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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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"Know Thy Opportunity"

by Rev. F. S. Colman, M.A.
Volume 8, no. 2, 1897, pgs. 69-75


* A Paper read at the Inaugural Meeting of the Wimbledon Branch of the
Parents' National Educational Union.

In the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, the national sanctuary of the Greeks, there were displayed, that all comers might see them, a number of maxims, utterances of the Seven Sages, which were practically the basis and were certainly the hidden strength of the oracles pronounced by the priestess of the god. One of these may be taken as a parent's motto, simply this, "Know thy Opportunity," a maxim as worthy of the Christian home as it was of the Delphic temple. If one has ever watched over a short period in a child's life one will have seen plainly enough the value of opportunity, the changes quickly working, the chances quickly passing. In a few months neglect will awake to find that habits have been formed while it slept, or patient care will gird itself to reap its quick reward; one will have seen how fully childhood is charged with power and how short a childhood is, marked how soon the mists of the later morning cloud the promise of the early day or the bright gleams become vigorous light and warmth. So the old maxim reasserts itself, "Know thy Opportunity."

To reveal the opportunity is the first object of this Educational Union, to teach its use is the second. It states for itself that it has arisen in response to a demand from thoughtful people for wisdom and knowledge in "learning how"--how to know the laws which govern the formation of habit, how to deal with hereditary tendencies, to give intelligent supervision and guidance, how to develop and nourish a child's nature. Briefly it states its purpose to be the exercise of effort to impress upon parents "that they cannot by mere money payments divest themselves of the responsibilities that come with the gift of children, to indicate those lines of thought and study which will lead to the wisdom and knowledge through which parental love will rise to its full influence and lasting power."

I am here now not so much for the purpose of instructing you on these matters as to place myself at the head of those who in this neighbourhood are anxious to learn, to constitute myself one among many learners. The duties of my own special calling have taught me, the awakening powers of my own children have taught me, how vast are the possibilities lying to our hands, the greatness of our responsibility. And it seems to me that there is a class in our social organization to which this responsibility attaches more than to others, a class in which I place myself and probably most of you here. From that which is usually styled the working-class the stress of life takes away almost entirely the chance of doing much for the education of its children, and rightly enough this is made the care of a paternal government--at the other extreme, the claims of position, of social greatness or professional eminence, hinder, with more or less reason, the discharge of those duties. But with many of us there are both the intellectual ability and the close association with our children which together put within our reach the personal oversight of their education, and so give us one of the great joys of life, both a privilege and a responsibility. To such as we are then the Union comes as a welcome friend.

Opening the book of life, turning over its pages and reading them by the light of experience and revelation, I see that true and high aims must inspire all who would do well where God has made it possible for them to do aught. Let me put these aims before you as they present themselves to me, being both anxious and hopeful. They form a threefold object-the aim of the child's happiness in his own life, of his helpfulness to others, of his reaching out to perfectness.

(1) That the child shall be for himself--happy; making his happiness an aim. It is right to put this first because it is a gate to the others, and because it at once stamps the child's training as an education in its wider sense, as opposed to the narrower one of mere instruction--and happiness begins before helpfulness. You cannot fail to recall some children who have never learnt how to be happy, to play in real earnest and enjoy the brightness of the world where God has placed them. And if one has to be trained to seek and to find the real foundation happiness of all life it is surely needful to regard that training as one of the earliest steps in child life. It is first of all the mother's part--

"Women know
The way to rear up children (to be just),
They know a simple, merry, tender knack
Of . . . .stringing pretty words that make no sense,
And kissing full sense into empty words,
Which things are corals to cut life upon,
Although such trifles; children learn by such
Love's holy earnest in a pretty play,
And yet not over early solemnised."
(E. B. Browning.)

By all this I want to remind you that the encouragement to happiness is a part of a good education, a lesson in which the teacher will find some of the brightness she draws out reflected into her own heart, a brightness all the brighter if it is gained at the cost of some self-repression and a determined thrusting aside of gloomy moods and anxious thoughts for the sake of those she teaches. And, to go further, I imagine there can be no remorse more keen than that which springs from the recollection of the unkindness or negligence that clouded a child's happiness. It may not be in one's power to do all one would in the kind of maintenance and schooling and surroundings one gives a child, but it is in the power of us all to be kind and to assist happiness. And the child who has thus been brought up will have more faith in God and man, and more courage for the trials of the days to come. There was a time when my work kept me in close and constant association with the lives of the very poor, and I think I felt the sadness of the children's lives more than anything else. If childhood knows no happiness, manhood loses one of the great incentives to effort for it loses an ideal and an enthusiasm. Often and often it came to my mind with stirring force that the evangelic prophet said, "The streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in the streets thereof." It is a prophecy still future and one whose meaning we cannot altogether grasp, but it certainly does mean that a happy childhood is in accordance with the will of God. And that is why I ask you to make this an end of education. There is no joy in being unbridled and untaught, but abundant happiness is possible under a wise firm rule and with a sense of progress; if you strive after this the teaching office will be an easier one and the child will leave to the man a legacy of wealth.

(2) That the child may be for others-helpful,--making usefulness an aim. One of the most marvellous social organizations the world ever saw was that established by Lycurgus for the Spartans. He conceived that every member of a state was bound to contribute to its safety and prosperity by every means in his power, putting the good of the state before any private considerations whatever. If we have grown more selfish, even to a pride of selfishness, we should not despise the wisdom that was proved wisdom in the days of the world's youth. All the details, even of domestic life, were controlled by fixed rules which had the public good for their object. At the age of seven years children were taken from the control of their parents and housed, fed, trained and taught under the care of the state. The Spartan ideal was simply military glory and all the softer uses of life were subordinated to that; the system was charged with conditions wholly impossible in this age. But impossible as it would be now and strange though its details may seem, the system certainly possessed the great good of maintaining a true ambition, the ambition of being of the greatest benefit to the commonwealth.

An important change has come over the idea of education in this respect of late years. Profitable studies have to a very great extent taken the place of the old so-called "accomplishments," capabilities are studied and developed, not for mere pleasing or self-glorification or even for the uses of what was styled polite society, but with the idea that every man, and woman too, whatever their position, has a place to fill, a work to do, and an environment to serve. It is being increasingly recognized, and one cannot be too thankful for it, that the true endowment of a young man or woman lies not in money or in marriage portion. It lies in that which is nobler and higher, because it cannot be stolen, the endowment of a fitness to stand and work alone. And we are rapidly learning that the solid good of existence rests not in the opportunity of receiving, but in the capacity for giving, that the highest influence is that which we win, not by force of wealth or birth, but by the authority of service. Now is not this a true aim to cherish for one's children, that they maybe useful in their generation. It will give cohesion to our plans for their future, we shall watch their characters more closely in order to discern their natural bent, look for latent powers to be drawn out, choose lines of study best fitted for them. We shall feel that there is put into charge the development of a distinct individuality, the shaping of a life for profitable ends. And I believe you always find that the teacher who faces the aim of future usefulness will draw out a new ambition, the child will submit too, not because it is continually impressed upon him, but because a community of thought will arise in which his growing interests will set towards the same goal. You must know that all your care and toil will avail little unless you succeed in securing the co-operation of a child in his own education, and I can conceive no more powerful incentive even for quite young people (yes, there is one stronger), than the thought that they are gaining knowledge that shall hereafter make them better workers in a world that was made through work, is sustained through work, and is being regenerated through work.

(3) That the child shall strive after-perfection,--making perfectness an aim. That is, the completeness, the fulness of education. I said just now there is one incentive stronger than the thought of serving others, and it is this of attaining perfectness, that which will satisfy the infinite longings within us. The education which touches only the physical and the mental and the moral is incomplete, the spiritual needs its share of training, it is the crown of teaching, it is that sphere in which all that is honest and good in us finds its consummation. Let me read you a parable from the literature of ancient Greece. Plato, in his Phaedrus, puts into the mouth of Socrates a description of the method by which souls reach to a higher life. He tells, and the passage is one of surpassing beauty and grandeur, how the journey resembles that of a chariot drawn by two winged steeds, one generous and tractable, the other of opposite character. The work of the charioteer is not easy or altogether agreeable. As the soul becomes more controlled it roams in the upper air, but the soul that yields and loses self-mastery, is carried down again to earth to begin once more its discipline. The gods are the highest of beings, but even they have to strive upwards; effort is the law for all. Though there are ravishing views and opening paths within the bounds of heaven, the gods are not to be allowed to be content with them; and at times of high festival, led by Zeus, they mount in solemn procession to the topmost vault of heaven, and taking their places upon its dome gaze over the infinite depths of perfect truth. This spectacle supports the fulness of their being. All the souls that can, and will, follow in their train. Such of these as are able to gain the fair prospect, remain in the possession of supreme joy. The rest, baffled and wearied, sink down again to the lower life. Henceforward, he adds their condition depends upon what they have apprehended of perfect truth from that vision--they live by the recollection of that which has filled them with a noble passion.

That is my parable, and its meaning lies in its historic witness to the power of an endless life to draw out of men and women the highest aims and the truest work. So may it be for our little ones; to learn step by step the glory of the perfect man and womanhood, that courage, and purity, and intellect, and all patient work will find their full scope and their full profit in a life of wider reach than this. As Plato says, "the soul which has never seen the truth at all can never develop a true humanity." Let such, then, be our mission to reveal, to point, to lead.

If I have not touched quite on those topics which you came to hear discussed, I trust you will pardon me for causing a disappointment. It seemed to me, being but a learner, more conscientious to speak of aims which I have known and felt, than of the road to reach them which has, by me at least, to be yet better known. But this in my own mind is very clear, if I have helped you to see it I have not been beating the air, very clear that for parent and child, for teacher and taught, there will be no good work done which does not aim at high things--happiness, helpfulness, perfectness--and that where one starts to travel on the road that makes for all of these one must progress and one must lead.

It may sometime come into our mind that our own day may be spent before we have done all we would for our children, and the more anxious we are for their due equipment the more likely is that saddening thought to come to us. But if we know that we are leaving them with faces set aright, sadness will give place to hope, to the hope that the early self-dependence they have learnt will make them better men and women by-and-by. So then at least we may look for this, that if the setting sun of our lives leave their days darkened, the stars we have taught them to discern and follow will come out to lead them in our stead to all that is good, and pure, and true.

"To walk this world
Yoked to all exercise of noble end,
And through those dark gates across the wild
That no man know."