Wollstonecraft, Mary. “On National Education.” In Austin, Michael, Reading the World: Ideas That Matter, 2nd Edition. New York: W. W. Norton, 2010. Pp 35-44. Print.
The 18th century was a pivotal era for both Europe and the world, forging new ideas about nearly every facet of Western society in the furnace of civil unrest. France’s Revolution of 1789 was the century’s keystone transformative event, sending ripples of contextual radicalism throughout the continent as the dawn of a new century neared. Europe had long been accustomed to the ancien regime of inherent aristocratic authority wherein the upper classes occupied the top of the social pyramid and the lower classes – constituting the majority of the population – lived under aristocratic rule, performing all of a nation’s laborious duties while reaping none of the benefits of their labors.
Among most classes, women remained in a stagnant social-political position of effectually second-class citizenship under the ancien regime. As with all other aspects of such a society, the role and rights of women came into question by writers influenced by the Revolution’s societal upheaval. This sets the stage for Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) and her work A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, of which On National Education is the 12th chapter. Wollstonecraft was deeply frustrated by the manner in which men and women were educated in her native England. There existed a system of segregation of sexes in education, with many women receiving no education whatsoever. On National Education draws on the liberal notions expounded by the Revolution to propose a better method of education. Her work would prove incredibly significant as it lays out a rough diagram for our current coeducational public schools.
Taking the charge that no actual difference existed between the social classes, Wollstonecraft claims that there are no differences in potential, intellect, or ability between the sexes. It is for this reason that Wollstonecraft argues against private schools, which she suggests teach children they’re somehow different by nature. Instead her fundamental argument is that the government should create a free public education system in which men and women are educated together and given the same educational opportunities. She feels that this is a necessary move for improving the minds of women, which will thus allow them to be better mothers and wives – indeed she asserts that marriage shall never be sacred until women are, “…prepared to be [men’s] companions rather than their mistresses.” As such, she also advocates for focusing on the “how” of knowledge rather than the “what”, bemoaning the fact that many schools simply teach memorization in place of rational thought/analysis. Here she also diverges into a brief jab at Catholicism, saying that it is founded on the blind following of one man whereas Protestantism allows all to read the Bible for themselves. Taking all of these egalitarian ideas still further, Wollstonecraft concludes that men and women must not only be given equal education but also act according to the same moral values.
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