A Gap in Education


EDUCATION is the working of all forces that fashion a man during the plastic years, before his habits become fixed and his character determined. No one can escape education even if he would ; whatever may be his lot, his spirit will be led toward one desire or another, his mind will fasten and feed upon some chosen thoughts, his heart will make something dear to itself. There is a natural division of education into two parts. One part is the domain of chance ; it is compact of the manifold influences, the countless happenings, complicated and subtle, which press about a man like the atmosphere. The other part is the domain of instruction, and is subject to the deliberate purpose of the teacher. Since the part under our control is the smaller, so much the more does it deserve careful thought and plain speech.

It would be curious to construct in our minds a youth of an age from twelve years to twenty-two, out of materials furnished by discussions concerning the proper education for him. We hear about primary and secondary education, about periods and times for preparatory, academic, and special studies, about cultivating observation and imagination, about literature and science, about athletics, about the elective system, about religious worship. Some say that a young man should be turned into an instrument to ascertain truth; some say, into an instrument to increase wealth ; others, that he should learn, in this way or in that, to minister to a particular need of society ; others, that he should be made a gentleman, a good citizen, a Christian. Out of all these things rises up a creature quite different from the young human animal that we know.

A boy is made up of mind and body.

These two elements, mysteriously bound together, yet separated by the widest gap in the universe, jog on side by side, each dependent upon the other. Education must take this union into account; it must remember that the body is animal, and that it has received two great commandments, — “ Thou shalt live,” and “ Thou shalt multiply.” The education of man must be shaped with reference to these two fundamental commands.

Our civilization has reckoned with the first. The desire for life has been deepened, broadened, and transformed ; no longer content with filling the belly from day to day, it demands architecture, art, literature, means of travel, devices for diversion. Education, eager to lead civilization onward, endeavors, by chosen studies, by special schools, by the cultivation of predominant tastes and capacities, to use this desire for the nobler development of man. Under the control of education, the desire for life seeks satisfaction in ever greater knowledge, ever greater dominion over nature. College assumes that this desire is a noble want of noble things, and teaches it to be such.

But when we consider the second imperious command, what do we find ? Civilization has established the institution of marriage, it has decreed that a man may lawfully have only one wife, but it has done little else. Civilization is a great brute force that needs to be led. What does education? It halts timidly to see what civilization will do; and the desire to multiply roams at will. Shall not education tame it, train it, and manage it ? Shall not that desire be deepened, broadened, and transformed, till it too help make life far nobler than it is? With this passion for a lever we might uplift the world, but education is afraid of it.

From what masters of education say, we should suppose boys to be sexless, were it not for sundry regulations, matters of police, and for certain customary vague assurances, smoothed out into gingerbread phrases, that sons will be carefully protected. The reason that education is silent upon this desire is in part because schoolmasters and college masters deem it the parents’ affair, and parents toss it back to the masters. The fault belongs to both. Teachers may not separate one strand of education from other strands, and say to fathers, “ You are responsible for this wisp in the rope.” Nor are they workmen whose concern is bounded by the section of a boy’s life committed to their care. Each master is one of a crew, all working together : the success of one is of little value without the success of all, and worse than useless if it interfere with the success of the others. A bow oar might as well say, “ What have I to do with stroke ? ” as the schoolmaster say, “ What have I to do with the boy at college ? ” School and college and parent are all working together, — working to fashion a man.

If the masters are at fault, fathers are far more to blame. The duty of using as an educational force the power given by this second commandment rests upon them. They cannot shift it from their shoulders. It is of continuing, unintermitten t obligation. It is bound on the father’s back by the birth of his son : there it rests until death shall loose it. A father cannot release himself by putting another in his place. A man shall answer for every act and for every omission of the factor to whom he has intrusted his own son. If a son do wrong, if he surrender to low things, if he come to misery, then must the father be condemned. It is not safe to let this duty be of less than absolute obligation. If society shall entertain a plea of not guilty, in that the father did as other fathers do, chose the best school, the wisest masters, or in that evil company, or some hereditary taint of blood, or ill luck, caught up the boy and bore him off, then the possibility of such a plea degenerates into a probability, that probability into use, that use into a pretext, that pretext into a habit of mind, until at last a man comes to think that his son’s education, like a suit of clothes, once put into the hands of an artisan of good repute, ceases to be a matter for which he is responsible. A father may not, by gift of staff and scrip, by cries of “ Good luck ” and “ God speed,” break the great seal of the paternal bond. Doubtless our unformed civilization enables masters and fathers to evade this heavy responsibility. But a more definite cause is at hand.


What is it that shuts our mouths upon this great problem of education ? During the long centuries in which decency, manners, and refinement have been struggling with our animal nature; while the conception of home with one wife, with children gathered together, has been contending with the dissipating influences of savage customs, and the spiritual has been fighting with the bestial, it was natural that all means to win the contest should have been laid hold upon, — some wiser and nobler, some less wise and less noble. Jealousy, love of dominion, asceticism, monasticism, celibacy, have all been instruments by which men have wrought modesty. These instruments have served well, and have much yet to accomplish; nevertheless, it was almost inevitable that, in fashioning modesty, certain other qualities of an allied nature, distorted and misshapen likenesses, — prudery, shamefacedness, false modesty, — should also have been made. These mock virtues, too, may have done good service in maintaining an outward semblance of respect for the real virtue ; but they have done harm by taking to themselves part of the honor due to their original, and by confounding notions so that men mistake false modesty for modesty, shamefacedness for decency, prudery for virtue. Thus a notion has grown strong in this country that decent people shall not talk openly upon matters of sex, but shall throw a cloak over them and keep them out of sight and hearing.

If prudery, shamefacedness, and false modesty have given us the grace of virgin innocence, we must honor them accordingly ; or if, by maintaining seclusion and respect, and by holding back knowledge, they have built a fence around that grace in the leastwise helpful to its growth, we must be most considerate before we lay a finger on them. But when we have once made up our minds that here is mere confusion of thought, that life is the rock on which everything is founded, that “ more life and fuller ” is what we want, that the powers of life are good, and that only by perversion can they be turned to ill, then we must honor the powers of life as pure and holy, and we must treat vulgar disbelief as blasphemy and infidelity to the spirit of life. Real modesty misunderstood, false shame, fear of derision, have kept fathers from facing this problem of education. Here are the false doctrine and confused thought that underlie the silence of education as to sex. We must turn about. We must cast off prudery for the sake of modesty ; we must draw our necks out of the yoke of an inherited, atrophied shamefacedness. For our sons’ sake, we must recognize and proclaim that this passion is good, not bad; that it can be put to the noblest uses; that it must be put to the noblest uses. We must teach our sons that the union of man and woman is a sacrament. Yet we need not be impatient with those who cannot accept our faith at once. We must always remember that men, reckless of chastity, have been good and great, — poets, heroes, — men who have toiled and denied themselves for their fellows, and have set up unshakable their title to our gratitude ; we know that countless men in private and obscure life are reckless of chastity, who are good, kind, simple, and upright. We are not blind to man as he is, but we may not tolerate for ourselves a system of education which treats this passion as of the devil, and does not try to put it to noble use.

In order to set clearly before ourselves a notion of what current education is in this regard, let us avail ourselves of our own recollections of the teachings which boys at college receive from their fathers. Those fathers, for this purpose, may be divided into two classes.

There is the refined, sensitive father, who hates the idea of vice and turns his back upon it, pretending to himself that, by some process of subconscious instruction, his son shall learn from him its odiousness. He sends his son to school, and from school to college, advising him about Latin and Greek, about physics and chemistry, about history and art, and other petty matters of education. Equipped with platitudes concerning virtue, his son goes forth into a world where the union of man and woman is not recognized as a sacrament, to hear boon companions plead for vice with all the persuasiveness of youth and gayety. Thus the father hands over his son to the great educating force of sexual desire which he knows is stretching out its hands to the boy, which he knows is bound to lead him higher or lower.

Then there is the coarse father, who accepts the period of puberty as one of the corridors or gardens of life, through which his son shall walk lightly. He hopes that the lad will make merry without vexation to the father. He warns him against disease and against the police court. So each father hands down his tradition to his son ; and so the primal fact of life hides beneath the modesty of the decent man, and flaunts on the lips of the loose liver, and education busies itself with classics, mathematics, boat races, and special studies.

Quitting their fathers, our boys, our young animals, — they the most carefully guarded, the most tenderly prayed for, — go forth and find our cities, our towns, even our villages, swarming with prostitutes, while ladies gather up their skirts and drop their veils, and gentlemen laugh and wink, and public opinion puts forth conventional protest. Here is a course of study which is not set down in the college catalogue. Then, too, our boys read the experience of men bred without or maybe stripped of what they call illusions, men of the world, Epicureans, — a Boccaccio, a Maupassant, a d’ Annunzio, — and take the sayings of these backward men for bold truth, honest utterance, as the casting out of hypocrisy and humbug. They learn also that there are familiar conceptions of life in which this sacrament is deemed a mere matter of physical pleasure; and that, too, by men successful in the management of affairs and high in the community’s esteem. They suspect that modesty is a priestly contrivance fashioned by old men, home-keeping wits, unlearned in the ways of the world, ignorant of life. So they go. Thus the sexual instinct educates them, and this great power for breeding noble men is suffered to be a hindrance and a hurt. What can fathers do ?


This is a difficult matter. Yet can we not outline some course of action which shall at least save us from the ignominy of doing nothing ? When the first curious questioning concerning sex comes into a boy’s mind, who is to answer it but the father ? That questioning will come. We cannot, if we would, hide our animal nature ; we cannot convert a boy into a disembodied spirit. On every other matter the father tells his son what he can; here he fobs him off; and the son goes to books or to companions who care not for him ; and then the sense of nakedness comes upon him, — sin has entered into his world. What right has a father, by disingenuousness, by false shame, to teach his boy, by concealment, that sex is a shameful thing ? Thence springs a desire for forbidden fruit, an eagerness of prurient curiosity, a recognition that there is a barrier betwixt his father and himself.

How dare a father violate his first great duty to his son ? Here is the mighty force of sexual attraction, awakening in the boy, ready to work for good, ready to work for evil, and the great task of education is to put that power to use for good; but the father stealthily slinks away, and leaves the son to associate that force in his mind with vice and sin, welding this false combination together with all the strength of early thought. Sexual passion is at the base of life : it serves the noblest ends; it manifests itself in poetry and religion ; it has made our homes ; it has given us our children. Every day we see that passion put to use in labor, patience, self-denial, and noble discontent. Must we not teach our boys always to link it in their minds with the highest conceptions of nobility, aspiration, and divinity ? Is it not blasphemy and idolatry to confound it with grossness and bestiality? Fathers look on the sexual passion with fear instead of reverence. We act as if it came from the devil instead of from God; we shun it as a tempter when we should welcome it as an angel. How do we make use of all those aspirations which break, like April blossoms, into flower at the first awakening of passion ? How do we encourage all the youthful readiness for chivalry ? What do we do with that longing for a noble quest ? The service for fourteen years of Jacob for Rachel is but the type of the service that we should demand of every youth in the first flood of passion. Expectation should exact from him some noble proof that he understands the sacrament of union. Nor should it be necessary to wait until his love had singled out a maiden ; all the knightliness of boyish manhood should be called to arms at the first trumpet of passion. We let this great seedtime run to waste in mere enjoyment unhusbanded. What right has a youth to the great joy of love, uness, like Jacob with the angel, he wrestle, and will not suffer it to go until it bless him ? We are wont to deem this period a mere animal mating time; we talk lightly of happy youth ; whereas it is the great solemn opportunity of life, and the best proof of man’s communion with some Being high and holy.

With like vulgarity of mind we look on the dark side of sexual passion. For example, we teach our boys that they must pity and help wretched men, but we forbear to let them pity the cruel misery of numberless women, fearing lest they be contaminated. What is our civilization to be valued at, while we suffer our young men to treat these women with laughter, and only ask of our choice young men that they turn aside their heads and pass ? And yet are these women one whit more contaminating than the gay young men, their companions for a brief season, till need of diversion take them elsewhere ?

Sage heads shake ; voices with which we are familiar say: “We are animals just as much as the simplest brutes from which we are descended. In this world life is one continuous struggle ; the battleground shifts, but the battle continues; passionate animals cannot be bridled by sentimentality, however maidenly.” How pleasant it is to hear the old familiar voices ; but we have greater power than they fear. There is nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so ; even our physical world takes all its attributes — its weight, heat, light, color, its desirableness, and its excellence — from our thoughts. If in our animal nature we inhabit a world where the laws of gravitation and evolution are the explaining principles, with our minds we live in the world of ideas and feelings, wherein men, feeble in their power over the physical world, exercise great dominion. Out of thought we can make a world in which honor and love shall be elemental forces. “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” What was that heaven but the world of thought which God created to take precedence before the earth, in which the minds of men are the instruments by which divine energies are still at work? Here is perpetual creation; and that part of this creation intrusted to fathers is the thoughts of their sons. We call it our children’s education. Shall we be faithful servants?

It is no priestly chastity that we mean to preach. This great fact of life — which nature has commanded and in the beasts is mere brute instinct, which in man has uprisen into love, giving us hope by this rising from the dead that love is the revelation to man of the nature of Deity — must be acknowledged to be divine, and not bestial. When once this truth shall be believed, then no father will let his son go into the world untaught at home; but he will himself teach him the greatest of the miracles of life, how a brute fact has been made holy, and then the son will go forth conscious of all the obligation of love.

H. D. Sedgwick, Jr.