Wollstonecraft, Religion, and Public Education

In her chapter on “National Education” in A Vindication of the Rights of Women, Mary Wollstonecraft argues that, “Society can only be happy and free in proportion as it is virtuous’ but in the present distinctions, established in society, corrode all private, and blast all public virtue.”  Thus, for Wollstonecraft, national education is important not only for the instruction of the nation’s men and women, but also because it is the natural vehicle for the inculcation of public and private virtue.  The deterioration of this sense of virtue through poor education is what she believes has caused the fundamental inequality between the sexes and woman’s “slavery” to cultural gender constructs.  Men educated in elite public schools learn only how to, in her terms, become effeminate rakes, whereas women only learn how to attract and please rakes, instead of how to think and manage a household.

Instead, Wollstonecraft argues for a co-educational model based on the country school system.  In her plan, boys and girls, rich and poor, learn together for the good of the community at large:

But nothing of this kind could occur in an elementary day-school, where boys and girls, the rich and poor, should meet together…. 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.  But these relaxations might all be rendered a part of elementary education, for many things improve and amuse the senses, when introduced as a kind of show, to the principles of which dryly laid down, children would turn a deaf ear.  For instance, 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.

After receiving this elementary education, Wollstonecraft argues, children would then be prepared for further instruction in either the trades or in a college preparatory curricula which includes, “the dead and living languages, the elements of science, and… the study of history and politics, on a more extensive scale,” all the while keeping boys and girls together instead of segregating the girls out to learn things like sewing.

Thus Wollstonecraft views education primarily as a tool towards re-ordering social relations, instead of a place to learn facts.  The problem with public education as it stood in England at that time was that it loaded the memory “with unintelligible words, to make a show of, without the understanding’s acquiring any distinct ideas.”  Instead, Wollstonecraft argues, “education deserves emphatically to be termed cultivation of mind, which teaches young people how to begin to think.”

In thus emphasizing the cultivation of virtue and critical thinking, and setting these against the established educational structure (which was run by the Church and State in conjunction), Wollstonecraft echoes the concerns of Religious Dissenters and also Evangelicals like John Wesley.  Wesley too was concerned that the established educational system did very little to prepare students for a life of virtue or religion and that, furthermore, it tended to exclude the poor.  For him it was important to, as his mother Susanna Wesley put it, “conquer the child’s will” as a means to inculcating religious and civic virtues.  As such, he established a school at Kingswood for the children of colliers and, later, of his lay preachers.  Like Wollstonecraft, Wesley believed that children should be taught classical and modern languages, reading, writing, arithmetic, rhetoric, history, logic, and science.  He also believed that physical exercise was an important part of education and incorporated time for what he termed “walk or work” into the daily routine at the school.  The extent to which Wesley’s strict plan for the school was followed in his absence is questionable; however he believed that, as Heitzenrater states, “any student who completed the Kingswood curriculum would be a better scholar than ninety percent of the graduates of Oxford and Cambridge” (2202).

These are just some preliminary thoughts and questions on the subject (I’ll post much more next week in my review of Tolar Burton’s Spiritual Literacy in John Wesley’s Methodism) but I find it engaging to think about the connections between religion and education in the 18th Century.  There was, of course, a long history of Dissenters operating their own educational institutions due to their exclusion from the public schools.  This is at least part of the tradition I think Wollstonecraft is drawing from here.  But I think it also bears considering to what extent education and literacy were tools of a dominant social and religious class at the end of the 18th century and, furthermore, to what extent people like Wollstonecraft and Wesley are using alternative models to question this established order.  On the other hand, both Wollstonecraft and Wesley’s models tend heavily towards the establishment of a middle class order based on merit in education.  Even though both were concerned for the education of the poor, they also felt that the best course was to educate them for a virtuous life in the trades, instead of for the university.  At any rate, I think it is important to consider what role class and religion play in these debates over education.


Heitzenrater, Richard P. Wesley and the People Called Methodists. Nashville: Abingdon, 1995. Kindle Edition.

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