The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Self-Reliance and Public Opinion.

by Miss Douglas Montgomery
Volume 13, 1902, pg. 170-176

" . . . while truth itself is absolute, the power of each generation to grasp it is only finite; none has a monopoly of it . . ."

"It is not well to root up a great deal of good in order to eradicate a little evil; the inherent power of real goodness will prevail and destroy the admixture of evil surely if not quickly."

It has been pointed out that there are periods when the world seems to stand comparatively still; progress is rather in the direction of consolidation and organization than of forward movement. These again are succeeded by periods which seem charged as it were with electricity, -- when old barriers are swept away, new ideas are put forward and new practices are introduced with almost breathless speed. Few will deny that our own age belongs to the latter category. Changes in opinion, followed by changes in action, have succeeded each other with a bewildering rapidity, and in no sphere of life has this been more remarkable than in that with which we here are specially concerned -- the sphere of education.

Now, to live in an age of such mental activity, if I may not say unrest, throws on all of us a great responsibility. What is to be our own individual attitude in the face of the changes we see in progress all around us? Some of us do not find it easy, all at once, to revolutionize our views, neither can we bring ourselves to quietly ignore the trend of opinion. It seems to me there are three possible positions to take up.

(1) We may say, looking back on our own young days, "the world went very well then"; we do not see the need for violent changes; what did for us may well do for our children; and it is rather upsetting and inconvenient to be asked to re-mould our view of life. This is the cry of the "let-things-alone" party.

(2) We may say, "The world is always changing and we must not be left behind, but must keep pace with it; at all costs let us be 'modern,' let us move with the times. Perhaps all changes are not for the better; but at any rate they are changes, and there is always room for hope that change may bring improvement; at any rate we cannot quietly accept the position of'stick-in-the-muds.'" This is the contention of the "up-to-date" party.

(3) There are the people who are always satisfied that "whatever is, is wrong"; the inventive, restless people, who need the spur of novelty and agree with Matthew Arnold that though what is new may not always be best, yet that we learn most from what is new. This we may call the "keep-moving" party.

Now what I want first to point out is that we cannot escape from the responsibilities of the age in which we life; we may regard them as our temptations, or our opportunities; but face them we must. The question is, how? Shall we trust to ourselves and be self-reliant? Or shall we hasten to follow the beaten track and support ourselves with public opinion? The "let-things-alone" party and the "keep-moving" party are frankly self-reliant, and elect to stand on their own little island, or to swim on their own little raft; but the "up-to-date" people, though they may lean on "public opinion" and plume themselves on the support association and social sympathy, have also really exercised their own judgment in adopting or leading "public opinion"; so that we are thrown back again on individual responsibility.

There remains, then, the further consideration (and here, it seems to me, lies the kernel of the position), must we wholly join any of the three parties, or are there limits which we may set in our allegiance?

It is a truism to say we must not adopt any set of opinions hastily; but it may help us to remember the actual derivation of the word opinion (from the Latin verb to think). Opinions worthy of the name are the result, not of prejudice, or personal preference, or mere blind instinct, and a comfortable reliance on precedent, but of thought. They are founded on reason and can give an account of themselves. The first thing then which we may ask ourselves is, whether, in any given case, our leaning to any particular view or course of action is the result of careful thought and may be called an opinion at all.

I can make no pretence to solve the question, which of the three parties I have named can best justify its views; but may I take the three in order and throw out a few remarks which may possibly serve as suggestions for thought.

(1) The "let-things-alone" party. We cannot, if we would, keep things exactly as they were; if we refuse as far as possible to change, our environment does so, and therefore we are not in the same relative position to our surroundings. This nullifies the contention that what did for us will do for our children; they do not stand where we stood, the premise is different, therefore we cannot draw the same conclusions. It is quite surprising how clearly we see that our bringing up was different from that of our mothers, and how we smile at the backboards, and gentle walks two and two for an hour, and the "Magnall's Questions" and Mrs. Markham's History, which often produced such noble, unselfish, wise women. But we feel so "modern," so completely abreast of the thought of our time, we cannot realise that in a few years, our children will have passed out of our region of thought, and will regard us just as we do our mothers, as antiquated and unable to enter full into their young ideas. It will be well for us if we can inspire the same feeling of fundamental reverence with which we regard many of the past generation; we can only hope to do it by keeping our interests wide, and our sympathies warm, by showing a wide tolerance and an infinite patience, realising that while truth itself is absolute, the power of each generation to grasp it is only finite; none has a monopoly of it, and the greatest discoveries of each age, especially in the world of thought, are but "broken lights" of Him who is "more than they."

(2) Then as regards the "up-to-date" party. It seems to me we cannot afford wholly to neglect, nor is it wise lightly to condemn, modern teaching on any subject. Is there not a certain law of demand and supply in the world of metaphysics as well as in the physical world? And especially in education have not modern methods been evolved to meet modern needs? And much lies in that word evolved. Much that seems to us new is only the logical sequence of what was familiar, adapting itself to new surroundings. And much more is only the re-discovery or the fresh application of an old truth. In how many of our most modern ideas we have gone back to the methods of those marvellous educationists of ancient history -- the Greeks! Or how we find ourselves repeating the ideas of the now despised 18th century and Rousseau! Only if we are wise, we do not simply imitate, we adopt and adapt by the infusion of a new spirit, and gain much by doing, not what they did, but as they did. And it seems to me we need not and ought not slavishly to follow public opinion simply because it is public opinion. While avoiding eccentricity, and gladly accepting suggestions if on careful thought they meet our case, there should not, I venture to think, be too great readiness to assume that what is new must be true. And, especially in education, we are learning, are we not, more and more to respect personality in children? As the best dressed woman is she who follows the fashion, but modifies it to suit herself, so the most tactful educator is the one who can adapt general principles to individual cases. We must not abrogate all responsibility by simply following in the rut of our time, sheltering ourselves behind public opinion; it may be a very valuable sign-post showing us the right way, but it is not a motor car to whirl us along a given road. Many of us find it difficult to accept all the teaching of modern educationists, and we are not bound to do so straightway; moreover we can hardly help realising that every gain is usually accompanied by some loss; every human system has the "defects of its qualities"; each successive wave recedes, it is only on the whole that "comes flooding in the main."

(3)What shall we say of the "keep-moving" party? We must recognise indeed that either progress or retrogression must prevail, for our greatest modern poet [Browning] tells us, "what's come to perfection perishes"; but on the other hand, we are not all called to be pioneers. Pioneering is responsible work, and needs many rare qualities, and must therefore never be lightly undertaken. Perhaps in the case of established opinion "possession is nine points of the law" (though the tenth may be the truth which is worth all the other nine), and the "public opinion" of a given time or body of people holds the ground, the burden of proof lying with those who dispute its truth or its adequacy. It is dangerous to attack established opinions unless we are sure we can offer something better in their place; we know the shoals and whirlpools of the tried course, while our charts of the new one may be somewhat incomplete.

Still, let us not shrink from owning that there are times when public opinion must be, not defied, but over-ruled. In deciding when such times occur, we must remember that a sense of perspective is necessary in life, which is the highest art; let us be sure we do not unduly magnify trifles, and that the game is worth the candle. It is not well to root up a great deal of good in order to eradicate a little evil; the inherent power of real goodness will prevail and destroy the admixture of evil surely if not quickly.

And let us be sure that the pleasurable excitement of pioneering is not unduly influencing us; your wisest and best pioneer will feel keenly the need for change, and will be weighed down with a sense of responsibility if he is called to promote it. I distrust the light-hearted, flippant sweeper-away even of abuses, as showing a want of reverence for the past. We may, and indeed must, break many idols, our own as well as other people's; but never without a feeling of sorrow for the misplaced reverence, which has nevertheless raised them above any possibility of contempt.

Moreover there are great dangers to personal character in pioneering work; the character that likes to go against public opinion is wanting in the finer fibres of delicacy and refinement of feeling. Do you remember how our old friend "the virtuous woman" of Proverbs is clothed with the double garment of "strength and honour"? I have been much struck lately with the extreme modernness of the portrait there drawn for us, so unlike our usual conception of an Eastern woman. May I venture to commend it to your study in this light adaptation to modern thought? You will find many most interesting suggestions as to largemindedness, business habits, dress, conversation, housekeeping, the ethics of shopping, &c. But in connection with our subject she is first self-reliant, "clothed with strength"; but, secondly, she is duly alive to public opinion, and is "clothed with honour"; no woman, it seems to me, can afford wholly to neglect public opinion; it is good to be self-reliant, but it is very dangerous to be self-sufficing.

I have spoken very often of public opinion, may I say one or two words about it?

What exactly do we mean by it? How is it formed? We must surely remember that our voice, however small and unimportant, goes to swell its chorus. It is not a force wholly outside of ourselves, but one which we help to create, and there are "minority reports" of public opinion which are often deserving of attention. For the public opinion of each of us must be limited, and in quoting it, we should try in estimating its value to take a wide area for our basis of our enquiry; and further, to remember that opinions may be weighed as well as counted; and if public opinion is to be our guide we must take care it is that of the most enlightened, conscientious and mentally-trained public which we can get at.

I hope that the application of what I have said to education is sufficiently obvious. This Society has undertaken pioneering work, and thus lays on its members, collectively and individually, a grave responsibility. Whenever we feel a little perplexed as to the trend of modern thought, we are apt to try and satisfy ourselves by saying "we live in a transition age." I am not quite sure what it means, nor what comfort there is in the phrase; for I suppose it really applies to every age, and the important question for us is transition from what and to what?

One change surely is that our children nowadays have a great deal more independence than formerly, and this fact creates a new set of difficulties. We must each of us consider how far we are willing to accept the consequences of that independence, remembering it must react on our future relations to our children. We must decide, each for ourselves, how we propose to train our children to use aright this independence? Are they to be self-reliant? or ready to follow public opinion? in their case, that of their school or of their contemporaries; or, are we to insist on submission to our views? This is a question of great moment, which every parent or guardian has to face, and many are distressed because they have put a weapon into their children's hands and are hurt when they use it.

The difficulties which crop up in practical life are many. It would, perhaps, be both useful and interesting if we could discuss one or two of them in detail: e.g., When are we to allow girls to drop studies for which they have no liking? What amount of supervision are we to exercise over their friendships? How much liberty are we to grant as to bicycling alone, or going by train and omnibus? Should we forbid certain books? and be very careful what pieces they see at the theatre? And should we try to train them to ignore the "public opinion" of their school or friends, and be wholly self-reliant? or should we teach them that their duty is simply to rely on us, and accept our dictum?

Personally, I am afraid I must confess I am in many ways hopelessly old-fashioned. I do not think even the twentieth century has wholly abolished parents and guardians; I believe they still have their uses, even if they are the disciplinary "uses of adversity!" Surely we are there with our longer experience of life to save our children from some early mistakes and difficulties! I believe we should, as far as possible, shield them from suggestion of evil till they are old enough and trained enough to "discern good and evil," even if they draw the line between them in a different place to where we should put it. I believe that while they are young we should watch over their friendships, their reading, their pleasures, not obtrusively, and as little vexatiously as possible.

But I also believe there comes a time when girls must be allowed to be more self-reliant, and to adjust their own conduct according to their own consciences, and in light of their own public's opinion. When that time comes, depends on character, on position, on health, on the probable future of the girl, and can only be decided according to each case. The real test of the success of our bringing up, will be the fulness of the sympathy which exists between mother and daughter. If a girl will talk over things with her mother with a full confidence that her point of view will be considered, and if we have kept abreast of her mental growth, we may be able to modify, to influence, to guide the desires which we cannot and, perhaps, ought not try to quench.

If we have trained ourselves in a habit of carefully sifting the new ideas presented to us before adopting or rejecting them, we shall have taught our girls by an object lesson also to think before they follow public opinion; and also, if they go against it, to do so courteously and gently, not delighting in opposition, but rather, quietly taking their own way. Destruction is always so easy, and often so exciting; while construction demands perseverance and strenuous effort. I would then end with the final suggestion that while we cannot escape ultimately from personal responsibility, and must largely rely on ourselves, we should never simply offer blind opposition to public opinion, but should make it our effort to put forward a constructive policy so that we "be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good."

Typed by Brandy Vencel, Oct 2019; Proofread by LNL, Apr 2020