A Vindication of the Rights of Woman | Study Guide

Mary Wollstonecraft

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A Vindication of the Rights of Woman | Chapter 12 : On National Education | Summary

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Summary

  • Wollstonecraft argues education must become a national concern. She analyzes the current options of education available at the time: home and private schools.
  • Home schooling personalizes education, but she believes public schooling brings children together and helps "to open their faculties" so they can "be excited to think for themselves." She believes children taught alone at home learn to expect the right answer from adults.
  • Wollstonecraft acknowledges she once favored private schools, but she has changed her mind. She objects to boarding school because students become so focused on the vacations that they do not pay attention in class. She admits this is not a problem when students are educated at home, but she says "they there acquire too high an opinion of their own importance." Wollstonecraft believes some problems with private schools occur because teachers must depend on the parents for their salary, another problem that public schooling could remedy. The finances of managing a private school may force schoolmasters to make poor choices, such as taking on more pupils than they can handle, in the name of earning money.
  • Although she anticipates resistance from the "pedantic tyrants" now in charge of schools, Wollstonecraft outlines a new form of public day school, combining the good influence of being at home at nights with the benefits of an education obtained with one's peers. Wollstonecraft opts for co-educational schools, saying both boys and girls may learn inappropriate behaviors from being solely among their own gender. She also thinks this will help future husbands and wives, arguing, "If marriage be the cement of society, mankind should all be educated after the same model." On a practical level, she suggests polite courtesies would be more naturally included in children's daily lives if they were learning with students of both genders.
  • She returns to the idea that women's poor education is the reason for their faults, describing thoughtless or tasteless reactions to art and music by women and reminding the reader the woman has little judgment because she has not received the education to develop it further. "Women have been allowed to remain in ignorance, and slavish dependence, many, very many years, and still we hear of nothing but their fondness of pleasure," she argues. Wollstonecraft calls for "an enlightened nation" to try using reason to help women: "allowing them to share the advantages of education and government with man, see whether they will become better, as they grow wiser and become free."
  • Wollstonecraft gets specific about the schools she thinks would be best: day schools for boys and girls ages five through nine, with no tuition paid. For discipline, she recommends students be "tried by their peers" rather than being punished by the teachers. Wollstonecraft also suggests all students should be dressed alike "to prevent any of the distinctions of vanity," and she recommends students "not be confined to any sedentary employment for more than an hour at a time," permitting them to have plenty of time for exercise and play.
  • She outlines a wide and varied curriculum including many sciences, history, reading, writing, math and more. She also argues "humanity to animals" should be included as part of a national education, claiming mistreatment of animals can teach boys cruelty that they later inflict on wives, children, or servants. Wollstonecraft specifically targets upper-class women who make a show over their sentimental hearts, grieving over a trapped bird or fussing about a pet dog. She gives these women no credit for tenderheartedness, pointing out how often such a woman coddles her pets while abusing her coachmen or even neglecting her children. These women do it for show rather than because of true feeling, and Wollstonecraft argues this is another demonstration of how an unsatisfactory education damages women's intellects and morals.
  • After age nine she suggests separating students so they receive basic education together in the morning but spend the afternoons divided according to their future plans, with domestic or mechanical training for some students and additional studies for those "of superior abilities, or fortune" preparing them for their future careers. She still recommends keeping girls and boys together. She acknowledges the potential for "attachments" to form, but she suggests early marriages might be a positive force in these young people's lives.
  • Wollstonecraft claims this plan of education would address the problems in the current school system. It would definitely change "the custom of confining girls to their needle" and help them not behave in childish and petty ways. She responds to those who claim such an education would "unsex" women, claiming instead "dignified beauty and true grace" would result from a better-educated woman.
  • Wollstonecraft says women who act differently sometimes receive criticism. She cites the example of learned women who receive blame for their choice to pursue further education, even if their behavior is exemplary. Wollstonecraft also describes women who try new approaches to caring for their children, using "new-fangled notions of ease and cleanliness," and how society later criticizes them if one of their children dies, even if the mother's actions had nothing to do with the child's death. She protests that women's education can improve the lives of children throughout the country and argues "the weakness of the mother will be visited on the children!" Wollstonecraft suggests women learn anatomy and medicine so they can care for their own and their family's health. "Make women rational creatures, and free citizens," she argues, "and they will quickly become good wives, and mothers."

Analysis

After some sweeping generalizations and personal opinions, Wollstonecraft digs in to her area of expertise, and the result is a specific, detailed, and remarkably modern-sounding plan for education.

Wollstonecraft worked with various forms of English education in the 18th century. She ran a school, along with her sister and her friend, and worked as a governess. This experience helped her see first-hand the strengths and deficiencies of educational systems of the time. Individualized education at home as with a governess, can limit the child's thinking, she argues, while private schools may be so expensive to run that the head of school must spend more time worrying about money than teaching. Wollstonecraft closed her school because of financial problems, so she was on familiar ground here.

Her description of education is positively revolutionary for her time, but it will sound very familiar to a modern reader. She recommends co-educational, public day schools for boys and girls, provided at no cost to parents and covering a variety of subjects, a system many modern readers take for granted. In 1792, though, poor children rarely got any schooling. Wollstonecraft's emphasis on physical activity is interesting. Most schooling of that time consisted of learning recitations, reading, or practicing penmanship by copying texts. The inclusion of many branches of science was also innovative, demonstrating Wollstonecraft's Enlightenment-influenced thinking. Reasoning was a principal value and studying science boosted one's ability to reason.

Her education is realistic, as well. A modern school would not separate children at age nine, as she recommends. Adolescence was not viewed as a distinct stage of life in the 18th century. Teenagers were already young adults and ready to work, so a nine-year-old in 1792 might be the equivalent of a high school student now. Many modern high school programs help students develop vocational career skills or prepare them for further higher education, just as Wollstonecraft suggests her public schools could do with children nine years of age or older.

She ties her plan for education to women's rights, arguing again that women cannot be free, equal, contributing members of society with the education they currently receive. She cites faults that she attributes to poor education: a lack of artistic appreciation and a propensity to do things "for show" rather than because of true understanding. Wollstonecraft's idealism is showing: as the present-day reader knows, better education has not eliminated these faults from all modern men or women. Education may reduce such faults in some individuals, however.

Near the end of the chapter, Wollstonecraft slips in a shocking suggestion: allow women to learn anatomy and medicine, two subjects that women were most often barred from studying. It was seen as "indelicate" for a woman to know too much about how the body functions—studying anatomy would, by necessity, include studying male and female reproductive organs. Wollstonecraft is not aiming for shock value: at that time, most women would end up caring for sick people in their own families. Basic knowledge of anatomy and medicine could help them do this more successfully. This same logic is why most modern education systems require students to study subjects like biology and health. Once again, Wollstonecraft was ahead of her time.

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