Exporting Bildung and Epistolary Education

In October I was invited by Professor Glòria Jové to carry out in Lleida University a series of activities related to my study of Bildung and Barbara Bodichon’s epistolary education. I gave two lectures, entitled “Bildung and Art: Education, Ethics and Esthetics”, where I discussed the role of art in educating citizens according to this German educational concept. The audience, undergraduates studying a BA in Educational Studies, are currently exploring contemporary art as a source of identity-formation as inclusive primary school teachers in training. The objective of my lectures was to discuss how Bildung at the end of the 18th century and beginning of the 19th understood art as an educational instrument and a vehicle for virtuous actions. Our discussion revolved around the questions of what is the role of art in one’s self-development and to what extent art is or can be ethical.



The second set of activities consisted of a series of workshops, entitled “Epistolary Education: the dialogical and collaborative construction of knowledge”, that I run with two groups of students:

Lleida Educational Studies undergraduates


 and primary school pupils, in state school Ciutat Jardi (Lleida)


and state school Arrels (Mollerusa)


My intention was to transform my research on the history of women’s education in 19th century England into an impact activity. In my research I study the role of letter-exchanges among bourgeois women in providing a dynamic and intersubjective site for the sharing and acquisition of knowledge and the exercise of critical thinking. My suggestion is that letter-exchanges acted as informal sources of education – education understood in the sense of self-development (Bildung), which, in my revision of Bildung, intrinsically involved discourse re-appropriation. As such, my contention is that, from the perspective of the history of the women’s movement in Britain, letter acted out as sites where the production of feminist knowledge was constructed dialogically and cooperatively.  The purpose of my workshop was to extrapolate this Victorian epistolary education phenomena to the context of 21st century classrooms.

In order to carry out this workshop, I first reproduced (as well as I could, with the instruments I could get hold of, which created inevitable anachronistic touches of late 19th century letter-writing…) snippets extracted from the real letters I analyse in my research: in this case, letters exchanged between Barbara Bodichon and her two closest female friends, Bessie Parkes and Anna Mary Howitt.



Without telling them what the actual workshop would consist of, I also asked participants to exchange letters among classmates during the previous weeks before the workshop. They had to write letters to classmates, relating personal experiences with any aspect of the subjects they were studying in class (e.g. theories of pedagogy, didactic methods in the case of undergraduates, and natural sciences, maths, language in the case of primary school pupils). These exchanges included replying letters making references to letters received from third parties: i.e. student A writes to B; B replies to A and writes a letter to C making reference to the letter received from student A (paraphrasing ideas, quoting sentences or forwarding the whole letter). The objective was to create a multilateral network of letter-exchanges – just as Bodichon, Parkes and Howitt did in the 1840s-1860s.

We first read their letters and discussed the experience of letter-writing (for some, their very first time!) as well as the content of their exchanges.


I then moved on to introduce the 19th century letters I analyse in my research: I explained who Barbara Bodichon and her friends were, and we opened, read, transcribed, translated and commented on the 6 excerpts I had reproduced.



The six 19th century letters we read describe the epistolary dialogue Bodichon, Parkes and Howitt had soon after Alfred Tennyson published his narrative poem “The Princess” in 1848.  This narrative poem tells the story of a princess, Ida, who, defying custom, founds a university for women. With the help of two friends, the prince to whom she was betrothed in infancy manages to enter the institution disguised in female attire. The three young men are discovered and, in the fight for the princess’ hand, are seriously wounded. They are nursed back to health by the college students and, eventually, Ida returns to the prince. The epistolary dialogue we reconstructed shows how Bodichon and her friends recommended this poem, lent each other a copy of the book, asked each other questions about the content of the poem, and gave their opinion about Ida and her deeds – an opinion that moved beyond the idea of a university for women (women in Britain were debarred from university education at that time!!) to discuss women’s rights more broadly. I moved on then to explain how, two decades after, Bodichon managed to found the first college for women in British history: Girton College, now part of Cambridge University.

1200px-Girton_College,_Cambridge,_England,_1890s.jpgWe then compared the 19th century letters to their own and we discussed the significance of epistolary exchanges in the process of learning and in the dialogical and collaborative production of knowledge.

Before we concluded the workshop, we practised writing with ink and a quill, and sealing  letters with wax.


Now that they know why at the beginning of the academic year they were requested to exchange letters with classmates, both undergraduates and pupils are writing letters as a way of further developing their learning experience – one in which they are the starting point and the active agents of knowledge acquisition, critical thinking and knowledge production. We are planning to run a second workshop at the end of the year to further discuss the significance of letter-exchange in their educational experiences.

I would like to thank Glòria Jové for her enthusiasm about my workshop when it was still an abstract idea and for making it possible. We would both like to thank Aida Buira, Núria Galitó and the management staff at schools Ciutat Jardi and Arrels for their welcoming reception. Gloria and I would also like to thank Quim Bonastra, Paco Rodrigo, Maria Àngels Marsellès, Simon Williams and Moisès Selfa for their behind-the-scenes participation!



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