The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIV. The Victorian Age, Part Two.

XIV. Education

§ 1. The industrial revolution

THE LATTER half of the eighteenth century was marked by an hitherto unprecedented development of science. Mathematics, physics and astronomy made notable advances, the foundations of modern chemistry were laid, the idea of biological evolution was being carefully studied a century before the appearance of Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859); the speculations of the early French economists were focused in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1776). But the most striking results of scientific research and experiment were to be found in the applied sciences and in mechanical inventions. From the later years of George II onwards, there was an extraordinary growth in the number of labour-saving machines, more especially of those employed in the cotton and woollen industries, inventions which multiplied almost incalculably the resources of the manufacturing districts of the north and middle of England. On the heels of these inventions came the work of great engineers, Watt, Boulton, Rennie, Stephenson. The enormous economy of labour, the much greater mechanical precision of the output and the increased facility of transport, all combined to bring about an industrial expansion, which, assisted by the commercial activity of the earlier part of the century, was deep enough and broad enough to merit the name “revolution.” Amidst such circumstances, it was inevitable that the critics of contemporary education should condemn its almost absolute disregard of useful knowledge and of modern studies.

A new people and a new order of civilised society appeared. Population increased, great urban communities arose in the midlands and in northern England, there was a general movement away from the rural districts; a hitherto unwonted aggregation of capital altered the scale of industrial operations. While wealth increased, so, also, did poverty; it would be difficult to parallel in the previous history of England the wretched state of the labouring poor during the last years of the eighteenth and the first decades of the nineteenth century. The educational provision for the mass of English children in charity, parish and Sunday schools was very insufficient, and commonly unsuitable in character. The desperate plight of parents and the unsparing employment of children in mills and factories would, in many cases, have made the offer of a complete provision little more than a mockery. Yet, these very conditions of ignorance and of moral degradation stirred the hearts of reformers to attempt their alleviation by means of schools. The evils and their remedy are both described by Wordsworth in the last two books of The Excursion (1795–1814).