Mistress Harry, smart and merry, how should these children grow?

When it comes to her statements on children and education, Martineau is largely consistent. In How to Observe Morals and Manners, she identifies both as indicators of a culture’s dedication to moral values and liberty (110, 120-1), using examples from the United States, Germany, Russia, Prussia, Spain, and France to illuminate her points. She then applies the universal principles she set forth in that treatise to her travel in Society in America, observing American parents’ tendencies toward befriending their children (3.3.3.p7) and American children’s tendencies toward pursuing their schoolwork vigorously because of their acknowledgement of a possible future in public office (3.3.3.p3); while still somewhat generalized, her travel writing necessarily provides more specific details and personal observations than her treatise. Finally, her autobiography speaks less about children and education, although it speaks in admiring tones of what she would likely argue is the natural result of the child-rearing policies in America—a forward thinking, independent young woman, who challenges her mother, saying “When I think of what we might be and what we are, I want to say only ‘God be merciful to us sinners!’” (359). In thus keeping her reflections on education consistent, Martineau provides an interesting critique of the British system, which she sees as inappropriate for the new world (SA 3.3.3.p12) and as uninspiring to many of Britain’s children (SA 3.3.3.p3); while she also critiques the American system, stating that it is, as of yet, superficial, and that it seems nonsensical train all children the same, regardless of inclination and occupation, she also provides the United States with the excuse that they are a young country (HOMM 121; SA 3.3.3p12).

However, it is hard not to notice as we read Society in America and her autobiography that Martineau appears to revoke the principles she set forth early in How to Observe Manners and Morals—for instance, to avoid generalization and to avoid prejudice (9, 14). We see her generalize in both Society in America and in her autobiography; surely not all “young citizens” in the schools of the United States demonstrate the awareness of their role in their society to the extent that their enthusiasm makes up for the gaps in their education (SA 3.3.3.p3). Likewise, Martineau’s approbation of befriending one’s children as a parenting technique reveals a personal prejudice against concealing one’s emotions, which she says causes one of “the most tremendous suffering perhaps of human life” (SA 3.3.3.p7). How dare Martineau thus turn against her founding principles?

Yet, we may critique too hastily. How to Observe Manners and Morals is a book on how to think, rather than a book on how to write, and it may be unfair to expect it to dictate how Martineau uses the principles in the context of other genres. For instance, the travel narrative is an application of principles to a culture, nation, or region, which requires more specifics than the treatise; thus, Society in America necessarily must include generalizations. As her audience, we can only hope and trust that they are not a “peremptory decision” based on the observation of a few people’s remarks and that she is following her own advice (HOMM 9). Likewise, such detailed explorations of a culture invite comparisons with the author’s home culture, and Martineau’s rejoinders to avoid prejudice function mostly to caution observers to not put their personal, cultural expectations on others, but to value them according to “the essentials of human happiness” (HOMM 15). She does not tell them to avoid judging at all. With that in mind, we might remember that Martineau values the American educational system over her own, deprivileging her own experience and noting the happiness that is the result of such a system.

Martineau is far from perfect, and there are inconsistencies even in the small sections reflecting on education (i.e. If everyone is destined for public office, why is it bad that they are all educated similarly? SA 3.3.3.p12). However, in retrospect, I might have been too quick to discredit her travel narrative and autobiography due to apparent conflicts with the principles she set forth in How to Observe Morals and Manners, as they do seem to reflect her principles, even though in a distorted fashion because of characteristics necessary due to their genres.

 

 

 

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