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Educational Philosophy in the French Enlightenment


Author: Natasha Gill

Publisher: Ashgate Publishing Company


Publish Date: December 15, 2010

ISBN-10: 754662896

Pages: 314

File Type: PDF

Language: English

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Book Preface

By the mid-eighteenth century, many French Enlightenment thinkers had come to see education as an intellectual laboratory in which new ideas about the nature of the mind, human perfectibility, and social harmony could be put to the test. They were guided in their pedagogical explorations by the philosophical innovations of their time, in particular the Lockean concept of the mind as a blank slate, open to external influence and free of innate ideas. If human beings were malleable, as Locke implied, if the quality of their minds and morals depended on the sensory impressions they received in infancy and childhood, then any significant transformation, whether on the individual or social scale, would have to begin in the nursery or classroom.

In Western thought, education has always been considered a powerful instrument of change. Plato, Quintilian, Erasmus, Montaigne, and Bacon all contributed to the great debate about the influence of early instruction on human nature. In the early modern period in particular, as childhood became the object of increasing interest and philosophers debated the question of social virtue, educational texts gained in popularity. However, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, most educational works were still either practical manuals addressed to parents and concerned primarily with the communication of received wisdom and the teaching of manners, or they were specialized texts that put forth new methods of forming the mind. The late seventeenth and early eighteenth century witnessed the birth of a more ambitious project: the educational treatise, in which reformers took on the task of translating theory into practice, applying new philosophical ideas directly to techniques of child-rearing. Not only did they reevaluate their approach to learning, disciplinary methods, and course materials, as their predecessors had. They also attempted to tease out the links between practical matters—such as breastfeeding, physical exercise, habit formation, competition, discipline, and the contents of curriculum—and philosophical debates about freedom, equality, individual potential, the structure of moral consciousness, the forms of political life, and the possibility of harmonious social relations.

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