Last day of sabbatical and back to 1998

I can’t be the first person to come to the end of a sabbatical feeling that she did not do everything she wanted to do.

Certainly I’ve done a lot. I got my article published, I presented a paper, I wrote a bunch of blog posts, many connected to student learning outcomes. And I read and read and read. I read Wells, and Dickens, and books on Victorian England, and articles on everything: 19th century pedagogy, art and literature, the history and theory of education, the historiography of both Victorian Studies and the history of education. I read journal articles, and tweets about Victorian art, and web pages.






In fact, I needed more hours to read than I had projected, and went way over on reading hours (I had projected only 200) and felt I was constantly catching up with writing (400).

But now I think I considered “writing” in the wrong way. I’ve been told that all the thinking and planning (and more thinking) that goes into writing counts as writing. That’s got to be true. I just couldn’t figure out how to count it.

I also met a lot of good people along the way, real-life people at conferences, editors at journals, and the networks of dead people with whom historians reside. I even took some side roads into the Bloomsbury set and whatever one would call the Amis-Hitchens-Larkin set. I read Victorian British writers during the day, and modern British writers at night.

I was supposed to create a book outline, and I did, but it wasn’t the book outline I wanted to create. It’s more like the outline of the article I was hoping to start working on, plus a couple of other things. The book, when it happens, will likely be organized quite differently.

And organization was certainly an issue, not just in organizing what to do when, but how to organize all the information. My research project got larger, and I gathered more evidence. I lost track of things. Files on my hard drive, notes in Google Docs, bits of paper all over my desk, evidence-based notes in Google Keep (see image at right), a notebook in my purse, photocopies of articles in paper files, bibliographic info in Paperpile (with resulting pdf files in Google Drive). The clutter was beginning to look…well, Victorian. To regain some control, I’ve gone back in time. Not to the Victorian era, but to about 1998. And I didn’t need a time machine.

A few weeks ago, I went into Paperpile to check on some annotations I’d made. I had purchased (!) Paperpile because it had this cool feature where you could highlight or take notes on something in its own PDF reader, then print out just the annotations. It was a great way to get a summary of what was important in an article. I’m glad I only did it with a dozen or so articles, because suddenly the feature disappeared. They’re working on it, according to the text that popped up when I tried to print annotations. When I complained, first they told me it had been beta (wtf? everything’s beta!) then offered me a workaround that was cumbersome at best. I know I’m not that experienced, but I’ve never even heard of a web app shutting down a feature to fix/change it.

Then last week I found out about Google shutting down the old Hangouts and the even older and bigger Google Plus. Add to that the hiccoughs I’ve experienced with Google everything the last few months (didn’t I upload that photo six years ago? how come I’m getting better searches with Dogpile? why won’t Gmail load? ), and I got nervous. Surely Google Keep will be next?

So I’ve been climbing the learning curve of Zotero. It has been around awhile, and is the preferred bibliographic program for historians (it’s from the Center for History and New Media at George Mason U). I exported everything as BibTeX from Paperpile, and it loaded fairly well, without the annotations of course. And the 315 items were no longer linked to anything, since Paperpile uploads into Google Drive and links there. I’ve had to sort out the intricacies of using Notes, and linking out to my rented server, where I’ve uploaded all the pdfs. Today I finished copying almost all the Google Keep notes, by exporting to Docs, then cutting and pasting each one. Now I’ll have to spend some hours linking all the items to the pdfs in that new location. But then all my bibliographic items, and their connected notes, will be together, taggable and accessible, and it will do my bibliographies for me.

But it is going backward. Paperpile is very Googly. It only works in Chrome, the browser that recently downloaded a lovely virus into my iMac (have I mentioned I’m also switching to Cliqz?). It stashes pdfs in Drive, which eventually will fill up. It’s got a great interface, and looks clean and wonderful:

Zotero downloads to my computer (remember those days? it’s like a program). That means it’s local, so it’s likely to always work. It syncs over the web, and does it perfectly. I use three computers, and when I turn another one on, the arrow loops around and everything is right. But it is a database, and it looks like a database.

So, it’s not gonna win any beauty contests. But heck, neither am I. It is perhaps more important to be sturdy and dependable, to have the sort of character where you can be relied upon, to boldly go…but I digress. The sabbatical is done now, so I’ll take my sturdy, dependable self back to the classroom, where I won’t be able to teach much about what I’ve been doing, but where I hope my energy from all this will drift out over my students in an inspiring way.

And if not, I’ll go back to the late 19th century, where people argued in the media about standardized testing, and complained that all the new technologies were causing less connectedness in society, and questioned whether cool gadgets were morally good for you, and worried that everyone was reading short-form text instead of long-form text, and pushed for children to study more science to be internationally competitive, and schemed about how to get marginalized populations better access to education.


Binges, stories, and audience

I wish I could recall where I first saw the idea that reading a Victorian novel is really binge-reading, since many were first published in serial form. I’d like to “unpack” this idea (as they say) by comparing literature and television.

Amber Regis, of the University of Sheffield, counters the idea that Netflix is today’s version of Victorian serial stories. Victorian readers couldn’t binge; sometimes Dickens himself didn’t know what would happen in the next installment.

So one needs to go back to television in the 1950s and 60s, and comic strips even earlier, to experience Victorian serialization.

When I was a kid, there were comics I never read, because I didn’t know what had happened before (Mary Worth and Prince Valiant come to mind). Some television programs, like soap operas, were so inherently episodic that to miss an installment was to get hopelessly behind. Those with discrete episodes (Star Trek, Twilight Zone) were the short stories of the genre, and were self-contained.

Today’s scholars, at least those interested in story-telling, could likely explain to me the creative impact of knowing that binging will occur. When Netflix releases a whole series at once, surely the writers are aware of this and create the story accordingly. Quite a few (Riverdale comes to mind) continue with the cliff-hanger habits of serial episodes, but there is an awareness that the whole series may be viewed in bulk. We no longer need to remember whether that starship had a particular capability from last year’s episode — we can go back and see. This must make it hard for writers to change things. Perhaps that’s why serial shows like Riverdale and The Bodyguard have taken to killing off central characters, just to create surprise. Bodyguard creator Jed Mercurio even referenced the old TV shows:

“I remember watching TV as a kid and, whenever there was some sort of jeopardy involving the hero, I could reassure myself that they were what I’d call a ‘can’t-die’ character, so everything would be OK. Even though you’d just seen a completely crazed Mr Spock strangle Captain Kirk to death [in Star Trek], you’d know that a few minutes later there would be some bizarre twist involving the timespace continuum and Kirk would be alive on the Starship Enterprise.”

Can’t-die characters, of course, do die in novels (for which I will never forgive George Eliot, although she certainly wasn’t alone). I remember crying when I first read Little Women. But here the killing off of main characters is, I think, connected to the problem of the 21st century serial program. But, as with Victorian authors, the creators of the works make the decision to do this (except, perhaps, for a grumpy Arthur Conan Doyle, who was forced by the public to revive Sherlock Holmes).

In reading Victorian novels that were serialized, however, we are defying the intentions of the creator of the work. I am currently listening to the Librivox audio book of Dickens’ Hard Times (beautifully read by Librivox volunteer Phil Benson). It is the version that appeared in 20 installments in Household Words in 1854. I didn’t know this when I downloaded it, but it has turned out to be a good mode because I listen to it on my morning walk, which takes about 25-30 minutes. The result is that I’m getting the work in approximately the way it was intended.

So why is any of this important? To me it has to do with the “white space”, or thinking time, of the reader between episodes.

Truly episodic or serialized stories assume that space exists between the installments. This space could be used in several ways: to think about the previous episode, to form judgements, to talk to others about the story. I recall people watching Days of Our Lives before calling each other on the phone to discuss it, hallway conversations at school about last night’s episode of Dallas, even DJs on the radio mentioning a recent M*A*S*H episode.

Such processing space would be assumed by the author of a serialized story (and in the case of those writing as they go along, perhaps even necessary to the story itself). So when we binge-watch a series on Netflix that was not intended to be seen together, or when we read a book in novel form that was never intended to be read as a book, to what extent is the viewer/reader changing the work itself?

Binge-watching means that the “consumer” of a story is impacting the story, but surely this isn’t new. Even when people read the whole novel Hard Times, it’s unlikely they do it at one sitting. That’s what bookmarks are for (the tangible kind, not the web kind). Books are written not knowing when the reader will pause. Television used to be more predictable: the show was 7-8pm on Thursday, so that’s when everyone was watching. Networks are currently trying to create a similar experience, even in a market with so many options.

So perhaps Netflix’s series are inherently more like a novel than a serialized story. Viewers can binge, but they can also “bookmark” whenever they want, pause and have a meal, or take two weeks off, or not finish at all. Perhaps there’s no need to experiment with book publication in response to Netflix binges, or make comparisons between the two eras, or write scholarly articles on the revival of the serial novel. But we should consider the white space: is it good? is it necessary? is it social?

In today’s theoretical constructs, objects (like books or programs) are often given a sort of “agency” — scholars focus as much these days on how objects create “causes” as they do on how the objects reflect social, political, or economic trends. We know that novels and programs have an impact on people. It’s likely that the reaction to a work also influences it, particularly with serials. If people were begging Dickens not to hurt Little Nell, and Doyle not to leave Holmes dead, then the “audience” influences the work that follows. (Of course, if George R.R. Martin is right, it doesn’t always.)

Media scholars probably spend a lot of time studying the interplay between the media and the audience, and I suspect that’s a lot of fun (after all, I’m doing it now instead of writing about H.G. Wells or planning my spring courses).  Even though I’m exploring Victorian periodical study at the moment, I don’t know much about the interplay of text and audience, but I’m certainly interested.

Calling the Tune: British Universities and the State, 1880-1914

Keith Vernon, senior lecturer in Modern Social History at University of Central Lancashire, keeps popping up in my readings, because he focuses on the history of higher and technical education in the 19th and 20th centuries. This one is from 2001.

All history articles have what I call an “although” thesis, stated or implied. It’s usually something along the lines of, “although historians have seen it this way, they’re wrong and here’s why”. This article was no exception. Apparently the scholarly analyses of educational change published in the late 1980s and 1990s were in error in concentrating on the role of the state in the development of British universities only after 1919, when the University Grants Committee came into being. Such direct influence from the government on the universities came earlier. Of course, since I’ve been studying the grants given by the Science and Art Department, later the Board of Education, during the 1880s, it was easy to agree with Vernon’s thesis. I learned the government was always willing to fund universities in the interest of helping them become cultural centers, and that the funding in the late 19th century was thus limited to sciences and arts and restricted from vocational subjects (including medicine). I learned that Oxford and Cambridge had quite a bit of their own funding, but that other entities throughout Britain who wanted to become universities had to prove their university-level arts and sciences to the government to get money. Thus a pattern of “investigation, regulation and funding” (p253) emerged that ensured that new universities towed the line, even while the government insisted that local funding remained primary, especially as provincial institutions were inherently local in their perspective and usefulness.

Even Oxford and Cambridge, however, expanded access during the latter part of the 19th century. Doing so, interestingly, undermined for some the reason for the University of London, which had been to first to allow Dissenters, women, and poorer people to obtain degrees. Despite the separation between academic and vocational studies that Vernon insists was enforced by the government, however, teaching seems to have been the exception. He notes that the university colleges primarily engaged in teacher training, and that following the investigations of 1895, the Treasury remained skeptical and wanted to “ensure that a reasonable number of arts and science students were studying for purely academic reasons, not on vocational courses” (p261). Perhaps this is why so many teachers at that time, including H.G. Wells, wanted to earn a degree, and it may suggest reasons why having one was necessary to getting a good position as a schoolmaster.

The other interesting section of the article concerned the battle over Gresham University, or what I’ve seen elsewhere called The Gresham Scheme. In 1892, the issues brought forth by University College and King’s College, both integral parts of the University of London (though they didn’t want to be) could not be resolved. The two colleges allied with 10 medical schools to recommend a teaching university with the name Gresham University. The Cowper Commission instead, in 1894, recommended keeping one University of London but dividing the internal (teaching) and external (examining) functions. Just as it got interesting, the article jumped into the 20th century. But when it did so, it claimed that admiration for Germany caused the new reforms that created the Imperial College, constructed out of the old Normal School of Science (attended by HG) and other South Kensington entities. Imperial College “was explicitly designed as a technological powerhouse for the empire” (p264). So long as we’re arguing for earlier origins of things, I would argue that the German influence came much earlier, when the payment-by-results and other schemes were introduced in order to encourage science teaching.



Vernon, Keith. 2001. “Calling the Tune: British Universities and the State, 1880-1914.” Hist. Educ. 30 (3): 251–71.

Ann Veronica

I have been reading H.G. Wells’ Ann Veronica through much of this sabbatical. This is not because it’s a long book, but because it’s difficult for me to fit in quiet reading time. Luckily, the novel is interruptible, because the main character is wonderful, so you don’t forget where you left off. Plus there’s the physical pleasure of reading my copy: it’s a small format hardback, published by Newnes, with no printed copyright date and a strange picture on the frontspiece.

In these days of identity politics, and the prevailing belief that only members of a particular group can understand the issues of said group, this is a book revealing in its portrayal of the young female mind. It feels very contemporary: Ann Veronica’s dreams, thoughts, concerns, are the same as in many a young woman, then and now. How to be independent, how to find ones own way instead of the way of ones parents, how to discover what matters in life, how to explore love — none of this is new, but is conveyed beautifully in a novel that happens to have been written by a man. (My copy, obtained second-hand, also may have been read by one. It has the wonderful scent of pipe tobacco.)

Knowing Wells’ life as I do, it is clear that once again (as with Love and Mr. Lewisham and Tono-Bungay) his own life provided the grist for the mill. At first, it didn’t seem so. Ann Veronica as a young woman, growing up with her father and aunt, told she cannot attend a party with friends, appears to have little in common with Wells’ youth in the house attached to the Bromley cricket/china shop. None of the environment evokes West Sussex, either, and the distance between Morningside Park and London is much shorter.

This book was controversial. I thought I understood why early in my reading, when Ann Veronica, fed up with her father’s refusal to let her do anything independent, leaves home for London. She doesn’t have much money, but decides to live on her own and get a job. Although the year is not defined, the book was written in 1909, and its main character has been called a “New Woman”. But she doesn’t necessarily feel new, even in this act of defiance. She is continually questioning what she is doing and why, whether it’s the right thing, and what the alternatives would be. There are men about, since she is a lovely and interesting young lady, honest in her speech and direct in conversation. But she leaves the boy from home at home, and he doesn’t appear much in the rest of the story.

Instead of summarizing the plot, what I found interesting were first, the elements Edwardians would have found shocking, and second, the connections to Wells’ own life. [Spoiler alert!]

While leaving home to live alone in London is, as her aunt keeps repeating, shocking enough, there are further shocks to come. Ann Veronica associates with men whom she thinks are (a) single, and (b) friends. One, the man from which she has agreed to take a loan, takes her to a “private dining room” and physically attacks her (!) When she tries to return half his money, he returns it to her, and she’s so angry she throws it in the fire, leaving her destitute (!). She falls in love with a man she learns is married, but she still loves him (!). Seeking meaning, she becomes a suffragette, is arrested after hitting a police officer, and spends a month in prison (!). Then, she runs off with the married man she loves (!!). And, most shocking at all, they do fine and live quite happily (!!!). Her father and aunt even forgive her.

If it’s true that Nabakov once said that there are two forbidden subjects in modern fiction (a young girl in a sexual relationship with a much older man, and an interracial couple that lives happily ever after), this has got to be a third. Girl leaves home, can’t keep a job, goes to college, survives molestation with aplomb (and a swift chop to her attacker’s throat), conducts an illicit relationship with a married man, and lives happily ever after — in 1909!

I’m pretty sure this is Professor “Russell”

I don’t think I could write a paper on why Ann Veronica was a shocker (I’m sure others have), but I probably could write one about Wells’ mining of his own life to portray emotional depth. Ann Veronica achieves independence of mind and thought, not through a clerical job, but through science laboratory classes at the Central Imperial College. (The Normal School of Science, where Wells studied under T.H. Huxley, had become Imperial College of Science and Technology in 1907.) She borrows the money to go to school, to get her Bachelors Degree. She likes to study (guess what?) biology. Having already matriculated at the University of London, she was attending Tredgold Women’s College with her father’s reluctant permission, before she left home. But she wanted to study at “the fountainhead”, the biologist “Russell”, who had a distinctive mane of hair so familiar to those who’ve ever seen a photograph of Huxley.

We’re continually reminded of Russell’s importance. Ann Veronica’s father studies geology slides in his leisure time, and is into Mendelian theory. He doesn’t like that Ann Veronica wants to study with Russell because he’s a Darwinist. (I recently came upon an article featuring Wells, Darwin, and Mendel that is quite interesting.) He also hints that Russell’s demonstrator is a cad:

“Now look here, Veronica, let us be plain with each other. You are not going to that infidel Russell’s classes. . . . There’s stories, too, about his demonstrator, Capes Something or other. The kind of man who isn’t content with his science, and writes articles in the monthly reviews.. . .” (pp27-28)

Capes, who runs the biology laboratory at the Central Imperial College, will be Ann Veronica’s love interest, and is clearly H.G. Wells.  Although he is not physically described, Ann Veronica notes he has nice, competent hands . She is a student in the lab, and he comes round to check her work. This was the situation at the University Tutorial College’s biology lab, where in 1892 Wells met Catherine Amy Robbins, who was a student. He was indeed, at the time, writing articles in the monthly reviews. He had married his cousin Isabel the previous year, but fell in love with Catherine, who was very like Ann Veronica in her directness. Wells is thus Capes, stuck in a marriage, and setting up house illicitly with his new love. The descriptions of this love are tender and sweet and sensual, a reminder of his feelings toward his wife when they got together:

“I do it–of my own free will,” said Ann Veronica, kissing his hand again. “It’s nothing to what I will do.”
“Oh, well!” he said a little doubtfully, “it’s just a phase,” and bent down and rested his hand on her shoulder for a moment, with his heart beating and his nerves a-quiver. Then as she lay very still, with her hands clenched and her black hair tumbled about her face, he came still closer and softly kissed the nape of her neck. . . .(p299)

The names of the characters are fun, suggestive, and onomatopoetic. The “villain”, who supports Ann Veronica and then wants sex in return, is Ramage, which sounds destructive. The boy back home is Teddy, like the bear. The man she tries to convince herself she should marry is the loyal and manly Manning. Another student who tends to interrupt the lovers (Adeline Roberts in real life, a friend of Catherine’s) is Miss Klegg. And of course, Capes is capable (and nowadays would be a superhero wearing one). Ann Veronica’s last name is Stanley, reminiscent of the great Victorian explorer.

Capes has to quit his biology job because he’s a married man who’s taken up with another woman, so he becomes…you’ll never guess…a writer! Of plays, but still a successful writer who makes their future middle-class life possible. And, part of the tale he tells Ann Veronica about his non-divorce (solved before the last chapter just as in Wells’ own life) involves a familiar incident. Unsatisfied by his wife, Capes became sexually involved with one of her friends, just as recreation, as Wells had himself done with a Miss Kingsmill. What’s fascinating is that as the reader you really like Capes, because he’s so connected with Ann Veronica intellectually, despite his imbroglios.

Now, contemporary feminists won’t like a number of things in the book. It leaves Ann Veronica placid and content, and pregnant, at the end. And the portrayal of the suffragettes, while sympathetic, also allows for some questioning of the cause itself, and its methods. In fact, the only times Wells uses first person is in describing the suffragette attack on Parliament using moving vans to get close to the door (the activity that gets Ann Veronica arrested):

Were I a painter of subject pictures, I would exhaust all my skill in proportion and perspective and atmosphere upon the august seat of empire, I would present it gray and dignified and immense and respectable beyond any mere verbal description, and then, in vivid black and very small, I would put in those valiantly impertinent vans, squatting at the base of its altitudes and pouring out a swift, straggling rush of ominous little black objects, minute figures of determined women at war with the universe. (p208)

It is clear throughout the book that he sides with Ann Veronica herself when it comes to opposing women’s restrictive roles and asserting the need for intellectual excellence. But others won’t see it that way. Literary historian Kate MacDonald writes that Wells, in The Life of Sir Isaac Harman, written a few years after Ann Veronica:

. . . requires us to read yet another fantasy of a young and beautiful woman as the object of a rather older man’s devotion, as if that is all women are for. While the subtext of the novel is that women should not be viewed as solely as sex objects, Wells shows he is incapable of writing a woman who isn’t one.

Wells was six years older than Catherine, although it is ten in the fictionalized version. Neither seems much older to me, but that’s my perspective. MacDonald also sees Wells’ ongoing use of himself and his life in his fiction to be egotistical. Yes, indeed.

I’m just not sure I agree with the argument about how he characterizes women. While Ramage may have treated Ann Veronica as a sex object, none of the other characters do. Manning treats her like a trophy. Teddy treats her like a goddess. Her father treats her like a doll. And the author treats her with respect, and has created characters as foils for her. While the ending may be unsatisfying (you’d prefer Ann Veronica do well without a man, and keep up her scientific studies), I think it’s asking a lot for Wells to exhibit 21st century sensibilities when he was, after all, writing for money in 1909. We ask too much of historical figures sometimes. Wells, from what I can tell, was a believer in both women’s equality and the kind of “free love” that benefited himself. But in Ann Veronica I see not only sympathy with women’s lives, but understanding.



The Struggle for the History of Education: more glossing

[Glossing is actually the process of commenting on a text, like annotation. This isn’t exactly what I’ve been doing, since I’m combining summaries of useful chapters of books I’m reading with that commentary.]

I have been reading Gary McCulloch’s The Struggle for the History of Education (Routledge 2011) to understand theory and method using education as the central point, so this will build on my reading in Writing History: Theory and Practice.

So it turns out I was right about educationists practicing history, and historians looking at education — it’s been a big part of the struggle. Gary McCulloch should know: he has a BA in Educational Studies, an MA in History of Education (I didn’t know you could do that), and a PhD in History (from Cambridge). In the introduction, he states his purpose, not only of this book but of the others he’s written over the last ten years: to “codify the field in such a way that would provide scope for a wide range of researchers with different interests to discover connections with it and to develop it further. ” (p8)  That makes my work part of a wider development of the history of education as a sub-discipline, which I suppose is better than being outside any sub-discipline at all. It would be nice to be in a club that would consider having me as a member.

According to McCulloch, the result of the many changes in social theory (and, I’d say, practice) has been new directions of study, including “inquiry into patterns of social disadvantage and the exclusion and marginalization of particular groups in society, which has gone beyond the previous emphasis on social class to address issues concerning gender, sexuality and disability…” (p10). Hmmm. H.G. Wells was male, sexually inclined toward females, and his only disability was a recurring lung problem that forced him into different areas of endeavor (he quit two jobs and was accommodated in one). I wonder whether there’s a problem because he was classically lower middle-class? Is he historiographically uninteresting?

Then it got worse as I read on. Unfortunately, in the historiography of the 19th century in this book, my new hero fared badly. Leopold von Ranke’s “scientific” method of history was discredited in the 1970s by Gareth Stedman Jones, who claimed that even though positivism/Whiggism has been disclaimed, historians like Ranke continued to practice it in the guise of collecting all the “facts” before they’d engage any theory (p12). It began to look like my whole approach ended in the 1950s.

The British path went like this: in the first half of the 20th century, the Whig interpretation dominated, with national narratives of progress in expanding education, all very self-congratulatory and encouraging. Beginning in the 1930s this approach was debated, and Fred Clarke based his work in sociology as well as history. He wanted people to understand the historical determinants of the English educational system to assess its ability to adapt to change, world wars in particular. He noted that the routes to education were different depending on your social standing, and was frustrated that no one had studied this. Histories of particular institutions and biographies of reformers were common, but nothing had been done with education in the same way as was taking place in economic and social history. Devoted to the idea of adapting to the times, he felt it was necessary to know the history of education in relation to social changes. These ideas helped support reform, and after the war more scholars began to study education. New journals appeared. A.H. Halsey documented the expansion of grammar schools as gateways to university, and published a work about the impact of social reforms on social mobility called Origins and Destinations (1980).

Sociology then took a leading role in the UK following World War II. Michael Young was mentioned here, and I know a little about him because of his connection with the National Extension College, the modern-day version of the University Correspondence College. In The Rise of the Meritocracy (1958), he traced the conflict between those who wanted a meritocracy versus those wanting equality. Apparently this book had an imaginative bent (Young was a sociologist). Other works of sociology are mentioned in the chapter. Olive Banks studied ways in which educational institutions, especially secondary schools, trained occupational groups, and demonstrated connections between school programs, examinations, and the push to get ahead. Even better for my work, she used Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class (1899) to show the desire for “personal comfort and decent livelihood”, which is basically why many people wanted to get university degrees. Her Sociology of Education (1968) countered the old trend, which was essentially a new version of the liberal-progressive approach: that education helped create a more stable and prosperous society. She also apparently refused to consider class or gender as pertinent to her analysis (p38), which might be helpful to me too. Raymond Williams, however, writing about the same time, argued that the 19th century education was based firmly on social class.

Gareth Stedman Jones also criticized the liberal-progressive approach in the 1970s as lacking theory, and the perspective as being top-down. Gordon and Szreter in 1989 introduced a three-prong criticism of the old approach: it emphasized individual thinkers with little reference to what happened to their schemes, it was overly concerned with legislation instead of the questions within the legislation (vested interests, for example), and it had too much emphasis to formal education (p27). The old view was also concerned with the descriptive, rather than analytical, nature of the field. McCulloch does point out the some of these “old method” books were quite good, but they were still “of the national textbook variety” (p30).

An entire chapter is dedicated to Brian Simon (1915-2002), “the most significant historian of education produced in Britian over the past century” (p41). (This makes sense, since McCulloch notes in the introduction that he is the Brian Simon chair at the Institute of Education at University College London, and promised to promote his memory — Simon’s works take up almost a full page of the bibliography, and he’s posted even more stuff here.) Simon built on the idea from the 1940s and 50s about connecting education and social change, and wrote a four-volume history that I hope I never have to read. He was a classical Marxist, though, so it might be OK.

The aim was not only to discredit the traditional liberal-progressive historiography, but to encourage broad support for an argument that would actively promote the attainment of social equality for all. (p41).

His intellectual guide was Fred Clarke, and he argued beginning in the 1930s that schools should be adaptable to changing society, and educational policy be the subject of continual questioning (p43). He saw education as where society’s issues are worked out, and even though he was Marxist he didn’t require the continual process toward a classless society as a goal. The comprehensive school, however, was a primary challenge to elitist education, and he opposed testing young students to determine their educational future. Marxism was helpful in providing critique, an analysis rather than an acceptance of the current educational system. The Education Act of 1870 (which I like because it created free elementary education) he saw as securing the domination of the beourgoisie over the form and content of education (p44). He credited the working classes themselves for getting the system to change when it did, which I like because it attributes agency (I guess I’m not much into impersonal forces causing things). He believed that this agency would triumph over both government and beourgeois efforts to retain class structure. He was not concerned, however, with “social inequality”, by which McCulloch seems to mean modern issues of gender and ethnic minority inequality. So the new focus on these things has left Simon behind. Which is a shame, because I like him.

The American path was a little different. Cubberly put education into some historical context, showing uneven progress but with a clear focus on the state’s responsibility to educate children. Then Bernard Bailyn criticized this approach for not considering broader cultural history, and Cremin criticized it for not including elements like mass media and non-school entities (private educational foundations, for example). Then the Marxists came along in the 1960s and 70s, saying that not only was the idea of progress ridiculous, but that schools deliberately enforced social and economic hierarchies, and political economists agreed. Others, however, tried to balance the two views (progress versus anti-progress) during the culture wars of the 1960s, and by the 1980s the history of education was as conservative as the country’s political turn.

I have to gloss the section on “The struggle for theory and methodology”, of course. In 1999, historian of education Jurgen Herbst complained that the sub-discipline had gone stale, repeating “old mantras” of class, race, and gender as “empty formulae” rather than theory or method (p71). McCulloch argues that “the field can benefit” from “critical engagement with the theories and methodologies in the broader humanities and social sciences”, something which is already happening (p72). But first, we get to do empiricism and postmodernism again, this time as challenges to the history of education. Yippee!

Sociologist C. Wright Mills is frequently cited, I’m noticing, in work about historical theory. Here he criticized historians being unaware of social theory, which he thought bizarre considering that history itself is a theoretical discipline. (It is? I must think about that.) Postmodernists, as we know, criticize any “positivistic or quasi-scientific” elements in historical writing, and like to proclaim the death of causation. McCulloch considers relativism as the opposite of the view that we cannot know anything, because it says that all evidence is equally valid. Both views have pushed historians to be more explicit about how they do history.

(Having read a bit about this now, I’ve decided that this is the beneficial role of postmodernism/post-structuralism: it pushes traditional historians to explain what they’re doing, and what theoretical constructs they use. It seems to me this is the same with democracy and liberal traditions today. The elements of society that are opposed to liberalism have mounted a highly successful, if anti-intellectual, opposition. The only way to deal with that is to articulate more clearly, and more loudly, why democracy is good, why liberal values matter, why we should treat people fairly, etc. It will, I hope, force liberalism to defend itself properly, instead of wrestling the opposition in the mud.)

Although efforts have been made to “bridge the gap” between history and theory in education, it seems to have remained empiricist (p74). There have, however been some influences. Sol Cohen, in studying the “linguistic turn” in the hsitory of education, noted that history and literature may be closer than we think. (In fact, I’m just now reading an article on how historians begin their writing, in which Trevor Dean claims that the opening dramatic narrative to a history paper is not seen before 1955, and is becoming increasingly more common.) McCulloch believes we need to engage these theories, not ignore them, as he wrote about in a paper with Ruth Watts. However, as Richard Aldrich notes, historians also shouldn’t give up on the idea of truth.

The last couple of chapters of the book focus on now and the future, but don’t provide anything I’d call a theoretical model. Instead, there are calls for more models, all of them opposing postmodernism in method but acknowledging it in theory. Educational theory itself, however, is noted in a couple of places, and this is another “line of inquiry” for my own work. Pierce, James and Dewey can all be repositories of theory, and the last part of the book mentions “teaching and learning” as a “new” area of inquiry, so I’ve copied those pages for later, after I deal with Mr Wells in his own context.

[Last note: in seeking another book to illustrate this text-heavy post, I came upon this one by S.J. Curtis, who is not mentioned in McCulloch’s book. But what caught my eye was the publisher: University Tutorial Press. Briggs and the University Correspondence College are sneaking into this post after all…]



Aldrich, Richard. History of Education. Mar2003, Vol. 32 Issue 2, p133-143 (EBSCO)
Banks, Olive. Parity and Prestige in English Secondary Education: A Study in Educational Sociology, London: Routledge and Keegan Paul, 1955.
Clarke, F. The Study of Education in England, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1943
Cohen, Sol. Challenging Orthodoxies: Toward a New Cultural History of Education, New York: Peter Lang, 1999
McCulloch, Gary; Watts, Ruth. History of Education. Mar2003, Vol. 32 Issue 2, p129-132. (EBSCO)
Mills, C. W. The Sociological Imagination, London: Oxford University Press, 1959.
Young, Michael. The Rise of the Meritocracy: An Essay on Education and Equality, London: Chatto and Windus, 1958.



Writing history: theory and practice

I am examining historical theory again, in an effort to determine where my current research resides historiographically. It isn’t easy. But, since I have judged my own recently delivered paper to be somewhat amateurish in this regard, it is essential.

First, I have to keep in mind that theory is separate from method. Theoretical foundations seem to include the influences of philosophy, social science, economics, and politics. Each of these is its own field, each has many sub-disciplines, and theoretical approaches change over time. This lends to my endeavor a feeling of jumping on and off different sections of moving trains. Methodology can be influenced by theory. One may study a single document very closely, or exhaustively find every possible document on the subject, depending on what one is trying to do. I would describe my method as “traditional”, mostly reconstructionist in that I am trying to reconstruct the past in a way, and empirical in that I insist on “textual” evidence to support my contentions. I lean toward the scientifically rational rather than the creatively post-modern in both theory and method. This makes me, not to put too fine a point on it, old-fashioned.

Back when I was researching the English textile industry in the medieval and early modern periods, my work was clearly aligned with trends in economic history and, to a certain extent, the history of technology. Even if not directly related to my topic, Marxist theory held that different economic groups were in competition, and I showed that merchant and craft guilds were in conflict. But there was no theoretical construct, aside from historical geography, to underpin my argument about entrepreneurs moving the fulling process from town guild control into the hills due to technological advantage. That made my work automatically interdisciplinary. My methodology was traditional, at least in terms of economic history, but the theory was mixed. Nothing contained Marxist determinism, there was no Whiggish assumption of national progress, and I did not reject individual agency — rather I combined several different approaches.

I am in similar territory with my current work, straddling as it does Victorian Studies, the history of education, social history, political history, and biography. Since my last decade or so has been spent in educational theory and practice, particularly as regards online education, I need to update my knowledge before I continue writing.

Victorian Studies, as I discussed in a previous post, is of little help since it tends toward being anti-historical and more literary. Its connection to the history of culture seems to put it on a post-structuralist track that brings in more relativism than I’m comfortable with (see below). The history of education seems to be a discipline full of educationists/educators who do history, rather than historians who study education, although there are some exceptions to this. Political history seems a little more basic (apologies to political historians), since I think I am clear on the ways political behavior reflects the rest of the story I’m telling. To prepare for my application for a National Endowment of Humanities grant, I researched the current role of biography in historiographical thought, and joined the effort to reclaim biography as a valid lens for larger histories.

Rankean models

My guidebook for current historiography is Writing History: Theory and Practice (2nd ed, Bloomsbury 2010). Although a few years old, it’s organized in a meaningful way and declares its intention to focus on historiography only in its influence on historical writing. It’s also focused on British historians, which is helpful. Part I covers the “intellectual and institutional conditions in which professional history developed”. Given the dense and complex nature of the book (this is for students? really?), I was grateful we didn’t go back to contrasting Herodotus with Thucycides (though I’m happy to have my students do that using this article from The Atlantic). Instead, the professionalization of history begins in the 19th century, and Leopold von Ranke is a key figure. John Warren, author of the chapter, describes the tenets of Rankeanism as:

the (albeit partial) reality of objectivity, the possibility of meaningful interpretation of documentary evidence in an equally meaningful attempt to understand the past on its own terms, a rejection of the distortion of that evidence with personal and present needs in mind (p24).

             Leopold von Ranke, 1871

This is essentially (a word one uses carefully around theorists) the basic approach of traditional historical scholarship. Warren warns of the danger of paring this down to slogans like “let the past speak for itself” — other historians felt that Ranke’s theory could be relativist, although the rejection of distortion is designed to prevent that. Warren comes down hard on writers like Macaulay (for creating drama and caricatures) and Carlyle (for using history to fight his own battles — see my previous post on Carlyle) and Buckle (whose Comtean positivism made him deterministic). Lord Acton opposed Ranke, insisting that once the facts had been determined, the historian had a duty to impose morality (p30). This argument reminded me of American historian Howard Zinn, whose lectures told me that I had a duty in the classroom to share my point of view (“you can’t be neutral on a moving train”). The section on Louis Namier confused me. Warren accused Namier of using his own psychological issues to guide his methodology (he studied the letters of 18th century MPs to show that their positions were self-centered rather than principled, but ignored parliamentary debates). It seemed to me that Warren was doing the same thing in emphasizing Namier’s relationship with his father as an explanation for his method.

Marxist historiography

I felt quite comfortable in the chapter on Marxist history (I loved reading Christopher Hill and Eric Hobsbawm in college, and visited the latter’s grave at Highgate). Social and economic forces are inextricably entwined, and it never seemed necessary to rely on the deterministic nature of Marxism (after all, the revolution Marx predicted in Germany did not come to pass). The importance of the Marxist interpretation was not in calling for a socialist world, but in opposing triumphalist, nationalist British history, and by implication anyone else’s triumphalist, nationalist history, including America’s. (Who couldn’t get behind that in the 1970s and 80s, when I was in school?) For example, E.P. Thompson’s 1963 The Making of the English Working Class

…advanced an eloquent counter-narrative to gradualist versions of British history as the triumphal march of parliamentary evolution, grounding the latter in violence, inequality and exploitation instead. (p74)

Power to the people! And I realized in this one quotation that this is a theme in my work: social inequality exacerbated by unequal access to higher education.

And, the Marxists were eloquent — that’s why I enjoyed reading them. (This isn’t true anymore — I’d rather read The Spectator than The New Statesman any day.)

Marxist history may not have held sway continually for the past fifty years, but it seems to me like a constant hum, an engine that continues to drive historical studies. I’ll get to the post-structuralists in a moment, but they wouldn’t exist without the Marxist emphasis on class struggle, the insistence that the voices of the downtrodden must be heard. It’s just that the downtrodden are seen in terms of different identities now, and the methodology has far less Rankean rigor.

Positivism and progress

In John Harvey’s chapter on “History and the social sciences”, post-modernism threatened the faith in empiricism and scientific objectivity that was apparently embedded in the social sciences. Claiming that they grew from Enlightenment roots, the social sciences were apparently dependent on the idea of progress. I keep saying “apparently” because I have never seen the social sciences this way, as rooted that deeply in science, but rather as rooted in social theory. Harvey claims they were reliant on ideas of human progress over time. Around the time of von Ranke, professional historians distanced themselves from social theory through the idea of “historicism”, which I would call the supremacy of context — the idea that any interpretation can only be understood within its historical conditions (pp82-83). The rigorous method, reliant on evidence, was scientific, like the positivism that became popular with Comte. But another approach, used by “amateur” historians, was to develop basic laws of analysis and social progress, and theories that used imagination rather than evidence. This conflict between professional and amateur can be understood through what Spencer did to Darwin’s theory of natural selection, applying it to human cultures and creating the underpinnings for prejudice and conquest. (I suspect that something similar happened in anthropology, and led to the social construction of “race”, but for that I’ll need to return another time to Miles Rosenberg’s chapter on “Race, ethnicity and history”.)

The main idea here seems to be that historians would eventually reject positivism, and indeed all theoretical constructs that saw human progress on a continual incline. In an attempt to make history predictive, social scientists created models that may have reflected ideals rather than empirical analysis. Max Weber is accused of this, in his analysis of capitalism as leading to a steady increase in social equality (I love him anyway). In contrast, American historians (“The New Historians”) helped challenge assumptions that national histories show an increase in moral good, for example when Charles Beard claimed that the Founders had created a liberal constitution with the purpose of enriching themselves (1913).

The discussion of individual agency versus society’s forces comes into play here. Structuralists privileged social forces over individual action, while functionalists saw social organizations as “the cumulative result of the efforts of individual agents to meet their own interests” (p 97). Modernization theory was led by American historians, who saw modernity as the creation of  rationally-minded societies, with the end being a harmonious world. Historical actors who prevent such progress are the bad guys. It’s this sort of meta-narrative that would be critiqued by…


I confess that at this point I was having trouble discerning the details from the overall movements that affected historical writing, so instead of going through the other chapters on anthropology and the Annales school (about which I know something) and psychoanalysis (about which I know little), I tried to get closer to an understanding of how history is done today. That was the chapter on “Poststructuralism and history”, by one of the book’s editors, Kevin Passmore.

Here we start with the divergence of history from literature, yet another 19th century phenomenon. Eventually, some historians go on to challenge the whole traditional, Rankean idea of knowing the past through evidence. In modern times, this takes the form of postmodernism, because modernist history used historical techniques and research that were considered “professional” rather than amateur. Post-modernism questions whether there is deep meaning at all. Instead there are simply forms of representation. Post-structuralism works with the representation of language particularly, where words are only signifiers dependent on other signifiers. There is no concrete truth. Rather language constructs perception, and here’s where it gets tricky.

Michel Foucault, who appears in many graduate student papers

Apparently this perception is constructed through binary opposites. You cannot know what dark is without light. During the 1960s, scholars like Hayden White went further, arguing that history is basically a series of literary tropes (tragedy, comedy) that use historical events as characters. Michel Foucault questioned the modern narrative of progress and reason as framing the story of the west. At the same time, he continued to use the evidential method. But Jacques Derrida went further. If structuralists reduced everything to binary opposites, post-structuralists see that even this meaning fluctuates (pp 127-128). Derrida thus “deconstructed” history, preventing its construction from having any meaning at all. “Class” for example, is constructed and changes in meaning, so it cannot be used as an “essential” category within which to analyze historical events. Thus post-structuralists went gunning for the Marxist historians, especially E. P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class.

Thompson was a social historian, which makes me suspect that “social historian” and “Marxist historian” may be seen as the same thing. Post-structuralists attacked him. White said that he used narrative tropes, Robert Berkhofer claimed that history is about interpretations and therefore no interpretation can reconstruct the past. I would argue that you cannot “reconstruct” the past through historical analysis, anymore than you can “accurately” represent the present. People may witness the same event and see different things. The “objective” or “real” past that these philosophers are fighting over never did exist, just as there is no “objective” or “real” present if you consider all the different interpretations of many different people. All anyone can do is consider as many perspectives as make sense, and judge them according to whatever construct they have.

That’s what bothers me about the trends today – the construct being used by angry people, angry at injustice and moral violations, is not even trying to create a “real” past. The effort to do so is at the heart of traditional historical method. Without the effort to be objective, there’s no point gathering the evidence. I also cannot accept the moral relativism implied in the idea that “nothing can be known, so every interpretation has the same value”. I also find such history “romantic” rather than rational or scientific, since it presents the goal of history as being some sort of goodness. Society should be fair and just and right. People should be free and compassionate and collective. When all of this doesn’t happen, contemporary historians go all to pieces and start cherry-picking evidence.

My work

How does all of this inform my work? It clearly makes me, as I suspected before, a traditional, empirical, evidential historian. I admit to a meta-narrative of unfairness being a Bad Thing, but I also think it’s important to understand the sincerity of those who justified unfairness at the time (context!). That probably makes me a classic Marxist social historian. The question is whether it’s possible to write history today without carrying the Marxist social history tradition thread all the way through post-structuralism.

I will not pretend to a deep understanding of any of this through reading a few pertinent chapters, and I’m sure I’ll be returning to this book. There are important points in the chapters on economic history (where more recent historians are developing broader views of “the economy” in a way that incorporates the moral issues and social interactions of the time), gender history (which could be seen as just a type of social history), and intellectual history (which seems to have a more creative streak than I previously understood). But in each chapter I note the influence of postmodern and post-structuralist ideas, and I am trying to understand that their benefit is in opening up history to be more inclusive. But I confess I get stuck when what we’re including are emotions which may cloud judgement, creativity that may endanger objectivity, and suppositions that may not be based in evidence. I still can’t hold with that, and will instead move on to the historiography of the History of Education.

A great schoolmaster

I have recently read, pretty much in one sitting, The Story of a Great Schoolmaster, by (you guessed) H.G. Wells.

(For those of you thinking I’m sitting a lot on my sabbatical, well, that’s by design. And sometimes I lie down instead, because I know sitting a lot is bad for you.)

Published in 1924, it is the story of F.W. Sanderson, and his role as headmaster at Oundle School, Northamptonshire, which he reformed in the 1890s:

The world is changing so rapidly that it may be well to say a few words about the type of school Sanderson was destined to renovate. Even in the seventies and eighties these smaller ‘classical’ schools had a quaint old-fashioned air amidst the surrounding landscape. They were staffed by the less vigorous men of the university-scholar type; men of the poorer educated classes in origin, not able enough to secure any of the prizes reserved for university successes, and not courageous enough to strike out into the great world on their own account. (p28)

(I know it’s presumptuous of me to mention it, but Wells seems to be sporting a superior attitude here, having himself won some scholarships and prizes in the 1880s, and being courageous enough to strike out on his own as soon as he could during his early years. By 1924, however, he was a successful author of fiction rather than a successful headmaster, so I find his approach here a bit condescending.)

Wells met Sanderson in 1914, when he was looking at Oundle School as a possibility for his own sons George Phillip (“Gip”) and Francis (known as Frank, I assume after H.G.’s brother). According to Wikipedia, Gip did attend Oundle, so I assume Frank did also. Certainly it’s evident that once their father saw what Sanderson had done with the school, he was filled with admiration for his modern views and methods. It was these methods I found most interesting (and also Sanderson’s death, which I’ll get to in a minute).

Sanderson developed what we would today call “active learning”, and group active learning at that. Most of it is described in Chapter III: The Replacement of Competition by Group Work. Having noted that Sanderson believed that boys should be doing active scientific work, and that they were more involved and interested when they did, Wells then shared a mini history of education. He claimed that “there have been three chief phases in the history of educational method in the past five centuries, the phase of compulsion, the phase of competition, and the phase of natural interest” (p46). These aren’t necessarily discrete, but he sees medieval teaching as motivated largely by compulsion, and balancing rote learning with corporal punishment. The second phase was the age of the class-list (that is, the lists of students passing exams — or not). He referred to this era as “slightly more enlightened” (p46):

The school of the rod gave place to the school of the class-list. An aristocracy of leading boys made the pace and the rest of the school found its compensation in games or misbehaviour. (pp46-47)

He noted that during this time the curriculum was Greek, Latin, and formal mathematics, none of which were of any intrinsic interest to a boy. By the end of the 18th century, there was a shift, and attention to subjects that were more interesting. He briefly mentions Pestalozzi and Froebel as pioneers of the third phase. Wells had written an essay on Froebel, which I have been unable to find, to earn the Doreck Prize, so he did know about these things. He had himself been a product of the class-list phase. Both the thrills and sorrows of competition, as he saw it at the Normal School of Science, appear in several of his novels.

Sanderson began his career at Oundle using the old class-list methods, but in mathematics he started to create instead “clusters of boys surrounding an attractive problem” (p48). A “Science Conversazione” developed of small groups of pupils working on a particular problem, at first in their free time. A surprisingly large number of students joined voluntarily, in focus groups of various scientific subjects. Experiments were assigned or developed, and as the “Speech Day” approached, class time was replaced by work time on the projects. The school would look chaotic at such times, but all the pupils were completely engaged in developing solutions to the problems emerging in their work:

Concurrently with this steady replacement of the instructional-exercise system by the group-activity system, the mathematical work became less and less a series of exercises in style and more and more an attack upon problems needing solution in the workshops and laboratories, with the solution as the real incentive to the work. (p52)

What do we call this now? Applied learning, constructivism, cooperative learning, maker spaces, design thinking, flipped classroom, growth mindset, scaffolding — it’s all there in 1898.

Sanderson’s success in science led to his application of the technique to literature and history, doing away with

…the lesson that was a third-rate lecture, the note-taking, the rehearsal of silly opinions about books unread and authors unknown, the horrible annotated editions, the still more horrible text-books of literature

and replacing them with plays, with the boys taking the parts, to teach literature, to bring the pupils “into the most active contact possible with the reality of the work they studied” (p54). For history the school library was the laboratory, with content divided among the groups, who prepared maps and quotations for presentation and argued with each other about historical approaches (pp54-55). (This all sounded so exciting that I began to mourn our old college library, with its many shelves of books that could be physically browsed. Now the books are in a small section, with most of the room taken over by computers. More information? Yes, indeed. A space for enthusiastic searching for information in noisy groups? No.)

Today Oundle School still exists (with boys and girls), and Sanderson is mentioned here as its most famous headmaster. It is now primarily a boarding school, although it has day students, with ages starting as young as 11 years old, although the usual is 13. I’m sure it’s a wonderful school, but I must admit to queasiness at the very idea of having a child that age live at a school. But that is neither here nor there.

I am these days wrestling with the idea of biography as history, and it helps that Wells didn’t mean to just write a biography — his work makes a point about Sanderson:

To tell his story is to reflect upon all the main educational ideas of the last half-century, and to revise our conception of the process and purpose of the modern community in relation to education. (p2)

Sounds like a good idea now as well as then.

I noted in the book a natural sympathy, as there often is between a biographer and his subject. Apparently, like Wells, Sanderson went round on a bicycle, but wasn’t great at outdoor games (Wells was asked to participate on cricket teams, but wouldn’t play even when he agreed to sign up). As a young man, like Wells, Sanderson was slender and serious. And he always went his own way.

Sanderson died in 1922 after completing a lecture where he was introduced by Wells. He suffered a heart attack during the Q&A which followed the talk, and Wells had to go tell his widow. Wells tells the story, and reprints the lecture in its entirety, for the last chapter.

A review of the book from the Journal of Education* claimed that Sanderson being the first subject to stir Wells into writing a biography would make “The Story of a Great Schoolmaster the most famous educational book of the decade, probably of a quarter of a century”. More effusiveness followed: “We have seen no book on education from Solomon, Socrates and Comenius to Edward Eggleston and William Hawley Smith whose every paragraph has a human touch that throbs.” I think that is perhaps overdoing it, but it’s a very good book, especially for those looking to support efforts toward enlivening curriculum.


*The Journal of Education, Vol. 99, No. 18 (2478) (May 1, 1924), p. 499, retrieved via JSTOR 15 Nov 2018.

(Clever readers will notice that I’ve counted this small review as Student Learning Outcome 5: cultural expression as evidence of a historical theme. This is because the book is a literary work, even though it is non-fiction, and such a book is a cultural expression of its time: 1924. It could be used to represent the interest in education, and/or the popularity of Wells’ writings, during that era. It isn’t as popular now, I think, since I purchased at good price what I just realized is a first edition.)



About Carlyle

In the mid-1880s, during his time at South Kensington, when he was supposed to be studying for his science examinations, H.G. Wells was instead educating himself. In his autobiography, he noted Thomas Carlyle as part of his self-required reading:

I was reading not only a voluminous literature of propaganda but discursively in history, sociology and economics. I was doing my best to find out what such exalted names as Goethe and Carlyle, Shelley and Tennyson, Shakespeare, Dryden, Milton, Pope—or again Buddha, Mahomet and Confucius—had had to say about the world and what they mattered to me. I was learning the use of English prose and sharpening my mind against anyone’s with whom I could start a discussion.

Wells considered it a treat to read Carlyle’s book on the French Revolution, a break from his other reading. He also noted that England as a whole was influenced by Carlyle in a nationalism that was “consciously Teutonic”. Later on in the 1890s, Wells claimed, every writer was considered to be a “second” someone, and that at one time Wells himself was called a second Carlyle.

Although Wells was about twenty then and I am, shall we say, at least twice as old, I am also educating myself, in Victorian culture and literature as well as education. I cannot read all the things Wells read, but I did want to take a look at Carlyle, since I had only read Signs of the Times (then, in a move I have regretted more than once,  I assigned it to students). I bought a copy of Past and Present a couple of years ago, and tried to read it. I say “tried” because I never made it through – the prose seemed awful, like a combination of Wordsworth on drugs and Kipling on a very bad day (one more exclamation point and I would have crawled under the sofa).

So shopping at Skoob on my last trip to the UK, I picked up a short biography on Ruskin (for obvious reasons – readers know how much I both dislike him and am trying to understand his influence). Next to it, in the same paperbound series (Past Masters, by Oxford University Press), was one on Carlyle, by A.L. LeQuesne. I read the whole thing in one day (I won’t say “in one sitting” because I had to get up for tea and chocolate…ok, more than once).

It was brilliantly written. I’m not sure why I didn’t expect that. Biography can be quite dull, and Carlyle himself was hardly exciting. LeQuesne’s thesis (I didn’t expect a clear thesis either) was that Carlyle’s best work took place in only a few years of his very long career: 1837-1848. Before this, Carlyle wrote poorly (I am apparently not the only one to notice this), and afterward he was behind in worldview and no longer speaking to the current generation.

I do not like biographies that explain in detail the personal lives and clinical ailments of their subjects. Some things seem relevant to me (like Holmes’ noting in his biography of Wellington that the Duke put bars on the windows of Apsley House because he feared the rabble) and others do not (like the many biographies detailing Wells’ sexual proclivities, either known or imagined). LeQuesne had just the right amount of personal detail. It was important to know how witty and endearing Carlyle’s wife was, and how charming their marriage (at least to outsiders), to help explain why their house on Cheyne Walk in Chelsea was appealing to many intellectuals as a place to meet and converse.  His dyspepsia and sensitivity to noise was mentioned a few times, mostly as a distraction to his writing that needed to be overcome, but not, thank goodness, in detail. Similarly, his religion was discussed only as it influenced his work.

Robert Tait, A Chelsea Interior (The Carlyles at Home with their Dog Nero at 5/24 Great Cheyne Row, London), 1857-58


Carlyle had roots in an agricultural family in Scotland, and lost some of his youthful religious beliefs when he left. As a young man, he wrote many reviews of books, and since Wells did some of this too it helped me understand the culture that had writers enter the market by writing such reviews. Rebelling against the Enlightenment emphasis, philosophically and intellectually, at university in Edinburgh, Carlyle began studying German romanticism. His Sartor Resartus is described as “a weird Romantic masterpiece which defies either classification or summary” (p19). His style was sometimes “rambling, turbulent, ejaculatory, vastly self-indulgent and metaphorical” (p21). In this work, he apparently developed a theme of the material expression of life requiring a spiritual or super-natural foundation. Earnest work, he thought, made possible the glimpsing of the spiritual beneath the material (Ruskin would have understood this, I think). The book apparently fit the Romantic idea, common among people like Wordsworth (duh) of the superiority of the imagination over the dullness of cold rationality.

Reading this sort of thing now, when rationality is so sorely missing in our culture, and imagination has gone awry into nightmares of duplicity and cruelty, is difficult. But as he continued, Carlyle turned himself into a historian, using that imagination to enliven deep primary research into the past, particularly the French Revolution and the English Civil War. LeQuesne claims he replaced a faith in religion with a faith in history (p33). This was not a faith in materialism, like that of Karl Marx, but of providential judgement. The horrors of the French Revolution seemed to be divine punishment of some sort, revealing God’s purpose. Carlyle thus opposed previous historians of the 1830s, who looked back on the revolution as a horrible deviation from the natural order and a warning about a possible uprising. Carlyle’s analysis instead provided a “cause of hope rather than fear; for it was a sentence of divine justice on a corrupt society” (p35, a page dog-eared by a previous reader of my copy).

Of even more interest to me was the analysis of Carlyle as a historian in professional terms. According to LeQuesne:

Carlyle did not believe that the historian’s function was to provide a smoothly flowing narrative for the entertainment of his readers, nor that history could be treated as an experimental science from which inductive laws of human behaviour could be derived, nor that rigid objectivity and detachment were either possible or desirable qualities in a historian.

This seems similar to the re-emergence in recent years of imaginative historical writing. Under what circumstances, I wonder, do historians appear who value the imaginative over the rational? Despite the rejection of narrative noted by LeQuesne, the passages quoted from Carlyle’s books show, as with Dickens, a deep-seated sympathy for the poor and downtrodden. And he showed it in such a way as to condemn beourgeois complacency, often in stirring prose (and prose that I could actually read). In one passage he makes the reader grieve for the dying Dauphin in prison, then jabs at a conscience which can lament this but ignore the conditions of “poor Factory Children” that perish while no one cares (p43).

The difference between mid-19th century social reformers and Carlyle was that as Carlyle’s career continued, he saw the answer to social inequities to be the rise of heroes, and sometimes a heroic nation-state. LeQuesne says several times in the book that Carlyle was “no democrat”. He claims that Carlyle’s work on the French Revolution won the “ears of a generation”, but that his work after 1850 lost it (p55). LeQuesne calls him a “prophet” (and spends a chapter or two attempting to prove that this title is appropriate) but his work became preachy and grumpy. By then people were actively involved in reform acts of many kinds, and Carlyle’s vision of providentially-guided history and heroic leadership seemed out of place. Moreover, his work began treating the downtrodden soldiers, colonials, and workers with derision rather than understanding. LeQuesne claims this transition is masked by his focus on hero-worship (p85), but the hero is needed to guide people precisely because people are so inadequate to the task.

Thus Carlyle lost his readership, and certainly my interest — it was this sort of writing I encountered in Past and Present. LeQuesne sees his later approach as a rejection of humanity and an increase in impatience with slow progress, but it also seems to me a good foundation for dictatorship and all sorts of other nasty mechanisms that don’t trust people even with a republican system, much less a democratic one.

So in this biography, if not in Carlyle’s own works, I have gotten an idea of what Carlyle had to say and why it mattered — the goals of H.G. Wells’ own reading of him. Unfortunately, I have found myself with little sympathy for any of his ideas except those designed to help readers understand the lives of those less fortunate. Much of the rest (including anti-rationalism, imaginative historical writing, and hero-worship) I find to be at the foundation of much that is wrong with society now, as well as then.


Published — Cram and Criticism: H.G. Wells and Late Victorian Education

My journal article “Cram and Criticism: H.G. Wells and Late Victorian Education” has just been published in the Fall 2018 issue of The Wellsian, the peer-reviewed journal of the H.G. Wells Society in the UK.

My pre-publication paper is here, and further info on The Wellsian (including how to obtain copies and back issues, and to join the society) is here at the society’s website. Citation information:

Lisa M. Lane, “Cram and Criticism: H.G. Wells and Late Victorian Education”, The Wellsian, 40 (2018) pp. 28-42.


2 comments to Published — Cram and Criticism: H.G. Wells and Late Victorian Education

Dipping a toe into Digital Humanities: word clouds

The term “digital humanities” has always confused me. When I first heard it, I assumed it was what I was already doing – applying digital approaches to humanities research and teaching.

But no. Digital Humanities seems to be about applying certain elements of computer science to the humanities, with emphasis on quantification. At least, that’s how I’d put it. Wikipedia says, “the systematic use of digital resources in the humanities, as well as the reflection on their application”. Stanford University says, “Digital humanities foster collaboration and traverse disciplines and methodological orientations, with projects to digitize archival materials for posterity, to map the exchange and transmission of ideas in history, and to study the evolution of common words over the centuries.”

[I am treading carefully here, since the term is now used by people who have professionalized the subject. Like most new disciplines, it’s already questioning itself.]

When I come across the term, it usually involves word counts, tallying the number of times a word or words is used in a text. I think that makes Wordle one of the first digital humanities tools. Wordle was an applet created by Jonathan Feinberg ten years ago. It counted the number of times a word appeared in a text, and created a tag cloud, with more frequent terms in larger text.

So using another progam, Jason Davies’ Word Cloud Generator, let’s see what happens.

For example, here’s the Declaration of Independence using 400 most-used words:


There are many uses for such an approach. I can compare it, for example, to Magna Carta.

where there is far less about the people.

Even without a word cloud, one can use a basic word search of one can get a whole document in a browser window. So if I have the declaration here, and I do a “find” for the word people, it tells me it’s there 10 times.

So today (stand back!) I’m going to apply this method to HG Wells’ autobiography.

The 19,332 words that result after removing the table of contents and the index took 7 minutes to process (with all words counted):

Hmmm. “Peace” is big, and “Nazi” is small. “Work”, “world”, “now”, “man” “life” are all big. “New” and “still” are the same size. There is no representation of the personality of the piece, which is part of the purpose, except in the words themselves. But really, not very helpful. What if I limit results to the top 25 words?

A little better, but hardly revealing.

Fiction, however, often fares better. That’s why it’s digital humanities, not digital biography. Taking The Sea Raiders by HG Wells at 25 words, we get:

Tentacles! Creatures! Well, that’s more fun, anyway.

Given the current environment in social discourse, digital humanities techniques are being used to ferret out trends in speeches, maps, and censuses, to demonstrate sexism or racism. So the use goes far beyond word clouds.

But I’m still sad. No digital humanities grants for me.

1 comment to Dipping a toe into Digital Humanities: word clouds

  • HI Lisa,

    In the past I have used Wordle – I have used it more for vizualisation/illustration than for analysis. My experience is that it is so easy to edit, to make it include the words you want and delete the words you don’t want, that it would be difficult to trust it for analysis purposes, i.e. when looking at other people’s Wordles.

    But I haven’t really explored the variety of ways in which it could be used for research purposes.