Anna Letitia Barbauld

Poetess Archive: Anna Barbauld's Prose Works

"On Education." (1773)     TEI-encoded version

Page Images


On Education

1.          The other day I paid a visit to a gentleman with whom, though greatly my superior in fortune, I have long been in habits of an easy intimacy. He rose in the world by honourable industry; and married, rather late in life, a lady to whom he had been long attached, and in whom centered the wealth of several expiring families. Their earnest wish for children was not immediately gratified. At length they were made happy by a son, who, from the moment he was born, engrossed all their care and attention. -- My friend received me in his library, where I found him busied in turning over books of education, of which he had collected all that were worthy notice, from Xenophon to Locke, and from Locke to Catherine Macauley. As he knows I have been engaged in the business of instruction, he did me the honour to consult me on the subject of his researches, hoping, he said, that, out of all the systems before him, we should be able to form a plan equally complete and comprehensive; it being the determination of both himself and his lady to choose the best that could


be had, and to spare neither pains nor expense in making their child all that was great and good. I gave him my thoughts with the utmost freedom, and after I returned home, threw upon paper the observations which had occurred to me.

2.          The first thing to be considered, with respect to education, is the object of it. This appears to me to have been generally misunderstood. Education, in its largest sense, is a thing of great scope and extent. It includes the whole process by which a human being is formed to be what he is, in habits, principles, and cultivation of every kind. But of this, a very small part is in the power even of the parent himself; a smaller still can be directed by purchased tuition of any kind. You engage for your child masters and tutors at large salaries; and you do well, for they are competent to instruct him: they will give him the means, at least, of acquiring science and accomplishments; but in the business of education, properly so called, they can do little for you. Do you ask, then, what will educate your son? Your example will educate him; your conversation with your friends; the business he sees you transact; the likings and dislikings you express; these will educate him; -- the society you live in will educate him; your domestics will educate him; above all, your rank and situation in life, your house, your table, your pleasure-grounds, your hounds


and your stables will educate him. It is not in your power to withdraw him from the continual influence of these things, except you were to withdraw yourself from them also. You speak of beginning the education of your son. The moment he was able to form an idea his education was already begun; the education of circumstances -- insensible education -- which, like insensible perspiration, is of more constant and powerful effect, and of infinitely more consequence to the habit, than that which is direct and apparent. This education goes on at every instant of time; it goes on like time; you can neither stop it nor turn its course. What these have a tendency to make your child, that he will be. Maxims and documents are good precisely till they are tried, and no longer; they will teach him to talk, and nothing more. The circumstances in which your son is placed will be even more prevalent than your example; and you have no right to expect him to become what you yourself are, but by the same means. You, that have toiled during youth, to set your son upon higher ground, and to enable him to begin where you left off, do not expect that son to be what you were, -- diligent, modest, active, simple in his tastes, fertile in resources. You have put him under quite a different master. Poverty educated you; wealth will educate him. You cannot suppose the result will


be the same. You must not even expect that he will be what you now are; for though relaxed perhaps from the severity of your frugal habits, you still derive advantage from having formed them; and, in your heart, you like plain dinners, and early hours, and old friends, whenever your fortune will permit you to enjoy them. But it will not be so with your son: his tastes will be formed by your present situation, and in no degree by your former one. But I take great care, you will say, to counteract these tendencies, and to bring him up in hardy and simple manners; I know their value, and am resolved that he shall acquire no other. Yes, you make him hardy; that is to say, you take a country-house in a good air, and make him run, well clothed and carefully attended, for, it may be, an hour in a clear frosty winter's day upon your graveled terrace; or perhaps you take the puny shivering infant from his warm bed, and dip him in an icy cold bath, -- and you think you have done great matters. And so you have; you have done all you can. But you were suffered to run abroad half the day on a bleak heath, in weather fit and unfit, wading barefoot through dirty ponds, sometimes losing your way benighted, scrambling over hedges, climbing trees, in perils every hour both of life and limb. Your life was of very little consequence to any one; even your parents, encumbered with a nu-


merous family, had little time to indulge the softnesses of affection, or the solicitude of anxiety; and to every one else it was of no consequence at all. It is not possible for you, it would not even be right for you, in your present situation, to pay no more attention to your child than was paid to you. In these mimic experiments of education, there is always something which distinguishes them from reality; some weak part left unfortified, for the arrows of misfortune to find their way into. Achilles was a young nobleman, dios Achilleus, and therefore, though he had Chiron for his tutor, there was one foot left undipped. You may throw by Rousseau; your parents practised without having read it; you may read, but imperious circumstances forbid you the practice of it.

3.          You are sensible of the advantages of simplicity of diet; and you make a point of restricting that of your child to the plainest food, for you are resolved that he shall not be nice. But this plain food is of the choicest quality, prepared by your own cook; his fruit is ripened from your walls; his cloth, his glasses, all the accompaniments of the table, are such as are only met with in families of opulence: the very servants who attend him are neat, well dressed, and have a certain air of fashion. You may call this simplicity; but I say he will be nice, -- for it is a kind of simplicity which only wealth can attain to, and which will


subject him to be disgusted at all common tables. Besides, he will from time to time partake of those delicacies which your table abounds with; you yourself will give him of them occasionally; you would be unkind if you did not: your servants, if good-natured, will do the same. Do you think you can keep the full stream of luxury running by his lips, and he not taste of it? Vain imagination!

4.          I would not be understood to inveigh against wealth, or against the enjoyments of it; they are real enjoyments, and allied to many elegancies in manners and in taste; -- I only wish to prevent unprofitable pains and inconsistent expectations.

5.          You are sensible of the benefit of early rising; and you may, if you please, make it a point that your daughter shall retire with her governess, and your son with his tutor, at the hour when you are preparing to see company. But their sleep, in the first place, will not be so sweet and undisturbed amidst the rattle of carriages, and the glare of tapers glancing through the rooms, as that of the village child in his quiet cottage, protected by silence and darkness; and moreover, you may depend upon it, that as the coercive power of education is laid aside, they will in a few months slide into the habitudes of the rest of the family, whose hours are determined by their company and situation in life. You have, however, done


good, as far as it goes; it is something gained, to defer pernicious habits, if we cannot prevent them.

6.         There is nothing which has so little share in education as direct precept. To be convinced of this, we need only reflect that there is no one point we labour more to establish with children, than that of their speaking truth; and there is not any in which we succeed worse. And why? Because children readily see we have an interest in it. Their speaking truth is used by us as an engine of government -- "Tell me, my dear child, when you have broken any thing, and I will not be angry with you." "Thank you for nothing," says the child; "if I prevent you from finding it out, I am sure you will not be angry:" and nine times out of ten he can prevent it. He knows that, in the common intercourses of life, you tell a thousand falsehoods. But these are necessary lies on the important occasions.

7.          Your child is the best judge how much occasion he has to tell a lie: he may have as great occasion for it, as you have to conceal a bad piece of news from a sick friend, or to hide your vexation from an unwelcome visitor. That authority which extends its claims over every action, and even every thought, which insists upon an answer to every interrogation, however indiscreet or oppressive to the feelings, will, in young or old,


produce falsehood; or, if in some few instances the deeply imbibed fear of future and unknown punishment should restrain from direct falsehood, it will produce a habit of dissimulation, which is still worse. The child, the slave, or the subject, who, on proper occasions may not say, "I do not choose to tell," will certainly, by the circumstances in which you place him, be driven to have recourse to deceit, even should he not be countenanced by your example.

8.         I do not mean to assert, that sentiments inculcated in education have no influence; -- they have much, though not the most: but it is the sentiments we let drop occasionally, the conversation they overhear when playing unnoticed in a corner of the room, which has an effect upon children; and not what is addressed directly to them in the tone of exhortation. If you would know precisely the effect these set discourses have upon your child, be pleased to reflect upon that which a discourse from the pulpit, which you have reason to think merely professional, has upon you. Children have almost an intuitive discernment between the maxims you bring forward for their use, and those by which you direct your own conduct. Be as cunning as you will, they are always more cunning than you. Every child knows whom his father and mother love and see with pleasure, and whom they dislike; for whom they think them-


selves obliged to set out their best plate and china; whom they think it an honour to visit, and upon whom they confer honour by admitting them to their company. "Respect nothing so much as virtue," says Eugenio to his son; "virtue and talents are the only grounds of distinction." The child presently has occasion to inquire why his father pulls off his hat to some people and not to others; he is told, that outward respect must be proportioned to different stations in life. This is a little difficult of comprehension: however, by dint of explanation, he gets over it tolerably well. But he sees his father's house in the bustle and hurry of preparation; common business laid aside, every body in movement, an unusual anxiety to please and to shine. Nobody is at leisure to receive his caresses or attend to his questions; his lessons are interrupted, his hours deranged. At length a guest arrives: it is my Lord ----, whom he has heard you speak of twenty times as one of the most worthless characters upon earth. Your child, Eugenio, has received a lesson of education. Resume, if you will, your systems of morality on the morrow, you will in vain attempt to eradicate it. "You expect company, mamma, must I be dressed today?" "No, it is only good Mrs. Such-a-one." Your child has received a lesson of education, one which he well understands, and will long remember. You have sent your child to a


public school; but to secure his morals against the vice which you too justly apprehend abounds there, you have given him a private tutor, a man of strict morals and religion. He may help him to prepare his tasks; but do you imagine it will be in his power to form his mind? His schoolfellows, the allowance you give him, the manners of the age and of the place, will do that; and not the lectures which he is obliged to hear. If these are different from what you yourself experienced, you must not be surprised to see him gradually recede from the principles, civil and religious, which you hold, and break off from your connexions, and adopt manners different from you own. This is remarkably exemplified amongst those of the Dissenters who have risen to wealth and consequence. I believe it would be difficult to find an instance of families, who for three generations have kept their carriage and continued Dissenters.

9.          Education, it is often observed, is an expensive thing. It is so; but the paying for lessons is the smallest part of the cost. If you would go to the price of having your son a worthy man, you must be so yourself; your friends, your servants, your company must be all of that stamp. Suppose this to be the case, much is done: but there will remain circumstances which perhaps you cannot alter, that will still have their effect. Do you


wish him to love simplicity? Would you be content to lay down your coach, to drop your title? Where is the parent who would do this to educate his son? You carry him to the workshops of artisans, and show him different machines and fabrics, to awaken his ingenuity. The necessity of getting his bread would awaken it much more effectually. The single circumstance of having a fortune to get, or a fortune to spend, will probably operate more strongly upon his mind, not only than your precepts, but even than your example. You wish your child to be modest and unassuming; you are so, perhaps, yourself, -- and you pay liberally a preceptor for giving him lessons of humility. You do not perceive, that the very circumstance of having a man of letters and accomplishments retained about his person, for his sole advantage, tends more forcibly to inspire him with an idea of self-consequence, than all the lessons he can give him to repress it. "Why do not you look sad, you rascal?" says the undertaker to his man in the play of The Funeral; "I give you I know not how much money for looking sad, and the more I give you, the gladder I think you are." So will it be with the wealthy heir. The lectures that are given him on condescension and affability, only prove to him upon how much higher ground he stands than those about him; and the very pains that are taken with his moral character will make


him proud, by showing him how much he is the object of attention. You cannot help these things. Your servants, out of respect to you, will bear with his petulance; your company, out of respect to you, will forbear to check his impatience; and you yourself, if he is clever, will repeat his observations.

10.          In the exploded doctrine of sympathies, you are directed, if you have cut your finger, to let that alone, and put your plaster upon the knife. This is very bad doctrine, I must confess, in philosophy; but very good in morals. Is a man luxurious, self-indulgent? do not apply your physic of the soul to him, but cure his fortune. Is he haughty? cure his rank, his title. Is he vulgar? cure his company. Is he diffident or mean-spirited? cure his poverty, give him consequence -- but these prescriptions go far beyond the family recipes of education.

11.         What then is the result? In the first place, that we should contract our ideas of education, and expect no more from it than it is able to perform. It can give instruction. There will always be an essential difference between a human being cultivated and uncultivated. Education can provide proper instructors in the various arts and sciences, and portion out to the best advantage those precious hours of youth which never will return. It can likewise give, in a great degree,


personal habits; and even if these should afterwards give way under the influence of contrary circumstances, your child will feel the good effects of them, for the later and the less will he go into what is wrong. Let us also be assured, that the business of education, properly so called, is not transferable. You may engage masters to instruct your child in this or the other accomplishment, but you must educate him yourself. You not only ought to do it, but you must do it, whether you intend it or not. As education is a thing necessary for all; for the poor and for the rich, for the illiterate as well as for the learned; Providence has not made it dependent upon system uncertain, operose, and difficult of investigation. It is not necessary, with Rousseau or Madame Genlis, to devote to the education of one child the talents and the time of a number of grown men; to surround him with an artificial world; and to counteract, by maxims, the natural tendencies of the situation he is placed in in society. Every one has time to educate his child: the poor man educates him while working in his cottage -- the man of business while employed in his counting-house.

12.          Do we see a father who is diligent in his profession, domestic in his habits, whose house is the resort of well-informed intelligent people -- a mo-


ther whose time is usefully filled, whose attention to her duties secures esteem and whose amiable manners attract affection? Do not be solicitous, respectable couple, about the moral education of your offspring! do not be uneasy because you cannot surround them with the apparatus of books and systems; or fancy you must retire from the world to devote yourselves to their improvement. In your world they are brought up much better than they could be under any plan of factitious education which you could provide for them: they will imbibe affection from your caresses; taste from your conversation; urbanity from the commerce of your society; and mutual love from your example. Do not regret that you are not rich enough to provide tutors and governors, to watch his steps with sedulous and servile anxiety, and furnish him with maxims it is morally impossible he should act upon when grown up. Do not you see how seldom this over culture produces its effect, and how many shining and and excellent characters start up every day, from the bosom of obscurity, with scarcely any care at all?

13.          Are children then to be neglected? Surely not: but having given them the instruction and accomplishments which their situation in life requires, let us reject superfluous solicitude, and trust that their characters will form themselves


from the spontaneous influence of good examples, and circumstances which impel them to useful action.

14.         But the education of your house, important as it is, is only a part of a more comprehensive system. Providence takes your child where you leave him. Providence continues his education upon a larger scale, and by a process which includes means far more efficacious. Has your son entered the world at eighteen, opinionated, haughty, rash, inclined to dissipation? Do not despair; he may yet be cured of these faults, if it pleases Heaven. There are remedies which you could not persuade yourself to use, if they were in your power, and which are specific in cases of this kind. How often do we see the presumptuous, giddy youth, changed into the wise counsellor, the considerate, steady friend! How often the thoughtless, gay girl, into the sober wife, the affectionate mother! Faded beauty, humbled self-consequence, disappointed ambition, loss of fortune, -- this is the rough physic provided by Providence to meliorate the temper, to correct the offensive petulancies of youth, and bring out all the energies of the finished character. Afflictions soften the proud; difficulties push forward the ingenious; successful industry gives consequence and credit, and develops a thousand latent good qualities. There is no malady of the mind so in-


veterate, which this education of events is not calculated to cure, if life were long enough; and shall we not hope, that He, in whose hand are all the remedial process of nature, will renew the discipline in another state, and finish the imperfect man?

15.          States are educated as individuals -- by circumstances: the prophet may cry aloud, and spare not; the philosopher may descant on morals; eloquence may exhaust itself in invective against the vices of the age: these vices will certainly follow certain states of poverty or riches, ignorance or high civilisation. But what these gentle alteratives fail of doing, may be accomplished by an unsuccessful war, a loss of trade, or any of those great calamities by which it pleases Providence to speak to a nation, in such language as will be heard. If, as a nation, we would be cured of pride, it must be by mortification; if of luxury, by a national bankruptcy, perhaps; if of injustice, or the spirit of domination, by a loss of national consequence. In comparison of these strong remedies, a fast, or a sermon, are prescriptions of very little efficacy.

Date: 1825 (revised 02/08/2005) Author: Anna Letitia Barbauld (revised Zach Weir).
The editing on this page is copyrighted; this page may be used according to the rules of fair use.