Social Engineering in the 1790s

by Kieran Healy on January 5, 2004

A choice bit from Juliet Barker’s gigantic Wordsworth: A Life.

Tom Wedgwood was a committed philanthropist and Godwinian. Anxious to do his part for the furtherance of mankind, he had, in correspondence with Godwin, determined to devote a portion of his wealth to the education of a genius … Wedgwood had come up with a scheme. The child was to be protected from contact with bad example and from sensory overload by never being allowed to go out of doors or leave its apartment. The nursery was to be painted grey, with only a couple of vivid coloured objects to excite its senses of sight and touch. It was to be surrounded by hard objects to continually ‘irritate [its] palms’ … A superintendent [would] ensure that the child connected all its chief pleasures with rational objects and acquired a habit of ‘earnest thought’.

Wordsworth, to his credit, was not impressed by this plan.



nolo 01.05.04 at 11:07 pm

Sounds like the way John Stuart Mill was brought up . . .


Kieran Healy 01.05.04 at 11:09 pm

Except for the continually irritated palms.


Jolhn Isbell 01.05.04 at 11:28 pm

Dr. Marvin Monroe, explaining to Mr. Burns why he needs a million dollars in order to raise a child from infancy inside a small box: “I expect him to grow up with inadequate social skills and a deep-seated hostility to me.”


Alan 01.05.04 at 11:30 pm

I trust I’m not the only one immediately reminded of the episode of the Simpsons where Maggie goes to the Ayn Rand School for Tots to learn to “develop the bottle within.”


Matt Weiner 01.05.04 at 11:39 pm

Damn you, John! I wanted to post that first.


Ophelia Benson 01.05.04 at 11:48 pm

Well, I wanted to post the thing about Mill but I was too late too.

William and Dorothy W. did better by little Basil than a grey box, at least.


Conrad Barwa 01.06.04 at 12:02 am

Puts me in mind of the Alan Moore comic, ‘Tom Strong’ where an earnest Victorian dad takes his pregnant wife to some Pacific Island where he plans to bring up his son in a completely controlled environment; which involves, if I remember correctly some sort of pressurised chamber to develop a stronger bone structure and physique; meaning that his wife and himself can only ever interact with the child while wearing pressure-resistant suits. Being a comic book, this doesn’t quite traumatise the child in the way it should and he grows up to be remarkably well-adjusted.

Ah well, a silly idea, if ever there was one.


PG 01.06.04 at 12:42 am

Also like Peter in “City of Glass.”


Nick 01.06.04 at 5:27 am

I was just expecting the extract to end with ‘and lo, we have succeeded and the many children of this method now blog at’


clew 01.06.04 at 5:52 am

I was just reading a Maria Edgeworth story that includes the “Rational Toy-shop”, but the children’s walls certainly weren’t painted grey.


Kieran Healy 01.06.04 at 7:15 am

I was just expecting the extract to end with ‘and lo, we have succeeded and the many children of this method now blog at’

They can be found doing tireless work on certain other blogs, irritated palms and all.


Mr Spectator 01.06.04 at 7:30 am

There seems to have been a lot of it about, back then. Rousseau scholars beware!


Chris Bertram 01.06.04 at 9:23 am

Damn – beaten to it. I was going to mention _The Lunar Men_ . There’s an “online edition of Emile”: , being a complete French text and a rather good reworking by Grace Roosevelt of Barbara Foxley’s translation. It isn’t clear from the excerpt from _Wordsworth_ whether the Wedgwood scheme is Rousseauian or not. The key feature of Rousseau’s programme is, basically, that the tutor does not seek to educate the child by command (since that would awaken the reactive attitudes prematurely) but rather manipulates the child’s environment so that the child discovers the world for itself but in an order and in a manner selected by the tutor.


Ophelia Benson 01.06.04 at 5:59 pm

But the way D and W went about raising young Basil was Rousseau-influenced, wasn’t it? Or wasn’t it.

And Wedgwood was peripherally involved in that project, if I remember correctly. Via correspondence, influence, etc? Or do I not remember correctly.

There’s something so right, so as it were providential, in the intermingling of the Darwins and the Wedgwoods – in the fact that Darwin was half-Wedgwood, and also married one.


Arthur D. Hlavaty 01.07.04 at 12:36 pm

A similar program (without the palm irritation) produced the Buddha, though not quite in the way intended.

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