The Problem of Priscilla

THE older children have gone their several ways out of the home. Tom took his bachelor’s degree in the arts department of his university, spent two years in the law school and two in the office of an all-round practitioner, and then hung out his sign as an attorney and sat down to wait for clients. Sarah, almost immediately on leaving school, was claimed in marriage by a thrifty young business man who had been one of the big boys there while she was in the primary class, and had early marked her for his own. Emily kept at her st udies longer, took a year of ‘ finishing’ at the Lafayette Seminary for Young Ladies, and enjoyed a winter or two of social experience before settling down at home ‘to take care of mamma and papa’; and then, without offering rhyme or reason to account for her change of purpose, one day decided to give herself for life to a physician several years her senior, whom she had first met at the bedside of a friend.

‘And now,’ says mamma, ‘Priscilla is going on seventeen, and her father and I are wondering what we had better do with her.’ For mamma is a rather old-fashioned person, who still cherishes the traditions of an era when parents were accustomed to ‘do something with’ their offspring. As an intimate of the family, I have been called into consultation, and I find that the question uppermost is whether or not to send Priscilla to college. ‘More and more girls go every year,’ mamma adds, presently. ‘I don’t know just why; but I dare say it is because so many more young men go now than formerly, and it is only natural that a girl should wish to fit herself for intellectual companionship with her husband.’

‘As we can’t consult the taste of the still shadowy Mr. Priscilla,’ papa interrupts, with a quizzical glance in my direction, ‘we may dismiss this phase of the case from consideration. How about its larger aspects?’

It is an embarrassing problem to lay before me, and I tell them so; for I am not by profession an instructor of youth or a statistician, neither am I widely read on the subject of sex as related to the scholastic career. There is no escaping the fact that the college woman is here to stay, that she has become as well recognized an institution as taxation, and a factor in our social evolution as surely to be reckoned with as the annual death-rate. Yet my memory goes back to the time when she was a novelty almost inchoate, and when learned men wrangled fiercely over such mooted points as whether the female brain could stand the strain of four years of incessant exercise on the conventional curriculum; whether the higher education would not take all the bloom off girlhood, and leave its votaries defeminized and graceless; and whether the tendency of this mental over-stimulation of one half the human race would not be to reduce matrimony, the home, and posterity, to so many cold and colorless terms in a mathematical proposition. I never followed these debates so far as to sum up my own conclusions thereon; all that I know — perhaps it would be more seemly to say, all that I think — about girls and the higher education, is the fruit of close observation of individual cases, of which I have studied not a few, and with ever-deepening interest.

Physically, certainly, Priscilla is as fit as any girl of my acquaintance; she is strong, well-nourished, active, fond of outdoor sports. But also, she has always been a trifle bookish, with a fair faculty of observation, an absorbent memory, and a little leaning toward hero-worship in a maidenly way, though she is too alive to be in any sense a prig; and how she browses on rainy days betrays itself now and then in conversation, when she cites Lubbock for an analogue or barbs a moral with Lecky. So I tel! mamma and papa that the first thing to ask, it seems to me, is how Priscilla herself looks at the matter.

A dear old friend of mine, lamenting his own deficiencies of learning, used to say that if he had forty sons he would send them all through college, even though he had to flog them through. That is mistaken zeal. By forcing a boy through college against his will, you risk spoiling a fair initiator to make a poor pedant. It is better to treat scholarship as we do morals: show by precept and example the practical wisdom of doing the right thing; but, if your pupil prefers penalties to rewards, let him taste the consequences of his waywardness. No adviser can take the place of experience.

Priscilla, it. appears, although not averse to the idea of going to college, is not stirred to enthusiasm by it. She has talked over the subject with friends who have gone or are going, and finds a wide variety of motives inspiring their action. Amy has literary ambitions; Kate a taste for science; Elizabeth expects to earn her living by teaching, and feels that a degree would be a valuable asset; Julia is going because Elizabeth is; Louise frankly declares that she is going for the purpose of having a good time, and intends to stay only as long as she gets that; while Ann desires a college course for the same reason that a baby reaches for the moon: she could n’t tell exactly why — she justs wants it.

On the whole, Priscilla thinks that it would be ‘rather nice’ to go to college; so we turn our attention to the question, Where? which involves more considerations than any one has dreamed of. One leading institution, we find, makes a specialty of its training for domestic life; another is like a nunnery in its abjuration of male instructors, at least of any still in marriageable condition; a third goes to the opposite extreme, and employs men in every post of real responsibility; in a fourth, most of the studies are elective, and what passes for discipline is substantially student rule; and there are several other variants, unnecessary to catalogue here. Priscilla conscientiously assorts and regroups these manifold characteristics, and selects the college showing the broadest average, first, discarding all coeducational projects on the theory that her sex would place her at a disadvantage there, regardless of her independent merits. At this point, we who are interested in her must pass from settled facts to prophecy or conjecture.

When a boy says that he would like to go to college, even though he may not show any strong thirst for erudition, we take it as a matter of course, and the only uncertainties have to do with ways and means. When a girl says the same thing, why does it occasion a flurry, or even surprise? Is it because there still lingers in so many minds a doubt as to the value of the investment proposed? Not that alone, perhaps; though the air yet rings with praises of the wife and mother of the good old days, when homes were run with far less respect for sanitary precautions or executive method, and when grandma had a hand in everything in her domain, prescribed for most of the children’s ills, and fed all her household, from baby to grandpa, on what they wished, rather than on what they ought, to eat. Woman, say the glorifiers of that era, was then the chief figure in the home, received the recognition which she had earned, and filled the place in our cosmogony for which Nature had designed her. There was no need, they insist, for the higher education of her mind, because she was devoting her best energies to the education of her character, which was of vastly more importance. The inevitable inference is that the two educational enterprises are so alien to each other as to be beyond harmonizing.

A moment’s reflection will expose the fundamental fallacy of this view. One might as well assume that because Daniel Webster was a great lawyer in spite of a great failing, no lawyer with controlled appetites could hope for like success; or that, because Thomas Edison has wrested so many secrets from air and earth without a university course, the graduate contingent can never produce his equal. A more sensible reflection would be, how much greater Webster might have been without his weakness, or what might not Edison have accomplished if his native cleverness and grit had been armed with weapons sharpened in the college laboratory. There are kinks, too, in the logic of some preachers of the crusade for female education who take all discrimination between women and men as casting a constructive libel on the former. Is not a woman’s brain as good as a man’s, they demand. Undoubtedly. So is a machine for making envelopes as fine and useful an industrial instrument as one for weaving barbed fence-wire; but it would be stupid to ignore the essential difference between them, as regards the care to be taken of each or the product to be expected of it.

The young of our species learn as much from rubbing elbows with each other as from their formal schooling. The little boy usually is turned out to find his own amusement with other little boys, while his sister is more cautiously guarded in her companionships. This, I suppose, is duo to our instinctive presumption of a more delicate moral fibre in the girl and a keener sensitiveness to impressions. So she is apt to grow up with the hall-mark of her home always in evidence, while the boy has it pounded out of him. He may loyally believe that his father and mother are the wisest of human beings; but this faith finds its counterpoise as soon as he enters into controversy with a larger boy. He has the best of the argument logically when he makes affirmative assertions on the authority of his parents to which his adversary vouchsafes no more satisfying answer than ‘Rats!’ The next course on his argumentative menu is knuckles au naturel; and although no myriad of bruises and abrasions would convince him that his father and mother have borne false witness, he begins to realize that other persons may have views on the same topics which are worthy of examination.

Now, this preliminary trimmingdown, coarse and sordid as it may seem, is of incalculable value to the boy when he passes the portal leading to young manhood and enters a class in college. He has, in a certain measure, already found himself. An oracular statement from one of the faculty he accepts as the depositor accepts the bank’s footing of his account: ‘errors and omissions excepted.’ If it differs from what he has been taught at home, he gives the benefit of the doubt, temporarily, perhaps, to the professor, as having come lately from the great sources of learning; but he is not ready to surrender the beliefs in which he has been reared, till they have had their fair chance in the open field of discussion.

This was Tom’s attitude toward his new life when he entered college. Will it be Priscilla’s? Probably not. Her protected existence up to this time cannot be brought into sudden contrast with the freedom of the collegiate atmosphere without an unsettling shock to her preconceptions in matters of authority. Obedient to the feminine impulse to cling to something within reach in whose strength she trusts, she is likely to transfer her intellectual allegiance from parents to professors. The faculty is always at hand; the home is far away. Her parents are the salt of the earth, and she loves them as deeply as ever; but they have put her into this institution for her mental improvement, and it would be ungrateful not to take full advantage of her privileges. Therefore, whereas formerly whatever papa said about the tariff or the Panama Canal, and all mamma’s fort hgivings on the ethics of human intercourse, were treasured for repetition to her mates as the last word on the subject, henceforward any comment of papa’s is liable to be faced down with a citation from ‘Professor Newfresh of our college — the most eminent living expert, you know, on social dynamics,’ or what-not. Mamma’s antique maxims, likewise, will be exploded by an echo from the last lecture of ‘ the Dean,’ who once a week tells the undergraduate body what it ought to think about everything. It is immaterial that the Professor has never been heard of in the larger world in which papa moves, or that the Dean is a rather pompous person whose tragedy-queen manner has done more to advance her career than any very solid merits; whatever either of these worthies says must be accepted as part of the eternal verities, and cuts off debate.

But let us not be disconcerted by all this. It is merely a surface froth, and will evaporate by degrees during Priscilla’s passage from freshman to senior years, till, before the ink on her diploma is dry, her mental processes will have acquired such independence of action that she can smile charitably at some of the infatuations of her very immature youth. You will notice a like alteration in some other respects, notably in her companionships. To share her first vacation — if I know her good heart as I think I do — she will bring home a classmate whom, with all your hospitable prepossessions, you will not be able quite to make out. Priscilla will not fail to notice the unconscious reserves in your bearing which show that you do not look upon her friend as belonging in just the same stratum with herself. It may be necessary even for the dear child to remind you, in a moment of confidential chiding, that ‘the scholastic world is a great democracy, where the lines of cleavage do not parallel those in the common world outside.’ Before t he fortnight is ended, however, your diminished heads will harbor a suspicion that she has found her guest no light load to carry; and this will harden into assurance as time goes on and you observe t hat the same classmate does not come back a second time, every succeeding vacation introducing a new visitor a shade more congenial than any who have come before, as if the young hostess were slowly finding her way out of a fog of altruistic sentiment and into the warmer glow of natural selection.

Nor should I wonder if mamma’s oldfashioned soul received an occasional jar like that which beset the hen in the barnyard fable on discovering a duckling among her brood of chicks. I knew one girl like Priscilla who terrified her elders by developing opinions on marriage and divorce. Though brought up in a home fragrant with love and the spirit of mutual helpfulness, she reached the conclusion that matrimony was a fetter to which no normal human being could submit without more or less discomfort; that, as soon as it becomes seriously irksome, either party should be able to break loose from it by an easy process of divorce, since to continue bound would be a progressive torment, paralyzing to all ambition and effort; and that the present system of life-contract is merely a scion of the barbarous twelfth century grafted upon the stock of the enlightened twentieth. She had the charity to admit that in a few instances, like that of her father and mother for example, uncommonly forbearing dispositions on both sides made the bond endurable; but for the race at large —!

‘And what would become of the children?’ her mother ventured to ask between gasps of horror.

‘They should be cared for by the state,’ was the prompt response. ‘As the family’s contribution to the commonwealth, they are more properly a public than a private charge.’

Are you affronted by my suggestion that Priscilla’s sweet, modest mind could ever be tainted with such dreadful doctrines? Pardon me. Your girl was a baby once, mamma, and rashes came out on her little body. They were not pleasant to look at, but you went into no panic over them; on the contrary, you took comfort in the reflection that every disagreeable thing on the surface meant one less inside. Bear in mind that the tongue is as faithful a safetyvalve for sophistical humors as the skin is for those of the blood. The mind has to go through a certain round of measles and chicken-pox and the like, about as uniformly as the body has; every one who reads and thinks, but lacks experience of the matters he thus studies in the abstract, is a victim first or last; and, at one stage of her life, a girl with a moral constitution as sound and a character as wholesome as Priscilla’s may babble all day about social problems whose premises she knows only by hearsay, without giving her parents reason for five minutes’ solicitude. Why, every man who has been through college will support me in saying that, even after their rougher preparation, the same phenomena may be observed among boys. During my own course, there swept across our adolescent firmament a Huxley fad, and a Swinburne fad, and a dozen others whose very names I have long since forgotten. Lads who had been reared in the literal belief that the creation of the universe began a little before Sunday morning and ended Friday night, locked themselves in their rooms and shudderingly peered into the blasphemies of modern biology; while others, who would n’t knowingly have trifled with the moral sensibilities of a ladybug, tucked ’Laus Veneris’ under their pillows to read when they awoke in the night. Our generation was simply repeating the history of its fathers with Tom Paine and Lord Byron; it would be strange indeed if Tom’s and Priscilla’s should not repeat ours.

Mamma, who has followed me thus far with evidences of alternate dismay and relief, now interrupts to ask what I think will happen after Priscilla has been graduated. Well, a good many things may. You will introduce her to society, doubtless, in the same way in which you introduced your older daughters. She will greet, your friends so prettily that they will be charmed with her. Then will begin the usual round of luncheons and dinners and dances with which the town celebrates the advent of every year’s crop of debutantes. Priscilla will try hard, for your sake, to keep up an appearance of enjoying her festivities; but if you could peep into some of the letters she is writing to her beloved classmates, now scattered all over the country, you would discover that her heart is not in the whirl, but back in the classic shades where they spent the happiest part of their girlhood; at least, that, is the way she will express what is really not a longing for a return to the old conditions, but only a natural uneasiness in the process of adjusting herself to the new. For a while, every mention of college will bring a little lump into her throat; she wall seize eagerly any opportunity that offers to run back there for a day or two; and if you cultivate her intimacy she may confide to you her conviction that she will never be able to build up any more friendships like those that she formed as an undergraduate.

But all this, too, will pass. One by one the intimacies of the campus will grow a little less intense. Amy, let us say, wall become a librarian, and immerse herself in her work; Kate will go upon the stage, and, like other beginners, spend most of her time on the road, making correspondence difficult; Julia and Elizabeth will marry early, and be full of the excitement of starting homes; Louise will teach school; and Ann will become secretary to a man of science, and dabble a bit. in research on her own hook. Scarcely one of them, I’ll be bound, wall follow the career she originally marked out for herself; but every one will, in her turn, strike her roots down into the day-byday world and become so reconciled to it as to give up living in the past. Of course, Priscilla’s turn will come like the others. Her long and satisfying association with her own sex exclusively may make her appear somewhat indifferent to men for a while; and during that period she will be open to the seductions of, say, some branch of benevolent work, for she must fill the gap left by the cessation of her student routine and the falling-off of her class correspondence. And here again, my friends, fortify yourselves against surprises.

To-day she may have just finished a course of lectures on applied philanthropy, only to fall to-morrow under the spell of a cult which deifies the Civic Uplift, denounces philanthropy as a drag upon progress, and declares the very word ‘charity’ odious. If her activities in this field bring her for the first time into close contact with the so-called working classes, she wall view their condition only through the media which they hold up to her eyes; and trade-unionism, boycotts, picket-service, scab-stalking, may fill her thoughts by day and her dreams by night, till you are electrified, when a parade of the unemployed passes your house, to see her lean out of her window and shout her shrill huzzah for the Peerless Debs!

Pray muster your philosophy. I know what you will ask: Is this the child you have brought up in love of law and respect for the constituted authorities? Surely, none other. Did you ever run into a storm on shipboard in mid-ocean, and feel your stanch vessel leaning over so far on one side that you half expected her to turn turtle? Yet here you are, to tell the tale. On the whole, you have reason to be thankful that the ship yielded to the assault instead of presenting to it so stiff a broadside as to be broken in two. She need not have encountered any storm, if her master had been willing to let her lie still in port instead of ploughing the seas; but, being a ship and not a wagon, it is a good thing that she did go through just such experiences of the harder phases of her calling. So with Priscilla. You have set out to make her an educated woman. If she is built of first-rate timber, and you have equipped her with suitable machinery, calked and trimmed her as you ought, and headed her for the right point on her chart, you may trust her in any sea, however tempestuous; confident that, though she may bend to the gale when it strikes her, she will right herself after all and go ahead, the surer of her own strength and worth the more for the experience.

The educated woman is, at her best, a woman seasoned in life as well as stored with knowledge. Priscilla’s shortcomings, if you will take the trouble to analyze them, are due either to too generous impulses or to a belated maturity. The other daughters did not carry you through this sort of an ordeal, yet they are fine girls? True. Their continuance with their feet on the earth during her four years of sublimated segregation, will fit them, though not less pitiful toward human misfortune, to apprehend more readily than she the extent to which it is the fault of the unfortunates. With her trained boldness in attacking obstacles, leaping to the conclusion that the whole system on which the world now conducts its affairs must be wrong, she may ally herself for a time with some party which is trying to make everything over to its own taste. While its novelty lasts, she will be pretty thoroughly absorbed in this association. Be patient with her, and give the ballast of her common sense a chance to make itself felt.

Now, I fully realize that I am not casting the horoscope of any commonplace, phlegmatic miss, whose case would never present a problem after you had decided to let her go to college, and provided the wherewithal to pay her term-bills. I am dealing with Priscilla, who is neither a plodder nor a wooden image, but a girl with an alert mind, high spirits, a good digestion, and a circulation that can be counted on to furnish seventy-two heart-beats to the minute. But I have heard more than one Priscilla of my acquaintance, who is at worst no more of an abnormality than the live-witted, mettlesome college boy, and whose most grievous sin has been her candor in following the lead of her individuality, used as an argument to prove the unwisdom of bestowing the higher education upon girls.

Do you know why this type is singled out for criticism in one sex and not in the other? Because the critics have got into the habit of looking for something different in a girl — more of the graces and less of the brawn, moral as well as physical, than in a boy. But I tried to show you, early in this paper, that the girl’s start in childhood differs from the boy’s. When he goes away from home he is already prepared to some extent for the change awaiting him; she, emerging from her shelter for the first time, is not. It is like a re-birth for her, and into a strange world. Her sense of perspective is still embryotic, and her judgment of relative weights and values is unawakened. Therefore, as new things loom on her horizon, she is without trustworthy tests to apply to them, and often novelty usurps in her estimate the place that belongs to merit.

If you could imagine the situation of a person who had always lived in some corner of the earth where disease was unknown, and, coming suddenly into a miasma-laden region, had had thrust under his notice a dozen patented nostrums, would you wonder if he fell a victim to quackery? By analogy you can explain what may have seemed to you a weather-vane quality in Priscilla, as I have forecast the possibilities of her career. She will have to find out for herself later, what her brother found out long ago, that whoever resolves to overturn the existing social order and crush with one blow our well-crystallized code of conventions, had better think out his programme carefully in advance, and go a trifle slow at the outset.

Another phase of Priscilla’s problem remains to be considered; mamma hinted at it in our first talk. What sort of home-maker will she be? I have heard undiscerning people sneer at college women for their lack of that incomparable something which we recognize, by sensibility rather than by the senses, as distinguishing femininity, wifehood, motherliness. So I have heard ministers as a class accused of a canting, physicians of a fawning, teachers of a didactic, and lawyers of a cut and-dried, manner. Such generalizations belong in the same category of absurdities with the claim that authors and painters can be picked out of a crowd by their neckwear, or leaders in high finance by their spats. There are persons whose calling is so much bigger than they are that it envelops them as with a cloak, and others so much bigger than any form of livelihood that they are men and women first, and ministers, lawyers, or artists only incidentally.

The same principle holds good of female college graduates. There is some human material cast in feminine mould out of which you could no more make the head of a real home than you could make a rose out of a dahlia. But sharpened intuitions, a large resourcefulness in the presence of difficulties, a deep-rooted sense of self-dependence, a fearless front to turn toward untried things, and a never wearying receptiveness for whatever can prove itself deserving: these traits do no more harm to the womanly girl than to the manly boy; and, so far as a college course tends to encourage and develop them, let us commend it for either sex. Heaven forbid that any word of mine should be tortured into disparagement of that sturdy phalanx of wives and mothers and grandmothers who never saw the inside of a college hall, to whom Latin and Greek are not only dead but buried languages, and whose mathematical accomplishments leave them still a bit uncertain where to put the decimal point, but whose sunny souls and splendid lives entitle them to a high place on the world’s honor-roll! Let us not, however, drop into the easy error of assuming that Priscilla, if made of the same stulf as they, will be the worse for an education which will empower her to begin her lifework where theirs has ended.

It is possible that Priscilla may take longer about making up her mind to marry than her sisters did. She may not draw any better prize in the lottery than either of them, but I’ll venture to say that she will be able to analyze more clearly the considerations which govern her in holding out till she is sure. On his part, her future husband will not choose her, consciously at least, for her ‘intellectual companionship’; if that is his desideratum, he will find it cheaper to marry a Carnegie Library than a woman. I will not deny that her cultivated responsiveness may add greatly to her attractions. But what will happen to this young man is what happens to most of us male creatures: he will conclude one day that Priscilla is the only girl he knows with whom he would like to spend the rest of his life, and he will tell her so, in phrases so far from intellectual that they would n’t parse. If such things, my friends, were of the mind and not the heart, those clever old Greeks would have clad Minerva in a pair of infantile wings and armed her with a bow-and-arrow.

Sarah and Emily are good housekeepers, and understand the art of making a modicum of the world’s wealth go a long way. There is no reason why Priscilla should not do as well as they, and perhaps with less expenditure of effort. She may not be so ready to accept advice or the reported experience of others, until she has got at the underlying principle involved and assured herself that it is sound; but, once convinced to the point of trying a plan, she will keep turning it over in her mind as she used to turn her algebraic puzzles, adding and eliminating till she has become an inventor instead of a mere learner.

Her children will not be neglected like those of the blue-stocking in the comic weeklies, or dosed and swaddled, punished and hardened by rule of thumb, as children were in the good old times we love—to read about. They will draw out of her all that is instinctively motherly, seasoned with the salt of an enriched intelligence; and her discipline of them, like her handling of her servants, will command the respect of those on whom it is exercised because it will be based on her study of the psychology of every situation rather than on its surface indications.

But, then, suppose Priscilla does not marry ? A good many women do not. Probably the proportion of marriages worthy the name would be found, if we could make an accurate census, as large among college women as among others. It is not a college course that takes a woman out of the marrying class, but something with which her education has rarely anything to do — native traits, or domestic responsibilities, or the lack of a calling for matrimony, or accident, or any of a thousand things which might have diverted the current of your career and mine without our voluntary complicity. In that event you will find, dear papa and mamma, that you have in your daughter no dead weight to carry. Whatever she is not, you may be assured of her being a busy woman, and of her putting her full strength and a brave spirit into the work to which she settles down. Though a home of her own may have been the centre of your ideal career for her, she will make a not less important success in yours; or, if her interests take her elsewhere, in the activities of her chosen field. At any rate, you will have given her the chance to live her own life, and on the highest plane accessible to her; and the solution of Priscilla’s problem need not be the less complete because the road to the result is not the one you first surveyed.