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

XIV. Education

§ 21. Adult education

Brougham, with Birkbeck, one of the four original trustees of the new institution, greatly strengthened the educational policy of the group to which he and his friend belonged, by the publication, in 1825, of Practical Observations upon the education of the people addressed to the working class and their employers, a pamphlet which gained as much attention as had been accorded to his Letter to Romilly. Here, in brief compass, the whole scheme for adult education was described. Two main lines of activity were proposed. Lectures to artisans, libraries, book clubs and “conversation societies,” that is, tutorial classes, constituted the first; the encouragement of cheap publications and the preparation of elementary treatises on mathematics, physics and other branches of science formed the second. It was Brougham’s opinion that the business of controlling Mechanics’ institutions was a valuable element in the education of their members, and that the institutions themselves, once started, should and could be self-supporting. He probably overrated, in both respects, the ability of the working men of the time, as he certainly overrated the value of public lectures to persons whose preliminary instruction and training were slender. For a score of years after the foundation of the earliest of them, Mechanics’ institutions increased in number and in extension over England and Scotland; but, at an early stage in their history, they ceased to be recruited in greater part from among artisans. It was this failure, added to the defective conception of education encouraged by Mechanics’ institutions, which led Frederick Denison Maurice, F. J. Furnivall, Thomas Hughes, J. M. Ludlow, Charles Kingsley, John Ruskin and others to form, or support, the Working Men’s college (1854), the word “college” emphasising the close relationship between all who shared its life, either as teacher or pupils. The object of the college was to place a liberal education within the reach of working men by providing instruction in those subjects which it most concerns English citizens to know. The absence of a clearly defined purpose in the minds of the working men auditors goes far to explain the failure of Mechanics’ institutions to help those for whom they were especially started. The driving force of such a purpose is illustrated by the success of the Working Men’s college, the much later Ruskin college and, more especially, the University Tutorial classes of the Workers’ Educational association.

In spite of the heavy duty on paper (threepence on the pound weight), a periodical like The Mechanics’ Magazine, devoted to applied science and the processes of manufacture, and published weekly at threepence, secured “an extensive circulation.” Brougham, therefore, hoped that cheapening the cost of book-production would render possible the publication of reprints of works on ethics, politics and history. This part of the scheme was realised in the publications of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, founded in 1827, with Brougham as its first president. The prevalence, in these works, of the principles which, about that time, came to be known as “utilitarian,” and the omission of reference to Christian beliefs, caused them to be regarded askance by Thomas Arnold and others, whose genuine interest in the education of working people cannot be questioned. The society’s publications (most of them issued by Charles Knight) included The Penny Magazine (1832–7), The Penny Cyclopaedia (1832, etc.), The Quarterly Journal of Education (1831–5), The Library of Entertaining Knowledge, The Library of Useful Knowledge and an uncompleted Biographical Dictionary (1842–4). Lord Brougham and Birkbeck took part in the movement for the abolition of the tax of fourpence a copy levied on newspapers; the tax was reduced in 1836 to one penny, at which figure it remained till its disappearance in 1855.