MAY 6, 2020
Parents have taken over my newsfeed. University administrators are staking out my inbox. With school districts cancelling in-person instruction and universities wondering when to reopen their campuses, educators are at no loss for words to describe the COVID-19 crisis.
What about students?
At age fourteen, one best-selling author-to-be was yanked from boarding school to face a frightening medical reality at home. Maria Edgeworth would grow up to become a household name in 19th-century Britain, printed on DIY guides for domestic education and children’s stories that Queen Victoria read. In 1782, Maria had been away from home since the death of her mother seven years prior. She returned to find her first stepmother dead, her second stepmother constantly pregnant, her siblings numbering eight (then nine, ten, twenty), her sister terminally ill, and her father obsessed with what he called the “Experiment” of education. Maria wrote about her experiences, but it wasn’t until over a decade later, with parental permission, that her work was published.
Writing carried Maria through family tragedies and school transfers. In her final years away from home, her father began to send her letters, full of prompts for short stories. Not unlike some of today’s parents, Richard Lovell Edgeworth was hell-bent on ensuring his children’s academic success and had perhaps become a bit unhinged by his efforts. Through his letters, Maria learned to treat writing as a device with which to forge and test her familial relationships from afar. At home, she discovered the medium that her relatives used to understand one another through births, deaths, and illnesses: medical technology.
Thermometers were one of Richard’s makeshift devices for learning about his family members and for teaching them. He developed a curriculum that repurposed this clinical tool to teach the younger Edgeworths basic chemistry and biology: from how to handle glass equipment to how chemicals react to heat. His notes, which record his children’s reactions to this strange curriculum, survive in a rich manuscript archive at Oxford’s Bodleian Library. The same archive preserves Maria’s striking, imaginative reply to the thermometers she found at home.
“The Mental Thermometer,” one of Maria’s earliest stories (1784), explores how medical equipment could inspire and even measure empathy. The “mental thermometer” grants Maria’s protagonist the magical power to measure his peers’ degrees of happiness and thus to understand their motivations. He receives this tool from a fatherly teacher, who instructs him to use the thermometer only to measure degrees of happiness associated with specific sorts of intellectual inquiry. Magic, for the teacher, is useful insofar as it keeps his student busy and under control. Yet, the student, curious about subjects beyond his teacher’s agenda, uses the thermometer to empathize with a friend who studies a forbidden field. This rule-breaking shatters the thermometer, which ends Maria’s story in an outpouring of joy.
“The Mental Thermometer” shouts about Maria’s frustration with Richard’s rules. Today’s parents and teachers are encountering echoes of those shouts: questions about when it might be safe to go outside, complaints about now-redundant “homework,” and in some dangerous cases, secret social outings. Maria, like today’s children shut up at home, craved exploration and regular contact with classmates, unmitigated by adult regulation. After two years of living at home, at age sixteen, she wanted to understand her siblings on her own terms and to introduce new subjects into their homeschooling. Maria’s wishes pose a legitimate question for today’s home-schooling parents. What measures of freedom should adults negotiate with students to keep everyone healthy, physically and mentally?
In “The Mental Thermometer,” Maria was beginning to envision the clinical stakes of homeschooling: the influence of curriculum on psychological health. Homeschooling, if done properly, could, from Maria’s perspective, beome a form of healthcare or therapy. It can also be that for today’s children, who might deepen their friendships online — that is, if they are encouraged to write stories to one another instead of being forced first to submit assignments to adult readers.
That’s what Maria’s “brilliant” ailing sister Honora did to connect with her siblings. At the age of 13, in 1787, she wrote a story in reply to Maria’s, transforming the “mental thermometer” from a measuring tool into a medicine called the “chrystal heart,” which could heal emotions. Honora’s protagonist activates this chrystal heart amidst an academic contest between sisters for their father’s praise, measuring how their dependence upon adult approval puts everyone’s emotions out of balance. She then uses the chyrstal heart to give the sisters a shot of self-conviction, which motivates them to invent new methods of learning, without paternal supervision. Their father, after a few tears of frustration and embarrassment, discovers that he is grateful for this relief from teaching. He rewards Honora’s protagonist with permission to read any book in his house. For the real Honora, whose parents selected and hovered over her books, this would have been a most welcome extension of intellectual freedom, just short of writing her own stories for her family to read.
Honora’s and Maria’s practice of writing back and forth became Maria’s method of drafting The Parent’s Assistant (1796) and Practical Education (1798). According to an 1867 memoir, written by her sisters and stepmother, Maria read each sentence of her publications aloud to her siblings in the family library for their approval and edits. These books put pedagogical power in the hands of children only six years after Honora’s death.
Over two centuries later, our news cyclone is kicking up adult anxieties about what it means to live and to educated ourselves in isolation, and we could learn from the Edgeworth girls’ stories. They speak to the vitality and capacity for self-control that are born of deep empathy and unmitigated collaboration, even play, between students. Before lamenting your children’s or students’ addiction to Animal Crossing and Minecraft, think about the urges that these games satisfy: to imagine new worlds and give care with friends. These urges can strengthen social bonds, combat anxiety, and make great writers, if prompted. So here’s a prompt: students, team up to write the next front-page article on learning at home. Adults, offer real academic and social credit to children who write out their perspectives and suggestions amidst this pandemic. Who knows how today’s homeschoolers will transform our ways of learning and writing, if we only give them the credence to collaborate on their own terms?
Joani Etskovitz is a PhD candidate in English Literature at Harvard University. A Beinecke and a Marshall Scholar, she holds two Masters degrees from the University of Oxford. Joani is currently co-curating and designing public programs for two 2021 exhibits at Harvard’s Houghton Rare Books Library: on “Women Authors, Self-Authorizing” and children’s literature. You can find her on Twitter @JEtskovitz