Introduction: Pedagogies in and of Romanticism

Suzanne L. Barnett
Manhattan College

Katherine Bennett Gustafson
Indiana University Northwest

1.        In the last twenty years, scholars of Romanticism have approached education as a subject of historical inquiry, as well as a modern conundrum. Some have turned their attention to the rich debates in the Romantic era about education and children’s literature, while others have entered a discussion taking place today among academics, administrators, institutional trustees, and lawmakers about the nature of higher education, in particular the place of the humanities within university and college curricula. At first glance these two debates, separated by nearly two hundred years, seem far removed from one another. When cultural scholars discuss eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century education, we most often mean primary or secondary education, whereas our conversations about contemporary education typically center on undergraduate pedagogy at both the classroom and institutional level. Pedagogy roundtables at NASSR and ASECS, for example, focus on best practices for teaching historical texts to today’s college students. [1]  Yet, many of the same issues that concern us today pervaded late eighteenth-century education: the worry that students are distracted by technology, the complaint that students have become uncivil, or the fear that economic rather than intellectual achievement drives education. In “Children, Adolescents, and Fashionable Urban Society in Eighteenth-Century England,” Peter Borsay argues that the mid-eighteenth century witnessed a sea change in middle-class education as pedagogues increasingly taught practical skills to help children advance economically in the real world (56). Borsay’s research suggests that the movement toward pragmatic skills, though certainly influenced by philosophers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, was also a reaction to changing ideas about the purpose of education and the socio-economic environment young people would encounter as adults. Such concerns can certainly be felt on college campuses today: as Jim Engell and Arthur Dangerfield have rightfully argued in Saving Higher Education in the Age of Money (2005), decisions at the college level are often made according to financial concerns, with students more likely to choose and administrators more likely to prioritize science, engineering, mathematics, and business programs over departments of art history, English, philosophy, and classics (1-2).

2.        Such similarities within education, though, exist not simply on the macro level of policy and research but also on the micro level of daily classroom teaching. Educators from Charlotte Smith to Hannah More sought, much as we do today, to make literature relevant to young students deluged with media and worried about money. It is the relationship in approach and concern between the educators of the Romantic era and today that has motivated this edition. This collection combines studies of pedagogical history in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century with discourses about innovations taking place in today’s classrooms. By including essays on both topics, we hope to expose the breadth and richness of educational debates in Romanticism, to shed light on new ways to teach Romantic texts, and, finally, to encourage readers to find links between—and potentially answers to—the pedagogical problems facing educators both today and two hundred years ago.

Innovations in Romantic-Era Education: New Audiences, Old Concerns

3.        In the Romantic era, questions about classroom innovations and the potential benefits and dangers of literacy were debated in the popular press, exclaimed from pulpits, and dissected by all manner of writers and theorists. From the 1780s to the 1830s, these disputants struggled to identify what the so-called lower classes—women, children, and poor people in particular—should learn and read. Technological improvements in printmaking meant that the written word was more accessible than ever before, and this accessibility sparked debates over the dangers of literacy and methods to combat the widespread dissemination of texts and ideas. Perhaps no figure exemplifies this anxiety over pedagogical change more than Sarah Trimmer. Trimmer’s Guardian of Education (1802) is as conservative as it is reactionary, never more so than when declaiming its own necessity:

Many people […] will be apt to consider us in the light of ALARMISTS, if we talk of a conspiracy against CHRISTIANITY and all SOCIAL ORDER, […] one of which is, endeavouring to infect the minds of the rising generation, through the medium of Books of Education and Children’s Books; but that such a conspiracy does actually exist has been proved by undeniable authority, (as we shall shew in the course of our work). (2)
Such authority proves to be Trimmer herself, as a mother, teacher, author, and high church Anglican. Trimmer promises in the Guardian to hunt down radicalism and immorality in children’s books. Unsurprisingly, she finds juvenile literature attacked on all sides: unlike in her own youth, contemporary books are “replete with hidden mischief” (64) and contemporary publishers so eager to turn a profit that they will sell anything, even books that “threaten the utter perversion of all principle” (65). Most alarming, Trimmer deduces a change not only in the content of children’s books but also in their educational principles:
Indeed numbers of modern publications for children are evidently calculated to bring about the same changes of system in the education of the children of this nation, as has been produced by similar means on the Continent, […] and if not checked in their progress, the consequences will be equally fatal to the principle and morality of this nation. (64)
Trimmer’s choice of diction is deliberate, designed to inflame a paranoid socio-political culture already concerned that the French revolution could migrate to British soil. For Trimmer, the dangerous effects of this pedagogical change are pervasive and imminent, and the cultural price of such literature is nothing less than the loss of national character and public peace.

4.        William Godwin’s Juvenile Library, the children’s publishing house he established in 1805 (and the subject of the editors’ ongoing Romantic Circles Electronic Edition), is another example of contemporary anxiety regarding what types of literature should be available to children. In 1813 an anonymous spy sent a report to the Home Office about Godwin’s subversive activities. His concern was not Godwin’s widely received and oft-republished Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and Its Influence on General Happiness and Principles (1793), nor his public defense of Thomas Hardy, John Thelwall, and John Horne Tooke at their treason trials in 1795, but rather his publication of children’s textbooks. Fables Ancient and Modern (1805), Godwin’s version of Aesop’s tales, may not strike readers today as particularly pernicious, yet this anonymous spy disagrees, envisioning Godwin’s literature as a radical project to undermine the government by harnessing the anger of the working classes. By offering “every work […] that can be required in the early instruction of children,” the report argues, the Juvenile Library advocates “every principle professed by the infidels and republicans of these days.” [2]  The result, the spy warns, may be a civil war: “By such means did Voltaire and his brethren for twenty years before the Revolution in France spread infidelity and disloyalty through the remotest provinces of that country, and we know too well how they succeeded” (qtd. in Barnett and Gustafson 2).

5.        The recommendations of Trimmer’s Guardian and the concerns about Godwin’s “radical” publishing venture speak to the cultural space of education in early-nineteenth-century Britain. Trimmer may be an alarmist, but she was not an anomaly. Education—in particular early school—was widely regarded as the cradle of future social and spiritual beliefs and, by extension, national health and longevity. Romanticists have long recognized the cultural significance of education in the period. From the 1980s to the early 2000s, writers such as Mitzi Myers and Donelle Ruwe established that children’s literature was an untapped yet crucially important area of intellectual inquiry. Scholars ranging from Alan Richardson and James Holt McGavran to, more recently, Jackie Horne and Andrew O’Malley have uncovered new information about the nature of childhood and children’s literature in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Their combined work suggests that education was a crucial testing ground in the Romantic era for formulating socioeconomic, religious, political, and ultimately national values. In the early nineteenth century, education was considered a ground zero for the creation of a civil society in a rapidly expanding and unequal world.

6.         Though alarmist, Trimmer’s observations about the deluge of new educational materials were indeed accurate. The Romantic era witnessed broad experimentation with and theorization of education at various levels. As Trimmer rightfully acknowledges, Rousseau’s Émile, ou De l’éducation (1762) profoundly influenced British educational philosophy. Thomas Day and Richard Lovell Edgeworth, famously, sought to raise children according to Rousseau’s model. Maria Edgeworth, Mary Wollstonecraft, Charlotte Smith, William Godwin, Frances Burney, and others engaged with his ideas on an intellectual level, picking those elements that made sense while criticizing those that seemed objectionable. Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) and Edgeworth’s Belinda (1801), for example, attacked Rousseau’s educational program for women as inadequate and infantilizing, and the Rousseauvian tutor-figure appears unfavorably in Godwin’s Fleetwood, or the New Man of Feeling (1805) and Burney’s Camilla, or a Portrait of Youth (1796).

7.        Changes within British education, however, go well beyond Rousseau’s pedagogical philosophy, as Borsay has demonstrated. Though it certainly imported continental children’s books and educational treatises, mid- to late-eighteenth century Britain became a testing ground for homegrown educational innovations driven by inadequacies within the pedagogical options available. Grammar schools had been set up in the Renaissance in order to educate poor children, but according to Alan Richardson’s Literature, Education, and Romanticism (1994), by the mid- to late- eighteenth century they had largely begun to exclude poor children in favor of middle and upper class pupils (81). Public institutions like Eton and Westminster were almost exclusively the purview of wealthy children, and they drew criticism for a savage, corrupting student culture, in particular the fagging system that exposed the vulnerability of the lower classmen to the brutality of the upperclassmen. [3]  These institutions, moreover, focused largely on teaching classical languages, a pedagogy whose value was, according to Borsay and Richardson, being questioned (Borsay 56, Richardson 80). Oxford and Cambridge universities, meanwhile, excluded Dissenters and other non-Anglicans. In short, while an educational system—ad hoc at best—was in place in Britain in the eighteenth century, it did not meet the needs of women, Dissenters, and working class children and, indeed, served only a wealthy, male minority of the population.

8.        The Romantic era thus is characterized by efforts to improve upon pre-existing institutions and curricula, and many such efforts attempted to ameliorate issues debated since the early eighteenth century, such as the inadequate instruction of girls and poor children. Richardson’s research suggests that educational debates became particularly heated in the 1790s and again in the 1820s (65, 214). Education changes correlate with an explosion in publishing—especially children’s book publishing—as well as with the rise of female pedagogues, such as Anna Barbauld, Wollstonecraft, and Trimmer, and with increased socioeconomic, cultural, and political turbulence. They also bookend what has traditionally been seen as the temporal boundaries of the Romantic era, thereby highlighting the centrality of educational reform within this period as a means of assessing and addressing social tensions.

9.        One area that has received particular attention by scholars is the growth of women’s education in the eighteenth century. If education for young men was decentralized and non-compulsory, it was even more so for girls, for whom there was no established educational system like the public schools and universities available to young men. The eighteenth century saw the increase in boarding schools for girls, though many girls were educated at home by a parent or governess. Women’s basic education throughout the eighteenth century consisted of arithmetic, reading, writing, and sewing. Better schools and home schooling would provide instruction in dancing, music, comportment, embroidery, and later botany, geography, and modern foreign languages. By the 1780s and 1790s, many women writers were rethinking female education through treatises and children’s literature; most prominent among these were Wollstonecraft, Smith, Hester Chapone, Eleanor Fenn, and More. Some writers sought to cultivate qualities like temperance, rationality, and benevolence as an antidote not only to the attainment of fashionable accomplishments thought to characterize women’s education but also to the metaphorical lobotomizing of women epitomized by Rousseau’s Sophie. As Myers argues in “Impeccable Governesses, Rational Dames, and Moral Mothers,” writers like Wollstonecraft, Fenn, and Smith innovated a pedagogical fiction that would inculcate such qualities through the figure of the female mentor.

10.        While Wollstonecraft and others sought to make female education more rigorous, other pedagogues turned to the educational needs of working-class children and adults. The Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK) was founded in 1698 and was active in fits and starts throughout the eighteenth century, seeing a brief resurgence in the 1820s (Richardson 214). Its primary purpose was to teach reading and catechism to poor children. The SPCK eventually found itself competing with Charity Schools, Sunday Schools, and Industrial Schools. Although rivals, these charitable institutions provided an alternative to the local “dame” schools that had cropped up across Britain. Without national oversight, dame schools ran the gamut from legitimate private schools to little more than housing services for poor children; furthermore, as Richardson observes, its teachers were often accused of being variously uneducated, overworked, underpaid, and even drunk (87).

11.        SPCK and other charity schools were founded on a largely unappealing idea of encouraging poor children to understand and submit to their own subordinate, God-given positions, to be obedient to rules and employers, and to “better” themselves by mimicking middle class morality. These efforts were matched by other endeavors to replace broadsides and chapbooks with improving stories (of which Hannah More’s Cheap Repository Tracts are the most famous). Both SPCK and Sunday schools arose as a means of addressing an increasingly literate British society. The SPCK’s and Sunday Schools’ answer was to confine students’ access to literature to the bible and devotional tracts; likewise Mechanics Institutes, though initially founded by skilled laborers as an antidote to the religious lessons offered in charity schools, eventually ceded control to middle class “sponsors” who limited their reading to certain types of so-called improving books. These limitations reflected middle class desires to control and channel literacy in order to encourage the inculcation of middle class values, including industry, order, temperance, cleanliness, and restraint, to their social inferiors (Richardson 220). As Richardson explains, it was not until the 1820s that the message of subordination and religious obedience gave way to a new discourse about education for the poor primarily advanced by James Mill, Jeremy Bentham, Henry Bourgham, Francis Jeffrey, and Charles Knight (214-215). As Richardson argues, this new discourse maintained that “literacy was to be managed rather than restrained” and that a more liberally educated workforce “would prove a more sure path to social stability (and limited reform) than would the combination of passive literacy, Christian morals, and deferential behavior advanced by an earlier generation of educationalists” (215).

The essays

12.        Modern teachers of the Romantic era might find unexpected sympathy with some of Trimmer’s less hysterical complaints, such as her concern that students are saturated in popular media that degrade their intellects. Any teacher who has complained about losing his or her students to the lure of iPhones or who has sighed over students’ use of emoticons in an email can understand, at least in part, Trimmer’s position. Today, there is a tangible sense that we are at a moment of change within education. As Engell and Dangerfield argue, monetary concerns seem more directly entrenched in the curricular decisions made at universities than in previous generations, especially as administrators, educators, and students seek to determine the role of humanistic study within modern higher education. Two issues that become intertwined in literary and cultural history classrooms are humanities and technology, as instructors seek to innovate pedagogical methods to reach a new generation of students. For Romanticists, the most pressing questions remain as straightforward as their answers are complicated: how can we encourage students to engage with Romantic texts in thoughtful and thought-provoking ways? What values will they derive from studying old texts? How can technology improve our ability to teach these texts and to make them relevant?

13.        Towards these ends, this edition has been organized into two separate but conversational sections: Pedagogies in Romanticism and Pedagogies of Romanticism. The first addresses questions of Romantic-era theories and practices by exploring four figures who grappled with questions about how and why one learns: Tom Wedgewood, Wollstonecraft, Smith, and Lord Byron. The second set of essays focuses on the teaching of Romanticism today. While some examine ways of utilizing digital resources, including gaming, in the modern Romantics classroom, others consider more traditional pedagogical methods, such as close reading, in new ways.

14.         In part one’s “‘Hints & Speculation on Education’: Tom Wedgwood’s Materialist Pedagogy,” Lisa Ann Robertson considers Wedgwood’s role within the intellectual history of the early Romantic period, including contemporary debates about education and materialist theories of cognition. Wedgwood, she argues, is today a marginalized figure valued more for his associations with William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge than for his own work, yet he “is significant because [he] gathered together several strands of Romantic philosophical thought” to form “a practical plan of education that would bring about a society of geniuses committed to the principles of liberty, equality, communitarian values, and social justice.” Reading Wedgwood’s manuscripts, accounts of his own physical ailments, and plans for an experimental school, as well as texts that influenced him (such as Joseph Priestley’s edition of Hartley’s Theory of Mind (1775) and Erasmus Darwin’s Zoonomia (1794)), Robertson traces Wedgwood’s understanding of the relationships between emotions, thought, and association and situates the heretofore under-recognized influence of his work within the larger context of Romantic-era theories of cognition and education.

15.        Suzanne L. Barnett’s “Generic Mutability and the Pedagogy of Realism in Charlotte Smith’s The Romance of Real Life and Mary Wollstonecraft’s Original Stories from Real Life” positions those two works in larger conversations about gender, genre, authority, and reading’s role in education in the Romantic period. Barnett argues that these women writers’ experiments with the hybrid genres of “romance of real life” and (fictional) “stories from real life” stem from anxieties about the suitability of women for fiction-writing and attempts to marshal the “serious” genre of historiography and the pedagogy of the real into the service of the moral education of both children and their mothers.

16.        In “Byron’s Cain and Romantic Education,” Cassandra Falke places Cain within Romantic discourses of learning and compares Byron’s depiction of “heroic learning” to Romantic-era pedagogy that stressed moral discipline and education as preparation for a life of useful work. In Byron’s time, the idea that reading should prepare the lower classes for utility and virtuous servitude was complicated by Cain’s almost immediate piracy, which, according to its contemporary critics, put a tool of potentially “dangerous disturbance” into the hands of ignorant and unprepared working-class readers. Falke paints Cain’s desire to learn and the play’s treatment of knowledge as not only a locus of conversation about hubris and Byron’s blasphemy but also as a “subtle inquiry into the possibility and limits of knowledge.”

17.        The second part of this edition turns from the pedagogical theories of Romantic-period writers to consider how modern educators might most successfully teach Romantic literature and culture to twenty-first-century students. “Universal Truths, Unacknowledged Legislators: Teaching the First Sentence of Pride and Prejudice” offers a targeted yet expansive classroom exercise in which students analyze word-by-word Austen’s famous line: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a large fortune, must be in want of a wife.” This process “unfolds historical and formal problems of Romanticism,” including Austen’s criticism of gender and class constructions. Chris Washington compares the self-reflexive irony of this first sentence to the rest of the novel and illuminates how students have responded to such a laser-focused classroom assignment and what it teaches them about reading Romantic texts.

18.        “Imagining the Internet through the Romantics” chronicles Brian Rejack’s attempts to allow students “to see digital culture from a shifted intellectual perspective” and reflects on “the overlapping domains of teaching and research, new and old media, and the imaginative frameworks that help us place their iterative connections.” Rejack considers how the inherent immateriality of digital culture intersects with the “Romantic ideology” of textual media and how his students’ process of imaginatively “embodying” Romantic texts via new media reflects the relationship between imagination and matter. Using texts as disparate as an AT&T commercial, Leonardo Solaas’s net-art installation Google Variations, Apple iCloud promotional materials, and Percy Shelley’s “The Cloud,” Rejack describes how he invites his students to recognize “the ways in which they live as historical bodies in and of the world” and asks his readers to consider the evolving roles of digital technology in the classroom.

19.        In “Revisiting the Radical Republican Publishers of the Romantic Era in the Digital Era,” Michael Demson considers another intersection of print and digital media: employing digital resources in a course on four republican publishers of the Romantic era (William Blake, Leigh Hunt, William Hone, and William Cobbett). Demson suggests that such a course would have been nearly impossible before resources like Romantic Circles, The William Blake Archive, and The William Hone Biotext that make available previously inaccessible (or at least difficult and costly to access) texts and images to both graduate and undergraduate classrooms. Demson notes that, for example, it is now possible for his students to search for phrases like “rotten borough” across hundreds of publications or to trace the ways an author or periodical cover a particular story over time. Demson describes how a combination of traditional and digital media can combine in the classroom to offer students a richer experience of Romantic-era print culture.

20.        In the final essay in this edition, “Playing with Independence: Using Multiplayer Online Narratives to Explore Independent and Interdependent Tensions in Romantic-Period Literature,” Jon Saflofske explores how multiplayer games enable students to explore questions about character and plot in Romantic fiction. The fact that these games are specifically multiplayer and require cooperation between students “simulates opportunities for negotiating the tensions between independence and interdependence,” according to Saklofske, and inspires collaborative creativity (and occasionally productive frustration) that mirrors both the experience of living in the late eighteenth century and also of working together on a creative project.

21.        As a collection, these seven essays offer diverse ways of thinking about the intersections of Romanticism and pedagogy: both what Romantic-era figures themselves thought about the processes of learning and teaching and also what we as modern educators might consider as we present these texts and figures to our students. It is our hope that they will contribute to ongoing conversations among scholars and teachers of Romanticism about the history and future of humanities education, and in particular will foster cross-historical conversations.

Works Cited

Barnett, Suzanne L. and Katherine Bennett Gustafson. “The Radical Aesop: William Godwin and the Juvenile Library, 1805-1825.” Romantic Circles Electronic Editions, July 2014. Web.

Bieri, James. Percy Bysshe Shelley: A Biography: Youth’s Unextinguished Fire, 1792-1816. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2004. Print.

Borsay, Peter. “Children, Adolescents, and Fashionable Urban Society in Eighteenth-Century England.” Fashioning Childhood in the Eighteenth Century: Age and Identity. Ed. Anja Müller, Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2006. Print.

Clemit, Pamela, “Philosophical Anarchism in the Schoolroom: William Godwin's Juvenile Library, 1805-25.” Biblion 9, Fall 2000 and Spring 2001: 44-70. Print.

Engell, James and Arthur Dangerfield. Saving Higher Education in the Age of Money. University of Virginia Press, 2005. Print.

Horne, Jackie C. History and the Construction of the Child in Early British Children’s Literature. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate Publishing, 2011. Print.

McGavran, James Holt, ed. Literature and the Child: Romantic Continuations, Postmodern Contestations. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1999. Print.

McCann, Andrew. Cultural Politics in the 1790s: Literature, Radicalism, and the Public Sphere New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999. Print.

Myers, Mitzi. “Impeccable Governesses, Rational Dames, and Moral Mothers: Mary Wollstonecraft and the Female Tradition in Georgian Children’s Books.” Children’s Literature 14 (1986): 31-59. Print

O’Malley, Andrew. The Making of the Modern Child: Children’s Literature and Childhood in the Late Eighteenth Century. New York: Routledge, 2003. Print.

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

Ruwe, Donelle, ed. Culturing the Child, 1690-1914: Essays in Memory of Mitzi Myers. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 2005. Print.

Trimmer, Sarah. The Guardian of Education, a Periodical Work; Consisting of A Practical Essay on Christian Education, Founded Immediately on the Scriptures, and the Sacred Offices of the Church of England: Memoirs of Modern Philosophers, and Extracts from their Writings; Extracts from Sermons and Other Books relating to Religious Education; and A Copious Examination of Modern Systems of Education, Children’s Books, and Books for Young Persons. London: J. Hatchard, 1802. Print.


[1] For example, between their 2013 and 2014 annual meetings, the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies (ASECS) has included at least fourteen sessions (poster sessions, roundtable discussions, and panel presentations) devoted to classroom teaching, including the annual panels “Innovative Course Design” and “Let’s Get Engaged!,” as well as the annual poster session “Teaching the Eighteenth Century.” At least two of these sessions are also slated for the 2015 annual meeting of ASECS. The North American Society for the Study of Romanticism (NASSR) offers fewer pedagogical panels at their annual meeting but does feature an annual pedagogy contest to promote innovations and best practices in teaching. BACK

[2] We would like to thank Pamela Clemit, who directed us to the original spy report, document TS11/951/3494 in the Public Record Office or “Domestic, Geo. III, 1813. January to March. No. 217.” BACK

[3] For example, young Percy Shelley’s resistance to fagging and other such “Shelley-baits” at Eton is recounted in many biographies, including James Bieri’s Percy Bysshe Shelley: A Biography: Youth's Unextinguished Fire, 1792-1816, (University of Delaware Press, 2004). In The Life of Percy Bysshe Shelley (1858), Thomas Jefferson Hogg identifies Shelley’s refusal to submit to the “aggravated miseries” inflicted upon the youngest and weakest students by the older “tyrants” as an early example of the poet’s opposition to tyranny in all its forms. BACK