The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."

by Mrs. F. G. Hickson
Volume 14, 1903, pgs. 914-921

"Those of us who for years have been living under the shadow of Miss Mason, when we give our definition [of education] are but echoing what she has again and again affirmed--that education is a life--that its essential feature is the development of character rather than the acquisition of knowledge."

I have been asked to say a few words with reference to the educational advantages of the books recommended by the Parents' Review School curriculum and have much pleasure in doing so.

If however we are to pass judgment on a series of books and declare how far they are of educational value, we must first of all state, as briefly as possible, in what our ideal of education consists.

Those of us who for years have been living under the shadow of Miss Mason, when we give our definition are but echoing what she has again and again affirmed--that education is a life--that its essential feature is the development of character rather than the acquisition of knowledge. How far then are books--any books--necessary to this development of character? If we look back to the Middle Ages--if we glance even to the lives of our poor people a few generations ago, we shall find that men and women--many of them--displayed elements of character then as fine as any we find now among us, that the increase of knowledge, and the greater facility for its acquisition, has not necessarily made us increasingly better--that strength, courage, unselfishness, indeed all the great virtues, existed then as now, "that in life we are not nobler men, nor braver men in death." No! books were not an absolute necessity for what we feel the essentials of education--there were always the Great Book of Nature and the lessons of experience--but if books were not a necessity, they were at all times an important means of development and a great and immense pleasure. By their means, men were lifted away from sordid or sad surroundings, by their help they were introduced to the great minds of the world, they were indeed windows through which men could look into the paths of pleasantness, and through their help life was enriched and charm was added to existence. But we live no longer in the Middle Ages--books are no more a luxury, they are a necessity. Even the working man and woman is not permitted to ignore them; a certain number of them are a feature in all our lives. In particular the school book has been forced upon us, whether we will or no. Most of these school books hold no relation to the book of literature to which I referred before. They are in essential merely the means by which an examination can be passed. Get through their examinations and 90 out of every 100 of our school children will never wish to touch what they term a "dry" book again. But they have learned to read fluently. You have put into their hands a tool without any power to use it well. They have no real desire for knowledge; what has been crammed into their poor tired brains has, they feel, served its purpose already, and they fly for amusement to the lightest of light literature. At the same time our markets are flooded with an amount of trash that is appalling to consider. Much of it is harmless in itself--people will say, so, too, might indifferent sweets be--but if it supplies all the mental nourishment that is given it becomes absolutely injurious, increasing the present morbid taste for excitement and horrors, which our daily papers do their best to feed. Again, how many of our children have their health permanently ruined by the cram and overwork of our schools. May this not be one factor in the depreciation of physical strength in our great towns? We are herding our poor children into rooms--beautiful rooms and well ventilated it may be--and cramming into their ill-nourished brains far more than we should care to put into those of our own children of the same age. The idea is that we have only got these children until they are 13 or 14, and we must get as much as we can into them--we must seize the opportunity. But this system is as foolish as if we had only a small strip of garden, and tried to grow in it twice as much as it was possible to grow in it, saying, as our excuse, that we had only a little land and must make the most of it. Our seeds might be the best procurable, but crowding them together merely ruins them all and gives none of our plants room in which to grow.

And if this is the result of our elementary education--is it much better in our secondary and higher education? The same faults exist, books are too much written for cram, oral lessons are relied on too exclusively, notes being given for the children to learn off. And even when the books are good there is too much work, the child has no time in which to make his own side excursions into books which would illuminate the subject under discussion. What is the result? We kill all desire for knowledge by a surfeit of it. We stuff information into a child's head and at the same time infuse into it a distaste for everything connected with it. The average girl at a High School, who is not clever enough to get through the work with great facility, longs for the time when she can put all her books away, and have done with the whole weary business. I do not wish to exaggerate. I know that there are teachers of such ability and such enthusiasm that, in spite of the system under which they live, they are able to give their pupils a love of learning for its own sake, and an appreciation of the many good things to be found in the world of books. Nor do I wish to depreciate oral teaching--except as a substitute for books. The teacher's or lecturer's personality does much in assisting a child student to appreciate a subject, can often help them over little difficulties which seemed insuperable, and although much good may be gained by a child when browsing in a library, far more can be gained when introduced to it by a master who possesses wide knowledge and great enthusiasm. Again, let children have the pleasure of hearing their parents read to them--not only reading what is on a level with the child's capacity, but anything they like themselves, where a portion of it is within the child's comprehension. I have found that children will ask again and again for poetry which they only partially understood; they enjoy the rhythm, and each time understand more and more of it. In that way the poem has the advantage of being an old friend, yet possessing hidden meanings only gradually unfolded to them. Is this not a good preparation for our after study of the masterpieces of literature? Do these ever show their beauties to us at first sight, and do we not in this way learn respect for them, and the habit of returning to our old friends to find ever new treasures hidden in them? It is also a help to children to have the authority of their parents that a certain piece is worth reading. They will not slavishly follow authority, for the modern child (whatever his ancestors may have been) is essentially a creature who thinks for himself. We need not be afraid of showing our children what we ourselves like, we need not be afraid of impressing our own personality too much on our children. The child is curiously independent and apart from its very birth, but let us try and give them what is best of ourselves. One of my early memories is climbing into a high chair to hear my father read, and to this day there are many pieces of poetry which will always carry with them, to my ear, the inflexions of his voice, and memories thus gained are a possession for ever. It is sad that in the whirl of modern life many find so little time to give these possessions to their children.

I fear I have strayed away from my original text--the books of the Parents' Review School--but this Parents' Review School is doing good work in trying to avoid the evils of modern education to which I have referred. One of the aims of those who provide its curriculum is to give a personal and human interest to the school work. In such subjects as history, geography and literature to show the children a little of the fascination of the subjects, and not to cram a great number of facts into their heads. To appeal to the imagination of the child and show them that no fairy tale that ever was written was half so thrilling as this fairy tale of men and women who played their part, were as human as we, and actuated by similar feelings and motives, merely under differing conditions; and they will learn to picture these conditions and take an interest in the problems of history in a way impossible unless the imagination has been fired. I consider the Parents' Review School teaching of history is very successful, beginning as it does with simple tales on historical subjects, and then introducing that fascinating book, Arnold Forster's History of England. When I compare it with a certain book of history we were condemned to in our school-days, I think our children are favoured indeed to possess such a delightful storehouse of interest and romance. In geography, Miss Mason has given us a charming series of books--books which the children love. She has taught interesting facts, woven human interest around the different places, and thus relieved the subject from being, perhaps, the dreariest of our school lessons. I have heard a child say when the geography hour came, "Oh, delightful geography!" and another begged for the lesson to be extended in, these words, "Do be kind--let us have the chapter on the inside of a mill; you are going to stop just where all the interesting part begins."

But it may be well asked, "Is the fact that a lesson is delightful a proof that it is of educational value?" Not necessarily, it is true, but in many subjects, such as history, literature and geography, it is the greatest help to be able to obtain the attention of the child willingly, indeed, an essential to much progress, and the saving of fatigue to the teacher is immeasurable when the subject is attractive to the children.

Again, it is contended, "But school life is a preparation for after life, and unless you have plenty of drudgery you are not fitting the children for the drudgery which they must necessarily go through later on." This is a very legitimate criticism of a bad attempt at a kindergarten (of which there are too many in the country), where every lesson is treated as a game, and where the child is never allowed to go on long enough at any one subject to feel in the least tired. A little wholesome fatigue is as good for a child mentally as it is physically, and full mental growth is only attained when some amount of strenuous mental exertion is undertaken by the child. But this is no excuse for making everything as dull and dreary as possible, indeed the child will rarely put forth its strength unless its attention is held and its interest aroused. Drudgery there must be in all schoolrooms: to one child writing is a desperate effort, to another arithmetic, and the wise teacher will take advantage of these very subjects to teach the lessons of perseverance and courage, but she will not wish on that account to make every subject an effort and every lesson distasteful.

The books recommended by the Parents' Review School on natural history are excellent and a great help to teacher and pupil. But in natural history the book is not the essential, it is merely as an introduction to the study of nature that they are valuable, and it is more in the hands of the teacher they are useful, although such books as those of Mrs. Brightwen and the Story Book of Animals are read and re-read with delight by the children themselves.

I am doubtful how far it is wise to solely depend on the Gouin system in the study of language. The amount given in the Parents' Review School curriculum is not sufficient to give the children much grasp of the language, unless supplemented by the presence of a French or German teacher constantly with the children. To those who cannot arrange for this, I would strongly recommend regular French and German reading. Some children have much more acute eyes than ears; to such children it is much easier to appeal through the written word than through the spoken word. Our insular difficulty in acquiring other languages than our own, makes it necessary to employ every help which is possible, and all senses should be asked to assist in the acquisition of a foreign tongue.

There is one danger that those who teach under the Parents' Review School will be well to guard against, that is the danger of superficiality. It is impossible to do more than dip into many branches of learning, merely to introduce the children to them, and show them what beautiful things there are in the world, and what wonderful fields of beauty and delight there are waiting till they shall have time and leisure to wander in them. But one danger of this is that the child itself may think it has learnt all there is to learn. The books used by the Parents' Review School help to meet this difficulty; in particular, Arnold Forster's History of England has special merits, in the way it treats fairly comprehensively of one event and merely mentions the existence of others. But the multiplicity of subjects taught, which has very much to be said in its favour, and the great anxiety to avoid cram and go slowly and carefully may, unless guarded against, lead to this impression of "having attained" in the child's mind. One way of avoiding this is by letting a child drink deep of some one branch of learning, showing that instead of finding you know all, after some weeks of study you are but discovering how very little you do know. Then they will be modest about their attainments in other subjects, and realize that they have but stood on the outskirts and looked into the sacred precincts. It is not always practicable to take this course--during a regular school career quite impossible--but there are often opportunities during a child's life, some enforced rest, or time at the seaside, or long summer holiday, when all other subjects may be put on one side, and some one thing studied more thoroughly than is possible at another time.

But we are hampered in all our efforts by the fact that if we strike out in any new line in education, we may handicap our children in later life, by making it impossible for them to follow with success in the prescribed lines. With our boys it is almost impossible, with our girls it is becoming the same. It does not matter how excellent a woman may be, how efficient, unless she has passed certain examinations, she has absolutely no chance of obtaining employment. This, to many people, who think that their daughters might one day require to work for their living, must make them think twice before they decide to break away from the cram system, and educate them on wider lines of culture. But to anyone who has not this possibility before them, I would urge them to bring up their daughters on independent lines, not, it may be, on any new system of education, not on any stereotyped system at all, giving each child scope for full development, and being guided by circumstances and temperament rather than by Act of Parliament. We may pride ourselves on the higher education of women, which has been a feature of the last fifty years, and inasmuch that there is no field for study and activity now closed to women, we may indeed congratulate our daughters; but I doubt if our average modern girl is in the least better educated than--if half as well as--our mothers and grandmothers. In charm and intellectual acuteness, the highly-educated woman of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries would have held her own easily with the girl of the present day, and it is interesting in reading their letters to find how various the books they read and how many of them attained to considerable scholarship and erudition.

It has been said, with some justice, that in this day of specialisation it is necessary for the majority of our men to be narrow, if they would attain distinction in their career; but that woman should be more widely educated, be able to take a larger grasp of things, and have a true sense of proportion, so that she may hold the scales, and help man by her wider outlook. It is because I believe the curriculum of the Parents' Review School and the books recommended by it are a good foundation for such an education, that I recommend them warmly to the present audience.