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

XIV. Education

§ 15. Education and the state

The psychology of Locke and its educational corollaries were fully appreciated and further developed in France, where, by 1793, they became co-ordinated in the demand for a statemaintained system of schools, primary and secondary, with additional provision for higher and professional education, the primary stage of this system at least being gratuitous and universally obligatory. In England, the desire to see a great increase in the means of popular instruction of some sort was fairly general amongst thinking men; but there was much hesitation in determining the part to be played by the state itself in the matter. As early as 1756, Thomas Sheridan in British Education had asserted that “in every State it should be a fundamental maxim that the education of youth should be particularly formed and adapted to the nature and end of its government”—a principle which John Brown made more explicit by a proposal for universal instruction imposed by law with a view to instilling “the manners and principles on which alone the State can rest.” The last word is significant; for Brown and Sheridan alike, the state was an entity to which change could only be fatal. The danger attending that opinion was exposed by Joseph Priestley (An essay on the first principles of government, 1768), who reminded Brown and other admirers of Spartan officialism that “uniformity is the characteristic of the brute creation.”

  • Education is a branch of civil liberty which ought by no means to be surrendered into the hands of a civil magistrate, and the best interests of society require that the right of conducting it be inviolably preserved to individuals.
  • The prominent position as public teacher, educational reformer, man of science and political thinker to which Priestley attained in later years gave an authority to this opinion which more than counterbalanced the rambling diffuseness of Sheridan and the industrious pamphleteering of Brown. It became an accepted article of the radical creed that, in the interest of liberty, the state’s intervention in public education should be reduced as much as possible; in consequence, the history of English educational administration between 1790 and 1870 marks a very slow movement from private, co-operative activity to public control grudgingly admitted. In her own day, Mary Wollstonecraft (A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, 1792) stood almost alone in her readiness to accept the French conception in full. The prevalent opinion was better expressed by William Godwin (Enquiry concerning political justice, etc., 1796): “The project of national education ought uniformly to be discouraged on account of its obvious alliance with national government.” But Godwin’s doctrine, as expressed in this work, is the negation of all social co-operation; and the desire to extend instruction to the great bulk of the people, when confronted with the problem of its cost, in the end compelled the unwilling to accept state support. For two centuries before the appearance of The Wealth of Nations (1776), Scotsmen had been familiar with the idea of public education supported by public funds, and, since 1696, they had been putting the idea into practice. It is, therefore, not surprising to discover Adam Smith laying it down that a man uneducated is a man mutilated and that, since an ignorant person is an element of weakness in the community, public education is a mode of national defence. Nevertheless, he thinks that the state’s part should be limited to making elementary instruction compulsory and to supplying the money required to meet any deficiency in voluntary contributions; the absence of competition, from which public and endowed institutions like universities and grammar schools suffer, leads unavoidably to inefficiency and neglect. Instruction should be almost self-supporting. Still, the state might impose an examinationtest “even in the higher and more difficult sciences” upon all candidates for professional employment, and an examination in reading, writing and reckoning should be passed before a man could become a freeman, or set up a trade in a corporate town or village. Thomas Paine (The Rights of Man, 1791) believed that “a nation under a well-regulated government should permit none to remain uninstructed”; but he would not have the state establish or directly maintain schools. Paine endeavoured to make these opinions harmonise by suggesting that grants, or remission of taxes, should be allowed in respect of individual children, on condition that the parents made a payment for their instruction. Like Adam Smith, he saw no difficulty in finding teachers: “There are always persons of both sexes to be found in every village, especially when growing into years, capable of such an undertaking.” Events proved that the magnitude of the task was vastly underrated.

    The subject passed beyond the range of merely academic discussion on the appearance of Joseph Lancaster’s Improvements in Education (1803). Apart from its account of the author’s mode of organising a school, “the monitorial or mutual system,” a device for which he was greatly indebted to Andrew Bell, the chief merit of this pamphlet lies in its scheme for making elementary instruction general. Lancaster believed that the matter was one of “national concern,” which sectarianism alone had hindered from coming by its own; but he was equally against the enactment of a “compulsive law,” applied either to school-children or their teachers. He proposed the establishment of a voluntary society “on general Christian principles” (that is, destitute of denominational associations), having as its objects “the promotion of good morals and the instruction of youth in useful learning adapted to their respective situations.” These objects were to be attained by the bestowal of the society’s patronage upon masters and mistresses already at work in their own schools who proved worthy of encouragement, by offering prizes to school-children for regular and punctual attendance, by establishing schools (this was inserted with some hesitation), by setting up a public library containing books on education for the information of teachers, by enabling teachers to obtain school material at cost price and by instituting a teachers’ friendly society. Lancaster assumed that the aims of his proposed association could be achieved “in some hundreds of schools amongst many thousands of children at an expence that probably would not exceed £1500 per annum.”