Original Document
Original Document
Mrs. Lincoln Phelps, "Remarks on the Education of Girls," 1839.

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Written for the Lady's Book.

Suggested by the Rev. Charles H. Alden's letter to Mrs. Hale.

THE attention of those interested in the subject of human improvement, and the well-being of society, is invited to the remarks on Education of the Rev. Charles H. Alden, in his letter to the Editor of the Lady's Book, published in the February number. - We say of "human improvement and the well-being of society," although the subject of Mr. Alden's letter is that of female education; - for, has not this a most important bearing upon society at large? Is not the character of the future men of our republic, to depend on the mothers we are now educating?

Physiologists tell us that the nursing infant imbibes with his mother's milk, her tastes and propensities. We do not suppose, indeed, that mind can be thus transfused from one soul to another; but we do think that the moral character of the future man, may be influenced by the treatment he receives at the breast, and in the cradle; and that his physical constitution may be seriously affected by the food which he imbibes from the maternal fount. That ungoverned passions, through the unknown and mysterious connexion of matter and mind, destroy the salubrity of this fount, is an established fact in physiology, verified by daily observation. The nurse says, "the poor baby is sick, or fretful to day, because his mother is not well." It is possible that this mother has been indulging in some discontent or grief, occasioned by real evils, or imaginary distresses. These feelings, followed by nervous agitation, and a train of hysterical affections, the whole physical system becomes disordered, and the natural food of the infant thus rendered impure, has imparted its insalubrious qualities to the child. Romulus, nursed by a wolf, was ferocious; - what can we expect of a child nursed by a mother who has no government over her passions? Who, while imparting to him aliment which gives disease rather than health, exhibits upon her countenance the expression of disturbed feelings, which the little passive being catches from her by the natural and powerful instinct of sympathy?

It is then not the interest of woman only, but of man, the child of woman - of man emphatically, that we would consult, when we advocate for our sex that mode of education, which will fortify their minds, and enable them to control their passions, by the powerful aid of a cultivated understanding, and a subdued temper.

Mr. Alden justly complains of the evils of considering the education of girls completed, by the time they have attained maturity of intellect sufficient to pursue study to advantage. When parents have not the means of giving to their daughters a thorough and extensive course of education, there is nothing to be said. Such parents have only the alternative of choosing for them some useful occupation, or training them to household duties, so that their labor may be of importance to the mother, and relieve her of many cares and toils which fall to the lot of woman, in the common, and often in the higher walks of life. But we would consider the case of those who have ample means to educate their children, who expend large sums in private lessons to masters, who have no interest in the moral characters of their pupils, and whose lessons in music, drawing, languages, andc., are often of little use, for want of that regular system, and close application, which are with difficulty secured in private families, where interruptions of various kinds are constantly occurring; and education, instead of being, as in a well ordered school, the general concern, is but a secondary object.

We are to consider the case of parents who indulge their young daughters in expensive dress; in children s parties; and, who bring them into society with manners and characters unformed, and minds uncultivated. It is pitiable to behold the unfurnished head of a young girl, surmounted with feathers, while her air and manners bespeak the incipient flirt - the woman who is to estimate the value of things only by their glitter - the inefficient mother - and the valueless wife. We must reflect that such a character cannot be merely neutral; but that a mother who is a cypher among her children, and in the conjugal relation, will perform the office that 0 does in the arithmetic, increasing all the evils of life in a ten-fold proportion.

We admit that it is not easy for parents who are much in society, to prevent, while their daughters are at home, their too early introduction into the fashionable world. Miss, at fourteen or fifteen, would think it very hard to be denied showing herself at mamma's party, and mamma's friends, seeing her thus "brought out," will, of course, think it necessary to include her in their invitations; and the voice of parental authority growing weaker, and that of the indulged child "strengthening with her strength and growing with her growth," the unequal contest is at length given up, and the parents see their error when too late to retrieve it. A profound moralist, the Duc de Rochefoucault, has said, "Il faut que les jewnes gens qui entrant dans le monde soient honteux ou etourdis; un air capable et compose se tourne d' ordinaire en impertinence." And a noble Englishman, of the "good olden time," truly, though quaintly remarks, that "Parents are to be blamed for the unthriftie looseness of youth, who send them into the world seven years before their judgment."

In considering, some years since, the subject of female education, both public and private, after carefully weighing the advantages and disadvantages of each method, we gave our voice in favour of the former. It was after a residence of several years in one of our largest female seminaries, when, from having two daughters of my own among the pupils, as well as from my connexion with the government and instruction of the school, I had watched every indication of evil incident to such an institution - it was after a subsequent experiment in my own private family, and having indulged in golden visions of a perfect plan of domestic education, in which would have been combined all the advantages of public education, with none of its evils - it was after I had felt obliged to confess to myself the failure of this plan, and that where one advantage was gained by domestic education, ten had been lost; - it was after resolving to part with my daughters, and send them to finish their school education at a public institution; - it was after this double experiment, that I gave my opinion in favor of educating girls at a female seminary or boarding institution. It is in intercourse with those of their own age, that the young learn to measure their own abilities; it is then that mind awakes, and thought enkindles thought. It is when surrounded by witnesses, whose good opinion is desired, that a regard for standing and character becomes a fixed and governing principle, restraining the wayward temper, stimulating the dormant faculties, and subjugating the passions to the empire of reason. In such an institution the young learn that most important lesson, self command, which is of far more value than merely intellectual attainments. It is here that the girl learns in the community in which she is placed, to consider the feelings and the rights of others, and to see her own character reflected, not in the flattering mirror of parental partiality merely, but as it really appears to the impartial view of teachers and companions. We admit that this situation, while it improves also tries the character. But if a parent, through morbid tenderness, desires to spare his child from such a test, and would suffer her to remain in ignorance, and in the indulgence of indolent and vicious habits, rather than bring her to the ordeal, he should remember that the time must come when he can no longer conceal her true character.

A husband looks with other eyes than a parent. Even, small defects alarm him, as indicating others, perhaps, of greater magnitude. He is nice and critical, (at least, as far as his wife is concerned), in his notions of conjugal duty. The husband scans the temper, knowledge, self-government, and deportment of his wife, not less closely than before marriage, he might have regarded her beauty and accomplishments. Children, too, are as severe judges of their parents as the latter are partial to them, and commence the office of censors, over the actions of their parents, long before they are supposed capable of forming opinions.

Would it not be better to place girls in situations where their mental disorders, if they have such, may be subjected to judicious, salutary treatment, even though in effecting a cure, they may be exposed to some mortification, and self-denial, rather than leave them to become wives with no qualities to command confidence, and mothers with no substantial claims to respect?

We invite the attention of parents to this subject. Those who are opposed to the mode of educating girls in boarding institutions, are appealed to, whether they find it easy to carry on, in their own families, a systematic course of intellectual education? and whether there is not in the indulgent atmosphere of home, an influence which enervates the moral energies, and renders it difficult to enforce that observance of duties which is necessary in the formation of a good and valuable character? If there are parents so happy as to have daughters who are entirely docile in disposition, energetic in action, self-denying in character - who are ever ready to pursue the path marked out for them; - to rise early without the call of a seminary bell, to withdraw voluntarily from agreeable company, or recreation, in order to pursue their solitary lessons; who are always careful to keep their apartments and wardrobes in order, merely because they are advised to do it, though subject to no penalty for neglect - in short, who need to be placed in no situation of trial, in order to strengthen their moral powers, and give firmness and energy to their minds - if there are parents thus blessed - and if, in addition, they can secure the proper intellectual advantages, we admit that there seems little necessity for sending such daughters abroad. But such instances, we believe, are, unfortunately rare, even among the best young persons, and in the best regulated families.

With regard to the "time allotted to females for their education," and the "misnomer of a finished education," subjects alluded to in Mr. Alden's letter, we perfectly agree with him, that there is great folly in withdrawing girls from school, at the very period when the mind is most capable of profiting by literary and scientific pursuits. We object to the term "finishing education," because our whole life ought to be spent, either in being educated, or doing the work of self-education. But what is here meant is the period of school education, to which there must be a termination, that the young may become actors in the busy scenes of life, and discharge the responsible duties of members of families, and of society at large. We do not consider a young lady at eighteen, out of place at school, and are always pleased to see females, at any age, entering upon a course of instruction, when they find their early education deficient. Parents who wish their daughters to leave school at an early age, should not think of crowding upon them instruction in all the branches which might be profitably pursued, if longer time were allowed. A girl of fourteen or fifteen has not the necessary strength of mind - she cannot have been susceptible of the necessary teaching, to fit her for the study of higher branches of mathematics, philosophy, and belles-lettres, which so beautifully complete a proper and systematic course of education. Young men do not usually leave college until about eighteen; and are then allowed several years more of study to fit themselves for professions; this is as it should be; as women are not to engage in these professions, they do not require that preparation, but we should like to see females of the higher classes, and those who are to become teachers, as well instructed in rhetoric, composition, and elocution, as young men on leaving college; we should like to see them able to read the Latin Classics, to write and speak the French language, with a knowledge of some other modern tongues. Mathematics, the different branches of natural science, and the science of the human mind, are all equally important to the one sex as to the other. In addition to these studies, music, drawing, and other accomplishments are now considered as essential to a polished education, and if sufficient time be allowed, they may be obtained without detriment to the severer pursuits.

If institutions are necessary for the education of girls, it becomes a question, by what means they are to be established; and whether the subject is not of sufficient importance to engage the attention of parents and legislators. In order to promote the health, delicacy, comfort, and improvement of the pupils in boarding establishments, accommodations are necessary which require a liberal expenditure; and we reciprocate with Mr. Alden, the hope, that, "when the excitement of political party shall have subsided, our legislatures will dare to found and foster Institutions for Female Learning."

In the mean time, as political excitement among the guardians of the public weal, seems not, very likely, at present, to give place to calm deliberation upon the importance of female education, may the cause find advocates among men of talents and influence, and benefactors among the rich and powerful. Then will temples dedicated to "Female Learning," become familiar to the eye, as are now colleges for males, and magnificent buildings for the insane, the blind, and the deaf mutes.

Credit: The Lady's Book, Vol. XVIII (June, 1839), Page 253.
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