More than four decades ago when I was teaching at Columbia University I encountered two students from one of the city’s famous art schools who told me they had found a little treasure in a used book store, a small volume that provided far better instruction than they received in their drawing classes, so in the true counter-culture way of the 1960s the members of the class relied on it outside the purview of their instructor. They didn't know anything about the author, they told me, but the treasured book was The Elements of Drawing by someone named John Ruskin. Clearly, anyone who could write a book that students found invaluable a century later knew something about education! The title of Sara Atwood’s very slim book therefore seemed very promising, and the chapter entitled “The Professor” and some later sections in fact do an excellent job describing Ruskin’s teaching and pedagogical relationships with men and women, children and adults, Oxford undergraduates and students at the Working Men’s College. She also does a quite good job with showing the importance of Plato to Ruskin’s ideas of holistic education.

Unfortunately, the successful parts of this study make up only 50 of the 160 pages of text (23 pages of the 190 are devoted to bibliography and index, another 14 to photographs and other images, and then there are the blank pages). Ruskin’s Educational Ideals, therefore, appears to be an article or two desperately padded out to become a book. Throughout the author comes across, not as someone who knows a great deal about the history and theory of education in the nineteenth century and who uses that knowledge to illuminate Ruskin but rather as a Ruskinian trying to find a subject on which to write a book. This major shortcoming appears in several chapters that rehearse much-discussed subjects, often missing obvious opportunities to connect the discussion to her main subject. For example, the last chapter, “A World-Wide Monastery,” begins with Ruskin’s Guild of St George but tapers off into mentions of Japanese Ruskiniana — interesting but not particularly relevant to the topic at hand. Atwood’s opening chapter discusses Ruskin’s childhood, dutifully crediting earlier biographers from Collingwood to Hilton but failing to point to obvious connections between Ruskin’s own education against which he would in part react and his later education theories. What about the fact that his parents used what Americans call home schooling rather than in placing their son in an environment with other boys and strict teachers? What about his mother’s major emphasis upon memorization, particularly of the Bible? We certainly know that the effects of that childhood memorization appear in his major works. For example, one of the sermons that his mother made him transcribe when he was nine years old provided an entire chapter of The Seven Lamps of Architecture. But what about the effect of his childhood schooling upon his ideas of education?

Like the first chapter, the second on Ruskin’s religion is another generous pastiche of earlier scholarship that once again does not earn its place in the volume. Ruskin’s Educational Ideals repeats the usual story of Ruskin’s early Evangelical belief and its loss. Unfortunately, it doesn’t tell us enough about the nature of that belief and its relation to Ruskin’s theories of education. She could have told us, among other things, the precise ways that his childhood religion emphasized virtually all the characteristics of his later work, many of which mark his educational writings:   Ruskin’s childhood and early-adult faith demanded the essential need of personal conversions based on emotional, imaginative comprehension of both one's own innate depravity and Christ's redeeming sacrifice — thus Evangelical emphasis upon an essentially Romantic conception of religion that stressed imagination, intensity, and emotion. Evangelicals, like Ruskin throughout his entire life, assumed that converted believers must demonstrate their spirituality by working for others — thus Evangelical zeal in missionary work, Bible societies, anti-slavery movements and many social causes and thus the tone of Ruskinian art and social criticism. Evangelicals also assumed that the converted inevitably be persecuted and that such persecution indicates the rightness, the holiness, of the believer — how Ruskinian is that! Particularly central to Ruskin’s career was the Evangelical belief (shared by many nineteenth-century Christians) that God arranged history and the Bible according to elaborate codes and signals, particularly in the form of typology, an elaborate system of foreshadowings (or anticipations) of Christ in the Old Testament; thus Ruskin’s emphasis throughout his career upon virtuoso interpretations of both types, texts, and objects — and in teaching others to make such readings of art and society. In other words, the characteristic emphases of Evangelical protestantism left a deep impress on Ruskin’s writings, particularly on those that adopt the posture and procedures of what John Holloway has taught us to call the Victorian sage, a speaker standing apart from society -- a self-consciously eccentric haranguing his audience for falling away from the ways of God and nature. The Victorian sage is above all else an educator, an eccentric educator but an educator nonetheless.

A major problem with Ruskin’s Educational Ideals lies in the glaring fact that the author seems to know extremely little about Victorian education. She tells us nothing about the curriculum, reforms, and role of sports in public schools, the theory and practice of education in the Sunday School movement, the theory and practice of state-funded education after the education act of 1870 -- much less about nature of training or lack of it for teachers. Her reader would like to know what kind of education apprentices received, something particularly relevant to Ruskin’s teaching at the Working Man’s College (about which she nonetheless has some good things to say). Since Ruskin reacts against conventional practice, the reader certainly needs to be told something about that practice. It's hard to understand how much Ruskin thinks outside the box if we don't know what constituted thinking inside the box.

Ruskin’s Educational Ideals rightly points out how Ruskin believed that drawing provided a crucial part of education, in part because it taught the students to see for themselves and (one can add) in part because Ruskin, unlike almost all art theorists and educators, believed that the physical act of drawing is not just manual labor but a unique means of acquiring — and experiencing — knowledge. Atwood might well have compared Ruskin to John Lucas Tupper, the Pre-Raphaelite sculptor and friend of Holman Hunt who wrote a book-length theory of art education and as art master at Rugby convinced the school to make drawing a mandatory part of education.

The main problem of Ruskin’s Educational Ideals —in addition to its egregious lack of information about contemporary educational theory and practice — appears in its omission of any significant discussion of the relation of Modern Painters, The Seven Lamps of Architecture (complete text), and The Stones of Venice to his ideas of education. Paying more attention to the five volumes of Modern Painters would have provided some much-needed material for this too-thin volume. Page after page of Modern Painters instruct readers how to learn to see for themselves, and it famously ends with the often misunderstood direction to the student, the beginner, emphasizing that "from young artists nothing ought to be tolerated but simple bona fide imitation of nature . They have no business to ape the execution of masters . . . Their duty is neither to choose, nor compose, nor imagine, nor experimentalize; but to be humble and earnest in following the steps of nature, and tracing the finger of God" (3.623). Even though Ruskin (and the editors of the Library Edition) caution that he directs his remarks only to beginning students, readers have frequently misunderstood his point and thought that Ruskin was here advancing a claim for the artistic superiority of extreme photographic naturalism as a painterly style. In fact, immediately after thus instructing the neophyte, Ruskin adds that when visual experience has nurtured the young artists" hand, eye, and imagination, "we will follow them wherever they choose to lead . . . They are then our masters, and fit to be so" (3.624). In other words, to paint like Turner, or even to paint a very different art that could rival his, one first had to begin with training eye and hand. One, however, cannot stop at this training stage, but one has to start with education.


Atwood, Sara. Ruskin’s Educational Ideals. Farnham: Ashgate, 2011. 190 pages. ISBN: 9781409408376

Tupper, John Lucas. Hiatus: the Void in Modern Education, Its Causes and Antidote. London: Macmillan, 1869.

Last modified 17 October 2012