The Enlightenment: Movement Towards “Modern” Education

In rethinking education for the 21st century, we must first have an understanding of how our education system has come to be. Education is a topic that has been addressed by great thinkers of every culture throughout time. Due to its importance and complexity, it is a topic with a very wide scope. As Sebastian Günther wrote in his paper, ‘Be Masters in That You Teach and Continue to Learn: Medieval Muslim Thinkers on Educational Theory’,

…every era is determined by its own distinct characteristics, task, and impulses, but culturally and pedagogically, the circumstances and issues of each age are part of the larger picture of humankind’s development and need to be viewed in this way. In other words, we cannot expect to obtain solutions to the questions we have in education today by simply “deducing” them from the past or “retrieving” them from some universal system of thought. Yet, we can clearly deal with today’s educational issues more successfully when we know their historical contexts and have an adequate understanding of them, since ‘today’s issues in education are often rooted in the historical grounds of the past’… Moreover, with sufficient understanding of what has come before us in the field of education, we will also be more confident in our ability to assess what is, in truth, progress to their field, and thus, to determine what truly needs to be done next in order ‘to see further’ (Günther, 2006: 387).

To give suitable background on how our higher education system came to be, I will go through important ideas and milestones from the Enlightenment up to the present day that have shaped our current system.


During the Enlightenment, an incredibly important philosophical debate that shook the bedrock of education in Europe and changed the landscape of education forever, was what is now referred to as the Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns. The debate built throughout the 17th century, erupted in the 1690’s and carried into the 18th century. On one side were “the ancients” — those who were in favour of an education based on canonized knowledge which drew on ancient authors, as well as textbooks and methods that held that all knowledge needed in philosophy and science was already available. On the other side were “the moderns” — those who were opposed to an education filled simply with the memorization and regurgitation of canonized knowledge. The moderns were in favour of an education which recognized 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. 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” (Oelkers, J. 2002). The Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns and their discussion of modern learning and experiential education, opened the door for what we consider “modern” education. “After this historically important debate, education and learning could be connected with the open experience of modern science” (Oelkers, 2002: 679).

Following years of philosophical discussion sparked by the Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns, the ideas of great Enlightenment thinkers such as Locke and Rousseau launched a new education movement. In Euro-Christian societies, “For centuries it was almost unquestionably accepted that the main aim of education was to bring man closer to God” (Gilead, 2005: 429). But then in 1725, this new education movement was established in France, separated from the religious tradition, with one radical idea — to see “man as member of society, and no longer as the son of God” (Gilead, 2005: 429). The philosophers writing for this educational movement helped to put in place many of the ideas that still shape our education system in many ways. Most significantly, the old religious aims of education were replaced by new social goals (Gilead, 2005: 429). They placed emphasis on the happiness of a person on earth, and particularly their happiness as a member of society. For the thinkers of this new education movement, the goal of education was to “promote earthly happiness” (Gilead, 2005: 429). However, there were differing opinions on what exactly this meant and how to go about achieving it. Two of the prominent philosophers of the movement, Castel de Saint Pierre and Claude Adrian Helvetius believed that the end goal of education was to promote the common good of society. Saint Pierre wrote in 1728, “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: 429). As two of the founders of utilitarianism, they believed that education should increase the overall happiness of society. On the other hand, philosophers such as Rousseau believed that the end goal of education is the formation of a happy individual (Gilead, 2005: 438). “It can be said that [Saint Pierre and] Helvetius’ education was for the happiness of individuals whereas Rousseau’s was for the happiness of the individual” (Gilead, 2005: 438). These seemingly conflicting viewpoints have both, in their own ways, shaped our contemporary education system. However, I believe that just as the roots of these concepts were in conflict at their conception, they still are in the way they have evolved into our current education system. We have an education system that is aimed at providing society with an educated population/workforce, while at the same time we consider the personal growth and happiness of the individual to be a primary aim of education (Gilead, 2005: 439). These two conceptions of the purpose of education remain seemingly in conflict with one another within our current education system, leaving us with the questions — “Are we mainly interested in the happiness of the sole individual? Or are we interested in that of the greatest number? Is our primary goal social efficiency? Or is it individual development?” (Gilead, 2005: 439). I believe that within higher education in the 21st century, we can have these two educational goals work in tandem. In articles to follow, I will discuss how we can create educational environments in which promoting the happiness and development of the individual, and promoting the happiness and common good of society are not two seemingly different or even opposing goals.

The enlightenment philosophers who created a new way of viewing education, and the resulting education movement, created the concept of “modern education” which can be defined by three facets — progress, optimism, and technical knowledge (Oelkers, 2002: 688). The reconstruction of education during the Enlightenment, which took these three facets into account, shook off many of the previously limiting aspects of education — such as education purely as memorization of the classics, or education with the primary goal of serving God. However, one aspect of the Enlightenment view of education that was of its time, but is now a limiting legacy for education today, is how intelligence was defined. The Enlightenment view of intelligence and academic ability was based on deductive reasoning and knowledge of the classics. While the Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns expanded education to include more than knowledge of the classics, it was still considered highly important, and deductive reasoning was incredibly important for education that was moving into modern scientific thinking and research. However, this legacy has led to how we still define academic ability, and has led us to use those qualifications to divide people into academic and non-academic people. This leaves many brilliant people with diverse talents to suffer in academic systems, and to never have the opportunity to discover or recognize their unique abilities (Robinson, 2010b). I believe it is absolutely vital to redefine academic ability in our education system.


As the thinkers of the Enlightenment did, we need to break away from simply relying on past educational theories and thinkers to define our current education system. While the ideas and legacies of philosophers of the past have helped guide our education system to where it is today, we need to acknowledge that their thinking was progressive for their time, not for ours. In order to rethink and reconstruct education fit for the 21st century we must acknowledge the brilliance of the ideas and philosophers of the past, but at the same time move past holding their conceptions of education on a pedestal. In honour of their revolutionary legacy we need to not simply hold their world as “sacrosanct”. We need to question the state of education just as they did. As said by educationalist Jürgen Oelkers, “The theory of education does not need a circle of believers, only arguments that must be discussed…critical theory of education should not refer to names, however sacrosanct they seem to be…It is not sufficient to use historiographical fixations; rather, we must overcome them with new and better arguments” (Oelkers, 2002: 691).


Émilie du Châtelet (by Nicolas de Largillière) and Her iMac G3

Works Cited

Gilead, T. 2005. ‘Reconsidering the roots of current perceptions: Saint Piette, Helvetius and Rousseau on education and the individual’. History of Education, vol. 34, no. 4. pp. 427–439.

Günther, S. 2006. ‘Be Masters in That You Teach and Continue to Learn: Medieval Muslim Thinkers on Education Theory’. Comparative Education Review, vol. 50, no. 3, pp. 367–388.

Oelkers, J. 2002. ‘Rousseau and the image of ‘modern education’. Journal of Curriculum Studies, vol. 34, no. 6, pp. 679–698.

Robinson, Ken. 2010b. Changing education paradigms. RSA Animate.