RUSKIN'S EDUCATIONAL IDEALS by Sarah Atwood, Reviewed by Helana Brigman

By Sarah Atwood
(Ashgate, 2011) vii + 183 pp.
Reviewed by Helana Brigman on 2011-07-03.

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For the Victorians, perhaps no experience was more personal or more important than learning--especially among those bent on reforming education and teaching young women as well as young men.  Learning and teaching alike were often changing processes that challenged one's own relationship to education.  The story of Ruskin's continuing education--as both teacher and lifelong student--exemplifies the development of education in later nineteenth-century England.  While Ruskin's own erudition was fashioned by a traditionally male early nineteenth-century curriculum, Sara Atwood's book shows how he grew to influence learning methods, lessons, content, and purpose for both male and female students throughout the century.  Ranging from Ruskin's role as a teacher-through-correspondence to his favorite role as an "old littérateur" at Winnington Hall School for girls, Ruskin's life as an educator suggests a cumulative experience that demands a long overdue holistic reading--one that may or may not be accomplished in less than 200 pages.

In examining Ruskin as both teacher and lifelong student, Atwood's book joins a rich history of Ruskin studies that neatly bridge the gap between the life and extensive writings of this Victorian thinker.  Atwood herself cites the work of many other Ruskin scholars such as Tim Hilton, Dinah Birch, Van Akin Burd, Robert Hewison, Elizabeth Helsinger, and John Rosenberg.   But her study of Ruskin's educational values--as a life-long pedagogy that may be traced from the smallest of samples to the most widely published works or teachings--expands our understanding of Ruskin's educational views by showing the inter-connected if not evolutionary nature of his pedagogy.  Beginning with individualized instructions sent by letter to his art students, Atwood tracks the long but not impossible road by which Ruskin took his theories of education to the experiment that would become Fors Clavigera.  Along the way, with the aid of fresh critical perspectives supplied by Sharon Aronofsky Weltman and Linda H. Peterson (93), Atwood interrogates Ruskin's theories in terms of gender, sexual stereotypes, and social principles.  Although her volume is short, it reveals a wide command of Ruskin scholarship.

As Atwood presents it, Ruskin's educational philosophy sprang from a childhood of intense passion and curiosity about countless subjects.  Ruskin's criteria for future curricula, she postulates, can be traced to the content of his childhood schooling: "daily Bible lessons, later supplemented by Latin lessons" (7) as well as lessons in geology, botany, animalia, literature, and art (8-18).  His voluminous tendencies, we learn, may also stem from something he formed at the age of six:  a habit of  "writing his own books"  without "the multiple volumes promised on his title pages" (8).  Drawn from Atwood's reading of Praeterita, one of Ruskin's most unconventional and fictionalized works, these would-be curricular facts are the possibly embellished recollections of a mature educator.  But Atwood's reading of what Ruskin dubbed his "forming time" articulates the inter-connectedness of childhood learning with adult perspectives on educational reform (19).  While some scholars might object that her reliance on personal mythology could lead to an exaggerated reading of Ruskin's educational ideals, she finds in this mythology "a species of truth" (11).  Treating Praeterita as a "selective autobiography" rather than a wholly reliable record of Ruskin's early life, Atwood insists that "truths" may be found in this work--even if they are only "imaginative."  At this intersection of nineteenth-century biography and personal mythology, Atwood joins Helen Gill Viljoen and Robert Hewison in giving Praeterita its imaginative credit.  In doing so, she strikes a reasonable balance between the mythology constructed in Praeterita and the biographical facts now voluminously provided by Hilton.

Yet in relying on childhood interests and mythology, Atwood distinguishes her holistic approach from those of other recent publications on Ruskin.  Rather than focusing on distinct aspects of Ruskin's career, Atwood repeatedly contends that one cannot grasp his work in education without studying his cumulative experience, or learning how his theories work to complement each other.  We must consider, for instance, how his later turn to Hellenism complements and thus complicates his early perspectives on Christianity.  Although Ruskin found much to appreciate in the content of his early education, Atwood argues that "he did not look to it as a model for his own educational schemes" in part because of its overreliance on Evangelical beliefs (21).  Instead, Ruskin sought to study Christianity alongside Hellenistic works in a broad, inclusive, and often dizzying manner.  Pairings like these, Atwood shows, would later guide the social reform elements of his lessons as a lecturer, professor, and man of letters, for it was through this particular combination of Hellenism and art that Ruskin first met with the "Law of Help." 

It is Atwood's use of this law that best ties her book together.  Introduced in Modern Painters but reinvented throughout all of Ruskin's epochs and teachings, the Law of Help--as defined by Atwood--is the "way in which all elements of a drawing or painting work together to produce an organic whole" (50).  The integration here defined reached beyond the boundaries of art to nature, science, and most importantly, society itself.  Noting that the Law of Help "underpins all of Ruskin's teachings," Atwood argues that Ruskin's biggest concern with teaching wholeness through individualized structure was to make "the carpenter happy as a carpenter" or the citizen happy as the citizen.  Finding this message of inter-relation in all of Ruskin's volumes, Atwood observes that Ruskin taught the law of help not only to his students but also to himself with analogies like the scientific composition of crystals in The Ethics of the Dust (109).

So what were Ruskin's educational ideals? Two chapters--"The Professor" and "Souls of Good Quality"--suggest some notable answers.  Using the Law of Help to introduce a variety of Ruskin's lessons, Atwood cites examples of both theory and praxis.  According to Atwood, morality motivates all of Ruskin's pedagogies--ranging from the moral purposes behind his   early art instruction of the 1840s and 50s to the moral significance he placed on books and reading in the 1860s (92).  Furthermore, Atwood reminds us, Ruskin made a major point of teaching women, first as his art students by correspondence and later as his direct pupils at Winnington Hall.  While teaching male students at Oxford, Ruskin often gave extra lectures for women so as to give them access to material traditionally reserved for men.  This early commitment to the education of women permeates much of Ruskin's writings on educational reform.  Significantly, Atwood defends Sesame and Lilies--Ruskin's best-known book on male and female curricula in the 1860s--against feminists such as Kate Millet.  While Millet (in Sexual Politics) pilloried the book for its restrictive assignment of sex roles, Atwood argues  that the volume generously treats its female readers as future "queens," and she also explains why Ruskin admired his female students.  At Winnington Hall, for instance, where they helped him index the fifth volume of Modern Painters, he thought they did it better than his publisher. It may be objected, of course, that  indexing is a lesser skill that will simply enable these future "queens"  to assist the "kingly" citizens of England and thus preserve the subordinate status of females.  But Ruskin, Atwood reminds us, clearly believed that English society needed the help of intelligent, well-educated women. According to Atwood, then, morality and the education of women are both crucially important to Ruskin's theories of education. 

The culminating expression of these theories is what Atwood considers Ruskin's greatest work on education--Fors Clavigera.  In this volume, Ruskin unifies "all subjects of study" and shows how to make the process of learning active and visual (119).  Linking Fors strongly to the works that preceded it, Atwood argues that an educational system steeped in morality was not only different from England's existing system, but also necessary for its future (120).  Just as Fors presented itself as the ultimate educational experiment in Ruskin's own life, Atwood's account of it--previously published in the special Ruskin edition of Nineteenth-Century Prose (35.1, 2008)--is the strongest chapter in her book.  Here she shows how praxis--although new to the Victorians--both began and realized itself within Ruskin's unyielding pedagogy.

But how much is really new here? In spite of Atwood's desire to impress readers with a holistic reading of Ruskin's pedagogical method, her well-researched reconstruction of Ruskin's morality-driven views on educational reform adds little to the critical tradition in which Ruskin's teachings now sit.  Yes, many Ruskin scholars would agree with Atwood's claims regarding Ruskin's commitment to the education of women, the moral purpose behind his teachings, and the Platonic pedagogies that influenced his writings on educational reform.  But what these teachings meant for social reform itself appears to be missing,  so Atwood's close readings of Ruskin and his theories leave us with pages of "cause" but little "effect."  This disconnect is one price Atwood pays for her brevity.  Standard works like Hilton's Early & Later Years show how extensive a study of Ruskin's pedagogy could be if it were not based on biographical bookmarks but rather drawn out from fine details.  Can Ruskin be holistically defined? When whole books have been dedicated to his work on the education of women, on art, and on botany, can a single short book reliant on biography--or on Ruskin's personal mythology--adequately explain his role as an educator? Ruskin seems the least likely Victorian to be plumbed in short order or circumscribed in an all-encompassing approach.

Yet Atwood's book still has its merits.  While she adds little to existing scholarship on Ruskin's educational theories, she nonetheless strives to read beyond those theories into the life and mind of the man himself.  As Atwood reads him, Ruskin's body of work becomes its own Law of Help communicating the one legacy he hoped to leave behind--social reform produced by a life lived, written, and taught morally.  A tangible sign of this legacy, Atwood reminds us, was Ruskin's establishment of--and work with--the Guild of Saint George, "the model community in which Ruskin hoped to put into action many of the educational theories and projects outlined in the letters [of Fors]" (151).  Atwood herself is a companion to the Guild, which remains a lasting sign of Ruskin's use of education as a source of social transformation.   In a real-world sense, then, Atwood's role as a member of this community links contemporary Ruskin critics to the purposes of social reformation that Ruskin endorsed.  While many books on Ruskin are not published by members of the Guild, this one is clearly influenced by Atwood's commitment to its purposes.

Like any good student of Ruskin, Atwood contends that "[o]ne of Ruskin's great strengths as a teacher was the ability to inspire both people and movements" (4, italics mine).  Students of Ruskin were taught in a traditional sense--led to acquire knowledge--but also taught to see how knowledge informed by morality could drive social progress.  In 1884, after a life spent studiously, John Ruskin wrote that he wished to publish "a volume especially devoted to the subject of education...composed of passages gathered out of the entire series of my works" (4).  Though Ruskin did not compile this volume, Sara Atwood's book offers an abbreviated version of what it might have been.  Yet for all the suggestiveness of this book, a truly comprehensive study of Ruskin's educational theories remains to be written.

Helana Brigman is a Doctoral Candidate in English at Louisiana State University.  She is writing her dissertation on women's education and the "weird sciences" in nineteenth-century England and France.


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