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Comparison of Impact of the Enlightenment and Progressive Era on Education

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Comparison of Impact of the Enlightenment and Progressive Era on Education essay
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The purpose of this paper was to explore the impact of the Enlightenment and the Progressive era has had on education. The development of educational ideas and practices passed from a period to another; some of the ideas were so powerful that they had transcended their time and place. The historical analysis highlights two very significant periods in educational history. There were many theorists during the periods that contributed their philosophical views on education.

John Dewey addressed the need for social consensus in a society where social and economic change was eroding the inherited foundation of democracy. There is a tremendous amount of literature about the Enlightenment and Progressive era and how these particular periods’ contributions are still being used in education. Some of the literature explored in this research will be analyzing theorists of the periods, educational views of the periods, and Worldviews from a Christian perspective.

Keywords: child-centered, Enlightenment Era, feminist, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Dewey, Mary Wollstonecraft, Progressive era

History has taught us if you do not study it, then you are doomed to repeat it. The Enlightenment period was a time of educational reform. Jean-Jacques Rousseau exemplified ideas of naturalism and child-centered education. It was also during the period in which feminist Mary Wollstonecraft infused revolutionary thinking into her quest for equality between women and men (Gutek, 2011). The Progressive Era is seen as stimulating a significant reconceptualization of learning and teaching in the United States. The purpose of this paper is to explore the impact of the Enlightenment era, and the Progressive era has had on education. The paper will discuss the similarities and differences the historical periods have had on education.


The Age of Reason, which is known as the Enlightenment was a part of a movement in which European politics, philosophy, service, and communications radically reoriented during the 18th century (History, 2018). During the Enlightenment era thinkers in Britain, France, and throughout Europe questioned traditional authority and embraced the notion that humanity could improve through a radical change. The Enlightenment era was a time in which the secular world view emerged for the first time in human history. Many theorists provoked a revolution in educational thinking and practice (Gutek, 2011). Theorists believed that natural science and reason could explain all aspects of life. Jean Rousseau and Mary Wollstonecraft are known as an educational theorist that fought against the idea of social class during the Enlightenment era (Gutek, 2011).

Jean –Jacques Rousseau is considered one of the critical Enlightenment philosophers he was a significant influence on child-centered educational practices. Rousseau’s philosophy of education is that education should occur in a natural environment that allows children to learn by pursuing their interests. Jean’s writing of Emilie, shaped educational philosophy, and instructional methods. Emilie was a significant influence on thinking about education, and The Social Contract on thinking about political life and organization. The central idea of the writing can be summarized as man is good, but has been corrupted by social institutions (Gutek, 2011).

Mary Wollstonecraft promoted political and educational equality for all, but especially for women. Wollstonecraft believed and argued that women should receive similar educational opportunities as men. Wollstonecraft maintained that they (women) are essential to the nation because they educate their children and are companions to their husbands. Wollstonecraft thought that when revolutionaries spoke of “man,’ they were speaking shorthand for all humanity (Gutek, 2011). John Locke’s Essay concerning Human understanding was a vital source of the Enlightenment Theory. Jean Jacques Rousseau’s novel Emile also played an essential role in the development of Mary’s educational views. Mary was in accord with Rousseau’s educational theories as described in Emilie; however, she refused to limit their application to men only, as Rousseau did (Gutek, 2011).

In 1791, a former Bishop of Austin advocated for government schools which would end at the eighth grade for girls but continue for boys. The Bishop’s advocacy was a clear sign to Mary that the French Revolution wasn’t intended to help women (Gutek, 2011). This led to Mary writing her most famous work, Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792). The writing of the book was a significant milestone in the arguments around women’s rights and has since become a feminist classic. Mary’s work was a rebuttal to Edmund Burke’s A Vindication of the Right of Men (1790). Burke’s ideology was similar to Rousseau. Rousseau did not believe that women should be educated as men. He believed that females were born and raised to please their men. There were further assertions made that suggested women should ensure that their husbands were taken care of. Wollstonecraft believed that educating women could be their salvation (Gutek, 2011).


Social and political reform during the Progressive era of American history led to noteworthy educational advancements in public education. Early progressives rejected social Darwinism; it was believed that by providing citizens with an excellent education, one could solve all social problems. The focus of the Progressive era: individual rights, including women, minorities, consumers, and any other group that did not feel that they received the rights and protections that they deserved (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2018). Progressive education emphasizes the need to learn by doing. The era was known for the expansion in the number of schools and students served in public schools. The leading educational theorist during the Progressive Era was John Dewey.

John Dewey saw schools not only as a place to gain content knowledge but also as a place to learn how to live. The purpose of education was not so much the acquisition of a predetermined set of skills, but the realization of the full potential and ability of skills for the greater good of the student. It was the opinion of Dewey that education is instrumental in creating social change and reform (K12academics, 2019). John is known for experimentalism; it is the process of learning that is created through the transformation of experience (Brown, Willett, Goldfine, and Goldfine, 2018). It is suggested that experiential learning involves students discovering, processing, and applying information and reflecting upon what they have done. Dewey proposed that the nature of experience continues and that the experiential learning process is of fundamental importance (Gutek, 2011). His ideas and approaches were revolutionary during his lifetime and remain fundamentally important today.


The similarity between the Enlightenment and Progressive era both were proponents of the child-centered approach to education it has been argued that the school should be fitted to the needs of the child and not the child to the school. However, during the Progressive era, there was a different approach to the child-centered practice; it now included the study and care of physically and mentally disabled students. Another similarity between the two eras in education is the belief that science, especially the scientific method, which is open to repeating testing and revision of the hypotheses (Gutek, 2011). It was the opinion of both eras that students should be able to explore their natural environment and learn through these experiences. The Progressive era was a time in which all students were allowed to be educated together. The Progressive era laid the foundation of a new philosophy that affected the whole structure of education, especially at the elementary level. The Enlightenment era paved the path for theorist in the Progressive era in which ideas for both periods are still being practiced in education today.

Biblical Worldview Analysis

Rousseau and Wollstonecraft are theorists that believed in natural science as a means of educating everyone. Moreland (2007) defines knowledge as “the ability to represent things as they are on an appropriate basis of thought and experience.” Possessing knowledge is a critical part of life. Knowledge provides the truth about reality along with the skillful ability to interact with reality” (p.114). The text asks followers of Christ to consider various philosophies on improving their Christian life. Knowledge lays the foundation for confident and successful dealings with reality.

The world has redefined what knowledge is, and it is impossible to know knowledge of God with the new definition given by Western culture. Moreland writes about how God has made us have and lead a dramatic life (2007). Drama in our lives helps us to realize that we are made for greatness. It is the opinion of the writer that Enlightenment theorist had the vision, and the knowledge that the way students were being educated was not in the best interest of the whole child. Wollstonecraft and Rousseau created drama in their lives to help show others that they had a better idea than the ones that were in practice during the 18th century.

During the Progressive era in particularly, Dewey philosophy encouraged relativism; it was believed that certain truths would be forever valid and that specific values would be universally applicable (Gutek, 2011). Moreland notes that as a Christian our eyes should be open to seeing where the ideas of culture are heading, how these ideas will impact gospel, and how can one bring a Christian worldview to bear them (2007). The Progressive era had a view that understood that it did not matter if one is good or bad this did not change the circumstances but the moral standards should perennially convey to each new generation. As a Christian, we need courage and confidence just as Dewey to understood that the as the world involves so does one thoughts about truth. As a Christian we need to always be aware of the views of all regardless of their religious beliefs.


It is important to note that this paper is only a small stone in a large wall of knowledge. The Enlightenment era was an age of unprecedented optimism in the potential of knowledge and reason to understand and change the world. During the Enlightenment period philosophers used reason to understand all aspects of human life. The Progressive era was an age of reform-social and political changes. This was also a time of social change in education as well. Students during both eras were exposed to an actual curriculum that teachers followed to educate the whole child.

The term child-centered practice was introduced during the Enlightenment period and perfected during the Progressive time period. The writer was able to discuss similarities between the eras along with the differences in the era as it is applied to educational views. The purpose of the review was to give a historical overview of the Enlightenment and Progressive time period and how they help to pave the path in education as we know it today.

Educators still believe today that education should be intellectually stimulating, full of activities and experiences that students can connect with. Yes, we have evolved in some of the educational philosophies but in education we still continue to use practices of both the Enlightenment and Progressive era.

Comparison of Impact of the Enlightenment and Progressive Era on Education essay

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Comparison of Impact of the Enlightenment and Progressive Era on Education. (2020, Dec 05). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/comparison-of-impact-of-the-enlightenment-and-progressive-era-on-education/


How did progressive ideology impact the education system?
Progressive ideology impacted the education system by promoting child-centered learning, hands-on activities, and practical skills over rote memorization and strict discipline. It also led to the development of new educational theories and methods, such as Montessori and Dewey's experiential learning.
How did the Enlightenment impact education?
The Enlightenment impacted education by causing a shift from religious to secular education, and by stressing the importance of reason and critical thinking.
What influenced progressive education?
The two main influences on progressive education were John Dewey and Maria Montessori.
What were the two effects of the Enlightenment?
The Enlightenment helped combat the excesses of the church, establish science as a source of knowledge, and defend human rights against tyranny . It also gave us modern schooling, medicine, republics, representative democracy, and much more.
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