Pedagogy and the Science of the Mind, 1798-1899

In the twenty-first century it is fairly common to discuss teaching as the application of psychological principles (as in Susan Ambrose et al.’s How Learning Works [2010]) or even the alteration of neural pathways (as James Zull does in The Art of Changing the Brain [2002]). This research is seen as something rather new: as late as 1899, says Ambrose, “there was a lack of research evidence” on both the “science of learning” and the “science of instruction” (How Learning Works xiii). John Locke’s Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693) was the dominant model of pedagogical thought for most of the eighteenth century, displaced in the closing decades by Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Emile (1762). And Alan Richardson has argued that “the most frequently cited authority in nineteenth-century writings on education  . . . is not Locke’s Some Thoughts or Rousseau’s Emile, but Wordsworth’s ‘Intimations’ ode” (Literature, Education, and Romanticism xv). The historical picture here is that pedagogical theory was begun as a philosophical endeavor, influenced in the nineteenth century by literary works, and only in the twentieth century drawing on scientific research.

But the research evidence that would come to underlie the sciences of teaching and learning did not suddenly emerge at the end of the nineteenth century. Richard Lovell Edgeworth writes in the preface to Practical Education (1798) that “To make any progress in the art of education, it must be patiently reduced to an experimental science” (v), and throughout this work Maria Edgeworth draws on scientists like Joseph Priestley, Thomas Beddoes, and Erasmus Darwin. When Practical Education appeared in 1798 the sciences of psychology and neurology existed only in nascent form but were already being applied to the field of education.

The field of psychology developed gradually throughout the nineteenth century, and principles of psychology were applied to the field of education almost as quickly as they were discovered. At mid-century Herbert Spencer argued that “Some acquaintance with the first principles of physiology and the elementary truths of psychology is indispensable for the right bringing up of children” (“What Knowledge Is of Most Worth?” 64), and late-Victorian teachers could acquire this knowledge from works like James Sully’s Teacher’s Handbook of Psychology (1886) and Joseph Baldwin’s Psychology Applied to the Art of Teaching (1892). By the end of the century research in psychology was regularly being applied in the classroom.

As Sally Shuttleworth argues, throughout the nineteenth-century relationships among different disciplines were by no means simple: sometimes literary texts drew on scientific theories, but often literary works played “a formative role in the development of the frameworks” of scientific studies (The Mind of the Child 3). In the coming months I will be exploring the extent to which nineteenth-century educational writers drew on both literary and scientific discourses. Focusing on three decades – 1800-1810, 1860-70, and 1890-1900 – I will examine how pedagogical texts treat topics like motivation, attention, imitation, and memory, all of which were of interest both to scientists and to literary writers. In the first decade of the nineteenth century David Hartley’s associationist psychology provided a theory of the mind that underlay not only educational writings like the Edgeworths’ Practical Education but also poetic works like Wordsworth’s Prelude, which itself would become a key text for pedagogical writers later in the century: Wordsworth’s conception of memory formed the basis of both literary and scientific experiments.

Following the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859, education took a decidedly biological turn: Spencer claimed, “the first requisite to success in life, is to be a good animal” (“Intellectual Education” 103) and George Eliot explored questions of evolution and education in novels like The Mill on the Floss (1860) while Thomas Henry Huxley and Matthew Arnold debated the respective roles of science and culture in a liberal education. The decade that began with Darwin, Spencer, and Eliot ended with the 1870 Forster Education Act, perhaps the century’s most important educational legislation. In the 1890s the child study movement called on parents and teachers to supply data to researchers, and as Shuttleworth argues, “enacted a series of territorial struggles over space: domestic, discursive, and professional . . . The story of the initial growth of this science in England is not one primarily of laboratories and experiments, but rather of tentative debate in the periodical press” (288). I will trace the literary legacy of these debates in authors as varied as Oscar Wilde, Rudyard Kipling, and H. G. Wells.

The educational debates begun in the nineteenth century remain current today, as we continue to feel the legacy of nineteenth-century educational reforms. My project will provide a historical background to these contemporary debates, contributing not only to our understanding of how nineteenth-century writers thought about education but also to our sense of how these writers shaped the way we talk about education in the twenty-first century.

Works Cited

Ambrose, Susan A, with Michael W. Bridges, Michele Di Pietro, Marsha C. Lovett and Marie K. Norman. How Learning Works: 7 Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010.

Edgeworth, Maria and Richard Lovell Edgeworth. Practical Education. 2 vols. London: J. Johnson, 1798.

Richardson, Alan. Literature, Education, and Romanticism: Reading as Social Practice, 1780-1832. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Shuttleworth, Sally. The Mind of the Child: Child Development in Literature, Science, and Medicine, 1840-1900. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Spencer, Herbert. “What Knowledge is of Most Worth?” Education: Intellectual, Moral, and Physical. New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1898.

Zull, James E. The Art of Changing the Brain: Enriching Teaching by Exploring the Biology of Learning. Sterling, Virginia: Stylus, 2002.


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