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John Ruskin on education, advancement and vanity

… I receive many letters from parents respecting the education of their children.  In the mass of these letters I am always struck by the precedence which the idea of a “position in life” takes above all other thoughts in the parents’ — more especially in the mothers’ — minds. 

“The education befitting such and such a station in life” — this is the phrase, this the object, always.  They never seek, as far as I can make out, an education good in itself; even the conception of abstract rightness in training rarely seems reached by the writers.

But, an education “which shall keep a good coat on my son’s back;—which shall enable him to ring with confidence the visitors’ bell at double-belled doors; which shall result ultimately in establishment of a double-belled door to his own house; — in a word, which shall lead to advancement in life; — this we pray for on bent knees—and this is all we pray for.”

It never seems to occur to the parents that there may be an education which, in itself, is advancement in Life; — that any other than that may perhaps be advancement in Death; and that this essential education might be more easily got, or given, than they fancy, if they set about it in the right way; while it is for no price, and by no favour, to be got, if they set about it in the wrong.

Indeed, among the ideas most prevalent and effective in the mind of this busiest of countries, I suppose the first—at least that which is confessed with the greatest frankness, and put forward as the fittest stimulus to youthful exertion — is this of “Advancement in life.”

May I ask you to consider with me, what this idea practically includes, and what it should include? Practically, then, at present, “advancement in life” means, becoming conspicuous in life; obtaining a position which shall be acknowledged by others to be respectable or honourable. 

We do not understand by this advancement, in general, the mere making of money, but the being known to have made it; not the accomplishment of any great aim, but the being seen to have accomplished it. In a word, we mean the gratification of our thirst for applause.

That thirst, if the last infirmity of noble minds, is also the first infirmity of weak ones; and, on the whole, the strongest impulsive influence of average humanity: the greatest efforts of the race have always been traceable to the love of praise, as its greatest catastrophes to the love of pleasure.

John RuskinSesame and Lillies

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