Friday, 21 January 2011

Elementary education: introduction

English elementary education grew in the face of constant fear and opposition from sections of the upper- and middle-classes.[1] Education, it was believed, would teach the working-classes to despise their lot in life, enable them to read seditious literature and make them less deferential to their social superiors. This attitude persisted, especially among rural farmers and gentry, throughout the nineteenth century. In 1846, the Rev. John Allen, Inspector for Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire wrote the following that he maintained reflected rural opinion

We cannot help having a school, but we think it advisable that as little as possible be taught therein.’[2]

Overt hostility to any form of education may have retreated into the backwoods of rural England but there were many who wished to give the working-classes just enough education so that they could read the Bible, learn their duty to God and Man, and the place in life to which Providence had been pleased to assign them. William Lovett, the Chartist leader, denounced these educationalists as

...favourable to the securing of their prey, another portion, with more cunning, were for admitting a sufficient amount of mental glimmer to cause the multitude to walk quietly and contentedly in the paths they in their wisdom had prescribed for them.[3]

In time this attitude also weakened, partly through the actions of Lord Ashley who, though an enemy of secular state schools, was an enthusiastic champion of working-class education. Its successor was the ‘Morals before Intellect’ view of those who demanded that working-class education should be primarily religious, because its primary purpose was to inculcate good morals and obedience. This was often found among High Churchmen who believed that

...no secular knowledge really desirable for the bulk of the population could be fitly taught apart from a constant reference to religion.[4]

This also resonated among conservative landed gentry

I consider those schools to be the most promising where The Commandments and the Duty of God and Man are regularly taught, because without moral and practical religious training there can be no real education.[5]

Secular educationalists were, until the 1860s, a small, noisy group advocating moral without religious training. Modern historians often maintain that the purpose of early Victorian educationalists was the social control of one class by another or as Harold Silver puts it ‘Rescuing the poor for religion and a concomitant stable society’.[6] But the concept of social control, though important in any examination of education, is oversimplified. As a label ‘social control’ is crude covering a multitude of stances from the crudely manipulative and instrumental attitude of Lord Londonderry building schools in his mining villages after the Chartist disturbances to the wholly sincere attempts to remake the working-class child in the middle-class image.[7] Among middle and upper-class philanthropists it was an argument for enlightened self-preservation; to Ashley and Kay-Shuttleworth education would rescue the working-classes from crime and sedition. The means varied. Churchmen sought to inculcate religion and morals to buttress duty and obedience while liberals attacked sedition and socialism by developing popularised versions of classical political economy. Motives and means might have varied but there was a good deal of common ground among all educationalists. Lovett and Owen no less than Ashley and Kay-Shuttleworth looked to education to rescue the working-classes from vice and crime accepting the relationship between ignorance and criminality. Education as a means of ‘improvement’ embodied in the idea of the ‘march of mind’ and provided a counter-force to the Law and High Church preoccupation with faith, duty and obedience. The interesting question is not whether a given educational scheme was designed as social control but what sort of society it was intended to produce.

One reason why education in the 1830s appeared to be an instrument of class control was the decline of the parallel conception of education as a means of social mobility. It had declined as the professional and industrial middle-classes turned to defensive measures against the working-classes forming below them. Education, as a result, became involved in the class struggle and became politicised. By the 1830s, there were voluntary Church schools teaching the Anglican catechism, voluntary Nonconformist schools teaching private morality from the Bible and public morality from readers of classical economics and voluntary Owenite schools propagating socialism. It was the dominance of the rescue motif, as interpreted by middle-class enthusiasts that prevented education from permanently dividing into forms of propaganda serving conflicting social and political aims.


[1] The most straight-forward study of education between 1830 and 1914 is the relevant chapters of Lawson, John and Silver, Harold, A Social History of Education in England, (Methuen), 1973. Smelser, Neil J., Social paralysis and social change: British working-class education in the nineteenth century, (University of California Press), 1991 is both a detailed history of educational development and a theoretical study of social change. The focus of much study has been on the education of the working population. Central to the period 1830-1870 are the contrasting views of West, E.G., Education and the State, (Institute of Economic Affairs), 1965 and Education and the Industrial Revolution, (Batsford), 1975 and Hurt, J.S., Education in Evolution: Church, State, Society and Popular Education, 1800-1870, (Rupert Hart-Davis), 1971. The work of Harold Silver is also important especially his The concept of popular education, (Methuen), 1965, and his collection of essays Education as History, (Methuen), 1983.   Simon, B., The Two Nations and the Educational Structure 1780-1870, (Lawrence and Wishart), 1974 and Sutherland, G., Elementary Education in the Nineteenth Century, (The Historical Association), 1971 are essential reading. Johnson, Richard, ‘Really useful knowledge: radical education and working-class culture 1790-1848’, in Clarke, J., Critcher, C. and Johnson, R., (eds.), Working-class Culture: Studies in history and theory, (Hutchinson), 1979, pp. 75-112 is valuable.   Burns J., ‘From Polite Learning to Useful Knowledge 1750-1850’, History Today, Vol. 36, (4), (1986), pp. 21-29 and Harrison, B., ‘Kindness and Reason: William Lovett and Education‘, History Today, Vol. 37, (3), (1987), pp. 14-22 are interesting.   Laqueur, T.W., Religion and Respectability:  Sunday Schools and Working-class Culture 1780-1850, (Yale University Press), 1976 is the seminal work on a major educational movement. Ibid, Sanderson, M., Education, Economic Change and Society in England 1780-1870 provides a brief bibliographical statement.

[2] Kay, David and Kay, Joseph, The Education of the Poor in England and Europe, (J. Hatchard and Son), 1846, p. 220.

[3] Ibid, Lovett, William, Life and Struggles of William Lovett, p. 111. See also, ibid, Harrison, B., ‘Kindness and Reason: William Lovett and Education‘.

[4] Rev. Alexander Watson, curate of St John’s, Cheltenham in 1846, cit, ibid, Henriques, Ursula, Before the Welfare State, p. 201.

[5] Sir Charles Anderson of Lea, near Gainsborough, Lincolnshire in evidence to the Newcastle Commission in June 1859, Parliamentary Paper, Education Commission: Answers to the Circular of Questions, Vol. 5, (HMSO), 1860, p. 9, cit, ibid, Henriques, Ursula, Before the Welfare State, p. 201.

[6] Ibid, Silver, Harold, The concept of popular education, p. 26.

[7] Johnson, Richard, ‘Educational policy and social control in early Victorian England’, Past & Present, Vol. 49, (1970), pp. 96-119.

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