Lessons in Manners and Morals

Maria Sanford, who was a history professor at Swarthmore at the time, gave this address at the August 10, 1875, session of the Pennsylvania Teachers’ Association meeting.1 Whitney reports that she would frequently lecture on this topic at teachers’ institutes.2

Lessons in Manners and Morals

I do not need to prove by labored argument that good manners and good morals are valuable; the fact is conceded by all. Nor is it necessary to show that teaching morals and manners is part of the legitimate work of the school-room. This point has in theory long been admitted; it has been orthodox doctrine from the times of the fathers; and the skepticism of our own day, which has questioned all things and denied the most ancient traditions, has still recognized as sound the theory that children should be taught not only how to think but also how to live. Nor is it an obsolete doctrine, forgotten, crowded out by present, vital issues. The moral bearing of education is constantly kept before us; we are urged to educate the masses that they may make not wiser but better men and women; and the strong argument for compulsory education is the prevention of crime. Where we fail, is in the practical application of the doctrine we profess to believe.

We present the subject at our institutes, discuss it at our conventions, but there, alas! we leave it. Like the Civil Service Reform among the politicians, it is in the platform but not in the practice. 3Civil service reform was one of the major policy issues in the late 19th century. The period’s political contests were characterized by broad popular participation, encouraged, in part, by the hope of being awarded patronage positions, and financed by office-holders’ kickbacks to party bosses. I do not deny that some spasmodic attempts at moral culture are made by most of us, but I believe that we all follow too closely the example of the old minister who, firstly, took a text; secondly, departed from his text; and thirdly, kept away from it.

I appeal to your consciousness to confirm my assertion that the cultivation of good morals and good manners does not receive in our schools the attention which its importance demands. If it were possible to make an estimate, and each one of us would honestly record the proportion of time and thought given during the past year to the moral, and to the intellectual, culture of our pupils would we not be ashamed of the testimony thus afforded, and deny that it in any way represented our sense of their comparative importance and value? Do I need further excuse for presenting a few plain practical hints upon this subject?

First, as to the causes of this culpable neglect. One radical cause I believe to be the conviction that moral ideas are inborn, that the voice of God speaking to the soul is all the teaching that is necessary. Without in any way entering upon the religious aspect of this question, either by upholding or disclaiming special tenets, I affirm that my experience leads me to believe that love of truth is no more inborn than love of mathematics. There are different degrees of capacity for each, but each like the other must be taught and learned. I claim that, however moral ideas may be obtained, moral training is necessary to secure obedience to their requirements, and whether the light comes from within or from without, if we walk by its guidance, it is through the influence of right teaching and by the formation of right habits. We know that the moral sensibilities may be blunted by neglect; shall we not then admit that they may be rendered more acute and delicate by cultivation?

Then, we have also a kind of general and undefined notion that by the training of the intellect, the moral nature is, of course, developed. Herbert Spencer, in a recent work, combats forcibly this idea. He says it would be as absurd to give a person lessons in painting to make him a musician, as to expect by the teaching of mathematics and language to fit the youth for social and political duties.4Spencer’s ideas on education were much discussed in previous issues of the Pennsylvania School Journal, but I have been unable to locate anything that argues this exact point. Spencer’s Essays on Education and Kindred Subjects discussed the nature of the education required for painting and music but did not make this analogy. In a certain sense, undoubtedly, all education is elevating, and the cultivation of one set of faculties aids in the development of all. Other things being equal the child who had been trained in painting would more easily become a musician; and the habits of attention, of thought, of discrimination, which are formed by solving problems and construing sentences, enable him to grasp more readily moral ideas.5This concept came from the faculty psychology that was popular in the mid-19th century. But no farther than we would trust to his education in mathematics to make him a good linguist, can we trust his training in either of these to develop his moral nature and fit him for the responsibilities of life.

We fail in our practice to discern the true nature of education. We repeat over and over again education is the drawing out and strengthening of the faculties of the child; but we form our systems and put forth our efforts day after day and year after year, as if the sole object were to push him lesson books, cram his memory with facts, gorge helpless faculties with problems, theories, arguments, systems. Not “What is he?” but “How much he know?” is the question by which we constantly test our work. The only excuse for this course that it is easy; it requires little effort and no originality; the work can be done without thought, and estimated without difficulty. The courses of study which the pupil has completed, and the fluency which he acquits himself on examination can be appreciated by all. Not so the higher culture; it slow and silent in all its manifestations, and he who makes it the object of his teaching must be to work by faith, to “sow beside all waters,”6Isaiah 32:20 and to wait for his reward. It is work, too, that can done on no stereotyped plan; it requires thought, inventive genius, the power to understand and to sympathise with other minds, skill in giving assistance, judgment in withholding it, and over and above all, faith in final success, which will triumph over difficulty, and, regardless of present discouragement, will cheerfully work on, and

“Reach a hand through time, to catch
The far off interest of tears.”7 From Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “In Memoriam A.H.H.”

But, at the best, our ideas of education are too narrow and exclusive; we are the devotees of books; we can conceive of no education without them; we
are ready to deny the identity of Homer and of Shakespeare because they were so independent of such aid. Even those who avoid the cramming process still look too absolutely for scholastic development. We call the book-worm an educated man, though he may be deaf to harmony, blind to beauty, awkward and unskillful, and entirely oblivious of those sweet charities which are the charm of life. We lose sight of the perfect man in contemplating a part of his powers. The educated man is he who has all his
faculties developed, who is trained not in memory and reason alone, but in hand and eye, in body and soul, in his affections and his aspirations,—who is master of himself.8It was commonly believed that a higher faculty, such as reason, ought to govern and harmonize the other human faculties.

If we felt the same responsibility for the manners and morals of our pupils that we do for their intellectual improvement, we should find ourselves devising means for a more perfect and harmonious development.9Manners and morals, Sanford argues, like the intellectual faculties, are in need of governance and harmony. It is true that we are advancing; physical training is beginning to receive a share of attention, but even this is given under protest and only because it is proved to be an aid to intellectual progress. We fail to realize that physical culture is good in itself, and that with equal mental power the man with a fine physique is more of a man than his dwarfed and puny brother.

Many excuse themselves for neglecting the moral culture of their pupils on the ground that this is the work of the ministry, and that in schools representing different creeds no one may be taught without offense. True, nothing of religious doctrine should be taught; but this by no means excuses us from the obligation we are under to cultivate a love for truth and justice, to enforce the law of kindness, to secure habitual obedience to right and duty.

It is urged by some that this moral training takes time, and there is none to spare. Nothing was ever more ridiculous than this plea. Is there time enough for grammar, but none for honesty? time for mathematics, but not for truth? Shall we devote hours to geography, and grudge minutes to temperance? Shall we with scrupulous care insist upon exactness and elegance of speech, and neglect that thoughtful kindness which lends a charm to the homeliest phrase? Is there time to pore over battles and learn of kings, and none to wake admiration for the patient performance of daily duty or aspiration after lives of exalted virtue? We could well forego something of scholarship for the blessings of patriotism and virtue. But we are called to no such sacrifice; intellectual progress is advanced instead of being retarded by attention to moral culture.

Many are led to neglect all effort by the feeling of disgust with which they recollect the ponderous and prosy lectures by which their young ears were bored. Such teachings should, indeed, be avoided; and any attempt at stated periods for moral instruction will be very likely to degenerate into formality and cant; but if we are filled with a sense of the importance of the subject and of our responsibility, the fitting opportunity will not be wanting. When the young hearts are softened by some wave of emotion, or quickened to enthusiasm by some inspiring example, then drop the good seed in the fallow ground;10Sanford appears to be alluding to the Parable of the Sower ( Matthew 13:1-23, Mark 4:1-20, and Luke 8:4-15), but her mention of fallow ground is confusing. Fallow ground is ground that has been left idle for a season to regain its nutrients, and it typically also connotes “unplowed.” Perhaps she is conflating this allusion with one to Jeremiah 4:3 and Hosea 10:12, where fallow ground is broken up to receive seed. a word, a thought, will thrill the soul and echo through the halls of memory while life endures. We have but to interpret Nature’s voice, to which the child is ever an eager listener, and we shall find “sermons in stones,”11From Shakespeare’s As You Like It 2.1.17 lectures in flying clouds; the opening flower, the singing bird, the falling snow will teach lessons of beauty, love, and purity.

Success in all teaching depends much upon the personal character of the teacher, but this is especially true of lessons in morals and manners. Our lives will be a constant commentary upon our words, which the young eyes will be quick to read. We stand before our pupils for what we really are; no glozing,12explaining away, or glossing no deceit, is possible here. I know of no inducement so strong to purge our lives and make them clean, as the consciousness of the power which, if we are what we ought to be, we shall exert over the pupils in our charge. “I would as soon lie to the angel Gabriel as to her!” said a boy of his teacher; and the expression illustrates exactly the point I wish to make. If we govern our lives aright, and so govern our pupils as to gain their love and esteem, our influence is boundless.

The law of kindness must be not on our tongues but in our hearts, and this will be the basis of all our teaching of good manners. The quick sympathy of children is proverbial, and if we seize upon this in early youth, and through its influence mould the life, the value of the habits of politeness thus formed will be inestimable.

Those who have not tried the experiment will be astonished to find how many of the most disagreeable and annoying faults of the school-room may be cured by the simple remark, “It is not polite.” The rules of good breeding should be constantly enforced, not by long harangues, and certainly not by sharp reproof, but by the charm of their own loveliness. Children are not slow to see or to feel, and nothing is more quickly appreciated, or more universally envied, than the excellence of refined and cultivated manners. There is no point upon which children are more sensitive—so anxious not to be found wanting; a hint that such conduct is not polite will reach many a boy on whom persuasion and penalty would have had no effect.

Care should be taken to avoid formal rules which, however correct, seem to children rudely nurtured, frivolous and useless; but by judicious watchfulness —a word of approbation, a smile simply, or a look of surprise when the law of politeness has been violated—the tone of the school may be so raised, and such a sentiment created that the roughest will be powerless to resist it. Every child will feel the unconscious criticism of his schoolmates, and each will emulate the other in his efforts to excel. It should never be forgotten that the power of the teacher over such a school is very great, and we are under the most sacred obligation to use it with judgment and justice. Nothing can inflict a severer wound upon a proud boy than publicly to accuse him of being ill-bred.

The connection between morals and manners is closer than we think. The habit of deference in outward action to the rights and the feelings of others will assuredly have its influence upon character, and teach a higher regard for the golden rule. Profanity and vulgarity may often be more easily corrected on the ground that they are coarse and rude, than merely because they are wrong. There is a kind of charm about doing what is wrong, but none are emulous of being low. The habit of laughing at mistakes, so common and so hard to correct, I have never failed to break up by simply showing that it was not doing as we would be done by. Is it morals or manners that corrects the fault?

Too much attention cannot be given to the school-room and its appointments; neatness and beauty beget refinement and gentleness. The influence of his surroundings upon the morals and manners of the child is incalculable, and I believe the motto, “I am accustomed to do what I undertake,” on a certain school-room wall, did more to benefit the children gathered there than a whole term of instruction. It had its history, and every child knew it, and many a time a single glance at that talisman would put hope and heart into the weary, discouraged toiler.

The power of poetry should never be overlooked by the teacher. What strength for a life of toil and endeavor, if at some moment when he was just despairing at the rugged way, there were breathed to him

“Oh, fear not in a world like this,
And thou shalt know ere long,
Know how sublime a thing it is
To suffer and be strong.”13The conclusion of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Light of Stars”

In no way may pure thoughts and noble aspirations be more readily brought home to the heart than through the medium of song. Our literature is full of ennobling thoughts, expressed in language so sweet and simple that the veriest child can comprehend it, and such poems early implanted in the memory cannot but keep the soul from sin. “Fill the measure full of wheat and there will be no room for chaff,” I heard a mother emote as her reason for teaching her child a beautiful poem; and any teacher who will make the experiment will receive for his labor “an exceeding great reward.”14Genesis 15:1

Music is a potent charm to drive away evil spirits. I remember in my childhood, when we became pettish and quarrelsome, our mother would call on us for a song, and by the time it was over the clouds would be dispelled and sunshine return again. Many a rock of offence [sic] in the school-room may by this simple means be avoided, and not only a weary, restless hour be charmed away, but the moral tone of the school raised because the right spirit instead of the wrong has prevailed.

If we would exert an influence over our pupils we must uphold a healthy, hearty morality, not the sickly sentimentalism which is so often called by that name, and which finds its fitting representation in what John Fiske calls “short-coffin books” “all about some little John or Jane who was very good and died when five years old.”15Sanford met Fiske when they both lived in Connecticut, and Fiske, who was a Harvard student at the time, gave her a list of history and science books to read in order to advance her self-education. Fiske was known in the mid-1870s as a leading American advocate for Herbert Spencer’s views on evolution. I have not been able to find anything in Fiske’s published work that corresponds to Sanford’s quote. This kind of teaching will have little effect upon healthy American boys of today, and to those whom it does influence it will do harm instead of good. It encourages the kind of morbid milk-and-water conscientiousness often seen in sickly girls, and too often commended as superior virtue, while in reality it is only an unhealthy longing after approbation. True morality does not parade itself, is not always “afraid it has done wrong;” it is frank, hearty, open, earnest. Give a boy morals of the manly sort and he will cleave to them. I heard a teacher not long ago applaud a lad who, after trying in vain to prevent a fellow larger than himself from teasing and tormenting a little boy, having stood it as long as he could, at last rolled up his sleeves and gave the bully the drubbing he deserved; and I felt that when that teacher condemned fighting it would not be without effect.

Let the child feel that morality means strength and self-control, courage to defend the weak and to stand alone for right, unflinching devotion, stainless honor, transparent truth. We must not seek to keep him always in leading strings, to lay down absolute rules for his conduct under all circumstances; the proud child will be restive under such restraint: but we should rather train him to clear conceptions of right and wrong, to the habit of obedience to duty; we should rather set before him high standards, and give him the benefit of right examples, and then let him “work out his own salvation.”16Philippians 2:12

I cannot here forbear saying that I believe many children have been driven into wrong courses by the over-anxiety and injudicious severity of parents and teachers. Keep the child close to you in sympathy, let him not feel afraid to tell you when he has done wrong; be always ready to encourage, but not too prompt to condemn; and though he may not always do as you would have wished, you may be sure that with such a hold upon him he will not go far astray; and it is better that he should sometimes err, depending on himself, than go tamely on in the right path, leaning always upon the opinions and judgment of others.

The whole secret of success lies in this sympathy with the child. We must look at his motives, his actions, his temptations from his stand-point, see him as he sees himself. We shall find crude ideas, bad habits, turbulent passions; but underlying all, if our love has really laid bare the heart, we shall not fail to find a desire to be good and true. Upon this we must build, trusting to it, never doubting it.

If there is one sure rule to win a bad boy to virtue it is this, “Have faith in him, and keep your faith”—not the blind credulity that overlooks all faults, but that loving confidence which sees behind the outward act and is ready to respond “even till seventy times seven”17Matthew 18:22 to every genuine effort to do right. We must give him time, wait for his bad habits to yield, rejoice with him over each victory, and be ready with our word of encouragement at each defeat. Many a child has given up the struggle in despair because there was no one to see that though he failed he yet had tried. A harsh reproof falling on such a soul is like a blighting frost in spring-time.

It is hard oftentimes to be patient and to hope on, but then reward and encouragement come where we had least looked for cheer. “It was because I knew you expected me to do it,” said a boy whose repeated failures had often tempted to give him up entirely; and now his face was all radiant with the hard-won victory over himself, which was to give me also strength for the future, and with tears of joy I then resolved that I would never, never despair.

This work is not an easy one, and we may, if we choose, neglect it and go on content, teaching our “Reading and ‘Riting and ‘Rithmetic,” but we should at least know what we do, feel what opportunities for good we are flinging from us, and we should remember also that

“Not one can do our work
That we shall leave undone.”

Sources used:

Whitney, Helen Ardell. Maria Sanford. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1922.
Pennsylvania School Journal. “The State Meeting at Wilkesbarre.” September 1875. Maria L. Sanford Papers. Minnesota Historical Society.
Sanford, Maria. “Lessons in Manners and Morals.” Pennsylvania School Journal, September 1875. Maria L. Sanford Papers. Minnesota Historical Society.
Berman, Milton. John Fiske: The Evolution of a Popularizer. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1961.
McGerr, Michael E. The Decline of Popular Politics: The American North, 1865-1928. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986.

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