8 things English teachers should know about the Enlightenment

  1. No one is quite sure when the Enlightenment Period begins and endsSome French historians argue that it happened between 1715-1789, when the French Revolution started. Other commentators believe it began in the 1620s with the emergence of the scientific revolution and ended in the late 18th century when the Romantic movement contested many of its claims.
  2. Enlightenment thinkers generally celebrate the powers of reason, rationality, and scientific methodsMany Enlightenment thinkers such as Baruch Spinoza and Thomas Paine argued for democratic forms of government and the importance of rational structures to govern every day life. As a result, they came into conflict with the ruling powers of the church and monarchy.
  3. An English Renaissance preceded the Enlightenment era. The Elizabethan period (from 1559-1603) could be termed a “late English Renaissance” because, rather like what happened in Italy over a century before, it marks a huge cultural “re-birth” in the country with the emergence of a national literature, painting and music.
  4. The English Enlightenment. From approximately 1620, the scientific philosophy of Francis Bacon and the discoveries of Sir Isaac Newton begin to influence literature as well, as you can see in writers like John Milton (1608-1674), who attempted to “justify the ways of God to man” by referencing scientific ideas in his epic poem, Paradise Lost, which is a “re-write” of the story of the Garden of Eden. Later on, Alexander Pope (1688-1744) would show reverence for both religious and scientific ideas in his witty poetry. Behind much writing of this time is that God is the perfect scientist, shaping and moulding the universe in terms of a perfect order, working much like a watch-maker in knitting together the “clockwork” of nature.
  5. The triumph of reason? Roughly from 1650 to 1790s, much literature (poems, plays and the first novels) trumpeted the values of the Enlightenment: espousing the triumph of rationality, reason, scientific thinking, and the notion that there was an objective body of ‘essential’ knowledge that could be learnt.
  6. Colonialism and the Enlightenment. The movement was, in part, used to justify the colonialism because it was developed by colonial powers who claimed that their knowledge was superior to the colonial peoples they were taking over.
  7. Some argue there were three phases of literature during this period: i) The Glorious Revolution Period when William of Orange ascended the throne and Pope, Defoe and Swift were writing their satires ii) the emergence of the novel with writers such as Richardson, Fielding and Smollett publishing the first popular novels in English iii) a time of experimentation when writers such as Laurence Sterne, Richard Sheridan and Oliver Goldsmiths experimented with new forms of the novel, plays and poetry respectively. See diagram below.
  8. Questions to ask of texts in this period: In what way does the text PROMOTE enlightenment values? Does the narrative/text champion rationality, “common sense”, and suggest there is “essential” knowledge to be learned?




About @wonderfrancis

Francis Gilbert is a Lecturer in Education at Goldsmiths, University of London, teaching on the PGCE Secondary English programme. He also teaches the Creative Writing module on the MA in Children’s Literature, which is run by Maggie Pitfield and Professor Michael Rosen. Previously, he worked for a quarter of a century in various English state schools teaching English and Media Studies to 11-18 year olds. He has, at times, moonlighted as a journalist, novelist and social commentator. He is the author of ‘Teacher On The Run’, ‘Yob Nation’, ‘Parent Power’, ‘Working The System -- How To Get The Very Best State Education for Your Child’, and a novel about school, ‘The Last Day Of Term’. His first book, ‘I'm A Teacher, Get Me Out Of Here’ was a big hit, becoming a bestseller and being serialised on Radio 4. In his role as an English teacher, he has taught many classic texts over the years and has developed a great many resources to assist readers with understanding, appreciating and responding to them both analytically and creatively. This led him to set up his own small publishing company FGI Publishing (fgipublishing.com) which has published his study guides as well as a number of books by other authors, including Roger Titcombe’s ‘Learning Matters’ and anthology of creative writing 'The Gold Room'. He is the co-founder, with Melissa Benn and Fiona Millar, of The Local Schools Network, www.localschoolsnetwork.org.uk, a blog that celebrates non-selective state schools, and has his own website, www.francisgilbert.co.uk. He has appeared numerous times on radio and TV, including Newsnight, the Today Programme, Woman’s Hour and the Russell Brand Show. In June 2015, he was awarded a PhD in Creative Writing and Education by Goldsmiths.
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