Sunday, January 5, 2014

Weekends with Chesterton:: Folly and Education

I am linking up to Amongst Lovely Things for this post!  Sorry to inflict two posts on you in one day;  I will make sure to skip blogging tomorrow since two cords of firewood are being delivered and I will be superintending my boys as they stack it on the side porch.  

And Chari is sick;  please say prayers that she gets better soon and that her family stays healthy (or gets healthy -- I don't know if the whole family is sick or not).

Below is the familiar quote in context.  It is from What's Wrong with the World, the chapter on Folly and Female Education.    As is not uncommon when he talks about women, Chesterton is by modern standards politically incorrect, yet perceptive and acute.   In fact, I think he speaks for himself more than for the Victorian female with drooping ringlets!
There was a time when you and I and all of us were all very close to God; so that even now the color of a pebble (or a paint), the smell of a flower (or a firework), comes to our hearts with a kind of authority and certainty; as if they were fragments of a muddled message, or features of a forgotten face. To pour that fiery simplicity upon the whole of life is the only real aim of education; and closest to the child comes the woman—she understands. To say what she understands is beyond me; save only this, that it is not a solemnity. Rather it is a towering levity, an uproarious amateurishness of the universe, such as we felt when we were little, and would as soon sing as garden, as soon paint as run. To smatter the tongues of men and angels, to dabble in the dreadful sciences, to juggle with pillars and pyramids and toss up the planets like balls, this is that inner audacity and indifference which the human soul, like a conjurer catching oranges, must keep up forever. This is that insanely frivolous thing we call sanity. And the elegant female, drooping her ringlets over her water-colors, knew it and acted on it. She was juggling with frantic and flaming suns. She was maintaining the bold equilibrium of inferiorities which is the most mysterious of superiorities and perhaps the most unattainable. She was maintaining the prime truth of woman, the universal mother: that if a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.
His main point in the chapter is that in instituting female education, we should not perpetuate the worst things about male education.   He makes a case for the amateur gloriously and leisurely dabbling in the liberal arts rather than the industrialized, standardized education that was becoming the common thing.  Also from the chapter:

It is all a part of the same silly subjugation; there must be a hard stick-up collar round the neck of a woman, because it is already a nuisance round the neck of a man. Though a Saxon serf, if he wore that collar of cardboard, would ask for his collar of brass.

It will then be answered, not without a sneer, "And what would you prefer? Would you go back to the elegant early Victorian female, with ringlets and smelling-bottle, doing a little in water colors, dabbling a little in Italian, playing a little on the harp, writing in vulgar albums and painting on senseless screens? Do you prefer that?" To which I answer, "Emphatically, yes." I solidly prefer it to the new female education, for this reason, that I can see in it an intellectual design, while there is none in the other. I am by no means sure that even in point of practical fact that elegant female would not have been more than a match for most of the inelegant females.
Fun to read in the context of Pride and Prejudice, where Lizzy and Darcy and Miss Bingley have a famous discussion about the accomplished female!

Dale Ahlquist writes about the quote here in Chesterton 101:
One of the most famous lines in all of Chesterton’s writings is found in this book: “If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.” For some reason, people puzzle on this. Or else use it to defend their own slovenly ways. But it is a ringing defense of the amateur, the person who does a wide variety of things out of love rather than one specialized thing out of mere professionalism. The person who best understands the “uproarious amateurishness of the universe” is the woman, the mother who has to be the first to explain the entire universe to a child. When the mother is pulled out of the home and made a specialist... the child is left to be raised by “experts.” Thus, both the mother and the child become narrower. And so does the whole society as the family of course is ripped apart.
Go to Sarah's Weekends with Chesterton Link-Up for more quotes from Chesterton!
Go here for a very simple and clear how-to dabble in Chesterton.   Every little bit is good!


  1. Oh, I love Ahlquist's explanation. That makes so much sense!

  2. I too am finding Mr. Ahlquist's explanations very helpful. And I love this quote! It's a new mantra for me in my mothering when I begin to feel like I'm not good enough at this motherhood gig.

    I'm so happy you're linking up! I was really hoping you would. :)

  3. Thanks for sharing - such a great quote!

  4. This is wonderful, especially in light of Ahlquist's take on it. Thank you !


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