Robert Owen, a wealthy cotton manufacturer turned Utopian visionary, had an important influence on schooling in early nineteenth-century Britain. Convinced that character was determined by the social environment, he instituted disciplinary practices designed to regulate habits and improve industrial efficiency. His success in shaping behavior convinced him that education could be used to engineer a more moral world.
At New Lanark, a Scottish village dominated by the local cotton mill, Owen attempted to regulate almost every aspect of his workers’ lives. Central to his scheme was the village infant school, where he sought to shape character during the impressionable early years of childhood. In an atmosphere of reason and kindness, boys and girls learned an ethic of cooperation and the basic lessons of science. Owen’s pedagogy, if not his religious and political views, caught the attention of leading reformers. During the 1820s and 1830s, infant education swept Britain, promising a cure for the social ills of urban-industrial life by instructing working-class children in the rudiments of reason and morality.
By this time, Owen’s thought had taken a radical turn. Disgusted by the economic and social effects of capitalism, he promoted the construction of self-supporting socialist villages. Again, education was the key. Eschewing self-interest, members of the community would be taught to embrace reason, cooperation, and the well-being of all. However, as witnessed in the ill-fated society at New Harmony, Indiana, Owen’s dream inevitably fell foul of human nature.
- Harrison, J. (1969). Quest for the new moral world. New York: Scribner.
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