Hannah More

On education

I have not the foolish presumption to imagine, that I can offer any thing new on a subject, which has been so successfully treated by many learned and able writers. I would only, with all possible deference, beg leave to hazard a few short remarks on that part of the subject of education, which I would call the education of the heart. I am well aware, that this part also has not been less skilfully and forcibly discussed than the rest, though I cannot, at the same time, help remarking, that it does not appear to have been so much adopted into common practice.

It appears then, that notwithstanding the great and real improvements, which have been made in the affair of female education, and notwithstanding the more enlarged and generous views of it, which prevail in the present day, that there is still a very material defect, which it is not, in general, enough the object of attention to remove. This defect seems to consist in this, that too little regard is paid to the dispositions of the mind, that the indications of the temper are not properly cherished, nor the affections of the heart sufficiently regulated.

In the first education of girls, as far as the customs which fashion establishes are right, they should undoubtedly be followed. Let the exterior be made a considerable object of attention, but let it not be the principal, let it not be the only one.—She w.—Let the arms, the head, the whole person be carefully polished, but let not the heart be the only portion of the human anatomy, which shall be totally overlooked.

The neglect of this cultivation seems to proceed as much from a bad taste, as from a false principle. The generality of people form their judgment of education by slight and sudden appearances, which is certainly a wrong way of determining. Music, dancing, and languages, gratify those who teach them, by perceptible and almost immediate effects; and when there happens to be no imbecillity in the pupil, nor deficiency in the matter, every superficial observer can, in some measure, judge of the progress.—The effects of most of these accomplishments address themselves to the senses; and there are more who can see and hear, than there are who can judge and reflect.

Personal perfection is not only more obvious, it is also more rapid; and even in very accomplished characters, elegance usually precedes principle.

But the heart, that natural seat of evil propensities, that little troublesome empire of the passions, is led to what is right by slow motions and imperceptible degrees. It must be admonished by reproof, and allured by kindness. Its liveliest advances are frequently impeded by the obstinacy of prejudice, and its brightest promises often obscured by the tempests of passion. It is slow in its acquisition of virtue, and reluctant in its approaches to piety.

There is another reason, which proves this mental cultivation to be more important, as well as more difficult, than any other part of education. In the usual fashionable accomplishments, the business of acquiring them is almost always getting forwards, and one difficulty is conquered before another is suffered to shew itself; for a prudent teacher will level the road his pupil is to pass, and smooth the inequalities which might retard her progress.

But in morals, (which should be the great object constantly kept in view) the talk is far more difficult. The unruly and turbulent desires of the heart are not so obedient; one passion will start up before another is suppressed. The subduing Hercules cannot cut off the heads so often as the prolific Hydra can produce them, nor fell the stubborn Ant├Žus so fast as he can recruit his strength, and rise in vigorous and repeated opposition.

If all the accomplishments could be bought at the price of a single virtue, the purchase would be infinitely dear! And, however startling it may sound, I think it is, notwithstanding, true, that the labours of a good and wise mother, who is anxious for her daughter’s most important interests, will seem to be at variance with those of her instructors. She will doubtless rejoice at her progress in any polite art, but she will rejoice with trembling:—humility and piety form the solid and durable basis, on which she wishes to raise the superstructure of the accomplishments, while the accomplishments themselves are frequently of that unsteady nature, that if the foundation is not secured, in proportion as the building is enlarged, it will be overloaded and destroyed by those very ornaments, which were intended to embellish, what they have contributed to ruin.

The more ostensible qualifications should be carefully regulated, or they will be in danger of putting to flight the modest train of retreating virtues, which cannot safely subsist before the bold eye of public observation, or bear the bolder tongue of impudent and audacious flattery. A tender mother cannot but feel an honest triumph, in contemplating those excellencies in her daughter which deserve applause, but she will also shudder at the vanity which that applause may excite, and at those hitherto unknown ideas which it may awaken.

The master, it is his interest, and perhaps his duty, will naturally teach a girl to set her improvements in the most conspicuous point of light. Se faire valoir is the great principle industriously inculcated into her young heart, and seems to be considered as a kind of fundamental maxim in education. It is however the certain and effectual seed, from which a thousand yet unborn vanities will spring. This dangerous doctrine (which yet is not without its uses) will be counteracted by the prudent mother, not in so many words, but by a watchful and scarcely perceptible dexterity. Such an one will be more careful to have the talents of her daughter cultivated than exhibited.

One would be led to imagine, by the common mode of female education, that life consisted of one universal holiday, and that the only contest was, who should be best enabled to excel in the sports and games that were to be celebrated on it. Merely ornamental accomplishments will but indifferently qualify a woman to perform the duties of life, though it is highly proper she should possess them, in order to furnish the amusements of it. But is it right to spend so large a portion of life without some preparation for the business of living? A lady may speak a little French and Italian, repeat a few passages in a theatrical tone, play and sing, have her dressing-room hung with her own drawings, and her person covered with her own tambour work, and may, notwithstanding, have been very badly educated. Yet I am far from attempting to depreciate the value of these qualifications: they are most of them not only highly becoming, but often indispensably necessary, and a polite education cannot be perfected without them. But as the world seems to be very well apprised of their importance, there is the less occasion to insist on their utility. Yet, though well-bred young women should learn to dance, sing, recite and draw, the end of a good education is not that they may become dancers, singers, players or painters: its real object is to make them good daughters, good wives, good mistresses, good members of society, and good christians. The above qualifications therefore are intended to adorn their leisure, not to employ their lives; for an amiable and wise woman will always have something better to value herself on, than these advantages, which, however captivating, are still but subordinate parts of a truly excellent character.

But I am afraid parents themselves sometimes contribute to the error of which I am complaining. Do they not often set a higher value on those acquisitions which are calculated to attract observation, and catch the eye of the multitude, than on those which are valuable, permanent, and internal? Are they not sometimes more solicitous about the opinion of others, respecting their children, than about the real advantage and happiness of the children themselves? To an injudicious and superficial eye, the best educated girl may make the least brilliant figure, as she will probably have less flippancy in her manner, and less repartee in her expression; and her acquirements, to borrow bishop Sprat’s idea, will be rather enamelled than embossed. But her merit will be known, and acknowledged by all who come near enough to discern, and have taste enough to distinguish. It will be understood and admired by the man, whose happiness she is one day to make, whose family she is to govern, and whose children she is to educate. He will not seek for her in the haunts of dissipation, for he knows he shall not find her there; but he will seek for her in the bosom of retirement, in the practice of every domestic virtue, in the exertion of every amiable accomplishment, exerted in the shade, to enliven retirement, to heighten the endearing pleasures of social intercourse, and to embellish the narrow but charming circle of family delights. To this amiable purpose, a truly good and well educated young lady will dedicate her more elegant accomplishments, instead of exhibiting them to attract admiration, or depress inferiority.

Young girls, who have more vivacity than understanding, will often make a sprightly figure in conversation. But this agreeable talent for entertaining others, is frequently dangerous to themselves, nor is it by any means to be desired or encouraged very early in life. This immaturity of wit is helped on by frivolous reading, which will produce its effect in much less time than books of solid instruction; for the imagination is touched sooner than the understanding; and effects are more rapid as they are more pernicious. Conversation should be the result of education, not the precursor of it. It is a golden fruit, when suffered to grow gradually on the tree of knowledge; but if precipitated by forced and unnatural means, it will in the end become vapid, in proportion as it is artificial.

The best effects of a careful and religious education are often very remote: they are to be discovered in future scenes, and exhibited in untried connexions. Every event of life will be putting the heart into fresh situations, and making demands on its prudence, its firmness, its integrity, or its piety. Those whose business it is to form it, can foresee none of these situations; yet, as far as human wisdom will allow, they must enable it to provide for them all, with an humble dependence on the divine assistance. A well-disciplined soldier must learn and practise all his evolutions, though he does not know on what service his leader may command him, by what foe he shall be attacked, nor what mode of combat the enemy may use.

One great art of education consists in not suffering the feelings to become too acute by unnecessary awakening, nor too obtuse by the want of exertion. The former renders them the source of calamity, and totally ruins the temper; while the latter blunts and debases them, and produces a dull, cold, and selfish spirit. For the mind is an instrument, which, if wound too high, will lose its sweetness, and if not enough strained, will abate of its vigour.

How cruel is it to extinguish by neglect or unkindness, the precious sensibility of an open temper, to chill the amiable glow of an ingenuous soul, and to quench the bright flame of a noble and generous spirit! These are of higher worth than all the documents of learning, of dearer price than all the advantages, which can be derived from the most refined and artificial mode of education.

But sensibility and delicacy, and an ingenuous temper, make no part of education, exclaims the pedagogue—they are reducible to no class—they come under no article of instruction—they belong neither to languages nor to music.—What an error! They are a part of education, and of infinitely more value,

Than all their pedant discipline e’er knew.

It is true, they are ranged under no class, but they are superior to all; they are of more esteem than languages or music, for they are the language of the heart, and the music of the according passions. Yet this sensibility is, in many instances, so far from being cultivated, that it is not uncommon to see those who affect more than usual sagacity, cast a smile of supercilious pity, at any indication of a warm, generous, or enthusiastic temper in the lively and the young; as much as to say, “they will know better, and will have more discretion when they are older.” But every appearance of amiable simplicity, or of honest shame, Nature’s hasty conscience, will be dear to sensible hearts; they will carefully cherish every such indication in a young female; for they will perceive that it is this temper, wisely cultivated, which will one day make her enamoured of the loveliness of virtue, and the beauty of holiness: from which she will acquire a taste for the doctrines of religion, and a spirit to perform the duties of it. And those who wish to make her ashamed of this charming temper, and seek to dispossess her of it, will, it is to be feared, give her nothing better in exchange. But whoever reflects at all, will easily discern how carefully this enthusiasm is to be directed, and how judiciously its redundances are to be lopped away.

Prudence is not natural to children; they can, however, substitute art in its stead. But is it not much better that a girl should discover the faults incident to her age, than conceal them under this dark and impenetrable veil? I could almost venture to assert, that there is something more becoming in the very errors of nature, where they are undisguised, than in the affectation of virtue itself, where the reality is wanting. And I am so far from being an admirer of prodigies, that I am extremely apt to suspect them; and am always infinitely better pleased with Nature in her more common modes of operation. The precise and premature wisdom, which some girls have cunning enough to assume, is of a more dangerous tendency than any of their natural failings can be, as it effectually covers those secret bad dispositions, which, if they displayed themselves, might be rectified. The hypocrisy of assuming virtues which are not inherent in the heart, prevents the growth and disclosure of those real ones, which it is the great end of education to cultivate.

But if the natural indications of the temper are to be suppressed and stifled, where are the diagnostics, by which the state of the mind is to be known? The wise Author of all things, who did nothing in vain, doubtless intended them as symptoms, by which to judge of the diseases of the heart; and it is impossible diseases should be cured before they are known. If the stream be so cut off as to prevent communication, or so choked up as to defeat discovery, how shall we ever reach the source, out of which are the issues of life?

This cunning, which, of all the different dispositions girls discover, is most to be dreaded, is increased by nothing so much as by fear. If those about them express violent and unreasonable anger at every trivial offence, it will always promote this temper, and will very frequently create it, where there was a natural tendency to frankness. The indiscreet transports of rage, which many betray on every slight occasion, and the little distinction they make between venial errors and premeditated crimes, naturally dispose a child to conceal, what she does not however care to suppress. Anger in one will not remedy the faults of another; for how can an instrument of sin cure sin? If a girl is kept in a state of perpetual and slavish terror, she will perhaps have artifice enough to conceal those propensities which she knows are wrong, or those actions which she thinks are most obnoxious to punishment. But, nevertheless, she will not cease to indulge those propensities, and to commit those actions, when she can do it with impunity.

Good dispositions, of themselves, will go but a very little way, unless they are confirmed into good principles. And this cannot be effected but by a careful course of religious instruction, and a patient and laborious cultivation of the moral temper.

But, notwithstanding girls should not be treated with unkindness, nor the first openings of the passions blighted by cold severity; yet I am of opinion, that young females should be accustomed very early in life to a certain degree of restraint. The natural cast of character, and the moral distinctions between the sexes, should not be disregarded, even in childhood. That bold, independent, enterprising spirit, which is so much admired in boys, should not, when it happens to discover itself in the other sex, be encouraged, but suppressed. Girls should be taught to give up their opinions betimes, and not pertinaciously to carry on a dispute, even if they should know themselves to be in the right. I do not mean, that they should be robbed of the liberty of private judgment, but that they should by no means be encouraged to contract a contentious or contradictory turn. It is of the greatest importance to their future happiness, that they should acquire a submissive temper, and a forbearing spirit: for it is a lesson which the world will not fail to make them frequently practise, when they come abroad into it, and they will not practise it the worse for having learnt it the sooner. These early restraints, in the limitation here meant, are so far from being an effect of cruelty, that they are the most indubitable marks of affection, and are the more meritorious, as they are severe trials of tenderness. But all the beneficial effects, which a mother can expect from this watchfulness, will be entirely defeated, if it is practised occasionally, and not habitually, and if it ever appears to be used to gratify caprice, ill-humour, or resentment.

Those who have children to educate ought to be extremely patient: it is indeed a labour of love. They should reflect, that extraordinary talents are neither essential to the well-being of society, nor to the happiness of individuals. If that had been the case, the beneficent Father of the universe would not have made them so rare. For it is as easy for an Almighty Creator to produce a Newton, as an ordinary man; and he could have made those powers common which we now consider as wonderful, without any miraculous exertion of his omnipotence, if the existence of many Newtons had been necessary to the perfection of his wise and gracious plan.

Sure, therefore, there is more piety, as well as more sense, in labouring to improve the talents which children actually have, than in lamenting that they do not possess supernatural endowments or angelic perfections. A passage of Lord Bacon’s furnishes an admirable incitement for endeavouring to carry the amiable and christian grace of charity to its farthest extent, instead of indulging an over-anxious care for more brilliant but less important acquisitions. “The desire of power in excess (says he) caused the angels to fall; the desire of knowledge in excess caused man to fall; but in charity is no excess, neither can men nor angels come into danger by it.”

A Girl who has docility will seldom be found to want understanding enough for all the purposes of a social, a happy, and an useful life. And when we behold the tender hope of fond and anxious love, blasted by disappointment, the defect will as often be discovered to proceed from the neglect or the error of cultivation, as from the natural temper; and those who lament the evil, will sometimes be found to have occasioned it.

It is as injudicious for parents to set out with too sanguine a dependence on the merit of their children, as it is for them to be discouraged at every repulse. When their wishes are defeated in this or that particular instance, where they had treasured up some darling expectation, this is so far from being a reason for relaxing their attention, that it ought to be an additional motive for redoubling it. Those who hope to do a great deal, must not expect to do every thing. If they know any thing of the malignity of sin, the blindness of prejudice, or the corruption of the human heart, they will also know, that that heart will always remain, after the very best possible education, full of infirmity and imperfection. Extraordinary allowances, therefore, must be made for the weakness of nature in this its weakest state. After much is done, much will remain to do, and much, very much, will still be left undone. For this regulation of the passions and affections cannot be the work of education alone, without the concurrence of divine grace operating on the heart. Why then should parents repine, if their efforts are not always crowned with immediate success? They should consider, that they are not educating cherubims and seraphims, but men and women; creatures, who at their best estate are altogether vanity: how little then can be expected from them in the weakness and imbecillity of infancy! I have dwelt on this part of the subject the longer, because I am certain that many, who have set out with a warm and active zeal, have cooled on the very first discouragement, and have afterwards almost totally remitted their vigilance, through a criminal kind of despair.

Great allowances must be made for a profusion of gaiety, loquacity, and even indiscretion in children, that there may be animation enough left to supply an active and useful character, when the first fermentation of the youthful passions is over, and the redundant spirits shall come to subside.

If it be true, as a consummate judge of human nature has observed,

That not a vanity is given in vain,

it is also true, that there is scarcely a single passion, which may not be turned to some good account, if prudently rectified, and skilfully turned into the road of some neighbouring virtue. It cannot be violently bent, or unnaturally forced towards an object of a totally opposite nature, but may be gradually inclined towards a correspondent but superior affection. Anger, hatred, resentment, and ambition, the most restless and turbulent passions which shake and distract the human soul, may be led to become the most active opposers of sin, after having been its most successful instruments. Our anger, for instance, which can never be totally subdued, may be made to turn against ourselves, for our weak and imperfect obedience—our hatred, against every species of vice—our ambition, which will not be discarded, may be ennobled: it will not change its name, but its object: it will despise what it lately valued, nor be contented to grasp at less than immortality.

Thus the joys, fears, hopes, desires, all the passions and affections, which separate in various currents from the soul, will, if directed into their proper channels, after having fertilised wherever they have flowed, return again to swell and enrich the parent source.

That the very passions which appear the most uncontroulable and unpromising, may be intended, in the great scheme of Providence, to answer some important purpose, is remarkably evidenced in the character and history of Saint Paul. A remark on this subject by an ingenious old Spanish writer, which I will here take the liberty to translate, will better illustrate my meaning.

To convert the bitterest enemy into the most zealous advocate, is the work of God for the instruction of man. Plutarch has observed, that the medical science would be brought to the utmost perfection, when poison should be converted into physic. Thus, in the mortal disease of Judaism and idolatry, our blessed Lord converted the adder’s venom of Saul the persecutor, into that cement which made Paul the chosen vessel. That manly activity, that restless ardor, that burning zeal for the law of his fathers, that ardent thirst for the blood of Christians, did the Son of God find necessary in the man who was one day to become the defender of his suffering people.—Obras de Quevedo, vida de San Pablo Apostol.

To win the passions, therefore, over to the cause of virtue, answers a much nobler end than their extinction would possibly do, even if that could be effected. But it is their nature never to observe a neutrality; they are either rebels or auxiliaries, and an enemy subdued is an ally obtained. If I may be allowed to change the allusion so soon, I would say, that the passions also resemble fires, which are friendly and beneficial when under proper direction, but if suffered to blaze without restraint, they carry devastation along with them, and, if totally extinguished, leave the benighted mind in a state of cold and comfortless inanity.

But in speaking of the usefulness of the passions, as instruments of virtue, envy and lying must always be excepted: these, I am persuaded, must either go on in still progressive mischief, or else be radically cured, before any good can be expected from the heart which has been infected with them. For I never will believe that envy, though passed through all the moral strainers, can be refined into a virtuous emulation, or lying improved into an agreeable turn for innocent invention. Almost all the other passions may be made to take an amiable hue; but these two must either be totally extirpated, or be always contented to preserve their original deformity, and to wear their native black.


MLA Citation

More, Hannah. “On education.” 1777. Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 14 Feb 2007. 27 Mar 2023 <http://essays.quotidiana.org/more/education/>.

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