The Improvement of Humanity: Education and the French Revolution

The Improvement of Humanity: Education and the French Revolution

The Improvement of Humanity: Education and the French Revolution

The Improvement of Humanity: Education and the French Revolution

Excerpt

L'éducation peut tout. "Education can do anything." The phrase was coined by Helvétius in his posthumous treatise On Man, published in French in 1773. It reduced to three words the point of his two-volume work, known in full as On Man, his intellectual faculties and his education, which presented a theory of human nature in which education became an almost universal corrective to human and social ills. Though considered simplistic and disputed in its own time, Helvétius' book echoed one of the main themes of the Enlightenment. A "sensationalist" or associationist psychology saw the contents of the mind as arising from sensations and from the association of ideas derived from the senses. The mind at birth was a kind of blank tablet to be written on, or clay yet to be molded. It followed that the behavior of individuals and of nations could be attributed to environment, whether of climate, social institutions, religion, the family, the schools, or the teachers and parents to whom children and young persons were exposed. A pervasive environmentalism gave new impetus to the study of society, or to what would become the social sciences including a science of education, in a general atmosphere of expectation for the improvement of humanity.

That "education could do anything" was therefore by no means the only message that Helvétius meant to convey. He insisted also that the most important part of education was the moral part, which should instill "virtue," or a set of desirable attitudes and habits. True morality, he said, had nothing to do with religion, and indeed a perverse morality was inculcated by priests. It followed that there must be "no priests or no true morality." Organized religion would have to disappear. Existing society must be transformed. The ignorant, he went on, suppose the world to be changing and immobile. The enlightened know that radical change can easily occur. To them "the moral world presents . . . the always varied spectacle of a perpetual revolution." Such were the powers of priestcraft and bad government that "any important reform in the moral part of education presupposes one in the form of government and of the laws." Or in other words, "the . . .

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