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  • Ruskin’s Educational Ideals
  • Sharon Aronofsky Weltman (bio)
Sara Atwood. Ruskin’s Educational Ideals. Farnham, England, and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2011. 190 pp. ISBN 978-1409408376, $99.95.

In Ruskin’s Educational Ideals, Sara Atwood has taken on the valuable task of presenting the educational philosophy of John Ruskin to a modern readership. Besides his fame as arguably the greatest English prose stylist of the nineteenth century, Ruskin’s reputation rests on the impact of his aesthetic, architectural, and social criticism. Yet Ruskin saw himself as a teacher. His books, essays, letters, and lectures repeatedly attest to the importance he placed on all kinds of education, and the careful thought he gave to filling his many pedagogical roles. He taught in the classroom at Oxford, at the Working Man’s College, and at the Winnington school for girls. He also tutored many artists through voluminous correspondence, wrote thoughtfully didactic essays on a multitude of topics (including theories of learning), and established various teaching institutions. Yet despite a career in education that was “both ambitious and dynamic,” Ruskin rarely gets the kind of attention as “an educationalist” that other Victorian academic reformers such as Matthew Arnold, Frederick Maurice, or Barbara Bodichon receive (2). Atwood’s stated goal in her book is to establish Ruskin as one of Victorian England’s “greatest,” most “significant,” and “most unconventional educators” (5). This is not a particularly new claim (certainly many of Ruskin’s contemporaries and former students touted his extraordinary talent as teacher and lecturer), but Atwood adds some fresh evidence and packages it for a current audience. Finally, Atwood hopes that her readers will learn of ways in which Ruskin’s ideas about education “might productively modify our own” (5).

The book is organized into a rough chronology, striving “to construct a composite picture of Ruskin as educator, following the development of his pedagogical principles, methods, and vision from their foundations in his moral aesthetic, through his various teaching roles and writings on education, to their culmination in Fors Clavigera and the Guild of St. George,” which are accomplishments that occurred toward the end of his career (5). The first and second substantive chapters sift through Ruskin’s autobiography (en titled Praeterita) and standard biographies by Tim Hilton and Helen Viljoen, first providing an overview of Ruskin’s own education, and then describing the evangelical background and Platonic philosophy that combined to influence Ruskin’s educational ideals. These chapters serve as a useful introduction to Ruskin’s life, but offer little new research.

The next chapter covers less familiar ground. Here Atwood discusses Ruskin’s relationships with three women students (Louisa, Marchioness of Waterford; Anna Blunden; and Ellen Heaton) whom he taught through correspondence. Atwood builds on the pioneering work of Pamela Gerrish [End Page 847] Nunn and Jan Marsh in considering Ruskin’s influence on women’s artistic education, considering as well his “evolving method of instruction, which he would develop further in drawing manuals” (34) such as Elements of Drawing, which Atwood also investigates here. She moves rapidly from the 1850s to the 1880s, considering Ruskin’s appointment as Slade Professor of Art and the various series of lectures (and publications) on teaching art that emerged from that position. The following chapter continues this examination of Ruskin’s pedagogical efforts from the 1850s to the 1880s, concentrating now on his “desire to integrate art instruction with general education” (85) and contextualizing Ruskin’s ideas about education among other nineteenth-century thinkers. Before concluding with a discussion of Ruskin’s publication of Time and Tide as a precursor to Fors Clavigera, this chapter describes Ruskin’s mid-1860s books Sesame and Lilies and Ethics of the Dust, both of which delineate Ruskin’s goals for teaching girls. Here Atwood’s depth of research into Ruskin’s writing about education is not matched by equal depth into critical scholarship. She appropriately cites several scholars who write influentially on these educational texts (Linda Peterson and David Sonstroem), but misses several others whose writing on these texts is equally relevant (Seth Koven and Jan Marsh), particularly since they engage precisely the issues Atwood raises. This happens again in the final chapter, about Ruskin...