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Simon Somerville Laurie

Professor of Education, University of Edinburgh
1829 to 1909

Educationist and philosopher Simon Sommerville Laurie was born on 13 November 1829 in Edinburgh. His parents, James Laurie (a chaplain to the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary) and Jean Somerville (the daughter of a Presbyterian minister), were not financially well off. Laurie began to tutor younger students early in his life in order to pay for his education at Edinburgh University from 1844 to 1849. He then moved to London and travelled to Ireland, as well as other locations in Europe, where he worked as a tutor.

Laurie returned to Scotland in 1855 when he began his pedagogical career as the secretary of the Church of Scotland’s Education Committee, which had jurisdiction over “assembly schools” run in the Scottish highlands. He was soon hired as a secretary and inspector with the Dick bequest, an endowment that encouraged higher quality education in rural parish schools in Scottish counties. Laurie’s role was to inspect instructors who had been funded by the bequest to ensure they were teaching to the bequest founders’ standards. It was in this capacity that he began his career as a writer on educational matters.

Laurie elaborated his seminal pedagogic views in his periodic reports to the governors of the bequest. Later, he began to publish books on various educational themes. Legislative reform in 1872 expanded the profession of elementary school teaching in Scotland, and as part of this widespread reform Laurie’s books, including Primary Instruction in Relation to Education, published in 1867, and Institutes of Education, published in 1892, were used as training manuals for the new teachers. In 1876 Laurie was appointed to one of two university chairs of Education in Edinburgh, where he later became Emeritus Professor.

Laurie’s general approach to educational curriculum was of the liberal tradition. He emphasized the classics and languages in the hopes of training students to be enlightened citizens. In 1891 Laurie became the president of the Teachers’ Guild of Great Britain, an organization devoted to professionalizing teachers and standardizing their education. Under Laurie’s leadership the Guild pushed for the establishment of national standards for the training of educators, but the Scotch Education Department was advocating a vocational approach to teacher training. As a result, Laurie’s lectures on education at the university were not recognized as “qualifying” courses for teachers.

Though predominantly renowned for his educational reforms and writings, Laurie would have also considered himself a philosopher. Though he had never held a chair in Moral Philosophy, at the time of his death the academic journal Mind published an obituary that said “there has been lost to British philosophy a writer of rare intellectual courage, shrewd independence of judgement and great speculative insight.”

Unlike his educational writings, which Laurie wrote with an eye to his audience of students and pedagogues, his philosophical works are often nebulous and obscure. In part this is because he created new terms to refer to the philosophical concepts he wished to discuss; in part it is because, as Laurie’s obituary states, he often wrote and philosophized as a pastime without much regard as to how his works would be understood or interpreted. The Meditations are, perhaps, a case in point. Although the second half of the Meditations was delivered as the Gifford Lectures in Edinburgh in 1905, they constitute an unsystematic mélange of thoughts related to various questions in natural theology. Leonard Russell and Walter G. Everett criticised them as unpalatable and unintelligible at times, though both reviewers note Laurie’s important contributions to the field of natural theology in the United Kingdom. Russell argues, however, that a French translation of Laurie’s philosophical works, Metaphysica Nova et Vetusta and Ethica, or the Ethics of Reasons, which were written under the pseudonym Scotus Novanticus (and translated as La Philosophie de S. S. Laurie by Georges Ramacle), does a great deal to simplify and clarify the arguments found within the originals.

During his lifetime, Laurie was honoured with doctorates from various Scottish universities and became a member of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1870. He married Catherine Ann Hibburd in 1861 and they had four children. His second wife, Lucy Struthers, was the daughter of a professor of anatomy at Aberdeen University. In 1903 Laurie resigned from his chair in Education at Edinburgh and in 1907 he retired from his duties with the Dick bequest. He died 1 March 1909 in Edinburgh and was buried in Edinburgh’s Grange cemetery. His four children from his first marriage and his second wife survived him.

Laurie’s major publications include: On the Fundamental Doctrine of Latin Syntax (1859); On Primary Instruction in Relation to Education (1867); Notes Expository and Critical on Certain British Theories of Morals (1868); Chair of Education, University of Edinburgh: Inaugural Address (1876); Free education, ect., ect.: Chair of Institutes and History of Education: Introductory Lecture (1884); Metaphysica nova et vetusta: A Return to Dualism (pseud. Scotus Novanticus, 1884); Ethica, or, The Ethics of Reason (pseud. Scotus Novanticus, 1885); Occasional Addresses on Educational Subjects (1888); Lectures on Language and Linguistic Method in the School, Delivered in the University of Cambridge, Easter Term, 1889 (1890); Institutes of Education: Compromising an Introduction to Rational Psychology (1892); Historical Survey of Pre-Christian Education (1895); John Amos Comenius, Bishop of the Moravians: His Life and Educational Works (1899); On the Educational Wants of Scotland (1881).

  • Josipa Petrunic, University of Edinburgh