Practical Hints from a Father to His Daughter

William Sprague, 1835


Having, in the preceding chapter, called your attention to some general views on the subject of education, I intend in this, to enumerate some of the various branches which will naturally be included in your course, and to give you my opinion of their comparative importance. Whatever relates to the selection and order of your studies, I am willing to leave in a great measure to your instructors, not doubting that they will direct you with good judgment and I am willing too to leave something to your own taste and inclination. But as this is a subject which deeply involves the improvement of your mind, and the formation of your character, and in which a parent must of course feel a deep interest you will not wonder that I am disposed to give you briefly the result of my experience and reflection.

You need not be startled, when I go back to the very elementary branches of an education, and begin to talk to you on the simple matter of learning to read.

My first advice is, that you should adopt in every respect, your natural tones the tones which you are accustomed to use in common conversation. Almost every child contracts at a very early period, what is commonly called a reading tone a monotonous habit of utterance, which, while it outrages taste and nature, is generally with great difficulty broken up. If you have already contracted this tone in any degree, make it your first object to get rid of it! When you sit down to read, do not think it necessary to assume a more formal or stately mental attitude, than if you were sitting down to converse.

And endeavor to utter the sentiments of your author in his language, in the same easy and familiar manner that you would talk of the same sentiments in your own. This of course implies that you read intelligently; that you are able to enter into the spirit of your author, and readily and fully to apprehend his meaning. You can never attain what I wish in this respect, by the study of rules; though these may be of some assistance to you you can only do it by understanding well what you read, and giving yourself up to the simple dictate of your natural tone. And by often repeated exercises of this kind, you will acquire the habit which I am recommending.

Be careful also that you utter each sentence, and every part of each sentence, with perfect distinctness, and in so loud a tone that all you say shall not only be heard but heard without effort.

Guard, on the one hand, against fatiguing the attention of those who listen to you by the excessive rapidity of your utterance, and, on the other, against furnishing them with an apology for going to sleep by your extreme deliberation. In a word, let it be your aim to read in such a manner, as most deeply to impress the sentiments of your author; and of course, most effectually to secure the attention of your hearers.

Next to reading, comes the equally simple art of spelling. It is true of this as of every other elementary branch, and if I mistake not, in a higher degree than of any other, that if it is not learned at a very early period, it will probably never be learned at all; and hence it is not uncommon to find men whose early education was neglected but who by their own subsequent exertions have risen to the most elevated stations, leaving evidence through life upon everything they write, that they do not understand the art of making words out of letters.

This indeed may be excused where there has been the lack of early advantages; but nothing else can render it tolerable. I beg you will make it a point, therefore, as early as possible, to possess yourself of a correct system of spelling. This is a thing to be learned partly by rule but in a much greater degree, by practice; and without much of the latter, I assure you that you can never arrive at much perfection in this simple but necessary department of knowledge.

Let me advise you in writing never to run the hazard of committing an orthographical error in a case in respect to which you are in doubt. Always settle the point on the spot where it is practicable, by a reference to some standard authority. In this way you will acquire a habit of correctness, and a particularity of information, which will soon make you independent of dictionaries; whereas by adopting the opposite course, you will not only run the hazard of committing an error in a case in which an error, to say the least, is hardly decent but you will acquire a habit of inattention to your spelling which may ultimately make it a task for a literary friend to read your composition.

As for penmanship, I cannot say that I regard it so important that you should attain to high excellence in it, as in either of the preceding branches; and yet I am desirous that your attainments in this department should, at least, be respectable. I would be glad to see you write an easy and graceful hand, and above all I would have it possess the attribute of being legible. A more odd conceit never entered a human head, than seems to have got possession of some at the present day that a hand which puts one's invention to the torture, is a sure mark of genius. If that be the test, I will only say that I choose to have you run the hazard of being considered a dunce, rather than torment me and your other friends with illegible communications!

How much truth there is in the doctrine held by some, that the handwriting indicates the intellectual or moral character I will not undertake to decide. But I earnestly hope that you will take up no doctrine nor practice on this subject that will prevent you from being a neat, plain, and, if you please, elegant writer.

I hardly need say that you can lay no claim to the character of an accomplished scholar until you can speak and write with correctness your own language. And in order to this, you must gain a thorough knowledge of English Grammar and Rhetoric. These branches should be so familiar to you, that you will, as a matter of course, and without even being conscious of it at the time judge every composition you read or hear by grammatical or rhetorical rules; that you will as instantly detect an error in syntax, or an error in taste, as a delicate ear would notice a confusion in musical sounds.

I know indeed there have been those who have written with great power and even beauty, who have known nothing of Rhetoric or Grammar, except as they were taught by nature; whose minds would pour out thoughts that breathe in words that burn, with the same apparent ease that a stream flows from its fountain; but there is no reason to doubt that even these pre-eminently gifted individuals would have done better with the knowledge of which I am speaking than they did without it; and at any rate they are exceptions from a general rule, and therefore furnish no ground for any general conclusion.

It is hardly necessary to say that a habit of easy and elegant composition is not to be acquired in ordinary cases without much attention and long continued practice. If you should find, therefore, that your first efforts are rather tame and feeble, it will be no reason why you should be discouraged; for no doubt there are many now on the list of fine writers, whose first efforts were as tame and feeble as yours. Nothing will serve more effectually to improve your taste, and to give you an easy command of thought and expression, than an intimate acquaintance with the English classics.

You will also, especially in your earlier essays at composition, find it a useful exercise, after you lay aside your book, to commit the thoughts of your author to paper in your own language; though I hardly need say that you are never to attempt to pass off anything that you produce in this way as your own, in any higher sense than it actually is so; for to say nothing of the immorality of such an act, which I would hope would be sufficient to deter you from it, there is no character in the literary world regarded with more odium than a plagiarist.

Remember that to form a good writer, the first requisite is good thoughts the second, a good style. If you can command thoughts which are striking and original it is all the better, provided they are appropriate; but endeavor always to be appropriate at any rate. A striking thought, introduced merely because it is striking, and with nothing in the connection to justify it is a blemish, and not an ornament; an indication both of the lack of judgment and of taste.

Whenever you have selected your subject, and have possessed yourself of the necessary information in respect to it, revolve it thoroughly in your mind, and see what appropriately belongs to it; and then select such thoughts or trains of thought, as may seem to you on the whole most pertinent and useful.

Arrange your thoughts, so far as may be, before you begin to write; and then you will proceed with far more ease, and probably with far more success. Let your subjects he chosen, so far as possible, with reference to the general culture of your mind. It is too much the fashion of the day for girls, in writing their compositions, to imagine themselves surveying some beautiful moonlight scene, or listening to the sound of some magnificent cataract, or contemplating nature in some other of her wild or sweet or majestic forms. All this may be well enough for an occasional exercise of imagination; but in general, I advise you to select subjects of more practical interest; subjects which are adapted to exercise the judgment, the reasoning faculty, and other powers of the mind, and not merely to awaken or improve the imagination. The secret of forming a good style, is to throw into it a due proportion of gracefulness and strength. There are a thousand good models which I might recommend to you but I am not desirous that you should closely study any model as such. The true mode is, to be conversant with as many good writers as you can, and to let your mind operate in its own way, unembarrassed by the peculiarities of any. I am always delighted to read a book on which I can see the very image and superscription of the author's own mind.

Of the various kinds of composition, there is none perhaps to which young girls generally are more inclined, and for which they find more occasion, than letter writing; and I must do your gender the justice to say that in this respect they greatly exceed ours under the same advantages. Without saying anything here of the propriety of your cultivating a more extensive or a more limited correspondence, I would urge upon you the importance of acquiring a good letter writing style, for this, among other reasons, that it is an accomplishment which is well fitted to make you agreeable to your friends.

And the only particular direction which I would give you for acquiring it, supposing you to be attentive to the general culture of your mind, is that you should throw your thoughts on paper with the same ease with which they fall from your lips. When you sit down to write a letter, imagine that you are sitting down to talk to a friend; and if you adopt a style of elegant conversation, you will adopt the very best style for a correspondence.

You will not understand me as prescribing any exact order for your studies, when I mention, next, Arithmetic. I need hardly say that this is important, not so much, in the common acceptance of the word, as an accomplishment, as it is for the every day practical purposes of life; so that there is hardly a condition in which you can suppose yourself placed but that your ignorance of this branch must, at some time or other, subject you not only to sad mortification but sore inconvenience.

Of the new mode of calculating, commonly called mental Arithmetic, I am unable to speak from much practical knowledge; but I must confess that the results of this mode of teaching which I have witnessed, even in small children, have surprised me; and I have no doubt that it is the most easy and successful mode of communicating this kind of knowledge which has yet been discovered. But leaving to your instructors to decide in respect to the best manner of your studying Arithmetic, I must insist that you make thorough work of it; insomuch that no calculation which you will have occasion to make, will ever embarrass you.

As to the higher branches of Mathematics, if you have even a common relish for them, I think you may pursue them to some extent with advantage. If you are passionately fond of them, I would say unhesitatingly, better prosecute them so far as inclination may dictate and opportunity admit. But if your taste points you decidedly to a different course of study, and you find nothing in this branch to attract or interest you, why then, I would consent that your mathematical studies should be arrested at almost any point you please, after you have become thoroughly acquainted with common arithmetic.

Algebra and Geometry, however, it were certainly desirable, should come into your course; and if you have intelligently advanced thus far, it is more than probable that your inclination will lead you still further. It is scarcely possible that you will ever be placed in circumstances in which these higher branches will come into direct use; nevertheless you may advantageously study them simply as a matter of intellectual discipline. It is an admirable way of learning to think on general subjects with precision, and to reason with clearness and force.

Of Geography, I surely need not say anything to you, in the way of urging its importance or recommending it to your attention. When studied intelligibly and with the proper helps, it possesses attractions to most minds which are irresistible. And to say nothing of the interest which belongs to it in itself considered, it is, as I think Lord Chesterfield remarks, one of the eyes of history. You will make yourself familiar with the earth, not only as it is known to the moderns but as it was known to the ancients; as a preparation for the study both of ancient and modern history.

It were scarcely necessary to add that your acquisitions in this department of knowledge, must be made principally from the map or the globe; as all impressions which you derive in any other way will be comparatively feeble and evanescent. The construction of maps also you will find a pleasant exercise, while it will serve to render your geographical knowledge more distinct and abiding.

I have adverted to History. This I would have you study not merely with a view to gratify curiosity but as containing an instructive record of human actions, and as furnishing an important means of becoming acquainted with the operations of the human heart; for what the nature of man has been, so it is now; and its operations are the same, making due allowance for diversity of circumstances.

In your attention to this branch, I would advise you first to make yourself thoroughly acquainted with some judicious outline of History; and so far as possible, to fill up every part of the outline by your subsequent reading. In no branch of study will you need the aid of system more than this; and though you may accumulate materials without end yet if you fail to reduce them to order, so that they shall be in your mind as so many distinct and well arranged classes of facts you will be able to use them to little advantage. While I would have you familiar with every part of History, both ancient and modern, I would recommend a special attention to the history of your own country.

Next to History, perhaps, may properly come Mental and Moral Philosophy. These are indeed distinct branches but as they both relate to the essential constitution of man, they may properly enough be noticed together. If you will prosecute them with success, you must bring to your aid much patient reflection; for you may rest assured that any superficial attention to these branches will be to no purpose. Every principle laid down in your text book you must test by a reference to your own intellectual or moral constitution; and if you find a disagreement between the principle as it is stated by your author, and as it exists in your own bosom you have reason to inquire whether your author is not in the wrong; for the original principles of human nature, and the operation of these principles, are substantially the same in people of every class. The study of these branches conducted in this way, you will readily perceive, is only the study of human character and human duty; and surely this cannot be unworthy to employ your faculties, whether as an intellectual being, or as a probationer for eternity.

Some degree of attention you may properly bestow upon Sciences. These, while they answer important practical purposes, are adapted to enlarge our views of the wisdom, and power, and goodness of the Creator. If your circumstances should permit, and your taste should incline you, to bestow some attention upon several of the branches of natural science, I should not object to it but if you should confine yourself to one or two, Mechanical Philosophy and Chemistry would probably best reward your efforts.

As to modern languages, I am not particularly desirous that you should aim at very high attainments. Of the French I would be glad to have you acquire so much knowledge that you can read it with fluency and correctness; but as for Spanish, Italian, and other modern languages, there is so little in them which it were worth your while to read, that you have my full consent for never opening a grammar of either. The dead languages I do not regard as constituting an important part of female education; and yet if your taste should incline you to it, I confess I would be gratified to see you able to converse with the mighty dead of Grecian and Roman fame.

I cannot conclude this list of studies without recommending to you a careful attention to the evidences of Christianity; and I rejoice to find, that in some of our female seminaries, this is already recognized as a distinct branch of education. Every part of this subject is full of interest; but no part of it perhaps grows upon the mind so much on reflection, as that which relates immediately to the world itself what is popularly termed the internal evidence.

Nearly identified with the study of this, is the study of the doctrines of the gospel; and I earnestly hope the time is not far distant when a knowledge of some outline of Scripture truth, or what perhaps is still better, the Bible itself, will be considered essential to a complete female education.

You perceive I have said nothing of merely ornamental branches. The reason is, not that I regard them as absolutely unimportant but only comparatively so. I am willing, if your circumstances admit, that you should attend to Drawing, Painting, or Music, or all of them provided only you have a natural taste for them, and do not allow them to interfere with your improvement in more important branches. I say, if you have a taste for them; for nothing seems to me more ridiculous than for a girl utterly destitute of taste, to spend months in trying to learn the use of the pencil, while neither she nor her friends are to reap any other reward of her labors, than is found in the awkward result of having a few pictures to amuse, or, as the case may be, to frighten, her younger sisters!

If you have a talent for music, I am more than willing that you should cultivate it; for it will not only supply you with innocent, and I may say, elegant, amusement but it may often banish melancholy from your mind, and refresh and invigorate the spirits of your friends. But I repeat, let every accomplishment of this kind be suffered to hold only its proper place. If you find that your attention to these or any kindred branches is at any time making you indifferent to the more solid parts of your education, especially if you find that it serves to nourish in you a spirit of vanity, and to diminish your interest in the realities of true religion you need no better evidence that it has become excessive, and that, however innocent these things may be in themselves, there is danger that you will pervert them to your injury or ruin!