Inquiry: Critical Thinking Across the Disciplines

Volume 32, Issue 1, Spring 2021

Adrian O'Connor
Pages 61-82

Enlightenment and Education, Then and Now

Ideas about education and its power to transform people’s intellectual, social, political, and personal lives were central to Enlightenment thought. They were also central to the Enlightenment belief that new ways of thinking engendered new ways of living (and vice versa). Taken together, these points placed education at the heart of early modern debates over the constitution of society, the organization and administration of the polity, the nature and purpose of civil society, and the relations that govern everyday life. To understand this view of education and the Enlightenment debates to which it gave rise, this essay highlights the role of skepticism and uncertainty in Enlightenment thought, the philosophes’ interest in education as an instrument of moral and social improvement, and their commitment to the idea that both individual and collective progress stemmed from critical forms of social intercourse. As a result, we see that the Enlightenment’s educational legacy is not a particular platform or pedagogy, but an ongoing experiment in how the critical and collective pursuit of useful knowledge might reform or remake human society.

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