chapter  3
28 Pages

These Are the Lessons Taught from the Books That Lived in the House That Ben Built

Visits to the Juvenile Library begins with an epigraph warning against the dangers of succumbing to life as a “blockhead”:

To all who own the pow’r of speech, This useful lesson I would teach: That nature’s gifts if you employ The purest pleasures you’ll enjoy; Whilst ignorance, and sullen pride, Sense unexerted, misapply’d, Insure neglect, contempt, and hate, And the unpity’d blockhead’s fate; For ah, you’ll fi nd it to your cost Age can’t regain what youth has lost. (Fenwick, Visits 17)1

For the record, a blockhead was a wooden, head-shaped form used for blocking (or shaping) hats or wigs. By the eighteenth century, blockhead was regularly used as a term of derision implying stupidity. Self-esteem didn’t seem to have been an issue or concern. Instead, the pedagogical focus centered on the construction of a thinking and knowing child, a child with an “active mind and a warm heart” (to quote William Godwin’s 1802 letter again),2 a child in transit to full adult responsibility. In this chapter, I’ll show how Fenwick in Visits to the Juvenile Library situates learning to read and being literate at the heart of liberation politics. I’ll also demonstrate how she articulates what are currently considered progressive pedagogical practices including experi-

ential education, “scaffolding” of new knowledge on old, and recognition of multiple intelligences. Although credit is usually given to late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century, mostly male educational philosophers (John Dewey, Lev Vygotsky, Paulo Freire, and Howard Gardner) for these practices, they were in use in the Enlightenment and appear to have been developed, articulated, and put into everyday use by the extraordinary maternal pedagogues of the period who placed high value on being literate.3