In praise of childish virtues
Agnes Repplier recalls the knowledge that mattered most in her childhood
Agnes Repplier (1855–1950) was (in historian John Lukacs’s words) the “Jane Austen of the essay.” In his judgment, “not only the quality but the quantity of her knowledge was, and remains, stunning.” Though she was a life-long resident of Philadelphia, many of her essays (which numbered about 400) were published in Boston’s Atlantic Monthly, and later collected in anthologies. The 1916 volume Counter-Currents included an essay titled “The Repeal of Reticence,” in which she criticized the craze for “scientific” sex education for children. This essay lent its title to a 1996 book by cultural historian Rochelle Gurstein, who was interviewed on Volume 24 of the MARS HILL Tapes. Below are some excerpts from Miss Repplier’s essay.
“Knowledge is the cry. Crude, undigested knowledge, without limit and without reserve. Give it to boys, give it to girls, give it to children. No other force is taken into account by the visionaries who — in defiance, or in ignorance, of history — believe that evil understood is evil conquered. . . .
“Dr. Edward L. Keyes advocates the teaching of sex-hygiene to children, because he thinks it is of the kind of information that children are eagerly seeking. ‘What is this topic,’ he asks, ‘that all these little ones are questioning over, mulling over, fidgeting over, imagining over, worrying over ? Ask your own memories.’
“I do ask my memory in vain for the answer Dr. Keyes anticipates. A child’s life is so full, and everything that enters it seems of supreme importance. I fidgeted over my hair, which would not curl. I worried over my examples, which never came out right. I mulled (though unacquainted with the word) over every piece of sewing put into my incapable fingers, which could not be trained to hold a needle. I imagined I was stolen by brigands, and became — by virtue of beauty and intelligence — spouse of a patriotic outlaw in a frontierless land. I asked artless questions which brought me into discredit with my teachers, as, for example, who ‘massacred’ St. Bartholomew. But vital facts, the great laws of propagation, were matters of but casual concern, crowded out of my life, and out of my companions’ lives (in a convent boarding-school) by the more stirring happenings of every day. How could we fidget over obstetrics when we were learning to skate, and our very dreams were a medley of ice and bumps? How could we worry over ‘natural laws’ in the face of a tyrannical interdict which lessened our chances of breaking our necks by forbidding us to coast down a hill covered with trees? The children to be pitied, the children whose minds become infected with unwholesome curiosity, are those who lack cheerful recreation, religious teaching, and the fine corrective of work. A playground swimming-pool will do more to keep them mentally and morally sound than scores of lectures upon sex-hygiene.
“The point of view of the older generation was not altogether the futile thing it seems to the progressive of to-day. It assumed that children brought up in honour and goodness, children disciplined into some measure of self-restraint, and taught very plainly the difference between right and wrong in matters childish and seasonable, were in no supreme danger from the gradual and somewhat haphazard expansion of knowledge. It unconsciously reversed the adage, ‘Forewarned, forearmed,’ into ‘Forearmed, forewarned’; paying more heed to the arming than to the warning. . . .
“If knowledge alone could save us from sin, the salvation of the world would be easy work. If by demonstrating the injuriousness of evil, we could insure the acceptance of good, a little logic would redeem mankind. But the laying of the foundation of law and order in the mind, the building up of character which will be strong enough to reject both folly and vice, this is no facile task. The justifiable reliance placed by our fathers upon religion and discipline has given place to a reliance upon understanding. It is assumed that youth will abstain from wrong-doing, if only the physical consequences of wrong-doing are made sufficiently clear. There are those who believe that a regard for future generations is a powerful deterrent from immorality, that boys and girls can be so interested in the quality of the baby to be born in 1990 that they will master their wayward impulses for its sake. What does not seem to occur to us is that this deep sense of obligation to ourselves and to our fellow creatures is the fruit of self-control. A course of lectures will not instil self-control into the human heart. It is born of childish virtues acquired in childhood, youthful virtues acquired in youth, and a wholesome preoccupation with the activities of life which gives young people something to think about besides the sexual relations which are pressed so relentlessly upon their attention.
“The is world is wide, and a great deal is happening in it. I do not plead for ignorance, but for the gradual and harmonious broadening of the field of knowledge, and for a more careful consideration of ways and means. There are subjects which may be taught in class, and subjects which commend themselves to individual teaching. There are topics which admit of plein-air handling, and topics which civilized man, as apart from his artless brother of the jungles, has veiled with reticence. There are truths which may be, and should be, privately imparted by a father, a mother, a family doctor, or an experienced teacher; but which young people cannot advantageously acquire from the platform, the stage, the moving-picture gallery, the novel, or the ubiquitous monthly magazine.”