The Role Of Education According To Wollstonecraft
Mary Wollstonecraft, in ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Women’, says that austere education of women is required to adopt a righteous and virtuous character. She asks the following questions about those who try to belittle women saying that it will keep them obtuse; ‘And how can a women be expected to work together unless she knows why she should be virtuous? Unless freedom reinforces her reason until she understands her duty, and see how it works with her? If children are to be trained to understand the true principle of patriotism, their mother must be a patriot; and the love of mankind, from which an orderly train of virtues emanates, can only be generated by observing the moral and civil importance of humanity; but the education and situation of the woman is keeping her from such investigations at present” (Reuter, 2016).
Later, she summarized what she considered as essential to education: “Consequently, the most perfect education, in my opinion, is such an exercise of the understanding as is best calculated to strengthen the body and form the heart. Or, in other words, to enable the individual to attain such habits of virtue as will render it independent. In fact, it is a farce to call any being virtuous whose virtues do not result from the exercise of its own reason” (Reuter, 2016).
Wollstonecraft favoured co-educational day schools with lessons being given by informal conversational methods, along with lots of physical exercise both free and organised. She had a picture of an ideal family where the babies were nourished by an intelligent mother and not sent away to nurses and then to boarding school and fathers were friends to their children rather than tyrants. Essentially family members were all regarded as rational beings and children should be able to judge their parents like anyone else. Family relationships therefore became educational ones (Manus, 1993).
Wollstonecraft argued that educating women would strengthen the marital relationship . A stable marriage, she believed, is a partnership between a husband and a wife. A woman, thus, needs to have the knowledge and reasoning skills that her husband does to maintain the partnership. A stable marriage also provides for the proper education of children (The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2020)
To Wollstonecraft, education was not about memorizing facts or being able to repeat words. Instead, true learning is gaining the ability to think for yourself and become an active, virtuous person. Teachers that promote memorization and the regurgitation of facts on command do so to make their students look good before society: “Thus the master countenances falsehood, or winds the poor machine up to some extraordinary exertion, that injures the wheels, and stops the progress of gradual improvement. The memory is loaded with unintelligible words, to make a shew of, without the understanding’s acquiring any distinct ideas” (Wollstonecraft, 2009).
She continued by arguing that a focus on memorization distracts from character development: “But only that education deserves emphatically to be termed cultivation of mind, which teaches young people how to begin to think. The imagination should not be allowed to debauch the understanding before it gained strength, or vanity will become the forerunner of vice: for every way of exhibiting the acquirements of a child is injurious to its moral character” (Ishay, 2007).
Often, we are told that students should just memorize terms, especially when it comes to mathematics. Two and two equals four because some adult said so, not because the child is taught how it comes about. What is the lesson learned, to believe whatever some authority figure says at the time? Or should we instead provide the student the ability to make independent thought free from the whims of adults?
Education by memorization and recitation is even more farcical when you realize that it is motivated by creating a false impression among parents: “How much time is lost in teaching them to recite what they do not understand? whilst seated on benches, all in their best array, the mammas listen with astonishment to the parrot-like prattle, uttered in solemn cadences, with all the pomp of ignorance and folly. Such exhibitions only serve to strike the spreading fibres of vanity through the whole mind; for they neither teach children to speak fluently, nor behave gracefully. So far from it, that these frivolous pursuits might comprehensively be termed the study of affectation”.
We know from our own experience how often children are forced to participate in recitals, spelling bees, and other events for the amusement of adults. Is that true education? Or is it just a public relations act to fool adults into thinking there is actual progress?
In Wollstonecraft’s time, it was done because the school teachers were directly paid by the parent. However, with competition between types of school and a limited amount of funding to be divvied up, teachers are eager to create events where they are put into the spotlight. How often do our newspapers focus on actual learning that takes place on a daily basis and how often do they spend on recitals, shows, or other non-academic events? We are taught to care more about the spectacle, and true education suffers as a result.
Wollstonecraft soon after turns her focus to the necessity of virtue, arguing that many of society’s vices are the result of treating women as sexual property: “The little respect which the male world pay to chastity is, I am persuaded, the grand source of many of the physical and moral evils that torment mankind, as well as of the vices and follies that degrade and destroy women; yet at school, boys infallibly lose that decent bashfulness, which might have ripened into modesty, at home.”
If the boys spent more time with their mothers, and virtue was the emphasis in school, then they would treat women with respect. Uncontrolled sexual urges are the root of social decay and ought to take priority when raising children: “The little attention paid to the cultivation of modesty, amongst men, produces great depravity in all the relationships of society; for, not only love—love that ought to purify the heart, and first call forth all the youthful powers, to prepare the man to discharge the benevolent duties of life, is sacrificed to premature lust; but, all the social affections are deadened by the selfish gratifications, which very early pollute the mind, and dry up the generous juices of the heart.”
Wollstonecraft continues, “In what an unnatural manner is innocence often violated; and what serious consequences ensue to render private vices a public pest. Besides, an habit of personal order, which has more effect on the moral character, than is, in general, supposed, can only be acquired at home, where that respectable reserve is kept up which checks the familiarity, that sinking into beastliness, undermines the affection it insults.”
To Wollstonecraft, if sexuality is not checked and respect is not taught, then the child is raised to be selfish in all things. They care only about temporary, immediate pleasures instead of long term goals or moral deeds. Wollstonecraft hoped that a co-mingled educational system where boys and girls were taught together in elementary school would instill respect. By denying females an education, men of Wollstonecraft’s time were naturally taught to see women as lesser beings, and, as a result, treated them as mere sexual property to be used and tossed aside at will.
As a society, we have embraced some of Wollstonecraft’s ideas, and boys and girls are equally taught. However, we still struggle with teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and other resulting social problems between the genders. We can understand how this came about when we examine what Wollstonecraft hoped would happen: “Were boys and girls permitted to pursue the same studies together, those graceful decencies might early be inculcated which produce modesty without those sexual distinctions that taint the mind. Lessons of politeness, and that formulary of decorum, which treads on the heels of falsehood, would be rendered useless by habitual propriety of behaviour.”
The education of manners that women were taught set them up as mere toys to be played with by men. We have since abandoned an education based solely on manners, but we still condition boys and girls to treat each other as objects; sex education is about how to have sex instead of not, and television and film glorify an uncontrolled pursuit of pleasure. We undermine even the natural impulses to treat each other with respect and instead teach the next generation that sexual gratification is all that matters.
Wollstonecraft moved on from discussing the why to the how, and she puts forth her view of the ideal classroom that instills republican virtues: “But nothing of this kind could occur in an elementary day school, where boys and girls, the rich and poor, should meet together. And to prevent any of the distinctions of vanity, they should be dressed alike, and all obliged to submit to the same discipline, or leave the school. The school-room ought to be surrounded by a large piece of ground, in which the children might be usefully exercised, for at this age they should not be confined to any sedentary employment for more than an hour at a time.”
To focus on education, distractions need to be removed, including those that come from children showing off their expensive outfits. Likewise, children need to be able to run free so they can be children. They cannot be treated like machines that just memorize and parrot material all day. For their curriculum, Wollstonecraft wrote: “Botany, mechanics, and astronomy. Reading, writing, arithmetic, natural history, and some simple experiments in natural philosophy, might fill up the day; but these pursuits should never encroach on gymnastic plays in the open air. The elements of religion, history, the history of man, and politics, might also be taught, by conversations, in the Socratic form.”
The basics of knowledge and virtue must be taught in elementary school. For older children, Wollstonecraft focused on the practical when it comes to education, and she believed that trades were important for those who were not academically minded: “After the age of nine, girls and boys, intended for domestic employments, or mechanical trades, ought to be removed to other schools, and receive instruction, in some measure appropriated to the destination of each individual, the two sexes being still together in the morning; but in the afternoon, the girls should attend a school, where plain-work, mantua-making, millinery, &c. would be their employment.”
In her system, all children would have a basic understanding of the important academic topics to allow them independent thought and to understand enough about the world to dutifully serve as good citizens. The system she imagines is similar to vocational technology schools becoming the norm, and those who do excel at academics would be provided the opportunity to pursue those studies to a greater depth. She would not accept the class warfare mentality being promoted now which claims that every student, regardless of ability, must go to college. Instead, students are provided the ability to perform actual trades instead of wasting four years and hundreds of thousands of dollars in debauchery.
To Wollstonecraft, the ability to use reason is the only path to virtue and duty: “An active mind embraces the whole circle of its duties, and finds time enough for all. It is not, I assert, a bold attempt to emulate masculine virtues; it is not the enchantment of literary pursuits, or the steady investigation of scientific subjects, that lead women astray from duty. No, it is indolence and vanity—the love of pleasure and the love of sway, that will rain paramount in an empty mind.”
Today’s society conditions all people, male and female alike, to abandon reason and instead pursue vice. Schools are about memorization, not teaching reason and virtue. The media cares more about exhibitionist celebrities than about decent people. We are conditioning our youth to think indolence and vanity are greater than hard work and dedication. We should have followed Wollstonecraft in teaching all children how to use reason, but we went the opposite direction. Similar to today’s feminist movements, Wollstonecraft set about arguing against the assumption that women were not rational creatures and were emotional reactors to their passions (http://www.mujerpalabra.net/blog/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/infed.org-Mary-Wollstonecraft-on-education.pdf). Wollstonecraft argued that it was up to those who thought like this to prove it. She described the process by which parents brought their daughters up to be docile and domesticated. She maintained that if girls were encouraged from an early age to develop their minds, it would be seen that they were rational creatures and there was no reason whatsoever for them not to be given the same opportunities as boys with regard to education and training. Women could enter the professions and have careers just the same as men.
Also, in proposing the same type of education for girls as that proposed for boys, Mary Wollstonecraft also went a step further and proposed that they be educated together which was even more radical than anything proposed before. The idea of co-educational schooling was simply regarded as nonsense by many educational thinkers of the time.