The education of girls was not an uncommon subject in 19th-century periodicals on parenting. Not surprisingly, many writers appear to have felt that an education in cooking, sewing, and running a household was all that was really necessary. A writer in 1848 felt that a scientific education and an education in business should be part of a woman’s mental upbringing.

Probably Helen C. Knight would agree that practical subjects should be key, not Latin, algebra, French, or art. However, “School Learning” also advises against too much academic education. Too much time in school meant too little time learning to run a home. Girls would develop a taste for academic successes, so much more exciting than domestic duties; they would find an active social life more interesting than staying at home. Only by staying at home could a girl develop “those quiet and retiring manners, and that sweetness and simplicity of character, which most adorn a woman.” Besides, their place as adults will be in the home, so why would they need a lot of academic education?

Knight’s description of the constant grind of academics is unpleasant; but her description of domestic duties and of the ideal domestic upbringing—apparently being left alone in the house—is stifling. That the child being correctly educated must learn to “to bear and forbear with its little brother” adds a layer of sexism to an odd sentence where what is obviously a girl is never referred to with a female pronoun; girls are to be trained, but boys are to be forborne. No wonder “Jane” is eager to get out of the house to learn flower-making!
“School Learning,” by Helen C. Knight (from The Mother’s Assistant and Young Lady’s Friend, January 1849; pp. 9-12)

“How are you to-day? you look weary,” I said, on seating myself in the pleasant little sitting-room of a careful and perplexed mother.

“Almost worn out—anxious and worried,” answered the mother. “My health is not as good as it used to be, I believe. I did not use to feel work so much.”

“Where is Jane; cannot she help you?”

“Oh, no; Jane’s school takes up all her time. She can’t so much as take the baby; her studies are always the excuse. She ’s away all day. Eats her meals, and is directly off.”

“Do you know any good seamstress I can get?” she asked.

“Cannot Jane sew for you?”

“Oh, no; she can’t so much as mend her stockings. Wednesday and Saturday in the afternoon, she ’s off taking exercise.”

“Is she not almost through her studies?”

“Dear me, no! She ’s just beginning French. Her father bought her a new lot of books to-day. While she ’s getting her education, there is nothing to be got from her at home. Lately she ’s been taking drawing lessons. I will show you some of her pictures; and now there ’s a young woman who is going to give instruction in the making of artificial flowers, and she has been teasing us for permission to learn; but it seems to me it ’s of no use; her French and geometry are such a tax upon her; do you think there is any use in it? Is it not better, if she has any time to spare, to be active about home, helping me?”

“I think it vastly more important for her to learn to make bread than to make artificial flowers,” I replied. Here the mother looked up surprised, and then said, hesitatingly, “Well, does it not seem as if the time of girls is too much taken up with such things? Jane does not expect to become a teacher, and she can never expect to make any great figure in the world; yet she ’s been to school ever since she was a child, and they say she can’t finish the course for at least two years to come. All this while,

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she has no time to keep at home; but then an education is everything, now-a-days, and I suppose I ought not to complain.”

Are there not many mothers in our large towns, in the same perplexed and embarrassed position? And does it not seem as if school education was assuming an undue importance? Are not the girls of the family drawn too long and too much away from home influence, and domestic duties? Are not the wishes and the requirements of the parent made almost entirely subservient to the demands of the teacher? And are not our young girls apt to come out of this long training in school, with imparied health, weak, feeble and nervous? The study of French, Algebra, Latin, flower-making, drawing, &c., seem to comprehend in the minds of many, “the getting an education,” and the school and academy are regarded as the only suitable places for the accomplishment of this object. Young ladies are seldom at home, and have no time for home duties when they are. There is an influence in the family of higher authority than that of the parent, to which the parental must give way.

This, we cannot but regard as a serious and increasing evil. We fear that its results will prove greatly injurious in two ways; and first, to the neglect of a suitable domestic education for our girls. The studies of school are after all nothing but means to an end; their true object is to furnish that discipline which is to give solidity and compass to mind, and to prepare a woman to fulfill the allotments of her station with firmness and ability. If they accomplish this, their design is answered; but if, instead of the means, they become the end of youthful effort, new and unnatural obligations are imposed, and the duties of the child, the sister and the member of a family, are lost in the duties of the pupil and member of the school. Study, school study and book studies are the only things to be done; the lessons must be learned, let what will come; and this, year in and year out, one year after another, for a long series; and the consequence is, young girls know nothing of home duties, they care but little about them, and gradually acquire the habit of regarding them as quite mean and distasteful; beside, there is none of the stimulus of competition, reward and position in the discharge of home duties, as in the school; there are not a great many looking on

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with envy or adoration. But after all the improvements, acquirements and progress, which we fancy the present generation has made, it is still true, that the sphere of the female is at home; and an ignorance of her duties there, brings discredit and unhappiness to herself, and discomfort and sorrow to her family. When is the best season for learning these duties? It must be in youth; they must form a portion of every day’s striving and learning; they must be nourished in our daily habits. It is the child which must be taught to take care of its chamber and its drawers, to bear and forbear with its little brother, to come in with its young energies to the help of mother, and to feel the importance of sewing in the manufacture of its own garments. Years of book learning cannot supply a deficiency here, when the child itself becomes a wife and mother. Teaching the little girl wisely and skilfully to do, in the minute arrangements of its little circle, is of incalculable advantage. She must in some measure know how to use her hands, as well as her head, if she would act skilfully herself, or wisely direct others.

In the second place, this over much going to school causes our girls to live too much in the masses; they become so much accustomed to the excitement and strife of numbers, that the retiredness of home is distasteful to them. “It is so dull, here,” they say. An unnatural taste for society is fostered, and unless there is company, or the expectation of company, they are apt to be listless and indifferent. It is the quiet and stillness of home, which are most favorable to habits of thought and reflection. In our earlier days, two quarters a year was the extent of our school privileges; and how well do we remember the hours spent alone in the garden, the chamber, or in the sitting-room, keeping house while mother was out; and during those hours of solitude, how we digested the words and counsels dropped from our elders; how we lived over and over the historic scenes, which we had read; what opportunity we had to invent, to imitate and to perfect. It was during those hours, that the instructions already given to us produced their deep and abiding impressions, and became the germs of all we hold most valuable in thought and purpose during our later life.

No one now-a-days is supposed to undervalue the excellence and

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number of our schools; but may not the question be started, Is there not too much going to school? Are the girls at home enough? Home is the place to cultivate those quiet and retiring manners, and that sweetness and simplicity of character, which most adorn a woman.

Portsmouth, N. H., Jan., 1849.

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