Practical Hints from a Father to His Daughter

William Sprague, 1835




In this and some following chapters, I design to give you my views briefly on the subject of education. I say briefly, for the subject is of such extent, and has so many important connections, that one could scarcely think of doing justice to it in anything short of an extended treatise. I shall confine myself to such hints as I think may be most useful to you in prosecuting your own education.

For all the noble faculties with which you are gifted you are indebted to the same Being who gave you your existence. On Him also you are dependent for their preservation; and it is a first dictate of reason, that your faculties should be employed in his service. But these faculties are evidently susceptible of high cultivation; and without cultivation, they can never accomplish the purpose for which they are designed.

The object of education then is twofold:
1. to develop the faculties,
2. to direct the faculties to bring out the energies of the soul, and to bring them to operate to the glory of the Creator.

In other words, the object of education, is to render you useful to the extent of your ability.

From this view of the design of education in general, it would seem that no one, certainly no Christian, could dissent. But who does not know that in the education of females, even this fundamental principle has too often been overlooked and that too, by parents who have professed to regulate their whole conduct by a regard to Christian obligation! Especially has this capital error been committed in substituting what is called an ornamental education for a solid education; in taking more care to form the person than to form the mind. And the consequence of this, has been that many a girl of fine natural talents, has come forth to the world and shown us the fruit of a long and expensive education in the marvelous dexterity she has acquired in the use of her hands and feet! (music and dancing)

But are not girls gifted with the exalted attribute of reason as well as the other gender? And where has Providence intimated that in one gender this gift is to be cultivated with the utmost care and in the other is to be left in all the wildness and barrenness of nature?

What if the sexes have not in all respects, the same occupations? What if man is destined to stand forth in the bolder walks of society; and what if woman has her station allotted her more exclusively, amidst the retired scenes of domestic life? This may be a reason why their education should in some respects be differently conducted; but it can never be an argument for leaving the mind of the girl to rust with ignorance or molding her into an animated plaything. If it is desirable that the mind of men should expand and strengthen by exercise, it must also be desirable that the female mind should share in some degree the same cultivation. Otherwise the dearest, tenderest connection of life, which ought to be but another name for the most absolute community of interest and feeling, will be converted into an unequal, unnatural league between intellectual refinement and intellectual barbarism.

You perceive then, that the object of female education cannot be attained, without careful attention to the culture of the intellect. And let me say that this must extend to the intellect in all its powers to the perception, the judgment, the memory, the reasoning faculty, etc. This is important, not only because each of these various faculties has its distinct office, and just in proportion as it is allowed to remain dormant, or turned out of its proper direction the end for which it is designed is defeated. But because the different faculties have a mutual dependence upon each other, and like the parts of a well adjusted machine, operate most legitimately and most effectually where the balance is carefully preserved.

It is true indeed, that much respect should be paid to the peculiar constitution of the mind; and it should be trained to put forth its most commanding efforts by means of its strongest powers; nevertheless there are none of your faculties which you have a right to neglect and even the feeblest of them should be cultivated at least so far that the mind may attain its fair and just proportion.

It is also desirable, in order that you may attain the true end of education, that you should, as far as possible, adopt a course which will combine particular and general utility. That is, the various branches which you pursue, should be such as may be turned to some practical use, while they minister to the general culture of the mind, and give it the easy command of its own powers. The most interesting view of the education of the mind, is that which regards it as a system designed to bring out its powers, and carry it forward from one degree of strength to another. What though you may gain ever so much knowledge, if every new degree of it is not a new degree of intellectual power, you do not reap the legitimate fruit of your mental toil.

That this important object may be gained, accustom yourself in every branch of study, to independent reflection, and let your mind freely think its own thoughts, and be not afraid to presume that the textbook itself, where it is anything else than the Bible, may be wrong. Not that I would encourage in you a habit of intellectual arrogance: that, in any youth is disgusting in a young girl, it is intolerable. But that habit of modest inquisitiveness which asks for a reason for whatever it assents to, and which unostentatiously pushes its inquiries beyond authority, or even in the face of authority is always to be commended. And is fitted above almost any other habit of mind, to give you a knowledge of your powers on the one hand, and a command of them on the other.

Let me here say a word in regard to the use and abuse of text-books. That you may derive from them important aid in the prosecution of your studies, there can be no doubt; and there is as little question that they are capable of being perverted as auxiliaries to mental inaction. The true use to be made of them is, not to supersede but to assist reflection; not merely to communicate information but to give an impulse to the intellect, by suggesting hints and principles which it may follow out to their legitimate results.

But the danger is that while your memory will be laid under contribution to gather up whatever is said in the textbook, your other faculties will find a ready dispensation; and that in your recitation you will be satisfied to confine yourself to the very letter of your author. In order to guard against this evil, let what is said in the text book be regarded as only the basis of what you are to learn; and let it serve as a guide to conduct you into other fields of thought; and accustom yourself to scrutinize every principle, and seek for a solution of every difficulty, that may present itself. Such a use of text-books, while it will not expose your mind to be enslaved by authorities, or leave any of its faculties to rust through inaction, will secure every positive advantage which a record of the labors of other minds can impart.

But while you should keep in view the general culture of your mind, it is important that each particular branch that you pursue, should be of practical utility.

It cannot be denied that the intellectual labors of many of the schoolmen, previous to the revival of learning in Europe, were of great extent, and were fitted to produce a high degree of mental acumen. But everyone who has looked into their writings, knows that the subjects upon which they employed their faculties, were of little practical consequence; and that they would often pour out a world of learned nonsense to establish a point, which after all was not worth establishing! They indeed, by this means, acquired an extraordinary power of discrimination; and this the true theory of education certainly does not overlook. But it aims at this end by employing the mind upon subjects of practical utility; subjects which it can turn to some account in the every day affairs of life.

And let me say that it is important not only that the knowledge which you acquire should be practical but that you should also gain the ability of carrying it out, as you may have opportunity, in the various departments of human action. You might have every variety of learning, and if notwithstanding, you had not learned to reduce it to practice you could never rise above an educated dunce! Whereas, a much less degree of knowledge with the ability of applying it, would render you at once respectable and useful.

I have cautioned you against an improper reliance on text books. It is equally important that you should guard against depending too much on instructors. Why is it that many a girl of good natural talents, after enjoying the best advantages of education for years, comes away from school a mere smatterer in most branches included in her course and thoroughly versed in none? The reason often is, that she has contented herself with being in a literary atmosphere, and going through the daily routine of recitations; and while she has depended upon her instructor to solve every difficulty, has hardly taxed herself with the labor of so much thought as was necessary to apprehend his explanations.

Now I wish you to be deeply impressed with the truth that all the instruction in the world will never make you a scholar, independently of your own efforts. There is no such thing as thinking by proxy, any more than breathing by proxy; intellectual acquisitions must be the fruit of intellectual labor; and whoever will not encounter the one must be satisfied to remain destitute of the other. I say then, listen attentively to all that is communicated by your instructors, and endeavor to make the best use of it. But that this may be the case, let their thoughts become incorporated with your own, just as you do, or as you ought to do, in relation to the thoughts of the authors whom you study. Your instructors may indeed co-operate with you in the cultivation of your mind; but if you undertake to throw the whole burden upon them, the result may indeed witness to their fidelity but it certainly will witness to your folly and chagrin.

Closely connected with the faithful exercise of your own faculties, independently of text books and teachers, is a habit of diligence. I do not mean that your whole time is to be occupied in study; this, while it would expose your health, would impair the vigor of your faculties, and thus diminish your amount of acquisition. I would have you exercise your mind closely in study, when you exercise it at all; and exercise it as constantly as is consistent with keeping it in the best state for successful application. While you profess to be a student, regard study as your main business; and make your amusements subordinate and so far as possible, subservient to it.

I have just alluded to the fact, and I wish here to bring it more distinctly before you, that in order that you may study to the most advantage part of your time must be devoted to relaxation and exercise how large a part, your own judgment and experience must decide. Many a young girl of great promise has laid the foundation of disease that has carried her prematurely to the grave by neglecting bodily exercise during the period of her education. And not only has she sacrificed her life to this unfortunate habit but her intellectual acquisitions have actually been less, than if a due proportion of her time had been devoted to the exercise of her bodily powers.

Whether therefore you regard the preservation of your life and health, or your success in the various branches of study I earnestly entreat you to subject yourself to a course of daily, systematic, exercise. In following this advice you will be surprised to find how much you will gain in respect to elasticity of spirits and vigor of thought; and that you will often accomplish more mental labor in a single hour than under other circumstances you will accomplish in a day or even a week. And more than this, instead of leaving school with a constitution whose resources are more than half exhausted, and with an ominous paleness on your cheek which seems to say that the grave is ready for you you will probably come away in the bloom of health, and with strength and resolution to engage in the duties of the station in which Providence may place you.

Let me say a word in this connection, in regard to the treatment which is due from you to your instructors. Next to your parents, your instructors, if they are faithful are most actively engaged in the formation of your character; and they watch over you with a degree of solicitude inferior only to that which belongs to the parental relation. It is obvious therefore, that not only common propriety but gratitude requires that you should treat them with great deference and respect.

You are not indeed bound to receive every or any opinion they may express without examination; and you are at liberty, unless for particular reasons they should choose to forbid it, modestly to propose difficulties which may be suggested even by their own instruction; but you are always faithfully to consult their wishes, and yield a ready obedience to their requisitions, and by your kind and respectful deportment, to do what you can to diminish the burden of care and perplexity that is inseparable from their employment. I should do you injustice, to suppose it possible that you should be guilty of such indecorum as deliberately to trifle with the feelings of your instructors, or incur their open and direct censure. But your conduct towards them would never satisfy me, unless it should be such as to secure their positive and uniform approbation.