Select Page

What Better Provision Ought to be Made
for the Education of Girls
of the Upper and Middle Classes?

c. October 5-10, 1856 — National Association for the Promotion of Social Science, Sheffield, England


Our present inquiry involves at its very outset a preliminary question, without a settlement of which we shall remain as far as ever from any satisfactory conclusion as to the one immediately before us. What is a true and complete education? Shall we say that education is that combination of agencies or processes by which the human being is prepared to discharge worthily and wisely all the varied claims of personal and social duty, and to find in those duties occasion for the fruitful exercise of every faculty and opportunity for the perfection of personal character? We need not here discuss the question, interesting as it may be, whether society exists for the sake of the individual, or the individual for the sake of society. All modern experience agrees in this — that the unsocially developed character fails of its highest perfection, and that the most perfect society is but the aggregate of the best and wisest individuals. But if we accept such a definition of education as this, it follows that we have a measure by which we can try, at least in gross and in its general results, the value of the claims of each subject and method of study. Those studies must be the best which bring us most into sympathy with human beings, and which enable us best to understand and to serve them; those methods must be best which best develope the qualities of highest service to mankind. If it should prove that our present systems lead us in the true direction, we may he well contented with them as relatively perfect ; but should they prove to be based on unsound principles, and to lead to worse practice, then is it time to consider to some purpose how this may best be remedied. What, then, seen from this point of view, is the worst defect of female (possibly of all) education at the present time‘? Is it not that it appeals too much to vanity? That instead of resting upon sympathy, the grand social virtue, it is too often rooted and grounded in selfishness‘? From the first lessons in the nursery to the latest school-room drill, it is often one continuous preparation for social display, less often for social service.

Truth is another of the great social virtues. How should a woman’s education, as ordinarily conducted, foster her love of truth? The direct influence of the slovenly methods of teaching too much in use must be to train to habits of untruthfulness. Where there is half knowledge, trickery, deceit on the part of an unqualified teacher, what must be expected from the pupils? Is it not true that the demoralisation of character consequent upon careless and incompetent teaching and superficial learning, is incomparably more mischievous than any lack of positive information?

Need we speak of justice, the crown and flower of all the social virtues? How should women be just? How far does their education prepare them for a clear apprehension of the relative merits and claims of others, that justness of perception, upon which alone justice in action can be based? What breadth of view, what liberality of sentiment, what superiority to prejudice can be expected from an ordinary woman under ordinary circumstances?

In so far as the present condition of female education is unsatisfactory, the cause appears then to lie chiefly in false notions on the part of both parents and teachers as to the true scope and purpose of education — a mistake so fertile in evil consequences, that we might perhaps say that it is the one ground and occasion of all other mistakes, and that when once a juster view is acknowledged and acted upon, we shall be in a fair way for all other improvements; but till then amendments in detail can produce no permanent advance. In this matter we cannot expect society to make all at once a rapid progress, but may be well content if little by little sounder views gain ground.

There are, however, certain practical measures which admit of present consideration, and perhaps of immediate action. Among these the testing of teachers occupies an important place. Whilst there are many teachers thoroughly in earnest in their work, trying to do their duty, it remains sadly true that no profession is more disgraced by incompetent members. In part this is a passing evil, which time will remedy — an evil arising from the exigencies of modern society, which demand that a greater number than ever of women of the middle classes should be self-maintaining, conflicting with certain foolish theories which made it a degradation to a woman of those classes to earn her own living. The position of e governess seeming to offer more of the shelter and protection of a home than did many other pursuits, it has become the resource of multitudes every way unfitted for the work they have thus taken upon themselves. How best to protect the public from such is a question of great interest. Possibly a scheme of examination may be devised which will guarantee some degree of qualification on the part of teachers. Let us admit at once that no examination whatever can test all the qualifications of a good teacher, and that it by no means follows that the first on the examination list would be the best in the school-room; it yet remains true that there are certain qualifications scarcely less essential that an examination can test, and that we should thus securely eliminate a vast mass of incompetence.

Until a comparatively recent date our middle class schools were left destitute of any external test or guarantee whatever. We need not recall, now that the era of improvement has set in, the former condition of many of these schools. Much of the improvement is due to the multifold system of examinations which has sprung up throughout the country, and which cannot fail to exert an enormous influence on middle class education. But the improvement ought not to be confined to boys’ schools. The agency which has shown itself so potent for good in their case, admits of being applied with like valuable results in the improvement of the education of girls. Nor need there be any long delay in making the experiment, now that the Cambridge Local Examinations have been extended to girls.

It is an admirable feature in the University Local Examinations that they make imperative a reasonable amount of accurate know ledge and careful work in those elementary branches of education which in girls‘ schools, perhaps even more than was ever the case in boys’ schools, are apt to be neglected, whilst, on the other hand, the number and variety of the voluntary subjects allow of great latitude in the gratification of individual tastes and the development of individual talents. It can only be by free experiments such as these, carried on in good faith and with persevering industry, that we can arrive at any real certainty as to what knowledge and what mental discipline are best adapted for women, and most needed by them. We must protest against any prejudging of a question so important to the best interests of society.  We desire, on behalf of girls and women, the utmost liberty of experiment, feeling assured that under such conditions alone can the true process of natural selection develope that which is best.

The brief period of a girl’s life allowed to be devoted to serious study is a great hindrance to the adoption of the best methods ofteaching. Something of this evil is perhaps due to the present extravagance of school-fees. It may be possible, by various methods of combination amongst teachers, to secure a wiser economy, and this is perhaps one of the matters which an actively co-operative board of teachers might most usefully consider and experiment upon. At present, it is too much the fashion to consider a girl’s early education as of no moment whatever, and to expect a. couple of years’ expensive instruction to correct all defects. On the other hand, the finishing process is brought to a close at an unreasonably early age. When a girl has learned in the school-room how to learn, and has acquired a real love of knowledge, she has done much, and in spite of many hindrances, this is sometimes accomplished even now. Why, then, should the next few years of her life be spent in carefully un doing the work of the school-room? Is it necessary that the first years ofopening womanhood should be consecrated to frivolity, often to the utter disgust and weariness of the unhappy victim? When will it be understood that the only guarantee for happiness is to have real and unselfish interests in life, and that frivolity is at once selfish and unreal? Are we never to have for women the equivalent of the university training, and of the discipline of early professional exertion which prove so profitable to most men?

An outcry is sometimes raised against what is called over-education. We are told of fading health, broken spirits, and increased cerebral disease. All this, it is said, is the result of your advanced and improved systems of education. We take leave to deny the charge. Memory may be sometimes burdened, sedentary pursuits too much indulged in, physical training neglected; but this is the fault, we venture to say, not of over-education in the pupil, but of under-education on the part of the teacher. No person ought to direct the studies of young people, who is not well aware that a true education involves the harmonious development of all the powers of the human creature. This, at least, we are inclined to believe, that amongst women, at the present time, a hundredfold more illness might be traced to a lack of healthful mental stimulus, than to its too free application. The best corrective of any excess of the latter kind lies in the careful fulfilment of the daily social or domestic duties, which fall, or ought to fall, to the lot of almost every woman.

In what then do these views bear upon the question before us, “What better provision ought to be made for the education of girls of the middle and upper classes?” The primary necessity is to ensure the fitness of teachers by the best methods of examination that can be devised. It must also be desirable to apply practical scheme of examinations of pupils, to test and improve the quality of the instruction given; to extend at both ends the period of systematic instruction, in connection with which it would be well to consider the application of endowments, and the practicability of co-operation amongst teachers to lessen expense. The working range of our present Ladies’ Colleges should be widened, and their numbers increased, whilst, if possible, some means should be attached to them of teaching howto teach. In the last place, we would offer to women as well as girls, the opportunity of real study, and the means of satisfactorily testing their acquirements. It is hoped that ere long, the‘University of London will lend a helping hand in this matter. If so, it is much to be desired that the examinations for women may be not less searching and comprehensive than those of men. 



Source: Transactions of the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science, Sheffield Meeting, ed. George W. Hastings (London: Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts, and Green, 1866), pp. 287-289.