A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

by

Mary Wollstonecraft

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A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: Chapter 12 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
There is only so much good that private education can achieve, Wollstonecraft believes, until education becomes “a grand national concern.” Children need to associate with other children in order for their faculties to develop properly. For example, when children are only in the company of adults, even wise adults, they fall into the habit of asking questions and replying implicitly on the answers their elders give them. Being among their peers, by contrast, encourages young people to speak their minds.
Here Wollstonecraft shifts to the culmination of her book, and its most daring proposals. Because she holds that the structure of society is so important for the encouragement of virtue, it follows that national schools—created to instill virtuous habits in all children—fit within her worldview. Such schools also allow children to establish healthy patterns in relating to adults and to one another from an early age.
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Wollstonecraft admits that she has previously advocated for private education, but she has revised her opinion. She still holds that boarding-schools, as currently constituted, tend to be “hot-beds of vice and folly.” On the other hand, home education tends to coddle children and focus more on genteel accomplishments than on humane virtues. Therefore she supports some method of combining public and private education, allowing proper “domestic affections” to form while also allowing them to spend much time with their peers on terms of equality. Both these things are important to making good citizens.
Wollstonecraft also goes into some detail on the benefits of country day schools compared to urban academies, showing her preference for rural settings and natural environments as friendlier to virtue (anticipating the dawning Romantic movement as well). She aims for a balance of influences, neither isolating children from their families nor preventing them from bonding with their peers.
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Wollstonecraft disdains the practice of the “cathedral service” as a “childish routine” in which “a disgusting skeleton of the former state is still exhibited.” It associates religion in the minds of youth with mere external ceremony, thereby making it “ludicrous.”
Wollstonecraft also has scathing words for the English national church, which had a prominent role in most schools of the time. She believes that the church’s focus on externalities has a detrimental effect on children’s religious development.
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As it stands now, public education tends to raise up a few great men in each generation, but it is not enough concerned with the work of “[forming] citizens.” Good citizenship arises from “the affections of a son and a brother,” and public virtues from private character, which is why children should not be isolated from their parents. The solution is to form national day-schools where teachers aren’t dependent on parents for their salaries and rival schools don’t have to compete for patronage.
In Wollstonecraft’s view, schools should have a more democratic influence, not just raising up a few “greats.” Character and citizenship begin at home, and national schools can help broaden and deepen the sentiments formed in childhood. Wollstonecraft also believes that national schools would be less beholden to parents’ whims, although she does not address any potential weaknesses or trade-offs of relying on national schools.
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Wollstonecraft believes that both boys and girls tend to acquire bad habits when they spend too much time in close proximity. She therefore believes that, for the benefit of both sexes, girls and boys should be educated together. Because marriage is “the cement of society,” both men and women must become enlightened citizens in order to fulfill their respective duties and enjoy proper fellowship with one another. If coeducation were the norm, then modesty between the sexes might arise more naturally than if it were instilled through mere “habitual propriety.”
Radically, Wollstonecraft believes that early mixing between boys and girls is actually healthier than it is harmful—it would strip some of the artificiality from gender relationships and even prepare children to be better spouses in later life. Basically, she believes her method would allow oppressive gender relations to be cut off at the root.
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Another advantage of women receiving the same education as men is that it will allow women to develop a better judgment as the foundation of taste. True taste is the result of understanding, but “the emotions struck out of [women’s hearts] will continue to be vivid and transitory, unless a proper education store their mind with knowledge.”
Women’s judgment will always be stunted unless knowledge is instilled from a young age, allowing their emotions to be more balanced with reason.
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Wollstonecraft calls for the establishment of free day schools for children of both sexes and all classes. Alongside traditional subjects, she recommends plenty of open-air exercise, as well as teaching through socratic discussion. After age nine, she recommends that children divide into trade and liberal arts tracks, depending on ability and class. But sexes should still be educated together; Wollstonecraft even sees early marriage as a possible beneficial outcome, since marriages promote less selfish lifestyles and are thus more beneficial for society.
Wollstonecraft continues to lay out her progressive educational program. One of its hallmarks would be open-ended, discussion-based (“socratic”) learning—a bold innovation in any classroom at the time, much less a children’s classroom. While there is still an allowance for class divisions—Wollstonecraft assumes that lower-class children will be more likely to pursue trades—gender integration is maintained throughout. Surprisingly, she advocates for early marriage (in contrast, presumably, to later, arranged marriages) as a potentially healthy progression for society.
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Wollstonecraft believes that this coeducational system would avoid the “early debaucheries” which tend to make men selfish and girls weak and frivolous, by establishing equality early in life and allowing friendship to flourish more readily. They would indeed be “schools of morality” which prepare citizens for a virtuous society.
Again, Wollstonecraft shows her belief that if the proper societal conditions are put into place, barriers to virtue, morality, and overall flourishing will be eliminated.
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Wollstonecraft reiterates that education, including political and moral subjects, should in no way distract girls from their domestic duties, because the self-respect and active mind instilled by study would make them embrace all their duties. Literary and scientific study don’t distract women from duty; “indolence and vanity” do that. Still less is it an attempt to “emulate masculine virtues.”
Wollstonecraft anticipates possible criticisms of educating girls, arguing that because study benefits the mind and reason above all, girls will be more inclined to duty (which she sees as an enactment of one’s reason), not drawn away from it.
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Wollstonecraft even suggests that her schools should leave discipline in the hands of students—allowing wrongdoers to be tried by their peers—in order to instill principles of justice.
This is perhaps the most radical example of Wollstonecraft’s republican sentiment, showing her powerful belief in the reliability of well-formed reason.
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Wollstonecraft sums up her “hints” on national education as follows: “I principally wish to enforce the necessity of educating the sexes together to perfect both, and of making children sleep at home that they may learn to love home; yet … they should be sent to school to mix with a number of equals, for only by the jostlings of equality can we form a just opinion of ourselves.” Wollstonecraft reiterates that moral improvement must be mutual, for if men will not “improve women, they will deprave them,” and degrade their own virtue in the process.
Wollstonecraft’s advocacy for coeducation is an expression of her belief in the mutually reinforcing potential of male and female virtue and vice. Her enthusiasm for the “jostlings of equality” is another clear nod to her politically radical stance. Overall, her educational theory is intended to allow the development of reason, for the betterment of relationships and society as a whole.
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If for no other reason, the national education of women is vital in order to avoid further sacrifices to “that moloch prejudice.” Men’s selfishness keeps women from acquiring enough learning even to nurse their own children properly. And as a child grows, “the weakness of the mother will be visited on the children.” If women are taught to rely excessively on their husbands and not develop their reasoning ability, their children’s upbringing will suffer. Therefore women should be taught anatomy and medicine, not only to nurse their babies, but their husbands and parents as well. It only follows that women should be acquainted with “the anatomy of the mind” as well.
Moloch was an ancient Canaanite god associated with child sacrifice—a provocative reference meant to highlight the harm inflicted by inadequate education. The selfishness and suppressing behavior of men, according to Wollstonecraft, keeps women from developing their own reason such that they can become good mothers. Women should be taught relevant principles in school so that later generations will not continue to suffer from this state of affairs.
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