Education in the Age of Enlightenment

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The Age of Enlightenment, also called the “Age of Reason” by Thomas Paine, is generally thought to have started in the 17th century. It developed from a number of sources of “new” ideas, such as challenges to the dogma and authority of the Catholic Church by Martin Luther and other religious leaders and by increasing interest in the ideas of science, in scientific methods and in philosophy, which called into question traditional ways of thinking. For example, Martin Luther’s translation of the bible into German encouraged people to read and think for themselves, rather than rely on religious authority, and the printing of the results of scientific experiments and observations allowed people to test and verify or disprove those results for themselves. As knowledge of and interest in science grew, the educational system came to play an increasingly important role in the transmission of those ideas and ideals, which contributed to the Enlightenment. The development of educational systems in Europe continued throughout the period of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. The improvements in the educational systems produced a larger reading public which resulted in increased demand for printed material from readers across a broader span of social classes with a wider range of interests. This increase in demand for written materials combined with and, in part, resulted from the explosion of print culture, and the information and ideas printing made more widely available; for example, “by 1499 an estimated 15 million books, representing thirty thousand book titles”, had been printed.[1]

History of education[edit]

Before the Enlightenment, European educational systems were principally geared for teaching a limited number of professions, e.g., religious orders such as priests, brothers and sisters, health care workers such as physicians, and bureaucrats such as lawyers and scribes, and they were not yet greatly influenced by the scientific revolution. As the scientific revolution and religious upheaval broke traditional views and ways of thinking of that time, religion and superstition were supplemented by reasoning and scientific facts. Philosophers such as John Locke proposed the idea that knowledge is obtained through sensation and reflection.[2] This proposition lead to Locke’s theory that everyone has the same capacity of sensation, and, therefore, education should not be restricted to a certain class or gender. Prior to the 17th and 18th century centuries, education and literacy were generally restricted to males who belonged to the nobility and the mercantile and professional classes. In England and France, “idealized notions of domesticity, which emphasized the importance of preparing girls for motherhood and home duties, fuelled the expansion of schooling for girls.”[3]

Growth of the education system[edit]

Education was once considered a privilege for only the upper class. However, during the 17th and 18th century centuries, “education, literacy and learning” were gradually provided to “rich and poor alike”.[4] The literacy rate in Europe from the 17th century to the 18th century grew significantly. The definition of the term "literacy" in the 17th and 18th centuries is different from our current definition of literacy. Historians measured the literacy rate during the 17th and 18th century centuries by people’s ability to sign their names. However, this method of determining literacy did not reflect people’s ability to read. This affected the women’s apparent literacy rate prior to the Age of Enlightenment mainly because while most women living between the Dark Ages and the Age of Enlightenment could not write or sign their names, many could read, at least to a certain some extent.[5]

The rate of literacy increased more rapidly in more populated areas and areas where there was mixture of religious schools. The literacy rate in England in 1640s was around 30 percent for males, rising to 60 percent in mid-18th century. In France, the rate of literacy in 1686-90 was around 29 percent for men and 14 percent for women, it increased to 48 percent for men and 27 percent for women.[6]

The increase in literacy rate was likely due, at least in part, to religious influence since most of the schools and colleges were organized by clergy, missionaries, or other religious organizations. The reason which motivated religions to help to increase the literacy rate among the general public was because the bible was being printed in more languages and literacy was thought to be the key to understanding the word of God.[7] “By 1714 the proportion of women able to read had risen, very approximately, to 25%, and it rose again to 40% by 1750. This increase was part of a general trend, fostered by the Reformation emphasis on reading the scripture and by the demand for literacy in an increasingly mercantile society. The group most affected was the growing professional and commercial class, and writing and arithmetic schools emerged to provide the training their sons required” [8]

In the 18th century, states were paying more attention to their educational systems because they recognized that their subjects are more useful to the state if they are well educated. The conflicts between the crown and the church helped the expansion of the educational systems. In the eyes of the church and the state, universities and colleges were institutions that existed to maintain the dominance of one over the other. The downside of this conflict was that the freedom of thought on the subjects taught in these institutions was restricted. An educational institution was either a supporter of the monarchy or the religion, never both.[9]

Also, changes in educational criteria for higher income professions such as lawyers and physicians became stricter, e.g., requirements to have certain educational experience before being licensed, helped to promote increases in the numbers of students attending universities and colleges.[10]

Print Culture[edit]

The explosion of the print culture, which started in the 15th century with Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press, was both a result of and a cause of the increase in literacy. The number of books published in the period of the Enlightenment increased dramatically due to the increase in demand for books, which resulted from the increased literacy rates and the declining cost and easier availability of books made possible by the printing press. There was a shift in the percentages of books printed in various categories during the 17th century.

Religious books had comprised around 50% of all books published in Paris at that time. However, the percentage of religious books dropped to 10% by 1790 and there was an increase in the popularity of books such as almanacs.[11] The scientific literature in French might have increase slightly but mostly it remained fairly constant throughout the 18th century. However, contemporary literature seems to have increased as the century progressed.[12] Also, there was a change in the languages that books were printed in. Before the 18th century, a large percentage of the books were published in Latin. As time progressed, there was a decline in the percentage of books published in Latin. Concurrently, the percentage of books published in French, and other languages, increased throughout Europe.[13]

Of course the importance of print culture to education is not simply about counting publication figures. Students had to use the books that were given to them and they had to use pen and paper to organise and make sense of the information that they were learning.[14] In this sense print culture was closely tied to manuscript culture, particularly the skills and routines associated with note-taking. Perhaps one of the most notable accomplishments of Enlightenment educational systems is that they taught students how to efficiently manage information on paper, both in school and then in university.[15]

Public Libraries[edit]

During the Enlightenment period, there were changes in the public cultural institutions, such as libraries and museums. The system of public libraries was a product of the Enlightenment. The public libraries were funded by the state and were accessible to everyone for free.[16]

Prior to the Enlightenment, libraries in Europe were restricted mostly to academies and the private collections of aristocrats and other wealthy individuals. With the beginning of state funded institutions, public libraries became places where the general public could study topics of interest and educate themselves. During the 18th century, the prices of books were generally too high for the average person, especially the most popular works such as an encyclopedias.[17] Therefore, the public libraries offered commoners a chance of reading literature and other works that previously could only be read by the wealthier classes.

Intellectual Exchange[edit]

During the 18th century, the increase in social gathering places such as coffeehouses, clubs, academies and Masonic Lodges provided alternative places where people could read, learn and exchange ideas. In England, coffeehouses became public spaces where political, philosophical and scientific ideas were being discussed. The first coffeehouse in Britain was established in Oxford in 1650 and the number of coffeehouses expanded around Oxford.[18]

The coffeehouse was a place for people to congregate, to read, to learn and to debate with each other. Another name for the coffeehouse is the Penny University, because the coffeehouse had a reputation as a place of informal learning.[19] “The popularization of new ideas encouraged further changes in the habits and beliefs of many ordinary people. Reading clubs and coffeehouses allowed many urban artisans and businessmen to discuss the latest reform ideas.” [20] Even though the coffeehouses were generally accessible to everyone, most of the coffeehouses did not allow women to participate. Clubs, academies, and Lodges, although not entirely open to the public, established venues of intellectual exchange that functioned as de facto institutions of education.

Rise of Feminism in Education[edit]

During the 17th century, there were a number of schools dedicated to girls, but the cultural norm was for girls to be informally educated at home. During the 18th century, there was an increase in the number of girls being educated in schools. This was especially true for middle-class families whose rising financial status and social aspirations made providing an aristocratic style of education for their daughters both desirable and possible.[21]

In France, one of the most famous schools for girls was the Saint-Cyr, which was founded by Madame de Maintenon. Although, the school Saint-Cyr was meant to educate women, it did not dare to challenge the traditional views towards women. Therefore, the fact that there were schools for women did not bring about a social change because the schools themselves did not challenge the social status quo. Women were excluded from learning subjects such as science and politics. In October, 1795, France created “a National Institute and Normal Schools that excluded women from the professional study of Philosophy”[22] In d’Épinay’s recollection of her childhood education, she pointed out that girls were not taught much of anything and that a proper education was considered to be inappropriate for the female sex. The main issue about female education relates to the traditional view of women’s weakness being due to nature. However, there were people, such as John Locke and d’Épinay, who argue that women’s weakness was due to faulty education.[23]

During the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, there was a rise in number of publications of material written by women writers. The number of women who published their works in French during the 18th century remained constant around 55-78 works published per year.[24] Also, during the years after the French revolution from 1789–1800, the numbers increased to 329 works published per year. The reason for this increase in publication is most likely because the restrictions on publication were looser during this period. However, the increase in number of publication suggests that there was an increase in women’s education, allowing more women to become writers.


  1. ^ ideafinder, 1-7-14)
  2. ^ Encyclopædia Britannica, "Education," in "Encyclopædia Britannica Online" (accessed on April 3, 2009).
  3. ^ de Bellaigue, (2007) P. 11
  4. ^ Kurtz, (1994), P. 14 & 15.
  5. ^ Melton, (2001), P. 81-82.
  6. ^ Melton, (2001), P. 81-82.
  7. ^ American Eras. 8 vols. Gale Research 1997-1998, "Education Overview" (Access on April 3, 2009).
  8. ^ de Bellaigue, (2007) P. 12
  9. ^ Brockliss, (1987), P. 445-453.
  10. ^ Brockliss, (1987), p. 5.
  11. ^ Melton, (2001), p. 88.
  12. ^ Darnton, (1982), p. 179-181.
  13. ^ MDarnton, (1980), p. 28.
  14. ^ Eddy, Matthew Daniel (2013). "The Shape of Knowledge: Children and the Visual Culture of Literacy and Numeracy". Science in Context 26: 215–245. doi:10.1017/s0269889713000045. 
  15. ^ Eddy, Matthew Daniel (2010). "Tools for Reordering: Commonplacing and the Space of Words in Linnaeus's Philosophia Botanica". Intellectual History Review 20: 227–252. doi:10.1080/17496971003783773. 
  16. ^ Greenhalgh, (1995), p. 19-20.
  17. ^ Darnton, (1979), p. 12.
  18. ^ Cowan, (2005), p. 90.
  19. ^ Cowan, (2005), p. 99.
  20. ^
  21. ^ de Bellaigue, (2007), p. 14.
  22. ^ Hesse, (2001), preface timeline.
  23. ^ Knott, (2005), p. 226.
  24. ^ Hesse, (2001), p. 37.