Plus ça change? Education in the Enlightenment and Now

Stephen Bygrave, Uses of Education: Reading in Enlightenment in England (Bucknell, 2009) and Mary Hilton and Jill Shefrin, eds, Educating the Child in Enlightenment Britain: Beliefs, Cultures, Practices (Ashgate, 2009).

“What is education for?” If you think about it for a moment you may find, as I did, that it is actually difficult to fashion a short question which approaches closer to the heart of higher education in the twenty-first century. This short question was also one that was front and centre for the British Enlightenment. Those who wish to pursue the eighteenth-century’s answer will find fascinating parts of it described in Stephen Bygrave’s Uses of Education: Reading in Enlightenment in England and in the 10 essays making up Mary Hilton and Jill Shefrin’s Educating the Child in Enlightenment Britain: Beliefs, Cultures, Practices. Together, these volumes serve up much food for thought, not only for eighteenth-century education specialists or Enlightenment scholars but also for those  who today consider themselves to be educators.

Many of the questions about education that academics and the general public continue to grapple with now were first asked in modern ways by Enlightenment writers. Educators and policymakers making weighty decisions in our own times of economic uncertainty and fiscal doom-and-gloom may take some solace in knowing there is a long history to many of the hard issues they debate. As Bygrave, a literary scholar, puts it in his introductory chapter, “Education was emerging as a practice in a recognizably modern form in these years [the eighteenth century] and [was] anticipating controversies that form a current agenda for education, such as the possibility of measuring and then raising common standards by some form of national curriculum, the argument between utilitarian and humane models, the desirability of child-centered education and, most crucially, what role the state ought to play in the education of its members.” So sketching the contours of that history  highlights change over time and continuity, perhaps shedding light on our own potential answers to “What is education for?”, by framing the context of the historical possibilities and limits. Bygrave writes that he uses “the printed controversy over education historically or textually to document answers to the philosophical question of what education was for.” 

The Enlightenment’s answers to the question of “What is education for?” can partly be found in the pages of key texts such as John Locke’s Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693) and several that followed in the eighteenth century, including Bernard Mandeville’s The Fable of the Bees; or, Private Vices, Public Benefits (1714-28), Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Émile ou de l’éducation (1762), Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women (1789), Catherine Macaulay’s Letters on Education (1790), and Maria and Richard Edgeworth’s Practical Education (1798), to name a few of the most well known. But what is strikingly innovative about the approach attempted in the books under review is the sustained effort to see these sources and their writers—and many others—within a broader cultural landscape, where we can better appreciate the complexities and nuances of the Enlightenment debate on education. M.O. Grenby concludes on that note in his brilliant essay, “Delightful Instruction? Assessing Children’s Use of Educational Books in the Long Eighteenth Century,” when he writes, in a passage that deserves to be quoted at length, that the: 

…history of education is not only a story of new pedagogic programmes imposed upon children and now available to us through the texts which were published to propagate or enact them. But nor is it only the story of how children were in reality educated. It is the relationship between the theory and the practice, the interaction between them, that is perhaps most significant. They exist, after all, in dialogue with one another, practice reflecting the perception of theory just as the theory reflected the perceived failures of practice. This conversation between producers and consumers, between theorists, practitioners and end-users, can only be explored by juxtaposing as many different sources of evidence as possible. These parallel evidence streams might not allow any over-arching conclusions, but it is surely in the differences between prescriptions, perceptions and realities, rather than the overlaps, that we come closest to grasping the place of educational books in eighteenth-century culture.

Hilton and Shefrin argue in the introduction to their volume, that the rise of print culture was such  “that hundreds of writers and artists had something educational to contribute to the cultural realm both in Britain and in her colonies: in treatises, tales for children, novels, poems, sermons, works of celebration and explanation of the natural world, published and unpublished letters and in such artefacts as toys, pictures, and pedagogic games that stimulated instruction and conversation.” 

They encourage us to view the history of British Enlightenment education through the wide-angled lens offered by their contributors, who come at their work from a variety of disciplines. Not least of all this interdisciplinary effort is a pleasant reminder of the common ground that scholars from different disciplines can cultivate with fruitful results, if we strive to speak to each other in jargon-free language that all can understand.

As it turns out, this wide-ranging and panoramic approach is essential if we want to capture the dimensions of the Enlightenment’s debate on education. That is because sorting out their answers to the question of “What is education for?” required Enlightenment thinkers to devise a set of narrower questions. As Bygrave puts it, the “interplay of the theoretical with the practical, the mundane with the ideal is a topic of debates about education and not just a methodological problem for a book about those debates. A fundamental question such as ‘what is education for?’ implies smaller questions such as ‘who is it for?’ and ‘how is it to be paid for?’ into which it can be broken down.”. And on those questions, there was no Enlightenment “answer” because there was no Enlightenment education project. 

Some in eighteenth-century Britain voiced the virtues of public education; others argued for private. Some thought that the education of the poor should be paid for by the state; others did not. Teaching children to read aloud was encouraged by some and condemned by others. Some wanted young girls to have the same opportunities for education as their brothers, while others argued for an education highly differentiated by gender. “What is education for?” That, it seems, was contested ground in the eighteenth century, just as it is today.

Despite the variety and range of answers to the question of “What is education for?,” one might also construct, from the discussion in these volumes, the outlines of some basic, shared, Enlightenment understandings on education. Many of the enlightened, for instance, had come to share a basic sense of the power of education to shape the individual. David Hume, for example, wrote in his Essays that the “prodigious effects of education may convince us, that the mind is not altogether stubborn and inflexible, but will admit of many alterations from its original make and structure.” Education was also seen to have the power to shape modern life. Hegel, the German philosopher, wrote that, “In the child’s progress through school, we shall recognize the history of the cultural development of the world traced, as it were, in a silhouette.”. 

Enlightenment thinkers in Britain and elsewhere also came to see just how broad-reaching the definition of education could be, argues Bygrave: “Education is an activity—maybe any activity—that alters the child’s nature, whether by addition or subtraction, rather than one which occurs in set weekly hours in a classroom.” There was, as well, a widely-held acceptance of the need for change. Many lamented the poor state of the schools. In one eighteenth-century satire, the Devil is quoted giving advice to a daughter’s parents: “You may send her to a Boarding-School; most of them are Nurseries for me.” In another, a satirical adviser remarks that in setting up a private school, be sure that the students do not learn too fast, for “the longer they stay, the longer they pay.”  

Finally, the enlightened also shared a developing appreciation that education was an important key—perhaps the master key—to unlocking the moral and social possibilities of children who might realize their potential as informed, active, members of society. It is for that reason that the books under review link education so intimately with Enlightenment. Indeed, in both of these volumes, the Enlightenment is cast in much broader ways than it was envisioned by scholars a generation ago (in the seminal works of Peter Gay, for instance). For Bygrave, Enlightenment does not “refer to a group of French encyclopaedists (Voltaire among them) nor to a pan-European movement but to a process in which the result of the individual’s participation and increasing autonomy will be to render that individual part of a greater collective: a process, in other words, rather like the one Kant famously suggests as the answer to the question, ‘What is Enlightenment?’

The Enlightenment may be popularly known for its championing of individual liberty, but when it came to educating the child in eighteenth-century Britain, the goal was to provide a rational, secular, national, education that would benefit society as a whole. In this way of looking at things, the kind of education that had perceived usefulness—such as learning that centered on science, history, geography, modern languages—increasingly came to be seen as essential to a world that was becoming more and more commercially centered. Although it is not quoted in either of the books under review, the definition of “education” offered in the first edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica (Edinburgh, 1771) puts all of this quite succinctly, as it so often does: 

Education, the instructing of children, and youth in general, in such branches of knowledge and polite exercises, as are suitable to their genius and station … The principal aim of parents should be … to give their children such a degree of knowledge, as will qualify them to fill some certain post or station in life: in short, to fit them for an employment suited to their condition and capacity, such as will make them happy in themselves and useful to society. 

As this definition hints, not many in the eighteenth century appreciated the degree to which an enlightened education had the potential to fracture the foundations of class stability that so many eighteenth-century educators valued so highly.

Mark G. Spencer is an associate professor of history at Brock University, where he also holds a Chancellor’s Chair for Research Excellence. His current work centers on the American Enlightenment and the historical writings of David Hume.