Ep 8: Context Chat with Dr. Adam McCune


Dr. Adam McCune’s research focuses on representations of childhood and youth in nineteenth-century British literature. He has taught at Baylor University, and has served the William Blake Archive as Project Director of the digital archive of the journal Blake/An Illustrated Quarterly.


Ashley chats with Dr. Adam McCune (College of Charleston) about children and children’s education in eighteenth and nineteenth-century Britain. During the period when educational writers like Sarah Trimmer and Hannah More lived, ideas about what it meant to be a “child” and what were appropriate forms of education for children were evolving. We also talk about how the Bible was central to culture throughout this time in history.


 1.   Since we attended graduate school together, I know that your dissertation and scholarly work has focused on depictions of children in literature. What first attracted you to studying this subject matter?

 2.   So, this might surprise some listeners but the idea of “childhood” as a stage of development in a person’s life is a relatively modern-day concept. What did early sixteenth and seventeenth-century English Puritans believe about “childhood”? 

 3.   What did Enlightenment thinkers like John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau argue that changed ideas about children and childhood?

 4.   What was the typical education for children, using a middle-class/upper-class boy as an example? *In his response, Dr. McCune also speaks on education for children across classes, girls’ education, and parents’ typical involvement in their children’s’ education

 5.   How central was the Bible to children’s literature/education?

Standard Final Questions for Interview

6. Which do you prefer: tea or coffee? I will drink both.

7. What is a book that you have read more than once that you would recommend? C.S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces

8. Do you have a hero of the faith? Augustine of Hippo

 Featured Women of the Church  

Hannah More (1745-1833): After achieving literary success in London as a writer and playwright, Hannah turned her attentions to her personal faith and the welfare of others. In addition to her work as an abolitionist, Hannah sought to reform society through writing educational literature, religious tracts, and political pamphlets. At Hannah’s funeral, the officiating ministerquoted from her famous novel Coelebs in Search of a Wife “to describe her guiding principle in life: 'If it be absurd to expect perfection, it is not unreasonable to expect consistency'” (Skeed). 

Jane Austen (1775-1817): She is one of the most celebrated English novelists of all time. Today, devotees of Austen lovingly call themselves “Janeites.” However, a lot of people don’t know that she was a devout Protestant and grew up surrounded by clergymen.


“Neil Postman has argued that basically our category of childhood is artificial, it is not inherent…How is a seventeen-year-old a child, right?...That’s arbitrary. Why did we decide that an eighteen-year-old is an adult and a seventeen-and-a-half-year-old isn’t? So, basically the argument he makes is that childhood is a category, aside from the biological development, that is defined by education, right? We think that when you are done with your education that you are an adult but the education that we have designed is arbitrary. You could have a different system of education and, of course, many different places and times have had different forms of education.”

 “When we talk about like sixteenth and seventeenth-century Puritans, they are in the tradition of Augustine of Hippo, right? Augustine writing late 300s and early 400s AD has this very strong idea of original sin. And original sin is a biblical concept but the way he talks about it is, some people think that a baby is good, but is a baby good? Well, how would be know? Well, what does it do? It cries...Is it trying to manipulate the adults? That doesn’t sound very good. And it certainly is very self-focused…So, basically, he says babies are bad…They don’t start out innocent.”

“And you get ideas like this in the Bible: ‘[Foolishness] is bound in the heart of a child; but the rod of correction shall drive it far from him. Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.’ You have to train [children] to be good. That is [the Puritans] starting point.” (Proverbs 22: 15; Proverbs 22:6)

“Latin and Greek were the core of the Humanities well into the early twentieth century…That was associated with boys, not typically part of girls’ education.” 

“Girls’ education was a bit different…From our perspective, the more valuable topics we might say that were commonly taught  to girls would be things like French, history, geography, mythology…the basics of chemistry…arithmetic… geography, grammar…”

“The best-sellers were always religious works…Everyone was steeped in Christianity in Great Britain…All the schools were religious…” 

Key Terms

Puritanism: A religious movement in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century. Puritans stressed the need for “strong preaching for conversion, the search for personal godliness, and a devotion to lay study of Scripture.” These beliefs were held by Christians in England and the North American colonies. (Mark Noll, The Rise of Evangelicalism: The Age of Edwards, Whitefield, and the Wesleys, p. 55) 

Age of Enlightenment/Age of Reason: The spirit of the Age of Reason was nothing less than an intellectual revolution, a whole new way of looking at God, the world, and one’s self. It was the birth of secularism.” In the God-centered world order of the Protestant Reformation, “reason served faith” with “Man’s basic concern in this life was his preparation for the next.” Whereas the Age of Reason articulated a human-centered world order: “Man’s primary concern was not the next life, but happiness and fulfillment in this world” and man’s intellectual reason trumped faith. (Bruce Shelly, Church History in Plain Language, p. 312)

Governess: This was one of the few occupations available to gentlewomen during this time period. Their duties included teaching basic academic subjects. Often for their female charges, governesses would also teach female accomplishments while serving as a moral guide and social companion (Suzanna Geiser, Context Chat on “Social Status” at JASP). 

Public School: “In the United Kingdom, one of a relatively small group of institutions educating secondary-level students for a fee and independent of the state system as regards both endowment and administration. The term public school emerged in the 18th century when the reputation of certain grammar schools spread beyond their immediate environs. They began taking students whose parents could afford residential fees and thus became known as public, in contrast to local, schools” (Britannica.com, see “Public School”).

Female Accomplishments: A type of education for women that included music, singing, drawing, dancing, and all the modern languages. For middle-class and upper-class women, education was meant to prepare a young lady for her future role as a wife and mother. 

Sunday Schools: Schools created for boys and girls from the working class to receive an education, which focused on literacy and writing. Since working- class children typically had Sundays off from work, this was the only day of the week that they could receive some type of formal schooling. Often, the Bible was the core of the Sunday School curriculum.  

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Dr. McCune’s Sources

Augustine, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (Oxford University Press, 1992).

Butler, Marilyn. Jane Austen and the War of Ideas. Oxford UP, 1988. 

McMaster, Juliet. “Jane Austen’s Children.” Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal On- Line 31.1 (Winter 2010). Jane Austen Society of North America. 

Selwyn, David. Jane Austen and Children. London: Continuum, 2010.

Boas, George. The Cult of Childhood. London: Warburg Institute, University of London, 1966.

Gubar, Marah. Artful Dodgers: Reconceiving the Golden Age of Children’s Literature. Oxford UP, 2009.

Pifer, Ellen. Demon or Doll: Images of the Child in Contemporary Writing and Culture. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 2000.

Postman, Neil. The Disappearance of Childhood. New York: Vintage, 1982.

Rose, Jacqueline. The Case of Peter Pan, or, The Impossibility of Children’s Fiction. U of Pennsylvania P, 1993.

More, Hannah. Strictures on the Modern System of Female Education, with a View of the Principles and Conduct Prevalent Among Women of Rank and Fortune. Vol. 2. 2nd ed. London: T. Cadell Jun. and W. Davies, 1799. 

 ——. “The White Slave Trade.” [1804.] The Works of Hannah More. Vol. 3. London: T. Cadell, 1830. 385-396. 

 Smith, Sydney. “Professional Education / Too Much Latin and Greek” (1809), “Female Education” (1810), and “Public Schools” (1810). The Works of the Rev. Sydney Smith. New York: Edgar G. Taylor, 1846. 50-61. 

Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: With Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects. 3rd ed. London: J. Johnson, 1796. 

Allen, David. The Naturalist in Britain: A Social History. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1976.

Barbour, Judith. “Female Education.” An Oxford Companion to the Romantic Age: British Culture, 1776-1832. Ed. Iain McCalman, Jon Mee, Gillian Russell, Clara Tuite, Kate Fullagar, and Patsy Hardy. Oxford UP, 1999.

Barnard, H. C. A History of English Education From 1760. London: U of London P, 1961. 

Bermingham, Ann. Learning to Draw: Studies in the Cultural History of a Polite and Useful Art. New Haven: Yale UP, 2000.

De Ballaigue, Christina. Educating Women: Schooling and Identity in England and France, 1800-1867. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007.

English, Barbara. “The Education of the Landed Elite in England c. 1815-c. 1870.” Journal of Educational Administration and History 23.1 (1991): 15-32.

Lewis, Judith S. “Princess of Parallelograms and Her Daughter: Math and Gender in the Nineteenth Century English Aristocracy.” Women’s Studies International Forum 18.4 (1995): 387-394. 

Lewis, C.S.  Till We Have Faces

Image: Joseph Highmore, Thoughts on Education of Daughters

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