The history boys and girls

Felipe Fernández-Armesto recalls a golden age when learning was treasured

April 12, 2012

Rena Verduin was a 25-year-old Midwestern farmer’s wife, when, in 1907, she took part in a debate, held at her local culture club, on whether women should go to university. She had never got beyond primary school. But she made an excellent speech - albeit largely in implicit denunciation of her own boring marriage and overbearing husband. “Girls,” she exclaimed, “get an education and escape slavery.”

When my class read her speech last week, they expressed surprise that local culture clubs existed in early 20th-century Illinois; the students were amazed that such organisations hosted serious debates, and astonished that people like Verduin, of modest educational attainments, participated voluntarily, indeed enthusiastically, with such a high degree of assurance and skill, in preference to the lowbrow entertainments that absorb most people’s leisure today.

I told them of my own surprise when, many years ago in my first permanent teaching job, I studied the archives of the school where I worked and found records of a lecture series by William Haig Brown, Charterhouse’s indefatigable headmaster, who, without clerical, secretarial or bursarial staff, moved the school from its ancient London premises to the newly built, spired and cloistered magnificence of its site in Surrey in 1872. His lectures, improbably, were on the history of the Holy Roman Empire in the Middle Ages. The intended audience, even more improbably, consisted of working people of the adjoining towns of Godalming and Farncombe, who turned up in considerable numbers to get the benefit of the headmaster’s learning and - more astonishingly still - chose to sit an exam at the end of it.

While the students in my class reeled at the thought of this elective self-torture by people who endured it apparently for sheer pleasure, I mentioned John Burnett’s editions of 19th-century British working-class autobiographies, and the brilliance of writers who had little or no formal education and could barely afford to buy a book beyond their Bible and their Bunyan. Flora Thompson (who wrote the Lark Rise to Candleford trilogy) became uniquely famous, but she was representative in her day of ordinary people’s hunger for education - and prowess in profiting from what little of it they could get.

No one expects anything comparable to happen now. Most schoolchildren in the UK and the US show - if we admit the facts frankly and interpret the exam results objectively - little appreciation of their opportunities. Typically, they emerge from school with lamentably low standards of literacy and numeracy, and no taste for prolonging intellectually strenuous forms of leisure. If they go on to further educational experiences, they are more likely to choose vocational training than lectures unrewarded, except for the sheer thrill of learning, on the Salian and Hohenstaufen emperors. How did this collapse of educational ambition happen? Why did ordinary people’s appetite for learning ebb? Why did excellent autodidacts disappear?

I’m sure readers will tell me that these changes are the effects of easier, cheaper access to competitive forms of pabulum, drivel, belly-laughs and mundane amusements; or that the fault lies with bad schools; or with a system that denies teachers resources and freedom; or with prevailing consumerism and materialism, which condemn children to share their parents’ and rulers’ dreary values and narrow aspirations. I suspect, however, that the real problem is deeper and more secret - so shocking that we barely dare think it, let alone mention it out loud: maybe the entire project of creating universal, compulsory, free education was misguided. And maybe the destruction of real, heartfelt demand for learning has been one of its consequences.

For schooling, like all commodities, is cheapened by glut. When it was a rare and usually costly privilege, people valued it and were willing to take trouble to get it. By becoming universal, it became routine. By becoming free, it became valueless. By becoming compulsory, it became revolting - a form of physical imprisonment rather than a source of mental liberation. The real reason that states sponsored universal schooling and levied taxes to pay for it in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was not, of course, to admit working people to the life of the mind or the enriching pleasure of intellectual stimulation. Rather, the purpose was to mobilise people to be obedient soldiers, workers or mothers for the service of the state or for the advantage of the elite. Regimentation for robotic jobs was more important than the inculcation of critical intelligence or the cultivation of broader virtues.

Schools - thank God - have lost their 19th-century vocation, but have not found an inspiring role that might reignite the spirit of Verduin or Haig Brown’s worker-audience. They do their best, on the whole, to encourage children in self-expression - which is usually a euphemism for self-indulgence - but remain chained to the dispiriting demands of the economy. As long as they are free of charge, universal and compulsory, I doubt whether they will ever be really attractive to most of their clients, or leave many of their pupils with a passion for learning, or restore a world in which culture clubs and lectures rival the popularity of soap operas and binge drinking. Without them, we should, no doubt, be poorer as an economy, but richer, perhaps, in some of the real ingredients of a good life.

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