Category Archives: Education

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

Item of the Day: Locke’s Works (1777)

Full Title:

The Works of John Locke, in Four Volumes. The Eighth Edition. London, 1777.

From the Epistle to the Reader from the Essay Concerning Human Understanding.


I here put into thy hands, what has been the diversion of some of my idle and heavy hours: if it has the good luck to prove so of any of thine, and thou hast but half so much pleasure in reading as I had in writing it, thou wilt as little think thy money, as I do my pains, ill bestowed. Mistake not this, for a commendation of my work; nor conclude because I was pleased with the doing of it, that therefore I am fondly taken with it, now it is done. He that hawks at larks and sparrows, has no less sport, though a much less considerable quarry, than he that flies at nobler game: and he is little acquainted with the subject of this treatise, the UNDERSTANDING, who does not know that as it is the most elevated faculty of the soul, so it is employed with a greater and more constant delight, than any of the other. Its searches after truth, are a sort of hawking and hunting, wherein the very pursuit makes a great part of the pleasure. Every step the mind takes, in its progress towards knowledge, makes some discovery, which is not only new, but the best too, for the time at least.

For the understanding, like the eye, judging of objects only by its own sight, cannot but be pleased with what it discovers, having less regret for what has escaped it, because it is unknown. Thus he, who has raised himself above the alms-basket, and not content to live lazy on scraps of begged opinions, sets his own thoughts on work, to find and follow truth, will (whatever he lights on) not miss the hunter’s satisfaction: every moment of his pursuit will reward his pains with some delight, and he will have reason to think his time not ill-spent, even when he cannot much boast of any great acquisition.

This, reader, is the entertainment of those, who let loose their own thoughts, and follow them in writing; which thou oughtest not to envy them, since they afford thee an opportunity of the like diversion, if thou wilt make use of thy own thoughts in reading. It is to them, if they are thy own, that I refer myself: but if they are taken upon trust from others, it is no great matter what they are: they not following truth, but some meaner consideration. And it is not worth while to be concerned, what he says or thinks, who says or thinks only as he is directed by another. If thou judgest for thyself, I know thou wilt judge candidly; and then I shall not be harmed or offended whatever be thy censure. For though it be certain, that there is nothing in this treatise, of the truth whereof I am not fully persuaded; yet I consider myself as liable to mistakes, as I can think thee; and know that this book must stand or fall with thee, not by any opinion I have of it, but by thy own. If thou findest little in it new, or instructive to thee, thou art not to blame me for it. It was not meant for those that had already mastered this subject, and made a thorough acquaintance with their own understanding; but for my own information, and the satisfaction of a few friends, who acknowledged themselves not to have sufficiently considered it. Were it fit to trouble thee with the history of this Essay, I should tell thee, that five or six friends meeting at my chamber, and discoursing on a subject very remoted from this, found themselves quickly at a stand, by the difficulties that rose on every side. After we had a while puzzled ourselves, without coming any nearer a resolution of those doubts which perplexed us, it came into my thoughts, that we took a wrong course; and that before we set ourselves upon enquiries of that nature, it was necessary to examine our own abilities, and see what objects our understandings were not fitted to deal with. This I proposed to the company, who all readily assented; and thereupon it was agreed, that this should be our first enquiry. Some hasty and undigested thoughts on a subject I had never before considered, which I set down against our next meeting, gave the first entrance into this discourse; which having been thus begun by chance, was continued by intreaty; written by incoherent parcels; and after long intervals of neglect, resumed again, as my humour, or occasions permitted; and at last, in a retirement, where an attendance on my health gave me leisure, it was brought into that order thou now seest it.

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Filed under 1770's, Education, Philosophy, Posted by Carrie Shanafelt

Item of the Day: Addison’s Spectator (1761)

Full Title: The WORKS of the late right Honorable Joseph Addison, Esq; Volume the third. With a Complete Index. Birmingham: Printed by John Baskerville, for J. and R. Tonson, at Shakespear’s Head in the Strand. MDCCLXI.

No. 92 Friday, June 15.

—-Convivae prope diffentir videntur,

Poscentes vario multum diversa palato;

Quid dem? quid on dem?—-

Looking over the late packets of Letters which have been sent to me, I found the following one.

Mr. Spectator,

Your paper is part of my Tea-equipage; and my servant knows my humor so well, that calling for my breakfast this morning (it being past my usual hour) she answered, the SPECTATOR was not yet come in; but that the Tea-kettle boiled, and she expected it every moment. Having thus in part signified to you the esteem and veneration which I have for you, I must put you in mind of the catalogue of books which you have promised to recommend to our sex; for I have deferred furnishing my closet with Authors, ’till I receive your advice in this particular, being your daily disciple and humble servant,


In answer to my fair disciple, whom I am very proud of, I must acquaint her and the rest of my Readers, that since I have called for help in my catalogue of a Lady’s library, I have received many letters upon that head, some of which I shall give an account of.

In the first class I shall take notice of those which come to me from eminent booksellers, who every one of them mention with respect the Authors they have printed, and consequently have an eye to their own advantage more than to that of the Ladies. One tells me, that he thinks it absolutely necessary for women to have true notions of right and equity, and that therefore they cannot peruse a better book than Dalton’s Country Justice: Another thinks they cannot be without The Complete Jockey. A third observing the curiosity and desire of prying into secrets, which he tells me is natural to the fair sex, is of opinion this female inclination, if well directed, might turn very much to their advantage, and therefore recommends to me Mr. Mede upon the Revelations. A fourth lays it down as an unquestioned truth, that a Lady cannot be thoroughly accomplished who has not read The Secret Treaties and Negociations of the Marshal D’Estrades. Mr. Jacob Tonson, Jun. is of opinion that Bayle’s Dictionary might be of very great use to Ladies, in order to make them general scholars. Another, whose name I have forgotten, thinks it highly proper that every woman with child should read Mr. Wall’s History of Infant Baptism; as another is very importunate with me to recommend to all my female Readers The finishing Stroke: being a vindication of the Patriarchal Scheme, &c.

In the second class I shall mention books which are recommended by husbands, if I may believe the writers of them. Whether or no they are real husbands or personated ones I cannot tell, but the books they recommend are as follow. A Paraphrase on the History of Susanna. Rules to keep Lent. The Christian’s overthrow prevented. A dissuasive from the Play-house. The virtues of Camphire, with directions to the Camphire Tea. A letter dated from Cheapside desire me that I would advise all young wives to make themselves mistresses of Wingate’s Arithmetic, and concludes with a postscript, that he hopes I will not forget The Countess of Kent’s receipts.

I may reckon the Ladies themselves as a third class among these my correspondents and privy-counsellors. In a letter from one of them, I am advised to place Pharamond at the head of my catalogue, and, if I think proper, to give the second place to Cassandra. Coquetilla begs me not to think of nailing women upon their knees with manuals of devotion, nor of scorching their faces with books of housewifery. Florella desires to know if there are any books written against Prudes, and intreats me, if there are, to give them a place in my Library. Plays of all sorts have their several advocates: All for Love is mentioned in fifteen letters; Sophonisba, or Hannibal’s overthrow, in a dozen; the Innocent Adultery is likewise highly approved of: Mithridates King of Pontus has many friends; Alexander the Great andAurenzebe have the same number of voices; but Theodosius, or the force of Love, carries it from all the rest.

I should, in the last place, mention such books as have been proposed by men of learning, and those who appear competent judges of this matter, and must here take occasion to thank A.B. whoever it is that conceals himself under those two letters, for his advice upon this subject: but as I find the work I have undertaken to be very difficult, I shall defer the executing of it till I am further acquainted with the thoughts of my judicious contemporaries, and have time to examine the several books they offer to me; being resolved in an affair of this moment, to proceed with the greatest caution.

In the mean while, as I have taken the ladies under my particular care, I shall make it my business to find out in the best Authors ancient and modern such passages as may be for their use, and endevor to accommodate them as well as I can to their taste; not questioning but the valuable part of the sex will easily pardon me, if from time to time I laugh at those little vanities and follies which appear in the behavior of some of them, and which are more proper for ridicule than a serious censure. Most books being calculated for male Readers, and generally written with an eye to men of learning, makes a work of this Nature the more necessary; besides, I am the more encouraged, because I flatter myself that I see the sex daily improving by these my Speculations. My fair Readers are already deeper scholars than the Beaus: I could name some of them who talk much better than several gentlemen that make a figure at Will’s; and as I frequently receive letters from the fine Ladies and pretty Fellows, I cannot but observe that the former are superior to the others not only in the sense but in the spelling. This cannot but have a good effect upon the female world, and keep them from being charmed by those empty coxcombs that have hitherto been admired among the women, though laughed at among the men.

I am credibly informed that Tom Tattle passes for an impertinent fellow, that Will Trippit begins to be smoked, and that Frank Smoothly himself is within a month of a coxcomb, in case I think fit to continue this paper. For my part, as it is my business in some measure to detect such as would lead astray weak minds by their false pretences to wit and judgment, humor and gallantry. I shall not fail to lend the best lights I am able to the fair sex for the continuation of these discoveries.

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Filed under 1760's, Culture, Education, Posted by Rebecca Dresser, Women

Item of the Day: Pierpont’s The American First Class Book

Full Title: The American first class book; or, exercises in reading and recitation: selected principally from modern authors of Great Britain and America: and designed for the use of the highest class in publick and private schools. By John Pierpont, Minister of Hollis-street Church, Boston: Author of Airs of Palestine, &c. Boston: Hilliard, Gray, Little, and Wilkins and Richardson, Lord & Holbrook, 1831.


This book has been compiled with a special reference to the publick Reading and Grammar Schools of this city. It is the result of an attempt to supply the want—which has long been a subject of complaint among those whom the citizens of Boston have charged with the general superintendence of their publick schools, as well as with those who are appointed to the immediate instruction of them—of a book of Exercises in Reading and Speaking better adapted, than any English compilation that has yet appeared, to the state of society as it is in this country; and less obnoxious to complaint, on the ground of its national or political character, than it is reasonable to expect that any English compilation would be, among a people whose manners, opinions, literary institutions, and civil governments, are so strictly republican as our own.But, though the immediate design of this compilation was a limited and local one, it has been borne in mind, throughout the work, that the want, which has been a subject of complaint in this city, must have been still more widely felt; especially by those, in every part of our country, who are attentive to the national, moral, and religious sentiments, contained in the books that are used by their children while learning to read, and while their literary taste is beginning to assume something of the character which it ever afterwards retains.

How far the objections, which have been made to other works of this sort, have been obviated in the present selection, it is for others to determine. I willingly leave the decision of this question to the ultimate and only proper tribunal—the publick; to whose kindness, as shown towards one of my efforts, in another department of literature, I am no stranger, and for which I should prove myself ungrateful should I not acknowledge my obligation. –I only hope that the kindness of the publick towards the past, many not have led into presumption and carelessness in regard to the present.

In as much, however, as this book departs, in some particulars, from most others of the same general character, it may be expected that the author should assign his reasons for such deviations. These relate principally to the omission of some things that are usually deemed essential to a school-reader; and to the arrangement of the materials of which this is made up.

First, then, it may be urged as an objection to this, as a compilation that is to be used by those who are learning to read, that it consists entirely of exercises in reading and speaking, to the exclusion of those rules, the knowledge of which is indispensable to any considerable proficiency in either.

I have observed, however, that that part of school-books which consists of Brief Treatises upon Rhetorick, Rules for Reading, and Essays on Elocution is, almost uniformly, little worn; –an evidence that it is little used; in other words, that it is of little use. I have construed this fact into an oracular monition not to devote to such Rules, Treatises, or Essays, any part of the present work.

The truth probably is, that reading, like conversation, is learned from example rather than by rule. –No one becomes distinguished, as a singer, by the most familiar knowledge of the gamut; so, no one is ever made an accomplished reader or speaker by studying rules for elocution, even though aided by a diagram. There is even less aid derived from rules in reading than singing: for musick is, in a great degree, a matter of strict science; while reading, after the alphabet is learned, is altogether an art: –an art, indeed, which requires a quick perception, a delicate taste, a good understanding, and, especially, a faculty of nicely discriminating and accurately expressing the various shades of an author’s meaning: –but, still, an art that is less capable than musick of being reduced to definitive rules, or of being taught by them.

To become a good reader or a good speaker, the best examples of elocution, in these respective departments, must be see, and heard, and studied. The tones that express particular emotions and passions must be caught by the ear. The same organ must inform us what is mean: by the very terms in which all rules must be expressed, –what is meant by a rapid or deliberate enunciation; what by speaking loudly or softly, on a high or low key, with emphasis or in a monotony, distinctly or indistinctly. We may amuse ourselves, if we please, with laying down rules upon these matters, but, till our rules are illustrated by the voice and manner of a good reader, they are totally inoperative; and, when thus illustrated, totally unnecessary. The learner imitates the example of reading which is given in explaining a rule, and the rule itself is forsaken and soon forgotten.

It seems to me that the readiest, indeed, the only good way, to teach children to read well, is, to give them the charge of instructers who are themselves good readers, –instructers, who, like teachers of musick, will not content themselves with laying certain rules for regulating the tones, inflexions, and cadences of the voice before your child’s eye, which can neither receive a sound nor give one, but who will address his ear with living instruction, –with the rich and informing melody of the human voice. . . .

Boston, June, 1823.

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Filed under 1830's, Education, Language, Posted by Caroline Fuchs