Victoria Russell

Radical Education and the Platonic Androgyne: The Challenge to Socio-Political Hegemony in England between 1790 and 1840.

This paper explores a lacuna in English history. It analyses the seldom-studied and largely implicit notion of psychological androgyny that arose amongst radicals of largely rational dissent in England between 1790 and 1840 and the impact that such ideas had upon educational practices and indeed society.

Fears and insecurities occasioned by revolution, war and industrial expansion were leading to ever more conservative and polarised notions of sexual character. Radicals, many of whom were Unitarian, sought instead to promote a more gender-neutral image of mankind. Influenced by a resurgent German-led Platonism, radicals argued that Man was in mind and soul androgynous. The biological could not determine the psychological and a weak body, whether male or female, was not evidence of a weak and dependent mind. Mental and emotional differences between and within the sexes were arbitrary products of social engineering. Power lay in the mind of the individual.

The failures of the French Revolution had demonstrated that suffrage and democracy were not in themselves remedies to inequality. And where conventional methods of lobbying and petitioning had arguably failed to achieve long hoped-for reforms, radicals believed that a broad education for both sexes would prove the most effective means of advancing positive and enduring socio-political change. ‘A complete reform in education,’ it was argued, ‘would bring with it all other reforms which the present state of society requires.’ It would be a revolution not of violence but of the mind.

This paper therefore looks at how radical educationists sought to introduce holistic, gender-neutral curriculums that would help to eradicate the sexual dichotomy. Minds united in sympathy and understanding would, they believed, bring forth a more dynamic, creative and progressive society.

I began my research believing, rather naively, that radicals were forceful, belligerent types/groups, existing on the margins of society and dominated by the desire to effect immediate, fundamental change. In approaching the subject from perhaps the less fashionable perspective of education and the middling classes, my opinion altered. This paper looks at how lessons learned from the French Revolution encouraged English radicals of largely rational dissent to adopt a more subtle, long-term approach. Surviving curriculums and educational texts demonstrate that English radicalism from the late eighteenth century was not a spent force. Instead, education was becoming the platform upon which a more pragmatic and to some more insidious and subversive radicalism was emerging.

About Victoria Russell
I am a PhD student at Birkbeck, University of London. My thesis explores how a small and largely overlooked group of middling-class radicals, most of them Unitarian, strove to disprove what they considered to be unhealthy notions of ‘sexual excellence’. My research considers how humanist beliefs in the fluid nature of psychology and mind impacted upon the institutions of education and marriage. It also considers the negative impact that associations with Platonic theories of love and friendship, both implicit and explicit, had upon this movement.

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