“This word-teaching, rote-learning, memory-loading system is still dignified with the name of ‘education’; … need we wonder that many scholars have so little practical or useful knowledge, or that the greatest block-heads at school often make brighter men than those whose intellects have been injured by much cramming?”1
Wealth and comfort lull people into ignoring political injustice. Or so it seemed to John and Charles Wesley2 in the mid eighteenth century. Both men were priests, but found that the people who most needed to be reached by Christianity and supported socially, were too disillusioned with formal religion — kings, bishops and aristocracy — ever to darken the door of a church. So the Wesleys went to preach in the fields and factory yards and on street corners. It is thought John Wesley travelled more than half a million miles, mainly on horseback, and delivered forty thousand sermons in more than fifty years. Charles wrote thousands of hymns including “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”, and “Immortal, Invisible, God only Wise”. They preached a robust, emotional gospel that combined the parable of the Good Samaritan with that of the Talents. Methodists3, as their followers became known, were to be the backbone of the lower middle-class in England for the next two centuries and provide the spiritual foundations for the modern Labour Party.4
“The Life and Struggles of Wm Lovett”5 epitomised the transition of an eighteenth century working-class way of life into the vigorous social struggles of industrial England. Brought up by his widowed mother who, “possessing a vigorous constitution” and descended from a family “well known in Cornwall for their skill as blacksmiths and their strength and dexterity as wrestlers”, the young William quickly learnt how to survive. Taught to read by his great grandmother who was over eighty years old, he briefly attended two dame schools where he learnt writing and some arithmetic “which was the extent of my scholastic requirements”. By the age of six the young William was earning whatever money he could to assist his mother, before a distant relative apprenticed him to a cabinet maker. Seeking work, he walked to London like thousands of other desperate craftsmen, only to find that cabinet makers, too, were being put out of work by the new machines. Imprisoned for forming a trade union he wrote, “all men are not gifted with great strength of body or powers of intellect, but all are so wisely and wonderfully endowed, that all have capacities of becoming intelligent, moral, and happy… (yet) want of this glorious blessing (education), they are doomed to grovel in vice and ignorance, to pine in obscurity and want”. Spasmodic and superficial as had been his own schooling, Lovett, as with the Methodists, was convinced that education was too important to be left to the vagaries of benevolence, or the machinations of politicians6. At the time of the rebellions of 1715 and 1745 which attempted to put a Catholic back on the throne, charity schools had been seen as bastions against Catholicism but, as the political threat receded, commerce and the landed interests came to see schooling as a distraction7.
To an aggressively entrepreneurial society, schooling was seen to limit the supply of cheap labour. Why should six-year-olds, who would forever be labourers, need to be educated? Provided parents disciplined their own children, child employment was not thought of as in any way wrong, but when new employment practices left parents with even less time with their children it soon became obvious that children’s discipline was breaking down. This was exacerbated when mill owners started employing children as young as five for twelve hours and more a day8. The Sabbath, however, was sacrosanct; the mills stopped and the shops closed. Inevitably Sundays became the day when youthful energy, released from the horrors and boredom of the factory floor, took its revenge. “Multitudes of children”, it is recorded, prowled the streets “in the shape of wolves and tygers” (hoodies!), and “honest men” feared to leave their homes lest they be plundered by children.9
The problem was solved voluntarily by setting up Sunday schools whose aim was to inculcate a sense of duty and discipline into children, based on the fear of God10. The idea was an instant success. Children actually wanted something meaningful to do, and wanted to be taken seriously. Landowners and owners and employers were delighted that here was a way of civilising children without reducing their hours of work, and Government was relieved of a solution that wouldn’t cost them a penny. Within a few years 3/4 million youngsters were quietly spending their Sundays learning to read, studying the Bible, and in many instances, receiving their only proper meal of the week.11
Then national politics intruded on what had been a story too good to be true. War with revolutionary, republican France, sent a shudder through England, and the fearful thought that the nonconformists12 might not be fully loyal to the monarch. The religious divide of two centuries before reopened. In 1811 the Church of England established the National Society13 with the aim of building an elementary school in every one of the country’s twelve thousand parishes. Three years later the Nonconformists started to build their own schools14 but Catholics and Jews were prohibited from doing so. Now, in 2006, it is strange to hear of faith schools as a possible solution to falling educational standards. English education is still tormented by such sectarian issues15.
Thesis 39: 24th August 2006