Death, Utility, and Education, Part 2: Freedom and Pedagogy

Frances Wright

(click here to read part 1)

Fanny Wright was born in Dundee, Scotland in 1795.  Her father was a linen merchant, radical, and follower of Thomas Paine.  Her mother was goddaughter of Elizabeth Robinson Montagu, a bluestocking, who Samuel Johnson called the “Queen of the Blues.”  Fanny would never get to know them, because she and her sister were orphaned at two.

Brought up by her maternal grandparents in London, she despised their greed and lack of care for the poor — finding relief only at the age of 21 when she returned to Scotland to live with her great uncle, James Mylne, a professor of moral philosophy at the University of Glasgow.

As an unmarried woman, with an inheritance both from her parents and her uncle, she had relative freedom and autonomy in a world in which women had few rights and those without means had few opportunities to increase their fortunes.

In the Mylne circle, were radicals and abolitionists, who not only embraced Fanny, but helped her articulate the principles that guided her career.  By 1818, Fanny Wright and her sister Camilla embarked for the United States.  They had been fired up with ideas about the independence and liberty that the country provided.  There, Fanny published a play, Altorf, which she staged in New York to positive reviews.  It circulated in print, finding its way into the hands of luminaries including Thomas Jefferson.

Her return to England in 1820 was accompanied by her epistolary travel narrative, Views of the Society and Manners in America, an idealized and naive view of the United States that brought her national fame (and infamy) and helped introduce her to the circle of Jeremy Bentham which included Joseph Hume and John Stuart Mill.

In 1821, she left for France, serving as Bentham’s representative in Paris.  By 1822, she published an Epicurean fiction, A Few Days in Athens.  It was dedicated to Bentham and included many of the philosophical principles that she would articulate more clearly by the end of the decade.  While in Paris, she reached out to the Marquis de Lafayette, eventually becoming a guest at La Grange and his virtual daughter.  In an age of reactionary conservatism, she was at the core of a circle devoted to republicanism — not only in France but throughout Europe.

When Wright returned to the the United States in 1825, in train of the Marquis de Lafayette, she applied for citizenship, which she received.  With him, she joined the circles in Washington DC and Virginia, visiting Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, and Andrew Jackson.  During this period, she decided to turn her focus to fixing what she saw as the primary evil facing her adopted country — slavery.  Between 1825 and 1829, she worked with Robert Owen and his son, Robert Dale Owen, in New Harmony, Indiana.  She shaped their thought as they shaped hers, and they helped her design Nashoba, a community in Tennessee meant to be create a model for bringing an end to American slavery.  The idea was to purchase slaves and have them work to buy their freedom — a scheme similar to a project that Lafayette tried in South America in the 1780s.  Nashoba’s failure prompted her and Robert Dale Owen to move to New York City where they lectured and became involved in working class politics.

Wright’s lectures were steeped in utilitarianism, Scottish Enlightenment philosophy, and Owenite educational and social theories.  In her desire to reform the inequities of the United States, she concluded that any reform must be founded on education.  The abuses of slavery, gender inequity, and class exploitation would only by erased when Americans operated according to the “law of reason, when wealth shall be the reward for industry, and all things shall be estimated in a ratio calculated in the order of their utility.[1]

In her version of utilitarianism, the felicific calculus (see part 1) could be discovered only through proper education.[2]  Education allowed individuals to calculate the optimal outcome for the community.  This community focus was important because she tied Benthamite ideas to eighteenth-century moral sense theory.  Moral sense theory argued that humans have a capacity to experience empathy — and in fact, this was at the root of morality. Consequently, she argued that the greatest happiness any individual could experience came as a result of feeling the pleasure in others.[3]  In short, she bridged a problem that troubled utilitarian thought: if pleasure was a subjective, individual experience, how could the system build communities?  Moral sense theory was the bridge.  Individual happiness was tied to community happiness — not simply because of an empirical equation for morality but because this desire for community was rooted in human nature.

For Wright, it was not enough to build a philosophical framework; she put her theories into practice.  Political engagement was a necessary outcome of her utilitarian schema, because in many ways, she argued avant la lettre that the personal was political.  She was deeply committed to socialism because of its promise to bridge the needs of the individual with that of the community.  Therefore her utilitarianism was also a political program to create more just and equal political processes for workers, men and women.

She argued that the first step to realize the ideals of the US Constitution — a world of liberty, freedom, and equality — was universal education.  In fact, she argued that a republic could not stand without a system of “republican education,” as she called it.  It should be the highest priority and first expense of the government.[4]  This perspective was one that the Owenites took to heart and was enshrined in the Indiana Territory constitution of 1816 and more explicitly in the Indiana Constitution of 1851, which Robert Dale Owen helped to shape.[5]  Education enabled individuals calculate optimal actions, not just in the moral realm but in the political realm.[6]  In other words, education was central to her political and philosophical program.  Even as she and Robert Dale Owen tried to organize the New York Workingman’s Party — the first working-class political party in the United States — she established the Hall of Science in New York City in 1829.

The Hall Science was an education institution for workers and enshrined her pedagogical system.  On the one hand, she rejected abstract metaphysics — religious or otherwise.  Abstract metaphysics was, simply, pure speculation as far as she was concerned — belief, not philosophy; speculation, not science.  Her consequentialist philosophy, for example, needed no gods for moral guidance.  Her moral system needed better science, not dogmatism.

On the other hand, she rejected rote memorization, the kind that inspired Dickens’s Mr. Gradgrind: “Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life.”  Learning and knowledge had to take place in the realm of experience.  Second-hand knowledge was a collection of other people’s certainties.  A lecture was no substitute for hands-on participation in laboratory or field work.

And, most importantly, this education had to be democratic, open and free to all.  And that was the basis of the Hall of Science — a space where democratic education could take place.  Of course, the revolutionary potential of these ideas was not lost on others.  The Working Man’s Party’s members were declaimed in the press as “Fanny Wrightists.”  The press used negative stereotypes to mock them.  These free thinkers were atheists.  These working men were too feminine.  Fanny Wright was a sexual deviant.  And, the assault was not simply in the papers.  Threats and attacks in the streets led her followers to be on guard.  Police were stationed outside her lectures.

But still, she fought on.  Only through democratic education, she argued, could people see the corruption all around them.  Only through democratic education could they correct the political system.  When workers, men and women, all had access to knowledge, she pronounced,

Then, in that day, we shall see equality!  Then, in that day, shall we possess liberty — beyond the fear of loss, beyond the possibility of assault!  Then shall we dwell in a free country!  Then shall a free and virtuous, a self-governing and self-respecting people; for then shall we be an enlightened people.

There is no halfway in these matters.  There is no liberty for any until there is liberty for all.  There is no surety for liberty but only in equality.  And let us remember, that there is no equality but what has its seat in the mind and feeling.  All — all is there — virtue, honour, truth, law, liberty and knowledge!  Build up these in the human breast, and we shall see the human beings walk uprightly.

Your institutions may declare equality of rights, but we shall never possess those rights until you have national schools.


There are common themes that connect Bentham, Barré, and Wright (on Bentham and Barré, see Part 1).  All three emphasized the importance of science and the expansion of the education system.  They all critiqued superstition.  They all saw the world as a place that could be improved through reason and knowledge.  They all placed a concern for the community at the center of their labors — even if, at times, their work fell short of their ideals.  In many ways, they continued to fight for the principles of the Enlightenment, even in an age of reactionary conservatism, slavery, imperialism, racism, and jingoistic nationalism.  And, Bentham and Wright in particular left the modern world with a powerful way of thinking about society, so pervasive in fact that we rarely notice it.  Utilitarian consequentialism.

Take education, for example — so central to the lives and legacies of Bentham, Barré, and Wright.  As they were in the early nineteenth century, we are again living during a period of pedagogical revolution.  Utilitarianism is in many ways the framework that we use to describe and critique it.  No matter what our ideological outlooks, we generally frame the discussion around achieving the greatest good for the greatest number of students.  The emphasis on standardized testing and measuring educational achievements is in line with the scientific impulse of the utilitarians, while the concern over outcomes is by definition consequentialist.  And, as some reformers argue for individual choice, others point out that individual choice may help some individuals but do harm to the community — the tension between individual and community goods is nowhere more apparent.

However, it seems that the legacy of the nineteenth-century utilitarians — and the deep questions that their thought raises — has been stripped of its intellectual rigor.  The consequentialist impulse answers to a very different standard today.  Where the Benthamites focused on the public good more generally — and this was especially central to Fanny Wright — today’s pedagogical consequentialists invoke a different principle: utility to the market economy.  Are these students employable?  Do they have skills that match the needs of potential employers?  How do they fit into the framework of a national and international economy?  Important questions, no doubt, but also limited and, quite often, short-sighted.  It imagines education as an instrumentalist process in which students get spit out as cogs, built to specification to operate together as a machine.  As long as the students’ education serves commerce, the qualities of that education are too often a secondary concern.  This approach works well neither for economies nor societies.

The modern pedagogical consequentialists are building systems that limit flexibility and creativity, insuring rigidity through rote memorization and high stakes standardized tests.  In Indiana for example, the educational system advocated by Wright and Owen — and implicit in the framing of the Indiana constitution — would be unrecognizable to them.  Their emphasis on creative growth and learning through experience has been replaced by the metrics of the standardized exams, which in true Gradgrindian fashion teaches “Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life.”  And why do we want them to know their facts? It’s difficult to understand.  While business leaders are asking for workers with basic skills, they also want to hire those who can be creative and adaptable.  They know that most technical skills can be taught in a relatively short timeframe.  What takes years of practice — what requires an entire mental framework — are those abstract, non-measurable, and invaluable ways of thinking that approach problems from new directions — ways of thinking that don’t simply rely on approved workflows and equations, but which challenge and rethink them.

Further, what modern pedagogical consequentialists also ignore is the fact that they are also defining what is “good” by a narrow standard — by outcomes that are based primarily on economic interests.  The Benthamite utilitarians would have scoffed.  “Good”, for them, was based on human happiness.  They knew that having a job was not the same as being happy.  Economic efficiency does not necessarily make a more equal, just, and benevolent society.  In fact, often it does quite the opposite.  They also recognized that the design of an education system is a value-laden proposition and that those who control it can shape the future of their societies, for better or for worse.  This is why they argued for public school systems, supported by tax payers and managed on their behalf by the government.  They rejected private education on the grounds that it furthered inequality.  And, they certainly would have rejected schools designed by corporations that funneled public money into private hands.  They wanted the responsibility for education to be democratic, paid for and answerable to citizens.  This principle was at the heart of democracy.  Of education, Fanny Wright wrote:

“Without knowledge, could your fathers have conquered liberty?  and without knowledge, can you retain it?  Equality!  where is it, if not in education?  Equal rights! they cannot exist without equality of instruction.  ’All men are born free and equal!’ they are indeed so born, but do they so live?  Are they educated as equals?  and, if not, can they be equal?  and, if not equal, can they be free?  Do not the rich command instruction? and they who have instruction, must they not possess the power? and when they have the power, will they not exert it in their own favor?”


For Bentham, Barré, and Wright, science and ethics were part of a common framework — to create a better, more equal, society — even a more democratic and just society.  At this society’s core was education.  The utility of education was in its capacity to improve conditions for everybody.  And, these weren’t simply their material conditions, but their social, political, intellectual, and emotional conditions as well.  A utilitarian education is, therefore, much more complex than what our modern consequentialist and instrumentalist pedagogy admits.  These three nineteenth-century philosophers have left us tools to see the bigger picture and make wiser choices.  They lived during a period before free public education and understood the consequences of not having it.  We in the twenty-first century would be wise to learn from them before we rewrite our pedagogical systems to serve narrow interests, before we hand over our public educational responsibility to private interests.

[1] Wright, Course of Popular Lectures (1829), 8.

[2] Wright, Course of Popular Lectures, 83.

[3] Wright, Course of Popular Lectures, 117, 121.

[4] Wright, Course of Popular Lectures, 199.

[5] Indiana Constitution, 1816, Article 9, sec. 2: “It shall be the duty of the General assembly, as soon as circumstances will permit, to provide, by law, for a general system of education, ascending in a regular gradation, from township schools to a state university, wherein tuition shall be gratis, and equally open to all.” Indiana Constitution, 1851, Article 8, sec. 1: “Knowledge and learning, generally diffused throughout a community, being essential to the preservation of a free government; it shall be the duty of the General Assembly to encourage, by all suitable means, moral, intellectual, scientific, and agricultural improvement; and to provide, by law, for a general and uniform system of Common Schools, wherein tuition shall be without charge, and equally open to all.”

[6] As Catherine Villanueva Gardner has noted, this approach merged Benthamite consequentialism with eighteenth-century moral sense theory, Empowerment and Interconnectivity: Toward a Feminist History of Utilitarian Philosophy (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2013).

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