It is nevertheless ironic that, at just this moment when intellectual and practical creativity merged to create what could have been the ideal environment for a functional popular democracy, the Industrial Revolution (itself a child of all that practical creativity), effectively changed every aspect of that earlier equation. While men of business became phenomenally wealthy the descendants of countless generations of self-taught farmers, small tradesmen and craftsmen who had made all this innovation actually happen, saw the craft traditions they had inherited from their forbearers completely disappear within a couple of generations. Robust individualism – the essential ingredient for a functional democracy – was replaced by an unthoughtful, demotivated and unskilled mob of people, ready only for the life of the factory that was then being created. Rather than a people who could have rebirthed democracy the stage was being set for Disraeli’s’ “two nations, between whom there is no intercourse, no sympathy; (whose citizens) are as ignorant of each other’s thoughts… as if they were dwellers in different zones or inhabitants of different planets”, as England began the process of splitting itself into communities of either the rich, or the poor.
English society today is still paying the price. Men who had learned an apprenticeship from their fathers now realised they had neither a craft skill, nor a set of social and moral values to offer their own children. Men lost faith in the value of fatherhood. Adam Smith, who argued in The Wealth of Nations for the financial benefits to be gained from mass manufacturing processes also warned that, should this happen, the earlier “alert intelligence of the craftsman” (the attributes of their fathers and grandfathers before them) would be replaced by factory operatives who would be “generally as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become”. And that is exactly what did happen, and continued to happen across vast swathes of the country throughout the nineteenth century and much of the first part of the last century. Working men lost not only their dignity, but also their sense of purpose and involvement – the very things necessary to make democracy work.
The Industrial Revolution represented social meltdown on a scale never before experienced, or anticipated. “What to do with the children?” became an urgent problem that was resolved in two entirely different ways. The first was custodial, and aimed at reinforcing the status quo. To keep the youngest children off the streets, and to protect them from the worst excesses of nineteenth century society, private benefactors (largely the churches) built, and ran, an increasing number of schools for children up to the age of eleven, always taking the greatest care to tell the children of “the folly of thinking it unjust that one man should receive more than another for his labour”. This was what the Victorians, so conscious of social divisions, were to refer to in Parliament years later as ‘the Education of the Poor Act’. It was to be education for the masses, but most certainly on the cheap. Of teachers in such schools one government official noted, “Little else is required of a teacher other than an aptitude for enforcing discipline and acquaintance with mechanical details and preservation of order, and that sort of ascendancy in his school which a sergeant major is required to exercise over a batch of new recruits.” It didn’t seem very inspiring, or very nice.
The second response could not have been more different, and must be understood if the nature of England’s educational malaise in the twenty-first century is to be rectified. It goes like this; self-made Victorian entrepreneurs, aspiring to improve their own social stratas, were determined that their sons should not go through the same grubby apprenticeships which had made them wealthy. At the same time they had no wish for their adolescent sons to litter the drawing rooms of the country mansions their newfound wealth enabled them to build. From the late 1830s onwards it was Dr. Arnold who showed how the ancient free grammar schools with their cloistered buildings and ivy-covered walls, could be requisitioned and turned into elite boarding schools, taking only the sons of the rich and leaving out the local boys. Within a few short years the Victorian public school (which were never public in the sense we now apply to state schools), radically transformed the nature of English society by diverting the adolescent sons of the entrepreneurs away from the apprenticeships into boarding schools.
Those elite boarding schools quickly recovered the classical curriculum that a generation before had been seen to be in terminal decline. By merging this with what quickly became known as ‘muscular Christianity’ the Victorians effectively used education, to create and then reinforce, class boundaries. Secondary education which through the benevolence of earlier generations had for centuries been seen as a ‘public good’ to be provided free of charge to the most worthy of youngsters, became under the Victorians a privileged way of life open only to those with the money to buy into what would then become a ‘private gain’. Right through to late in the twentieth century the old-school tie often mattered more than which university you went to, or what job you held.
It is irrefutable that the public schools provided much of the manpower and the idealism that created and extended the British Empire, but they nevertheless left an indelible mark on English national life that has been far from helpful. As the sons of the gentry began to leave their homes at the age of thirteen-and-a-half they grew to have a greater loyalty to their classmates (and the style of living they adopted) and their school, than they did to their home communities. This has done enormous damage and over time it has led too many such boys, as they became adults, to be more comfortable in their London clubs, than serving as elected officials on their local county or parish councils. This trend has grown worse in the latter part of the twentieth century as the residue of that noblesse oblige tradition espoused by the most socially conscious of the Victorians, weakened still further. In turn it has led to a serious loss of social capital, and a greatly weakened sense of civil society.
Two other consequences of such elite education cast shadows which stretch down into our own century. One of these was the influence of the classical tradition which led many of their former pupils, in later life, to uncritically accept Plato’s explanation of human nature as being dependent on whether a person was born with gold, silver or iron in their blood. To such men destiny was unchangeable and education was about polishing up what was already there, not revealing talents not immediately obvious. For the better part of a hundred years the English establishment was slow to heed developments in biology and genetics suggested by Darwin, and in psychology as taught by Freud about the evolutionary nature of inherited predispositions. Consequently, such men’s uncritical acceptance of the Greek and Roman thought has damaged English education in a further devastating way – to the Romans the education of a child below the age of ten or twelve was merely women’s work, not until a boy was well into puberty did the ancients think it worth sparing a man to be their tutor. So to the Victorians it was the education of boys thirteen and older that mattered, early years were of little concern to them.
Is there still any significance for us in all that? Yes… for to this day English education, in so many ways, takes secondary education more seriously than primary, and extends a far greater respect to a secondary teacher than to a primary teacher. Despite what Ignatius Loyola taught his followers nearly five centuries ago and all that we now know from research about the malleability of the young brain, England persists in spending more on the education of an eighteen-year-old than on a five-year-old… and it is the wrong way round; quite simply the system is upside down.
Then there remains the organisation of the Victorian public school, where the code of behaviour by which privileged young Victorian youth grew up, was totally autocratic. Democracy did not enter into the equation – when in doubt as to the rights or wrongs of a matter what counted in the time of Tom Brown’s School Days was loyalty to one’s team, to one’s leader and to one’s social status. What mattered was accepting uncritically what you were told to do until, when you yourself became top-dog, everybody would do exactly what you told them to do. By an extraordinary twist as the nineteenth century drew to its close, the social status of elementary school headteachers was seen as the equivalent of successful shopkeepers, while public school headmasters achieved social parity with cabinet ministers. When six of these formidable headmasters went on to become Archbishops of Canterbury they even outranked the Prime Minister. To a terrified youngster the headmaster was the personification of both God, and King. By 1913 it was claimed “there is probably no position in English civil life where a single individual exercises such uncontrollable power over others as does the Head of a successful public school”. The existence of two such totally different approaches to children has been catastrophic. As Edward Boyle, the one-time Conservative Minister of Education was reported as saying shortly before his early death in 1967, England will never reach its full potential if we remain a people divided by the way we educate our children.
Does any of this matter now, and does it have any relevance to England’s ability to make real democracy work? Or does it seem that I simply have a grudge against the public schools? I certainly do not have a grudge, indeed I was well educated in such a school in the 1950s, and much enjoyed the experience. Subsequently I spent many years in education including teaching in preparatory schools, a secondary modern, and at that most elite of grammar schools namely Manchester, and then for a dozen years I was Head of an old sixteenth century grammar school as it became a comprehensive school. For more than twenty years I’ve been involved in various school-community projects. A dozen years ago I was invited to Washington D.C. to head up a team of international research scientists investigating the nature of human learning. But I am not simply a theoretician; my wife and I have three sons who have taught us more than we have ever taught them, and I learnt more about the theory of teaching as a geography teacher whilst out on the mountainside on fieldtrips than ever I did in a classroom. I now lecture on human learning in many different countries which has given me many opportunities to look at schooling in England with a focus sharpened by my overseas’ experience. That is probably why I’ve been invited to give this lecture in Australia, a lecture based on the book the Initiative is about to publish in England, Overschooled but Undereducated: Society’s failure to understand adolescence.
So, to the first part of that question – does this hinder democracy from working? I know that if we are to create an appropriate education for the future we must properly understand the reasons for the malfunction of the present system otherwise we will never get a correct bearing on where we need to go to in the future. Key to that malfunction has been the way that the elite boarding schools have glorified a form of education that is separated from the life of the community, and from the day-to-day concerns of ordinary people. By so separating school from community youngsters in their most formative days are separated from the function of democracy. And so, briefly, I must go back to history, to the latter part of the nineteenth century to see how this aspect of separation happened.