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

XIV. Education

§ 18. Robert Owen

The earliest attempts of Robert Owen to revolutionise society were made by way of the school. When, in 1799, he took over the New Lanark mills from David Dale, he found a plan of instruction in operation for mill-children, which had but small success, owing to the fact that it was conducted in the evening at the termination of a long day’s work. By gradual elaboration, carried out between 1799 and 1816, this instruction was expanded into the New Institution for the Formation of Character, which, in its full form, included an adult evening-school, a day-school for children whose ages ranged from six to ten and an infant-school for little ones of a year old and upwards. It was an axiom of Owen that character is formed from without, not attained from within, that “circumstances” are all-powerful in the process of its formation. The basal principles of the New Institution were that a child’s mind is absolutely plastic and that human nature is innately good, two characteristic eighteenth century beliefs derived from Locke and Rousseau. The instruction given in the two schools was presented conversationally and intuitively: that is, knowledge of things was communicated not through books, but by means of the things themselves, or representations of them other than verbal. It was impressed upon each child that he “must endeavour to make his companions happy.” The teaching included reading, writing, summing, the Bible and the Shorter catechism, history, geography, music, dancing and “the military discipline” for both sexes. Owen claimed that his schools made children both rational and altruistic; the fame of New Lanark was widespread, and visitors, many of them distinguished, came in large numbers to inspect the social life of the place, and of its children more especially. But, by his attacks on all particular forms of religion, Owen shocked the majority of his partners in business, and, in 1824, these succeeded in destroying the peculiar character of the New Institution by bringing it within the system of the British and Foreign School society. The New Lanark experiment played a considerable part in demonstrating the value and feasibility of popular schools at a time when the subject was prominent in the public mind; its more precise result was the institution of infant-schools, whose extension throughout England was primarily due to the Infant School society (founded in 1824) and to the labours of its superintendent, Samuel Wilderspin.