On the “superficiality” of eighteenth-century women’s education

Representations of women’s education in the eighteenth century always depict it as “superficial”. I had long imagined writing a book based on my research into this topic that would tell a new story–by comparing the education of middling and upper- class males and females in long eighteenth-century England. This new story would also include a chapter on pedagogy, a subject that had long intrigued me, but which I hadn’t had the opportunity to research systematically. To my surprise, I soon realised that pedagogy was not just an additional chapter; it was at the heart of my project. It was at that point that my imagined project began to take shape as a real book.  

Then Covid hit, and with it, confinement. Yet I was lucky; I had just been awarded a Visiting Fellowship by the ILL department of the UCL Institute of Education, which assured my remote, online access to the wealth of UCL library’s digitised modern resources. Equally important to my research were the digitised eighteenth-century schoolbooks and juvenile literature available from the British Library and London Library websites. Stuck in my small, cluttered study in North London, I could nevertheless access these crucial primary sources, dispersed in libraries and collections throughout the English-speaking world. 

Much of the existing research and writing about ‘education’ provides little or no consistent detail on what was actually taught and how it was taught. This absence has allowed a variety of misunderstandings about eighteenth-century education to escape critical scrutiny. For this reason, I chose as my main sources the schoolbooks that practitioners wrote based on their teaching experience. Using pedagogy as a lens enabled me to explore more systematically the way that women’s education was perceived. It made it possible to discover the underpinning of the argument I began to formulate years ago: that superficiality and its often explicit opposite, depth, were constructs generated at a specific moment in history, which described gendered cultural and political positionings, not modes of education. Now I needed to identify the conditions that made these constructs possible and allowed their power to persist in educational discourses. It came as no surprise that these conditions were outside the discourse of education itself: the classical vs the modern debate, the devaluation of female achievement and the hegemony of Latin pedagogy. Investigating pedagogy thus allowed me to expose some of the most tenacious myths and misrepresentations of gendered education. 

Researching pedagogy required close reading of the instructional literature. This methodology was hugely time-consuming and, admittedly, quite tedious at times. But Covid confinement provided me with a sea of available time and a horizon devoid of entertaining distractions. So this project filled my days and even, at times, part of nights in constructive dreams of perfect sentences or key argument. My hope is that the waking version of my book has captured these for my readers.  

The ’waking version’ of Michèle’s book “Changing Pedagogies for Children in Eighteenth-Century England” is out now in Hardback and ebook. Blog readers save 35%: 

Hardcover: £65/$99 - Blog Price*: £45.50/$64.35 
Ebook (EPUB/EPDF): £24.99/$29.95
*Offer is non-transferable and subject to change without notice.  

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