Pioneering Education Reformer Elizabeth Peabody on the True Object of Study
By Maria Popova
“Your true educators and cultivators will reveal to you the original sense and basic stuff of your being,” Nietzsche wrote in reflecting on the true value of education. Two generations earlier, another visionary thinker — the education reformer Elizabeth Peabody (May 16, 1804–January 3, 1894), who coined the term “Transcendentalism” — distilled the essence of how we liberate and elevate ourselves through studies properly pursued.
Peabody’s youngest sister, Sophia, was bedeviled by paralyzing headache attacks that would leave her bedridden for days, sometimes weeks. Elizabeth encouraged Sophia to use this forced leisure to give herself a classical education. “If it is best for the minds of boys — it is best also for the minds of girls,” she told Sophia in an era when higher education was only available to young men and any erudition expected of women was for the sake of making them better companions to their husbands.
As Sophia took her sister’s advice to heart and immersed herself in self-directed study, Elizabeth gave her advice that endures as a lucid and luminous lens on the real object of study and self-refinement. Cited in Megan Marshall’s masterly biography The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism (public library), Peabody writes:
Do not study for the sake of having acquirements to display, for the sake of being admired, for the sake of attracting attention…. [Study for] the pleasure … derived from the feeling of energy that arises in the mind from the keen exercise of its powers in metaphysical, scientific or mathematical reasoning.
A century and a half later, Nobel-winning physicist Richard Feynman would echo Peabody in his beautiful notion of “the pleasure of finding things out.”
Complement with Francis Bacon on the object of reading, John Dewey on the purpose of education, and John Cowper Powys on self-culture and the crucial difference between being educated and being cultured, then revisit Susan Sontag’s radical vision for remixing education.
Published October 22, 2017