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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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Some Thoughts on the Educational Methods of the Last Hundred Years

by Mrs. Harold Barnes
Volume 11, 1900, pgs. 28-33


"Only furnish children with a few simple and harmless materials and a little, but not too much, leisure, and they will manufacture their own pleasures with more skill and success and satisfaction than they will receive from all that your money can purchase. . . But if you begin thus early to create wants, to invent gratifications, to multiply desires, to waken dormant sensibilities, to stir up hidden fires, you are studiously laying up for your children a store of premature caprice and irritability, of impatience and discontent."


We hear a great deal in these days of improved methods of education, both in our schools and at home. Perhaps it may be well for us to look back a few years and see how far we have really progressed. When we see the names of Rousseau, Hannah More or Maria Edgeworth, for instance, we are apt to think they belonged to a by-gone age whose ideas are now quite superseded. The child of to-day knows very little of the rigorous discipline of 50 or 60 years ago. Such treatment, for instance, as that related to me by a lady, who as a child (50 years ago) always ate her meals standing at the table--such a thing as being allowed to sit down with her parents at the same table was unheard of--yet these parents were in many ways indulgent, and cared very much for the welfare and comfort of their children. What child in these days is expected to get up at five o'clock in the morning, summer and winter, and practise for more than an hour without either breakfast or fire, even in the bitterest weather?

I should enjoy seeing the expression on the face of any modern child told to take down from dictation a letter to his parents, saying how much he owed to their kindness and generosity in giving him the advantages of education, and how much he hoped he profited by the opportunities he enjoyed under the able tuition and elevating influence of his preceptors, yet such a letter had to be neatly written by a child of seven (copied many times and with many tears before it was considered fit to be shown), and humbly presented with a bow or curtsey to the father and mother, the first day of the holidays. In these outward observances we have made great changes and, surely, for the most part, great improvements, but let us look, for instance, into the writings of Hannah More.

She had, at the close of last century, a great influence on education generally, and more especially on the education of girls. She was herself a most accomplished woman. Her plays were approved by Sheridan and acted by Garrick. She was the valued friend of all the famous men of her day, both literary men and ecclesiastics. She corresponded with and advised people like Wilberforce or Dr. Porteus, Bishop of London.

About 1780, Mrs. Hannah More and her three sisters removed from Bath to a village called Cowslip Green, in order that they might have more leisure to do the work they had decided to take up. They found the people in the small country villages in a most deplorable condition of neglect, and determined to set up schools of a very simple character in the neighbourhood. Their great idea was that the sort of education needed for these poor people must be of a very simple character, and in a letter to the Bishop of Bath, written in answer to some charges made by an opponent, she says:--

"When I settled in this country thirteen years ago, I found the poor in many of the villages sunk in a deplorable state of ignorance and vice. There were, I think, no Sunday schools in the whole district, expect one in my own parish and another in the adjoining parish of Churchill. This drew me to the more neglected villages whose distance made it very laborious. My plan of instruction is extremely simple and limited. They learn on week days such coarse works as may fit them for servants. I allow of no writing for the poor. My object is to train up the lower classes in habits of industry and piety. I know of no way of teaching morals but by teaching principles: or of inculcating Christian principles without imparting a good knowledge of Scripture. My sisters and I always teach them ourselves every Sunday. By being out about thirteen hours we have generally contrived to visit two schools the same day. When we had more schools, we commonly visited them on a Sunday. The only books we use in teaching are two small tracts called Questions for the Mendip Schools, the Church Catechism, spelling book, Psalter, Common Prayer, Testament and Bible. The little ones repeat Watts' hymns. For many years I have given away annually nearly two hundred Bibles, Prayer Books and Testaments."

It sounds strange to us to hear that writing should not be taught to the poor, but we must remember how much less common reading and writing were in the country at the date of this letter. The schools were very successful and were carried on as long as the four sisters lived. The influence they had was remarkable, and was specially noticed throughout the gradual diminution of crime in the whole district. Hannah More and her sisters may well be considered among the pioneers of elementary education.

Hannah More's attention was not, however, given entirely to the education of the poor. In 1799 she published a book called Strictures on the Modern System of Female Education. It is curious, in reading this book, to find how familiar to us are some of her ideas. Take for instance this sentence in Chapter VI:--

"It can never be too often repeated that one of the great objects of education is the forming of habits."

To readers of the Parents' Review or Home Education, this comes as an old friend. Or, again, her remarks are on the influence of mothers:--

"The great object to which you who are, or may be, mothers are more especially called, is the education of your children. If we are responsible for the use of influence in the case of those over whom we have no immediate control, in the case of our children we are responsible for the exercise of acknowledged power. On you depend, in no small degree, the principles of the whole rising generation. To your direction, the daughters are almost exclusively committed; and until a certain age, to you also is consigned the mighty privilege of forming the hearts and minds of your infant sons. Your private exertions may at this moment be contributing to the future happiness; your domestic neglect, to the future ruin of your country; and may you never forget that religion is the only sure ground of morals; that private principle is the only solid basis of public virtue."

Do we not often ask ourselves this question:--

"If education be a school to fit us for life, and life be a school to fit us for eternity; if such be the chief work and grand end of education, it may then be worth enquiring how far these ends are likely to be effected by the prevailing system."

In these days of universal teaching of a foreign language, it is interesting to hear what she says on this subject:--

"One use of learning languages is, not that we may know what the terms which express the articles of our dress and table are called in French or Italian, not that we may think over a few ordinary phrases in English and then translate them, without one foreign idiom--for he who cannot think in a language cannot be said to understand it--but the great use of acquiring any foreign language is, either that it enables us occasionally to converse with foreigners unacquainted with any other, or that it is a key to the literature of the country to which it belongs."

Also her opinion of what are called accomplishments generally:--

"The science of music which used to be communicated in so competent a degree to a young lady by one able instructor is now distributed among a whole band. I should be accused of exaggeration were I to produce real instances in which the delighted mother has been heard to declare that the visits of masters of every art, and the different masters for various gradations of the same art, followed each other in such close and rapid succession during the whole London residence that her girls had not a moment's interval to look into a book, nor could she contrive any method to introduce one, till she happily devised the scheme of reading to them herself for half and hour while they were drawing, by which means no time was lost."

Some of us are apt to think that the idea of the right place of recreation in the training of a child is quite of modern growth, yet Mrs. More says:--

"Only furnish children with a few simple and harmless materials and a little, but not too much, leisure, and they will manufacture their own pleasures with more skill and success and satisfaction than they will receive from all that your money can purchase. Their bodily recreations should be such as will promote their health, quicken their activity, enliven their spirits, whet their ingenuity and qualify them for mental work. But if you begin thus early to create wants, to invent gratifications, to multiply desires, to waken dormant sensibilities, to stir up hidden fires, you are studiously laying up for your children a store of premature caprice and irritability, of impatience and discontent."

Then how true is her teaching on the training of our daughters for the life they are expected to look forward to. She says:--

"Most men are commonly destined to some profession, and their minds are consequently turned each to its respective object. The profession of ladies to which the bent of their instruction should be turned is that of daughters, wives, mothers, and mistresses of families. For though the arts may claim admiration, yet when a man of sense comes to marry, it is not merely a creature who can paint and play, sing and draw, dress and dance; it is a being who can comfort and counsel him, one who can reason and reflect, feel, judge, discourse and discriminate, one who can assist him in his affairs, lighten his cares, strengthen his principles and educate his children. The great uses of study to a woman are to enable her to regulate her own mind and to be instrumental to the good of others."

In her chapter on discipline, she says:--

"Discipline is not cruelty and restraint is not severity; a discriminating teacher will appreciate the individual character of each pupil. We must strengthen the feeble while we repel the bold. We cannot educate by receipt."

When Dr. Thring went to Uppingham, it was considered a wonderful thing that he should make up his mind that the teaching in his school should take into account the dull boys as well as the clever ones. Yet Hannah More preached against the danger of attending to the clever child rather than the stupid one. "Teachers should reflect that in moderate talents, carefully cultivated, we are perhaps to look for the chief happiness and virtue of society."

How many times we wonder if things are not made too easy for children nowadays. The same fear seems to have occurred to Hannah More. "Where so much is done for them, may they not be led to do too little for themselves?" she asks, "and, besides that, exertion may slacken for want of a spur, may there not be a moral disadvantage in possessing young persons with the notion that learning may be acquired without diligence and knowledge attained without labour? We cannot cheat children into learning or play them into knowledge. There is no idle way to any acquisition which really deserves the name."

After reading these extracts, we may wonder how much further we have travelled along the road of educational ideas. May we not admit at once that the underlying principles of all true education must be the same, and that what has been true in the past will continue to be true in the future? Methods must vary with varying circumstances; principles endure throughout all outward changes.

The principles believed and preached by the few a hundred years ago are, we hope, gradually becoming the commonly accepted creed of the many. Mistakes either on the side of too much teaching or too complicated methods must occur, that the formation of character is everything--the methods of attaining that end varied and ever changing, we shall look forward hopefully to the future and do our best to help on the great cause of true education.


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