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My Thesis

The 'Childlike' Learner: Epistemology and education in British nineteenth-century children's literature

British nineteenth-century children’s literature displays a recurring concern with the awakening and development of knowledge and belief in both its child and adult audience. However, the period saw a dramatic shift in thought on how best to do this. Overtly didactic texts such as those by Sarah Trimmer and Maria Edgeworth, which simply used the fictional nature of their tales as sugar-coating for necessary lessons, were being replaced with stories which attempted to foster a deeper and lasting form of knowledge through more autonomous learning, such as those by George MacDonald, Juliana Ewing, and Lewis Carroll. These later texts moved the focus of education of the young and re-education of the old towards a more student-centred rather than lesson- and teacher-centred model. An examination of this move reveals the developing construct of the ‘childlike’ learner, i.e. one full of wonder and epistemological humility, how and why this should be fostered, and helps us examine the educational role of children’s literature in general.

Once the ‘childlike learner’ has been established I will seek to place it into contemporary epistemological debate in order to highlight and argue for certain epistemological virtues: a concern with belief over knowledge, a refined ability to interact with authorities, interdisciplinary approaches, a search for wonder and awe, humility in relation to routes to knowledge, and so on.

This notion of the ‘childlike learner’ is also important for the study of philosophy and literature, where I use it to defend the existence and usefulness of the category ‘artistic knowledge’ and the notion of literature as thought experiment. Beyond this, the ‘childlike learner’ also has implications for the notion of the ‘authentic’ learner in the philosophy of education and how we conceive of teacher-student interaction and the ‘space’ of learning in the classroom.


Eileen John (Philosophy)



Eileen John - Warwick Website

Jackie Labbe (English Literature)

Jackie Labbe

 Jackie Labbe - Sheffield Website