Ruskin's Educational Ideals

Bob Petersen (Sydney, NSW)

History of Education Review

ISSN: 0819-8691

Article publication date: 14 October 2011



Petersen, B. (2011), "Ruskin's Educational Ideals", History of Education Review, Vol. 40 No. 2, pp. 195-196.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

This is a good book. Atwood has tackled the immense amount of material in the 39 ponderous volumes of Ruskin's Collected Works edited by Cook and Wedderburn in 1908‐1914, and extracted from it a sensible and detailed account of Ruskin's educational ideas and practices. In addition she has read judiciously in the more recent sources and in the secondary literature to help reconstruct what he did. It is not a book about his ideals, merely; not about the smoke and mirrors which most educational ideals prove to be, but it is a sensible and detailed account of Ruskin's educational activities.

It must be of course an example of what Sir John Adams called in 1912 the AlsErzieher school of historical writing: choosing people (usually prestigious) who did not write books on education but who made enough scattered comments about it to be collected and made to cohere. Some writers who have been given the AsEducator treatment are Rabelais, Germaine de Stael, Gramsci – but really the list of opinionated celebrities is endless. There was even a Rembrandt as Educator. Ruskin requires this treatment because he did not write the book he always intended, a systematic exposition of his theories. Instead he left masses of obiter scripta.

Atwood takes us through his early years, taught by his mother and tutored at home, then his time at college in Oxford (Christ Church). Then she deals with his teaching, both as the author of the Elements of Drawing (1857); as a tutor of drawing to various young ladies including, I may say here, Adelaide Ironside the Sydney painter whom he taught after her years in Rome and whose productions can be seen in Jill Poulton's fine 1987 biography of Ironside; and as the Slade Professor of Fine Arts at Oxford from 1870 to 1878 and in 1883‐1885. Then she deals with his involvement with girls’ schools and with his books, both the sensible ones and the crazy ones, pulling out educational references. Lastly she deals with his creation of the St George Guild, a utopian scheme for social reform.

In the course of her exposition she has occasion to note the road‐digging experiment, Ruskin's nightmares (considerable), his sex life (negligible), his advocacy of maypole dancing, etc. She does note some disciples, but not Gandhi who translated Unto This Last into Gujarati nor Vinoba Bhave whose educational experiments I believe are still in practice. This book is full of curious information and reads well, though whether it will trigger a Ruskin revival in education is questionable.

If I have one cavil, it is that Atwood accepts without question Ruskin's moral aim. It does not appear that she sees it as the moral aim of the ruling classes. She does not see what Nietzsche saw in 1888, that “for the English morality is not a problem – yet”. And maybe it still isn’t. She would not see Ruskin as Nietzsche portrays Darwin, Mill and Spencer, that is as “respectable but mediocre Englishmen”; nor would she see Ruskin's mentor as “the semi‐actor and rhetorician, the tasteless muddlehead Carlyle”. Ruskin thought that only a Christian could be a gentleman, and proposed to have his moral‐social beliefs taught “not only to every schoolboy, but to every peasant”; and it is surprising that he never wrote a catechism for youngsters about the impossibility of equality among men and the good which arises from their inequality.

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