Eighteenth-Century England and Education

posted in: Blog | 0

Taken from my lecture on Gulliver’s Travels.

There are some good things about Lilliputian society – Gulliver is impressed by their education system because they actually educate women. The thought of educating women may not cause too many ripples in the UK today but in Swift’s time it was pretty radical; it was commonly believed that women were endangering their health if they studied; in particular, that the reproductive organs could shrivel up! This belief of course carried on into the twentieth century.

The idea of educating women was regarded as almost morally questionable because it was feared that education might lead to a subversion of the natural order which gave men unquestioned dominance. Women’s education was usually confined to artistic and linguistic ‘accomplishments’ and the basic skills required to run a household. Rousseau articulated the views of many in Emile (1762): ‘The whole education of women should be relative to man…to make his life pleasant and happy, these are the duties of woman for all time’. Ron Hubbard, the US founder of the Church of Scientology argued in 1980 – yes 1980: ‘A society in which women are taught anything at all but the management of a family, the care of men and the creation of the future generation is a society which is on the way out’.

Out of interest, although women were allowed to go to University in the very late nineteenth century, and were allowed to sit degree examinations, they weren’t awarded degrees until well into the twentieth century (Oxford first admitted women to degrees in 1920; Cambridge admitted women to full undergraduate status in 1947). It was argued that women didn’t need degrees because they were destined for a purely domestic role and wouldn’t be going into the professions.

It’s very interesting that Swift, often criticised as a misogynist, should appear to be supporting the idea of education for women. Not only are the Lilliputian women educated, they are ‘educated much like the males'(ch 6, p.98). Gulliver explains, ‘neither did I perceive any difference in their education, made by their difference of sex, only that the exercises of the females were not altogether so robust, and that some rules were given them relating to domestic life'(pp.98-9). What Swift proposes here doesn’t seek to destroy traditional gender roles but to expand them in moral, rational terms.

Yet the system is somewhat heartless: parents only see their children twice a year and they’re not allowed ‘to use any fondling expressions, or bring any presents'(p.98); the system also rigidly enforces the class system in that education varies according to social status and the role children will play in the world. It is, nonetheless, radical in proposing education for all but the labouring classes.

Leave a Reply