The Role of Education Redefined: 18th century British and French educational thought and the rise of the Baconian conception of the study of nature



The idea that science teaching in schools should prepare the ground for society's future technical and scientific progress has played an important role in shaping modern education. This idea, however, was not always present. In this article, I examine how this idea first emerged in educational thought. Early in the 17th century, Francis Bacon asserted that the study of nature should serve to improve living conditions for all members of society. Although influential, Bacon's idea was not easily assimilated by educational thinkers who remained committed to the traditional aims of teaching about nature. Yet in the second half of the 18th century a change has occurred; educational thinkers started to embrace Baconian ideas and therefore argued that science teaching should be oriented towards generating future scientific progress. Analysing the work of 18th century French and British educational thinkers, this article links the emergence of this new view to developments in the understanding of natural philosophy and to a rising interest in it. It is argued, however, that in themselves, these developments could not adequately explain why Baconian ideas started to influence educational theory in the time in which they did. It is maintained that the incorporation of Baconian ideas into educational thought resulted from a fundamental theoretical shift in the understanding of the role of education itself.