Chesterton and the Education of Girls

Dear Reader,

Do you ever find that when you once begin to consider some topic that you find it everywhere? I did a couple of posts recently on the education of girls and whether it should be different from that of boys. And now a friend has sent me an article by G.K. Chesterton which touches upon some of the same issues.

The article is “The Emancipation of Domesticity” from What’s Wrong with the World. It is not about educating girls directly, but it is about the role of women. Chesterton does not specify, but I am going to assume he is talking about married women and mothers in particular. I have argued in my previous posts that not all are called to be in a  family and so these remarks may not apply to all women. I don’t know how Chesterton would see the place of single women.

At any rate, Chesterton’s main point is that women are generalists. They need some level ability in a wide variety of areas in order to manage a home and teach children. They do not, however, need to be experts in any one area. Chesterton puts it this way:

“Our old analogy of the fire remains the most workable one. The fire need not blaze like electricity nor boil like boiling water; its point is that it blazes more than water and warms more than light. The wife is like the fire, or to put things in their proper proportion, the fire is like the wife. Like the fire, the woman is expected to cook: not to excel in cooking, but to cook; to cook better than her husband who is earning the coke by lecturing on botany or breaking
stones. Like the fire, the woman is expected to tell tales to the children, not original and artistic tales, but tales–better tales than would probably be told by a first-class cook. Like the fire, the woman is expected to illuminate and ventilate, not by the most startling revelations or the wildest winds of thought, but better than a man can do it after breaking stones or lecturing . . . . Woman must be a cook, but not a competitive cook; a school mistress, but not a
competitive schoolmistress; a house-decorator but not a competitive house-decorator; a dressmaker, but not a competitive dressmaker. She should have not one trade but twenty hobbies; she, unlike the man, may develop all her second bests.”

In contrast, the one who is out in the work world has one area in which he specializes and hopefully becomes quite proficient. I am reminded of the best man’s speech at my brother’s wedding. He began by saying that he had met my brother at math camp when they were teens. Then they both grew up to major in math in college and to become math professors as adults. Not only that they both became topologists. Not only that they both specialized in the same branch of topology. And yet he still couldn’t understand what my brother did.

This level of specialization, to minute areas of one branch of mathematics, may not be achieved in every profession, but the tendency is there to do one thing and to do it well. One must either be a specialist or a generalist, Chesterton would say. Furthermore, he adds, when we push women to be in the workforce in addition to maintaining a home, we ask too much of them. They are pulled in two different directions and it is not sustainable. He says,

“I doubt if they were ever tortured so much as they are tortured now by the absurd modern attempt to make them domestic empresses and competitive clerks at the same time.”

Chesterton does not mean this all in a  way that degrades women. He acknowledges that their work has always been harder than men’s. But he also says that they represent sanity. When one is obsessed with one thing, we call them a maniac. Too much intense focus on one area breeds eccentricity. This is the tendency of all who specialize in one area. But the woman who stays at home and generalizes becomes the voice of sanity. She is the “part that is unchangeable.”

So the question I would like to ask is: if this is true, then what does it mean for how we educate girls? If we were to know that our daughters would be wives and mothers in this mold, how should we then prepare them? Well, obviously they would need a very broad education. This applies not just to the domestic arts such as cooking and cleaning but also to more intellectual fields. For it is they who will educate the next generation as well. The one thing that really impresses me about serious unschoolers, those who take it seriously and do it well, is that they must always be on their toes to help their children in whatever new interests they may develop on a  moment’s notice. But as mothers, particularly homeschooling mothers, we should all be this way. We need to be flexible, and we need a broad general knowledge so that we can help our children in their own educational journeys. Chesterton puts it this way:

“To put the matter shortly, woman is generally shut up in a house with a human being at the time when he asks all the questions that there are, and some that there aren’t. It would be odd if she retained any of the narrowness of a specialist.”

I love that  bit about being shut up in the house with someone who asks all the questions, don’t you?

So to train a young lady for her role, we must give her a broad general education. But is this really any different from how we should be training boys? We may expect boys to specialize at some point, but when they are young we do not know for sure what that specialty may be though we may in some cases have an idea. Their education too should be broad so that they have the best possible foundation on which to build in the future. When it comes to the point of specialization, we usually begin outsourcing their education whether to a college or apprenticeship or simply an online course. When one begins to specialize, they must be taught be another who has already made a thorough study of the chosen field. But the beginning is always the broad foundation.

So I see little difference at this level between the girl’s education and the boy’s. But I started this section with an assumption that Chesterton is right in what he says. So perhaps we should back up a little and ask if his theory is indeed true. I would say that in the traditional family he pictures, it does make sense to me that the man specializes whereas the woman must cover a broad range of areas. My husband goes to work and spends 8 hours or more on work in one area. But I do a million different things at home. I cook. I clean. I deal with doctors. I teach in a variety of subjects. I discipline. I chauffeur more than I would like. Would I be better off if I worked outside the home? Personally, I don’t really want to. But I can certainly see the lure of it. To spend all day dealing with adults, to be able to concentrate on one area and to see progress in it and then to be rewarded in some way for that work? That sounds wonderful. But really what is asked of working mothers is not just to go to work  but also to oversee the home and children still though she may outsource a lot more than the at-home mother. They are still her cares. And that adds up to a lot of cares. I don’t know how anyone manages it. Something, I fear, must always fall by the wayside.

But I still wonder if this system Chesterton has described is the best. It seems to contradict things Charlotte Mason has to say in a couple of ways. On one hand, she argues that no one should specialize too much in one area. Even those who have very strong particular interests should at times turn their minds and bodies to other pursuits or they do risk eccentricity or worse.  The mind is refreshed by being given a respite. It is also more creative when it receives input from other areas, when diverse ideas can be combined and new relationships formed. But I am not sure that Chesterton would disagree with this. He does speak of the woman as the unchangeable voice of sanity. She is what brings her husband back so that his focus does not become a mania. He says,

“She has to be an optimist to the morbid husband, a salutary pessimist to the happy-go-lucky husband. She has to prevent the Quixote from being put upon, and the bully from putting upon others.”

And what of the woman? Is she happy to be a generalist? Part of the problem is that our society does not always esteem her work. It should, of course, and we can begin to change that thought but it will always be frustrating to think one’s work is unrewarded and unappreciated. Chesterton argues that the woman’s work should not be called a drudgery. He owns that it is hard work but also argues for its great value:

“How can it be a large career to tell other people’s children about the Rule of Three, and a small career to tell one’s own children about the universe?”

For myself, I think the wearing part of my work at home is not that I think it is unimportant but that it is so hard to see the progress from day-to-day. It is very repetitive and the changes from day to day are hard to see. The children are learning surely but one must look back over a year, not a day or a week, to see real progress. And as for the housework, one no sooner vacuums a room than little people come along to soil it again. If there is a sense of drudgery, this is where it comes from — to be always doing the same things, things that often involve the world’s filth and to never see a marked improvement but rather to see them undone so that one must do them again.

And then when I hear Chesterton say my role is to be a generalist and to specialize in no area that does not make me rejoice. I have a desire to have one area in which I excel. Not necessarily to be the best but at least to be seen to be better than most others. In my earlier post on Charlotte Mason’s ideas about educating girls, I noted that she says girls also have a desire to do meaningful, necessary work. And I think this desire to succeed more than one’s fellows in some area is also a natural desire. It can be taken to sinful extremes, certainly, but is it inherently bad? I don’t think it is.

So perhaps I would add to what Chesterton has said that just as the woman must sometimes help her husband shift his focus and thereby keep him sane, so she too needs sometimes to focus on one thing. To be able to concentrate in one area and to feel that she has made progress and accomplished something. Charlotte Mason spoke of mother culture, the idea that the mother also must continue to learn and grow and feed her mind. I suppose that is why I do this blog, so that for a while I can work my mind can chew on meatier topics. It’s also why I post mostly about theories and ideas and not about the specifics of our day or what my kids are doing. I want to not think about those things for a bit.

So I guess my question for you homeschooling moms is: do you feel this need? How do you fulfill it?


4 responses to this post.

  1. Perhaps this need to refresh ones mind is why I enjoy your blog so much 🙂 It isn’t about the day-to-day, as mine usually is. I *do* feel this need, to excel in something. What that something is changes every few months. Right now, its to know more about sensory processing disorder (to help my son) than others, and to grow my Pinterest following. A few months ago when I had 5 foster kids, it was to be the best foster mom. Before that, I was new to homeschooling, so it was to be the best homeschooler. As I feel successful in that one area, I feel the need for a fresh challenge, even if its just a new take on something I’m already good at..but not the best I can yet be.


  2. I agree that it is good for a mom to have special interests that bring her joy and she can succeed in. Some women are great decorators. Some love to read and know and blog. Some do excel at cooking or baking or making special treats. And I think we can bless our families, ourselves and other people with these enjoyments. But these thoughts from Chesterton are very interesting. I’ve not read him before.


  3. Thanks, Laurke. That’s nice to hear. And thank you both for taking the time to comment. Obviously, I do not agree completely with Chesterton, but he does make me think. And I think generally he is on the right track.


  4. […] Educating Girls and CM on Educating Girls and Chesterton on Educating Girls […]


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