The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Hero-Worship as a Factor in Education

by Miss L. H Montagu
Volume 12, no. 8, August 1901, pgs. 561-573

If you can teach your boys and girls to regard all nature as the revelation of God, and all forms of life as emanating from Him and united in serving His will, they will find on all sides "common bush aflame with God," and be among those who "see and take off their shoes while the rest sit round and eat blackberries." [Browning]

Parents' National Education Union

Fifth Annual Conference

Held at The Portman Rooms, Baker Street, W., May 14th, 15th, 16th and 17th, 1901

Report of the Proceedings
Wednesday, May 15th, 10:30 a.m., Mrs. R. L. Devonshire in the chair, Miss L. H Montagu read a paper on Hero-Worship as a Factor in Education

Every child by the conditions of its nature is inclined to hero-worship--the "transcendent admiration of a great man." This inclination is probably first awakened in us, when, as children, we become conscious of our own smallness and of our dependence upon others. The nursery-maid who easily turns the door-handle which the baby has tried in vain to reach, is, for the moment at least, a child's heroine. Or perhaps we bring the inclination to worship with us, when we first enter the world, "trailing clouds of glory from God, Who is our home."

Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close upon the growing boy,
But he beholds the light and whence it flows,
he sees it in his joy.
(from Ode by William Wordsworth)

Indeed I think that the full joyousness of childhood can only be experienced by those who are allowed by their elders to mix heaven freely with earth, and to see angels and heroes where commonplace sinners actually stand. In order to justify this belief I must try to prove the harmlessness of disillusion and the beneficent influence of hero-worship so long as it lasts. Incidentally I will suggest a few of the ways by which an atmosphere may be created in home life, which will be conductive to the natural development of the power of hero-worship.

Those who lay much stress on the sadness of disillusion seem to me to forget somewhat that great happiness does not exist on earth without a suggestion of pain. As Shelley says to his skylark--

If we were things born not to shed a tear,
I know not how thy joy we ever should come near."

I cannot for a moment pretend that we do not suffer keenly when we first discover that those in whom we placed our implicit trust have their lapses like ordinary folk. The pain of these discoveries is sharp and not always of short duration, but the joy which preceded it makes it assuredly worth while. Further, I believe that if disillusions are allowed to come naturally into a child's life, dropping gently into his mind as the coils of time unfold themselves, they will not occur before he has the strength to bear them. The moment that he allows himself to criticize his idol, he has ceased to be a whole-hearted worshipper, and the readjustment of his ideas is accomplished without excessive strain by a process of adaptation. If he is at all healthy-minded he will not hate the world because he has ceased to adore a certain individual belonging to it. Rather, while experiencing the supreme joy of complete devotion, he has acquired a certain habit of mind which will make it impossible for to live without heroes. After one disillusion his selection may become more reasoning and therefore may never again bring that pure joy, of which spontaneity is an essential element. Nevertheless every age has its peculiar capacity for happiness, and hero-worship can adapt itself to fill whatever measure is prepared to receive it, and no man could at any given moment compute the depth of its intensity.

In a recent story, Mrs. L. T. Meade describes how the worship of a little girl affects the character of her father and induces him to try to purify his rather sordid life. But long before he has become the ideal being with which she identifies him, the child meets with a fatal accident. The father cannot endure the thought of allowing his child to carry away into the unseen a faith which is based on a delusion and he explains to her that she has been mistaken in him, for he was not what he seemed to her loving spirit. Then, perhaps because she was on the threshold of a new life, she is allowed to receive from God a ray of His love and to direct it towards her human father, whose life would otherwise have become completely desolate. This new love owes its brightness to the divine suggestion of forgiveness and so the child's disillusion won for her stronger and more precious faith.

I have assumed that disillusion in some form is a necessary complement to the perfect hero-worship of our childhood. But I do not doubt that here and there we may come across some blessed spirits who preserve through life the power of worshipping with unchanging intensity the beings who first stimulated their reverence. Whether we belong to this smaller band of devotees or to those who occasionally modify their manner of worship, or even knock over and replace their heroes at the different stages of their development, I do not think we can doubt the beneficent influence of hero-worship.

I claim that it mitigates conceit and produces strenuousness; that it enlarges our sympathies, creates peace and joy, and is the basis of our religious and of our social life.

Conceit is generally a form of selfishness. If we care about others sufficiently to worship them, we cannot waste much time in admiring ourselves. Moreover, as we generally appreciate in others those qualities in which we ourselves are somewhat wanting, the consciousness of our deficiencies is the best stimulus to worship. In thinking about our heroes, we unconsciously idealise our standard of conduct and increase the distance between aspiration and achievement. Children are necessarily imitators, and their heroes stimulate them to effort. Indeed, in our own experience we have seen the effect of such stimulus even on adult population. Inasmuch as the recent war-fever, in spite of its many degrading symptoms, awoke us to strenuousness, it became a beneficent factor in the natural development. The true stories of self-sacrifice and devotion which came to us from South Africa roused us to gird our loins and to light our lamps, and to walk more courageously along our path. We were drawn closer together by our common hopes and fears, regrets and apprehensions, and particularly by our appreciation for the deeds of heroism and daring. For the time at least we became able to distinguish between the trivialities and the essentials of the life around us, and we rejoiced in eagerly obeying the summons to service which, in our normal moods, we so often either fail even to hear, or comfortably disregard. But children's susceptibilities are keener than those of "grown-ups," and they do not require a national upheaval in order to feel the stimulus of the heroic act upon their lives. If they are incapable of feeling it, they have suffered a loss for which no effort of ours can compensate them. For the essence of vulgarity is the incapacity to appreciate merit in others, or to respect it. Every man who focuses his eyes only to see what is common in his neighbour regards everyone as his equal, and for him the possibilities of life are degraded to a dreary monotony. Hero-worship ripens a child's intelligence until it become quick to recognize noble thought and eager to receive its inspiration. It is this responsiveness which militates against narrowness; the disciple's mind grows until he can understand the conceptions of his master. Boswell is glorified through glorifying Johnson.

Again, in these days of storm and stress, the attitude of the worshipper is invaluable because it is one of repose. The child accepts unquestioningly the dictum of his hero; he bows his head, does reverence and is at peace. This peace helps to secure for him perfect joy, when he discovers that in worshipping the light which is kindled by another soul, he is worshipping the God who is imaged there. In Pagan times, "the world," says Carlyle, "which is now divine only to the gifted, was then divine to whosoever would turn his eye upon it. He stood bare before it, face to face. Worship is transcendent wonder, for which there is no limit or measure; that is worship. To these primeval men, all things and everything they saw exist beside them were an emblem of the Godlike, of some God . . . To us also through every star, through every blade of grass, is not a God made visible if we will open our minds and eyes? We do not worship in that way now, but is it not reckoned still a merit, proof of what we call a poetic nature, that we recognize how every object has a divine beauty in it; how every object still verily is 'a window through which we may look into Infinitude itself.' . . . But now if all things, whatsoever we look upon, are emblems to us of the highest God, I add that more so than any of them is man such an emblem."

I take it that hero-worship, which supplies the unifying thread to life, makes it possible for us to concentrate it to the service of God and man. A high conception of Christianity is not incompatible with hero-worship. When we hear of lives which have been changed and glorified by Christian teaching, we mean that people have come to obey the summons which their allegiance justifies. They have begun to follow in the footsteps of their Exemplar and to imitate the life of Him who was crucified. Could anyone, whatever his creed or no-creed may be, doubt that such hero-worship is productive of good, that it conditions unselfishness and purity of purpose and leads men to victory, inasmuch as it teaches them to obey?

So, too, our social life, if indeed even verbally it can be separated from our religious life, is based on hero-worship. For whether we will or no, man is born believing, and small men flutter round big men as surely as moths round a candle. It depends on the choice of our heroes and our behaviour towards them whether their flame will destroy us or illuminate our paths. We cannot serve our children better than by encouraging them to seek heroes and to adhere loyally to them in every branch of social effort. Unless we can develop this habit of reverence, social organization becomes difficult if not impossible. It is because hero-worship has not been generally admitted as a factor in education, that conventional conceptions of class superiority have been used in order to inculcate obedience among large bodies of men. We hear that big industries progress better when the foreman belongs to a rather different class from the other employees. Similarly the development of co-operative undertakings has been slow and difficult where the manager had the same educational opportunities as his men. By using these opportunities more wisely he rouses the jealous instincts of his mates instead of awakening their reverence, for ignorant men prefer to consider their neighbours as ignorant as themselves. It will be one of the glories of our democratic age if we can persuade the proletariat to give complete allegiance to aristocrat or the aristocrat to reverence the proletariat when either happens to be an estimable man. But I think we shall deserve far greater glory if we can persuade men of all classes and degrees of development to shroud their eyes with the mist of love, faith, and humility, until they can find heroes and heroines among the men and women with whom they are best acquainted. For as we learn from Carlyle, "that great men, taken up in every way, are profitable company. We cannot look, however imperfectly, upon a great man without gaining something by him. He is the living light-fountain, which it is good and pleasant to be near. The light which lightens and has enlightened the darkness of the world; and this is not as a kindled lamp only, but rather as a natural luminary shining by the gift of heaven; a flowing light-fountain of native and original insight of manhood and heroic nobleness, in whose radiance all souls feel that it is well with them."

We have now to ask how we can best train our children to receive the light which radiates from the heroic life for the illumination of smaller men. If, as I have said, the power of hero-worship may raise us from selfish indifference to strenuous effort, to experience the highest joys of self-development, of service, and of repose, to witness God's revelation of Himself at all times and in all phases of life--then surely we must try to discover how we can develop this power in the lives of our children. Primarily we must consider the great responsibility which rests on parents seeing that their children depend on them for their first conception of heroes and heroines. It would hardly be becoming for me to try to suggest to you how best to fulfil your part. I can only feel the keenest appreciation of the nobility of your calling, and in all humility sympathise with you in estimating its difficulty. For you know far better than I how precious is the respect of your children, and how great is the strain by which you endeavour always to merit it. You feel that your child, by the law of its being, cries out to be allowed to trust you absolutely; yet you know that it is within your power to shake that heaven-given trust if by word or deed you give him cause to doubt it. If instead of occasionally courageously saying, "I cannot, or I do not wish to explain," you try to deceive your child by offering him fiction when he asked for truth--a stone falls out of the pedestal on which he has placed you. Do you not know, far better than I, how quickly an expression of wondering sorrow passes over a child's face, when for the first time he sees the parents whom he honours with his whole heart indulge in petty wrangling or in mutual recrimination. Of course you are aware that these little quarrels are transitory and do not really affect the love which they momentarily appear to disturb. But your child does not want to have to explain your conduct. You are his hero and heroine--he worships you, and his worship is so precious to you and so immensely beneficial to him, so you strive continuously to realize the ideal conception of conduct which your child associates with his trust in you. To do this, you establish an atmosphere of sincerity throughout your home, for such an atmosphere is conductive reverence. Further, you refuse to over-indulge your child because excessive indulgence weakens the power of respect, and so degrades the possibilities of love. Therefore you do not allow yourself to become your child's slave, ready to answer his questions whenever he is pleased to ask them, or to play with him whenever his whim suggests some game. Instead, you encourage him to regard your company more or less in the light of a treat, although the gratification of his wishes may constitute the greatest joy which your life contains.

Again, being aware that your child likes to test the strength of his awakening influence, you try to live a completely serene life undisturbed by the variations in his moods. You ignore his little fit of discontent when it is unreasonable, and are unaffected by his heated remonstrances over some small rule of conduct, which it has seemed to you right to make. This serenity is essential to the proper performance of your part, for a parent ceases to be his children's hero when they know that at any moment they can, if they choose, make him their victim.

Turning from this part of our question with which you are obviously so far better acquainted than I, let us consider how best you can encourage your children to make heroes and heroines outside their own homes. It is well, at the outset of such an inquiry, to distinguish between the "schwarmerei," which can so soon exhaust our capacity for appreciation, and true hero-worship, which exalts and purifies it. How can we save our children from an experience of gush and sentimentality, and instead incline him to feel deep reverence when he is under the influence of an inspiring life? The Old Testament is a record of true hero-worship; each group of men had its luminary and lived in its light. We remember how after Moses had been permitted to share his spirit and his burden with the Seventy Elders, Joshua became jealous for his hero's sake, and protested against the further division of his power. Then Moses gently reproved his disciple for his misplaced ardour, in the memorable words, "Enviest thou for my sake? Would God that all God's people were prophets, and God would put His spirit upon them!"

We almost envy Joshua his experience, and wish it were the fate of our children to have a similar rebuff from a hero, who had, like Moses, attained to the glory of sincere humility. But seeing that the world contains few such heroes, we must try to fortify our children as strongly as possible against misconceived enthusiasms.

I believe that in homes where the atmosphere is purified by the introduction of healthy chaff, the habit of "schwarmerei" is not likely to take very deep root. Accustom your children to see the essentials in life and character; the realities which inspire thought and conduct, and they will seek these in their homes. It is only over trivialities that people gush; in the presence of the eternal they do obeisance. As soon as the mysteriousness of life forces itself upon the consciousness of a child, without being able to formulate any creed, he worships. Then, gradually, in the words of Emerson, the hero "ceases to help as a cause, and begins to help more as an effect. He appears as an exponent of a vaster mind and will. The opaque self becomes transparent with the light of the First Cause." I fancy that in the presence of this mystery a child's behaviour needs no guidance. Let him only know before Whom he stands and he will feel, and therefore act, rightly.

You destroy the sense of mystery which is so conductive to the cult of heroes if you allow your children to treat them with too great familiarity. This consideration is particularly important when we try to rouse our children's respect for the very old. If we once allow them to be too familiar, they, with their quick insight, may discover selfishness and querulousness, where we would wish them only to see sweet dependence. We must try to make our children feel that the weaknesses which come upon the traveler as he journeys from darkness to light, are the caresses by which God makes him understand his need for him. Again, those who are full of days, must know more of the dangers, difficulties, hopes and fears of this life than those who have just begun their course. Surely for this greater knowledge and the mystery it suggests, we can claim for them homage.

Besides the danger of over-sentimentality, we must guard our children against the evil of servile imitation, while encouraging them to respect the dictum of those whom they honour. Among the Greeks and Hebrews in post-Biblical times, we hear of the relations between the learned and their groups of disciples, and it always seems as if the small intellect is used as a set-off to the master mind. The natural gifts of the student have to be developed by his own effort, rather than by the nourishment he receives from his teacher. Those of your child's heroes who belong to the silent host of the mighty dead, will hardly be able to influence him so strongly as to undermine his individuality. But the danger of subjection becomes more serious when he comes in frequent contact with his heroes. The difficulties created by these relations become particularly formidable when the heroes are not quite heroic enough not to take advantage of their power. In these instances I think we should act unwisely, and probably defeat our own ends, if we ventured to point out the clay in our children's idols. They would merely indulge their spirit of contrariness and become more and more dependent on others, in order to prove to us their independence. Rather, we should strive more and more earnestly to develop the individuality of those whom God has entrusted to our care, so that they may contribute their full measure of vitality to the common weal.

By the light of our great love we shall find that God, Who needs our child for some special purpose in the economy of the world, has endowed him with the particular gifts which are necessary for the accomplishment of his task. Only let us give the child the opportunity to develop his individuality until its existence presses itself upon his consciousness, urging him to conceive and then to fulfil some purpose in life. Then he will realize that he has his own life to live in dignified loneliness, and he will unconsciously train himself to receive from his masters only so much assistance as is necessary to his development.

I have tried to show that my idea of hero-worship is entirely disassociated with silly sentimentality and with the servile dependence of a weak spirit on a strong one. I have still to deal briefly with the more positive side of my subject, the healthy reverence for great men and women, in so far as it can be encouraged among our children. Now it seems to me vastly important that children should do honour to their heroes for their qualities rather than for their defects. You would not have them glorify the action of a mean man because of the cunning which distinguished it. But should kind Providence blind the children's eyes to the meanness and the cunning, and reveal instead a good heart and some noble aspiration, would you not gladly allow reverence to be done to these attributes?

Why did Dante write his Divine Comedy? Was it not because he felt more strongly than other men the insatiable longing of the human soul to reach unto its God? He felt that it is only by resting the mind on the eternal beauty of spirit that we can hope to acquire the strength to combat those evils which are born of man and must be by him subdued. And he found the revelation of this perfect spiritual beauty in Beatrice, and she became his inspiration and his guide. If I had known Beatrice, I might have regarded her as a proud society beauty, cold and cruel, and perhaps my estimate might have been more true that that of Dante. But inasmuch as his eyes were illustrated by the light of a living faith, I must have envied him his blindness and been ashamed of my own correct vision.

In homes where the good, the pure, and the true are prized, I do not think that there is much danger that the children will consciously reverence the false and the sordid. We do not grudge to the man of straw an occasional "Salaam," seeing that the salutation when given in sincerity "blesses him who gives." Where parents make a cult of social position and material prosperity, their children will grow into snobs and worshippers of the "golden calf." As Emerson says, "the god of the cannibal will be a cannibal, of the crusader a crusader, of the merchant a merchant." If you can teach your boys and girls to regard all nature as the revelation of God, and all forms of life as emanating from Him and united in serving His will, they will find on all sides "common bush aflame with God, and be among those who see and take off their shoes while the rest sit round and eat blackberries."

When, every now and again, we see children apparently incapable of feeling respect for anybody, we are obliged to draw some sad inferences about their education. We must assume that they have been accustomed to question the decrees of those who guide their lives before obeying them, and they have therefore not experienced the joys of implicit trust. They have been allowed to measure the heroic by their own small attainments, and there has, consequently, been no room for aspiration in their lives. Although their power of judgment is necessarily undeveloped, they have not learned to doubt its infallibility. Such children never pass over the stile of mediocrity; they sit down beside it and noisily applaud their noble achievement.

During the critical transition years of life when boys and girls are passing over childhood's threshold, when their hearts are bursting with their desire to attain, and their physical strength is hardly equal to the emotional strain which each important issue creates, then again their salvation may depend on their power of hero-worship. Perhaps they come from homes where heroism is held to have its roots in self-restraint, self-denial and self-development. Then they will revere and unconsciously imitate those men and women who live purposeful lives, and regard sincerity and purity among the highest virtues. Or, perhaps they come from homes where simple goodness is never credited, and reference to it is met with a sneer. Then they will come to consider such skepticism good form and to trust more readily the man who assumes goodness than him who practices it. They cannot recognize a sublime order in the universe, for they have learned none of its rules; their own lives have become chaotic, because they depend on their unreliable whims and impulses for guidance in opinion and conduct. Or, perhaps they come from homes where snobbishness is exalted into a cult. Then, unless saved by counteracting influences, they will join their lives to those men and women who retard the development of humanity by their devotion to materialism.

Indeed, it is necessary for our children's sake, if not for our own, to refrain from cheapening what is best in life by suggesting that its origin is mean. Have you ever been present at a dinner-table where men and women after allowing themselves to become enthusiastic over some noble action, have sunk afterwards to the admission that probably the hero found that courage paid? Or, have you heard the market value of some beautiful artistic creation coarsely criticized, or the practical utility of some idealist's work impertinently judged? If you have had any one of these sad experiences, you know how, for the time being, they seem to take the joyous glow out of life.

Surely it is important that during the most impressionable years of their lives, children should, as far as possible, only consort with those who allow to humanity its proper share of glory. In the interests of posterity, we have no right to tear goodness into shreds and then piece it together again, leaving the marks of our sacrilege indelibly impressed. We must rather try in our own homes to judge men and women by a different standard from that by which we judge the value of wearing apparel and household perquisities. We need not ask whether their work is of immediate practical utility, and their qualities in favour at the moment in good society. Instead, we must adopt an absolute standard and freely accord our praise where we find men and women living their lives as if exultantly conscious of their origin and destiny, and seeing their path illuminated by the light of perfect faith in the Invisible and Unattainable. The ideal student, according to Browning, says: "What's Time? Leave now for dogs and apes. Man has Forever."

I have tried to show that by enthusiastically honouring what is honourable in every-day life, we may help our children to seek heroes among those most worthy to receive their devotion. It is thus that we combat the dangerous tendency, which we see on all sides, for people to question everything and everybody, and to receive nothing on trust. It is this tendency which affects our children by making them old before their time, and so preventing them from ever experiencing the full joys of hero-worship.

Here I know I am treading on dangerous ground. You who belong to this Union are wisely desirous that the thinking power of your children should be encouraged in every possible way. You quicken their imaginative faculty by awakening their creative instinct; you widen their intellectual horizon by introducing them as early as possible to the most varied works of literature; you urge them to test and judge what they see and hear and learn. The unthinking animal, however healthy he may be as a living organism, cannot belong to the Parents' Review School. All these are matters for congratulation. Yet even this kind of education may become a source of danger, unless you can impress your children's minds with the vastness of knowledge and the impossibility of measuring it. Of course let them have their heroes in art and fiction, but don't let them criticize before they can hope to understand! Don't let them think they have studied Newton's science because they know the names of a few stars, or know Shakespeare because they are familiar with characters in his plays. "Fixed opinion" wherever it is allowed to flourish becomes a fungus growth, which arrests the development of true knowledge by crushing the sap of reverence out of its roots.

I will conclude my paper by reminding you that the enthusiasm which hero-worship creates is, perhaps, the most important of its many glorious attributes; for it is through becoming caring people that we are able to realize ourselves and impelled to realize our God. We remember that the old Pagans worshipped idols because they saw so much that was God-like on earth, and their wonder was too strong to be controlled by reason. Let us be careful lest to-day, in our purified cults, we separate God from the world which He has created, and so divide our life that only a small portion is consciously devoted to worship. They who believe in the Omnipresence of God cannot limit His power of revelation. At all times and in all places they are ready to see His glory, and their religion is commensurate with life.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

The poem referenced in this article:
      Earth's crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God:
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round it, and pluck blackberries,
And daub their natural faces unaware
More and more, from the first similitude.
(from Aurora Leigh, Book VII, by Elizabeth Barrett Browning)

Proofread by Leslie Noelani Laurio, May 2009