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University of Basel

Loving fathers and education at home.

Text: Eva Mell

Two historians are studying the role of knowledge transmission and emotions in Basel families of the eighteenth century. Research has long overlooked the fact that the Enlightenment was focused not only on reason, but also on emotions.

Family portrait by Peter Burckhardt-Forcart. (Cropped image: Basel Historical Museum, Peter Portner)
Families had a social obligation to educate their children: family portrait by Peter Burckhardt-Forcart. (Cropped image: Basel Historical Museum, Peter Portner)

«Oh Lord! Was it possible? This was our child! My heart was gripped with completely unfamiliar emotions that I had never experienced before.” This is how one eighteenth century father described his first encounter with his daughter. “She was crying. She seemed to look at me with her bright eyes and then fell silent. That look was crucial, for it awoke in me a sense of fa-therly love.”

Fathers who cared for their pregnant wives, who spoke of a profound love for their children or who sat at their sick infant’s bedside for nights on end — personal accounts like these are commonplace to Claudia Opitz, Professor of Early Modern History at the University of Basel. Her doctoral student Elise Voerkel, who studies the rearing of chil-dren in bourgeois Basel households between 1750 and 1830, adds: “In those days, the demands on fa-therly love were as great as those on motherly love. In general, however, mothers were responsible for physical care, while fathers were responsible for educating the older children.”

Education within the family

History therefore tells us that the close involvement of fathers in today’s domestic life is actually nothing new. By the eighteenth century, fathers were no longer expected to play the role of authoritarian patriarchs, but rather to act as aff ectionate leaders of the family unit. As part of a project entitled “Doing House and Family”, Opitz and Voerkel are studying how knowledge was produced and communicated in bourgeois Basel families of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, as well as the role played by emotions.

When it comes to knowledge transmission, the two researchers also see parallels between families of the eighteenth and twenty-first centuries. “As a last resort, we close the schools — but not the families,” Opitz says in reference to the state of emergency declared during the coronavirus pandemic. “This is because families still have a societal role to play in children’s education.” In the eighteenth century, this was the norm: education was a family matter.

Indeed, in the century of Enlightenment, the ideal scenario was for children to be educated individually in an environment that was as loving as possible. In those days, however, bourgeois as well as noble parents enjoyed the support of grandparents, uncles, aunts or domestic staff  who were integrated into the family. Education was a project for the extended family and helped forge and strengthen internal relationships.

Romantic marriage becomes the new ideal

At first, knowledge transmission and emotions appear to be two completely diff erent spheres of domestic life. Opitz explains that the opposite is actually the case: the two spheres are inseparable when it comes to a person’s education. In the Age of Enlightenment, the German term Bildung (formation) was used to refer to a holistic concept. “Bildung meant that the person was educated, or raised, in a holistic manner,” as Opitz explains. In the eighteenth century, this was about more than just the accumulation of knowledge. Just as much emphasis was placed on character formation and emotional development.

As a lifelong project, Bildung aff ected not only the younger generation but all members of the family. “For a long time, researchers overlooked the fact that the Enlightenment debate around human nature related equally to the emotions and to the mind,” says Opitz. “It wasn’t just about the idea that emotions fundamentally shaped the human condition. There was also a recognition that emotions made social cohesion possible in the first place.”

Emotions were very much en vogue in the eighteenth century. This was not only the age of pedagogy and Enlightenment, but also the age of senti-mentalism. The literature of the era was awash with emotion: “Goethe’s novels and Sophie von La Roche’s Geschichte des Fräuleins von Sternheim [The History of Lady Sophia Sternheim] are virtually textbooks on how to write love letters and express your emotions.” Personal diaries and letters of the era are also characterized by emotionally charged language, and romantic marriage became the new ideal – one that, although it was by no means always accomplished, was desired by more and more young people of the middle class.

Emotions and education within the family sphere even seemed to mutually reinforce one another: spouses who were in love would educate themselves, read and debate things together — and by doing this their love could grow. “There’s a lot of plausibility in this hypothesis,” says Opitz, but Voerkel disagrees: “I’m not entirely sure about the formula whereby more emotions equal more education and vice versa, because my research has only given me an insight into the upper strata of society. Are we saying there were no emotions in less-educated strata?”

Respect for emotions

This touches on a significant point. The two researchers’ insights into knowledge transmission and emotions in Basel families at the turn of the 19th century relate primarily to the upper middle class — in other words, to about 12 –15% of the population at the time. This is mainly due to the sources from which the information was obtained. Personal accounts such as diaries or letters were more likely to be written, kept and archived by people from upper social strata.

There is also no robust way of measuring whether parents in the eighteenth century felt more strongly — or differently — toward their children than was the case in the past. “To some extent, we simply have a greater volume of source material available that highlights emotionality,” says Opitz. What they can say for sure, however, is that new values came into play in the eighteenth century. In general, emotions were becoming increasingly important – and so too was the love that parents felt for their children.

Incidentally, emotions were also more and more acceptable for fathers, because feelings could not only be expressed in the private sphere but were seen as the basis for society as a whole. “Today, we tend to say that feelings are just for families,” says Opitz, “whereas outside, in the world of work, reason governs. In the Age of Enlightenment, things were much more balanced.” This respect for emotions was lost primarily in the nineteenth cen-tury, which was dominated by political struggles, confrontation and militarization. Emotions were seen as a sign of weakness and banished to the fa-ily sphere, from which fathers were increasingly estranged both physically and emotionally — for example, when they had to complete their military service or go to work outside the home.

Opitz believes it is time for us to reconsider the concepts and values of the eighteenth century. Many ideals, such as romantic marriage or the freedom to choose an occupation based on one’s own inclinations, were by no means available to everyone at the time. Nevertheless, she says: “Human beings were seen as a combination of emotions and rational choices. Today, we can take this as a renewed opportunity to learn that we need both things – the mind and emotions – not only in the private sphere, but also in schools, in learning and working life alike.”


More articles in the current issue of UNI NOVA.

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