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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
The Education of Women
By Sydney Smith (1771–1845)
 
A GREAT deal has been said of the original difference of capacity between men and women; as if women were more quick, and men more judicious,—as if women were more remarkable for delicacy of association, and men for stronger powers of attention. All this, we confess, appears to us very fanciful. That there is a difference in the understandings of the men and the women we every day meet with, everybody, we suppose, must perceive; but there is none surely which may not be accounted for by the difference of circumstances in which they have been placed, without referring to any conjectural difference of original conformation of mind. As long as boys and girls run about in the dirt, and trundle hoops together, they are both precisely alike. If you catch up one-half of these creatures, and train them to a particular set of actions and opinions, and the other half to a perfectly opposite set, of course their understandings will differ, as one or the other sort of occupations has called this or that talent into action. There is surely no occasion to go into any deeper or more abstruse reasoning, in order to explain so very simple a phenomenon….  1
  There is in either sex a strong and permanent disposition to appear agreeable to the other; and this is the fair answer to those who are fond of supposing that a higher degree of knowledge would make women rather the rivals than the companions of men. Presupposing such a desire to please, it seems much more probable that a common pursuit should be a fresh source of interest than a cause of contention. Indeed, to suppose that any mode of education can create a general jealousy and rivalry between the sexes, is so very ridiculous that it requires only to be stated in order to be refuted. The same desire of pleasing secures all that delicacy and reserve which are of such inestimable value to women. We are quite astonished, in hearing men converse on such subjects, to find them attributing such beautiful effects to ignorance. It would appear, from the tenor of such objections, that ignorance had been the great civilizer of the world. Women are delicate and refined, only because they are ignorant; they manage their household, only because they are ignorant; they attend to their children, only because they know no better. Now, we must really confess we have all our lives been so ignorant as not to know the value of ignorance. We have always attributed the modesty and the refined manners of women to their being well taught in moral and religious duty; to the hazardous situation in which they are placed; to that perpetual vigilance which it is their duty to exercise over thought, word, and action; and to that cultivation of the mild virtues, which those who cultivate the stern and magnanimous virtues expect at their hands. After all, let it be remembered we are not saying there are no objections to the diffusion of knowledge among the female sex,—we would not hazard such a proposition respecting anything; but we are saying that upon the whole, it is the best method of employing time, and that there are fewer objections to it than to any other method. There are perhaps fifty thousand females in Great Britain who are exempted by circumstances from all necessary labor: but every human being must do something with their existence; and the pursuit of knowledge is, upon the whole, the most innocent, the most dignified, and the most useful method of filling up that idleness of which there is always so large a portion in nations far advanced in civilization. Let any man reflect, too, upon the solitary situation in which women are placed; the ill treatment to which they are sometimes exposed, and which they must endure in silence and without the power of complaining: and he must feel convinced that the happiness of a woman will be materially increased in proportion as education has given to her the habit and the means of drawing her resources from herself.  2
  There are a few common phrases in circulation respecting the duties of women, to which we wish to pay some degree of attention, because they are rather inimical to those opinions which we have advanced on this subject. Indeed, independently of this, there is nothing which requires more vigilance than the current phrases of the day; of which there are always some resorted to in every dispute, and from the sovereign authority of which it is often vain to make any appeal. “The true theatre for a woman is the sick-chamber;” “Nothing so honorable to a woman as not to be spoken of at all.” These two phrases, the delight of Noodledom, are grown into commonplaces upon the subject; and are not unfrequently employed to extinguish that love of knowledge in women which, in our humble opinion, it is of so much importance to cherish. Nothing, certainly, is so ornamental and delightful in women as the benevolent affections; but time cannot be filled up, and life employed, with high and impassioned virtues. Some of these feelings are of rare occurrence, all of short duration, or nature would sink under them. A scene of distress and anguish is an occasion where the finest qualities of the female mind may be displayed; but it is a monstrous exaggeration to tell women that they are born only for scenes of distress and anguish. Nurse father, mother, sister, and brother, if they want it: it would be a violation of the plainest duties to neglect them. But when we are talking of the common occupations of life, do not let us mistake the accidents for the occupations; when we are arguing how the twenty-three hours of the day are to be filled up, it is idle to tell us of those feelings and agitations above the level of common existence, which may employ the remaining hour. Compassion, and every other virtue, are the great objects we all ought to have in view; but no man (and no woman) can fill up the twenty-four hours by acts of virtue. But one is a lawyer, and the other a plowman, and the third a merchant; and then, acts of goodness, and intervals of compassion and fine feeling, are scattered up and down the common occupations of life. We know women are to be compassionate; but they cannot be compassionate from eight o’clock in the morning till twelve at night, and what are they to do in the interval? This is the only question we have been putting all along, and is all that can be meant by literary education….  3
  One of the greatest pleasures of life is conversation; and the pleasures of conversation are of course enhanced by every increase of knowledge: not that we should meet together to talk of alkalies and angles, or to add to our stock of history and philology—though a little of these things is no bad ingredient in conversation; but let the subject be what it may, there is always a prodigious difference between the conversation of those who have been well educated and of those who have not enjoyed this advantage. Education gives fecundity of thought, copiousness of illustration, quickness, vigor, fancy, words, images, and illustrations; it decorates every common thing, and gives the power of trifling without being undignified and absurd. The subjects themselves may not be wanted, upon which the talents of an educated man have been exercised; but there is always a demand for those talents which his education has rendered strong and quick. Now, really, nothing can be further from our intention than to say anything rude and unpleasant; but we must be excused for observing that it is not now a very common thing to be interested by the variety and extent of female knowledge, but it is a very common thing to lament that the finest faculties in the world have been confined to trifles utterly unworthy of their richness and their strength.  4
  The pursuit of knowledge is the most innocent and interesting occupation which can be given to the female sex; nor can there be a better method of checking a spirit of dissipation than by diffusing a taste for literature. The true way to attack vice is by setting up something else against it. Give to women, in early youth, something to acquire, of sufficient interest and importance to command the application of their mature faculties, and to excite their perseverance in future life; teach them that happiness is to be derived from the acquisition of knowledge, as well as the gratification of vanity; and you will raise up a much more formidable barrier against dissipation than a host of invectives and exhortations can supply.  5
  It sometimes happens that an unfortunate man gets drunk with very bad wine, not to gratify his palate but to forget his cares: he does not set any value on what he receives, but on account of what it excludes; it keeps out something worse than itself. Now, though it were denied that the acquisition of serious knowledge is of itself important to a woman, still it prevents a taste for silly and pernicious works of imagination; it keeps away the horrid trash of novels; and in lieu of that eagerness for emotion and adventure which books of that sort inspire, promotes a calm and steady temperament of mind.  6
  A man who deserves such a piece of good fortune, may generally find an excellent companion for all vicissitudes of his life; but it is not so easy to find a companion for his understanding, who has similar pursuits with himself, or who can comprehend the pleasure he derives from them. We really can see no reason why it should not be otherwise; nor comprehend how the pleasures of domestic life can be promoted by diminishing the number of subjects in which persons who are to spend their lives together take a common interest.  7
  One of the most agreeable consequences of knowledge is the respect and importance which it communicates to old age. Men rise in character often as they increase in years: they are venerable from what they have acquired, and pleasing from what they can impart; if they outlive their faculties, the mere frame itself is respected for what it once contained. But women (such is their unfortunate style of education) hazard everything upon one cast of the die: when youth is gone, all is gone. No human creature gives his admiration for nothing: either the eye must be charmed or the understanding gratified. A woman must talk wisely or look well. Every human being must put up with the coldest civility, who has neither the charms of youth nor the wisdom of age. Neither is there the slightest commiseration for decayed accomplishments; no man mourns over the fragments of a dancer, or drops a tear on the relics of musical skill,—they are flowers destined to perish: but the decay of great talents is always the subject of solemn pity; and even when their last memorial is over, their ruins and vestiges are regarded with pious affection.  8
  There is no connection between the ignorance in which women are kept, and the preservation of moral and religious principle; and yet certainly there is, in the minds of some timid and respectable persons, a vague, indefinite dread of knowledge, as if it were capable of producing these effects. It might almost be supposed, from the dread which the propagation of knowledge has excited, that there was some great secret which was to be kept in impenetrable obscurity; that all moral rules were a species of delusion and imposture, the detection of which, by the improvement of the understanding, would be attended with the most fatal consequences to all, and particularly to women. If we could possibly understand what these great secrets were, we might perhaps be disposed to concur in their preservation; but believing that all the salutary rules which are imposed on women are the result of true wisdom, and productive of the greatest happiness, we cannot understand how they are to become less sensible of this truth in proportion as their power of discovering truth in general is increased, and the habit of viewing questions with accuracy and comprehension established by education. There are men, indeed, who are always exclaiming against every species of power, because it is connected with danger: their dread of abuses is so much stronger than their admiration of uses, that they would cheerfully give up the use of fire, gunpowder, and printing, to be freed from robbers, incendiaries, and libels. It is true that every increase of knowledge may possibly render depravity more depraved, as well as it may increase the strength of virtue. It is in itself only power; and its value depends on its application. But trust to the natural love of good where there is no temptation to be bad,—it operates nowhere more forcibly than in education. No man, whether he be tutor, guardian, or friend, ever contents himself with infusing the mere ability to acquire; but giving the power, he gives it with a taste for the wise and rational exercise of that power: so that an educated person is not only one with stronger and better faculties than others, but with a more useful propensity, a disposition better cultivated, and associations of a higher and more important class.  9
  In short, and to recapitulate the main points upon which we have insisted: Why the disproportion in knowledge between the two sexes should be so great, when the inequality in natural talents is so small; or why the understanding of women should be lavished upon trifles, when nature has made it capable of better and higher things,—we profess ourselves not able to understand. The affectation charged upon female knowledge is best cured by making that knowledge more general; and the economy devolved upon women is best secured by the ruin, disgrace, and inconvenience which proceed from neglecting it. For the care of children, nature has made a direct and powerful provision; and the gentleness and elegance of women is the natural consequence of that desire to please which is productive of the greatest part of civilization and refinement, and which rests upon a foundation too deep to be shaken by any such modifications in education as we have proposed. If you educate women to attend to dignified and important subjects, you are multiplying beyond measure the chances of human improvement, by preparing and medicating those early impressions which always come from the mother, and which in a great majority of instances are quite decisive of character and genius. Nor is it only in the business of education that women would influence the destiny of man. If women knew more, men must learn more; for ignorance would then be shameful, and it would become the fashion to be instructed. The instruction of women improves the stock of national talents, and employs more minds for the instruction and amusement of the world; it increases the pleasures of society, by multiplying the topics upon which the two sexes take a common interest; and makes marriage an intercourse of understanding as well as of affection, by giving dignity and importance to the female character. The education of women favors public morals: it provides for every season of life, as well as for the brightest and the best; and leaves a woman, when she is stricken by the hand of time, not as she now is, destitute of everything and neglected by all, but with the full power and the splendid attractions of knowledge,—diffusing the elegant pleasures of polite literature, and receiving the just homage of learned and accomplished men.  10
 
 
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