Friday, October 24, 2008

An Early Modern Prophet?

“From the respect paid to property flow, as from a poisoned fountain, most of the evils and vices which render this world such a dreary scene to the contemplative mind.”

Thus wrote Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) in 1792—expressing a radically critical outlook that could hardly seem more appropriate to study this month. She merits inclusion in school social studies curricula, for which purpose I strongly recommend Miriam Brody’s beautifully illustrated, well researched, and engaging Mary Wollstonecraft: Mother of Women’s Rights, published by Oxford with a washable cover!

Most famous for having written A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, thanks especially to Jane Roland Martin’s acknowledgment of that work’s significance for philosophy of education in Reclaiming a Conversation (1985), Wollstonecraft authored also various educational novels, treatises, manuals, and stories—collected by Janet Todd and Marilyn Butler in seven volumes. The Works of Mary Wollstonecraft (1989). Scarcely schooled herself, Wollstonecraft advanced one of the most substantial early modern arguments in English for universal, government-funded, sex-desegregated day-schooling, and initiated a substantial tradition of thought on coeducation by authors such as Louisa May Alcott, Anna Julia Cooper, John Stuart Mill, Virginia Woolf, Adrienne Rich, Dale Spender, Martin, and bell hooks. Indeed, John Dewey’s 1911 argument for coeducation reiterates the main points of Wollstonecraft’s plea to educate children through the “jostlings of equality.”

Emma Goldman once observed that even if Wollstonecraft had never written a line, “her life would have furnished food for thought.” Janet Todd’s massive, thorough, and candid Mary Wollstonecraft: A Revolutionary Life and Lyndall Gordon’s more recent Vindication: A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft both make clear that Goldman was right, as do her letters collected by Todd. A survivor of child abuse in an unstable alcoholic home with six siblings, she resolved early to live as an independent woman, educated herself with help from generous neighbors, and tried the few means other than prostitution by which women might work for their living in Georgian England. Her husband, philosopher William Godwin, has written a rich Memoir of their remarkably egalitarian friendship, from which men and women may learn much even today. Their daughter Mary Shelley, orphaned just a few days after her birth, educated herself by reading her mother’s works, whose influence upon her own mythic educational novel Frankenstein is unmistakably strong.

The fifteenth volume of the 25-volume Continuum Library of Educational Thought, edited by Richard P. Bailey (2008)—Mary Wollstonecraft: Philosophical Mother of Coeducation—introduces her life and ideas to educators. In it, I have chronicled her revolutionary self-education as a woman-loving woman, a teacher of children, and an early modern writer; I have formulated also her critical concept of monarchist miseducation and her normative concept of republican coeducation, traced her work’s reception and influence on subsequent thought about coeducation, and examined the contemporary relevance of her as yet incomplete philosophical project. Researching and writing this book with the purpose of inviting a new generation of educational thought on Wollstonecraft, I have thought especially about what we might learn from her about how to approach a comparable coeducational critique of global-corporatist miseducation—a critique that recent events make all too obviously necessary. For she seems almost prophetic in her 1796 Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, regarded by literati as her best work:

“A man ceases to love humanity, and then individuals, as he advances in the chase after wealth; as one clashes with his interest, the other with his pleasures: to business, as it is termed, everything must give way; nay, is sacrificed; and all the endearing charities of citizen, husband, father, brother, become empty names . . . These men, like the owners of negro ships, never smell on their money the blood by which it has been gained, but sleep quietly in their beds, terming such occupations lawful callings; yet the lightning marks not their roofs, to thunder conviction on them, ‘and to justify the ways of God to man.’”

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