The Enlightenment period, or the “Age of Reason,” was a cultural movement in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It reformed society using reason and scientific and philosophical developments that challenged ideas based in faith and tradition. Big changes occurred for children, specifically regarding the place they held in their families and the ways parents treated them. Until the Enlightenment period, the “primary goal of parenting was to discipline and break the will of a child via physical means” (Foyster and Marten 3). However, after the period began, parents instead strove to “instill love and mold the child’s mind” (Foyster and Marten 3).
Philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) was a key voice in promoting these ideas of childhood being a “structured time” where it is “the parents’ duty to help the child learn” (Foyster and Marten 4). Concepts of the human mind as a tabula rasa (blank slate) at birth date back at least to the Classical period, but Locke is often credited with originating them. Locke’s insistence that children should be provided with the best possible setting in which to establish their mental processes was pivotal in increasing the cultural attention paid to child development and education.
Building on the notion of childhood as tabula rasa, Genevan philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) argued that humans are born good but become corrupted by society. His 1762 novel Émile, or On Education details his philosophy of childhood instruction, which emphasizes bringing up children away from the city so as to ensure that they are not stunted in the development of their natural gifts. Only when a child is nearing adulthood should he be permitted books and the educational opportunities of urban life. Though sexist by twenty-first century standards, “he” is the correct word in the previous sentence. Rousseau’s educational philosophy primarily focuses on boys. Émile’s female counterpart, Sophie, appears late in the novel, but for her Rousseau prescribes a traditional role in which she learns to serve men from a young age.
While generally a revolutionary time, the Enlightenment was not particularly revolutionary about gender. Although new and radical philosophies were being suggested for children as a group, the gender binary was still at play. Different skills were still taught to boys and girls, and girls’ education focused on the arts and domestic skills such as needlework (Tikoff 95). The education of women was encouraged and “supported as long as it sustained women’s social roles, which were mostly expressed in marriage” (Percy 79). This meant that girls were educated to be wives and were primarily taught to sew and tend a home. Boys were often taught “literacy and numeracy,” which gave them the skills to enter the world and make a living (Tikoff 95). Near the end of the eighteenth century, Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) influentially opposed Rousseau’s anti-feminism in her magnum opus, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (O’Neil). Educated women such as Elizabeth Montagu (1720-1800), Hannah More (1745-1833), and Frances Burney (1752-1840) won so much attention that they earned a nickname, “the bluestockings.” Nineteenth-century women writers such as Jane Austen (1775-1817) and Charlotte Brontë (1816-1855) created strong-minded female characters influenced by both Wollstonecraft’s feminism and earlier Enlightenment rationalism. “Bluestocking” was at times a pejorative term, and Austen’s and Brontë’s heroines end up in traditional roles when they come of age. However, these examples do provide some nuance to Rousseau’s gender traditionalism.
Changing concepts of childhood during the Enlightenment strongly connect to the bildungsroman genre. In fact, Rousseau’s Émile could be considered a bildungsroman, even though it predates the traditional starting point of the genre, the 1795 publication of Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship, by over forty years. The bildungsroman is commonly defined as a “novel of formation,” which is referring usually to a younger male or female character who is molded into maturity by people and experiences throughout the novel (Kastan 2006). The Enlightenment defined childhood as being a relevant developmental stage that required attention and “formation” for a child to mature properly into adulthood. Therefore, the Enlightenment bears a significant causal relationship to the bildungsroman genre.
Besides Rousseau, a variety of authors during the Enlightenment period wrote coming-of-age narratives. One primary example of this is the 1759 Candide by Voltaire (1694-1778). Open-minded and carefully educated, Candide is nevertheless surprised to encounter suffering at every turn when he begins to make his way in the world. Like Émile, Candide can be considered a proto-bildungsroman, but Voltaire’s novel satirizes the more extreme attributes of Enlightenment optimism by revealing how little a private education can do to prepare a young person for the challenges of the outside world.
Satirized or celebrated, the influence of the Enlightenment lasted long after the period itself ended. Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 Little Women documents the lives of four sisters who are guided by their loving mother while they all deal with the difficulties of decision making. In the present century, the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling focuses on the trials of a young man discovering his destiny with the help of a mentor and educator. In their own ways, each of these works reflects the ideas that came about in the Enlightenment: childhood is a valuable time for nurturing, teaching, and molding a child while also loving them and learning from them.
The Enlightenment had radical implications for childhood and what it meant to be a parent. Prior to the Enlightenment, parenting was mainly about disciplining children and pushing them towards adulthood as soon as possible (Ariès). In the Enlightenment, childhood came to be considered a precious time of development, and these ideas of development and maturity in childhood and young adolescence are also the main focus of the bildungsroman genre. However, despite the radical nature of Enlightenment theories, the movement did little to penetrate the gender roles that society so adamantly preserved.
Ariès, Philippe. Centuries of Childhood: a Social History of Family Life. New York: Vintage Books, 1962. Print.
Birch, Dinah. "Enlightenment." The Oxford Companion to English Literature. : Oxford University Press, 2009. Oxford Reference. 2009. Web.
Foyster, Elizabeth, and Marten James. "Introduction." A Cultural History of Childhood and Family in the Age of Enlightenment. Elizabeth Foyster and James Marten. First Edition, Volume 4. New York: Berg Publishers, 2010. 1-13. Print.
Kastan, David Scott. "The Bildungsroman." The Oxford Encyclopedia of British Literature. Oxford: 2012. Web.
O'Neal, John C. "Rousseau, Jean-Jacques." Encyclopedia of the Enlightenment. Oxford University Press, 2002. Oxford Reference. 2005. Web.
Percy, Carol. "Learning and Virtue: English Grammar and the Eighteenth Century Girls' School." Educating the Child in Enlightenment Britain. Eds. Mary Hilton and Jill Shefrin. Surrey, England: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2009. 77-98. Print.
Tikoff, Valentia K. "Education." A Cultural History of Childhood and Family in the Age of Enlightenment. Eds. Elizabeth Foyster and James Marten. New York : Berg Publishers, 2010. 89-109. Print.