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The Enquirer I

The Enquirer: Reflections on Education, Manners and Literature by William Godwin is out of copyright. Download it freely and legally here. It was published in 1797. Though old, it contains good ideas. Old books are often hard to read, but Godwin was a good writer, so it's not too difficult (though certainly you will notice many differences from a modern book). Also it is philosophy and non-fiction, which many people find somewhat harder to read even with modern books. But take heart: good philosophy is far more comprehensible than bad philosophy. And besides, I'll summarize in my words.

Be aware that while I try to summarize pretty precisely, I make some judgments about which details to omit, and often omit parts that make less sense (i.e., bad parts). I also may sometimes improve arguments when changing them into my words. I certainly make them shorter, and that requires adding my own knowledge of which parts are critical. I also may sometimes inadvertently make things worse.

Summary - Part 1 - Essay 1 - Of Awakening the Mind

The purpose of education is individual happiness. If all individuals were happy then the species would be as well. A second purpose is to train men to be useful -- virtuous. That requires wisdom (including both extent of knowledge and energy of pursuit).

Virtue is critical to being truly happy. Only happiness deserved on account of virtue is worthwhile; anything else is unsatisfactory and frigid. Also, men of enlightened understanding have accessible to them more subtle, complex and satisfactory pleasures to create their happiness, and the types of happiness pursued by ignorant men are also available if they wish.

The first thing educators should attempt is to awaken their child's mind. We may not know the precise innate capacity of each child, but whether education can do everything or not, it can do much.

The primary thing children need to attain something is to ardently desire to do so. This is assuming the educator will clearly and skillfully point out how to attain it. So the main issue is to incite desire. The means of this are obvious:
Has the proposed object desirable qualities? Exhibit them. Delineate them with perspicuity and delineate them with ardour. Show your object from time to time under every point of view which is calculated to demonstrate its loveliness. Criticize, commend, exemplify.
If this does not work, that is not due to the impossibility of the task, but the indolence or unskillfulness of the master.

It is a mistake to suppose the object of education should be the present ease and happiness of the child. It is more important to awaken the child's mind, and this cannot start too early; the seeds of bad habits and ill temper can form during the first twelve months.

Many people look down on early instruction as a thing of inferior value. What takes a child a long time to learn could be learned, later, by the same person, with ease. Once we are older we can learn most things with less effort. So why bother to teach very young people when it appears to be so inefficient?

The purpose of early instruction should not be to teach specific skills but to provide against the age of five and twenty a mind well regulated, active, and prepared to learn. It is not generally important to acquire any specific knowledge but instead to acquire habits of intellectual activity. In short: learn to think.


The idea of innate capacity of people is worth questioning. One reason for this is what we've learned about universality and computers (long after Godwin's time). When you build a system to do computations there is a "jump to universality" when you reach a sufficient, very limited amount of power: suddenly you find your system is capable of doing any computation. The jump to universality comes up in epistemology as well. When trying to describe a set of things if there is one thing it's usually simplest to talk about it specifically, but if there are more then it is often easiest to give some general principles and to specify only the differences of each object.

In practice it is generally cheaper to use general purpose tools, components, and computers and then to alter or program them for your specific needs rather than to start making exactly what you need from scratch. You can see this in the lumber industry where boards are sold in standard sizes and are cut from the standard size when people want a different size; they are not cut to the sizes everyone wants directly from the tree.

How does this apply to the idea of innate capacity? If you think of a mind as something like an idea generator, then according to the jump to universality we might expect it to evolve to be able to create any idea, not just a large set of specific ideas that are useful. Then restrictions could have evolved, but why would they? Where is the evolutionary pressure to limit our minds? Further, even if there was such selection pressure, memes would evolve to satisfy it more quickly, so we still wouldn't end up with hardware restrictions. When wondering if our minds are universal idea generators remember that we seem to be able to create a very wide variety of ideas many of which there was not evolutionary incentive to allow for specifically.

I like the section on demonstrating the value of things to incite desire for them. But there is another important possibility for why this might fail: the thing might not actually be very good. The master might be mistaken. And this is another reason why it is crucial the master take the step of persuading the student to be interested in a subject before they learn it, or interested in a skill before he works to obtain it. Having to demonstrate the goodness of something is an extra test to help weed out mistakes by both requiring the master to consider it again and by allowing the child to know the reasons and apply his own judgment. This demonstration of value also has the added bonuses of both teaching the child something (the reasons for why that is valuable) and helping awaken the child's mind: it helps show him how to think about what is good to desire.

Regarding acquiring specific skills it is worth mentioning that while no particular skill is necessary, learning some skills in great detail is almost certainly part of a good education. While we are learning how to learn one of the steps we will take is to try it out: to learn something. In doing so we will encounter field-specific problems that inspire us to consider general versions of them. And we will encounter problems that our general ideas about learning don't seem to apply to well, and so we will know where we should consider more. And by learning a field we will gain a better sense of what it's like to learn seriously, and we will find out which parts of our 'learning to learn' we find are actually very helpful.

Summary - Part 1 - Essay 2 - Of the Utility of Talents

Some have questioned the desirability of talents and said they inspire men to bold action not necessarily best for society. But what parent fears he will raise a child of too much capacity?

The main thing education can do is to impart information. Information helps us select which things to do are best. So the thing people fear must be partial not extensive information. But in that case the cure is more information!
The idea of withholding from me capacity, lest I should abuse it, is just as rational, as it would be to shut me up in prison, lest by going at large I should be led into mischief.
The only protection against being a fool is to know a lot. The self-satisfied, half-witted fellow is the most ridiculous of all things.

The virtues of a weak and ignorant man scarcely deserve the name. Try as he will, he has not the power and talent to accomplish much. People with talent may have the ability to do mischief, but they are the ones with the ability to do anything much at all.

Further, there is no way to be truly virtuous while ignorant. How can a weak, ignorant man know of what things to approve and what things to disapprove?
He wishes me well. But he does not know how to benefit me. He does not know what benefit is. He does not understand the nature of happiness or good. He cannot therefore be very zealous to promote it.
Society is not such a simple thing that weak men can do everything it requires. A good society faces dangers that only men of uncommon virtue and talent can oppose.


I don't think Godwin is aware of the distinction we draw between knowledge and information today. I use "information" to refer to dumb facts, like a computer database full of astronomical data. And "knowledge" refers to understanding: if you just know a list of facts then you don't understand; it is only when you have explanations that you have knowledge.

Summary - Part 1 - Essay 3 - Of the Sources of Genius

Recently there has been debate about whether genius is innate or whether it can be infused. Previously this was thought too obvious for question: it is innate. But this is not obvious.

A child has very little experience before he is born. And habits formed after birth can change, so there is no reason to suppose habits formed before birth cannot change. Therefore the decisive differences between children at the time of their birth must be in the structure of their bodies.

We do not find that men of particular body types are more often geniuses. Nor do we find that men with good senses are generally smarter. Often the common man has excellent senses. And if we dissect a genius who can point to a difference in structure that is the cause of his genius?

Genius appears to signify little more in the first instance than a spirit of prying observation and incessant curiosity. But those are things which incidents in life can create. A bad education reduces these characteristics and a good education helps inspire them. Genius, it should seem, may be produced after this method; have we any sufficient reason to doubt of its always being thus produced? If you gain the motives that excited another man, and his external advantages, then you can achieve an excellence not inferior to his. This view is important to education because previously education was thought to be a lottery where no skill could help.

The indications of genius are often visible as early as five years of age, so we must take care very early. Older people have less flexible minds. Gaining the qualities of genius at a late age is difficult but perhaps never quite impossible. Far more common is the reverse: having the indications of genius then losing them. The children of peasants often show a promise of understanding, a quickness of observation, an ingeniousness of character, and a delicacy of tact, at age seven which, by the age of fourteen, is obliterated by the cares of the world. Speaking still of peasants:
They are brutified by immoderate and unintermitted labour. Their hearts are hardened, and their spirits broken, by all that they see, and all that they feel, and all that they look forward to. This is one of the most interesting points of view in which we can consider the present order of society. It is the great slaughter-house of genius and of mind. It is the unrelenting murderer of hope and gaiety, and of the love of reflection and the love of life.
Genius requires care and good circumstances to be fully realized. Why shouldn't we suppose there are circumstances which destroy it?

To guard against misunderstanding we should further remark that if genius is not innate it does not follow that it is to be credited to educators. A pupil is given many ideas per day from a teacher, and has many more the teacher never concerns himself with. The causes of genius are hard to control and often are not the educator's doing but always are in part the pupil's doing.


A common hedge which Godwin does not address is to say there are innate tendencies that can be overcome with education but it is harder. This is a useful hedge because it is very good at evading criticism while providing a perfect platform to spew hate at good people and deny they are smart and successful because of their goodness. It is a way to point to any thoughtful, careful, industrious person who has through wisdom and curiosity come to be an effective and smart person, and to say: none of his good traits had anything to do with it, it was easy for him, you can tell it was easy because he succeeded, it's hard for me, innately, you can tell because I failed.

Despite the common motivations of such a position, it could still be true.

Consider your modern computer. If it were a little faster, or a little slower, for most of your programs this would make no difference. For most programs, it is plenty fast and that's all there is to it. Similarly, if brains differ in their speed a little it should rarely have much effect. What about memory space? The forgetful person is not the one with 5% less memory capacity. Even if he has less capacity that is not the reason. He is forgetful because he lacks skill at identifying which things are most important to remember and prioritizing them, or because he thinks remembering things is hard and doesn't want to try, or some reason like that.

Even if it is harder (and how should we find out? how do we compare people's subjective experiences of difficulty of different things? and how do we make sure that is not due to their ideas?) what difference does that make? We agree that progress and success are possible. We can improve. So, do that. Don't spend your time wondering if it's easier for others. Live your own life. Don't play the victim; take pride in what you can achieve.

Americans don't do hard labor like the peasant farmers Godwin speaks of. We are very much richer than his society, and very far removed from it. It is difficult to imagine a life like that, and good to be reminded. One reaction I have is: "Thank God for inequality!" Equality would have meant that absolutely everyone was a peasant farmer, albeit with a slightly less backbreaking life. If that was the case, who would have written books? Who would have made scientific progress? How would humanity have moved beyond peasant farming. As unfair as it may seem for one person to be a farmer and another, like Godwin himself, to have greater means and not to do hard labor, it led to a much better future. (By the way, Godwin's life was not a life of ease and luxury. It was hard and and harsh in many ways and I am glad for his amazing strength of character that let him continue on and keep writing.)

Elliot Temple on July 26, 2007


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