Go to navigation (press enter key)Menu

Owen and Education

Essays on the Principle of the Formation of the Human Character

To transform human character, Owen followed the English philosopher John Locke in emphasizing education. His most far-sighted experiment was the creation of a school for the youngest children, begun early in his tenure and considerably expanded with new Quaker partners, including the philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) after 1813. Its principles sound familiar to us: education included exercise, recreation, and, in summer time, nature walks. Indoors, teaching involved maps, colored charts and concrete demonstration. Owen suppressed book learning and rote repetition as much as possible. The task of education was not to absorb facts but to learn to "think and act aright." singing and dancing were an integral part of the school's activities as was marching and he dressed boys and girls in special white cotton or tartan tunic "fashioned in its make after the form of a Roman toga." He instructed the teachers never to raise their voices to the children and never to strike them. "Each child," Owen wrote, "on his entrance to the playground, is to be told, in language which he can understand, that he is never to injure his playfellows, but, on the contrary, he is to contribute all in his power to make them happy."

In one of his first books, A New View of Society: Or, Essays on the Principle of the Formation of the Human Character, and the Application of the Principle to Practice published in 1813 he sets out the importance of his special kind of education for the reformulation of human character. Education, he argued, wasn't just good for business; it was good for the nation as a whole. It produced an intelligent and happy citizenry; indeed, Owen suggested that a rationally educated populace would render the art of war useless. For Owen these insights about environment and the role of education came with the force of revelation. "Hitherto...man seems to have blindly conspired against the happiness of man, and to have remained as ignorant of himself as he was of the solar system prior to the days of Copernicus and Galileo."