For Home, Country, and Race: Constructing Gender Class and Englishness in the Elementary School, 1880-1914
Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 2000, ISBN: 802044360X; 312pp.; Price: £30.00
Newnham College, University of Cambridge
Date accessed: 29 February, 2024
The articulation of a national network of elementary schools in England and Wales after 1870 and legislation to compel attendance at these schools from 1880 created marvellous opportunities for publishers. School authorities were major purchasers and the children in their schools a captive audience. Stephen Heathorn provides an account of the scale of this enterprise and an analysis of the content of the some of the major sellers among the books.
Information on the manner in which the trend-setter, the London School Board, chose its books, publication figures for selected publishers and the details of Heathorn’s own sample are gathered together in three important Appendices at the end of his text. They are almost worth looking at first, because they provide essential context for the book's qualitative discussion; they might, with advantage, have followed immediately on the discussion of numbers and mechanisms in pp.13-17 of his 'Introduction'. These Appendices are complemented by useful information about authors, spread throughout the text, which shows how many of that emerging late Victorian professional group, academics, found writing and compiling school text-books a nice little earner. All of this material will be an important resource for any one else working in this area.
The bulk of the study offers an analysis of the content of various well-selling specialist series and of ‘readers’, reading books with short extracts from a range of sources, literary, historical, geographical, occasionally scientific, in ascending order of difficulty. These formed the staple diet in most elementary schools, where the bulk of the effort went into teaching the '3 Rs'; and they reached a far wider audience than specialist history or geography books. Heathorn shows in convincing detail how such materials were used in the last quarter of the nineteenth century to shape a patriotic and imperial discourse, with an increasingly marked socio-biological slant.
The book’s subtitle also promises an exploration of class and gender. These prove rather harder to deliver, for a variety of reasons. Some of the books and series Heathorn discusses were aimed more at the expanding middle class market; and although they might be used in the higher standards of the elementary schools, they hardly reached the vast mass of the population clustered in the lower standards. This is a point he acknowledges from time to time; but there might have been a case for separating the sections of the discussion out more sharply. With footnotes at the end of the book and not at the bottom of the page, it is a considerable labour to check the source of every direct quotation and reflect on the likely readership.
Issues of gender are addressed through an account of the introduction of subjects specifically for girls and the growing emphasis in reading books on a very sharp separation of masculine and feminine spheres. However a fuller exploration of both themes is limited by a rather larger problem, the difficulty of gathering information on how the material in reading books was received and construed in the classroom. It is a problem Heathorn acknowledges in his Introduction and to which he returns briefly in his Conclusion, making a little use there of some of the material gathered by oral historians.
It is a bigger problem than he is prepared to admit. In telling us what is in the books the children had to read – in some cases almost learn by heart – he gives us only half the story. If we are going to talk about the construction of ideas and social roles, we need to know how the children responded, what they made of what they were offered: it really does take two to tango. This is difficult enough in the contemporary world, but how much harder for the late nineteenth century; it is unfortunate that Jonathan Rose’s rich, if only partially digested study, The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, came out in 2001, after this book was published. (*)
Nevertheless, Heathorn could ask some more pointed questions of the material he has. He mentions that teaching was an increasingly feminised occupation. Perhaps he might have asked what the children made of female authority figures when juxtaposed against the texts they read. Jane Miller has used such a question to make some fundamental and disquieting points about the status and process of teaching in English society over the last hundred years, in School for Women (Virago; London, 1996). Heathorn mentions in passing the contrast between the images of home purveyed in school reading books and the realities which many working class children knew. Anna Davin has used such contrasts in her fine-grained study, Growing Up Poor. Home, School and Street in London 1870-1914 (Rivers Oram Press; London, 1996), to suggest that school, for many of them, was a profoundly unreal experience, one to be evaded or endured, with small impact on their values and social attitudes. Autobiographers are by definition atypical; and like those who are interviewed by oral historians, they make a composition of their lives. But a reading of, say, V.S. Pritchett’s A Cab at the Door (Chatto & Windus; London, 1968), Harold Owen’s Journey from Obscurity (3 vols; Oxford University Press; London, 1963-5) or Kathleen Dayus’s Her People (Virago; London, 1982), shows how limited was the impact of school and how much greater were those of home, family and work.
I would like to begin by thanking Dr. Sutherland for her comments. However, I must admit to being disappointed at the amount and character of commentary to which I might respond. To avoid my response being far longer than her review, I will limit my remarks to two of the interconnected difficulties raised by Dr. Sutherland: the articulation of gender ideology (and one might add, class and ethnicity) within reading books; and the problem of the reception of the ideology in the books as a whole.
It is on the first issue, that of the prescriptive articulation of gender (and of class and ethnicity) roles within reading books, that a fuller encapsulation of the actual argument of my book might have been helpful to readers of this review. One of the main points of the book is to demonstrate the degree to which the imperial nationalism that suffused classroom culture in this period was itself interwoven with contemporary ideas about gender, class and ethnicity: that prescriptions about national identity were intimately connected with other facets of social identity. I hoped to build on the 'imperial propaganda' approach pioneered by John MacKenzie and used by Katherine Castle, and integrate it with earlier work on school books and schooling undertaken by J.M. Goldstrom, Valerie Chancellor, Anna Davin, and others. However, I argue that cultural nationalism was far more pervasive and ubiquitous in classroom reading and practices than the concepts 'propaganda' and 'social control' imply. Thus, while I am of course an extremely partial observer, I do not think that Sutherland does full justice to my analysis of the gendered content of elementary school reading that runs through my entire book. This applies also to the cultural imagining of class and ethnicity that I also show operative throughout classroom reading.
But Dr. Sutherland's objection to my treatment of gender is really about the reception of the cultural constructions that I have analysed. It is, of course, a key question and I fully admit that my book provides no empirical analysis of what schoolchildren thought about what they were reading, or of how much of their schooling they retained on leaving school. But this is not, as Sutherland suggests because reception is a 'bigger problem than [I] was prepared to admit'; rather it is because of the conceptual framework that I adopted for the study. I make it clear in my introduction that I am interested in the boundaries of knowledge/culture available to English children through schooling, not the specific ideas they might have left the classroom with. If I might quote from the book's introduction:
These texts were not the basis of isolated reading experiences by already literate individuals, but rather tools used to promote literacy amongst children still in the early stages of their formal schooling. The reading of specially prepared schoolbooks was thus the very nexus of the power/knowledge dialectic in the elementary classroom. They provided root meanings for abstract concepts of identification (or what I have repeatedly called the 'vocabulary of identity') such as the 'nation,' 'home,' and 'race,' etc., and structured those meanings in a system of images and connected symbols (a 'syntax of identity') through historical, geographical and literary narratives. Because it was the readers that were used to teach children how to read and use language in a (more) sophisticated way, the readers provided the conceptual apparatus needed to process information presented to them both in other aspects of their school experience and after. And thus, children were not only learning the alphabet of the English language, they were also learning the alphabet of their presumed identity. The actual identity of each child was, of course, 'written,' 'built' or 'mapped' differently according to the matrix of conditions both before, during and after school (parental guidance or lack thereof, pre-school learning, teacher mediation, work-place 'experience,' etc.) that was unique to her or him. As a result, no absolutely definitive conclusions can (or ever could) be made about the effects of these schoolbooks on the formation of the working-class child's subjectivity. (p. 20)
My overall argument aims to establish the common cultural framework of turn-of-the-century schooling, imbued as it was with prescriptions about national, ethnic, class and gender identities. Individual experience among working-class children was/is too diverse to generalize further. In terms of Dr. Sutherland's metaphor, it does indeed take two to tango, but my focus in this work was less on the dance steps and more on the music. The introduction and conclusion of the book both cover the theoretical problems of researching 'reception' in some depth, providing rationales for the admittedly speculative conclusions that I do reach. I will leave it to readers of the book to determine the plausibility of those conclusions.
But let me finish by noting that trying to establish, empirically, the specific influence of schoolbooks on an entire class of people's consciousness is a fool's errand. I know this because I initially tried to do it - you will find, for instance, my signature right below that of Jonathan Rose on the sign-out sheets of scores of manuscripts at the Brunel University working-class autobiography archive - but I abandoned that part of the project, after more than a year's work, when its impossibility became apparent. Not only are working-class autobiographical works atypical, even the most detailed narratives (or oral history interviews) never furnished the answers to the questions I was asking. With respect to Dr. Sutherland's autobiographical counter-examples - two of which I cited in the dissertation that preceded this book - the fact that one is not conscious of schooling having had an impact on ones' national identity does not mean that schooling was not influential. Therefore, I took a cue from Stephen Humphries's oral history of turn-of-the century schooling, Hooligans or Rebels? An Oral History of Working-Class Childhood and Youth, 1889-1939 (Blackwell; Oxford, 1981), which I think bends the stick back too far with regards to working-class resistance to schooling, but which shows imperialist/patriotic ideology to be the most successful of educational prescriptions. Thus the examples of working-class memories that I use in my conclusion were deliberately chosen, not because they showed an unproblematic link between schoolbook ideology and sense of national belonging, but because on a quick reading it would seem as if they rejected their schooling or were entirely indifferent to it. However, by examining how they framed other events in their childhood in terms of the cultural nationalism evident in classroom instruction, inferences might be made about the significance of that nationalism, subtle though it might be. I acknowledge that my book perhaps says more about the perceptions of the people who wrote schoolbooks and forged elementary education culture in the period 1880-1914 than about those who read them. But if I might quote myself again:
'Experience' of the idea of the nation and of national identity through whatever other media and circumstance - comics, juvenile and adult literature, newspapers, advertisements, the music hall and theatre, museums, parades, the workplace, memorials and state spectacles, etc. - all relied to a lesser or greater degree on the minimum 'national literacy' provided by early schooling. And the point of this work is to discover how the 'experience of the nation' became possible: the conditions, that is, which made that experience possible in the first place, rather than dwell on the quality of that experience. (p. 22)