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.


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.

NACBS sessions

More session reports! (I know, you’ve been waiting — but I do this so I remember the sessions.)

Petitioning and the Politics of Nation, Gender, and Empire shows the problems with titling panels, as it was really more about the process of petititoning the government, not so much politics or any of the sub-factors.

Laura Stewart’s “Petitioning Practices in Early Modern Scotland” looked at how political petitioning (petitioning in order to criticize the government) and ordinary supplications interact, in this case as regards the Covenanter government of Scotland in the 1640s, an era surrounding the English Civil War. Although it’s hard to quantify the total number of petitions, case studies provide a variety of significances, including whether a petition can be considered libel, what language supplicants used in their petitions, and how government critiques can provide a foundation for a petition.

Richard Huzzy and Henry Miller’s “The Rise and Fall of Petitions to the House of Commons, 1780-1918” was a good example of the kind of research you can do with a grant, in this case from the Leverhulme Trust. They were able to sort and recategorize thousands of petitions and numbers of signatures. Between 1833 and 1918 Parliament received 950,000 public petitions on 29,500 different issues, and their charts showed spikes in certain years. The categories included colonies, ecclesiastic, economic, infrastructure, legal, social, taxes, war. They had broken down colonies but I was sad to see that “education” wasn’t its own category, as that might have been helpful for my work. They noted certain politically organized pushes for petitions, which were clearly used to mobilize support on certain issues.

Ciara Stewart’s “Petitioning against the Contagious Diseases Acts in Britain and Ireland: A Comparative Perspective” helped me understand the foundational idea of many papers. It’s important to narrow the focus to a single argument with depth of sources. To me, petitioning against the CDA would have been its own paper, but it’s clear now that I’ve attended the conference that this is not the best way. By focusing closely on the Ladies National Association in Ireland and its composition, then comparing it favorably to the English LNA, Stewart was able to prove that the Irish branch should be taken more seriously. The paper avoided the usual discussion of whether the CDA was a good idea or not, though it did mention the reasons for supporting petitioning against it: the double standard it promoted by not examining men, the fact that the examinations were forced, and the arguments about the likelihood of police grabbing women to examine even if they had committed no crime (“protect your wife and daughters”). Previous historiography had sidelined the Irish LNA, and I recalled that the purpose of most papers is to oppose previous historiography. I tell students that this is an “although” thesis (“although we’ve been told that the Irish LNA was just a side branch, it was actually significant”).

In my case, then, an example might be “although the focus of historical study for higher education in the Victorian age has been on universities, extension courses, and the examination system itself, correspondence courses for degree exams were a significant means of advancing education among the lower middle classes…”

The session I was looking forward to the most was next: The Educational Institution as a Category of Analysis in Modern British History. The chair, Peter Mandler, noted that education has been a missing element, long neglected in British social history, although it is well-served now. Emily Rutherford’s “Opposition to Coeducation in British Universities 1880-1939” had a thesis that I would summarize as “although the historical focus of gender in universities is based on women trying to gain access to higher education, there are important elements in resistance to it, particularly personal comfort levels and administrative constraints”, including the role of donors. The wishes of donors (she cited donors who wanted to support single-sex institutions) could be at odds with the wishes of administrations. In some cases, like that of Queen Margaret College at the University of Glasgow, it was wasteful to teach women-only classes, and the argument was made that biases against women would mean lower marks for them than if their exams were mixed with men’s. (Later in the Q&A a concern was raised about the cost to working-class boys of middle-class girls dominating classes.) The speaker also introduced the interesting case of Edward Perry Warren, an art collector and scholar of the idealized male Greek life cycle of homosexuality, who funded a male lectureship on the condition that the lecturer live at the college and there be a passage between his house and the boys’ lodgings.

Laura Carter’s “Locating Self and Experience in the History of Secondary Education in the UK: The View from 1968” discussed a project that followed baby boomers and their perceptions about their education into adulthood, and meant to extract education from the history of social change. Many of the students, as adults, regretted missing opportunities while they were in school, but none regretted attending a modern secondary school. Although when asked about moving up socially, those from manual worker families cited money and luck as primary factors, and non-manual labor families cited education, all named education as the key to self-improvement. Also interesting was that among those who didn’t go to university, men cited external reasons (like jobs), while women cited family responsibilities which prevented them.

Sussex University Chapel

William White’s “‘A Symbol of all this University Doesn’t Stand for’? The Place of Religion in Post-war University Life” had an implied thesis, of course: “although historians cite the removal of religion from student life during the 1960s, conflicts over chapels and religious buildings on campus show much student interest in Christianity”. We should be asking why new chapels were being built all over if religion was in a downturn. White wisely printed out his slides, rather than projecting them, to demonstrate the modernist architecture to which many students objected on aesthetic grounds. He also noted that the student body was changing in the 1960s from more local attendance to students who were more mobile, national in their  perspective, and residential since they came from elsewhere. Thus residence halls were another architectural feature of the era. The new welfare state was, in effect, taking over from local churches, with chaplains in the NHS and religious programming on the BBC. Christianity saw a resurgence after the war, and there was an ecumenical movement.

Commentator Laura Tisdall noted that we need to take school out of the “history of education”. The history of education is not seen a real history, and needs to be integrated into modern history. It’s been neglected, she said, because the subject is embedded in teaching training colleges and departments of Education rather than History, that there’s a sense that we know it already since we’ve all been to school, and that it is associated mostly with the history of childhood (which has seen a proper resurgence). University history is even more neglected, and further education is positively marginalized. So although I enjoyed the papers, the commentary was even more important in sorting out where my work fits in History as a discipline. I have struggled with History of Education societies, which seem to be composed of educators who dabble in history. What I’m doing, as I’ve mentioned, is more traditional history — education just happens to be the subject.

Dorothy L. Sayers by Granger

The last session I attended (other than my own) was just for fun: Aspiring Writer and Aristocrats: Renegotiations of Elite and Mass Cultures, 1890-1940. Abigail Sage’s “Print Media and the Aspiring Writer in the Late 19th and Early 20th Centuries” examined periodicals like Young Man and Young Woman which encouraged potential fiction writers with advice columns. She even quoted HG Wells as saying he was  part of a whole generation of aspiring writers. Mo Moulton’s “Murder Mysteries, Socialist-Utopian Science Fiction, and the Mediation of Elite and Popular Cultures in the 1920s-1930s” looked at Dorothy L. Sayers and Muriel Yeager as representative of conservative modernity, both reflecting pessimism about human nature. I learned a lot about the character of Lord Peter Wimsey (whom I’ve seen on TV but never read), and about Yeager’s relationship with Sayers, and about Sayers’ interest in Christianity. Wells was mentioned here too, as a utopian author, with Yeager saying she opposed his views, but certainly The Time Machine is as dystopian as anything she wrote, so she must have meant his later work on socialism. I am, however, beginning to wonder whether one can present a paper on writing during the 1890s without mentioning Wells!

The very last session (last session, last day, and I was the last speaker) was the one I was in: Popular Culture and Popular Education in Victorian England. Anne Rodrick’s “‘Lectures Both Scientific and Literary’: Organizing Mid-19th-Century Lecture Culture” discussed the General Union of Literary, Scientific, and Mechanic’s’ Institutes and how they debated the best ways to provide lectures to the public. She compared their efforts unfavorably to the American Lyceum system, and showed how particularism and provincial concerns prevented a well-organized lecture culture. Martin Hewitt’s “Providing Science for the People: The Gilchrist Turst 1878-1914” explored how the Trust developed and promoted popular science lectures, and also noted some problems with development. While the lectures were highly successful due to their high quality, low ticket price, friendly connections with local authorities, and massive advertising campaigns (even door-to-door) to get people to attend, in the long run it was difficult to sustain. There was also some question as to how many attendees were actual rural or manual laborers, and complaints that the low cost made it difficult for other lectures to get an audience. My own paper, “‘Preposterous and Necessary’: H.G. Wells, William Briggs, and the University Correspondence College” focused on the development of the UCC as a viable method for lower-middle-class people to study for the University of London examinations and earn their degrees. I argued that distance education like that offered by the UCC was essential to the success of the examination system, although I need to work further on that approach. I was asked no questions, and got the sense that my paper was too broad, more like a class lecture rather than a research report (I had, in fact, written it for presentation rather than publication). I made slides but there was no adapter for my iBook to connect to HDMI, and tech support didn’t show, so I was glad I’d made sure my visuals were illustrative rather than essential. I came out feeling I have a great deal of work to do to get close to the quality of the other papers I saw, but that’s a good reason for going, yes?



NACBS first day and Providence

We started early today, and I saw a number of excellent papers.

I attended the session on Popular Fiction and Representations of Politics and Empire in Britain, 1880-1950 because it overlaps the period I’m working on and, let’s face it, in addition to his scientific and pedagogical writings, HG Wells did write some fiction.

The first paper was “Popular Fiction and the Politics of Anti-Socialism, 1900-1940”, by Liam Ryan, so it was a little later than my period. The main idea was that some popular fictions, particularly mysteries and spy thrillers, pushed a conservative agenda. We can tell this by how socialists are treated in the works. For example, in John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps, the hero helps thwart a Bolshevik plot (I think he meant anarchist — the book is 1915) , and characters are mocked for their working-class sympathies. Dorothy L. Sayers’ character Lord Peter Wimsey is scornful of socialists, and Agatha Christie’s plots ridicule “champagne socialists”, with plots that reveal socialist characters to be secretly wealthy, and socialism as an error of the young. Questions following the paper delved into why it isn’t ok to be rich and socialist (and why Bernie Sanders gets criticized for that), how the authors are middle-class so they’re also making fun of artistocrats also, and how high brow characters can be aligned with lower-class characters, since neither is self-conscious.

James Watts’ “Flora Annie Steel, Henry Rider Haggard and the Use of Fiction in the History of Imperialism” asked questions about the popularity of fiction, which might be read as factual. Steel had lived in India for almost 20 years, so one might take her as an authority, and Haggard’s character Allan Quartermaine, although presented in fictional settings, reads like real life. They also contain tropes I hadn’t thought about: luxury represents moral corruption, bad acts lead to bad ends, financiers are duplicitous.

Nupur Chaudhury’s paper was changed from the program, where it said she would talk about representations of Indians in Kipling. She also spoke about the depictions of Indians in women’s periodicals as well, especially the Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine. Although she proved clearly that these sources demonstrated prejudice against Indian culture a la Edward Said, I felt the thesis was factual rather than interpretive.

The moderator, Jeffrey Cox, commented on the papers, and noted a teaching problem with texts that use objectionable language. How do we teach texts that contain misogyny and racism, when students (and others) object to the use of language? He mentioned, for example, a new version of Huckleberry Finn, where all instances of the word “nigger” have been changed to the historically incorrect “slave”. (Although he said this edition was by Gates, I think it was Auburn English prof Alan Gribben.  I just used Gutenberg’s version and came up with 214 instances of the word.) Looks like teachers are working well on this one.

Christopher Bischof’s “Curios and Curiosity: A Teacher and the World in a Sutherland Community, 1899-1930” introduced me to William Campbell, a Scottish schoolteacher who liked to collect things but had little money. Apparently the history of collection usually focuses on the finding of objects rather than their use, but here the collection is significant in that Campbell got people to donate things, and shared his collection with the community. The paper also sought to debunk prevailing ideas of Scottish precociousness in democratic education, but pointed out that Campbell went through the pupil-teacher and teacher-training system originally adapted from England. It also highlighted the long-standing interest of Scots in the larger world.

I then learned some food and nutrition history I hadn’t planned on, because the two other papers cancelled. Lacey Sparks’ “Low-Hanging Fruit: Interwar Nutrition Education in Britain and Africa” introduced me to the programs, based on science and women teaching women, designed to increase nutrition in meals. I found it interesting that in Africa, this could be difficult because fresh food was not always available. Thus tinned food, which was being discouraged in Britain for its lesser nutrition, was encouraged in Africa.

At the lunchtime plenary, Mark Ormrod of the University of York spoke on “England’s Immigrants, 1330-1550: Aliens in Later Medieval and Early Tudor England”. There were several fascinating aspects to this paper — I had planned to eat instead of taking notes, but took notes anyway. The work presented is based on the data shown at englandsimmigrants.com. Ormrod traced the rights and laws pertaining to immigrants, noting that until about 1500 trustworthy immigrants had rights. I was surprised to learn this included the “jury of half tongue”, where half the jury had to speak the language of the accused. (I imagined what would happen if we did that now in this country.)

He also showed how well immigrants were integrated geographically — there is no evidence of ghettoization despite periodic outbreaks of prejudice or violence (this was not true of Jews, who had been expelled in 1290 — only converts were tolerated). By the 1450s, economic changes meant that immigrant workers (many of them craft masters and merchants) were seen as a threat. The Statute of 1484 during the reign of Richard III created alien taxes, reduced immigrant rights, and implemented more stringent standards on their products. Even so, there was still plenty of inclusiveness, though more so before the Reformation than afterward. The connections to Brexit anti-immigrant sentiment, based on economics, is obvious. For my students, this would be a theme: when the middle classes are economically threatened, they have less tolerance for immigrants.

The big education history session was Education and Empire: Networks in the 19th-20th Centuries, with Gavin Schaffer moderating.

Alex Lindgren-Gibson’s paper, “Enlisted Orientalists: Autodidact Soldiers and Educational Networks in the Raj” told how soldiers were ill-prepared for their stint in India, and that their education, for both colonial knowledge (local culture) and imperial culture (knowing how British rule worked) was gained mostly from each other. Although colonial knowledge was presumed to lead to social mobility, the case of a man named Lambert showed that even taking exams on local languages didn’t guarantee advancement. There was a concern not to educate soldiers too much. I was somewhat disappointed that, for my work, there wasn’t more on the exams themselves, but I was taken with the idea that learning local language wouldn’t move you along anyway when the elites had studied classical languages at university, but I would need a lot of work to demonstrate this.

Hilary Farb Kalisman’s “Colonial Crossings: Educational networks across Britain’s Middle Eastern Mandates” showed that too much unregulated education could cause revolts. The idea of the American University of Beirut was to create an educated elite for government employment through university inside the mandates (previously colonies). It instead led to a rise of the effendi, young, urban, educated, partially-westernized discontents.

Darrell Newton’s “Gaining Firsthand Fear: Colonial Students, Racialism, and the BBC” looked at West Indian students in Britain and their issues with prejudice, including being rejected for housing. The BBC tried to create some radio programs to discuss issues of racialism; some were successful, others were sidelined.

By the time this session was over, I was stiff from sitting, and needed to walk. Besides, there are three second-hand book shops within walking distance. So I headed toward the river and educated myself about Providence. First I found something I’m more accustomed to seeing in England: a World War I memorial. It’s part of a revitalization project as Providence reclaims its riverfront (I have a soft spot for any city that claims its river). It’s a large, well-designed memorial park:

Providence River


Irish Famine Memorial, Providence


Holocaust Memorial


First World War Memorial

Base of First World War Memorial


I walked over a pedestrian bridge (there are several) back into downtown to find those bookstores. And now I began to understand why people love Providence. It’s one of the cleanest, nicest downtowns I’ve seen. A few potholes or broken pavement, but for the most part very well-tended, growing while keeping its centuries-old traditions.

I get it now. And I only bought four books, but at three different shops. Got back to the conference in time for the reception and planning for our panel. A very good day.


More photos…

Historical correction (and Ruskin)

Over two years ago I wrote a post that got no comment nor many readers. It was one of the only posts where I shared my discomfort with today’s identity politics.

Then this week, I received an announcement of some workshops at the college designed to engender “cultural sustaining pedagogies”. I wrote a five paragraph response to the ideas contained within this concept, explaining my views supporting universal principles over the perceived needs of particular groups, be they racial, age-based, cultural, gender, or otherwise. Having spent several hours writing, I realized there was no one to whom I could send it, and nowhere I could post it, without endangering my job and quite a few working relationships that were important to me. At the same time I realized that this was what was wanted, my refusal to engage, because the entire pretext is that I am not worthy to discuss any of these issues.

But when one attacks history, however, as a discipline, I do feel a professional responsibility. I did some reading about culturally sustainable pedagogies (cuz I’m always in for good pedagogy), and at one point was led to this article on How Racism and Patriarchy is Taught at School, published just a few days ago. It was about truth versus distortion in history textbooks and class materials, and cited as heinous examples phrases like black slaves were people “who came to work on plantations” and “[s]ome slaves reported that their masters treated them kindly”. Now the first of these is distorted enough to be an untruth: slaves did not “come” to work — they were forced and they were brought. Factually, they did not “come to work on plantations”, either — they were sold for whatever the buyer wanted them for. But the second quotation is not factually incorrect. Some slaves did report that their masters treated them kindly. There are primary sources where they say so, and I assign them. I then discuss with my students why they might have said so, what influences there might have been on their perceptions and testimony. But the truth is that they did report this kindness. So we are not replacing lies with truth. We are replacing nuanced views requiring discussion, with untruth.

The article mentioned how teachers should use the website Teaching Tolerance to teach “the truth” of the past. So I went to the site (which is sponsored by the ever laudable Southern Poverty Law Center), and it recommended a “formative assessment” for students. I link it here. Several of the questions are loaded or misleading. For example:

In the Declaration of Independence, what percentage of enslaved people were included in the line “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

You are supposed to answer 0%, or you’re wrong. This question demonstrates the same sort of oversimplification argued against in the article, just to the other side. Jefferson, like many of his contemporaries, were intellectually and morally conflicted by slavery, but stated in a number of places that men may be created equal, but were then subjected to unequal environments, treatment, birthrights, intelligence, etc. Some included women in “men”, while others did not. 18th century intellectuals argued the many sides of these issues. The “line” about equality was likely written by one man, approved by a committee of five, and agreed to and signed by the 2nd Continental Congress. Some had slaves, some didn’t, some had never owned slaves, some made money off the slave trade, some had vowed to release their slaves within a year, others had promised to release them upon their death, and many worried about slavery in its various impacts, discussing its moral, economic, and intellectual problems. To say that slaves were definitely included would be false. To say that they were all excluded would also be false.

The included Teacher Guide says: “The promise of equality and liberty in the Declaration did not extend to any enslaved people. ” But the passage from the Declaration does not promise equality or liberty. It declares them as natural rights. In fact, the Declaration of Independence doesn’t promise anything to anyone — it lays out an argument and justification for breaking away from Great Britain.

Later on the quiz there’s this question:

Which was the reason the South seceded from the Union?

To preserve states’ rights
To preserve slavery
To protest taxes on imported goods
To avoid rapid industrialization

You’re supposed to answer “to preserve slavery”. Yes, indeed. But the reason? The only reason? The main reason? There are no historical events with only one cause, and even the extremes of post-modern historicism admit to multiple explanations if not causation.

The Teacher Guide to this question says, “Every secession document cites slavery as the main reason the southern states seceded.” I have not reviewed every secession document, and I’m not sure whether this means official documents from the states, or whether it also includes letters, diaries, etc. Quite a few both official and unofficial documents also talk about states’ rights, but not always in those terms. A great many talk about freedom and independence, particularly in the context of the American Revolution. Preserving slavery was often discussed within a context of property and ownership, even by people who didn’t own slaves or didn’t care for it as an institution. To not understand and discuss these complexities is to commit presentism (the application of the values of ones own era to the circumstances of the past). Presentism, although increasingly popular, does not actually lead to a rational understanding, but rather a “stand”.

The article also says that our country was “quite literally founded on the slaughter, colonization, enslavement, segregation, and ongoing systematic oppression of millions of indigenous peoples and people of color”. Yes, indeed. But it was also founded on ideals, some of which are worthy discussing and defending. We might want to start with representation, open debate, or any of the rights listed in the first ten amendments to the Constitution.

So none of this is really about truth. It’s about correction. It’s about grievance. It’s about telling the other side, because it isn’t being told. A worthy goal, certainly. Telling the stories that haven’t been told is a main responsibility (and joy) of historical work. It’s why we’re here. But the goal isn’t to replace Storyline A with Storyline Z. It’s to understand how both storylines interact, to whose benefit one side takes precedence, and to what extent evidence supports the stories.

But lest we think these issues are new, I’ve also encountered them in reading today about the man I cannot avoid in my work, although I don’t like him: John Ruskin. In Judith Stoddart’s article* on his Fors Clavigera, I learned about Ruskin’s push to develop cultural literacy in working people with whom he admittedly not only had little in common, but didn’t know very well as individuals. What he did know, however, were big social and political trends, and what he saw was a lower class that was forming into groups to create solutions for their grievances.

In brief, Ruskin saw a grievance culture, and radical groups loosely based on socialist ideals without actually examining them (he was likely thinking of the Paris Commune, for example). Their grievances focused on class-based social hierarchy, even though that was not, to Ruskin, the root of the problem. The problem was moral, not structural. Some people may have more of some things in society, and others less, but the people with less simply taking the things from those who have more does not create a moral system. In fact, it just puts the lower classes into the immoral position that the upper classes had occupied. The problem of capitalist, industrial exploitation cannot be solved by the exploited becoming the exploiters. It is solved by doing away with exploitation.

Ruskin thus had just as much sympathy for the conditions of working people as 19th century radical politicians did. Education was the solution, but it was moral education that was needed. This was not “character education” or brainwashing, or even Christian education (though Ruskin himself was pretty darned devout). Subjects like music, astronomy, and botany, for example, could teach that things in life have an order that can be understood (p53). Understanding the universal concept of order could thus underpin the planning of political action. Basic principles could then be applied in a rational way according to the needs of both society and the individual. Ruskin aimed to “replace class consciousness by cultural consensus” (p45). Movements that engaged in action without any philosophical underpinnings were dangerous, because they displaced morality, elevating the same greed and selfishness that had been protested against in the first place.

Even before Stoddart began comparing Ruskin with Alan Bloom’s ideas of cultural literacy midway through the article, I saw connections to today. We have political and social movements, on both left and right, that are not based on moral philosophical underpinnings, except in their insistence that they are. The oppressed may become the oppressors, claiming their own truth and the inadequacy of all other truths, but that does not solve the problem. It is oppression itself that must be eliminated. The problem of people being silenced necessitates eliminating silence, not applying it to those who speak. Kindness, goodwill, and understanding are universals, not privileges withheld from some groups and given to others. It is not only unnecessary to prevent talking about incomplete ways of understanding the past, it is essential that we encourage such talk to make the historical picture more complete.

If one is trying to create Ruskin’s cultural consensus, then the intention of education should be to examine views based on what human beings have in common. The elements that bind humanity together should be openly available to discuss and to use. These elements may change over time, but to abandon a search for larger truths in a headlong drive to redress grievances will be of no more help now than it was in the 1870s.


*Judith Stoddard, “The Formation of the Working Classes: John Ruskin’s Fors Clavigera as a Manual of Cultural Literacy”, in Culture and Education in Victorian England, Patrick Scott and Pauline Fletcher, eds. Lewisburg: Buckness University Press, 1990.

Historiography and tracking backward

Some of my research posts are password protected. Students, colleagues, and friends are welcome to email me for the password at lisa@lisahistory.net.

Trails of research: Lord Salisbury

This morning’s activities demonstrate some of the difficulties of “rabbit hole” research. This is searching that starts from a single point, and ends up going off into different trails. Sometimes it leads to enlightening information or interpretations. Other times it doesn’t.

This began with (Chrome! Show full history!) an email announcing new history book reviews in Cercles: Review Pluridisciplinaire du Monde Anglophone (that’s me, unfortunately). In particular, this review caught my eye: The Victorious Century: The United Kingdom, 1800-1906 by Sir David Cannadine, reviewed by Charles Giovanni Vanzan Coutinho of New York. In the last paragraph, the reviewer says that near the end of the book

“…Sir David brings the reader to the late Victorian era, in which the dominant political figure was Lord Salisbury, whose important essay in the Quarterly Journal in 1883, suitably titled ‘Disintegration’, the author explicates for the reader as providing a leitmotif of the entire era: one in which the one-time certainties and confidence of the high-Victorian period no longer seemed to be true…”

Well, this sounded like something I should read, a leitmotif for the entire era I’m studying. Damned handy, I thought.

So I tried a search for “disintegration salisbury” on DuckDuckGo and Google search. Only two links, one to an article in The Spectator, but I couldn’t access it because I’m not a subscriber (more’s the pity, but it’s too expensive to post to the U.S.). The other was a reference, so I tried Google Scholar with “lord salisbury disintegration 1883”) and got the full reference from another paper:

Salisbury, Lord, ‘Disintegration’, Quarterly Review, Vol. 156, 10 1883, p. 594

but not the paper itself. Two more articles referencing it were also blocked by paywalls. I tried my college library, EBSCOHost and JSTOR, and only a couple of articles referenced it, neither of which had a better citation than this.

One reference said the article is in another book, Paul Smith’s Lord Salisbury on Politics. Tried Google Books. It was here but there is no preview, search, or ebook. Tried Amazon to Look Inside. Nope, on this one you cannot look inside.

So I tried my old standby for old journals, Hathi Trust, and found several sets of full-text listings. I tried the first one, 1883. Not in the first one, then I realized that was only through summer, and ended before page 594 anyway. “10” might be October. Tried the second one, found an item that included page 594 and was October 1883. It said “Disintegration” at the top. But then I went up to the first page of the article (dreading that it was so long since once can only print one page at a time). Here’s what I found:


Well, that doesn’t say Lord Salisbury. Was his name W.E. Forster? Who is that?

No trace of a W.E. Forster by Googling or on DuckDuckGo. Tried another set of Quarterly Review for 1883. Same thing.

So I started tracking down Lord Salisbury. His name was Robert. Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne-Cecil, aka Lord Robert Cecil and at one point Viscount Cranborne. He would become Prime Minister two years after this article. In photos he looks rather humorless. According to Wikipedia, Paul Smith’s book describes him as depressive, neurotic, and competitive, among other quirks. Everyone said he wrote “Disintegration”. Except my primary source.

So I tried The Spectator again. In the flash of the article before it was blocked by the paywall, I saw something that suggested that there is no doubt that Salisbury wrote it. That might imply there should be some doubt. How frustrating!

So I tried a trick. I got my screen capture program ready, then clicked again on the article and took a quick snap before the paywall came up. So devious. I got:

Ridiculous. Deceitful. I feel so bad. Not.

Soooo…it looks like the W.E. Forster is a deceit. Rather, conceit. I do love Victorian writers, but in periodicals important people (or not very important, like HG Wells writing as Septimus, or complainers about Cambridge writing as Cambridgensis) often use assumed names.

Back to the article. It’s very long. It has things in it that might be useful to my research, and even more useful to our current times, such as “Hack phrases are a dangerous snare to an age too hurried and too busy to think” (p. 566). Salisbury was conservative, but liked America: “The Constitution of the United States was framed by men, deeply mistaken, as we think, in that they were hostile to monarchy, but yet fully sensible of the dangers that attended the democracy that they chose…” (p 568). He liked the empire, and was fearful that elements in England at the time, including the expansion of the franchise and political solutions for Ireland, would end it entirely.

He thinks educating the working man was dangerous, at least as it was being done (p 358):

I would certainly put the invention of “race” as a calm teaching of science that corresponds with dangerous passions.

But for me, what’s here is not so much a lietmotif of the era, as one for the Tory position of the era, clearly articulated but not of much help. I keep my tracking, so if I do suddenly need a Tory explication of empire and conservatism by a future PM I know where it is.

And that’s a morning doing research. Many times, things are not what one expects. And sometimes it’s quite difficult to follow the rabbit.


Self-portrait with mahl stick

We interrupt the sabbatical work for a combination of art, feminism, and technology.

It’s this self-portrait by Catherina van Hemessen, whom I had not heard of till today (by way of a reference from a community college art history class):

Catharina van Hemessen, Self-Portrait (1548)

In that context, I was told that it’s the first self-portrait by a female artist. But on the Wikipedia page about her, it claims it may be the first self-portrait of anyone at work at an easel, and references a book by Frances Borzello. So I went off looking for her. Yup, she’s qualified and literally wrote the book on female painters and their self-portraits.

So I looked at the book with Amazon’s search. There are images of women painting their self-portraits in Boccaccio’s Concerning Famous Women (c. 1402-4) on page 20 of the book. Borzello also claims that an illustrator named Claricia drew herself into the letter Q in medieval manuscripts. What Borzello actually says, on page 40, is that Hemessen’s “has been claimed as the first self-portrait showing an artist of either sex at work at the easel”.

Oh, ok, then. Not quite as grand as the first self-portrait ever, of man or women, and limited by “at work at the easel”. When did easels start? And what’s that rod in her hand?

It’s a mahl stick, still used to keep the painter’s hand steady and prevent smudging. I found out about it here (well, I’m not an artist, obviously).

And, according to this Victorian book, easels have been around since at least Roman times.

Under what circumstances is a story “untold”? If I’ve never heard of either van Hemessen or Claricia, that doesn’t mean their stories aren’t there. Over and again, things that are forgotten re-emerge. The current focus on feminist history and heritage is a case in point. While I am not in favor of anything that separates humans from each other, or sets them in opposition, the histories of particular groups of people do tend to generate the re-emergence of essential knowledge. It is this re-emergence, particularly in the Internet Age, that makes it possible to find information, and more importantly, other sources of information, like Borzello’s book. And sites about mahl sticks.

Art, but for history

If it were my main subject, of course, I’d try harder. But searching for information about an artist whose work I discovered has been too difficult. Is it possible to look at art from a historical persepctive without knowing much about the artist? I think so.

I saw this painting posted on Twitter by longvictorian2:

John Atkinson Grimshaw, A moonlit country road (1877)

I thought it was stunning, so I looked up more of Grimshaw’s works.

He seemed to enjoy fall, and that season just when winter was starting.

Stapleton Park near Pontefract Sun (1877)

There are a lot of roads with one person, or just a few, and often a house.

A Wintry Moon (1886)

He also was into fairies, sometimes floating above a town.

Spirit of the Night (1879)

But I like just as much his many townscapes, including this one very near where I was looking for Work.

Hampstead Hill, Looking Down Heath Street (1881)

So I looked up the artist on the web. I found very little.

Wikiart referred me to Wikipedia, which told me there was only one book about this artist, by an Alexander Robinson in 1988. I’d like to buy a copy, but there are so few that they’re expensive. The cheapest I could find was over $50. Supply and demand.

Wikipedia also directed me to a now defunct page from 2007 (that’s 50 years ago in internet years), which said that Robinson’s book was pretty much it, and that it’s a shame such a talent died of cancer. It had the same wording as a site that has taken his name, selling reproductions. Except that Wikipedia says he died of tuberculosis.

Apparently Grimshaw left no written works, diaries, letters. We don’t have much on him.

So to a certain extent we have to take the art on its own terms, which makes sense since Whistler admired Grimshaw’s work, and he’s the “art for art’s sake” guy. Grimshaw’s style is pre-Raphaelite in its photographic realism in some paintings and attention to detail in others. I also noticed a connection to earlier traditions. Here we seem to be channeling Vermeer:

Vermeer, Woman with a Water Jug (~1662)

John Atkinson Grimshaw, Summer (1895)

If we were analyzing his work as evidence for a historical theme (which I do ask my students to do), we have a number of things to look at. Usually it’s best to look at just one work, but this site makes it possible to look at some of Grimshaw’s in chronological order. Most of his work seems to be about place, rather than the conditions of people or the ravages of industry. Domestic buildings are important in the rural scenes, and they are nice middle class houses, likely reflecting his clientele. There are many works that are similar, also suggesting a clientele who wanted certain things. We cannot really separate the artist’s work from those who were buying it.

Which suggests a time when art like this was in demand, for its beauty and, possibly, its refusal to deal with quotidian problems of the 1870s and 1880s. Instead, there is loneliness, and loveliness, and all the connotations that go along with the changing to autumn and winter. There is a focus on roads, and people traveling on them, moving away from the viewer. There is warmth within coldness in all his work, which people might find comforting.

These are larger themes that go beyond just the era in which the work was created. It would be possible, in other words, to find works from earlier or later times which are also representations of these ideas. We might find that certain themes or styles tend to appear in art at certain times in history, perhaps when there is social change, or political strife. We do this as historians, although art historians also appreciate context and the influence of historical setting on the works of artists.

Because it’s easy to misinterpret art (perhaps Grimshaw liked his paintings of women better than the townscapes, and I’m projecting that he liked the townscapes more because I like them more), historians consider them as evidence. I can appreciate their aesthetics as a viewer, but as a historian I may be more concerned about their use. In that sense, the story of the artist has less value than the art itself.

Biography has its limits, and not just with art. More coming soon on that.