Last week, I took my youngest daughter to college. She is attending Wellesley near Boston - a fine women's college her oldest sister graduated from last year.
The president of the college gave the usual upbeat speech to the gathered parents, with a special emphasis on the value of women's education.
As she spoke, I was thinking of - G. K. Cheserton.
I remembered a piece by him on the topic of women's education that I had read years ago. As soon as we got home, I dug out "Folly and Female Education" and reread it.
It is as I remembered. I found myself of divided mind about it.
He makes some good points about the poor quality of education in general, and he objects to inflicting the same misfortune on young women.
Of course, as a teacher - and the father of three bright daughters - I am a supporter of female education, even if it has to be the flawed system foisted on boys and men.
Further, he typically places woman on a pedestal - she is a "queen of life."
I love women, but I don't hold them in the same regard. I have met some truly noble queens, but in terms of human relations, I have also encountered several who could rival the queens in Snow White or Narnia.
He even goes on to suggest that women without formal education are actually in a sense more "educated" - a point I can agree with to a degree, and which I think should be equally applied to men. But he says it in a way that I as a man in the 21st Century found condescending, even as I'm sure our "dear" 19th Century Sage would, in response to that accusation, cluelessly sputter and contend that he is merely holding women in high regard.
"There was a time when you and I and all of us were all very close to God; so that even now the color of a pebble (or a paint), the smell of a flower (or a firework), comes to our hearts with a kind of authority and certainty; as if they were fragments of a muddled message, or features of a forgotten face. To pour that fiery simplicity upon the whole of life is the only real aim of education; and closest to the child comes the woman--she understands."
"Closest to the child." Indeed.
And on a literary note, he goes on to say that "Jane Austen was stronger, sharper and shrewder than Charlotte Bronte" - perhaps, but I enjoyed Jane Eyre far more than I did anything written by Austen. (Though I agree with him about George Eliot!)
The piece concludes with one of my favorite Chesterton quotations: "... if a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly."
Couldn't the same be said of even flawed education?
Anyway, I wondered what Madame Wellesley President would make of his essay.
FOLLY AND FEMALE EDUCATION
It is the same in the case of girls. I am often solemnly asked what I think of the new ideas about female education. But there are no new ideas about female education.
There is not, there never has been, even the vestige of a new idea. All the educational reformers did was to ask what was being done to boys and then go and do it to girls; just as they asked what was being taught to young squires and then taught it to young chimney sweeps. What they call new ideas are very old ideas in the wrong place. Boys play football, why shouldn't girls play football; boys have school colors, why shouldn't girls have school-colors; boys go in hundreds to day-schools, why shouldn't girls go in hundreds to day-schools; boys go to Oxford , why shouldn't girls go to Oxford --in short, boys grow mustaches, why shouldn't girls grow mustaches--that is about their notion of a new idea. There is no brain-work in the thing at all; no root query of what sex is, of whether it alters this or that, and why,anymore than there is any imaginative grip of the humor and heart of the populace in the popular education. There is nothing but plodding, elaborate, elephantine imitation.
And just as in the case of elementary teaching, the cases are of a cold and reckless inappropriateness. Even a savage could see that bodily things, at least, which are good for a man are very likely to be bad for a woman. Yet there is no boy's game, however brutal, which these mild lunatics have not promoted among girls. To take a stronger case, they give girls very heavy home-work; never reflecting that all girls have home-work already in their homes. It is all a part of the same silly subjugation; there must be a hard stick-up collar round the neck of a woman, because it is already a nuisance round the neck of a man. Though a Saxon serf, if he wore that collar of cardboard, would ask for his collar of brass.
It will then be answered, not without a sneer, "And what would you prefer? Would you go back to the elegant early Victorian female, with ringlets and smelling-bottle, doing a little in water colors, dabbling a little in Italian, playing a little on the harp,writing in vulgar albums and painting on senseless screens? Do you prefer that?" To which I answer, "Emphatically, yes." I solidly prefer it to the new female education, for this reason, that I can see in it an intellectual design, while there is none in the other. I am by no means sure that even in point of practical fact that elegant female would not have been more than a match for most of the inelegant females. I fancy Jane Austen was stronger, sharper and shrewder than Charlotte Bronte; I am quite certain she was stronger, sharper and shrewder than George Eliot. She could do one thing neither of them could do: she could coolly and sensibly describe a man. I am not sure that the old great lady who could only smatter
Italian was not more vigorous than the new great lady who can only stammer American; nor am I certain that the bygone duchesses who were scarcely successful when they painted Melrose Abbey, were so much more weak-minded than the modern duchesses who paint only their own faces, and are bad at that. But that is not the point. What was the theory, what was the idea, in their old, weak water-colors and their shaky Italian? The idea was the same which in a ruder rank expressed itself in home-made
wines and hereditary recipes; and which still, in a thousand unexpected ways, can be found clinging to the women of the poor.
It was the idea I urged in the second part of this book: that the world must keep one great amateur, lest we all become artists and perish. Somebody must renounce all specialist conquests, that she may conquer all the conquerors. That she may be a queen of life, she must not be a private soldier in it. I do not think the elegant female with her bad Italian was a perfect product, any more than I think the slum woman talking gin and funerals is a perfect product; alas! there are few perfect products. But they come from a comprehensible idea; and the new woman comes from nothing and nowhere. It is right to have an ideal, it is right to have the right ideal, and these two have the right ideal. The slum mother with her funerals is the degenerate daughter of Antigone, the obstinate priestess of the household gods. The lady talking bad Italian was the decayed tenth cousin of Portia, the great and golden Italian lady, the Renascence amateur of life, who could be a barrister because she could be anything. Sunken and neglected in the sea of modern monotony and imitation, the types hold tightly to their original truths. Antigone, ugly, dirty and often drunken, will still bury her father. The elegant female, vapid and fading away to nothing, still feels faintly the fundamental difference between herself and her husband: that he must be Something in the City, that she may be everything in the country.
There was a time when you and I and all of us were all very close to God; so that even now the color of a pebble (or a paint), the smell of a flower (or a firework), comes to our hearts with a kind of authority and certainty; as if they were fragments of a muddled message, or features of a forgotten face. To pour that fiery simplicity upon the whole of life is the only real aim of education; and closest to the child comes the woman--she understands. To say what she understands is beyond me; save only this, that it is not a solemnity. Rather it is a towering levity, an uproarious amateurishness of the universe, such as we felt when we were little,
and would as soon sing as garden, as soon paint as run. To smatter the tongues of men and angels, to dabble in the dreadful sciences, to juggle with pillars and pyramids and toss up the planets like balls, this is that inner audacity and indifference which the human soul, like a conjurer catching oranges, must keep up forever. This is that insanely frivolous thing we call sanity. And the elegant female, drooping her ringlets over her water-colors, knew it and acted on it. She was juggling with frantic and flaming suns. She was maintaining the bold equilibrium of inferiorities which is the most mysterious of superiorities and perhaps the most unattainable. She was maintaining the prime truth of woman, the universal mother: that if a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.