Mary Wollstonecraft, mother of Mary Shelley author of Frankenstein, bursts with originality in her thoughts on education rejecting the dry, dull teaching of the day, even recommending peer-justice by students. So interested was she in education that she even tried to run a school.
However, she is best known for her ground-breaking work on the education of women that has resonated through to 20th century feminism. She adopted the Enlightenment love of reason in educational theory, hugely influenced by Locke, 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 far more to say on education than this one principle.
With Thoughts on the Education of Daughters: with Reflections on Female Conduct in the more important Duties of Life (1787) she lays out rules for the conduct of a moral and relevant education for women. It reads like a self-help book with no end of detailed recommendations from fairy tales to breast-feeding. But it has an edge, as she attacks the education of women into the role of card playing ornaments, absorbed in themselves and fashion. Rather harsh on the influence of servants, she was all for a strong parental influence on education. Like Plato she was antagonistic towards too much fiction, especially fairy tales, for your children. She wants strong women, mothers and daughters of independent mind but not as we see it today. Her vision was of women as mothers and teachers, playing roles in societal cohesion and progress. But this is a mere foretaste for her more detailed work on education.
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. She also launched an attack on 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.
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 a home life with some structured respite 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 she 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, judgement by fellow students, be implemented, freeing 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 saw them as not only lacking the abilities of men, but that they 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 20thcentury. 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 completely modern, educational theorist we must also remember that she thought that poor children should be taught in separate schools.
It is good 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 both the developed and developing world.
A memoir published by her last husband portrayed her as a rather unconventional figure and this skewed her reputation for a century and more but her writings are now widely quoted by modern feminists and historians, as a major figure of the Enlightenment. Botting has written about her countering the influence of Burke and Rousseau, as well as her influence on nineteenth century American feminism. Ayann Hirsi Ali quotes her as a huge influence in her autobiography Infidel and many other modern feminists have quoted her as a having a considerable influence.