Item of the Day: Priestley’s Lectures (1791)

Full Title: Lectures on History, and General Policy: To which is prefixed, An Essay on a Course of Liberal Education for Civil and Active Life. By Joseph Priestley, LL.D. F. R. S. Third Edition. Dublin: Printed for Luke White and P. Byrne. 1791.

An Essay on a Course of Liberal Education, For Civil and Active Life. First Published in 1764.

It seems to be a defect in our present system of public education, that a proper course of studies is not provided for gentlemen who are designed to fill the principal [sic] stations of active life, distinct from those which are adapted to the learned professions. We have hardly any medium between an education for the counting-house, consisting of writing, arithmetic, and merchants-accounts, and a method of institution in the abstract sciences: so that we have nothing liberal, that is worth the attention of gentlemen, whose views neither of these two opposite plans may suit.

Formerly, none but the clergy were thought to have any occasion for learning. It was natural, therefore, that the whole plan of education, from the grammar-school to the finishing at the university, should be calculated for their use. If a few other persons, who were not designed for holy orders, offered themselves for education, it could not be expected that a course of studies should be provided for them only. And indeed, as all those persons who superintended the business of education were of the clerical order, and had themselves been taught nothing but rhetoric, logic, and school-divinity, or civil law, which comprized [sic] the whole compass of human learning for several centuries, it could not be expected that they could entertain larger, or more liberal views of education; and still less, that they should strike out a course of study, for the use of men who were universally thought to have no need of study; and, of whom, few were so sensible of their own wants as to desire any such advantage.

Besides, in those days, the great ends of human society seem to have been but little understood. Men of the greatest rank, fortune, and influence, and who took the lead in the affairs of state had no idea of the great objects of wise and extensive policy; and therefore could never apprehend that any fund of knowledge was required for the most eminent stations in the community. Few persons imagined what were the true forces of wealth, power, and happiness, in a nation. Commerce was little understood, or even attended to; and so slight was the connexion of the different nations of Europe, that general politics were very contracted. And thus, men’s views being narrow, little previous furniture of the mind was requisite to conduct them. 

The consequence of all this was, that the advances which were made to a more perfect and improved state of society were very slow; and the present happier state of things was brought about, rather by an accidental concurrence of circumstances, than by any efforts of human wisdom and foresight.–We see the hand of Divine Providence in those revolutions which have gradually given a happier turn to affair, while men have been the passive and blind instruments of their own felicity.    

But the situation of things at present is vastly different from what it was two or three centuries ago. The objects of human attention are prodigiously multiplied; the connexions of states are extended; a reflection upon our present advantages, and the steps by which we have arrived to the degree of power and happiness we now enjoy, has shewn us the true sources of them; and so thoroughly awakened are all the states of Europe to a sense of their true interests, that we are convinced, the same supine inattention with which affairs were formerly conducted is no longer safe; and that, without superior degrees of wisdom and vigor in political measures, every thing we have hitherto gained will infallible be lost, and be quickly transferred to our more intelligent and vigilant neighbours. In this critical posture of affairs, more lights and superior industry, are requisite, both to ministers of state, and to all persons who have any influence in schemes of public and national advantage; and consequently a different and a better furniture of mind is requisite to be brought into the business of life. 

  

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Filed under 1790's, Culture, Education, Posted by Matthew Williams

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