born to his own individual life. Indeed, he is an individual only so far as he is a member of the social organism. But if this is the case, then his true individuality is expressed and his true nature realized so far, and so far only, as he shares the common organic life. In other words, true freedom is found only when the subjective is reconciled with the objective. Hence, these do not hold a negative position towards each other, but each finds its place in a true conception of complete human life. But this means that human freedom is conscious, and, as conscious, rational. For it is only when man's individuality is harmonized with objective law--whether in the physical or in the social world--that he finds real freedom. Man, therefore, grows into freedom, but in no true sense can he be said to begin as free. Freedom is rational,--or, in other words, reason is self-realizing activity. But this self-realization of the rational will is not and cannot be individualistic: it involves the identification of the individual with the objective world."

And again,--"Mere spontaneous activity is not enough: there is a place for it, but guided activity is at least equally necessary. And such guided activity implies authority on the side of the educator, and obedience on that of the pupil. Nor must the pupil yield obedience only when his caprice of the moment agrees with the command; for his true freedom will never be attained, if he acts in opposition either to natural law or to the moral law of the community of which he is born a member. To him the educator personifies the authority of this moral community, and to the general will as expressed by him the child's individual caprice must give way. True, this obedience should be willing, in order to be truly moral, and should spring from full confidence in the educator. But morality is an affair of conduct as well as of motive, and the outer act influences the motives; and so, outward conformity to law must be obtained, even though the spirit at the time may struggle."

Now all this needs to be fully apprehended by those who have the charge of children, and a complete apprehension of it will involve loyalty to the laws by which is governed that school community of which the children have been caused to become members. It will necessarily involve some sacrifice of the individualistic theories so strongly developed in parents, and above all--as it seems to me--in mothers. It is no new charge that women should be accused of lawlessness. Respect for law and discipline has never been developed in them, as it has in men, by the manifold activities of the athletics-ground, the drill-shed, and the battle-field. Mr. W. E. Henley, in the poem which closes his latest contribution to the nation's war-songs, reasserts the old theory that it is the function of women to mother, and of men to govern. But the power to govern implies, as a preliminary condition, the capacity for being governed, and so it comes to pass that men are more tolerant than women of the rigidity of law, and of the necessity for corporate action. The mother, in short, is apt to resent, as an encroachment on her child's individuality, the claims of law in matters of detail. She is tempted to plead, in the child's behalf, for exemption from this minor regulation, and for modification of that petty rule.

Now, from the point of view of the writer from whom I have been quoting, this desire on the part of the mother to emphasize unduly her child's individuality at school is a mistake,--is, indeed, an offence, not merely, mark you! against the well-being of the community as a whole, but against the child's own best development. What one gives up for the good of the community, that one receives back with interest from the community. I venture to assert, with reverence, that those words of the Great Teacher, "He who saveth his life shall lose it, and he who loseth his life shall save it," are true in the mental and social as in the moral and spiritual sphere. I do not for one instant believe that the fashionable craze for all that is bizarre and unusual in education, and the modern cry for originality in children will yield us, in the next generation, a greater crop of originality than that which is to be found among ourselves. Originality, like humour, is not to be painfully stalked until it is secured: it is as elusive as genius (for which, indeed, it is only a synonym)--as indestructible as matter itself.

To be kept from learning to read and write, while all other children of one's own age are under instruction, will not, in itself, evoke originality. To sit in a class-room, among twenty other children, each accommodated in a desk of like pattern to one's own, will not, in itself, destroy what originality the gods may have bestowed. It is surely desirable to train children both in spontaneity and in obedience: omit the latter, and we produce mere monsters of caprice; omit the former, and we annihilate initiative.

I plead, then, for non-interference on the part of the parents with school routine, which I believe will amply justify its uses, if it is allowed to have its perfect work. I do not desire that the routine should be wooden, nor do I assert that--wooden or otherwise--it is never, in any case, to be modified or set aside. I know that there are some to whom the very word "routine" is distasteful. I am at one with them in condemning any system of rearing young life in a sort of educational incubator. It is surely a thousand times better to be brought up under live feathers than in any incubator, however perfectly equipped. But surely, at least as far as day-schools are concerned, there is slight danger of excess of routine. When it is remembered that a year contains, on an average, only 186 school-days, and that, on each of these, a child is in attendance at school for only about one-sixth of the whole period of twenty-four hours (exclusive of optional attendance in the afternoon for preparation of the next day's lessons), it will be seen that the hours spent in school, during any one year, are only 744 out of the total 8,766,--that is, a proportion of less than one-eleventh of the whole. It seems to me, therefore, that a normal child is not likely to suffer from over-restraint at school. But of course it must be remembered that abnormal children exist, and that all children, whether normal or not, pass through exceptional phases, physical, mental and moral, which require exceptional treatment. The true teacher, being human first and professional afterwards, will keep a watchful eye for individual traits in his or her pupils, and will gladly learn from the parents more of the meaning of such traits. He or she will willingly abate, as far as possible, that part of the school system which is found to act injuriously in the individual case. And indeed, the teacher will do this with all the better grace and the greater willingness, when the parents' normal attitude to the school is such as to carry conviction of a real disposition to abide, at ordinary times, by its restraints. Let it only be conceded that, where the parents' interference is desirable, it should be exercised in such a way that the children may not become too much aware of it. The child should never be the Court of Appeal. Parents are justified in being greatly exercised over anything which appears to be an act of injustice or of tyranny on the part of the school authorities, but it is to be feared that sometimes the child is allowed to become prematurely aware of the fact that its teachers have incurred the parental displeasure. Now nothing excuses even a slight act of willful oppression, and parents do very well indeed to be angry with the perpetrator when his offence is proved. But is it not occasionally forgotten that children do not always make the most reliable of witnesses,--the proverb, "Children and fools speak the truth," notwithstanding? Without any intention of being untruthful, young children are apt to carry home stories of a surprisingly cock-and-bull character, which need some sifting before they can be entirely accepted. A young sister of my own related to an astonished group of elders at home that the big girls at her school went wont to take leave of their French master in the mysterious formula, "Carrots, my shoe." She was perfectly sure that this was the exact phrase prescribed by school etiquette. Long and vainly was light sought on this remarkable utterance, until at length it dawned upon somebody that Quarante, Monsieur was the announcement made by those members of the class who had obtained the maximum number of marks for the lesson. This, of course, is an instance of childish misapprehension, rather than of romancing, but the latter characteristic also exists in most children. One would expect that those people, who covet earnestly for their children the gifts of imagination and originality, would recognise, with some thankfulness, the romantic character of many childish utterances, instead of accepting them too unhesitatingly as sober truth.

To sum up, then, what has been so far said, my I venture to hope that I shall obtain the general assent to the following propositions?

(1) Parental interference with the school system should be subject to a restraint, born of sound common sense and of trust in teachers of well-tried reputations. (And surely, to no other teachers shall we be willing to confide our children at all.)
(2) Necessary interference should be exercised so that, if possible, the children are unaware of it.
(3) The grounds for that interference should be sought not solely in the mere speeches of the children themselves.

We turn, now, to the more active and positive side of home influence. Hitherto, I have been trying to show why parents should sometimes abstain from action: now it is necessary to indicate ways and reasons for their taking action.

First, I plead for some little expenditure of the parents' time and trouble, in order that they may acquaint themselves with the school curriculum, its methods and aims. I do not mean that a busy mother should follow her Sixth Form son or daughter through the mazes of Trigonometry and Latin Verse, but the mother should at least be aware of the fact that these are among the subjects which claim her child's attention at the present stage, and that they are being studied to a definite and desired end. We have heard of mothers who are unable to say what Forms their children are in at school; and if they know this, they are sometimes in ignorance of the general standard of work expected of the Form, of the numbers in the Form and the average age of the pupils. Hence, they are without the data which enable them to judge for themselves whether their children are advanced or backward, over-worked or under-worked, and their criticism of schoolwork, when they offer it, is less convincing, because less instructed. Of course there is an immense amount of the technique of teaching which belongs properly to the province of the specialist, and into this the parent may wisely refuse to enter. But it is to be feared that the parents and guardians are sometimes content to leave untouched what is well within their province, and this condition is at once the cause and the effect of indifference to the school aims. For when once these aims are clearly understood, the boundary line between the work of the home and the school will be better defined: there will be less overlapping and fewer tracts left altogether unoccupied.

I fear that we are sometimes credited with the ability, as we are saddled with the responsibility, of teaching to our children, through the medium of school lessons, every part of what is properly regarded as essential to an ordinarily well-instructed and well-read person. That is to say, we are supposed to be able to give in school a great amount of what is called "general information." Our grandmothers, apparently demanded the same thing,--as far, at least, as their girls were concerned,--and the teachers of that day rose to the occasion. With their Mangall's Questions and the like, they allowed their pupils to "brush, with extreme flounce, the circle of the sciences," like poor Aurora Leigh in the hands of her maiden aunt. The pupil lacked in depth what she gained in superficial area. A text-book of the period, which gave as two consecutive questions, "What is sago?" and "What was the Pelagian Heresy?" was evidently more concerned with width of range than with thoroughness. The history of the last thirty years of girls' education has been a record of continuous and sometimes mistaken--but, on the whole, most successful and remarkable--attempts to remedy the defects pointed out in the Report of the Schools' Inquiry Commission:--"Want of thoroughness and foundation, slovenliness and showy superficiality, inattention to rudiments," and so on. I am not concerned, just now, with glorifying the new education at the expense of the old: I am merely wishing to point out that, under altered circumstances, it is no longer possible for children to pick up, at any school whatsoever, all the odds and ends and tags of general information which were thrown in the way of their grandmothers. It seems to me, however, that much of this general information might be learned at home, not, of course, by means of lessons, but through the daily conversation and intercourse between parents and children. One wonders, sometimes, how the children spend their leisure time,--their Saturdays and Sundays and their three months of holiday.

I had the curiosity, some little time ago, to set examination papers in General Knowledge, one to the Upper School here and one to the Lower. The reading of answers to examination questions is generally, to me, a saddening occupation, in which I am found out by my own, as well as by my pupils' sins. On this particular occasion, however, though the paucity of knowledge was sufficiently depressing, I was not honestly able to regard myself as the sole or chief culprit. When Mr. Balfour has the honour thrust upon him of being President of the United States, and Mr. Kruger is translated from his late sphere of action to the Viceroyalty of India, one wonders whether the examinees can be in the habit of sitting at home with ears stuffed with cotton-wool, or whether, possibly, they see more of the servants than they do of their parents. Any suspicion of kitchen influence is dispelled, however, by a further examination assertion that suet and "balm" enter into the composition of plum-cake.

With regard to the subject of general reading, it appears to me that now it is, more than ever, necessary for those who have the charge of children at home to recognise their responsibility. In olden days, if a child were let loose to "browse upon the wholesome pasturage" of his or her parents' library, he or she would probably have made acquaintance with standard works,--not all, indeed, of first-rate worth,--but all likely to confirm a habit of serious reading. The modern child finds ready to his hand a mass of "Strand Magazines," "Boys' and Girls' Own Papers," "Illustrated Scraps" of all sorts; and though there is sure to be in existence a much larger substratum of more solid works, yet the child rarely makes his way through to these, being caught by the superficial charms of the lighter magazine literature. Now, I know that it is possible to get children interested in books which, by themselves, they would never think of attacking. This is especially true of poetry. Something of this duty of engaging their interest belongs, of course, to the school and is discharged by means of lessons in literature. But these cannot cover the whole of so vast a field, and if ever the children are to be led to pay their visits to the poets' "holy hill in personal presence," parents must be enrolled as assistant guides. The special path to be selected will be no difficulty to those who have the two-fold love of children and of books.

And then, may I touch on the parents' part in the education of their children in that, perhaps, most important domain of all--that of Nature Study. Here, again, the school can and ought to do much, by means of lessons in Nature-lore of all kinds: but a school is, unfortunately, an indoor institution, and the holidays are the golden opportunity for "wandering away and away with Nature, the dear old Nurse," if only there is someone who can just make the introduction to that dear old Nurse of those who ought to be her charges. I have found it impossible to draw from my pupils any sure information on the subject of what birds haunt the Ipswich countryside in winter. Few of them--the children, I mean--are able to recognise the best known of the constellations: at the time of the eclipse of the sun this year (written in October, 1900), though there was much enthusiasm over an adjournment from the preparation room to the playground, to view the sight through smoked glass, hardly anyone could offer any explanation, however crude, of the phenomenon.

I might go on longer in this strain. No one doubts that, not only children, but grown-up people also, might, with advantage, know many things of which they are ignorant. I fear I am exceeding my limits, and that I am trespassing unduly on your kindness and patience.

Will you, therefore, allow me, in conclusion, to mention one other way in which the home can render most valuable service to the school?

The best educationalists agree that games are among the most valuable of all the agencies at their command, and any school which values its discipline, its healthy tone, and its esprit de corps, will look well to its games clubs. Now, in a day-school, these must depend for their success very largely upon the parents' support and co-operation. The children cannot join them unless they are allowed to do so, and the flagging of the school games is a sure sign of a feeble vitality in the corporate life of the school. It does not seem to me ideal that a girl (for I speak now of girls only, since in their case only are games generally optional) should be withdrawn from school as soon as she has extracted from it all she can get in the way of book-learning. Some of us are unfitted to render much service to the community by our brains: let us then put our muscles cheerfully at the disposal of our fellows. So shall we best learn the lesson taught long ago by old Menenius Agrippa, that the only way to further our own development is to examine the counsels and the cares of others:--

Digest things rightly,
Touching the weal o' the common: you shall find
No public benefit which you receive,
But it proceeds or comes from them to you,
And no way from yourselves.

Proofread by Leslie Noelani Laurio, July, 2010