Thursday, 30 October 2014

What did the Victorians ever do for us? Education.

What did the Victorians ever do for us? They gave us good education.
A typical Victorian classroom
 In the 20th century, we are preoccupied with learning about the Victorians and throw ourselves into studying every inch of their existence. Whether it’s their clothes, their books, their food or their way of life we are adamant to understand it all, and we’ve become pretty good at it too. However, what we hear less about it what they themselves were learning about, rather than teaching us. Beneath their attitudes to working men and women, one finds themselves wondering whether teaching was seen as a respectable profession and whether children respected their teachers, as occurs now. With their caning, blackboards and traditional uniforms Victorian education is mostly laughed at in this day and age however, further research has led me to understand that more of our education is based on Victorian education than we may realise.

Schools in the Victorian era began being taken seriously for the first time in 1833 when the government awarded the first grants to schools to ensure quality of teaching was high, this however did not spark an influx of children in education as one might think. The reality of the matter was, that school was for the privileged children, and even then, rich children had governesses’ and poor children had jobs to do. There was no need for schools, and therefore, although schools existed they were not fully functional or beneficial to society. In 1844 parliament passed a law that stated the children who laboured in factories were to be given six half days off a week to attend school. However, this does not necessarily mean that children used or were allowed this time for studying as their employers and parents would prefer them to be earning money, as this was far more important in an era where financial security was almost unheard of. It was the Victorians who made the most drastic changes to education and the legislation surrounding it and therefore paved the way for new generations to enjoy the wonders of an educated society. In 1870, the government passed the first education act that dealt solely with the provision of education within the UK. This Act ensured that awareness of the importance of schools was understood within the community and showed the Victorians that the national issue of education had to be at the forefront of changes being made. The act “allowed voluntary schools to carry on unchanged, but established a system of 'school boards' to build and manage schools in areas where they were needed. The boards were locally elected bodies which drew their funding from the local rates. Unlike the voluntary schools, religious teaching in the board schools was to be 'non-denominational'.”

So imagine it’s 2014, and when you turn 6 or 7 and the realisation that you should be at school hits you. Upon asking your parents, they tell you that you are not allowed to enter the scholastic system because you are a female and this is considered inappropriate and downright unnecessary. As a female in higher education myself, this idea is incomprehensible. The right to an education is a right that should be imparted to all genders, of all backgrounds, in all cultures. In other words, EDUCATION FOR THE NATION. In the Victorian era, this idea was not necessarily agreed with and when schools began, girls were certainly not among the first to attend. However, Dame schools were present at this time which were developed in good faith but in the end only taught that this method of teaching children was mostly redundant. Dame schools were run by women, which was an issue in itself, but more to the point they did not have high standards of education whatsoever; Dame schools were short lived as they were abolished in 1880 for not reaching the government standards and were deemed inadequate.

When Dickens was writing his novel Hard Times, he was in the climax of the changes in education and the scholastic system. He made his thoughts clear on education, throughout his novel and begins it with Mr Gradgrind stating, “Now, what I want is facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but facts. Facts alone are wanted in life” which highlights the vital need for schools. If schools did not teach these facts, these children would not be able to successfully “form the mind of reasoning animals” which, in turn, would leave the next generation at a loss. It is for this reason, that we must thank the Victorians and all their major changes to the school system. If it weren’t for them, we could possibly still expecting children at age 8 to be chimney sweeps and men to still be dominant in a demoralising way towards women. These children being taught “only facts”, as Dickens puts it, is what has led to some of the greatest thinkers the world has ever heard of. Those of us out there who have dreams of being teachers or leaders, this is what we have the Victorians to thank for. In Hard Times, Dickens contrasts educated people and non-educated by using the word “Hands” for labourers, but this only truly is understood by the reader when one of the “Hands” Stephen begins talking, and uses English dialect to emphasise to the reader the importance of education, and that there is a clear difference between his speech and everyone else’s: “Look how you considers of us, and writes of us, and talks to us, and goes up wi’ your deputations to secretaries o’ state ‘bout us, and how yo’ are alwus right, and how we are alwus wrong […]”. With this sharp contrast in speech, it is clear that the world Dickens envisaged without education was not sufficient for the future.

The Bethnal Green Museum is a branch of the Victoria & Albert museum in London which is based on knowledge of the Victorians and boasts elements of Victorian education that we take for granted, from items such as alphabet blocks to the well known abacus. As we all know, play is a crucial part of a child’s development and learning and it is for this reason that items such as these have such an important part in this museum. Using designs from Paul & Majorie Abbatt, Friedrick Froebel and Maria Montessori, the V&A allows a modern day researchers to understand how children were expected to learn through play in the Victorian era. On display, the museum currently has items such as the following:

This unwelcoming looking Jack in the box was manufactured c. 1820-1850 and was popular in the Victorian era for children’s development and play. The idea that the toy had basic science involved in the way it was a toy, was vital for children who had begun to grasp education.
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
Here we see a Gyroscope which was manufactured c. 1860 in England. Toys like this, which were educational and fun, were very popular for children in the Victorian Era.
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Throughout the Victorian era, the turnaround in terms of education was one of the drastic changes that created the world in which we live in today, but is not always remembered. Perhaps because we take education for granted these days, or maybe simply because we are too busy talking about the importance of gender and class divide that this is overlooked. It is important to remember that in this case, the Victorians saved us from years of uneducated generations and low paid jobs as a result of this. As a 19 year old undergraduate, I can safely say that the education reforms made all those years ago were most definitely worth it.

Works cited:
Dickens, Charles. Hard Times. London: Arcturus Classics, 15 Aug 2013. Print.

Gyroscope Image:
Jack in the Box image:

1 comment:

  1. Really enjoyed reading this, I liked your connections to the artefacts at the V&A. Very interesting :)