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Strictures on the Modern System of Female Education

By Hannah More

  • Transcription, correction, editorial commentary, and markup: Tonya Howe
  • As this little work by no means assumes the character of a general scheme of education, the author has purposely avoided expatiating largely on any kind of instruction; but so far as it is connected, either immediately or remotely, with objects of a moral or religious nature. Of course she has been so far from thinking it necessary to enter into the enumeration of those books which are useful in general instruction, that she has forborne to mention any. With such books the rising generation is far more copiously and ably furnished than any preceding period has [end page 155] been; and out of an excellent variety the judicious instructor can hardly fail to make such a selection as shall be beneficial to the pupil.

    But while due praise ought not to be withheld from the improved methods of communicating the elements of general knowledge; yet is there not some danger that our very advantages may lead us into error, by causing us to repose so confidently on the multiplied helps which facilitate the entrance into learning, as to render our pupils superficial through the very facility of acquirement? Where so much is done for them, may they not be led to do too little for themselves? May there not be a moral disadvantage in possessing them with the notion that learning may be acquired without diligence and labour? Sound education never can be made a "primrose path of dalliance." Do what we will we cannot cheat children into learning or play them into knowledge, according to the smoothness of the modern [end page 156] creed. There is no idle way to any acquisitions which really deserve the name. And as Euclid, in order to repress the impetuous vanity of greatness, told his Sovereign that there was no royal way to geometry, so the fond mother may be assured that there is no short cut to any other kind of learning.The tree of knowledge, as a punishment perhaps, for its having been at first unfairly tasted, cannot now be climbed without difficulty; and this very circumstance serves afterwards to furnish not only literary pleasures, but moral advantages: for the knowledge which is acquired by unwearied assiduity is lasting in the possession, and sweet to the possessor; both perhaps in proportion to the cost and labour of the acquisition. And though an able teacher ought to endeavour, by improving the communicating faculty in himself, (for many know what they cannot teach,) to soften every difficulty; yet in spite of the kindness and ability with which he will smooth every [end page 157] obstruction, it is probably, among the wise institutions of Providence, that great difficulties should still remain. For education is but an initiation into that life of trial to which we are introduced on our entrance into this world. It is the first breaking-in to that state of toil and labour to which we are born; and in this view of the subject the acquisition of learning may be converted to higher uses than such as are purely literary.

    Will it not be ascribed to a captious singularity if I venture to remark that real knowledge and real piety, though they have gained in many instances, have suffered in others from that profusion of little, amusing, sentimental books with which the youthful library overflows? Abundance has its dangers as well as scarcity. In the first place may not the multiplicity of these alluring little works increase the natural reluctance to those more dry and uninteresting studies, of which after all, the rudiments of every [end page 158] part of learning must consist? And, secondly, is there not some danger (though there are many honourable exceptions) that some of those engaging narratives may serve to infuse into the youthful heart a sort of spurious goodness, a confidence of virtue? And that the benevolent actions with the recital of which they abound, when they are not made to flow from any source but feeling, may tend to inspire self-complacency, a self-gratulation, a "stand by, for I am holier than "thou?" May they not help to infuse a love of popularity and an anxiety for praise, in the place of that simple and unostentatious rule of doing whatever good we do, because it is the will of God?The universal substitution of this principle would tend to purify the worldly morality of many a popular little story. And there are few dangers which good parents will more carefully guard against than that of giving their children a mere political piety; that sort of religion which just goes to make [end page 159] people more respectable, and to stand well with the world *.

    There is a certain precocity of mind which is much helped on by these superficial modes of instruction; for frivolous reading will produce its correspondent effect, in much less time than books of solid instruction; the imagination being liable to be worked upon, and the feelings to be set a going, much faster than the understanding can be opened and the judgment enlightened. A talent for conversation should be the result of education, not its precursor; it is a golden fruit when suffered to ripen gradually on the tree of knowledge; but if forced in the [end page 160] hot-bed of a circulating library, it will turn out worthless and vapid in proportion as it was artificial and premature.Girls who have been accustomed to devour frivolous books, will converse and write with a far greater appearance of skill as to style and sentiment at twelve or fourteen years old, than those of a more advanced age who are under the discipline of severer studies; but the former having early attained to that low standard which had been held out to them, became stationary; while the latter, quietly progressive, are passing through just gradations to a higher strain of mind; and those who early begin with talking and writing like women, commonly end with thinking and acting like children.

    The swarms of Abridgments, Beauties, aud Compendiums, which form too considerable a part of a young lady's library, may be considered in many instances as an infallible receipt for making a superficial mind. The names of the renowned characters [end page 161] in history thus become familiar in the mouths of those who can neither attach to the idea of the person, the series of his actions, nor the peculiarities of his character. A few fine passages from the poets (passages perhaps which derived their chief beauty from their position and connection) are huddled together by some extract-maker, whose brief and disconnected patches of broken and discordant materials, while they inflame young readers with the vanity of reciting, neither fill the mind nor form the taste: and it is not difficult to trace back to their shallow sources the hackney'd quotations of certain accomplished young ladies, who will be frequently found not to have come legitimately by any thing they know: I mean, not to have drawn it from its true spring, the original works of the author from which some beauty-monger has severed it. Human inconsistency in this, as in other cases, wants to combine two irreconcileable things; it strives to unite the reputation [end page 162] of knowledge with the pleasures of idleness, forgetting that nothing that is valuable can be obtained without sacrifices, and that if we would purchase knowledge we must pay for it the fair and lawful price of time and industry.

    This remark is by no means of general application; there are many valuable works which from their bulk would be almost inaccessible to a great number of readers, and a considerable part of which may not be generally useful. Even in the best written books there is often superfluous matter; authors are apt to get enamoured of their subject, and to dwell too long on it: every person cannot find time to read a longer work on any subject, and yet it may be well for them to know something on almost every subject; those therefore, who abridge voluminous works judiciously, render service to the community. But there seems, if I may venture the remark, to be a mistake in the use of abridgments. They are put systematically [end page 163] into the hands of youth, who have, or ought to have leisure for the works at large; while abridgments seem more immediately calculated for persons in more advanced life, who wish to recal something they had forgotten; who want to restore old ideas rather than acquire new ones; or they are useful for persons immersed in the business of the world who have little leisure for voluminous reading. They are excellent to refresh the mind, but not competent to form it.

    Perhaps there is some analogy between the mental and bodily conformation of women. The instructor therefore should imitate the physician. If the latter prescribe bracing medicines for a body of which delicacy is the disease, the former would do well to prohibit relaxing reading for a mind which is already of too soft a texture, and should strengthen its feeble tone by invigorating reading.

    By softness, I cannot be supposed to mean imbecility of understanding, but [end page 164] natural softness of heart, with that indolence of spirit which is fostered by indulging in seducing books and in the general habits of fashionable life.

    I mean not here to recommend books which are immediately religious, but such as exercise the reasoning faculties, teach the mind to get acquainted with its own nature, and to stir up its own powers. Let not a timid young lady start if I should venture to recommend to her, after a proper course of preparation, to swallow and digest such strong meat, as Watts's or Duncan's little book of Logic, some parts of Mr. Locke's Essay on the Human Understanding, and Bishop Butler's Analogy. Where there is leisure, and capacity, and an able counsellor, works of this nature might be profitably substituted in the place of so much English Sentiment, French Philosophy, Italian Poetry, and fantastic German imagery and magic wonders. While such enervating or absurd books sadly disqualify the reader for solid pursuit or vigorous [end page 165] thinking, the studies here recommended would act upon the constitution of the mind as a kind of alterative, and, if I may be allowed the expression, would help to brace the intellectual stamina.

    This is however by no means intended to exclude works of taste and imagination, which must always make the ornamental part, and of course a very considerable part of female studies. It is only suggested that they should not form them entirely. For what is called dry tough reading, independent of the knowledge it conveys, is useful as an habit and wholesome as an exercise. Serious study serves to harden the mind for more trying conflicts; it lifts the reader from sensation to intellect; it abstracts her from the world and its vanities; it fixes a wandering spirit, and fortifies a weak one; it divorces her from matter; it corrects that spirit of trifling which she naturally contracts from the frivolous turn of female conversation, [end page 166] and the petty nature of female employments; it concentrates her attention, assists her in a habit of excluding trivial thoughts, and thus even helps to qualify her for religious pursuits. Yes; I repeat it, there is to woman a Christian use to be made of sober studies; while books of an opposite cast, however unexceptionable they may be sometimes found in point of expression; however free from evil in its more gross and palpable shapes, yet by their very nature and constitution they excite a spirit of relaxation, by exhibiting scenes and ideas which soften the mind; they impair its general powers of resistance, and at best feed habits of improper indulgence, and nourish a vain and visionary indolence, which lays the mind open to error and the heart to seduction.

    Women are little accustomed to close reasoning on any subject; still less do they inure their minds to consider particular [end page 167] parts of a subject; they are not habituated to turn a truth round and view it in all its varied aspects and positions; and this perhaps is one cause (as will be observed in another * place) of the too great confidence they are disposed to place in their opinions. Though their imagination is already too lively, and their judgment naturally incorrect; in educating them we go on to stimulate the imagination, while we neglect the regulation of the judgment.They already want ballast, and we make their education consist in continually crowding more sail than they can carry. Their intellectual powers being so little strengthened by exercise, makes every little business appear a hardship to them: whereas serious study would be useful, were it only that it leads the mind to the habit of conquering difficulties. But it is peculiarly hard to turn at once from [end page 168] the indolent repose of light reading, from the concerns of mere animal life, the objects of sense, or the frivolousness of chit chat; it is peculiarly hard, I say, to a mind so softened, to rescue itself from the dominion of self-indulgence, to resume its powers, to call home its scattered strength, to shut out every foreign intrusion, to force back a spring so unnaturally bent, and to devote itself to religious reading, reflection, or self-examination: whereas to an intellect accustomed to think at all the difficulty of thinking seriously is obviously lessened.

    Far be it from me to desire to make scholastic ladies or female dialecticians; but there is little fear that the kind of books here recommended, if thoroughly studied, and not superficially skimmed, will make them pedants or induce conceit; for by shewing them the possible powers of the human mind, you will bring them to see the littleness of their own, and to [end page 169] get acquainted with the mind and to regulate it, does not seem the way to puff it up. But let her who is disposed to be elated with her literary acquisitions, check her vanity by calling to mind the just remark of Swift, that after all her boasted acquirements, a woman will, generally speaking, be found to possess less of what is called learning than a common school-boy.

    Neither is there any fear that this sort of reading will convert ladies into authors. The direct contrary effect will be likely to be produced by the perusal of writers who throw the generality of readers at such an unapproachable distance. Who are those ever multiplying authors, that with unparalleled fecundity are overstocking the world with their quick succeeding progeny? They are novel writers; the easiness of whose productions is at once the cause of their own fruitfulness, and of the almost infinitely numerous race of imitators to [end page 170] whom they give birth.Such is the frightful facility of this species of composition, that every raw girl while she reads, is tempted to fancy that she can also write. And as Alexander, on perusing the Iliad, found by congenial sympathy the image of Achilles in his own ardent soul, and felt himself the hero he was studying; and as Corregio, on first beholding a picture which exhibited the perfection of the Graphic art, prophetically felt all his own future greatness, and cried out in rapture, "And I too am a painter!" so a thorough paced novel reading Miss, at the close of every tissue of hackney'd adventures, feels within herself the stirring impulse of corresponding genius, and triumphantly exclaims, "And I too am an author!—"The glutted imagination soon overflows with the redundance of cheap sentiment and plentiful incident, and by a sort of arithmetical proportion, is enabled by the perusal of any three [end page 171] novels to produce a fourth; till every fresh production, like the progeny of Banquo, is followed by Another, and another, and another * Is a lady, however destitute of talents, education, or knowledge of the world, whose studies have been completed by a circulating library, in any distress of mind? the writing a novel suggests itself as the best soother of her sorrows! Does she labour under any depression of circumstances? writing a novel occurs as the readiest receipt for mending them!And she solaces herself with the conviction that [end page 172] the subscription which has been given to her importunity or her necessities, has been given to her genius. And this confidence instantly levies a fresh contribution for a succeeding work. Capacity and cultivation are so little taken into the account, that writing a book seems to be now considered as the only sure resource which the idle and the illiterate have always in their power.

    May I be indulged in a short digression to remark, though rather out of its place, that the corruption occasioned by these books has spread so wide, and descended so low, that not only among milleners, mantua-makers, and other trades where numbers work together, the labour of one girl is frequently sacrificed that she may be spared to read those mischievous books to the others; but the Author has been assured by clergymen, who have witnessed the fact, that they are procured and greedily read in the wards of our Hospitals! an awful hint, that those who [end page 173] teach the poor to read, should not only take care to furnish them with principles which will lead them to abhor corrupt books, but should also furnish them with such books as shall strengthen and confirm their principles *. And let every Christian remember, that there is no other way of entering truly into the spirit of that divine prayer, which petitions that the name of God may be "hallowed," that his kingdom (of grace) may come, and that his will may be done on earth as it [end page 174] is in heaven, than by each individual contributing according to his measure to accomplish the work for which he prays; for to pray that these great objects may be promoted, without contributing to their promotion, is a palpable inconsistency.

    Sources

  • London: Printed for T. Cadell Jun. and W. Davies in the Strand. 1799. 2v. ; 8⁰. . First edition. This object is in the Library of Congress.
  • Public domain electronic facsimile copy: University of Michigan ECCO-TCP. . Link .
  • More information on available editions is available through the English Short Title Catalog and Eighteenth-Century Book Tracker.

    Editorial Statements

  • This text is prepared as part of the Literature in Context project, which provides an accessible, curated, and marked-up selection of primary sources relevant to the study and the teaching of British and American literature of the 18th century. This project is funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and developed by faculty at The University of Virginia and Marymount University.
  • Materials have been transcribed from and checked against first editions, where possible. See the Sources section.
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