The four decades from 1775 marks a major change in European culture, as Enlightenment ideas of reason and cosmopolitanism were challenged by a concern for emotional authenticity and a commitment to national identity. At the heart of this transformation lay the disruptive force of political revolution, which engendered a voracious public discussion about the nature of citizenship, the existence of a British constitution, the quality of political rights, and the extent of public duties. Uniquely in the British context, in Scotland the University was at the hub of this debate, with its public role in shaping young minds towards public service.
This project explores the debate concerning political education by examining the teaching of political subject matter across the five Universities of Scotland (Edinburgh, Glasgow, King’s, Marischal, and St Andrews). While Scotland has been identified as in many respects a bastion of the counter-revolution, the Universities were commonly thought by contemporaries to be conduits for radical political thought, and the context of teaching therein was subject to intense public scrutiny. The survival of a vast array of largely unexplored lecturing manuals and student notebooks allow both hypotheses to be tested, while enabling us to reconstruct the nature of political education as experienced in the period from the outbreak of the American Revolution to the close of the Napoleonic Wars.
As well as allowing us to track the changing nature of political education in classes as diverse as law, moral philosophy and political economy, the project permits us to raise questions concerning the nature of polarisation and radicalisation, and how such processes can be tempered and moderated. Similarly, it enables reflection on the place of the University in public debate, as well as how the tensions between conservative and progressive ideas within the academy can shape our shared intellectual history.
The project is led Professor Michael Brown and brings together scholars at from Aberdeen (Dr Brad Bow), the Open University (Dr Anna Plassart), and the University of Stirling (Dr Emma Macleod).