Letter XXVII. March 20, 1819
My dear Greaves,
If ever an uneducated and totally unassisted mother has it in her power to do so much for her child, how much better qualified must she be, and how much more confidently may she look forward to the results of her maternal exertions if her faculties have been properly developed, and her steps guided by the experience of those who had engaged in that work before her.
The fact, therefore, which I stated in my last letter, far from rendering my proposition questionable, goes directly to confirm its validity and to illustrate its expediency. I therefore repeat it, and I would address it in the strongest language to all those who, like myself, are desirous of bringing about a change in our present insufficient system of education. If you really wish to embark with your facilities, your time, your talents, your influence, in a cause likely to benefit a large portion of your species - if you wish not to be busy in suggesting palliatives but in effecting a permanent cure of the evils under which thousands have sunk, and hundreds of thousands are still suffering; if you wish not merely to erect an edifice that may attract by its splendour, and commemorate your name for a while, but which shall pass away like"the baseless fabric of a vision;" if, on the contrary, you prefer solid improvement to momentary effect and the lasting benefit of many, to the solitary gratification of striking results; let not your attention be diverted by the apparent wants - let it not be totally engrossed by the subordinate ones - but let it at once be directed to the great and general, though little known source from which good or evil flows in quantity incalculable, and rapidity unparallelled to the manner in which the earliest years of childhood are passed, and to the education of those to whose care they are, or ought to be, consigned.
Of all institutions, the most useful is one in which the great business of education is not merely made a means subservient to the various purposes of ordinary life, but in which it is viewed as an object in itself deserving of the most serious attention, and to be brought to the highest perfection; a school in which the pupils are taught to act as teachers, and educated to act as educators; a school, above all, in which the female character is at an early period developed in that direction which enables it to take so prominent a part in early education.
To effect this it is necessary that the female character should be thoroughly understood and adequately appreciated. And on this subject nothing can give a more satisfactory illustration than the observation of a mother who is conscious of her duties, and qualified to fulfil them. In such a mother, the moral dignity of her character, the suavity of her manners, and the firmness of her principles, will not more command our admiration than the happy mixture of judgment and feeling which constitutes the simple but unerring standard of her actions.
It is the great problem in female education to effect this happy union in the mind which is equally far from imposing any restraint on the feelings as it is from warping or biassing the judgment. The marked preponderance of feeling which is manifested in the female character, requires not only the most clearsighted but also the kindest attention from those who wish to bring it into harmony with the development of the faculties of the intellect and the will.
It is a mere prejudice to suppose that the acquirement of knowledge, and the cultivation of the intellect, must either not be solid and comprehensive or that they are apt to take away from the female character its simplicity, and all that renders it truly amiable. Everything depends on the motive from which, and the spirit in which, knowledge is acquired. Let that motive be one that does honour to human nature, and let that spirit be the same which is concomitant to all the graces of the female character,
--"not obvious, not obtrusive, -- but retired,"--
and there will be modesty to ensure solidity of knowledge, and delicacy to guard against the misdirection of sentiment. For an example, I might refer to one of the numerous instances which are not the less striking because they are not extensively known, in which a mother has devoted much of her time and best abilities to the acquirement of some branches of knowledge in which her own education had been defective, but which she conceived to be valuable enough to be brought forward in the education of her own children. This has been the case with individuals highly accomplished in many respects, but still alive to every defect, and desirous of supplying it, if not for their own, at least for the benefit of their children. And no mother has ever been known to have repented of any pains that she took to qualify herself for the most perfect education of those nearest and dearest to her heart. Even without anticipating the future accomplishment of her wishes, by their progress in the path in which she has undertaken to guide them, she is amply repaid by the delight immediately arising from the task,
"To rear the tender thought,
And teach the young idea how to shoot."
I have here supposed the most powerful motive, that of maternal love; but it will be the task of early education to supply motives which even at a tender age may excite an interest in mental exertion, and yet be allied to the best feelings of human nature. (PSW 26, p. 117-119)