The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
The Need of a Definite Ideal

by Mrs. Arthur Phillp.
Volume 13, 1902, pg. 374-381

Perhaps nothing strikes one more as one gets on to middle age, as being directly contrary to the vague expectations of earlier days, than the failure in life of many highly-gifted people; unless it be the unforeseen success of many far less richly endowed with natural talents. Allowing for the inequalities of start, of connections and influence, which may account for many of the unexpected "failures" and unforeseen successes, one cannot think much of such instances without acknowledging that to a very large extent "character is fate." That, where the large mental endowment has failed to win its owner success, it has been because certain practical, one might almost say moral, qualities were lacking. While, where the natural equipment of purely intellectual gifts has been scanty, but certain qualities have secured the greatest cultivation of those gifts and their wise use at the right time and place, triumph has been secured.

These qualities are not all or always amiable. A certain narrowness and inability to see any point of view but one's own are undoubted aids to worldly success of a sort, especially when combined with a callous indifference to and ability to climb on the failures of our neighbours, and not to count the cost to others of one's own success.

But some of the essentials for success,--either that mere worldly achievement, described as a "successful career," or that higher and nobler success represented by great moral victories, by a man's power to raise himself and those with whom he is in contact, sometimes his whole generation, to higher levels;--some of the essentials for success of any sort are in themselves good. Strength--spiritual, mental, or physical is a beautiful and admirable thing, especially that strength which can endure and wait; and so is clearness and singleness of vision, notably when allied to that trained imagination, that power of prophetic foresight which can see a desired goal; can reckon with and allow for the difficulties to be met and overcome in reaching it; map out a clear and definite course to be followed, and provide the needed equipment of knowledge and material gifts, and so realise the full value and use of every particle of natural endowment.

If we study the life of any successful man--of any man who has left his mark on his generation, we shall generally find one "increasing purpose" has run through his days. If we examine, as far as we can, the record of the careers we ourselves saw start in youth's morning with the brightest promise, the most lavish endowment, which have suffered shipwreck long ere middle life was reached, and failed to make any port, we shall usually find that aimless drifting--the want of a definite object, definitely pursued, is the secret of the failure. Therefore, a supreme need for anyone who is an educator, who has to teach the young how to shape their destinies--is the forming of high and definite ideals which shall insensibly communicate themselves to their charges; and the power of early convincing them that if their lives are not to be wasted in spasmodic efforts, and incoherent and vague achievements of small and inconsequent purposes, they must train themselves to think, and form for themselves high and definite ideals, towards which they will surely, consciously and unconsciously work.

It was a conviction of the need of such definite ideals, and the lamentable waste of human life, talent and endeavour from lack of them, which made me gladly consent to read this paper; together with a great admiration for those who (starting in life's race with scant endowment) have yet won by virtue of the singleness of their purpose and their aim. Can anything be more pitiful than the case of those who, looking back, know that the measure of what they have done; who is in inverse ratio to that which they might have done; who learn, too late, that it was their own wilful ignorance of the course which caused them to stumble and turn aside, and made of their very prodigality of mental endowments but the weight which held them back in life's handicap. Such thoughts fill one with a passionate longing to save the young from a similar fate, to so set before them and commend to them the value of a definite ideal and scheme of life, that they shall be "masters of their fate."

The value of this in shaping their careers was well typified in a little scene I witnessed lately, which brought vividly to mind in a small athletic contest the need of such clear and definite aim "at the start." It was a competition at the end of a swimming display--in the picking up of tin plates strewn haphazard at the bottom of the bath. Those whose strength, endurance, or skill had triumphed in other races and contests were not conspicuously successful now. I wondered and watched; and saw that the prizes and the marvellous achievements went to certain boys, who, before they dived, took a rapid, accurate and comprehensive glance where each plate lay; evidently made equally accurate mental notes, and went with unerring, unquestioning speed from one plate to the other--not a stroke that did not tell, not a second wasted by mistake or hesitation. So in that contest the prize was not always to the swift, nor the race to the strong; but to those who from the start clearly and accurately knew their task, and therefore did it best, though with lesser skill and strength.

The fact that the need for such definiteness of aim and ideal at the beginning is a felt one in the rising generation, is witnessed to by some words in a much discussed recent novel [The History of Sir Richard Calmady, 1901]; which, whatever its demerits, holds the mirror up to the nature of our own day with a steady and relentless hand. This is the inelegant but vigorous and nervous English which Lucas Malet puts into the mouth of a typical girl of today. Speaking of the future she says: "It laid hold of me very much during the last month or two, as to what is really the finest way to take life. One wants to arrive at that fairly early, not by a process of involuntary elimination--the 'burnt child fear the fire' sort of principle, when the show's half over. One wants to get hold of the stick by the right end now, while one's still comparatively young, and then work straight along. I want my reason to be the backbone of strong action, don't you know?--instead of merely the push of society and friendship and superficial odds and ends of 'so-called obligations to other people.'"

What an eloquent description of the way the long years of many a life are wasted, misguided and pushed hither and thither by the "push of society and friendship, and superficial odds and ends of so-called obligations to other people," and splendid natural gifts frittered away in superficial society intercourse, small talk, and gossip; in endless rounds of trivial unprofitable calls and visits, which neither give nor confer even temporary pleasure, much less make for happiness and content; or, in the "cumbering of much serving." Of course a girl like Honoria St. Quentin, who so clearly saw a need of a definite purpose in life, would be sure to find it, though she had already wasted some years! But what we parents have to consider, is the amount of time which may be wasted by our children before they realize it; nay, worse, their chance of missing the highest and best altogether, and getting all the noblest possibilities of their natures crushed and choked by the trivialities which grind down and cumber so many lives; first, because the high ideal, the definite aims which alone can secure the triumph of the "better part" is never presented to them; or, if presented to them, in so unattractive a form that it repels instead of attracting.

I am told your last paper, a most able one, was on "Enthusiasms." The consideration of how to turn the warm glow--the kindling and melting of the elemental forces of a human soul--which is enthusiasm, into a practical working force which will be a power in everyday life, is surely a legitimate sequence. How then are we to so handle enthusiasm that, instead of being wasted in fine feelings or finer words, it may become a practical motive power? How are we to fix the aspirations of enthusiastic youth on a definite ideal; to give its energies a definite aim before they are wasted and scattered?

This is a practical problem for all parents, all educators. I should answer it by saying; to let the mental and moral atmosphere of the house in which the young life grows up be such that unconsciously a high ideal is formed, and a definite aim and purpose finally shapes itself out of the admirations, the enthusiasms, the ideals of that home. Speaking in Birmingham the other day on the practical side of the teaching of "secondary teachers," Canon Lyttelton, of Haileybury, said, when advocating a system of apprenticeship as contrasted with training colleges, "The indirect method suited Englishmen best; they learned best when they pretended to be doing something else," and the definite ideal which has shaped the career of many a hero, pioneer and apostle, has all unconsciously formed itself during the hours of history-lessons, or when in the hours reserved for reading aloud in the evenings of busy days, or the afternoons of holiday Sundays, his mother's voice has made him familiar with the stories of the heroes of romance or history; with the struggles and triumphs of Livingstone or Gordon, of Wellington or Nelson, of Sydney Carton or Ivanhoe, of Wilberforce or Bishop Pattison; or of some other great and good man who has lived indeed in his age and world, or lived as really for us in the magic pages of fiction, like Thackeray's and Kingsley's. It is boys brought up where such stories are known and reverenced--where a high ideal is unconsciously created and upheld by those who themselves hold and love it--who become "dreamers of dreams," and ultimately leaders of men or servants of their generation. It is such dreamers who, when the chance to materialize and realize their ideal comes, as it came to Napoleon and Warren Hastings, to Joseph and to David; who are ready to recognize and seize the initial moment--that "tide in the affairs of men, which taken at the flood leads on to fortune"; not the fortune of wealth alone, but of power, of place and influence wherein they can best serve their generation.

But it is self-evident that we cannot create for our children the atmosphere in which they will unconsciously, or even consciously, form and set up for themselves such ideals, unless we ourselves are dominated by them and breathe them out, and it is here surely that we so often fail. Listen to this, the outcome of mature reflections on the failure of so many in our day to realize in their own lives any high degree of character or attainment: "We give so much time to the outer life, that we do not take sufficient time in the quiet to form in the inner spiritual thought-life, the ideals and conditions that we would have actualized and manifested in the outer life. The result is that we take life in a kind of haphazard way, taking it as it comes, not thinking very much about it until, perhaps, pushed by some of the inner forces exactly as we would have it."

Again, "In the world men and women, in the rush and activity of our accustomed life, are running hither and thither with no central idea, no foundation upon which to stand, nothing to which they can anchor their lives; because they do not take enough time to come into the realization of what the centre--the reality of their lives is."

If this be true of the majority of human lives, how can we wonder that the men and women so destitute of an inward ideal on which to mould their own lives entirely fail, either consciously or unconsciously, to communicate one to their children? We cannot give to anyone what we do not possess ourselves--that is a mere truism. So, if we would give to our children such high aims, such definite ideals that they shall in no wise lack models on which to form themselves, or fail to choose careers wisely and to prosper and excel in those careers, we must ourselves cherish and cultivate them. It is the old story that thought dominates life. In that wonderful passage in Romola, where George Eliot depicts Tito's first downward step, she points out, as an "inexorable law of human souls," that what we think in the inmost recesses of our secret hearts will sooner or later shape our lives and our destinies; when some crisis of life, all unexpected and apparently unprepared for, shows to all the world whither our secret thoughts, our cherished ideals, have led us, and what the seemingly trivial habits of our lives, shaped by those thoughts, have silently and surely trained us for.

In the lives of the young people round us we can plainly trace the pursuit of ideas worthy or unworthy, and how they have been set up and fostered by the home standard. When the pursuit of wealth and social position as an end in itself is the aim of a household (however unacknowledged it may be in words), the effect on the children is inevitable, and we find girls not waiting for a little hoard of maxims to preach down their hearts, but trampling on them themselves rather than brave anything short of luxury with the man they love; on the other hand, among girls brought up where "plain living and high thinking" is the rule, we find an ever increasing tendency to consecrate their lives to the service of the less fortunate, and a higher ideal of marriage; one beautiful sign of the best of our times being the increasing number of the most gifted and talented of our girls who are willing to train as medical missionaries, or as Zenana teachers, and to go out to the toil and the exile of work among the women of our great Indian empire.

In the same way our sons are influenced by our standard, be it high or low. If we let them believe our moral standard is one of easy tolerance towards lives of vicious self-indulgence, that our ideal man is one who achieves worldly success at any cost, who is discreet in his sins and does not parade them under our eyes and is not "found out"; and not one who in very truth in the words of the old Persian rule is "not conquered by even so much as a single one of the pleasures, but exercised in freedom, verily a king, master of all things within himself and not a slave to them, and dreadless of all things," how can we expect to send virtuous sons out to life's battle? In nine cases out of ten our boys' ideals will be what we ourselves have admired, and they will live them out. Again, if we refuse to discuss or entertain any profession or calling which does not mean early chances of being wealthy, how can we wonder if our sons worship Mammon and choose their paths in life all unconscious of that glorious ideal of a profession which Ruskin upholds in Unto this Last? that it should first be chosen as the path in which the youth is most likely to serve his generation--"to live for others, if need be to die for them," the chances of wealth and emolument being a very secondary consideration. The way in which young Englishmen in the darkest days of the present war were willing to sacrifice careers and position, to risk their life and limb, sight and health, for what they believed to be a just cause--that of their country and freedom--shows that such an ideal had been set up all unconsciously in many an English home. "You will not blame me, you will understand, however rash and foolish other people may think me; you would have done it yourself," were the words I read lately in a letter from a son to his mother telling how he had sacrificed position and opportunities to volunteer for service when things were at their worst, showing unmistakably how he had imbibed her ideas of patriotism and duty; though the position and question were all unforeseen, much less discussed, when they had parted.

On the other hand, I fear what it is the fashion to call the "clergy famine," the dearth of men of the better sort as candidates for Holy Orders because agricultural depression has made the priesthood of the English Church so poor a thing as a profession, points to the opposite extreme. In homes where it was the unconscious attitude to regard the work of the ministry as the highest and best calling a man could follow, irrespective of remuneration, surely abundant recruits should be found.

These are just instances drawn from the phases of life I know best. Many more lie close at hand and will be known to everyone's experience, and point the moral that the definite ideal makes or mars the life.

May I close with saying that perhaps one side of life in which we mothers need more to cherish a higher ideal, both for our own sake and that our children may imbibe it, is that of citizenship and public service. Women have been to so large an extent shut out from it in the past, that they have not merely thought of it for themselves, but often failed to encourage their sons in devotion to the commonwealth; and where they have not actually held them back, have failed to inspire them with any definite ideal of what a man's life should be outside his home and his profession. A high and definite ideal of the service of our fellows is one which we and our daughters can translate into fact in our own lives; and in so doing become the mothers of sons who are patriots of the best sort, not perhaps dying glorious deaths on hard fought battle-fields, but living useful, noble lives in that state oif life unto which it has pleased God to call them, whether high or lowly.

Briefly then it amounts to this. To achieve usefulness and avoid failure and disaster, much more to ensure success, our children should start in life with a loved and cherished ideal which is very clear and very definite. They have their characters, their lives, to build; and no sane man starts building without a definite plan, carefully thought out to fit needs and conditions, accurately drawn to scale, carefully calculated as to cost.

If we wish their success to be on higher levels, one of spiritual worth as well as material gain, that ideal must be a high and noble as well as a definite one. "Aim high, strike high." Fail to aim, or even to see your mark, and you will miss--miss pitifully and shamefully. And the only way we can be sure of helping our children to form such an ideal is in our own hearts to cherish and cultivate the love of the Highest and the Best, and as far as it is in our power to put them in the way of such books and the company of such people as will make them "know the highest when they see it," knowing, worship it; and worshipping, follow in its train.

*A Paper read before the Birmingham Branch of the P.N.E.U. on March 20th, 1902.

Typed by happi, Mar 2020 Proofread by LNL, Apr 2020