The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Report of the Annual Meeting

Volume 7, 1896, pgs. 382-389

The Annual Conversazione of the Parents' National Educational Union took place on June 11th, at the Portman Rooms, and a larger and more representative gathering assembled than in any former year. In the unavoidable absence of the President, the Earl of Meath, the chair was taken by Dr. Schofield, who said,--

"Ladies and gentlemen, I have great pleasure in giving a hearty welcome to this meeting of the P.N.E.U., and must apologise for the unavoidable absence of our President, Lord Meath (on account of ill-health), whose place I occupy to-night." He then went on to say, that with the highest development of the human race, this Union was the more necessary. In a state of savagery, the emancipation from parental control was at a very early age, and there was no training for the formation of character and the development of the faculties of the child. There was no art for which so little training was given as for child training and child culture: only the mother-wit was left to contend with the difficulties of the task, and it was the effort of the P.N.E.U. to help the father and mother to fulfil it. The Society had been accused of being nebulous, and if being nebulous meant that it was without fetters or shackles, it certainly meant to be nebulous, for it declined to be identified with any particular school or views: its aim being to gather together all that might help parents. He did not agree with English psychologists who limited mind to consciousness. The Germans were in advance of us in this matter, and realized the importance of unconscious influence, which, compared with the old methods of pressure and precept, was of enormous value. A child's surroundings had much to do with the formation of good habits, and this more excellent way was a field yet to be explored.

The Chairman then spoke of the lines on which new branches of the P.N.E.U. should be formed, and dwelt on the power of the Parents' Review as containing living thoughts and ideas.

Miss Charlotte Mason, who was warmly received, said, "Mr. Chairman, ladies and gentlemen, it is an immense delight to me to meet so many friends, and to know that they are all joined together in this great work, for even if a few are visitors and not members of the P.N.E.U., all are people interested in its objects, and doing something definitely for its prosperity. I have been asked to speak of our future. Now, it is difficult to take the prophet's place when the future may belie one's predictions; but, before speaking of our future, let us try to realise our present. We are a little bit phenomenal. It is, at least, nine years since we started, whether nine or ten, I am not sure, for we did not write down the birthday of the P.N.E.U., and it is an interesting thing to observe that, of the branches, those that were started eight or nine years ago are continually putting forth new ideas and increasing in numbers. In looking over the Report, I notice one branch that has had an increase in the number of lectures because of the demand for them, and this particular branch is now eight years old.

"There are certain indications of vital growth which tell equally in the life of a society and of an individual--it feeds, grows, and produces. (1) Our Society feeds on new ideas. (2) It grows both by putting forth new branches, new members to each living branch, and new activities, both at the centre and in the branches. (3) It produces in many ways, not the least important of which is a new public opinion on the subject of the bringing up of children: we may venture to add, too, children brought up from their birth on the principles of P.N.E.U., and young people who have been trained on those principles since they were children.

"People have quite got over the notion of ridiculing our existence, and asking if we have the characteristic of sanity. There was a danger when we began of treating the Society as a new thing--a sort of pro-parent--that would usurp the place of parents and undertake their work. It used to be said that parents were hopeless, and our only hope was in the children. On the contrary, the first article of our social creed is belief in parents, who, by virtue of their position, must be the wisest persons in the world. Personally, I can rarely remember coming across great want of sense in a parent, and I am sure parents have shown their kindness in taking in to their counsel at least one person who is not a parent.

"Now it is a proof of the sanity of the Society that it believes in the sanity of parents. 'Sweet reasonableness' is the note of the Union. In the early days there was much anxiety lest so promising a field as a Society of parents should be appropriated by the empiric in education and the eclectic in religion, but we have steered clear of Scylla and Charybdis and have gone on in great quietness, not advertised, not interviewed, not even photographed, but increasing by our own inherent power--the vital principle which we believe that as a Society we possess, and because of which we look forward to ever increasing influence and activities.

"My next claim for the P.N.E.U. will strike you as a boastful one; nevertheless I venture to say, though with fear and trembling, that as a Society we are humble. The students of the House of Education have chosen as their badge, L'Umile Pianta of Dante; and, indeed, we all take the attitude of pilgrims, girding ourselves with 'the humble plant' in preparation for a difficult ascent.

"We are not a Society above being taught, but we distinguish between more opinion and knowledge.

"We are not eager to give our opinions, and we are chary of relating our experiences with our own children, for if we proclaim to the world the faults and failings of Tommy and Fanny, we may find in the future that Tommy and Fanny object to having been labelled for life; so we observe a wise reticence.

"But we are keen for knowledge; and as in every community there are persons who know more than the rest on certain subjects, our endeavour is to discover these and to learn what they have to teach. The Society stretches out feelers in every direction to draw in all that is to be had of ideas, knowledge and experience. We prefer to let new ideas take root, first to listen, learn, digest, then to talk.

"Medical men and medical women have come to our aid, the clergy, teachers, naturalists, specialists, and, best of all, thoughtful and experienced parents; and I venture to say that we have got together in the Parents' Review a body of living educational thought, such as has hardly been collected before in the world; and, as our chairman said, we have ideas.

"One great testimony in our favour is that authors, who commonly have their articles in the Contemporary or The Nineteenth Century Reviews, send them to the Parents' Review, though we are not rich enough to pay contributors, because they know that among our readers they will find a keenly appreciative public.

"I should like to emphasise this aspect of our Union: we claim to call forth the best thought of the best thinkers on that subject which is most important to the race--the upbringing of the children. The mere existence of a vehicle to carry such thoughts to a sympathetic audience is the occasion which calls them into existence: we think as the springs of thought are touched from without. The P.N.E.U., whether in its meetings or its magazine, is a unique vehicle for living educational thought; and we have collected an invaluable body of such thought, which would, in all probability, never have been formulated but for our existence.

"I have, so far, ventured to claim that we are living, that we are sane, and that we are humble people eager to know what is best; we are simple, and not unwilling to learn from whosoever has anything to teach us, though it is true we look straight in the face of a lecturer at a branch meeting, and demand that he shall have something to teach us; if he has not, we do not care to listen to mere opinions, for we are in earnest.

"Another of our distinguishing features is our direct teaching. The kind of knowledge which we impart is concerned with, as a gentleman on the platform has expressed it, 'Nature and Human Nature.'

"This phrase covers our scheme of education, and indicates our peculiar standpoint. The knowledge of Nature which we give is of living Nature. We are far more anxious that a child should know the gesture and habitat of a flower, in the first instance, than that he should begin by examining its structure. If I wish to know all about my friend Mrs. Jones, I visit her and especially see what she is in her home, and thus learn far more about her than if I saw her under the hand of the dissector.

"We venerate life exceedingly, and are unwilling to destroy it in any form. We prefer that our children should study the flowers of the field, and reproduce, however feebly, their tender grace of gesture, their purity of tint, than that they should be prepared to pass a difficult examination in scientific botany--highly as we value the latter kind of knowledge in its due time, that is, after children have acquired what we may call a personal acquaintance with Nature. All interest in life is a source of life, and study should be a means of fuller life. We do not care about collections except so far as they lead on to love of living Nature.

"Nature-study always follows the formation of a Branch of the Society in any place. When knowledge is derived from text-books, children are satisfied, and never ask questions about what they learn, because the dead matter of the text-book induces a condition of mental lethargy in the learner; but when children are brought into touch with living Nature, their curiosity is insatiable, and their love grows with that it feeds on.

"A lady remarked the other day that a walk which used to be dull and uninteresting to her before she belonged to the P.N.E.U. was now a source of the greatest delight, for to recognise the redstart, or find the nest of the paper-wasp, was a greater pleasure than to meet a lion of society.

"In history and literature, the study is carried on, not from text-books or Little Arthurs, but, so far as possible, from the original authors, whose thought is living; we seek our information, not from a person who got it from a book a little bigger than his, which was compiled from a still bigger book, and so indefinitely, till every atom of life had gone out of it, and though it be written in the Queen's English, more or less, it is, nevertheless, in a dead language. That which is to feed thought must itself be living thought.

"A lady, probably now in the room, wrote the other day that her children's lessons conducted in this way were an absolute delight, and that four hours sped like two. When God implanted in us the desire of knowledge it was that knowledge should be a delight. All knowledge with us is living, and this is the principle which underlies our study of history and literature. We prefer, in the study of Shakespere for example, to read the author himself rather than endless foot-notes.

"In all our studies we look for the development of human nature. Lately a war has been waged between the advocates of Secular and Religious Education. I do not propose to speak of these in the usual sense, but only to say that all dead education from text-books and learnt-up notes may be classed as secular, and all living thought we venture to call sacred.

"Do you remember that Ruskin points out that Florence said in the Age of Faith: 'I willed, and sense was given unto me; I prayed, and the Spirit of Wisdom came upon me.' [The Book of Wisdom 7:7-12] This is the thought expressed in one of the frescoes of the Spanish Chapel. [View the fresco here.] First there is pictured the Descent of the Holy Spirit; underneath are the Apostles, under that the prophets and holy men of old, then under them the seven cardinal virtues. Then comes the scheme of the seven Ecclesiastical and the seven Liberal Arts--Grammar, Logic, Rhetoric, Music, Astronomy, Euclid, Arithmetic--again, underneath we find Zoroaster under Astronomy, Euclid under Geometry, Aristotle under Logic, Cicero under Eloquence, Tubal Cain under Music, &c.; the captain of each science under the symbolic figure of the sciences. In our narrow view, we should call these leaders of thought Pagans. Florence thought otherwise when she believed in learning from the Living Fount of all knowledge and all wisdom.

The P.N.E.U. desires to follow on these lines, and we venture humble to think that the qualities of sanity, humility and vitality which we discern in our Union are evidences that the Spirit of Wisdom has come upon us, too, in our measure. We say this, not in any spirit of self-praise or mutual admiration, but because the sense that our work is receiving sanction and guidance should be the very strongest incentive to greater zeal on our part, both in the way of spreading our principles and of endeavouring ourselves. Believing seriously that our Society has a vocation--to use the word in the sense it bears in another communion than ours--we feel that it is not to be taken up casually and laid down lightly. Membership in the Union certainly lays serious duties upon each individual.

"Attendance at lectures, study, and especially the diligent reading of the Parents' Review, reflection, and earnest endeavour to carry out in our families the principles of our Society are obvious duties of membership. Not less obvious and binding upon us is the duty of propagation. If we believe that to establish a branch in any neighbourhood is to focus, as it were, the best public opinion on the bringing up of children in that neighbourhood, and to raise the conception of parental duty both among members and outsiders, why, it follows that we should make really strenuous efforts to launch our Union in every neighbourhood to which we possess a key in the shape of a promising friend who lives there. I wish we believed more in other people! To say, 'Oh! so and so cares for none of these things,' is really to say, 'I, personally, am capable of much more enthusiasm than is so and so.' Now, as a matter of fact, every living soul is capable of this elemental enthusiasm on the subject of education. Rousseau believed this, and produced a wonderful revival in parental feeling and effort, which led mothers in society to give up every claim and devote themselves to the teaching of their children. Let us believe in other parents, and we shall have courage to speak with the enthusiasm we feel, and shall not be disappointed in the result. Munitions of war in the shape of reports, occasional papers, specimen copies of the Review are to be had at the office free of charge; and if we do nothing to spread the movement, it comes, as we have said, to this--that we think we are more capable of enthusiasm than our neighbours. There is probably no neighbourhood in Great Britain where a branch could not be formed and heartily supported, if a single person in the neighbourhood were sufficiently fired with enthusiasm to undertake the work of secretary; and I know of no work that makes one so happy in the doing. Let our vision for the future of the P.N.E.U. be a great University of Parents, with a College (i.e. Branch) in every neighbourhood. Thank you for your most kind and encouraging attention, and forgive me for having kept you so long."

Mrs. Dallas Yorke, Lady Visitor to the House of Education, who distributed the certificates (her valuable and beautiful gift to the College), explained that the students were to hold the certificate, now received in pledge only until they should get it in its amended form, as the graceful figure of the recumbent mother, which the artist considered necessary to the composition, was opposed to the teaching of the P.N.E.U., and the artist had kindly undertaken to revise his work. Mrs. Dallas Yorke spoke of the work at the House of Education, describing the beautiful grounds and the pleasant life of the students, and saying how much she had been pleased in her recent visit by the simplicity which characterised the students, which she thought denoted a high ideal. Mrs. Dallas Yorke dwelt especially on the advantage the students enjoyed in Mrs. Firth's inspiring teaching, which is thus modestly described in the prospectus. "The students have also weekly instructions in art, chiefly Italian, at the house of a friend, and the opportunity of seeing reproductions of those pictures and buildings described by Mr. Ruskin: they thus become acquainted, to some extent, with his ethical and artistic teaching, and prepared to guide the taste of their pupils, and to enjoy foreign travel with perceptive minds, and hearts 'more deeply satisfied and more divinely athirst.' "

The Lady Visitor's final words to the students were very impressive. She bade them remember that upon each one of them rested the good name of the House of Education, and, indeed, of the whole movement: that if there were fifty earnest and successful students at work, and one careless and ineffective, the careless and thoughtless ex-student would represent the House of Education for an immense number of people. [A full report of the Lady Visitor's address will appear in the August number of the Parents' Review.]

Mrs. Steinthal said we had so good a Chairman that he had anticipated all the points upon which she had been asked to speak, and added a little practical advice about the formation of Branches.

Mr. Rooper proposed a vote of thanks to the speakers. He referred pleasantly to the history of the movement with its three great departures:--the Union, the Parents' Review, and the House of Education--with all of which he had been intimately connected from the very beginning. He testified warmly to the educational value of the House at Ambleside.

Mr. Flower, speaking as the father of one of them, on behalf of the ex-students, seconded the vote of thanks, after which followed a very pleasant social evening, when members of country Branches became known to those of the London Branches, and when people make acquaintance with those who had been no more than interesting names to them before. There was a general feeling that this Conversazione would give great impetus to the movement,--would quicken the zeal of the zealous and stir up the indifferent.

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