William Godwin

William Godwin on Education


Nothing can be more pitiable...

There is but one considerable objection that seems to oppose all these advantages [to a libertarian education]. The preceptor is terrified at the outset, and says, How shall I render the labors of literature an object of desire, and still more how shall I maintain this desire in all its vigour, in spite of the discouragements that will daily occur, and in spite of the quality incident to almost every human passion, that its fervour disappears in proportion as the novelty of the object subsides?

But let us not hastily admit this for an insuperable objection. If the plan here proposed augments the difficulties of the teacher in one particular point, let it be remembered that it relieves him from an insufferable burthen in other repects.

Nothing can be more pitable than the condition of the instructor in the present modes of education. He is the worst of slaves. He is consigned to the severest of imprisonments... Like the unfortunate wretch upon whom the lot has fallen in a city reduced to extremities, he is destroyed, that others may live... He is regarded as a tyrant by those under his jurisdiction, and he is a tyrant. He mars their pleasures. He appoints to each his portion of loathed labour. He watches their irregularities and errors. He is accustomed to speak to them in tones of dictation and censure. He is the beadle to chastise their follies. He lives alone in the midst of a multitude. ("Of the Communication of Knowledge", Enquirer, IX.)

How do we actually learn?

Study with desire is real activity; without desire it is but the semblance and mockery of activity. ("Of the Communication of Knowledge", Enquirer, IX.)

Man is a creature that loves to act from himself; and actions performed in this way, have infinitely more of health and vigour in them, than the actions to which he is prompted by a will foreign to his own. ("Of Choice In Reading", Enquirer, XV.)

...I desire to excite a given individual to the acquisition of knowledge. The only possible method in which I can excite a sensitive being to the performance of a voluntary action, is by the exhibition of motive.

Motives are of two sorts, intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic motives are those which arise from the inherent nature of the thing recommended. Extrinsic motives are those which have no constant and unalterable connection with the thing recommended, but are combined with it by accident or at the pleasure of some individual.

Thus, I may recommend some species of knowledge by a display of the advantages which will necessarily attend upon its acquisition, or flow from its possession. Or, on the other hand, I may recommend it despotically, by allurements or menaces, by showing that the pursuit of it will be attended with my approbation, and that the neglect of it will be regarded by me with displeasure.

The first of these classes of motives is unquestionably the best. To be governed by such motives is the pure and genuine condition of a rational being. By exercise it strengthens the judgement. It elevates us with a sense of independence. It causes a man to stand alone, and is the only method by which he can be rendered truly an individual, the creature, not of implicit faith, but of his own understanding. ("Of the Communication of Knowledge", Enquirer, IX.)

...Public education has always expended its energies in the support of prejudice; it teaches its pupils, not the fotritude that shall being every proposition to the test of examination, but the art of vindicating such tenets as may chance to be established. We study Aristotle, or Thomas Aquinas, or Bellarmine, or chief justice Coke, not that we may detect their errors, but that our minds may be fully impregnated with their absurdities. This feature runs through every species of public establishment... the chief lessons that are taught are a superstitious veneration for the church of England, and to bow to every man in a handsome coat. All this is directly contrary to the true interests of mankind. (Political Justice, VI, viii.; "http://melbecon.unimelb.edu.au/het/godwin/pj6.htm”)

Milton has written a sublime poem upon a ridiculous story of eating an apple, and of the eternal vengeance decreed by the Almighty against the whole human race, because their progenitor was guilty of this black and detestable offence. The object of this poem, as he tells us, was

To justify the ways of God to men. B. I, ver. 25.

But one of the most memorable remarks that suggest themselves under this branch of the subject is, that the true moral and fair inference from a composition has often lain concealed for ages from its most diligent readers. Books have been handed down from generation to generation, as the true teachers of piety and the love of God, that represent him as so merciless and tyrannical a despot, that, if they were considered otherwise than through the medium of prejudice, they could inspire nothing but hatred. It seems that the impression we derive from a book, depends much less on its real contents, than upon the temper of mind and preparation with which we read it. ("Of Choice In Reading", Enquirer, XV.)

What should children learn?

Is it really necessary that a child should learn a thing, before it can have any idea of its value? It is probable that there is no one thing that it is of eminent importance for a child to learn. The true object of juvenile education, is to provide, against the age of five and twenty, a mind well regulated, active, and prepared to learn. Whatever will inspire habits of industry and observation, will sufficiently answer this purpose. ("Of the Communication of Knowledge", Enquirer, IX.)

...If the systems we read, were always to remain in masses on the mind, unconcocted and unaltered, undoubtedly in that case they would only deform it. But, if we read in a just spirit, perhaps we cannot read too much: in other words, if we mix our own reflections with what we read; if we dissect the ideas and arguments of our author; if, by having recourse to all subsidiary means, we endeavour to clear the recollection of him in our minds; if we compare part with part, detect his errors, new model his systems, adpot so much of him as is excellent, and explain within ourselves the reason of our disapprobation as to what is otherwise. A judicious reader will have a greater number of ideas that are passing through his mind, than of ideas presented to him by his author. ("Of Learning", Enquirer, XI.)

Learning is the ally, not the adversary of genius... he who reads in a proper spirit, can scarcely read too much. ("Of Learning", Enquirer, XI.)

Liberty and knowledge

In what manner would reason, independently of the received modes and practices of the world, teach us to communicate knowledge?

Liberty is one of the best of all sublunary advantages. I would willingly therefore communicate knowledge, without infringing, or with as little possible violence to, the volition and individual judgement of the person to be instructed. ("Of the Communication of Knowledge", Enquirer, IX.)

Speak the language of truth and reason to your child, and be under no apprehension for the result. Show him that what you recommend is valuable and desirable, and fear not but he will desire it. (Political Justice, I, iv.)

If a thing be really good, it can be shown to be such. ("Of the Communication of Knowledge", Enquirer, IX.)

...As the true object of education is not to render the pupil the mere copy of his preceptor, it is rather to be rejoiced in, than lamented, that various reading should lead him into new trains of thinking... ("Of Choice In Reading", Enquirer, XV.)

If we would have our children frank and sincere in their behaviour, we must take care that frankness and sincerity shall not be a source of evil to them... punishment would find no share in a truly excellent system of education; even angry looks and words of rebuke would be wholly excluded. ("Of Deception and Frankness", Enquirer, XII.)

It has already been shown that the impression we derive from a book, depends much less upon its real contents, than upon the temper of mind and preparation with which we read it. Hence it should seem to follow that a skillful preceptor need be under little apprehension respecting the books which his pupil should select for his perusal. In this sense a celebrated maxim of the apostle Paul may be admitted for true, To the pure all things are pure. ("Of Choice In Reading", Enquirer, XV.)

Trust [the student] in a certain degree with himself. Suffer him in some instances to select his own course of reading. There is danger that there should be something to studied and monotonous in the selection we should make for him. Suffer him to wander through the wilds of literature. ("Of Choice in Reading", Enquirer, XV.)

...It must be to a real discussion that [the children] are invited, and not to the humiliating scene of a mock discussion. ("Of Reasoning and Contention", Enquirer, XI.)

Knowledge and power

There is no such disparity among the human race as to enable one man to hold several other men in subjection, except so far as they are willing to be subject. All government is founded in opinion. Men at present live under any particular form because they conceive it their interest to do so. One part indeed of a community or empire may be held in subjection by force; but this cannot be the personal force of their despot; it must be the force of another part of the community, who are of opinion that it is their interest to support his authority. Destroy this opinion, and the fabric which is built upon it falls to the ground. (Political Justice, II,iii.)