- A Micro-History of Victorian Liberal Parenting: John Morley’s “Discreet Indifference” by Kevin A. Morrison
by Kevin A. Morrison; pp. 118.
Palgrave Macmillan, 2018. $59.32 cloth.
The theme of Kevin A. Morrison’s A Micro-History of Victorian Liberal Parenting: John Morley’s “Discreet Indifference” is parenting in the liberal atmosphere of British intellectuals in Victorian England. Because writers have often depicted liberalism as a way of life, lived dimensions of liberalism and thinking have become highly important in recent literature on the history of ideas. Morrison has chosen a topic that has rarely been discussed or even recognized—namely child-rearing, the implementation of values, and “how living one’s life as a liberal extended to parenting” (v).
Instead of giving a general narrative, Morrison provides a so-called micro-history. This approach allows readers to gain new insights into the flesh and blood of a given era by investigating certain philosophical principles through their practical realization. Morrison’s exemplar is the life and work of John Morley. Neglected and nearly forgotten today, Morley was an eminent public intellectual of the era, “seen [by many] as a successor to John Stuart Mill” (5). He held various political positions, worked as the editor of important Victorian periodicals and monograph series, and was known and recognized for his merits as an essayist, liberal political theorist, and biographer of various major figures of the Enlightenment.
Throughout his book, Morrison offers many details about Morley’s private feelings, fears, and struggles regarding how to practise his own theory of child-rearing. The central example of Morrison’s efforts to practise his own theory forms chapter 3, in which we learn how Morley envisioned the principle of “discreet indifference,” which makes its way into the subtitle of Morrison’s book. At issue for Morley was the tendency of parents to force their own values and commitments on their children, leaving them no real choice in life. How, in this context, should parents (especially fathers) provide freedom to their children? For Morley, the answer came in what he called “the most reasonable scheme” for “the gradual development of [End Page 294] infantine liberty” (39). Practically, this meant finding a compromise between implementing liberty and developing the skill to deliberate, rationally and gradually, one’s own commitments, a compromise that might address what Morley saw as the major dilemma of all types of liberal parenting. Liberal parents have certain values that they regard as important and significant enough to be accepted and followed by others. By pressing these values upon their children, however, such parents might violate the freedom and self-governance of their children. Thus they would act directly against those ideals that were set, for example, by Mill and his followers. Not pressing liberal values on children, on the other hand, might come with the danger of accepting such values and considerations by which the children would act directly against the freedom of others.
Morley’s “discreet indifference” is a proposal to bite the bullet: to start with a certain amount of inclination and stand back gradually, thus leaving space for children to discover their own values. The potential problems with this principle were evident in Morley’s own family life. For instance, while Morley encouraged atheism, his stepdaughter, Florence, became a Catholic. While she was deeply interested in her new religion, the liberal Morley initially described this situation as a “horror” (96). With time, however, he realized that Florence merely practised those values that he had delivered to her earlier: namely, the search for a special lifestyle and the construction of values based on the freedom of choice. As Morrison explains, this dilemma mirrored the one Morley faced in his youth, when he decided to forgo a career in the Church, despite promptings by his religious father. For Morley, this decision meant the loss of his relationship with his father in addition to a long intellectual struggle regarding the possibilities of parental conduct. Seemingly, after decades of discussions with Mill and the publication of sophisticated accounts of liberal thinking in various fields...