Fifty Major Thinkers on Education: From Confucius to Dewey

By Joy A. Palmer; Liora Bresler et al. | Go to book overview

HERBERT SPENCER 1820-1903

Children should be led to make their own investigations, and to draw their own inferences. They should be told as little as possible, and induced to discover as much as possible. 1

These pregnant words were written by Herbert Spencer in 1861. He had little experience of teaching but he had the most far-reaching influence on teaching and teacher training; he was compared by R.H. Quick in his Essays on Educational Reformers (1868) with Mulcaster, Ascham and Locke, and H.E. Armstrong advised all teachers to read Spencer's Education to 'have clear ideas on the subject'. 2

Herbert Spencer was born in Derby on 27 April 1820 to a family of ardent Wesleyans; his paternal grandfather Matthew was a schoolmaster, while his father George was a man of fixed and stubborn social and religious views who had married Harriet Holmes, the daughter of a local plumber, in 1819. Spencer's early education was however neglected and at the age of 13 he was sent to live near Bath with his uncle Thomas, a radical thinker and priest. He learnt a lot from the former don at Cambridge and was offered a place at the university at the age of 16, which he declined. For three months in 1837 he was assistant to a schoolmaster in Derby. He left to be assistant to Charles Fox, the resident engineer of part of the London-Birmingham Railway. He did well and became private secretary to Captain Moorson, the engineer-in-chief.

Upon the completion of the railway in 1841 he was sacked. He became honorary secretary of the Derby Branch of the Complete Suffrage Movement and then sub-editor of the organization's newspaper, The Pilot. He was obliged to return to his railway career between 1846 and 1848, but found a secure position as sub-editor of the Economist in 1848. In this post he met many of the leading intellectuals of the day and in 1850 published Social Statics: or the Conditions Essential to Human Happiness which aimed to show 'every man has freedom to do all that he wills, provided he infringes not the equal freedom of any other man'. His friend G.H. Lewes (1817-78), the partner of George Eliot, the writer, was editor of the Leader, a radical paper, and it was in that journal that Spencer in an article on 'Development Hypothesis' in March 1852 defended the theory of organic evolution, some seven years before Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species. He was endeavouring to discover scientific laws within his evolutionary framework by which individuals could manage their own lives without interference from government. Where Darwin confined his theory to biology, Herbert Spencer applied evolution to all nature and society. His thinking influenced Alfred Russell Wallace (1823-1913), the naturalist, who also made an important pre-Darwinian contribution to the theory of evolution.

A legacy from his uncle Thomas freed him in 1853 from the need to earn his living for some years. He travelled in England and Scotland and to Switzerland where physical over-exertion caused a cardiac disturbance from which he never recovered. He wrote The Principles of Psychology (1855) but mental overwork led to a nervous breakdown from which again he never fully recovered. The book was innovative in its evolutionary psychology and sowed the seeds of his devotion of most of the rest of his life to the

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Fifty Major Thinkers on Education: From Confucius to Dewey
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Chronological List of Contents v
  • Alphabetical List of Contents viii
  • Preface xiii
  • Confucius 551-479 Bce 1
  • Further Reading 5
  • Notes 9
  • Books on Aristotle''s Educational Ideas 20
  • Saint Augustine 354-430 25
  • John Wesley 1703-91 50
  • Kant''s Major Writings 64
  • Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel 1770-1831 84
  • John Henry Newman 1801-90 100
  • Herbert Spencer 1820-1903 120
  • Thomas Henry Huxley 1825-95 128
  • Further Reading 146
  • Alfred Binet 1857-1911 160
  • Émile Durkheim 1858-1917 165
  • Addams'' Major Writings 187
  • Notes 191
  • Harvard (1924-39) 205
  • Émile Jaques-Dalcroze 1865-1950 206
  • Martin Buber 1878-1965 239
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