John Ruskin on education

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Self-portrait of John Ruskin | Wikipedia Commons – believed to be in the public domain

John Ruskin on education. John Ruskin altered the way we look at art and architecture, and was an influential social critic and advocate of economic change and reform. His desire to advance reform and to deepen people’s appreciation of art inevitably brought him to teaching and to education. His work was to have lasting significance. But what did Ruskin advocate? What was special about his approach? Sara E. Atwood explores his contribution.

contents: introduction · john ruskin as educator: active learning, dynamic teaching · a moral philosophy of art · natural inequality; aptitude and circumstance · insufficiency of the “three R’s”; purposeful education · dissatisfaction with contemporary education: ruskinian alternatives · unity of knowledge; involution of studies · fors clavigera: theory in practice · john ruskin’s ideal schools · ideal curriculum · influences and legacy · references · about the writer · how to cite this piece


John Ruskin (1819-1900) was the most prominent and influential art critic of the nineteenth century as well as one of the period’s most articulate social critics. A true polymath, Ruskin was by turns a gifted artist, amateur geologist, botanist, etymologist, mythologist, and early environmentalist. He established himself as a powerful new voice in the art world with Modern Painters (1843), intended as a defense of J.M.W. Turner. Over the course of five volumes published from 1843-1860 Modern Painters evolved into a moral philosophy of art. John Ruskin continued to demonstrate his technical knowledge and ability while further developing his moral aesthetic in The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849) and The Stones of Venice (1851; 1853), drawing parallels between national art and national virtue. For Ruskin, art is inherently moral, and his art instruction is concerned not only with mechanical technique, but with teaching men how to achieve “the right moral state” (20:73) necessary for the production of noble art. His social teaching, likewise, seeks always to reform men’s hearts and to revive what is noble in human nature. Edward Alexander, among others, has written of John Ruskin’s “removal from art to society” (154) in the latter half of his career. In fact, there is no such marked separation. Ruskin’s work as art critic, instructor, and social reformer are dependent one upon the other.

During the 1850s John Ruskin began to focus more intently upon social reform. In 1857 he delivered two lectures, published as The Political Economy of Art; these were followed in 1860 by a series of essays on political economy which appeared (until an overwhelmingly negative reader response forced their cancellation) in the Cornhill Magazine and were later published under the title Unto This Last. Ruskin wrote more “Essays on Political Economy” for Fraser’s Magazine (published as Munera Pulveris, 1872) and in 1865 published one of his best-known books, Sesame and Lilies. Ostensibly a consideration of the value of books and reading, the essays included in this book, like so much of John Ruskin’s writing, address much deeper issues, including the role of education for women. The 1860s also saw the publication of The Ethics of the Dust, Time and Tide, and The Queen of the Air. These books, about geology, labor and politics, and mythology reflect the increasingly allusive nature of Ruskin’s writing, which characterizes so much of his later work, including Fors Clavigera , The Bible of Amiens, and even his autobiography, Praeterita.

Fors Clavigera, the series of letters begun in 1871 and addressed “to the workmen and labourers of Great Britain,” was also the vehicle for the foundation of John Ruskin’s ideal community, The Guild of Saint George. The Guild was intended as an active manifestation of Ruskin’s philosophy of social reform: its members would live cooperatively, producing their own food and goods and living “contented lives, in pure air, out of the way of unsightly objects, and emancipated from unnecessary mechanical occupation” (27:159). The Guild would try, he wrote, “to take [sic] some small piece of English ground beautiful, peaceful, and fruitful” (27:96). Their children would be educated according to Ruskinian educational precepts in the Schools of St. George, for which Ruskin had planned a library of great books, the Bibliotheca Pastorum. Although the Guild did not ultimately succeed in all its aims it was nonetheless one of the most important embodiments of John Ruskin’s educational philosophy. Although he is perhaps best known today as an art critic and reformer, John Ruskin considered himself primarily a teacher. He may well have been describing himself when he wrote in 1865:

The moment we can use our possessions to any good purpose ourselves, the instinct of communicating that use to others rises side by side with our power. If you can read a book rightly, you will want others to hear it; if you can enjoy a picture rightly, you will want others to see it: learn how to manage a horse, a plough, or a ship, and you will desire to make your subordinates good horsemen, ploughmen, or sailors: you will never be able to see the fine instruments you are master of, abused (18:218).

The photograph of the self portrait of Ruskin is believed to be inthe public domain - Wikipedia Commons - File:John_Ruskin_self_portrait_1861Ruskin repeatedly disowned any pretensions to genius and held that his particular talent lay in identifying and revealing the greatness of others. This same talent, combined with a formidable intellect and an unflagging curiosity, made him particularly effective as an educator. As Slade Professor of Art at Oxford, he taught the rising generation of privileged English gentlemen. But while he recognized and valued the importance of his Oxford professorship, his teaching was by no means limited to the University. In the course of his long life John Ruskin’s teaching crossed both social and economic divides. He gave art instruction to laborers at the Working Men’s College in Red Lion Square; taught drawing by correspondence to numerous private pupils; instructed the girls of Winnington Hall both in lectures and in frequent letters; supported and encouraged numerous artists; devised plans for his own schools under the aegis of The Guild of St. George; and taught, and continues to teach, through his books. The devotion of so many of his students and disciples testifies to the deep impression left upon them by a teacher who scorned unsound and unproven theories in favour of “facts which you will find to be irrefragably true” (29:198), and who sought to enrich not only the mind, but the soul, the “motive power” (17:29) of men. Could it be possible, he challenged contemporary political economists in Unto This Last, that “among national manufactures, that of Souls of a good quality may not at last turn out a quite leadingly lucrative one?” (17:56). Ruskin’s aims as an educator were a part of his program of social reform; thus, Ruskin’s educational philosophy and vision are born of the same moral aesthetic that governs all his work.

John Ruskin as educator: active learning, dynamic teaching

John Ruskin believed in active learning and his approach to teaching was dynamic. His main concern, in correspondence and books as well as in lectures, was to make his readers (or listeners) see clearly, to provide visual, tangible examples of the principles or subjects he taught. Charlotte Bronte, in a letter to W. S. Williams following the publication of Modern Painters I, offered a powerful testament to Ruskin’s abilities: “Hitherto I have had only instinct to guide me in judging of art; I feel now as if I had been walking blindfold—this book seems to give me eyes” (qtd. in Early Years 73). Throughout his teaching, Ruskin sought to give sight to all his students. “[T]he greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world,” he wrote in the third volume of Modern Painters “is to see something and tell what it saw plainly. Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think, but thousands can think for one who can see. To see clearly is poetry, prophecy, and religion,—all in one” (5:333).

The desire to learn through doing was the motive force behind much of John Ruskin’s work. His researches for books such as The Stones of Venice and others are one instance: he filled numerous portfolios with detailed sketches, made plaster casts of various architectural details for further study, and climbed scaffolding in order to better view the details of ceilings, arches and capitals. His lectures, too, almost always involved visual aids intended to further illuminate his subject, and the pages of his letters are frequently decorated with illustrative sketches and diagrams. In his Inaugural Lecture at the Cambridge School of Art in 1858, Ruskin held that valuable drawings were those “in which the pupil [had] learned much in doing” as these would produce “the most precious results for his understanding and his heart, not for his hand” (16:181-2). Drawing, Ruskin claimed in a lecture at the Saint Martin’s School of Art in 1857 “enabled [students] to say and to see what they could not otherwise say or see, and it also enabled them to learn certain lessons which they could not otherwise learn” (16:439). By drawing, “they obtained a power of the eye and a power of the mind wholly different from that known to any other discipline” (16:440). Ray Haslam points out that “the education of sight was for Ruskin a far more complex thing than simply the training of sense perception—‘intellectual lens and moral retina.’ This therefore became the central teaching objective through the dual process of looking and drawing. For John Ruskin, the process of drawing hardly existed as an activity in its own right. Within an educational context it could become a powerful tool for learning in general” (“According” 153). Thus The Elements of Drawing (1857), an instruction manual aimed at students and amateurs, is as much about the education of sight and taste as it is about the technical aspects of drawing and is at the same time part of Ruskin’s program of moral education. Between the diagrams, sketches, and experiments, Ruskin’s analogies serve to “connect artistic with moral laws, and to suggest an underlying harmony in the universe” (CW 15:xviii).

A moral philosophy of art

Although John Ruskin’s aim is always pedagogical, some of his books address educational issues more directly than others, particularly Sesame and Lilies, The Ethics of the Dust, Time and Tide, The Eagle’s Nest, The Bible of Amiens, and the most systematic expression of his educational philosophy, Fors Clavigera. As his editors Cook and Wedderburn point out, Ruskin did not write as a specialist; just as his educational writings often anticipate or echo the work of men like Pestalozzi, Froebel, and Thring, whose work he had never read, they also sometimes “forestall or unwittingly repeat the Reports of Matthew Arnold” (CW27:lx), or the sentiments of Cardinal Newman. Like these contemporaries, Ruskin drew upon the “ancient wisdom” (CW27:lx) of Plato, Xenophon and others. What sets John Ruskin’s approach to education apart is its combination of ancient wisdom with Ruskin’s personal vision and mythology, and with the moral aesthetic that governs all his work, from art criticism to social reform. Thus, Ruskin connects the act of seeing clearly to education and to morality: “Well, my friends, the final result of the education I want you to give your children, will be, in a few words, this. They will know what it is to see the sky. They will know what it is to breathe it. And they will know, best of all, what it is to behave under it, as in the presence of a Father who is in heaven” (27:164).

Natural inequality; aptitude and circumstance

In “Modern Education” (1853), an appendix to The Stones of Venice, John Ruskin defines one of his foremost educational principles: education according to aptitude and circumstance. “The great leading error of modern times,” he writes, “is the mistaking erudition for education” (11:261). True education, as he sees it, is concerned not with how much men know, but with “what will fit them to do their work and be happy in it” (11:262). Ruskin repudiated the modern system of competitive examination and of prizes and honors, which, he asserts, ought to be the “rewards of a man’s consistent and kindly life, not of a youth’s temporary and selfish exertions” (29:498). Some children, Ruskin holds, will naturally desire education and profit by it, while others will dislike it and be disgraced by it, regardless of prizes or punishments. Thus the native intellectual inequality of men guarantees a natural balance in society, “each in his place and work” (29:498). As no two men are exactly alike, they should not be educated in exactly the same way:

Among all men, whether of the upper or lower orders, the differences are eternal and irreconcilable, between one individual and another, born under absolutely the same circumstances. One man is made of agate, another of oak; one of slate, another of clay. The education of the first is polishing; of the second, seasoning; of the third, rending; of the fourth, moulding. It is of no use to season the agate; it is vain to try to polish the slate; but both are fitted, by the qualities they possess, for services in which they may be honoured (11:262).

Though such ideas claimed a place in the work of many European educationalists they had yet to make an impact upon English mass schooling, characterised as it was by the accumulation of mechanical facts, competitive examination, and the dreary code of “payment by results.”<href=”#1″>(note 1)

While John Ruskin declares that “every man in a Christian kingdom ought to be equally well educated” (11:263, Ruskin’s emphasis), he did not believe in the equality of all men. Rather, he cites the “impossibility of equality among men [and] the good which arises from their inequality” (11:260). As he saw it, men would do better in endeavoring to fill their appointed positions in society worthily, than in scrambling to get out of them. In a society governed by the laws of Human Economy that Ruskin envisioned, a Law of Help would prevail, each individual contributing to the successful operation of the whole society, resulting in a balance dependent on helpful fellowship rather than on equality. Education, then, should enable a man to understand “the significance of almost every act of [his] daily life, in its ultimate operation upon himself and others” (11:260). Thus for John Ruskin education encompasses more than the “three R’s”; it is instead, as Collingwood recognized, “closely bound up in a grand scheme of life and politics,—Platonic in its breadth of view” (C2:323).

Insufficiency of the “three R’s”; purposeful education

John Ruskin held that the “three R’s” should not constitute the sum of a child’s education—a position that critics were quick to deride. In Fors Clavigera, he announces his intention not “to teach (as usually understood) the three R’s” (29:479). Reading and arithmetic, he explains, often hinder a child’s acquisition and memory of ideas; Ruskin would have his students “read less, and remember more” (29:489). Yet Ruskin does not dismiss reading altogether, only aimless and careless reading, which inevitably results in “knowledge without discretion—the knowledge which a fool receives only to puff up his stomach, and sparkle in his cockscomb” (29:498). For John Ruskin, reading is useless without the moral grounding necessary for accurate, thoughtful understanding. As he states in Fors, Letter 67, “Intellectual before,—(much more without)—moral education is, in completeness, impossible; and in incompleteness, a calamity” (28:655). Ruskin declares of arithmetic that “the importance at present attached to it is a mere filthy folly, coming of the notion that every boy is to become first a banker’s clerk and then a banker,—and that every woman’s principal business is in checking the cook’s accounts” (29:503). Instead, John Ruskin proposes a more pragmatic approach, in line with his commitment to active learning: children should be given small incomes in reward for due labor, by which means they will more readily learn the value of money, orderly habits, and the practical as opposed to merely mechanical application of sums (see Hannah More for an earlier variant of this orientation in the context of Sunday schooling). Ruskin proposed to use such an approach in his Schools of St. George as well, in which the study of geometry, for instance “shall be very early learned, on a square and diagonal of actual road . . . . And similarly every bit of science the children learn shall be directly applied by them, and the use of it felt, which involves the truth of it being known in the best possible way, and without any debating thereof. And that they cannot apply they shall not be troubled to know” (28:49). This idea of purposeful education is central to Ruskin’s philosophy. He proposes that children should learn, through active effort, that which will best fit them for their position in life, as well as that which will make them knowledgeable of the world around them. His Schools of St. George were to be provided with gardens, playgrounds, cultivable land, laboratories, and workshops to facilitate active learning.

Dissatisfaction with contemporary education; Ruskinian alternatives

In Fors Letter 50 John Ruskin takes direct aim at contemporary secular and religious education. Echoing the Wordsworthian sentiment that governed his educational ideals, Ruskin maintains that all children should be taught “what to admire, what to hope for, and what to love” (28:255), an aim he declares inconsistent with modern notions of education and modern values:

What to admire, or wonder at! Do you expect a child to wonder at—being taught that two and two make four—(though if only its masters had the sense to teach that, honestly, it would be something)—or at the number of copies of nasty novels and false news a steam-engine can print for its reading? What to hope? Yes, my secular friends—What? That it shall be the richest shopman in the street; and be buried with black feathers enough over its coffin? What to love—Yes, my ecclesiastical friends, and who is its neighbour, think you? Will you meet these three demands of mine with your three R’s or your catechism?

And how would I meet them myself? Simply by never, so far as I could help it, letting a child read what is not worth reading, or see what is not worth seeing; and by making it live a life which, whether it will or no, shall enforce honourable hope of continuing long in the land—whether of men or God (28:255).

John Ruskin believed that modern education offered only a hotchpotch of knowledge. In Fors, Letter 30 he prints as “sufficiently characteristic” (27:558) four questions from an examination given to the children of St. Matthew’s National School. The questions, consisting of various complex mathematical equations and seemingly arbitrary word games (“How many different permutations can be made of the letters in the word Chillianwallah? How many if arranged in a circle, instead of in a straight line?”) are mind-numbing and, Ruskin argues, largely meaningless:

I am bound to state that I could not answer any one of these interrogations myself, and that my readers must therefore allow for the bias of envy in the expression of my belief that to have been able to answer the sort of questions which the First of May once used to propose to English children,—whether they knew a cowslip from an oxlip, and a blackthorn from a white,—would have been incomparably more to the purpose, both of getting their living, and liking it (27:559).

Unity of knowledge; involution of studies

John Ruskin countered the modern approach by urging the importance of the unity of knowledge, one of his central educational principles. In a letter to the Reverend Frederick Temple (later Archbishop of Canterbury) dated September 5, 1857, Ruskin had outlined what he considered the ideal method, as he saw it, of integrating art education into general education. The main value of his scheme, he explained to Temple, would “be brought out by judicious involution of its studies” (16:453), and by emphasizing the relations between facts. For example, Ruskin writes, an ideal examination paper in Botany would require a student to possess not only botanical knowledge, but a sound knowledge of other studies as well, such as geography, drawing, mathematics, chemistry, political economy, and literature. Questions regarding, among other things, the mythological symbolism of a particular plant, its influence on civilization, and its commercial value in London would demand an awareness of the ways in which the various branches of knowledge work together. This holistic approach to education was one of John Ruskin’s first principles, arising from his insistence on the necessity of seeing “clearly,” understanding all things in relation to each other. “The system of the world is entirely one” he wrote in Modern Painters V, “small things and great are alike part of one mighty whole” (7:452). Ruskin urged the correlation of studies in such works as “Modern Education,” Unto This Last, Munera Pulveris, and Time and Tide. In The Ethics of the Dust, he demonstrated that the study of crystallography might teach social reform, political economy, and virtue as well as science. Ruskin’s letters to the students at Winnington Hall, with their emphasis on discovering connections and analyzing relations, their alternately playful and serious tone, their use of dialectic, range of allusion, and challenging Biblical analysis, can also be seen as a rehearsal for Fors, the work that best exemplifies this principle of the judicious involution of studies.

Fors Clavigera: theory in practice

John Ruskin’s method of doing so is to weave together various threads of information intended to teach the very values he preached. To this end, he combines assorted readings in literature, including Marmontel, Gotthelf, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dante, Plato, and others; readings in English history (Froissart), Greek history and mythology, and heraldry; studies in art, including Carpaccio, Botticelli, Giotto, and Holbein; studies in natural history; sketches of the lives of great men; commentary on current events often accompanied by excerpts from contemporary newspapers or books; and criticism of nineteenth century social and political economy. What at first appear the oddest of images and allusions—a recipe for Yorkshire goose pie, potted crocodile, Theseus’ vegetable soup, serpents, and dragons—are charged with a symbolism that grows with each layer of meaning. Fors is also suffused with nostalgia, reflecting Ruskin’s tendency to locate his social ideal in the past, especially in the Middle Ages. The letters are marked by a persistent comparison of past to present, the past unfailingly signifying ideals either decaying or abandoned in the present. Such comparisons simultaneously convict and inspire, strengthening John Ruskin’s critiques of English society—his condemnation of modern political economy, social injustice, religion, education, etc.—while exemplifying the values and behaviors that he hoped to revive through his teaching. Excerpts of biography, myth, fiction, and history, representative of the virtues of bygone ages, are juxtaposed with contemporary newspaper extracts, letters, and anecdotes illustrating the vulgarity, cruelty, and faithlessness of the nineteenth century. Far from being random digressions or puzzling fragments, the historical narratives are instead an integral part of Ruskin’s analysis of modern society, and of his educational strategy, each extract becoming a teaching tool, a lesson in how to reform the individual and society “[W]hat a stiff business we have in hand,” Ruskin exclaims, with a touch of his characteristic humor, in Letter 43, “—rent, capital, and interest all to be attacked at once! And a method of education shown to be possible in virtue, as cheaply as in vice!” (28:110).

Indeed, the gravity of Ruskin’s concerns are frequently leavened by a light touch of quick, dry wit such as this last. John Ruskin often relieved the sternness of his teaching with humor, frequent digression, and self deprecation, creating a feeling of intimacy with his audience or readers, and the bitterness and vituperation that alienated many critics of Fors is balanced by an appealing humor and playfulness. The editors of the Library Edition advise that “a certain quality of humour, and tact for discrimination, are necessary for the right reading of Fors” (27:xxviii), and Collingwood notes that “a great part of ‘Fors’ . . . is a coruscating play of wit, dazzling with side-glances of allusion which indeed require sharp watching to catch” (C2:403). For example, in Letter 11, “The Abbot’s Chapel,” October 15, 1871, Ruskin has a bit of fun at his own expense while simultaneously mocking the smugness of well-bred ladies and gentlemen. Contrasting his sightseeing party to Furness Abbey with a group of rough laborers encountered on the train, Ruskin admits that “we were all in a very virtuous and charitable temper: we had had an excellent dinner at the new inn, and had earned that portion of our daily bread by admiring the Abbey all the morning. So we pitied the poor workmen doubly—first, for being so wicked as to get drunk at four in the afternoon; and, secondly, for being employed in work so disgraceful as throwing up clods of earth onto an embankment, instead of spending the day, like us, in admiring the Abbey” (27:183). “Aesthetical persons” (27:184) like himself, Ruskin notes wryly, “like to have done our eight hours work of admiring abbeys before we dine” (27:184). In Letter 27, Ruskin remarks impishly that “as my friends are unanimous at present in begging me never to write to newspapers, I am somewhat under the impression that I ought to resign my Oxford professorship, and try to get a sub-editorship of the Telegraph” (27:499). Discussing bees in Letter 51, Ruskin declares that he does not want a book to tell him “whether [a bee] has its brains in the small of its back, or nowhere in particular, like a modern political economist” (28:277). As Birch notes, Ruskin’s humor in Fors is often mingled with “the spirit of mockery” (180). While Ruskin alternately provokes, stimulates, puzzles, and even berates his readers, he often teases them as well, laughing with and at them.

This lightening of John Ruskin’s often stern pronouncements of principle was a feature of all his teaching, both written and in his lectures. The dialogue between the Old Lecturer and the girls in The Ethics of the Dust is characterized by affection and humor, recalling the often bantering tone of Ruskin’s Sunday letters to the students at Winnington Hall. And Collingwood remembers the change in Ruskin’s tone, when lecturing, from “artificially cadenced” (C2:383) to vivacious as he left off reading his prepared passages and began to extemporize, excitedly describing his specimens and working out his subject with dramatic gestures and lively pantomime, so that he “became whatever he talked about” (2:382-3).Cook recalls the amusement of Ruskin’s audience during one lecture when “a hidden treasure was disclosed in the shape of a sketch from Tintoret’s ‘Paradise,’ which the Professor—by chance or design—held out wrong side up. ‘Ah, well,’ he said, joining in the general laughter, ‘what does it matter? For in Tintoret’s ‘Paradise’ you have heaven all round you’” (Studies in Ruskin 59).

John Ruskin’s ideal schools

The very structure of Fors, with its emphasis on active, associative learning, dialectic, connection and comparison, reflects and exemplifies John Ruskin’s educational philosophy, drawing together various strands of thought expressed throughout his books. Yet Ruskin also offers in Fors a blueprint for an ideal educational program, intended for use in the projected schools of Saint George. For Ruskin, education is above all a moral and ethical process, not an accumulation of facts or achievements, and moral education, as he expresses it in Letter 67 “consists in making the creature we have to educate, clean, and obedient [and] practically serviceable to other creatures” (28:655). While he requires his students to know names, certain dates, and to have a solid understanding of basic facts, Francis O’Gorman observes that his primary concern is “the assimilation of knowledge with values” (46). Education, then, bears the duty “of transmitting the kinds of knowledge, values, and beliefs John Ruskin wished to impart to the children of the present and thus to the adults of the new century” (O’Gorman 46).

In Letter 8, August 1871, in which Ruskin formally begins the St. George’s Fund, he offers a brief outline of education under St. George that calls to mind passages of “Modern Education,” Unto This Last, and Time and Tide. The children of the Guild,

shall be educated compulsorily in agricultural schools inland, and naval schools by the sea, the indispensable first condition of such education being that the boys learn either to ride or to sail; the girls to spin, weave, and sew, and at a proper age to cook all ordinary food exquisitely; the youth of both sexes to be disciplined daily in the strictest practice of vocal music; and for morality, to be taught gentleness to all brute creatures,—finished courtesy to each other,—to speak truth with rigid care, and to obey orders with the precision of slaves. Then, as they get older, they are to learn the natural history of the place they live in,—to know Latin boys and girls both,—and the history of five cities: Athens, Rome, Venice, Florence, and London (27:143).

Many of John Ruskin’s first principles of education are expressed in this short passage: the cultivation of the land; bodily exercise, music, and dance; the practical arts, such as spinning, weaving, and sewing; self-sufficiency; natural history and local knowledge; obedience and accuracy; gentleness (compassion, mercy) to all creatures; the example of figures and events from past history.

Ruskin’s ideal curriculum

In Letter 94, John Ruskin describes the curriculum of his ideal school: “For the school itself, the things taught will be music, geometry, astronomy, botany, zoology, to all; drawing, and history, to children who have a gift for either. And finally, to all children of whatever gift, grade, or age, the laws of Honour, the habit of Truth, the Virtue of Humility, and the Happiness of Love . . . . including all the habits of Obedience and instincts of Reverence which are dwelt on throughout ‘Fors,’ and all my other books” (29:484). Ruskin urges the importance of obedience throughout Fors, noting in Letter 37 that despite “our present state of utter moral disintegration” (28:20), both obedience and honor are instinctive in man, requiring only to be drawn out and revived by the right sort of instruction. Thus, “the first essential point in the education given to the children will be the habit of instant, finely accurate, and totally unreasoning, obedience to their fathers, mothers, and tutors . . . . The second essential will be the understanding of the nature of honor, making the obedience solemn and constant” (28:20).

The scheme of education that John Ruskin describes in Fors is thus intended to teach the virtue and honor that “our present forms of education refuse to teach” (29:499). In his penultimate letter Ruskin, uncertain “whether it has more distressed, or encouraged me, to find out how much is wanting, and how much to be corrected, in the hitherto accepted mode of school education for our youngest children” (29:493), is concerned once again with offering alternative methods of instruction. One such alternative, derived from Plato, centers on a belief in the wholesome and moral effect of music. Music had long been an integral part of John Ruskin’s moral aesthetic; as early as 1838, he had written an essay entitled “On the Relative Dignity of the Studies of Painting and Music and the Advantages to be Derived from Their Pursuit,” first published in its entirety in the Library Edition by Cook and Wedderburn.As Delia da Sousa Correa notes “in addition to writing repeatedly about music education [during the 1870s], Ruskin invested considerable time in his own musical training” (112), and by 1880 was “composing song-settings himself” (129). In Letter 95, he notes that he has been attempting (unsuccessfully) to construct a sort of lyre “by which very young children could be securely taught the relations of sound in the octave” (29:500). In Letter 82 John Ruskin espouses “Plato’s distinct assertion that, as gymnastic exercise is necessary to keep the body healthy, musical exercise is necessary to keep the soul healthy; and that the proper nourishment of the intellect and passions can no more take place without music, than the proper functions of the stomach and the blood without exercise” (29:239). Thus each school, Ruskin proposes in Letter 95, ought ideally to have “a grammar of simple and pure music” (29:500) designed to teach sincerity and purity; in effect, to help instil morality.

Again following Plato, Ruskin next insists on the importance of the “moral faculty” (29:501) of elocution in its bearing on accuracy and memory. Accordingly, students should spend part of each day listening to their master read some bit of poetry or prose—Chaucer, Spenser, Scott—always excluding “merely didactic or descriptive books” (29:502) such as the penny Children’s Prizes that Ruskin considered so ineffective and demoralizing. Children should also study the Bible closely, memorizing important passages of verse—as John Ruskin had done as a child under his mother’s tutelage—as well as memorizing lines of “such poetry as would always be helpful and strengthening to them” (29:503), with the exception of Shakespeare, which should never be used as a school book, but should rather be “known by thinking, not by mouthing” (29:502). As an exercise in narration, children “ought to be frequently required to give account of themselves” (29:503) and their daily experiences.

Believing geography to be among the most important subjects of study, John Ruskin decries what he considers the inaccuracy and inadequacy of modern maps. Proper physical and historical maps should, he urges, take the place of modern “cheap barbarisms” (29:506), forming part of a standard school geography of the British Empire. The hand-coloring of these maps would then form part of the drawing curriculum, reinforcing the involution of studies. Astronomy would also intersect both drawing exercises and geometry, students being required to draw weekly “the arc described by the sun, with its following and preceding stars, from point to point of the horizon” (29:507), the primary goal of such lessons being to teach the child the “places and names of the stars when it can see them” (29:507). Thus all three subjects would teach the child how to see and understand the world clearly. Similarly, instruction in writing should be carried out in connection with study in drawing and geometry, and should be aided by the finest examples of illuminated writing intended to guide and stimulate clever children to imitation.

Zoology and botany, John Ruskin holds, should be taught with the aid of quality illustrations by respected naturalists and botanists, which he proposed to obtain using funds from the Guild of Saint George. His own textbooks of birds and botany, Love’s Meinie and Proserpina, would also be used in his ideal schools.

Lastly, needlework and dressmaking, which symbolized for Ruskin the social responsibilities of women, as demonstrated in The Ethics of the Dust should also form a part of the curriculum for girls.

In this brief outline of John Ruskin’s ideal curriculum, which echoes the substance of previous letters, we recognize the moral imperative that drives Ruskin’s “educational legislation” (28:440) in the prominence given to those subjects that will teach not only practical skills but personal discipline and right conduct. We recognize too Ruskin’s characteristic emphasis, displayed throughout his books as well as in his private and public teaching, on association, the unity of all subjects of study, and the importance of active, visual learning.

Ruskin: influences and legacy

John Ruskin’s educational philosophy influenced the work and ideas of such educationalists as Sir John Lubbock (1834-1913), onetime President of the Ruskin Society of Birmingham, and Warden of the Guild of Undergraduates at Birmingham University, who urged a science characterized by a Ruskinian love of nature and respect for life and marked by reverence and admiration; Physicist Oliver Lodge (1851-1940), who in 1900 became the first Principal of Birmingham University, published articles about Ruskin’s science teaching in the journal Saint George, which was initially published by the Birmingham Ruskin Society,while attempting to implement a broader curriculum at his university; Patrick Geddes, Professor of Botany at University College, Dundee from 1889-1914, and director of the Edinburgh Summer Schools of Art and Science, published John Ruskin, Economist in 1884. At the Edinburgh Summer Schools, he encouraged the involution of studies recommended by Ruskin, believing that schools “should aim to offer the kind of completeness in liberal education that, he thought, Ruskin had described in Fors Clavigera” (O’Gorman 45). Several educators addressed Ruskin’s principles in lectures or articles, including the Reverend J.P Faunthorpe<href=”#2″> (note 2), Sir Michael Sadler and Prof. Churton Collins. These men were among a group of individuals, including such figures as J. Marshall Mather, Henry Rose, Julia Firth, and William Jolly, who according to O’Gorman “were or came to be in positions of considerable responsibility and influence with regard to education” (49) and through whom Ruskin’s educational ideals “in various reconfigurations, attained, however indirectly, a distinct degree of purchase” (O’Gorman 49).

One of the names most memorably associated with John Ruskin’s is that of John Howard Whitehouse, founder in 1919 of Bembridge School on the Isle of Wight, companion of the Guild of Saint George, founding member of the Ruskin Birmingham Society, editor of the journal Saint George, Liberal MP for Mid-Lanark from 1910-1918, and future owner of Ruskin’s Lake District home, Brantwood. After Ruskin’s death, Whitehouse amassed an extensive collection of Ruskin’s books, manuscripts, drawings, letters, and other items, making his major purchases at the ‘Dispersal Sales’ held at Brantwood in 1930 and 1931, and storing his collection at Bembridge. Whitehouse played a pivotal role in keeping Ruskin’s ideas alive and in forwarding his work. He implemented many of John Ruskin’s educational principles at Bembridge, and was the editor, in 1919, of a collection of lectures occasioned by the centenary of Ruskin’s birth, written by Ruskinians such as John Masefield, Laurence Binyon, and Dean Inge. In his introduction to the volume, Whitehouse emphasizes the enduring influence of Ruskin’s work in social reform, identifying him as the “definite pioneer” (11) of “policies relating to land and reform, the methods of dealing with slums, modern methods of taxation, the scientific treatment of such problems as unemployment, sweating, the care of the aged poor, the hours and conditions of labour, the reform of our educational system, the planning of cities, and many others . . . . which have since been carried out in the letter and the spirit, affecting almost every aspect of the social change and reconstruction which we have witnessed during the past four or five decades” (11).

Several schools honored John Ruskin by adopting his name, thus linking “the Master of the St. George’s Guild with various schemes for the better education of the people” (CW30:xli). The London School Board named the John Ruskin School in Beresford Street, Walworth, in honor of Ruskin’s influence as an educationalist and teacher and a Ruskin Hall was established at Birkenhead. In Norfolk, the Ruskin School Home, founded in 1900, intended to “’take for our basis John Ruskin’s educational idea’” (qtd. in Dearden 56). Ruskin College, Oxford, which boasted trade union associations and links to the University, was founded in 1899 by two American admirers and is still in operation today, offering educational opportunities to adult students of limited qualifications and means, and welcoming students who, according to its webpage “want to put something back into society.” Dearden writes that “Trenton, Missouri, had its Ruskin College (1900) with courses to study industrial economy, a social-science-oriented liberal arts course, and a business course” (55). Schools continue to honor Ruskin today. In September, 2005, Anglia Polytechnic University received Privy Council approval to change its name to Anglia Ruskin University (Wildman, 47). The University incorporates the Cambridge School of Art, which Ruskin opened with his Inaugural Address in 1858. According to former University Vice-Chancellor Professor David Tidmarsh, the new name honors Ruskin as “‘a mould-breaking educator, deeply committed to making higher education accessible to all and passionate about teaching and work-related skills’” (qtd. in Wildman, 48). The University has also refurbished the Ruskin Gallery at the Cambridge School of Art.

The work of these educationalists and institutions, inspired by John Ruskin’s passionate conviction, recall his directive in The Crown of Wild Olive, repeated emphatically in Letter 94 of Fors:

Educate, or govern, they are one and the same word. Education does not mean teaching people to know what they do not know. It means teaching them to behave as they do not behave . . . . It is not teaching the youth of England the shapes of letters and the tricks of numbers; and then leaving them to turn their arithmetic to roguery, and their literature to lust. It is, on the contrary, training them into the perfect exercise and kingly continence of their bodies and souls. It is painful, continual, and difficult work; to be done by kindness and by watching, by warning, by precept, and by praise,—but above all—by example (18:502; 29:485).


Birch, Dinah. “Ruskin’s Multiple Writing: Fors Clavigera. Ruskin and the Dawn of the Modern. Ed. Dinah Birch. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999. 175-187.

Collingwood, W.G. The Life and Work of John Ruskin. 2 vols. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1898.

Cook, E. T. and Alexander Wedderburn, eds. The Works of John Ruskin (Library Edition). 39 vols. London: George Allen, 1903-1912.

Cook, E.T. Studies in Ruskin. Orpington: George Allen, 1890

da Sousa Correa, Delia. “Goddesses of Instruction and Desire: Ruskin and Music.” Ruskin and the Dawn of the Modern. Ed. Dinah Birch. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999. 111-130.

Dearden, James S. John Ruskin. Buckinghamshire: Shire Publications, 2004.

Haslam, Ray. “’According to the requirements of his scholars: Ruskin, drawing & art education.” Ruskin’s Artists: Studies in the Victorian Visual Economy. Ed. Robert Hewison. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2000. 147-165.

Hilton, Tim. John Ruskin: The Early Years. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985.

O’Gorman, Francis. “Ruskin’s Science of the 1870s: Science, Education.” Ruskin and the Dawn of the Modern. Ed. Dinah Birch. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999. 35-55.

Ruskin, John. The Works of John Ruskin (Library Edition). 39 vols. Eds. E.T. Cook & Alexander Wedderburn. London: George Allen, 1903-1912.

Whitehouse, John Howard, ed. Introduction. Ruskin the Prophet. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1920. pp. 9-12.

Wildman, Stephen. “Anglia Ruskin University.” The Ruskin Review and Bulletin. Vol. 2, No.1. Michaelmas Term 2005. 47-8.

See also

Haslam, Ray. “Looking, drawing and learning with John Ruskin at the Working Men’s College.” Journal of Art & Design Education 7 (1998): 65-9.

Hewison, Robert, ed. Ruskin and Oxford: The Art of Education. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996.

Hewison, Robert. John Ruskin: The argument of the eye. London: Thames and Hudson, 1976.

Hilton, Tim. John Ruskin: The Later Years. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000.

Rosenberg, John D. The Darkening Glass: A Portrait of Ruskin’s Genius. New York: Columbia University Press, 1961.

Ruskin, John (1853) ‘Modern education‘, being Appendix 7 to The Stones of Venice. Volume III: The Fall. London.

Whitehouse, John Howard. Creative Education at an English School. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1928.

Dr. Sara Atwood, whose primary area of interest and research is the work of John Ruskin, received her M.A. at Queens College, City University of New York in 1999 and her Ph.D at the Graduate School and University Center, City University of New York in 2006. Her dissertation is a study of Ruskin’s educational philosophies and an examination of his importance as an educator. Dr. Atwood’s essays on Ruskin have appeared in such publications as Nineteenth-Century Prose and The Ruskin Review and Bulletin. She is presently working on a book manuscript based on her dissertation and enjoying every moment of raising her two-year-old son.

Acknowledgements: Picture: John Ruskin in Glen Finglas was sourced from the Geograph website and is reproduced here under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)  licence. Photograph by Carol Walker.

The photograph of the self-portrait of Ruskin is believed to be in the public domain – Wikipedia Commons –

How to cite this article: (2008) Atwood, S. E. ‘John Ruskin on education’, The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education. [ Retrieved: insert date].


1 Robert Lowe’s Revised Code of 1862 made school funding and teachers’ salaries dependent upon students’ success in standard government examinations.

2 Ruskin’s relationship with Faunthorpe, and with Whitelands College, constitutes another fascinating and instructive chapter in the development of his educational philosophy. For more on this subject, see Sara Atwood, A Cowslip From an Oxlip and a Blackthorn From a White: Fors Clavigera and Ruskin’s Educational Philosophy, Ch. 3

Last Updated on September 22, 2020 by