Mary Wollstonecraft bursts with originality in her thoughts on education rejecting the dry, dull teaching of the day, even recommending peer-justice by students. However, she is best known for her ground-breaking work in politics and education, work on the education of women that has resonated through to 20th century feminism. She adopted the Enlightenment love of reason in educational theory but wrote a devastating attack on Rousseau’s crude recommendations on the education of women. Women deserved the same education as men and the right to be educated alongside men. But she had more to say on education than this one principle.
In her Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790), a political work, she is critical of the gender-based language and gender analogies used by Burke and launches a verbal broadside into the monarchy and aristocracy, in favour of republicanism. In this she invokes the Enlightenment ideas of reason and progress. But it is in Chapter 12 of her A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) that she presents a detailed account of her educational views.
Schools – innovations
She launches a direct attack on the schools and schooling of the day, especially boarding schools, as she thinks it is vital that children receive both home life and some structured respite from home for learning. However, she castigates educators for their ‘fear of innovation’ and decries the lines of benches and ‘parrot-like prattle’. State funded day schools should be available to all. Most importantly, she is firmly against single-sex schools. It is important that both girls and boys learn from and about each other for a harmonious society. Long vacations are undesirable, as they both disrupt learning, leading to forgetting, and place too much pressure on the home environment.
Much teaching is pedantic and tyrannical with its recitation and focus on Latin and Greek. And in a prescient passage notes that, ‘It is not for the benefit of society that a few brilliant men should be brought forward at the expense of the multitude’. With echoes of Rousseau she recommends a broad curriculum but with a focus on open air and exercise. And harking back to Socrates, she recommends that some subjects, notably religion, history, the history of man and politics, be taught through conversation.
On discipline she recommends that peer-punishment be implemented making it free from teachers, so that the students learn justice from practice. How innovative is that!
Women and education
Rousseau’s position on the education of women, which saw them as not only lacking the abilities of men but be taught for the pleasure of men. Women, Wollstonecraft stated, must seek intellectual autonomy and should not depend on men for that goal. They are not, as some at that time claimed, slaves to their emotional passions and have the ability to develop rational and intellectual passions and abilities. In short, women have the right to the same education as men and to be taught alongside men.
In detail, she provides an analysis of the enslavement to the body beautiful 250 years before the feminism of the late 20th century. Interestingly, she was sensitive to the different roles women have from men, as wives and mothers, but saw that this only has a bearing in the sense that education and reason improves the skills needed in these roles. This is a debate that is still alive in feminist thinking. But before we see her as a wholly modern, educational theorist we must also remember that she thought that poor children should be taught in separate schools.
It is delightful to read of Enlightenment innovations on the curriculum, the school calendar and discipline that would put our modern-day educational establishment to shame. But her primary contribution is that she challenged society to offer equal political and educational rights to women, claiming that the only way to prove her case was to put it to the test. We did, and it passed the test magnificently. Although it was well into the 20th century before it happened and even quite recently some Universities did not admit women. A recent vindication of her work is the fact that women, in many countries, now outperform men in education and that the education of women is seen as a key to economic prosperity in the developing world.
Wollstonecraft, Mary, (1786) Thoughts on the education of Daughters
Wollstonecraft, Mary, (1790) A Vindication of the Rights of Men
Wollstonecraft, Mary, (1792) A Vindication of the Rights of Woman