The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
How Far is the Present Method of Educating Girls a Success?

by Mrs. De Gruchy Gaudin.
Volume 13, 1902, pg. 111-120

One of the surest remedies for discontent is to call to mind the circumstances of those whose lot in life obliges them to forego many of the pleasures and luxuries which others have come to regard as almost necessities.

For the same reason, when we of today read and hear of the position, education and limitations which characterized the girlhood of the earlier generations, we cannot but return to the present with all its advantages, its reforms, its progress, with a deep feeling of gratitude to those who have made it possible for girls to live out their fuller life, and with a sense of shame if we fall out at all with our surroundings, and do not make the best use of what has already been placed within our reach.

Girls of today find themselves the centre round which much speculation and discussion revolve. The last forty years have been a transition period in the fortunes of girlhood, and we are still experiencing the tossing and unrest which are consequent upon any great revolution in thought and action. In fact, the currents do not yet all blow in the same direction and many barks of girl-life are floated hither and thither as the current bears them, unless they are launched with a fixed determination as to what is the desired have. Though the progress made in the efficiency of training has been so marvellous in recent years, and those of us who are benefitting from it cannot be too grateful to the conscientious noble women who persevered amidst unnumbered discouragements in carrying out their object, yet we must not allow ourselves to rest satisfied with results already attained.

The tendency and aim of higher education today is to fit women to take an equal place with men in the competition of life, and to make them capable of looking after their own interests. All are convinced that this is a necessary and worthy object. But unless it at the same time makes them more womanly, develops in them the traits essential to a character designed to elevate, to purify and to sweeten the daily round of life, it has failed in its fundamental purpose. All honour is due to the women who have to face the world, and compete, single-handed often, in the great struggle for place and position, to win the necessaries of life; but even where this is obligatory, we would strive in our contact with the rougher side never to forego the womanliness, the gentleness, which are the world's greatest leaveners.

The question of a girl's education, her training during the years of school life to fit her for the wider life which follows, is one which ought to engage the serious thought and attention of every woman.

There are two points suggested by this subject: -- The first is -- What is the success at which we aim? The second -- Does our average method of school-training ensure this success?

No one who gives this subject serious thought will deny that the first twenty years of a girl's life are the most important in the formation of her character in developing in her those qualities which will eventually entitle her to the position of one of Ruskin's queens, strong in her power to heal, to redeem, to guide and to guard, worthy of the name of "gentlewoman," and at the same time a queen, enthroned in the hearts of those whom she has served and saved and loved; not only in her own home and immediate circle, but among the many who are outside, and who are looking to her untiring tenderness and sympathy, to her intelligence and tact, for the help and justice and peace which can lighten their burdens and brighten their lot.

In describing her thus, Ruskin gives to woman her true place in the policy of this world, he realizes her position as the refiner and elevator of her society. And we know, from the lives of the noble and good women of whom we read and hear, that such an influence can emanate from them, and pervade and purify all with whom they come in contact.

We recognize the possibilities of such power, such facilities, though in many cases they are still latent, they have not been called forth, and in others they are deeply encrusted in selfishness, the blight of all that is most beautiful and lovely in any character. Still we believe in their existence, and we feel it is possible for every girl to use the God-given power for its highest purposes, if only the right means are taken to draw it forth. This is, even today, the high ideal which all good men and women have for women, and it is one which should be the standard of every girl's achievement and the goal of her ambition.

If we consider what are the essential elements of this power, perhaps it will be easier to strive for it. We think sometimes with regret of the "courtly days of yore," when women were reverenced and their favour and esteem earnestly sought, and we admire the qualities of sweetness, obedience and endurance which provoked the songs of Petrarch, of Dante and of Chaucer, and characterize the heroines of Shakespeare and Scott, and today we need to preserve these "old-fashioned" qualities with our greater liberty and the wider advantages of extended knowledge. We do not want the cultivation of the head to check the tender and unselfish impulses of the heart. Woman has greater power today than ever before, and it is that this power may be rightly directed and used that she is submitted to a course of education. Turning from the ideal position of woman to the actual sphere in which she moves, we notice with gratitude and satisfaction how wide has become the range in which women may now work and have influence. The spheres of life opened to her are greatly increased in number and importance since the days when Miss Florence Nightingale, disdaining the opprobrium, gathered her helpers around her and went out to nurse the sick.

There are now few positions not open to women, and to which women do not consider themselves adapted, and to all who are interested in the progress of thought and custom, it is gratifying to see woman, one of the most potent influences for good in the world, taking her just and true position, not as inferior to man in all the qualities most highly esteemed, but as his helpmeet, his coadjutor, filling up what is lacking in his faculties.

The great danger of this increased liberty and power is lest woman should aim at being like men, forgetting her own especial gifts and character, instead of seeking to make herself more efficient in her own sphere, able to do her own work better, and so fulfilling the divine ideal. It is cheering to notice how eager girls now are to do something. It is one of the healthiest and happiest signs of the progress of thought that few girls are now satisfied to lead a listless, aimless sort of life. They recognize that home has the first claim upon their help and time; but, if not indispensable there, they seek to fill some other office, thereby taking part in the social and intellectual and moral improvement of their country. It is to fit her to fill to the best possible advantage the position which she chooses that a girl has to pass through the school life with which we are all familiar.

And now, after recognising this, comes the question, does our average system of education meet the needs of the girls of today? As we see one after another "finish," and hear the delighted tones in which they announce they have left school, it is not surprising that one should sometimes wonder what preparation they have had to fit them for the larger life into which they are now entering.

I do not intend in this paper to dwell much on the development of the character so greatly moulded during the days of school for good or evil. If a woman's life is to be successful in the truest and best sense, her character must be noble and pure, whatever the station she occupy.

But we are too apt to forget what are the influences which determine character.

They are not so much the factors to be gleaned from books or gathered from set lessons; the education of a girl's character is insensibly imbibed from the minds with which she is brought in contact and her general environment. The thoughts, opinions, conclusions of her daily companions, of her teachers, have far the most to do with this formation; they become part of her indelibly.

I can conceive of no higher reward that can be given to a teacher than that bestowed upon an honoured and beloved head mistress just recently. Not that so many of her girls have been successful in examinations or have taken high intellectual positions, but that after many years her pupils can give thanks for having come under her influence, feeling that she has made a "nook of God's earth and little more fruitful, better, more worthy of God, and helped to make many hearts a little wiser, happier, more blessed; having taught them that life should be one of service--devoted first to those nearest, at home--that they should fit themselves to fill any place to which they might be called, by working with all their heart at whatever they had to do."

["Chaos is dark, deep as Hell. let light be, and there is instead a green flowery World. Oh, it is great, and there is no other greatness. To make one nook of God's Creation a little fruitfuller, better, more worthy of God; to make some human hearts a little wiser, manlier, happier--more blessed, less accursed! It is work for a God." -- from "Past and Present" by Thomas Carlyle]

After the mother, the most potent educators of every child are the nurses and teachers, and their ideal of life and its aims must greatly influence the subsequent career of those entrusted to them.

One of the chief proofs of the change which has taken place in the training of girls is that colleges are now opened where they can study some special branch of knowledge, perfect themselves in it and receive their certificate or degree. This is now being done in the departments of music, nursing, gardening, and cooking, as well as in the medical profession. But taking into account the vast number of girls in our various schools at any given time, how few are those in comparison who are preparing for any definite course in after life.

School life is considered too much as ending with itself. This is especially true of girls and applies less to boys. But women, nowadays, have to take their place alongside the men, and work shoulder to shoulder with them. Why not, as girls, have due preparation?

It may be urged that woman does not need any special training for a home life, and that she only goes to school to learn certain facts which may or may not prove useful afterwards, and when released from its restrictions may turn her attention whither her fancy pleases, having little or no responsibility, and no livelihood to gain.

Suppose this were the case, though for my own part I think we do need preparation for the home life, however easy and free from care. Why should girls have to wait until the ages of 18 or 19 before they know how to cook, or to sew or to nurse? I suppose these are not considered as "accomplishments"; they are certainly not included in the curriculum of the average day or even boarding school.

Home we know is woman's first and chief sphere, and every girl has visions of a home of her own at some time in the far future; but why be dependent on the continuance of the parental or the formation of a new home? Ought not every girl to be so trained that is necessary she may immediately feel herself capable of taking her place with her brothers, and enter the world of competition armed with full credentials?

This is an age of specialization. There is so much to learn, and the time in which it must be learnt seems to grow shorter and shorter, so that the man or woman who knows some one thing well has more chance of success and power than the one who only has a smattering of many things.

"Oh, but we like women to be all-round," the man of "one idea" is voted tiresome! But why so? The perfect knowledge, were such possible of one subject, would ultimately lead on to interest in others.

There must be a firm foundation and grounding, on which should first be built one special branch of knowledge, whether of mind or hand, which shall be as a tower of strength, ready for any emergency or need. That secured, the building can gradually rise all round till, if life were long enough, a good thorough training would be attained. And only, I think, when our systems of education aim at this throughout the whole of a girl's school-life, will they be successful.

So many of us leave school having acquired a confused smattering of facts, very useful as a beginning, but on which nothing definite has been built, and are left to continue or not as we like. Perhaps some of us have "crammed" in sufficient facts and the power of expressing them, to satisfy certain awe-inspiring examiners who have held us in terror of their verdict for twelve months, and whose approval or otherwise has influenced the whole course of our reading and work, forbidding us to touch this favourite study, or that beloved author because not included in the examination curriculum.

The cramming which is almost necessary for the wide range of subjects required for some of our local examinations is woefully antagonistic to the development of the intellect (though it may act as a stimulus to some naturally dilatory minds).

These yearly preparations for examinations are not education in its truest sense. The word itself explains its meaning; it signifies the art of drawing out or educing, and should aim at drawing out the powers and faculties which lie dormant, not at putting in so much fact and information which may be neither assimilated nor digested.

A grave difficulty presents itself when we contemplate the taking up of any special branch of training. Like boys, so few girls know their own mind about the subjects to which they are most partial. But boys, as a rule, have to make some definite choice before they are eighteen; girls, we consider, mature earlier and have decided ideas about many things long before their brothers of the same age. A girl of sixteen would, I take it, have a fairly clear idea of the work to which she would like to devote herself, and from that age to leaving school she should give her special attention and most time to that study.

But what about the ground-work, which must be thorough if anything substantial is to be built upon it? Almost everyone interested in this subject has her own pet theory. Some theories are good, but rendered impracticable in many cases by stern necessity.

Too often this is so with the theory of having early efficient training for every girl. But, where at all possible, this is certainly the surest and the best means of securing a thorough individual oversight and education. There, the special characteristics of the child can be noticed and developed; the little difficulties so often passed over in a large class at school will be asked about and cleared away; and as there will not be quick pupils to overtake, or dull ones to wait for, there is less likelihood of scamping, leaving bad work here, and confusion there, and no time will be lost.

The necessity for careful, consistent, thorough grounding in general information cannot be too strongly urged, and this cannot be given to meet each child's need in a large class at school. School companionships are good, indeed they are necessary, but not till after the age of nine or even ten, this specially if the child has a home of father and mother, brother and sisters.

At ten she enters school, knowing something of what learning and discipline mean; she has, too, some knowledge of other girls, and does not feel utterly alone and strange in the new world into which she has passed.

Advocates of large public schools have often been inclined to look with contempt on the quieter work done in private. Lessons at home are regarded as poor and inefficient, and we have often heard our grandmothers and great grandmothers pitied, because confined to the narrow limits of home instruction and small private boarding schools. But, at the present day, there is great danger of going to the other extreme, of exalting the education given en masse, of seeing only advantage in taking the children out of the home nest at the early ages of six and seven, and training them up from the kindergarten, through the intermediary, to the London degree. We are nowadays too ready to close our eyes to the untold value of home training and home influence, which no school, however domestically constructed can ever exercise. We cannot afford to let anything, however noble and elevating in its aims and purposes, interfere with the home life, which is the key-note of the true prosperity and greatness of our motherland today, the sacred ties of which we dare not loosen, save to our cost.

From the age of ten to sixteen, the general instruction in school might be continued, and after that more special studies pursued. It does seem that in many ways the long years spent in a girl's school life are not laid out to the best advantage.

The High School method, and that followed in some of our most recently established boarding schools, of arranging the lesson hours, is far superior to the old plan of holding morning and afternoon school, with preparation at night.

In a boarding school especially, or public or large private one, which as a rule provides the best training, and can command the most efficient staff of teachers, the hours are now often arranged so that all classes are held in the morning, leaving the afternoon free for games, field sports, walks, reading and other engagements quite distinct from lessons; while the evening is devoted to preparation for the next day.

Many girls attending the average schools of today, who are doing their work conscientiously and preparing for the yearly examinations, find that every moment is occupied with lessons. No time for reading, sewing, or indeed for anything but the examination work. So much to do for each teacher, and each teacher expecting perfection; until before the end of thirteen weeks term, the girl's mind is tired out with cramming and anxiety!

But this is not the picture of all who daily go through the routine of lessons! Perhaps the majority are those who get through somehow, learning up just to escape the ordeal of turned lessons or being detained--companion-pictures to the school boy "with shining morning face, creeping like snail unwillingly to school," and looking forward to the day when they too will be "fresh from a ladies' seminary, freed from its duties tutelary," like the "three little maids from school."

[Three little maids who, all unwary,
Come from a ladies' seminary,
Freed from its genius tutelary
Three little maids from school!
-- song from Gilbert and Sullivan's "The Mikado."

In order to turn lessons from drudgery to pleasure, a keen interest must be awakened in each girl in some one or two subjects of which she should be allowed every facility for extending her knowledge. In the pursuit of these, then, all idea of a task or lesson will give place to healthy excitement and delighted search.

In thinking about this subject, I have realized how very easy it is to find fault--how improvements can be made it is more difficult to suggest.

Most of us have ideals of what would make our education a more satisfactory and pleasurable ordeal. Perhaps the system which has in it the greatest promise of success is one which has only been recently adopted on a large scale, and therefore is not yet fully tested, namely, the one under which girls and boys are trained in the same school, having the same teachers, each teacher taking only the subject with which he or she is most conversant and loves best.

Much, too, might be suggested as to the best methods of imparting knowledge. To girls of sixteen and upwards, the lessons would have more lasting effect and be more truly educational were they delivered as lectures, of which notes were taken and a written digest given afterwards by the pupils. In this way subjects would be treated in the most intelligent manner and with more regard to their worth as a whole than to details and facts which have been mastered during the earlier and fundamental stage. No doubt this holds good rather in relation to the study of history, literature, science, cooking and nursing; it could, however, also apply to mathematics and languages.

The two subjects with which it is most essential for every woman to be well acquainted, if she is to take an intelligent interest and active part in the social questions of her own day, which Ruskin tells us need a woman's sympathy and service as greatly as does her own home, are history and literature.

The best means of understanding one's own generation is to study man as he is revealed to us in the pages of history; taking history, not only as the account of so many kings and queens, with the battles they fought and the dates of chief events, but as the story of the lives of men and women, their actions, with the motives which prompted them and the result; the story of each nation's rise, its progress, civilization, and then often of its fall, seeking for and ascertaining the causes of all these movements.

Literature opens the mind and extends the knowledge in a way no lesson-book can do for us. To become acquainted with our noblest thinkers and ablest writers should indeed be one of the chief aims in learning. We need guidance and help in this as in other subjects, and also, time should be allowed for gaining intimate knowledge of our greatest men.

Our school literature so often ends with a list of writers who "flourished" in such a reign, their chief works, a short synopsis of one or two perhaps, giving some general idea of their influence on subsequent writings. This is all right and necessary as data, but not enough. We want to know our authors as friends, and our teachers must introduce us. We want to learn to appeal to them when our own knowledge and power and thought have failed; to be "led by them into wider sight, purer conception, and receive from them the united sentence of the judges and councils of all time against our solitary and unstable opinion."

["To use books rightly, is to go to them for help; to appeal to them when our own knowledge and power fail; to be led by them into wider sight and purer conception than our own, and to receive from them the united sentence of the judges and councils of all time, against our solitary and unstable opinions." From Sesame and Lilies by John Ruskin]

We should also, I think, include the studies of music and painting among those needful for every girl to pursue, that she may be trained to appreciate that which is beautiful and elevating. The whole of this subject is one to which there are many side issues, but viewing it even in this somewhat cursory manner, we cannot help but feel that, though much progress has been made, there is still much to be wished for and worked for in the adaptation of a girl's training to the full course of her after life, in fitting her for her mission of "Inspiration, Prayer and Pity."

["Woman, an angel,--fallen, it is true, but yet nearer heaven than we,--and hasten her redemption by restoring her to her mission of inspiration, prayer, and pity, so divinely symbolized by Christianity in Mary . . ." from Faith and the Future by Giuseppe Mazzini]

[Discussion is invited on this subject.--Ed.]

Typed by happi, July 2019; Proofread by LNL, Apr 2020