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2 - Honora Edgeworth and the ‘Experimental Science’ of Education

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  15 October 2019

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Summary

On the 27 of Novbr 1778 An. & Ho. 5 ½ 4 ½ began to spell in Mrs Barbauld's little book – on that day fortnight a piece of paper with some raisins seald up in it, was given to each of them, & these words written on the outside ‘Open this & eat what you find in it’ – They had no assistance & in twenty minutes, Honora read it without making any mistake.

HONORA Edgeworth records in her notebook a pivotal fortnight in the education of her step-daughter, Anna, and daughter, another Honora. In an application of empiricism to the teaching of young children, she collects information on the methodology, duration and results of an experiment in the teaching of literacy. Her use of Barbauld's ‘little book’ and the reward of raisins help situate Honora's practices within the educational culture of the British Enlightenment, with its Lockean emphasis on ‘instruction with delight’. But the entry, as it appears in her manuscript ‘Notes on Education’, might also attest to the emotional dimensions of such a milestone; the author's pride is detectable, particularly in her namesake's achievement.

Honora's observations would eventually provide material for Practical Education (1798), the monumental study in developmental psychology that Maria Edgeworth wrote with the input of her father, Richard Lovell Edgeworth. Several notes appear in chapters of the book and others are reproduced alongside Maria's in the appendix. The entry above is used in a chapter on Tasks, with two alterations. First, it adds that the words on the paper were ‘marked according to our alphabet’, referring to the attractive engraving of a phonetic chart included in Practical Education. Second, in the published version of events, both children successfully complete the challenge. While these embellishments may seem of little consequence, they are illuminative of wider problems of partiality in the ‘experimental science’ of education that developed from, and eventually eclipsed, Honora's work.

According to the preface to Practical Education, Maria Edgeworth was ‘encouraged and enabled’ to write the book ‘by having for many years before her eyes the conduct of a judicious mother in the education of a large family’.

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Material Enlightenment
Women Writers and the Science of Mind, 1770–1830
, pp. 73 - 112
Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2018

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