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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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Docility and Authority, Part 1

Volume8, no. 12, 1897, pgs. 185-192


All of us who have accepted education as our métier are keenly alive to the signs of the times as they are to be read in the conduct and manners of children. Upon one thing, anyway, we may congratulate ourselves with unmixed satisfaction: the relations between children and parents and, indeed, between children and their grown-up friends generally, are far more intimate, frank and friendly than such relations used to be. There does not seem to be any longer that great gulf fixed between child thought and grown-up thought, which the older among us once tried to cross with frantic but vain efforts. The heads of the house, when we were little, were autocratic as the Czars of all the Russias. We received everything at their hands, from bread and milk to mother's love, with more or less gratitude, but with invariable docility. If they had stubborn questionings as to whether was better for us, this or that, they kept them to themselves. For us everything was decreed, and all decrees were final. There were rebellious children, perhaps, as one in a score, or one in a hundred, but then these were rebellious with the fine courage of Milton's Satan, they dared everything and set themselves up on bold opposition. These were the open rebels who would, sooner or later, come to a bad end; so we were told and so we secretly believed. For the others, there was no middle course. They were brought under rule and that rule was arbitrary and without appeal.

This is how children were brought up some forty or fifty years ago, and even young parents to-day have, in many cases, grown up under a régime, happy, loving and wise very likely, but, before all things, arbitrary. There were what the Scotch would call "ill-guided" homes, where the children did what was right in their own eyes. These will always exist so long as there are weak and indolent parents, unconcerned about their responsibilities. But the exceptions went to prove the rule; and the rule and tradition, in most middle-class homes, was that of well-ordered and governed childhood. Every biography that issues from the press of the men and women who made their mark during the first half of the century is a case in point. John Stuart Mill, Ruskin, the Lawrences, Tennyson, almost everyone who has made for himself a distinguished name, grew up under a martinet rule. Only the other day we heard of an instance, the recollection of which had survived for seventy years. A boy of twelve or thirteen had been out shooting rabbits. He came home in the early darkness of a bitterly cold winter evening. His father asked him by what gate he had entered the park. "By (such a) gate." "Did you shut it?" "I don't recollect." "Go and see"; and the boy went, though he was already tired out, and the gate in question was more than a mile from the house. Such an incident would scarcely happen to-day; the boy would protest, plead his own benumbed fatigue, and suggest that a man should be sent to shut the gate, if, as did not appear from the story, it was important that it should be shut at all. Yet this was a kind father, whom his children both loved and honoured; but arbitrary rule and unquestioning obedience were the habits of the household. Nor is this notion of domestic government quite obsolete yet. We heard the other day of a Scotch father who confined his daughter, of eighteen, to her room for a week on account of some, by no means serious, breach of discipline. The difference is, that where you find an arbitrary parent now, he is a little out of touch with the thought and culture of the day; while, a few decades ago, parents were arbitrary of set principle and in proportion as they were cultivated and intelligent.

It cannot be said that this arbitrary rule was entirely a failure. It turned out steadfast, capable, able, self-governed, gentle-mannered men and women. In our less hopeful moments, we wonder as we watch the children of our day whether they will prove as good stuff as their grandfathers and their fathers. But we need not fear. The evolution of educational thought is like the incoming of the tide. The wave comes and the wave goes and you hardly know whether you are watching ebb or flow; but let an hour elapse and then judge. After all allowances for ebb and flow, for failure here and mistake there, truer educational thought must of necessity result in an output of more worthy character. For one thing, this very arbitrariness arose from limitations. Parents knew that they must govern. Righteous Abraham, who ruled his house, was their ensample; and it is far easier to govern from a height, as it were, than from the intimacy of close personal contact. But you cannot be quite frank and easy with beings who are obviously of a higher and of another order than yourself, at least you cannot when you are a little boy. And here we have one cause of the inscrutable reticence of children. At the best of times they carry on the busy traffic of their own thoughts all to themselves. We can recollect the pathetic misgivings of our childish days which a word would have removed, but which yet formed the secret history of years of our lives. Mrs. Charles, in her autobiography, tells us how her childhood was haunted by a distressing dream. She dreamed that she had lost her mother and hunted for her in vain for hours in the rooms and endless corridors of a building unknown to her. Her distress was put down to fear of "the dark" and she never told her tender mother of this trouble of the night. Probably no degree of loving intimacy will throw the closed doors of the child's nature permanently ajar, because, we may believe, the burden of the mystery of all this unintelligible world falls early upon the conscious soul, and each of us must beat out his conception of life for himself. But it is much to a child to know that he may question, may talk of the thing that perplexes him, and that there is comprehension for his perplexities. Effusive sympathy is a mistake and bores a child when it does not make him silly. But just to know that you can ask and tell is a great outlet, and means, to the parent, the power of direction, and to the child, free and natural development.

With the advance of one line of educational insight, we have, alas, to note the receding of another and a most important principle. Early in the century, authority was everything in the government of the home and the docility of the children went without saying, i.e., always excepting the few rebellious spirits. However little we may be aware of the fact, the directions of philosophic thought in England has had a great deal to do with the relations of parents and children in every home. Two centuries ago Locke promulgated the doctrine of the infallible reason. That doctrine accepted, individual reason becomes the ultimate authority, and every man is free to do that which is right in his own eyes. Provided, Locke would have added, that the reason be fully trained, and the mind instructed as to the merits of the particular case; but such proviso was readily lost sight of, and the broad principle remained. The old Puritanic faith and the elder traditions for the bringing-up of children, as well as Locke's own religious feeling and dutiful instincts, were too strong for the new philosophy in England; but in France there was a soil prepared for the seed. Locke was eagerly read because his opinions jumped with the thought of the hour. His principles were put into practice, his conclusions worked out to the bitter end, and thoughtful writers consider that this religious and cultivated English gentleman cannot be exonerated from a share of the guilt of the atrocities of the French Revolution.

We in the nineteenth century have lost some of the safeguards that held good in the seventeenth, and we have our own, perhaps greater, philosopher, who carries the teaching of Locke to the inevitable conclusions which the earlier thinker shirked. Mr. Herbert Spencer proclaims, as they did in France, the apotheosis of Reason. He sees, as they saw in France, that the principle of the infallible reason is directly antagonistic to the idea of authority. He traces this last idea to its final source and justification. So long as men acknowledge a God they of necessity acknowledge authority, supreme and deputed. But, says Mr. Spencer, in effect, every man finds his own final authority in his own reason. The philosopher has the courage of his convictions; he perceives that the enthronement of the human reason, again as in France, is the dethronement of Almighty God. He teaches, by processes of exhaustive reasoning, that--

"We sit unowned upon our burial sod,
And know not whence we come nor whose we be."

From the dethronement of the Divine, follows the dethronement of all human authority, whether it be of kings and their deputies over nations, or of parents over families. Every act of authority is, we are taught, an infringement of the rights of man or of child. Children are to be brought up from the first self-directed, doing that which is right in their own eyes, governed by the reason which is to be trained, by experience of right and wrong, in the choosing of the right course. Life has its penalties for those who transgress the laws of reason, and the child should be permitted to learn these laws through the intervention of these penalties. But "thou shalt" and "thou shalt not" are to be eliminated from the vocabulary of parents. So complete and detailed is Mr. Spencer's scheme for the emancipation of children from rule, that he objects to the study of languages on the ground that the rules of grammar are a transgression of the principle of liberty.

Mr. Spencer's work on education is so valuable a contribution to educational thought that many parents read it and embrace it, as a whole, without perceiving that it is a part, and a carefully worked out part, of a scheme of philosophy with which perhaps they are little in sympathy. They accept the philosopher's teaching when he bids them bring up children without authority in order to give them free room for self-development, without perceiving, or perhaps knowing, that it is the labour of the author's life to eliminate the idea of authority from the universe, that he repudiates the authority of parents because it is a link in the chain which binds the universe to God. For it is indeed true that none of us has a right to exercise authority, in things great or small, except as we are, and acknowledge ourselves to be, deputed by the one supreme and ultimate Authority. When we take up this volume on education, small as it is, easy reading as it is, we must bear in mind that we have put ourselves under the lead of a philosopher who overlooks nothing, who regards the least important things from the standpoint of their final issue, and who would not have the little child do as he is bid lest he should learn, as a man, to obey that authority other than himself, which we believe to be Divine.

The influence of his rationalistic philosophy is by no means confined to those who read this author's great works, or even to those who read his manual on education. "Quick as thought" is a common phrase, but it would be interesting to know how quick thought is, to have any measure for the intensity, vitality, and velocity of an idea, for the rate of its progress in the world. One would like to know how soon an idea, conceived in the study, becomes the common property of the man in the street, who regards it as his own possession, and knows nothing of its source. We have no such measures, but there is hardly a home, of even the lowest stage of culture, where this theory of education has not been either consciously adopted or rejected, though the particular parents in question may never have heard of the philosopher. An idea, once launched, is "in the air," so we say. As is said of the Holy Spirit, we know not whence it comes, nor whither it goes. But, because philosophic thought is so subtle and permeating an influence, it is our part to scrutinise every principle that presents itself. Once we are able to safeguard ourselves in this way, we are able to profit by the wisdom of works which yet contain what we regard as radical errors. It seems not improbable that the early years of the coming century may see the advent of England's truly great philosopher, who shall not be confined by the limitations of rationalistic or of materialistic thought. Men have become weary of themselves. The notion of the finality of human reason has grown an intolerable limitation. Nothing less that the Infinite will satisfy the spirit of a man. We again recognise that we were made for God, and have no rest until we find Him; and philosophic thought, at home and abroad, has left these channels high and dry, and is running in other courses towards the Infinite and the Divine.

One of the first efforts of this reconstructive thought, which is building us once more a temple for our spirits, a house not made with hands, is to restore Authority to its ancient place as an ultimate fact, no more to be accounted for than is the principle of gravitation, and as binding and universal in the moral world as is that other principle in the natural. Fitting in to that of authority, as the ball fits the socket to make a working joint, is the other universal and elemental principle of Docility, and upon these two hang all possibilities of law and order, government and progress, among men. Mr. Benjamin Kidd, in his Social Evolution, has done much for the recognition of these two fundamental principles. Why a football team should obey its captain, an army its commanding officer; why a street crowd should stand in awe of two or three policemen; why property should be respected, when it is the many who want and the few who have; why, in a word, there should be rule and not anarchy in the world--these are the sort of questions Mr. Kidd sets himself to answer. He turns to Reason for her reply, and she has none to give. Her favourite argument is that the appeal to self-interest is final; that we do, individually and collectively, whatever is shown to be for our advantage; but when that company went down in the Royal George, standing at "Attention!" because that was the word of command; when the Six Hundred rode "into the valley of death" because--

"Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die."

--the subtlest reasoning can find no other motive than the single and simple one: authority acting upon docility. These men had been told to do these things, and, therefore, they did them. That is all. And that they did well we know; our own heart is the witness. We speak of such deeds as acts of heroism, but it is well to notice that these splendid displays of human nature at its best resolve themselves for the most part into acts of obedience to the word of authority. The abuse of authority gives us the slave and the despot, but slavery and despotism could not exist except that they are founded upon elemental principles in human nature. We have it in us to serve or to rule as occasion demands. To dream of liberty, in the sense of every man his own sole governor, is as futile as to dream of a world in which apples do not necessarily drop from the tree, but may fly off at a tangent in any direction.

What is Authority? The question shows us how inevitable in the evolution of thought has been the world of the rationalistic philosophers. It is, humanly speaking, to them we owe our deliverance from the autocrat, whether on the throne or in the family. Their work, has been to assert and prove that every human soul is born free, that liberty is his inalienable right and that an offence against liberty of a human being is a capital offence. This also is true. Parents, because their subjects are so docile and so feeble, are tempted more than others to the arbitrary temper, to say--Do thus and thus because I bid you. Therefore they, more than others, owe a debt of gratitude to the rationalistic school for holding, as they do, a brief for human freedom, including the freedom of children in a family. It would seem to be thus that God educates the world. It is not only one good custom, but one infallible principle which may "corrupt a world." Some such principle stands out luminous in the vision of a philosopher; he sees it is truth; it takes possession of him and he believes it to be the whole truth, and urges it to the point of reductio ad absurdum. Then the principle at the opposite pole of thought is similarly illuminated and glorified by a succeeding school of thought; and, later, it is discerned that it is not be either principle, but by both, that men live.

It is by this countercurrent, so to speak, of mind that forces that we have been taught to rectify our notion of authority. Easily within living memory we were upon dangerous ground. We believed that authority was rested in persons, that arbitrary action became such persons, that slavish obedience was good pour les autres. This theory of government we derived from our religion; we believed in the "divine right" of kings and of parents because we believed that the very will of God was an arbitrary will. But we have been taught better; we know now that authority is vested in the office and not in the person, that the moment it is treated as a personal attribute, it is forfeited. We know that a person in authority is a person authorised; and that he who is authorised is under authority. The person under authority holds and fulfils a trust; in so far as he asserts himself, governs upon the impulse of his own will, he ceases to be authoritative and authorized and becomes arbitrary and autocratic. It is autocracy and arbitrary rule which must be enforced, at all points, by a penal code; hence the confusion of thought which exists as to the connection between authority and punishment. The despot rules by terror; he punishes right and left to uphold his unauthorized sway. The person who is vested with authority, on the contrary, requires no rigours of the law to bolster him up, because Authority is behind him; and before him, the corresponding principle of Docility.

We will consider, later, in what practical ways the recognition of these fundamental principles affects the government of a family and the relations between parents and children.

(to be continued)