There is no safe depository for the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if it is thought that they be not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion.1
A vigorous, if somewhat alternative, form of Englishness developed in the American colonies, which in subsequent centuries was to return to influence England. The Pilgrim Fathers2 had taken education most seriously, founding Harvard University in 1636. Thomas Jefferson, the descendant of an immigrant from Northamptonshire, grew up in Virginia, where his education was essentially that of an English country gentleman, surrounded by a vast continent awaiting development. He was well versed in Milton’s political theories but breathed the radical, questioning thinking of contemporary European philosophy, including the works of the Glaswegian professor, Francis Hutchinson, on happiness. It was Hutchinson’s influence that led Jefferson to define “the pursuit of happiness” as one of the three inalienable rights of Americans3. Jefferson believed passionately in the values of education for everyone, not simply as a preparation for work, but so as to create a whole people ready and able to make democracy work, as stated in this thesis. In this he was far in advance of his contemporaries back in England.
Meanwhile back in England, as the pace of industrialisation accelerated, Jefferson’s contemporaries did not see it like this. They were in denial at the scale of suffering that workers, including children as young as four, experienced as they worked for up to sixteen hours a day in the factories4. They looked the other way and persuaded themselves that this was the inevitable result of progress, believing as they did in the generally beneficent ‘laws of nature’ working out for the best in the long run. Adam Smith’s views on capitalism and the free market were readily accepted, especially by those who could most benefit from them, and the publication in 1798 of Thomas Malthus’5 essay on population seemed to confirm the wisdom of leaving things well alone. Malthus taught that the well-being of the mass of the population could never be improved, because any increase in food productivity would quickly be followed by further increases in population. The poor were poor through their own fault, he stated, and it was the misery of the poor that kept population growth under control. For England to be successful the economically fit should be given every opportunity to succeed.
So it was that nineteenth century England just didn’t want to hear the cries of the children, see the mangled bodies of workers too tired to stay awake at the machines, or notice the stunted five-year-olds crawling out of the mines who rarely lived long enough to enter puberty6. In pre-industrial times children had worked to enhance the family income, and when not working were ‘hanging out’ around the farm, the shop or the workshop. But in the new industrial towns there was literally nothing for them to do ─ no parks to play in, no schools to attend, initially no churches in which to gain a sense of purpose, no apprenticeship to train in, and no older people with time to talk to them. There was literally nothing apart from the grinding boredom of life in the factory. If there was to be a limitation on factory working hours, an M.P. asked nervously, “would there not be a danger of their (children) acquiring vicious habits for want of regular occupation?”7
So Englishmen were reluctant to spend good money on the education of the poor, even though they knew they had to keep them off the streets. There was a ready-made, and cheap, scheme that suited such purposes admirably. It had been developed in Madras, India in 1789 for the Male Orphans’ Asylum. It was known as the Monitorial System8 and was the educational equivalent of a factory. The scheme was refined by a Quaker, Joseph Lancaster9, who opened such an institution in London in 1803. It was based on using pupil teachers to provide a cheap, mechanical and narrow form of mass schooling. It consisted of a single room, 39 feet wide, and a 106 long, which accommodated 660 children in 33 rows of 20 desks. In this educational equivalent of a battery farm, one teacher relying on the services of 24 monitors (the best pupils of the previous year) could supposedly teach the 660 pupils reading, writing and arithmetic (the 3 R’s) at a cost of seven shillings (thirty-five new pence) per child per annum. “Give me twenty-four pupils today, and I’ll give you twenty-four student teachers tomorrow”, was the proud claim, and all you’ll need in addition is one good teacher. To MPs and land owners anxious to do nothing that would cost them money, or limit their entrepreneurial activities, this seemed too good a bargain to miss, and the monitorial scheme was adopted with alacrity.10
Thesis 41: 24th August 2006