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Chapter 11 - Pedagogy as (Cosmo)Politics: Cultivating Benevolence in Mary Wollstonecraft’s Educational Works

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 October 2023

Louise Joy
Affiliation:
University of Cambridge
Jessica Lim
Affiliation:
University of Cambridge
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Summary

Before she became a professional writer, Mary Wollstonecraft was an educator: mistress of a school in Newington Green in the mid-1780s and later governess to the children of Irish Ascendancy aristocrats. Her first published works were explicitly pedagogical, but in almost every text in her extensive corpus, she reflects on how best to form self-governing moral subjects capable of committed (world) citizenship. This emphasis on moral autonomy finds political expression through her republican resistance to arbitrary rule, which informs both A Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790) and A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). In the year between the publication of these famous political tracts, she produced illustrated second editions of two educational works, Original Stories from Real Life (1788) and Elements of Morality, for the Use of Children (1790). Elements is a translation from the German of Christian Gotthilf Salzmann’s Moralisches Elementarbuch (1782–3; new edition 1785), but, as I have argued elsewhere, Wollstonecraft’s interventionist translational strategy gives her version the status of a creative work in its own right. In her preface, she invites the reader to make intertextual connections between Original Stories and Elements, both of which feature pedagogical figures who give children the freedom to learn from experience instead of submitting blindly to authority. For Wollstonecraft, the resulting independence lays the groundwork for the fulfilment of our moral potential. She goes further than Salzmann, however, in modelling virtue as benevolence impervious to race, culture or creed – a cosmopolitan philanthropy, in the predominant eighteenth-century sense of ‘love of humankind’. This philosophy shapes both her pedagogy and her politics. In her first published work, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1787), she enjoins her young readers to practise charity because ‘goodwill to all the human race should dwell in our bosoms’.

In Rights of Men, she declares that ‘all feelings are false and spurious, that do not rest on justice as their foundation and are not concentred by universal love’. In Rights of Woman, she describes her feminism as the outgrowth of ‘affection for the whole human race’, and in An Historical and Moral View of the Origin and Progress of the French Revolution (1794), she argues for ‘a more enlightened moral love of mankind’.

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Publisher: Edinburgh University Press
Print publication year: 2023

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