Project Canterbury

New Lamps and Old in the Nursery

A Speech made to the Annual Conference of the Mothers' Union, Ripon Diocese at Bedale, April 18, 1914

By L. H. M. Soulsby

London and New York: Longmans, Green and Co., 1914.

IT is so natural for a speaker to thank those who invited her to come, that it may seem almost a matter of course when I thank your Council for inviting me. But I wish you could realise how very warm and personal--how far from a matter of course--my thanks are, when they are given to any Branch of the Mothers' Union.

No one knows, from the daughter's point of view, better than I do, how it is the Mother who moulds and makes the child, and I always feel deeply the large-heartedness of mothers who listen to one lacking the claim on their attention conferred by Motherhood. Hence I feel that to speak at a Conference of the Mothers' Union is always a very great honour, and at this juncture I feel it is also a very special interest, because there can hardly (in the nature of things) be many more conferences which will have to deal with such difficult times.

[4] Every generation has felt a cleavage between itself and the last, but in our case the cleft is a gulf. In 1900 M. de Vogue edited a very interesting review of the nineteenth century, dealing with its Politics, Literature, Religion, Socialism, &c.--the only subject omitted was Women. It will be unthinkable that a similar review of the twentieth century can fail to have an article on that topic. This in itself makes a startling gulf between the two centuries--for us, who were brought up to believe that "to have no history" was the happy, nay, the only right, thing for a woman!

But, notwithstanding all this, it is our task so to educate the young of to-day that the principles of the nineteenth century may take all the deeper root in the twentieth.

This means that we must gain the right judgment which can distinguish between Principles and Rules--we must be able to feel with our mothers and to think with our children. I choose those words advisedly, for feeling is deeper than thinking: the whole of our nature--conscious and subconscious--unites in feeling the essential necessity of the Principles in which our mothers trained us.

And yet, at the same time, circumstances [4/5] alter--fashions vary--new sources of knowledge become common property, instead of being for scholars only--and (to rise from small things to the greatest) the Holy Spirit, year by year, continues to guide the Church further and further into all truth.

The consequences are so startling that we might well echo the words, "Sire! it is a revolution," were it not that, as Knights of the Holy Ghost, we must rather recognise that it is a Pentecost.

There are great epochs in history, as in our individual lives, when the world seems to awaken to a marvellous spring-time full of possibilities: the River of Life floods our fields as the Nile does Egypt. Because at such times landmarks are temporarily obscured, some fear destruction, instead of welcoming and working for the new fertilisation. They forget that every great Coming of Christ in the world's history is for the fall, as well as for the rising, of many in Israel.

Surely we to-day are living through one of the greatest of those Comings. Unrest--in the Labour world, the Woman's world, in the Far Eastern world, the South African world--points to a time like that of 1500 years ago, when all established traditions were overthrown. Yet that overthrow proved to be [5/6] part of the birth of a new world, which held nobler and wider possibilities than the Roman empire which it succeeded.

The like may be true again to-day, but much will depend on whether the mothers of to-day pray earnestly for as much right judgment in discerning the good new thoughts, as in detecting the wrong ones.

The cry of "New Lamps for Old," familiar to us in our childhood, is heard on all sides, and many make the mistake of Aladdin's wife. But she was only half wrong, for we ought to covet earnestly some of those new lamps, while careful to hold fast those of proved value which we inherited.

We shall all agree that our times are very difficult. The more a woman admires her Victorian mother, the more earnestly she wishes to make her Georgian daughter that mother's worthy successor, the more difficult it is for her to perceive (at the moment) the right bearing of each conflict of ideals. She may be letting old standards slide through cowardice, or she may be fighting against God through blindness. It is not enough to safeguard old principles; we must recognise and meet the new circumstances.

To word the old truths in the way which expressed them in the sixties and seventies, [6/7] to enforce the minor rules of behaviour which held good then, does not help our children to-day to see, that the principles for which we stand are eternally young and eternally valid. They are apt to think our principles old fashioned, whereas it is only our method of presenting them that is so.

We want our children to be in touch with the men and women of their own generation--to be good wives and mothers to the men of to-day and to-morrow--which is not possible if they learn nothing but the methods which we learnt from our mothers, and which were the best for our day.

At the same time they will not be good wives and mothers, unless they carry with them the heritage which came to us from mother and grandmother, the heritage of God-fearing and of duty-doing, of reverent Bible-reading, of womanly gentleness and modesty and reserve. All these are still our ancient heritage, though many fear that they are becoming out of date.

My own experience is that the girl of to-day is just as ready to respond to these virtues as any in my youth. But we have been busy for the last twenty years teaching her Logic, and we must not reckon it against her that she needs reasons before submitting [7/8] to decrees that circumscribe her, especially as it is no longer possible to say of anything that "Nobody does it."

Personally, I wish mothers would taboo more things than the generality of them do, but that they would taboo them on grounds that commend themselves to the young, and remember how circumstances change. Girls are very reasonable, and respond if you expect it of them, but they are not likely to see the principle underlying their mothers' veto unless she explains. I believe in explaining!

I believe in letting girls hear from their mothers, in the ordinary course of conversation, about things that happen, so that they may know what to do if they got into similar difficulties. I do not believe in ignorance of elementary facts or of social predicaments, and yet in this matter (which is one of the chief ways in which new waves of thought are beating in on private homes) I am more convinced every day that reticence and reserve are the great bulwarks of purity.

It is difficult to preserve them in the teeth of modern papers, advertisements, magazines and novels, and I do not believe the old prohibitions are quite practical, or even altogether desirable, for to-day. But I [8/9] am convinced there is deep wisdom in Professor Munsterberg's recent article in the New York Times.

He was writing about Problem Plays, and says it is a bigger question than whether this or that play oversteps the limit. He points out that there are two great conflicting principles at work among moral reformers. One party says, instruction in sex matters preserves from danger: the other says, "That is true; but, in giving the instruction which saves from one danger, you so charge the atmosphere with sex ideas, that you create more evil than you prevent, especially in an undisciplined and pleasure-loving age like ours."

But it is for the mother in society, not for the schoolmistress, to tackle this question, though I was obliged to mention it, as it seems to me to stand at the forefront of the problem which we have met here to discuss, i.e. how to build character on old lines, under new conditions.

Many new plans of education are knocking at the door of both nursery and schoolroom. Those inside cry out: "How new fangled your ways are!"; those outside object, "How old fashioned your ways are! "

It might be better if those inside would say: [9/10] "You have new ideas to tell us; we should like to hear all about them and to improve our ways "; and if the others would reply, "You have old-established ways which have produced splendid characters; let us take counsel together, lest we should inadvertently lose any of the wise precautions you have learnt through long experience."

Surely the Old School would soon recognise that half the new ideas are old friends in a fresher dress, and that most of the others are being called for by the new circumstances: while the New School would soon realise that sound wisdom underlay much of what had seemed to them merely repressive and monotonous.

Freedom and self-development is the cry of to-day. Obedience and self-restraint was the cry of yesterday. Let us consider how these contending cries work out in the nursery and the schoolroom.

I want to be as fair-minded as is possible to one of my age, but I confess that I am perhaps biassed by a fear that in no department of life is Duty held to be as inevitable as it was in my youth. This makes me inclined to test all educational systems by the one question, Are they likely to produce duty-doing?

[11] I do not mean that I can look back to a golden age when each man and woman did their duty; but I do look back to an age when those who did not do their duty were looked on as defaulters by the world and by themselves. Public opinion was at one with Nelson, whatever private practice might be.

But there is an increasing tendency to-day for people to recognise only such duties as "appeal to them,"--a slipshod phrase which often goes along with a slipshod conscience, for claims always appeal as much as in them lies; it is we who do not listen.

Let people say if they will, "This duty is appealing to me, but I do not mean to listen to it." That frame of mind is quite understandable, but do not let them say, "That duty does not appeal to my temperament, or to one of my age, therefore it has nothing to do with me."

The New School of Education is entering on a world where Law and Order and Duty are in need of reinforcement, and we may well ask them to see to it that their methods shall result, among other things, in the old standard of Jorrocks, "A greement's a greement, and a gen'lman wot makes a greement, keeps his greement." At the [11/12] same time we should say to the Old School, "Sympathise with to-day's crusade for Freedom as you did with that of Wilberforce and Buxton, even when it concerns the women and girls for whom Yesterday held that a kind, firm hand was the best of blessings," if not the only one. A wise, firm hand is among the best blessings of this life, but its value lies in its power to train for freedom.

The play of "Milestones" has a good deal to teach us. For one thing, there is in it a shipbuilder's son who (in his reforming youth) rises above the idea of wooden ships, much to the wrath of his conservative father. But, when the narrowness of age comes upon him, he fights as hard against steel ships as his father did against iron. Watching him must have made many greyhaired reformers in the audience look at home, lest perchance (while relying on their long-standing reputation for wide-mindedness), they were themselves beginning to draw as hard-and-fast lines as their fathers did before them.

But it is more for our purposes to-day to consider, in that play, the almost imperceptible stages by which the narrow family circle of women, in 1860, melted into [12/13] the bachelor independence of the girl in 1900.

In 1860 Gertrude, in "Milestones," took it as natural that from breakfast onwards all should sit round the fire together over their needlework, with letters in common.

In 188o the girl might do more what she liked, and could read a book (though it would still be felt to be waste of time in the morning just when her wits were fresh enough to do real work with it). But she must be in the room, to exchange stray remarks and run errands, and the mother (remembering the more restricted life of 1860) felt that she was giving ample liberty, and that any further demand for individual life was unsociable and eccentric.

By 1900 the girl (who has been educated to work with concentration and intellectual enjoyment) felt more definitely the need of time to herself for uninterrupted work, but still the mother (who had not been so educated) did not realise the girl's point of view, and felt hurt by the unimaginative selfishness with which the girl urged it--generally at a wrong time.

But by 1914 it is realised that, if you give girls as good an education for brain and muscle as their brothers, it is only right [13/14] they should have time and opportunity to use the powers engendered by that training. Unused power is the most dangerous of all dangers to health.

When I look at the girl of to-day and realise how different her position is from Gertrude's in "Milestones," it continually strikes me with wonder how large-minded the mothers have been, and how true it is that, as I heard some grown-up girls saying the other day, "People talk of elders not understanding girls, but it is extraordinary how much they see our point of view, and make real friends with us."

Another said, "Mother had to show all her letters in her youth, but (though she knows who I write to, and I read her anything she would want to hear), she trusts me for the rest, and would never open them."

"And she is so good," said another, "about planning for me to get some quiet time for work two or three days a week, though she does not always quite realise that an hour is no use in some work that needs two or three hours for me to get really into it!"

"At twenty-four she lets us have journey money as well as a dress allowance," said another, "so that we have to plan things [14/15] out, and see what we can really afford, which makes us think and is much more interesting."

"My mother had a splendid plan," said another; "when I left school and did not know the value of money or the right succession of clothes, she got all my things for a year, but made me keep all the accounts, and very detailed ones, so that by the second year I knew what to do; and if I go on keeping accurate accounts, so as to know exactly where I have gone wrong, she helps me if I get into a muddle."

All this is not universally true of even 1914, but it fairly expresses the best and most general ideals of to-day--a day which accepts the individuality of its grown-up girls as well as of its boys. Alas! poor Gertrude, what would she have given for such freedom!

You may say, what has all this to do with character building? You are talking of ways we may, or may not, choose to adopt with our grown-up daughters; and we asked you to tell us what a schoolmistress would suggest as to matters of early training for boys and girls.

The connection of ideas is this: while the foundations of education should remain the old ones (duty and discipline), the house [15/16] which will crown your foundations, is being largely built by the Spirit of the Age--not by you. It rests with you whether or no you will so place your foundations that they and the superstructure will fit. If not, you are doomed to disappointment, no matter how splendidly you build.

The other day I watched a gardener preparing a brick and cement foundation for a ready-made garden-house. He did excellent work, but he had the wrong measurement given to him, and when the house arrived it was long-shaped while his foundation was square.

Be sure you get the right measurements for your educational building, for "A man is more the child of his age than of his own father." Your modern children will insist, and quite rightly too, on living in a modern house, no matter how much you press upon them Tudor, Queen Anne, or Queen Victoria.

Those who love the Victorian ideals, instead of merely lamenting their disappearance and regretting the modern girl's self-assertion, should strive to be such masterbuilders in adapting Victorian foundations to Georgian houses, that the result may be a truer, nobler home than any age before has ever known.

[17] The problem of taking true measurement of old ways and of new ideas meets the mother in the nursery, is insistent in the schoolroom, and is still with her in the drawing-room in that final stage of her responsibility--the training of her girl from seventeen to twenty-seven.

We have to work in together the trend of the old education, which was towards obedience and duty, and that of the new, which is towards initiative and self-development. With four such excellent things before us, why should we let any one of them be made an alternative to another. They do not clash, though they are difficult to co-ordinate.

We shall all allow that the fashion of the Victorian day tended to overdo the submissive side of training, and that it is a good thing for the pendulum of to-day to swing somewhat overmuch towards self-activity and selfdevelopment; but we need not allow that these are new ideas.

Surely right judgment in this matter has all along been preserved by many wise and quiet mothers whose voices were not heard in the market-place. I know many mothers, and I am sure you do too, who, by the light of common sense, allowed free play to their children's likes and dislikes, subject [17/18] to enough admixture of discipline to turn caprice into a strong will.

I remember a child, some fifty years ago, who wanted to be an authoress and refused to learn to write. Her very strict mother, recognising the child's right to individuality, allowed her always to print in large letters so as to look like a book. Writing was postponed till the child, at twelve, wished to be like other people. The creative and imaginative impulses were allowed full opportunity of expression by such mothers, and no "Olympian" elder ever put an official or officious finger into the house-building, or piracy, which might happen to be in progress.

Robinson Crusoe enjoyed his island, and the authoress her book, more and not less because, when the clock of duty struck, short lessons had to be done, regardless of moods. This gave the relief of variety to Colonisation, Shipwreck and Piracy, occupations which possessed all the more deep and pungent joys because confined to free time, when there were no overseers at all--not even the unobtrusive teacher of the newer systems of education.

Short, strict lessons give a child the same sense of moral satisfaction which an older [18/19] person finds in having a few definite duties in the day, instead of being always at loose ends, however pleasant and harmless those ends may be.

I also believe that an atmosphere of Obedience, tempered by Choice, is much more resting to a child's nervous system, than an atmosphere of Choice tempered by Obedience.

It is in the next--the Adolescent--stage of life that I would plead for more of the freedom, which is being so lavishly given to the child.

The danger to-day is that the child may be petted and indulged (on half-understood and largely misapplied new theories) till it is turned out a pleasure-seeking little decadent. At the next stage of adolescence (the "awkward" age, as we used to call it, or the "ugly duckling" stage), personality emerges, with all its prickles and corners, when the personalities of child and parent are apt to clash, and the parent seeks to apply a discipline which would have been excellent at the previous stage.

The ugly ducklings at the awkward age, who need love more than anything else in the world, have a curious power of rousing antagonism and of looking sulky.

They are close to the days of inevitable [19/20] freedom and independence, yet they are expected to be echoes in any matter of household discussion that turns up. But now is the time for discussing duty instead of merely enforcing it. The girl now has a right to an individual point of view, and should be encouraged to think things out, and have free choice in all things non-essential.

But it now irritates you if she does not agree with you, so she does not get the freedom of choice (which is a tonic she especially needs); whereas the young child, who got it, specially needed the tonic of the Laws of the Jungle,--not to mention the many cases where a sick child's life has been saved by the habit of obedience.

"Now these are the Laws of the Jungle, and many and mighty are they,
But the Head and the Hoof of the Laws, and the Haunch and the Hoof is--Obey."

People will tell you that the main thing is to allow full free-play to the child's individuality, including his caprices; or else the future flowering time of imagination and personality will prove to have been nipped by your cold winds.

On the contrary (given proper freedom to make mud-pies alone), you do better to [20/21] teach, first and foremost, the sense of duty, which can never be so well taught again.

Over and over again I have met a modern adolescent, of the next stage of life, who has a flabby idea that duty is something which had better be done, if not too inconvenient. It is too late then to instil duty into the bone (as would so easily have been done at the right time, by insistence on punctual, dutiful performance of short lessons), and by such matters as those taught in the Jungle Book, e.g.

"Wash daily from nose tip to tail tip."

On the other hand, imagination and wider interests can be better instilled, or rather awakened, at the adolescent stage than at the child stage. A girl who has had an old-fashioned "Miss Yonge" schoolroom, where her mind was "shielded from premature ideas," and who is able to rejoice in a quite new world at the proper adolescent stage, has a much better chance of developing into a strong personality than one who has been fed with imagination and high ideas, not before she could understand, but before she needed it, and, therefore, before she could digest it.

The modern habit of making the child so interested in his play-lessons may result--I [21/22] believe it often does--in using up, in childhood, the vitality which was meant to accumulate during childhood for use in adolescence. Of course, you reap immediate success; you and the child are both sure to be enthusiastically happy, if you allow yourself to use your grown-up faculty of Stimulus to make things go with a swing. But the wholesome food of one age is unwholesome stimulant to the age preceding it.

Some of the grown-up food is a burden to the child, and teacher and child are nowadays at one in rejecting that--though sometimes a little of it would suit some natures. What I fear much more, is the senior food which acts as a stimulant on juniors: Nature has no danger signal in this case. "God shield us from premature ideas," should be the prayer of original children, if they are to have any chance of growing up original men and women.

We are all agreed that the daily life of the sister who is "out" is not good food for the girl who is still "in": we generally send the latter to school, because what is wholesome and necessary food for the one is an undesirable stimulant for the junior.

But it is not always seen so clearly that the mental stimulus, which is necessary food [22/23] in the schoolroom, is undue stimulant in the nursery. Nay, is there often not a sort of rivalry between young mothers as to whose children shall seem the most intelligent and original?

It is delightful to see the small face light up in sympathy with yours, but it is your emotion, not his, which is being satisfied; and you are first cousin to a vampire if you play on the strings of a young child's soul because you love to hear their music; such music should be heard only by their angels before the throne, though it may be overheard by the mother.

From another point of view also I somewhat misdoubt the play-education of to-day. It may be only the prejudice of one who had a very happy childhood under old conditions, but I feel as if these methods did not sufficiently respect the essential privacy of all true imagination.

There is a certain desecration of a child's imagination if you inveigle him into using it over lessons. All true lovers of Pirates and Red Indians (who have tasted the joys of Stevenson's Lantern Bearers) would plead that lessons be lessons. Lessons have a charm of their own, in their sense of reality and responsibility; and they satisfy [23/24] intellectual curiosity, which does exist, even in the ordinary child, doing ordinary lessons.

Many a child would say, "Teach me solid chunks of geography if you will, but let me find my North-west Passage by myself, and sail the Spanish Main free from the trail of the educator.

"Make me learn Little Arthur's History if you will, but leave me to murder my obnoxious little cousins in a Tower of my own building, without spoiling my taste for it by organised historical pageants in lesson time."

I sympathise with that child, and I am sure the result would be a stronger breed.

Of course, I am thinking of a childhood which was left free to do its own imaginings and create its own Towers and desolate islands. I know many must have lived in a grey world of repression, where "Don't" was the pass-word of the authorities. But imagination thrives better under wholesome neglect than when it is choked with cream, and I am not at all convinced that the average child was so badly off in my day, while I am quite sure he learnt that, when the clock struck, certain things had to happen, and that those things had to go on happening (regardless of likes and dislikes) till the clock struck again.

[25] That piece of learning stands one in remarkably good stead later in life; so I plead earnestly for a Clock of Duty to be added to the orthodox cubes and triangles of modern schoolroom furniture.

To do the right thing, because it strikes you at the moment as the most amusing thing to do, is not the same in character training as "I can because I ought, and by God's help I will."

This leads me to another tendency of to-day's methods of self-development which should be carefully considered.

To arrange for all the early problems and difficulties to be so graded that they can be self-conquered, develops what is a very usual turn of the modern mind--the sense that you can fight your battles by the aid of your own good sword, by your pride, your generosity, your will power. The child of a good home and of good stock, generally can do this, under sheltered circumstances. Yet there is something missing in the self-confident virtue which lacks "the reverence of unshodden feet."

The modern sense of capability and self-confidence, which has succeeded to the old feeling that man was vile earth, is neither an achievement nor a fall; it is only a middle [25/26] stage of development. As Julius Hare said in Guesses at Truth, "Man's first word is 'Yes,' his second 'No,' and his third is 'Yes' again."

I believe this young and self-reliant generation will work on to the stage of that third and deeper "Yes." Man will retain the lately-won sense of being a son of God who can be rightly expected to act more or less as a son; while he will rise to a deeper conception of holiness which will make him speak as Job did. "I have heard of Thee by the hearing of the ear, but now mine eye seeth Thee. Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes." "That is the way for us all," said Bishop Montgomery in his Visions; "it is a very old story, the Practice of the Presence of God. All who do it lie on their faces for life."

We need not invent a helplessness, which is not real, to teach the child his need of the great Helper; but we should, while he is little (and susceptible to unconscious currents of thought), refuse to let the pendulum swing entirely to self-help, and we should refuse to give only carefully graded difficulties which are within his grasp.

Life's difficulties are not graded, and the child with fewer advantages, who has no [26/27] trained teacher, but lives with his mother, learns more naturally the helplessness, which spells loving dependence on higher strength. The child who turns to Mother for help will afterwards turn to God. It is for the mother's wisdom to hit the just medium: to leave him alone sufficiently to make him a man; to help him enough to make him realise his need of her.

Elders are constitutionally liable to a belief that there are no longer giants in the land; their defective eyesight fails to recognise the young giants. In all walks of life they complain of a lack of personality in the oncoming workers.

I have a strong suspicion that the present generation of elders is right for once. They and their forbears were brought up, running as best they could, at the heels of grownup people full of grown-up interests. This method, or want of method, kept the child in a large atmosphere and ensured full measure of wholesome neglect.

The poor young giant of to-day has probably started in a Lilliputian world of kindergarten, and proceeded to carefully graded school classes ruled by a young public opinion. How can he be expected to become Gulliver?

[29] And while we realise the value of the positive side of new methods, we need not adopt their negatives. Let us even venture to add to them some more positive truths which are a little old fashioned, such as the value of the power of concentration at will, independent of likes and dislikes; and the educational element in the child's reliance on "mother."

You can blend these with full recognition of the new ideas--the value of individual choice; of giving free play to the creative instinct--without balking it by thoughtless interruptions; of leaving a child to struggle manfully with its difficulties; in short, you can carry out the theories of Sandford and Merton,--a classic which I would always recommend to any intending teacher!

To sum up:--The bias of the old education was towards self-restraint, that of the new towards self-development.

The age of freedom and self-development has come. The new ideas will build the house of to-day, but it is still in the mother's power to lay the foundations of that house in duty and discipline.

Let the little child learn duty in lesson and develop imagination in play.

Let it learn in lesson time that, when the [29/30] clock of duty strikes, something inevitably happens, regardless of moods--something which must be done because it is right, not because it happens to be the most amusing thing at the moment

In play let him develop his imagination on childlike lines, without the stimulus of grown-up sympathy and inventiveness.

The child's enjoyment is no guarantee that you are not using up (by the stimulus you involuntarily supply) the vitality which he should be storing up for after-life.

But while he plays alone, let him share enough in family life to learn his own smallness. Let him have the chance of unconsciously learning from larger personalities while they are pursuing their own affairs, instead of only seeing them when they are engaged in baby worshipping or baby developing.

This will develop in him the sense which makes the Breton sailor turn to God with the cry, "O God, my bark is so small and Thy sea is so vast."

The Old School and the New School have much to learn from each other. Our bias may be towards old or new, law or freedom, self-restraint or self-development (and all these things are essentials in education; proportion in arranging them is the only individual choice open to us), but whichever way our inherited bias lies, we must all realise that Herbert Spencer went to the heart of educational problems when he said--

"The test of being educated is, Can you do what you ought, when you ought, whether you want to do it, or not?"

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