Item of the Day: Aiken’s Letters from a Father to his Son (1794)

Full Title:  The New-York Magazine; or, Literary Repository for October, 1794. From the Monthly Review for May, 1794.  LETTER FROM A FATHER TO HIS SON, ON VARIOUS TOPICS. By J. Aiken, M.D.

It is impossible to compare the established modes of education with the present state of knowledge without perceiving that they are defective in several respects, but particularly in this, that the plans of instruction commonly followed are by no means sufficiently varied and extensive.  The grand object ought not so much to be to form great scholars, or great mathematicians, as to furnish young men with such general principles of knowledge and taste, as may be useful to them in future life:  whereas the fact is, that, in our public schools and universities, one or two objects of pursuit, and these often only indirectly connected with the scholar’s future destination, are almost exclusively regarded.  Classical or mathematical learning, in relation to other studies, like the serpent of Aaron, swallows up all the rest.  Whatever temporary benefit may accrue to individuals from the arbitrary connection which has been established between high attainments in these branches of learning and the acquisition of academical honours, or professional emolument, the general inconveniencies attending this narrow plan of education are seriously felt; an it is become a concern of the first moment so far to new model our systems of instruction, as to accommodate them to the present enlightened and improved state of society.

The ingenious and judicious author of the work now before us, is so strongly convinced of the propriety of such an extension of the current plans of eduction, that, as we learn from the introductory letter, he has educated his son, to whom the letters are addressed, on a broad scale, which has comprized many changes of discipline, and has embraced a large field of instruction.  By these means he has endeavoured to give the young man a comprehensive view of the objects before him, and to prepare him for the study of books, of men, and of nature, as well as for the reputable and useful discharge of professional duties.  In giving the finishing stroke to this important work of educating a son, he addresses to him a series of letters, supplementary to those instructions which he had received, in a systematic way, from books and lectures.  Presuming that his principles, in the course of a liberal education, had been well established, he writes, ‘rather with a view to place in a strong and familiar light some subordinate truths belonging to the experimental practice of life, which, though not of the same fundamental importance with principles, are of no small weight in promoting a man’s happiness and utility.’ At the same time, he communicates to him various observations on points of taste and literature, in which his chief aim has been to obviate prejudices, and to give that turn to this son’s thoughts which might enable him to judge and enjoy for himself, without first appealing to the decision of a dictator.  The letters, throughout, encourage and recommend that freedom of discussion, without which, as the author justly remarks, no difference exists between opinion and prejudice.

The public is much indebted to Dr. Aiken for extending the utility of these letters beyond his own family; for that young man must have been very fortunately educated, and have made very extraordinary attainments, who cannot reap from them much improvement, as well as entertainment: nor is this publication by any means to be considered as peculiarly appropriated to the use of young men.  The work, being neither elementary nor systematic, brings before its readers a great variety of pleasing and interesting and interesting subjects; on all of which it leads them into important or curious inquiries, or induces a train of useful or amusing reflections.  In this view, Dr. Aiken’s publication may be considered as a valuable addition to the public stock of miscellaneous essays, moral and critical: for, (using the terms with some degree of latitude,) under these two classes all the letters in this volume may with propriety be arranged.

Among the moral essays, the first that occurs, both on account of the great importance of the subject, and of the happy manner in which it is treated, calls for particular notice.  the topic is — strength of character.  This desirable quality, the author is of opinion, not only increases, from natural causes, with increasing years, but is capable of improvement by moral discipline.  The causes of the contrary juvenile weakness, on which Dr. Aiken particularly insists, are false shame, a fear of offending or giving pain, and a desire of pleasing all mankind.  The doctor remarks on the last of these causes, with the subsequent advice on the cultivation of firmness and constituency of character, are as follow:

‘The desire of pleasing all mankind, which is the counterpart of the two former principles, is a fertile source of weakness and mutability in some of the best dispositions.  It is the quality commonly termed good-nature, and perhaps is in some measure national to Englishmen.  Young persons are not only themselves prone to fall into excess of easy good nature, but it is the quality that most readily captivates them in the choice of an early friend.  It is impossible here to blame the disposition, although it be highly important to guard against the indulgence of it; for it leads to the very same imbecility of conduct that false shame and cowardice do.  In the course of our duties we are almost as frequently called upon to undergo the censure and enmity of mankind, as to cultivate their friendship and good opinion.  Cicero, in enumerating the causes which induce men to desert their duty, very properly mentions an unwillingness “suscipere inimicitias,” to take up enmities.  This is, indeed, one of the severest trials of our attachment to principle; but it is what we must be ready to sustain when occasion requires, or renounce every claim to a strong and elevated character.

‘When young in life, I derived much satisfaction from thinking that I had not an enemy in the world.  A too great facility in giving up my own interest, when it involved a point of contention, and a habit of assenting to, or at least not opposing, the various opinions I heard, had, in fact, preserved me from direct hostility with any mortal, and, I had reason to believe, had conciliated for me the passive regard of most of those with whom I was acquainted.  But no sooner did different views of things, and a greater firmness of temper, incite me to an open declaration respecting points which I thought highly interesting to mankind, than I was made sensible, that my former source of satisfaction, must be exchanged for self-approbation and the esteem of a few.  The event gave me at first some surprise and more concern; for I can truly say, that in my own breast, I found no obstacle to the point of agreeing to differ. It was even some time before I could construe the estranged looks of those, who meant to intimate that they had renounced private friendship with me, upon mere public grounds.  But enough!  At present, I can sincerely assure you, that I feel more compunction for early compliances, than regret for the consequences of later assertions of principle.   And it is my decided advice to you, who are beginning the world, not to be intimidated from openly espousing the cause you think a right one, by the apprehension of incurring any man’s displeasure.  I suppose this to be done within the limits of candour, modesty, and real good temper.  These being observed, you can have no enemies but those who are not worthy to be your friends.”

This kind of experimental counsel from a father to his son is highly interesting and valuable.  Perhaps there is no moral quality concerning which the young men of the present age, (so productive of powerful temptations to duplicity and inconsistency of character) stand more in need of monition.

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Filed under 1790's, Education, Posted by Rebecca Dresser

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