The Enlightenment and Advancement in Education


According to Israel (2013), the ‘Enlightenment’ was the most significant and profound intellectual, socio-economic and political evolution of the Western world since the Middle Ages and the most developmental in shaping modernity. This philosophical revolution started not as a definite ‘thing’ or even as a chronological age, but as processes involved with the central place of reason and of experience and experiment in grasping and developing human society (Withers, 2008). The ‘Enlightenment’ is generally thought of as a “European intellectual movement of the late 17th and 18th centuries emphasizing reason and individualism rather than tradition” (English Oxford Living Dictionary, 2019). This period is also often referred to as ‘The Age of Reason’ to denote a time when individuals began to utilise reason to confront matters of philosophy, government, and society. The philosophical Enlightenment was intertwined with the Scientific Revolution. Guider (2015) argues that this “period was characterized by discoveries in mathematics, physics, astronomy, biology, and chemistry, and these discoveries would not have been possible without the use of reason” (p. 5).

In education and educational history, the Age of Enlightenment (1680-1800) created important changes. In an effort for humans to release themselves from the dogmatism that symbolised the ‘dark Middle Ages’, during the Renaissance and Reformation periods in the West, such changes began to exert influence in both philosophy and technology (Abu‐Rabia‐Queder, 2008). This age of modernity seemingly started the move towards the Age of Enlightenment in the 18th Century Europe (Horkheimer, Adorno, & Noeri 1969/2002). In terms of describing the Enlightenment, historians have found it extremely hard to provide a fully acceptable description, but I would use the description put forward by Israel (2013) due to its conciseness. He argues that

Enlightenment is, hence, best characterized as the quest for human amelioration occurring between 1680 and 1800, driven principally by ‘philosophy’, that is, what we would term philosophy, science, and political and social science including the new science of economics lumped together, leading to revolutions in ideas and attitudes first, and actual practical revolutions second, or else the other way around, both sets of revolutions seeking universal recipes for all mankind and, ultimately, in its radical manifestation, laying the foundations for modern basic human rights and freedoms and representative democracy. (p. 7).

With that in mind, to deepen my argument and to give appropriate background on how modern universities came to be; and how the Enlightenment values that reflected education as an instrument of development and social reform remains the fundamental features of any educational system, I will trace the history of the Enlightenment Age up to today briefly by highlighting the key ideas and milestones.

During the late seventeenth century until the eighteenth century, religion was the primary means that obstructed societies from ‘Enlightenment’. Schmidt (1989), points out that religious traditions and sectarianism impedes an individual’s ability to justify the reason behind everyday events. He further suggests that the ultimate aim of the Enlightenment was to release the public from religious fears and superstitions that retracted an individual’s freedom to develop logical and reasoned thought. However, support for religious toleration was hard since the Catholic Church had a significant stake on European societies, and the public recognises the church as the government of the day (Bovey, 2015; Steinfels, 2008). During the Enlightenment Age, scientists who formed theories that the church deemed unacceptable were persecuted (Leveillee, 2011). For example, Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) and Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) were two scientists who published books that went against accepted belief, and as a result, the books were banned (Leveillee, 2011). Under the ban circumstances, Galileo was tried by the Inquisition, and was forced to recant. Until his death in 1642, Galileo was kept under house arrest. In 1938, he published Two New Sciences in Holland – a work on the foundation of mechanics and engineering (Hilliam, 2005; Finocchiaro, 1997). These scientist philosophers were among the first to consider a new way of thinking, and they brought fresh ideas that eventually transformed societies in the West. I will now begin by unwrapping the meaning of the word Enlightenment.

Enlightenment thinking in the 18th century was clearly indicated with the publication of Kant’s essay in 1784, but Lozar (2014) and Bristow (2010) think Descartes (1637) started the period while Dominiczak (2012) cites the work of Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica (1687). In November 1784, Kant submitted a response to the question in the journal – The Berlinische Monatsschrift posed by Johann Friedrich Zollner, a theologian and educational activist: Was ist Aufklarung? (‘What is Enlightenment?’) (Schmidt, 1989). According to Schmidt (1989, p. 269), Kant defines Enlightenment as

man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity. Immaturity is man’s inability to use one’s own understanding without the guidance of another. This immaturity is self-incurred if its cause is not lack of understanding, but lack of resolution and courage to use it without the guidance of another. The motto of enlightenment is therefore: Sapere aude! [Dare to know! Alternatively, Dare to think for yourself or]”Have courage to use your own understanding!”

However, what exactly was it that Kant urged humanity to know? From the above basic definition of Enlightenment, Kant introduces three crucial points. Firstly, as regards to development and immaturity, he raises the question about the importance of history. Secondly, having the freedom to make public use of one’s reason raises the question of critique, and thirdly, to make use of one’s understanding instead of depending on the guidance of others raises the question about freedom (Kant, 1793).

In education, this philosophical debate that took place during the Enlightenment Age disturbed the foundation of education in Europe and many western nations that was based on religious beliefs and superstitions. The debate had a lasting effect on education, and is now what is most often called the “quarrel of the ancients [past] and moderns [present]” (Oelkers, 2002, p. 679). The debate developed during the seventeenth century, exploded in the 1690s and was taken into the eighteenth century. Oelkers (2002) describes ‘the ancients’ as people who were in support of an education founded on “canonized knowledge, taught with textbooks and methods that drew on ancient authors, and implying that all of the knowledge needed in philosophy and science is already available” (p. 681). In contrast, ‘the moderns’ were people who actively reject an education founded on canonised knowledge, but supported an education that acknowledged that “If future learning can bring new truths, old knowledge can no longer be regarded as perfect; thus, ancient authors cannot be the masters of the present.” (Oelkers, 2002, p. 681). Oelkers also cites (Keller, 2000) that argue that “to study Plato or read Homer is not to fill the mind with eternal truths in philosophy or literature. Education must be opened to a new learning, at least in terms of research and the production of knowledge” (p. 681). Moreover, Oelkers suggests “after this historically important debate, education and learning could be connected with the open experience of modern science” (Oelkers, 2002, p. 679).

After years of a philosophical debate between the Ancients and the Modern, the ideas of Enlightenment philosophers namely John Locke (1632-1704) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) introduced new ideas into education. According to Gilead (2005),

For centuries it was almost unquestionably accepted that the main aim of education was to bring man closer to God. For educational purposes, man was perceived first and foremost as the son of God and the function of education was directly derived from this perception. It was commonly agreed that the central role of education was to make man pious in this world and prepare him for a happy life in the next (p. 429).

Within European Society at that time, particularly in France, Grandiere (1998) states that the year 1725 was a crucial point for French educational Enlightenment thinkers in the sense that man was disunited from the beliefs of religion and began to see “man as a member of society and no longer man as the son of God” (Gilead, 2005, p. 429). This radical way of reasoning embraced by the followers of the new educational thought helped to establish many ideas that continue to form the modern educational system today. To paraphrase the words of Grandiere (1998), the ancient religious purposes of education were being exchanged by new social goals. According to Gilead (2005), the followers of the ‘old’ movement “were increasingly concerned with the happiness of man on earth and in particular with his happiness as a member of society”, [whereas for the emerging modern thinkers, they] “placed the emphasis on the mundane aspects of human life” (p. 429).

During this period, there were opposing views on what precisely the emerging modern thinkers meant with their movement and how to achieve some of the ideas they introduced. Charles-Irénée Castel de Saint-Pierre (1658-1743) and Claude Adrien Helvetius (1715-1771), two of the leading figures of the new movement suggest that the end goal of education was to uphold the common good of society. In 1728, Charles-Irénée Castel de Saint-Pierre wrote in the first page of his book on education that “the aim of education is, in general, to make the happiness of the pupil, his parents and the other citizens much greater than it could have been without such an education” (Gilead, 2005, p. 429). Both authors alleged that education should aim at increasing the totality of happiness in society. On the contrary, Rousseau had a radically different view. He argues that the aim of education should “focused on the formation of a happy individual” (Gilead, 2005, p. 438). The former relate the purpose of education to promote the happiness of ‘individuals’ while Rousseau relates the purpose of education to promote the happiness of the ‘individual’. “In Emile [(1762)], [a book by Rousseau,] priority is given to the individual’s good and not, as in Saint Pierre and Helvetius, to the public good” (Gilead, 2005, p. 438) – what I term ‘knowledge dialectic’ – a contradiction between the humanistic and instrumental purposes of knowledge. These apparent opposing views by prominent philosophers continue to shape 21st-century education system. One can argue that just as the origins of these concepts were in tension, they are still very much present in today’s educational landscape. As argued today by some writers (Grace, 2014; Shore, 2010; Codd, 2002), the purpose of education has shifted to one that is aimed at producing raw material (knowledge and graduates), and economic opportunities for society as well as to support the personal growth and happiness of the individual.

The argument between Rousseau and other Enlightenment philosophers in particular created a new way of thinking about education. According to (Oelkers, 2002), this new way of thinking formed the idea of ‘modern education’ which can be described with three key ideas: progress, optimism, and technical knowledge. In this way of thinking, the Enlightenment faith for ‘progress’ was focused on human institutions. For example, the university because they are a place for the application of reason to human advancement (Pinker, 2018). The reformation of education during the Enlightenment based on these ideas repurpose some of the earlier limiting aspects of education. For example, that the primary goal of getting an education is to serve God. Oelkers (2002, p. 689) elaborates the meaning of ‘modern education suggesting that

`Modern’ [education] is the opposite to `traditional’ or `old’ education in every respect, and is independent from political, social or economic contexts. Thus, in 20th-century [and 21st-century] educational discourses, `modern’ [education] could embrace Bolshevist, fascist, liberal, socialist and democratic views, to name only some of its political aspects. Likewise, there have been `modern’ approaches to vocational training, general schooling, education for the handicapped, and so on. The label has only one use – to discriminate between an `old’ education that should be abandoned and a `new’ education that is seen as the only way out…Thus, today’s economic language for education has been successful in replacing the older languages of the philosophy of education because it took the lead in defining what `modern education’ is and what it is not.

The important point worth noting is that the Enlightenment thinkers philosophy was progressive for their period, and as a society, we must move past that and continuously question the state of education because of its role in the society. We (society) need to question the state of education just as the thinkers of the Enlightenment Age did. According to Oelkers (2002),

The theory of education does not need a circle of believers, only arguments that must be discussed without any warranties…critical theory of education should not refer to names, however sacrosanct they seem to be. Sacrosanct names imply two worlds, pro and con, right and left, or bad and good. It is not sufficient to use historiographical fixations; rather, we must overcome them with new and better arguments (p. 691).

Overall, Enlightenment allowed individuals the opportunity to see things for what they were, and differently; and famous words of that period such as “religious intolerance, superstition and magic were replaced by humanism, scientific reasoning and a belief in progress” (Gordon & Lawton, 2002, p. 99). That ideology, manifested today in our educational system is one of the reasons why people could argue freely over matters affecting their educational needs, personal life, and society more broadly.

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Cite: Adelekan, T. A. (2020). The Enlightenment and Advancement in Education. Retrieved from


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