The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIV. The Victorian Age, Part Two.

XIV. Education

§ 9. The Edgeworths

The eighteenth century exhibits no more sincere exponents of Locke’s educational ideas than the Edgeworths of Edgeworthstown, who, for three generations, laboured persistently to apply those ideas to practice within the limits of a large family. The literary monuments of their activity are the work of Richard Lovell Edgeworth and his daughter, Maria; but the initial movements were due to Richard’s mother, Jane (Lovell).

  • She had read everything that had been written on the subject of education and preferred with sound judgment the opinions of Locke; to these, with modifications suggested by her own good sense, she steadily adhered.
  • Edgeworth’s own education, obtained partly in Ireland, partly in England, was very desultory; but its most effective elements owed very much more to his temperament, genius and casual opportunities than to school or university. He married the first of his four wives before he was one-and-twenty; his first child was born two years after the publication (1762) of Rousseau’s Émile. Between the ages of three and eight, this son was brought up on Rousseau’s “system” with results which did not entirely satisfy the father, whose subsequent experience taught him to recognise the fundamental weaknesses of Rousseau as a guide to conduct and learning. It was at this time that Edgeworth’s college friend, Thomas Day (in later years author of Sandford and Merton) was superintending, at the age of twenty-one, the education of two orphan girls with the purpose of marrying one of them, leaving the result to decide which; he married neither. The express function of domestic educator which Edgeworth assumed from the beginning of his married life he continued so long as he lived; his last marriage was contracted at the age of fifty-four, and the number of his children was eighteen. His daughter, Maria, described him as a teacher at once patient, candid and stimulating, with a sympathetic understanding of his children and skill in adapting instruction to their individual needs: qualities hardly to be expected from his keen, vivacious temperament. But his interest in education was by no means confined to the family circle. He read widely on the subject, and, in his later years, paid special attention to the educational institutions of France; at Paris, in 1803, he met “a German, Pestalozzi … much celebrated on the Continent,” who “made anatomy a principal object in his system of education”—one more illustration of Pestalozzi’s difficulty in making his ideas understood. Edgeworth proposed (1809) a scheme of “secondary” schools (the word is his) to be established throughout the country under the management of a private association; the proposal, no doubt, was suggested by a similar but much more extensive plan for popular instruction described in Joseph Lancaster’s Improvements in Education (1803). One of the latest measures of the Irish parliament before the Union was a bill for the improvement of Irish education introduced by Edgeworth, who became an active member of the royal commission which subsequently enquired into the state of Irish education (1806–12).

    Edgeworth’s second wife, Honora Sneyd (who was married in 1773 and died in 1780) would seem to have determined the main lines upon which the Edgeworth theory of education was shaped. She and her husband wrote for their children a small book, Harry and Lucy (1778), which, undertaken as a supplement to Mrs. Barbauld’s writings, itself became the originator of Sandford and Merton, the work of their friend, Day, begun with the intention of assisting their scheme of domestic instruction. Honora Edgeworth “was of opinion that the art of education should be considered as an experimental science” and, to give effect to that opinion, in 1776 began to keep a register of observations concerning children, upon which her husband was still engaged nearly twenty years after her death. That record guided Maria Edgeworth in writing the collection of tales for children which she called The Parent’s Assistant (1796); it formed the basis of fact beneath the theory applied in Practical Education (1798), the joint work of herself and her father and the most considerable book on its subject produced in England between John Locke and Herbert Spencer.

    Practical Education derives its essential principles from Locke and from the experiential psychology expounded by Hartley and Reid; Rousseau’s Émile is used with discrimination. It attaches the highest importance to the training of character and to the cultivation of the understanding; to effect the latter, the educator must persistently suggest to the pupil motives for acquiring knowledge. The leading theme is, of course, domestic education; in relation to the education given at a public school (which is regarded as almost exclusively a place of instruction in the two classical languages) the indispensable business of the home is to lay a firm foundation of habit and moral principles, without which the subsequent schooling is in danger of proving mischievous. True to its origin, the book makes utility the arbiter in the choice of studies and strongly urges the claims of hand-work and of positive knowledge, particularly that of natural phenomena, to inclusion in the curriculum. The reiterated recommendation of play and of spontaneous activity in general as agents of instruction is an anticipation of Froebel, without a trace of the German’s mysticism. Edgeworth’s own tastes and inventive skill were naturally imitated by some of his children, and his sympathetic knowledge of the experimental science taught by Franklin and Priestley inevitably brought similar studies into the domestic school-room. Notwithstanding these marks of the innovator, Edgeworth is no revolutionary in reference to the long-established rhetorical instruction of the schools. He regards as very necessary the writing and, above all, the public speaking of good English, the practice of which he would make habitual from childhood. In Professional Education (1809), he lays it down that the making of verses is waste of time and the writing of Latin prose is not necessary for any but the professed Latinist; yet, he considers “a knowledge and a taste for classical literature” “indispensably necessary to every Briton who aspires to distinction in public life, for in this country a statesman must be an orator.” As evidence of the care bestowed by Edgeworth on teaching the rudiments of English to children, it may be noted that he devised (and published in A Rational Primer) a set of diacritical marks which virtually make our alphabet phonetic; his ideas concerning the teaching of grammar, vernacular or foreign, and his sense of the importance of modern languages bring him abreast of the best modern practice. Yet, he and his daughter shared a common prejudice of their time against fairy-tales for children. Maria’s stories in The Parent’s Assistant were written as substitutes for those classics of the nursery, which father and daughter thought “are not now much read”—a dismal judgment which was confirmed by Wordsworth in The Prelude.

    Professional Education is the work of Edgeworth alone. Its title notwithstanding, it has very little to say respecting purely technical instruction, whether clerical, military, medical or legal. The main theme is the nature of the general, preparatory instruction which a boy should receive with a view to his life’s work: a purpose which, in the author’s opinion, universities and public schools ignored. The plan of the book appropriately includes a consideration of the education proper to the professions of country gentleman, statesman, prince. If the book were written to-day, its title would probably be “Vocational Education.” Sydney Smith made it the occasion of an Edinburgh review (1809), in which he condemned the excessive amount of time devoted in English education to Latin and Greek and more particularly to Latin verse-making, with a consequent improverishment of knowledge amongst Englishmen in general.