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History: “a school of morality to mankind”

Juan Gomez writes…

Throughout the last few years we have presented a number of posts on education and experimental philosophy in the Early Modern period. Peter Anstey and Alberto Vanzo have commented on teaching experimental philosophy (Desaguliers, Adams, and Meiners), Gerard Wiesenfelt delighted us with two posts on universities in seventeenth-century Europe (Sturm and de Volder), and I have discussed education in Aberdeen (Fordyce and Gerard) and England (Bentham). Today I want to contribute to our research on education by discussing Turnbull’s ideas on learning and virtue.

Even though scholars have recognized that there were significant developments in educational theory in the Early Modern Period, almost all of their accounts are French-centred and the only British author they refer to is Locke, due to his influential Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693). Of course, the bulk of the educational treatises of the eighteenth century were produced by French authors (Voltaire, Rollins, Diderot, Condorcet, etc.), but this does not mean that important works on education were not being produced outside of France. Turnbull’s Observations upon Liberal Education (1742) is a salient example here. Turnbull (with the exception of a recent article by Tal Gilead) is hardly even mentioned in scholarly accounts of education in the eighteenth-century, despite the fact that his book on education had a considerable impact at the time. Besides having a clear influence on Alexander Gerard and the educational reforms in the Aberdeen universities after 1750, Turnbull also appears as a major influence in Benjamin Franklin’s Proposals Relating to the Education of the Youth in Pennsylvania (1749). Further, even though many of the ideas in Turnbull’s Education also appear in Locke and Rollins’ work, Turnbull’s commitment to the experimental methodology gives his text a unique feature among the educational works of the time.

Turnbull, like Locke and Rollins before him, firmly believes that the main goal of education is the teaching of virtue. This popular idea of the time takes on a unique development in Education, where Turnbull applies the experimental method to his pedagogical theory:

    …as with regard to the culture of plants or flowers, sure rules can only be drawn from experiment; so for the same reason, there can be no sure rules concerning education but those which are founded on the experimental knowledge of human nature.

So where are we to find the experiments Turnbull hints at? If the aim of education is the achievement of virtue, then those experiments must contribute to this same purpose. We have already discussed that paintings can take on this role. However, in Education the role of experiments is taken up by the example of teachers and of historical characters. Turnbull refers to Horace to illustrate this method of educating:

    For ’tis by examples that good and bad conduct, with their various effects and consequences, the strength and grace to which men, by proper diligence, may arrive, and the baseness and misery into which vice plunges, most strongly appear…This, indeed, is the moral lesson every more exalted example in the records of human affairs presents to us in the most striking light, and to which cannot be too early or too forcibly inculcated from fact and experience… The characters of the more considerable personages of moral history, will afford, to a judicious instructor, excellent opportunities of enforcing, of deeply riveting this important lesson upon young minds.

History takes a primary role in Turnbull’s theory of education, given that it furnishes us with the experiments that allow us to direct the mind towards virtue. In another of his texts, a preliminary discourse to a translation of Justin’s History of the world (1742), Turnbull paraphrases Rollin to illustrate the priority of teaching history:

    History therefore, when it is well taught, becomes a school of morality to mankind, of all conditions and ranks. It discovers the deformity and fatal consequences of vices, and unmasks false virtues; it disabuses men of their popular errors and prejudices; and despoiling riches of all its enchanting and dazzling pomp and magnificence, demonstrates by a thousand examples, which are more persuasive than reasonings, that there is nothing truly great or praise-worthy, but untainted honour and probity.

Rollin and Turnbull share this belief in the supreme importance of history for teaching virtue, but unlike the former’s, Turnbull’s theory stands on his belief that the experimental method is the proper way of gaining any kind of knowledge. One of Turnbull’s original and interesting contributions to eighteenth-century educational theory is his interpretation of historical accounts as proper examples that provides us with adequate facts and observations for the instruction of virtue, in the same way experiments allow us to construct our conclusions in natural philosophy. Of course, the question of the accuracy of historical reports springs up; can inaccurate or false historical reports still contribute to the instruction of virtue? For example, an historical account that somehow illustrates that greed leads to happiness and the progress of society would not, presumably, be of service to the goal of education that Turnbull wishes. However, by insisting on the importance of the experimental method Turnbull has a way out: only those historical accounts that are founded on facts and observations are to be considered in the education of our youth. Turnbull did not deal with this issue in enough detail in Education, but he did discuss the issue of the reliability of historical reports in another context (religious testimony) which we will explore in my next post.

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