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The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

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

Volume 3, 1892/93, pgs. 845-849


We live in an age of individuality. Superior as we think ourselves to our Puritan forefathers, we have unconsciously returned to their theory of individual responsibility. Nothing is valued by us at second-hand. Even children are expected to have reasons of their own for their faiths and principles, and to be prepared for attacks, which, if those faiths and principles have been taken simply on trust from others, may have sad consequences.

The same tendency is carried into education.

The great aim of education being to enable a child to guide his actions by the light of pure reason, it is thought essential, by many modern theorists on the subject, that reason should be the sole guide from the first. Any appeal to the blind instinct of obedience, we are told, is coercion, and coercion can have no place in a system of individual self-government worthy of the enlightenment of the nineteenth century. Ignorance and pride alone prevent parents from carrying out this system with their children.

In case of doubts on the practical side, we are often told that a child is perfectly capable of understanding that his reason is as yet undeveloped, and that, for the present, he must depend, to some extent, upon the reason of others whose experience is greater.

But before beginning a defence of the old-fashioned method, it may be observed that such a child is rare, and that a specimen, at least common enough to be entitled to some consideration in framing an educational theory, is the child of crude judgment and strong will, acting generally on impulse, and liable to be prejudiced where will and reason are in opposition, but possessing a spirit of trustful reverence which believes in the perfect goodness and infallibility of grown-up people.

Moreover, it may comfort those who tremble for "man's highest prerogative" to remember that it is one thing to ignore or deprecate the cultivation of the reasoning faculty in every part of a child's education, moral as well as mental, and quite another thing to insist that the principle of obedience for its own sake be instilled, apart from the why and wherefore of the command given, so that it shall be habitual with the child to obey without expecting any appeal to his judgment to supply the grounds on which that obedience may reasonably be rendered.

Reason is a power of late development as compared with, e.g., the will. Not only does a young child lack the data for reasoning upon, but the faculty itself is immature. But let it be granted that we are not to require obedience from the child without full consent of his reason. We must then begin by putting our baby, say of four years old, in possession of all the circumstances of the case at issue, and of every scrap of knowledge that we, after twenty, thirty, or forty years of experience, have been able to accumulate on the subject in order that he may be qualified to arrive at a logical conclusion.

Meantime, we are to suspend our authority, however important the matter may be, till the process of reasoning has decided whether the child can agree with us or not. And if, in the end, he see fit to differ from us? Justice will then demand that we should yield. Necessity may require that we should assert authority in defiance of justice, when the child is irritated the long uncertainty. Richter remarks on this: "Mothers, partly from kindness, partly from an inherent love of the healthy movement of the tongue, give as many reasons for their orders as may overcome the opposing arguments of the child, and if at last they should be unable to produce more, finish by asserting their authority. It were better to have begun with it. And certainly after compliance, the reasons will find readier admittance into the open and impartial ears.

The history of the Hebrew nation in its infancy furnishes a great example of training in unreasoning obedience. Among the many detailed commands given for its guidance, we find scarcely any to which a reason is attached, beyond the one all-constraining reason which lies at the root of every Divine law, and which is reflected in the parent's vindication of his authority on the simple ground of being a parent. Such a vindication does not come within the scope of the argument, as it admits no question as to the right or wrong of the command itself.

We have seen that such questioning must end in difficulty, possibly in actual harm. It is a real help to a strong-willed child to know that a decision, once given, will be final. It gives a sense of something stronger than himself which is utterly reliable and true, and the small will will bow before the presence of a greater, without realising that it does so. It is a kind of law of necessity which rests the mind by its absolute immutability.

And the lesson of unreasoning obedience has obvious practical advantages upon which it is hardly necessary to dwell. Instances in which the instinct of obedience has been the only possible means of saving a child's life might be multiplied. Instances in which the giving of reasons would be highly injurious--e.g., by entrusting to a child information which he is required not to repeat, are common enough.

To go to higher ground--what is the sense of duty but the acknowledgment of a supreme law, outside and beyond oneself, which cannot be transgressed with impunity?

And how can we instill this abstract sense of duty into a child, unless we bring him face to face with an external law which is absolute, and so far abstract that it does not necessarily condescend to explain itself in every instance to the inquiring mind?

Surely to insist upon its doing so, is to lower the whole conception of obedience as a virtue in itself. It is not only for the sake of convenience that children are made to obey, but because obedience is a beautiful thing and because it calls forth other beautiful things--trustfulness, self-denial, self-control, grateful reverence for the best, where it is seen. It is the great solution of all that is strange and difficult in our lives. For, after all, the will of a parent is only a faint foreshadowing of the many inexplicable laws of life which will have to be recognized and obeyed. Can there be a better training for those higher laws than the discipline of obedience in childhood, when love makes it easy? Is it not a great part of the discipline of after-life to be constantly hedged about with mystery? Are not men at all ages asking "why?" to countless questions which will have no answer to satisfy the reason in this world and to which the only answer, therefore, must be--obey--in the darkness and mystery of life, steadfastly to obey.

And as this is the law of life of all, and as it requires great self-restraint, and faith, and patience, surely it is natural that we should, from the first, be forced to recognise a law which transcends our reason and makes its demand upon our trustful obedience. Again, unreasoning obedience is a useful counterbalance to that strong individualism which is natural to every child, but which soon develops into selfishness unless the child is taught to respect the importance of others and to regard himself as insignificant compared with the community of which he forms a part. The lesson of the Father of Philosophy that man is a social animal comes slowly to a child, but its practical bearings can be usefully brought home, by requiring him to obey rules made with a view to the general good, without directly affecting himself.

The doctrine underlying such a requirement, of responsibility for others, must wait for considerable advance of reason and experience before it can be grasped.

And if this seems too exacting, and calculated to chill and repress the young life in its free development, let us remember that perfect sympathy and confidence between parent and child will counteract all that, and prevent any loss of freedom which would be the inevitable and fatal result of the "unreasoning" system, were this sympathy wanting. But when the bond already exists, there is no fear of its being weakened by the demand for unquestioning obedience, for that demand is in harmony with the child's own natural reverence for those older than himself. This reverence, and the trust that flows out of it, are the most precious gifts of childhood. They are lost far too early, in contact with the world and in the discovery of grown-up people's ignorance and wrong-doing. Let us cherish them as long as we can in home life, by letting the children depend upon our word. They will do it instinctively without asserting the claim of their independent judgment. They will look up to their parents as to absolutely perfect beings--"apostles full of revelations." There is no need to destroy that faith by putting it too early to the proof and making our children skeptical and self-dependent, so long as we honour their trust by being worthy of it, as far as we know how, remembering that "the lie of an apostle destroys a whole moral world."

"Reason with your child about everything," said George Eliot, "and you make him a monster, without reverence, without affections." Let us rather, if we have any good in us at all, suffer that good to make its own silent appeal to what is good in our children, where it will be sure of a response.

It is indeed an awful thing to be believed in when we know ourselves unworthy, but surely if we have any capacity for nobleness, nothing will so inspire us to become worthy, as the consciousness that we are believed in, and above all, by a child.