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Scepticism and experience in the educational writing of William Godwin

Thomas, Richard Gough (2015) Scepticism and experience in the educational writing of William Godwin. Doctoral thesis (PhD), Manchester Metropolitan University.

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Abstract

This thesis focuses on the educational thought of William Godwin (1756-1836) and how it is expressed through his essays and fiction. Attention here focuses on the Account of the Seminary (1783), The Enquirer (1797), and the preface to Bible Stories (1803). Godwin’s key argument is that the imagination must be developed through reading. In this, Godwin saw the potential for subsequent generations to live wiser and happier lives than their predecessors, with reading offering a place for young people to learn without being forced to conform to the models offered by previous generations under the authority Godwin saw as inherent to conventional pedagogy. This thesis argues that Godwin’s education writing represents the convergence of the author’s epistemology, his passion for literature, and his vision of the continuous improvement of humanity. Godwin’s ideas are rooted in a profoundly sceptical theory of knowledge, and this rejection of certainty contributes both to Godwin’s principled rejection of authority and his acknowledgement of its utility in education. The author’s search for an ethical solution to this conflict is seen in the contrast between his rejection of Rousseau’s Émile (1762) and his affection for Fénelon’s Telemachus (1699), culminating in his own novel Fleetwood (1805). Godwin’s writing for children, exemplified by his Fables Ancient and Modern (1805), shows the author attempting to create texts that teach children to think for themselves – books that reject the mantle of literary authority.

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