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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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Obedience

by Henry Beveridge, Esq.
Volume 7, 1896, pgs. 241-247


I. Introductory

Among the factors with which, as head and ruler in the family, the parent is called upon to deal, obedience must rank as one of the most important. The whole comfort of the household, the whole course of the children's future lives may be said to depend upon the views held by the parent in regard to this subject and upon the practical consequences which follow from them. If this be so, it evidently becomes the duty of parents and of all those guardians, teachers, nurses--who in dealing with children stand in the place of parents, to consider with no little care the relation of obedience in which they stand towards the children committed to their charge. It becomes their duty to examine for themselves the various aspects of obedience: the fundamental natural relations which render obedience so vitally essential an influence in the life of the child; the relations in which obedience stands to the capacities of the child's nature--to his spontaneous activities, to habit, to will; its relations to the physical and moral welfare of the child; and finally, the relations of obedience to the ultimate moral attainment which we set before us as the ideal goal of our children's lives.

Before turning our attention definitively to obedience, the proper subject before us, it will perhaps prepare the way for a clearer and more complete understanding to consider briefly a few preliminary questions, the answers to which have a vital bearing upon the subject of our enquiry. First, then, What is habit? How does it operate? And what is its relation to obedience?

Habit, under the name of custom, exerts upon society an enormous influence for good and also for evil. Like the mountain stream it hollows out for itself channels by its continuous flow: by the vicissitudes of time and fate, these channels are gradually changed: a process of erosion unceasingly prevails--a washing away, a silting up, a deposition of debris; but after all is said the channel still maintains, within broad lines, a constant course. It is thus that the nation of slaves remains practically acquiescent in its slavery: that the nation of freemen fights and struggles for its liberty, and oftentimes succeeds in the conflict in spite of apparently overwhelming odds. The stability of government in our more law-abiding communities rests not in reality so much upon respect for law as upon unbroken reverence for custom: our life is permeated to the core by custom transmitted from generation to generation for untold ages. Customs, however, as we have seen are subject to slow and continuous change; and not only so, but they are also subject to what bears the aspect of revolutionary change, and this both for good and for evil, as the pages of history clearly show. Such changes have in all cases, however, been effected by means of forces brought to bear upon the community during a period of peculiar plasticity. These forces may be sufficiently various in character: they may be merely physical or geographical--wholly objective in their influence; or again they may be subjective; the change may be wrought through conquest, compulsion or tutelage; it may be brought about through the stimulus of some period of endurance and heroic endeavour; through the outburst of some new spiritual force; or again it may be through the pride and luxury produced by some great material expansion. But in any case the change must be produced by the leavening power of some great influential factor capable of permeating slowly or rapidly even to the roots of society.

Man, it has been said, is the creature of custom; and again habit is second nature, from which the first can hardly be distinguished. But what, in this connection, do we mean by the word nature?

Nature, in this sense, is strictly that which is born in every creature. The word nature, from this point of view, signifies those innate constructive activities which exist within every being, and every order of beings; those latent powers and latent predispositions which only await the incidence of the proper stimuli to be aroused into activity; which only await the appropriate conditions of environment to burst forth into overt existence, and to manifest themselves outwardly in their correlative reactions. Thus, the seed being laid in the earth, the necessary conditions of heat and moisture being present, will send forth its tender radicle, seeking and pressing on its tiny root-cap persistently downwards in search of nourishment and anchorage in spite of every obstruction; again it will send forth upwards to the light its irrepressible spear of green, piercing alike the hard resisting earth and the weightless leaf of the previous fall, with a vital force both strong and delicate. And so, mayhap, from the tiny seedling there shoots forth at length the symmetrical fir-tree, not, however, unaffected by the various conditions and forces by which it is surrounded. Is it thronged by a press of many neighbors? Its side branches, deprived of light and air, soon wither away; it becomes a tall and slender pole. Is its leading shoot attacked by some insect enemy?--nipped in its early growth by some unseasonable frost? its point is gone; its symmetry is lost. Is it again fully exposed to the influence of genial sunshine and of tempered breeze? Its habit grows branchy and free; in this case it attains the sturdy, symmetrical, beautiful, and harmonious development which gives a full and adequate expression to the inner law of its nature. If the soil be poor, the climate inclement, its growth is warped and stunted, we behold it now a miserable scrub. As it is with the plant, so it is with every other being; it contains within itself its own powers; it has laid up within it its own Platonic ideals of activity and attainment; these are variously furthered or obstructed by environment; and the outcome of these forces outward and inward--the proper ideal impulses of the inner nature and the habits superinduced by the outward forces of environment--determine the various abnormal twists, the various excelling developments which form the individually characteristic manifestations of the life and activities which belong to every being.

The formation of habit may thus be regarded as strictly the product of environmental constraint, acting and reacting upon original natural endowment. Habit is an unavoidable accompaniment of developing life; but, on the other hand, with the cessation of growth, with the attainment of complete maturity, the formation of new habit has also virtually ceased. The plastic period of youth is thus pre-eminently the season wherein habits may most readily be formed. In later years the habits already acquired, are apt, as Montaigne remarks, to become so fixed and inalterable that to many even death itself seems a more endurable alternative than the attempt, at this time of life, to change their accustomed course.

To turn now more directly to the subject before us: the nature of the child consists of various predispositions towards particular reactions, in response to appropriate stimuli. Each of these predispositions towards a particular reaction exists alongside of the opposite or complementary predisposition. Thus there exists in every child a predisposition to follow the initiative of another, and also the opposite or complementary predisposition to prefer his own initiative. In the one case the predisposition will naturally manifest itself in what we call obedience, and in the other under the form of resistance to control--in the one case its extreme development is servility; in the other rebellion. Now neither of these courses of action may properly be said to be good or evil in itself--both of them are merely natural. It should be further pointed out that both of these tendencies--that towards docility and that towards self-assertion-- should be encouraged by the parent, each in its own proper place: for, should either be developed to the exclusion of the other, then the organised unity and harmony of development which the parent desires to see ultimately produced in the character of his child will be obviously unattainable.

Perhaps the most fundamentally important influence the parent can bring to bear upon his child is to be found in his power of controlling the formation of habit. In the most plastic period of his life the child is, in respect to the building up of habit, almost completely in the parents' hands--the original forces of the child's character of course the parent cannot alter,--yet, even these he has power to train, to prune, to twist, to bend. "Habit is stronger than nature," and thus it is largely in the power of the parent to make or to mar the future life of his child. For the formation of habit, obedience-- itself largely the creation of habit--is perhaps the most powerful instrument, and its functional importance in this matter can hardly, therefore, be over-estimated. It is for this reason that the cultivation of obedience in the child forms one of the most fundamental, as well as one of the earliest duties of the parent. The influence of the parent, indeed, cannot be too early directed towards the formation of the habit of obedience--the rudiments of which are, without doubt, quite capable of being developed in the child of a few weeks old; possibly, indeed, in their first beginnings, even in the infant of days;--and it should continuously be maintained, in carefully adjusted relation to the child's development, during the whole period of tutelage. Not only is the habit of obedience the great master-key which unlocks the door that leads to every other desirable pathway of habit; it also brings with it other and equally vital advantages.

The full importance, indeed, of the habit of obedience, and the full bearings of habit generally, cannot be adequately appreciated until we proceed to examine them in correlation with that "synthetic, selective activity" which we term will; which forms, indeed, the culminating, divinest attribute of humanity. It is indeed the enlightenment, the economy, the direction of the will that constitute the ultimate objective in all rational education. Will, then, must be view as an actively controlling, balancing, and selecting function of the mind, whose efficiency depends directly upon the natural initial predispositions (which have already been briefly discussed), upon the light of intellect, and lastly upon habit. While again it is apparently to habit that we must look for the abiding, continuous, underlying principle of that kind of will which we call character, whose existence, indeed, apart from habit formed, seems hardly to be conceived.

Will is a function, a governing force, of which only a limited quantity lies at our disposal. It would seem highly probable that the strong will is only the concentrated will; that the weak will is merely that which is scattered and dissipated uselessly in the consideration of a crowd of trifling and constantly recurring decisions. The force exerted in the world by the man of one idea is proverbial, and may be simply accounted for as the impact of his concentrated volitional activity.

The great problem, then, in education is how to produce in the child the habit, and to increase the power of concentrating and economising, of controlling and rightly directing the fund of will force with which by nature he has been endowed. In the practical solution of this problem, obedience must take a foremost place as a powerful, and indeed almost indispensable auxiliary. The true importance of the habit of obedience, in this connection, is to be found in the relief it affords to the child from the constant necessity of expending his will force, without the means of forming a rational judgment, and therefore vainly, upon an endless succession of disconnected decisions and trivial efforts. The volitional energy of the child is thus set free, and it becomes possible to concentrate a considerable amount of will power for the performance of more worthy tasks--to extend the range, and add to the moral value of his rational activities.

Thus it would seem that obedience--of course under proper conditions--is far from being an oppression to the child, or even in any true sense a curtailment of his liberty; it is, on the contrary, rather an invaluable boon and an extension of his freedom. It would, indeed, appear from certain observations, that a strict discipline of compulsory obedience wisely administered tends towards placidity of mind, a physically healthful development, and consequently towards a more complete control of the faculties and a more real freedom of action. The benefit of obedience, considered subjectively to the child, would seem to lie first, in relief from mental friction or will-strain; again, in the opportunity thus afforded for the self-development of the power of attention, through which, again, the opportunity is gained for the self-formation of every other valuable habit; while through this, once more, the store of knowledge, the power of judgment, and the force of will may be increased. On the other hand, considered objectively, obedience gives an equal opportunity for the systematic building up of habit through the external influence of the parent.

But again, to change our stand-point, from the negative point of view, the omission by the parent to cultivate the habit of obedience can hardly fail to result in certain disadvantages to the child. The contending natural impulses or predispositions will, in such a case, follow their own untutored course, unguided save by the fortuitous experience gathered from an unconcerned and unresponsible environment; an unbalanced character is thus only too apt to be produced; and especially where capricious interference by other wills, or conflict with them, habitually prevails, indecision or its extreme complementary, self-will, will become the principal characteristic. Obedience to a beneficent positive or conventional law is thus in all probability the best, if not the indispensable, preparation for a free, rational and transcendental obedience to natural or divine law.

The clearing away by the intervention of habit--which may, perhaps, be usefully considered as automatic will--of a large number of those attentions and decisions, of which so large a portion of the higher activity of our life consists, and with which the limited powers of our will endowment are so little capable of dealing rationally-- save in a strictly limited number of cases--sets free the will from an overwhelming incubus of independent recurring judgments and unorganised efforts, which may quite readily be classified and thus dealt with categorically and automatically by means of formed habits. The will may thus be devoted with more adequate and whole-minded concentration to those more rarely occurring decisions concerning the higher and more spiritual life, in which, as endowed with reason and self-consciousness, it is the privilege and the duty of every man actively and energetically to bear his part; but with which, alas, the unorganised, unenlightened, over-burdened will is so often totally unprepared to cope.


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