The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
A Few Thoughts on the Education of Our Elder Girls.

Volume 15, 1904, pg. 688-693

There is no object which in the present day is more interesting or provokes more consideration or discussion than the education of girls, which, since the establishment of women's colleges and high schools, has left the old paths and entered on a new and, to some extent, untried road.

Amongst many others there are three points which seem worthy of consideration and discussion, especially by those who are engaged in the education of girls.

(1) What method of instruction is likely to produce the most cultivated and best educated women amongst those who are to become the wives of the present and mothers of the future generation?

(2) How can girls be taught to use well and value their leisure hours, and how are these leisure hours to be obtained?

(3) Ought definite Church teaching and Church History to form part of a girl's education? If so, how and by whom is this instruction to be given and tested?

And first, what do we mean by a well educated, cultivated woman? Is she one who has studied principally classics and mathematics, has passed her junior and senior Oxford and Cambridge examinations with honours, has gained a scholarship at one of the colleges, and has finally taken her B.A.? Or, is she one who perhaps has passed no such examinations but whose education has made her familiar with what is best in the literature of her own and of other countries, and has taught her to appreciate what is best in music and art, so that when she leaves school, she has a sincere desire and healthy taste for really good literature, prefers the well-written to the trashy sentimental novel, Mozart and Beethoven to a comic opera, and one of the old masters to the majority of modern pictures? There is no doubt that the girl who has been educated to the first of these methods very often becomes a cultivated woman, but is it not rather in spite of, than because of her school training? Is the constant working for examinations, the study of literature chiefly with the getting up of notes, the cramming of the numerous subjects required to take honours, likely to produce a love of knowledge for knowledge's sake, and where is the time left for the study of art or foreign literature excepting for the small amount required to pass?

Is it not true that many girls after having taken honours in some examination, throw aside their books, tired with the effort required in working up these numerous subjects, and spend the first few years of freedom in doing nothing really intellectual? If later they begin to grow weary of idleness, are they not likely to find that, having never learnt to love reading and work, excepting as a means to success in examinations, they do not really know where to begin or what to read, and so drift into a silly, aimless life, content to spend their time in anything except in reading really good and wholesome literature. We wish all girls could feel what a great teacher once said, that "it is only less disgraceful to be ignorant of foreign literature than of our own."

It is often said the women of today are much better educated than those of the last generation. This is no doubt true, and we owe a debt of gratitude to those who first broke through the hedge which surrounded women, and who changed the popular idea. Fifty years ago it was generally accepted that teaching and school keeping were necessary evils, only undertaken by those who had to make a living somehow or other, and who had neither education nor social standing, and that to have nothing to do was the sign of a real gentlewoman. But if we go back to our grandmothers is it true that we are more cultivated that they were? They certainly knew fewer subjects, but what they did know they knew well. They certainly read more books worth reading than we do now. How seldom we come across women who have read works of any great authors, Gibbon, Grote, Hallam, Carlyle, for example. It is an age of epitomes, and may we not say, of superficiality. We like to have our knowledge condensed, short magazine or newspaper articles, short biographies, short histories; we have no time for more; we prefer to know something of many subjects rather than much of a few, and so our whole character becomes superficial, because having no time to know anything well, we are content just to touch the surface of many things. We act upon the one half of Lord Brougham's dictum that "one should know something of everything," to the utter forgetfulness of its most important context "and everything of something."

But if the aim of education is to make our girls really cultivated women, fit to take their place in the battle of life and to use well the tremendous influence which women possess, will not the second method of education be more likely to produce the desired result and to give in the place of superficiality a thoroughness to the whole character?

After all, even if we limit as much as possible the number of subjects that must be taught, there are still too many, so that some can be only slightly touched upon. History, literature, seriously studied with a knowledge of modern languages, sufficient to enable girls to desire to read the best authors in the original, ought to be a good basis upon which to build a real love of knowledge. If she studied under a good teacher, a girl between the ages of fifteen and eighteen, the usual limit of school life, ought to know enough of the best English and foreign authors, and of at least one or two of their principal works, to kindle a desire when she leaves school to know and read more for herself. All we can hope to do is to kindle in them this desire for knowledge, and to point the best way to its attainment. We would add to these some knowledge of elementary science, a study of some of the phenomena of nature, and of elementary mathematics or logic to exercise the reasoning powers. Is it not also better that the teaching should not be entirely kept in the hands of women? Men take a much broader view of life, and this helps greatly to counteract the smallness and pettiness to which women are more or liable.

Unfortunately so long as in the colleges for women, Latin and mathematics form the chief part of the entrance examination, so long shall we who prefer history, literature, and modern languages as intellectual subjects, have an uphill battle to fight. Would it not be possible for the colleges some day, perhaps not far distant, to open their doors to those who have made these subjects their principal study? And might not the girls' public schools who have, as is now the case at all the boys' public schools, a modern as well as a classical side, help us by bringing their influence to bear on the Colleges and Universities, suggesting that there should be an alternative entrance examination in history, literature and modern languages? The surrounding of girls at school with good books and beautiful pictures is an education in itself, unconsciously training them to love the good and the beautiful, and raising them intellectually just as sunshine and beautiful scenery unconsciously raise our moral and spiritual natures, making us purer and better, and sending us back refreshed and stimulated to our every-day work.

The second point, the question of leisure, how to teach its use and value, and how to obtain it, is becoming in this age of hurry and unrest more and more a problem. But, difficult as this problem of the right use of leisure is, it is especially important to try to solve it for those who are just entering on womanhood, and leaving the restraints of school behind them. Experience teaches that for all as life goes on leisure becomes more and more rare. We become less our own mistresses and more the servant of others, and this is especially the case with those who are either trying to do some useful work in the world or who are absorbed in the pleasures and amusements of society. Self-improvement, mental as well as spiritual, is a duty, and if girls realized this, it might go far to preserve them from becoming slaves to pleasure and fashion, and might induce them to use well the leisure time which they all can have when they leave school before the amusements of the world become all-absorbing. How to help them to do this is the problem to be solved. Leisure well employed in storing up useful knowledge and imbibing great and noble thoughts is of untold value. Leisure spent in idleness, frivolity, and unprofitable reading, tends to make our girls restless, discontented with their home life, gauging the value of a day by its pleasures rather than by its duties.

All who have the training of girls acknowledge that, if possible, leisure ought to be given them that they may develop their various tastes and hobbies, but in practice it becomes very difficult. During the school term, there is very little time that is not occupied either by work or games, and one finds that when leisure comes on a holiday, a wet day, or a Sunday, that with the majority, "chattering," with a page or two of light reading thrown in, is the favourite employment. Perhaps at school one must not expect too much; but what is the case in the holidays and when the girls leave school? Now that physical exercise is made, and wisely so, so great a point in education, there is a danger of girls thinking that all leisure time which is not spent either in cricket, hockey, bicycling, or some other outdoor amusement is wasted, so that when a wet day comes they lounge about the house, looking bored and complaining that there is nothing to do. If they could be persuaded to look on sensible reading, not as a lesson, but as a pleasant way of employing their leisure hours, they would find the time hang less heavily on their hands, and when they leave school for good, instead of looking outside their homes for occupation and using up their strength and energy in "good works," they would find that being helpful in their homes or spending an hour or two every day, adding to their store of knowledge, is a real pleasure, and that no one who has at hand good books need complain of dullness or want of occupation.

This, one hopes, would be the result of giving girls at school some insight into the best literature, and helping them to discriminate between good and worthless books.

Also, a quickening of the powers of observation, by the accurate use of the senses, provides a ready friend always at hand, always useful, the best of companions with whom to spend a leisure hour. It conduces to restfulness of mind, and to a desire for quiet thought, which in these days of hurry and excitement is most beneficial, and also to the great want of today, "reverence." In Goethe's Wilhelm Meister , the pupils are first taught to keep their eyes to the ground and observe all things terrestrial, and then to raise them aloft and apply their habits of earth-bound observation to a wider horizon.

Will it be thought very old-fashioned to suggest also some knowledge of needlework as a good use for leisure? It is surprising how very few girls know even how to handle a needle, still less to do any really useful work. Many an hour will be pleasantly spent, especially if to working, be added the reading aloud of some interesting book.

As to the third point of our subject, it will, I suppose, be generally acknowledged that some kind of definite Church teaching is necessary for our girls, and that if it is considered desirable that they should have a sound knowledge of the history, laws, constitution and literature of their own country, it is at least equally desirable that they should know something of the history and the doctrines of the Church to which they belong.

To the question, "By whom is this teaching to be given?" the answer would probably be, "By the Head Mistress"; but who is to vouch for her having a sound knowledge of these subjects? Very probably they did not form part of her serious study whilst at school or college, where possibly often an hour or so a week was considered sufficient for religious teaching, as compared with five or six given to mathematics, classics, or other secular subjects; thus, not having been interested in the subject herself, she finds it difficult to interest her girls, and it is this want of interest which is so hard to combat.

It has been well said by one of our great religious teaches that "as the powers of the mind gradually unfold themselves, the truths of religion ought to engage an increasing share of each of them, and not least of the understanding." If this were so, the want of interest we so much deplore would disappear, and girls would not only come to see that religious truths were worthy of their deepest and most earnest study, but would in time acquire a taste for books bearing on this subject, a taste which it now seems almost impossible to form. As Milton justly says, "The end of all education is for a child to gain the knowledge of God in Christ, and out of that knowledge to love Him, to imitate Him and to grow like Him." But if we wish a real interest taken in this all-important subject, we must look to our Bishops and Clergy first to show at least the same care for the religious teaching of the upper class schools as they do for that of the primary, and secondly to help us Head Mistresses in that which is perhaps the most difficult and most discouraging part of our work.

We want to teach our girls and we want our teaching tested. Cannot some plan be suggested, other than that of the Oxford and Cambridge local examinations, which place religious knowledge on the same level as secular; some plan by which our girls could be taught to take a real interest in religious subjects, an interest which would lead them to read and learn more about their Church and Faith after they had left school, and help them to stand firm amidst the many perplexing questions which meet them in the world.

Our efforts after a right education will not have missed their aim if we help our girls to attain to the standard of womanhood so beautifully described in these lines:--

       "Blessing she is. God made her so,
              And deeds of week-day holiness
       Fall from her noiseless as the snow;
       Nor hath she ever chanced to know
              That aught were easier than to bless."
                     from "My Love" by James Russell Lowell

Typed by J, Nov. 2023; Proofread by LNL, Jan. 2024