ISSN 1744-9618
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Susan Manly, Artifice, Autonomy and Authority in Practical Education (1798)

Edgeworthian education was famously mocked by Coleridge in a letter of September 1798, after Josiah Wedgwood (II) told him that the Edgeworth children had been "most miserable ...; and yet the father in his book is ever vapourizing about their happiness." This paper establishes the ways in which children's happiness is linked in Practical Education with mental autonomy and freedom to think and judge for themselves, and looks at how this concern for children's free-thinking links to the notorious and much-criticised irreligiousness of Practical Education in its own time. It focuses in particular on the Edgeworthian disapproval of the use of "artificial courses of experience", such as were recommended by Rousseau (in Emile) and de Genlis (in Adèle et Théodore) as a means of directing children's thoughts, discoveries and moral development, and examines several instances where an alternative, self-directed learning is encouraged and demonstrated. One example of this is the anecdote about one of the Edgeworth children's attempt to fathom the causes of the rainbow cast by a glass of water standing on a window-sill, cited by Sarah Trimmer as an example of the Edgeworths' inexplicable reluctance to incorporate religious instruction into their plan of education: the moment should have been annexed, Trimmer argued, to teach the child that the rainbow was "the appointed token of God's everlasting covenant with man" and to impress upon him God's authority as lawgiver and judge. In contrast to this, Edgeworth frequently emphasises the good judgments children make when adult guidance is kept to a minimum. The paper reads Edgeworth's quiet, subtle anti-authoritarianism as an implicit critique of conservative rhetoric about the value of "wise prejuidice" and "antient usage" (Burke) and explores how Edgeworth uses children's questioning of adult wisdom, their scientific curiosity, and even their errors, to suggest the limitations of established systems of knowledge and government.

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