I am not generally a fan of radical history, but I will make an exception for Jonathan Rose’s The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes. Published in 2001, Rose’s landmark volume draws together almost 2,000 published and unpublished memoirs from 19th and 20th century Britain, painting a picture of a working class determined to achieve self-education.
In particular, Rose highlights the role that art, music, literature and history played in broadening horizons and enabling social progression. In vivid detail, he recounts stories of working-class families huddled around dog-eared folios, poring over the eternal work of Donne, or Chaucer, or the Bard.
By the mid-20th century, Britain had reached the zenith of the working-class autodidacts, supported by the rollout of accessible grammar schools. Figures like Melvyn Bragg, the son of an industrial labour, had more access to their cultural inheritance than any generation previous.
It’s a shame that this progress has stalled so abruptly.
As a product of the modern state education system, the earlier parts of Rose’s account have always struck a distressingly familiar chord with me — precious little has changed. Now, as then, it is left to committed, ambitious teenagers to edify and elevate themselves. In fact, our institutional support for these efforts has regressed over time. Long-gone are the days of the grammar schools, sacrificed in the name of progress.
The social infrastructure that enabled mobility has atrophied
The most striking difference in Rose’s account is cultural. Whilst Victorian society recognised the transformative power of education, the same instinct seems largely absent from white working-class society today. Amongst my peers in post-industrial North Wales, my weekend trips to National Trust properties were regarded as vaguely eccentric, if harmless. Those parents with the requisite ambition often lack the time and resources.
In the age of family breakdown, the social infrastructure that enabled mobility in the late 19th and early 20th centuries has atrophied. In the age of universal education, precious resources are taken for granted.
The fundamental problem is the same now as it was then. Despite admirable progress in the early 20th century, Britain has spectacularly failed to democratise culture, leaving the working classes to fend for themselves. Our national canon is increasingly the preserve of feckless public schoolboys, the sons of better men, who swan around quoting Blake and Eliot without the faintest idea of what it all means.
The result is a growing intellectual gulf between the children of the middle-class and the children of the working-class, whereby the latter are deprived of the broader education afforded to the former, all in the name of “focusing on the core curriculum”.
Even where academic attainment is comparable, there are gaps in the general knowledge of state-school strivers that have long-since been filled amongst their privately educated peers. Far from their being “optional extras”, a confident grasp of history, philosophy and culture enables us to relate more effectively to the world around us and situates us in the broader society to which we belong.
This gap, in turn, contributes to a host of social ills: breakdown of common cultural touchstones, growing resentment between the classes, and the financial insolvency of Britain’s remaining cultural institutions.
Cultural institutions have preferred to water-down their offering
Those who try to bridge the gap are tarred as “prescriptivists” — like Michael Gove, whose stint as Education Secretary saw the last major attempt at curriculum reform.
Under Gove, the idea of putting more poetry, literature and history into the curriculum was derided as “anachronistic” and “Victorian” by teaching unions who seemed to resent the idea of actually teaching. All the while, a patronising focus on “soft skills” and “problem solving skills” consumes ever more lesson time. Nobody seems to have considered that the best way to learn how to learn might be to go and do some learning.
Meanwhile, our efforts to “broaden access” have fallen spectacularly flat. Rather than enabling more school-trips to historic sites, or subsidising ticket prices for classical music concerts, cultural institutions have preferred to water-down their offering in the name of “accessibility”. Others have instead chosen to appeal to narrow sections of society, chasing the “black museumgoer” at all costs.
In 2019–20, just 36 per cent of people in routine or manual occupations had visited a museum or gallery, the result of a decade spent missing the point. Unsurprisingly, the last significant uptick in attendance followed the Blair government’s decision to make access to these sites free of charge.
We should have far more faith in working class children. Like their 19th century forebears and their middle-class contemporaries, they can engage directly with the richness and complexity of the undiluted classics. They do not need to be taught to learn. Allow them to engage, and they will do so with as much aplomb as the Tabithas and Hugos of the world. That means ambitious curriculums, exams that reward broad knowledge, and less time wasted on “learning how to learn”.
We must also change our approach to broadening access. Custodians of culture should recognise that the barriers to access are geographic and financial. The money wasted by regional theatres on adapting Shakespeare into cringeworthy vernacular would be better spent on busing-in students from state-maintained schools to authentic performances.
In the digital age, this should be easier than ever. For the first time in human history, every strain of Rachmaninoff, every Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and every line of Keats is available to all, for little to no cost. Streaming and video calling should make it easier than ever to project Royal Ballet performances into classrooms, and to offer extracurricular activities to those pupils who want to learn an instrument or stray beyond the textbook.
However, without a culture that recognises the value of these things and works to disseminate that value institutionally, there is little incentive to draw from this deep well. The result is an intellectual gulf ill-reflected in university admissions statistics, but nevertheless palpable. Those searching for a way to restore our lost national cohesion could do far worse than to pay attention to the intellectual life of the British working classes.
And for goodness’ sake, bring back the grammar schools.
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