Noah Webster, shortly after the end of the Revolutionary War, publishes an essay in his American Magazine outlining his reasons and methods for revising the educational system in the new republic.
On the EDUCATION of YOUTH in AMERICA.
NEW YORK, 1788.
IN a system of education, that should embrace every part of the community, the female sex claim no inconsiderable share of our attention.
The women in America (to their honor it is mentioned) are not generally above the care of educating their own children. Their own education should therefore enable them to implant in the tender mind, such sentiments of virtue, propriety and dignity, as are suited to the freedom of our governments. Children should be treated as children, but as children that are, in a future time, to be men and women. By treating them as if they were always to remain children, we very often see their childishness adhere to them, even in middle life. The silly language called baby talk, in which most persons are initiated in infancy, often breaks out in discourse, at the age of forty, and makes a man appear very ridiculous.* In the same manner, vulgar, obscene and illiberal ideas, imbibed in a nursery or a kitchen, often give a tincture to the conduct through life. In order to prevent every evil bias, the ladies, whose province it is to direct the inclinations of children on their first appearance, and to choose their nurses, should be possessed, not only of amiable manners, but of just sentiments and enlarged understandings.
But the influence of women in forming the dispositions of youth, is not the sole reason why their education should be particularly guarded; their influence in controling the manners of a nation, is another powerful reason. Women, once abandoned, may be instrumental in corrupting society; but such is the delicacy of the sex, and such the restraints which custom imposes upon them, that they are generally the last to be corrupted. There are innumerable instances of men, who have been restrained from a vicious life, and even of very abandonded men, who have been reclaimed, by their attachment to ladies of virtue. A fondness for the company and conversation of ladies of character, may be considered as a young man’s best security against the attractives of a dissipated life. A man who is attached to good company, seldom frequents that which is bad. For this reason, society requires that females should be well educated, and extend their influence as far as possible over the other sex.
* It has been already observed that a child always imitated what he sees and hears: For this reason, he should hear no language which is not correct and decent. Every word spoken to a child, should be pronounced with clearness and propriety. Banish from children all diminutive words, all whining and all bad grammar. A boy of six years old may be taught to speak as correctly, as Cicero did before the Roman Senate.
But a distinction is to be made between a good education, and a showy one; for an education, merely superficial, is a proof of corruption of taste, and has a mischievous influence on manners. The education of females, like that of males, should be adapted to the principles of the government, and correspond with the stage of society. Education in Paris differs from that in Petersburg, and the education of females in London or Paris should not be a model for the Americans to Copy.
In all nations a good education, is that which renders the ladies correct in their manners, respectable in their families, and agreeable in society. That education is always wrong, which raises a woman above the duties of her station.
In America, female education should have for its object what is useful. Young ladies should be taught to speak and write their own language with purity and elegance; an article in which they are often deficient. The French language is not necessary for ladies. In some cases it is convenient, but, in general, it may be considered as an article of luxury. As an accomplishment, it may be studied by those whose attention is not employed about more important concerns.
Some knowlege of arithmetic is necessary for every lady. Geography should never be neglected. Belles Letters learning seems to correspond with the dispositions of most females. A taste for Poetry and fine writing should be cultivated; for we expect the most delicate sentiments from the pens of that sex which is possessed of the finest feelings.
A course of reading can hardly be prescribed for all ladies. But it should be remarked, that this sex cannot be too well acquainted with the writers upon human life and manners. The Spectator should fill the first place in every lady’s library. Other volumes of periodical papers, tho inferior to the Spectator, should be read; and some of the best histories.
With respect to novels, so much admired by the young, and so generally condemned by the old, what shall I say ? Perhaps it may be said with truth, that some of them are useful, many of them pernicious, and most of them trifling. A hundred volumes of modern novels may be read, without acquiring a new idea. Some of them contain entertaining stories, and where the descriptions are drawn from nature, and from characters and events in themselves innocent, the perusal of them may be harmless.
Were novels written with a view to exhibit only one side of human nature, to paint the social virtues, the world would condemn them as defective: But I should think them more perfect. Young people, especially females, mould not see the vicious part of mankind. At best novels may be considered as the toys of youth; the rattle boxes of sixteen. The mechanic gets his pence for his toys, and the novel writer, for his books; and it would be happy for society, if the latter were in all cases as innocent play things as the former.
In the large towns in America, music, drawing and dancing, constitute, a part of female education. They, however, hold a subordinate rank; for my fair friends will pardon me, when I declare, that no man ever marries a woman for her performance on a harpsichord, or her figure in a minuet. However ambitious a woman may be to command admiration abroad, her real merit is known only at home. Admiration is useless, when it is not supported by domestic worth. But real honor and permanent esteem, are always secured by those who preside over their own families with dignity.*
* Nothing can be more fatal to domestic happiness in America, than a taste for copying the luxurious manners and amusements of England and France. Dancing, drawing and music, are principal articles of education in those kingdoms; therefore every girl in America must pass two or three years at a boarding school, tho her father cannot give her a farthing when she marries. This ambition to educate females above their fortunes pervades every part of America. Hence; the disproportion between the well bred females and the males in our large towns. A mechanic or shopkeeper in town, or a farmer in the country, whose sons get their living by their father’s employments, will send their daughters to a boarding school, where their ideas are elevated, and their views carried above a connexion with men in those occupations. Such an education, without fortune or beauty, may possibly please a girl of fifteen, but must prove her greatest misfortune. This fatal mistake is illustrated in every large town in America. In the country, the number of males and females, is nearly equal; but in towns, the number of genteelly bred women is greater than of men; and in some towns, the proportion is, as three to one.
The heads of young people of both sexes are often turned by reading descriptions of splendid living, of coaches, of plays, and other amusements. Such descriptions excite a desire to enjoy the same pleasures. A fortune becomes the principal object of pursuit; fortunes are scarce in America, and not easily acquired; disappointment succeeds, and the youth who begins life with expecting to enjoy a coach, closes the prospect with a small living, procured by labor and economy.
Thus a wrong education, and a taste for pleasures which our fortune will not enable us to enjoy, often plunge the Americans into distress, or at least prevent early marriages. Too fond of show, of dress and expense, the sexes wish to please each other; they mistake the means, and both are disappointed.