Letter XXV. March 5, 1819
My dear Greaves,
To the courses of exercises which I have recommended, I anticipate that an objection will be raised which it is necessary for me to meet before I proceed to speak of intellectual education.
Granting that these exercises may be, as the phrase is, useful in their way; granting even that it might be desirable to see some of the knowledge they are intended to convey, diffused among all classes of society; yet where, it will be asked, and by what means can they be expected to become general among any other than the higher classes? There you may expect to find mothers competent, if at all inclined, to undertake the superintendence of such exercises with their children. But, considering the present state of things, is it not absolutely chimerical to imagine that among the people mothers should be found who are qualified to do anything for their children in that direction?
To this objection I would answer, in the first place, that it is not always legitimate to conclude from the present state of things to [that of] the future; and whenever, as in the case before us, the present state of things can be proved to be faulty, and at the same time capable of improvement, every friend of humanity will concur with me in saying that such a conclusion is inadmissible.
It is inadmissible; for experience speaks against it. The page of history, to a thinking observer, presents mankind labouring under the influence of a chain of prejudice of which the links are successively broken.
The most interesting events in history are but the consummation of things which had been deemed impossible. It is in vain to assign limits to the improvements of ingenuity; (but it is still more so, to circumscribe the exertions of benevolence.) Such a conclusion, then, is inadmissible. And history speaks more directly to the point. The most consequential facts plead in favour of our wishes and our hopes. The most enlightened, the most active philanthropists, two thousand years ago, could not have foreseen the change that has taken place in the intellectual world: they could not have anticipated those facilities by which not only the research of a few is encouraged, but by which the practical results of that research are with wonderful rapidity communicated to thousands in the remotest countries of the globe. They could not have foreseen the glorious inventions by which ignorance and superstition have been driven out of their strong hold, and knowledge and truth diffused in the most universal and the most effective channels. They could not have foreseen that a spirit of enquiry would be excited even among those who had formerly been doomed to blind belief, and to passive obedience.
Indeed, if there is one feature by which this present age bids fair to redeem its character, and to heal the wounds which it has inflicted on the suffering nations, it is this, - that we see efforts made in every direction, with a zeal, and to an extent hitherto unparalleled, to assist the people in acquiring that portion of intellectual independency without which the true dignity of the human character cannot be maintained nor its duties adequately fulfilled. There is something so cheering in the prospect of seeing the number of those for whom it is destined, extending with the range of knowledge itself, that there is scarcely a field left of which men of superior talent have not undertaken to cull the flowers, and to store the fruits for those who have not time or faculty to toil at the elements, or follow up the refinements of science; and the still more material object, to facilitate the first steps, to lay the foundation, to ensure the slow but solid progress, and to do this in the manner best adapted to the nature of the human mind, and to the development of its faculties: - this object has been pursued with an interest and an ardour that even the results which I have seen in my own immediate neighbourhood are a sufficient pledge that the pursuit will not be abandoned, and that it is not now far from its ultimate success.
This prospect is cheering: but, my dear friend, it is not upon this prospect that I have built the hopes of my life. It is not the diffusion of knowledge, whether it be grudgingly doled out in schools on the old plan, or more liberally supplied in establishments on a new principle, or submitted to the examination, and laid open for the improvement of the adults; - it is not the diffusion of knowledge alone to which I look up for the welfare of this or of any generation. No: unless we succeed in giving a new impulse and raising the tone of domestic education; unless an atmosphere of sympathy, elevated by moral and religious feeling, be diffused there; unless maternal love be rendered more instrumental in early education than any other agent; unless mothers will consent to follow the call of their own better feelings more readily than those of pleasure or of thoughtless habit; unless they will consent to be mothers and to act as mothers - unless such be the character of education, all our hopes and exertions can end only in disappointment. Those have indeed widely mistaken the meaning of all my plans, and of those of my friends who suppose that in our labours for popular education we have not an higher end in view than the improvement of a system of instruction, or the perfection, as it were, of the gymnastics of the intellect. We have been busily engaged in reforming the schools, for we consider them as essential in the progress of education: but we consider the fireside circle as far more essential. We have done all in our power to bring up children with a view to become teachers, and we have every reason to congratulate the schools that were benefitted by this plan: but we have thought it the most important feature and the first duty of our own schools, and of every school, to develop in the pupils confided to our care those feelings, and to store their minds with that knowledge which, at a more advanced period of life, may enable them to give all their heart and the unwearied use of their powers to the diffusion of the true spirit which should prevail in a domestic circle. In short, whoever has the welfare of the rising generation at heart cannot do better than consider as his highest object the (education of mothers). (PSW 26, p. 110-113)