Age of Invention: Remaking the State

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How do you change the nature of government? In the early nineteenth century, the British government essentially spent its money on two things: war, and paying off the debt from previous wars. Yet by the end of the century, the state had been transformed. Prodded along by a surprisingly small group of reformers, the central government became involved in matters of public health and sanitation, in education, museums, libraries, design, and more.

Take education. Since the 1820s, radical and utilitarian members of Parliament like William Ewart had campaigned to secure government grants for building new schools, which they achieved in 1833, and which from 1839 were managed by the rather obscure-sounding Committee of the Privy Council on Education. In 1836 they also persuaded the government to create schools of design — all the better, they argued, to compete economically with France. Ewart also helped pass the Museums Act of 1845, and the Public Libraries Act of 1850, though both of these were substantially watered down by other politicians in order to become law. Both acts simply allowed local authorities to slightly raise local taxes to pay for their own, local museums and libraries, which was also made extremely difficult. Raising such a tax could not simply be done by the resolution of a town council; it had to be approved with a two-thirds majority in a local referendum.

Despite these setbacks, however, a whole new opportunity for reform was provided by the Great Exhibition of 1851. As I explained in the previous newsletter, an international exhibition of industry functioned as an audit of the world’s industries. It, and its successors, the world’s fairs, gave some indication of how Britain stood relative to rival nations, especially France, Prussia, and the United States. And whereas some people saw the Great Exhibition as a clear mark of Britain’s superiority, for would-be reformers it was a chance to expose worrying weaknesses. Thus, Henry Cole and the other original organisers of the exhibition at the Society of Arts exacerbated fears of Britain’s impending decline, giving them an excuse to create the systems they desired.

They identified two areas of worry: science and design. Britain of course had many eminent scientists and artists—some of the best in the world—but other countries seemed to have become better at diffusing scientific training and superior taste throughout the workforce as a whole. Design skills were an issue because France appeared to be catching up with Britain when it came to the mechanisation of industry; if it caught up on machinery while maintaining its lead in fashion, then Britain would not be able to compete. And scientific training appeared more useful than ever, with the latest scientific advances “influencing production to an extent never before dreamt of”. Visitors to the Great Exhibition had marvelled at the recent inventions of artificial dyes, a method of processing beetroot sugar, and the latest improvements to photography and the electric telegraph. Thus, for Britain to maintain its lead, it would need to improve the education of its workers.

The reformers’ scare tactics worked. The aftermath of the Great Exhibition saw the creation of a government Department of Science and Art under the direction of Henry Cole, who in turn oversaw the agglomeration of various museums, design schools, and other cultural institutions to what is now the “Museum Mile” in South Kensington. (Curiously, the area was originally called Brompton, but when Cole opened a museum of design and industry there, he named it the South Kensington Museum. Kensington was a much more aristocratic area nearby, though it had no ‘south’ at the time. The museum evolved, rather complicatedly, into what is now the Victoria & Albert Museum. But unlike so many top-down area re-brands, the name South Kensington stuck.)

And that was just the beginning. Cole and his allies then oversaw a dramatic expansion of the state into education, largely through the use of examinations. Although state-funding for education had initially centred on building new schools, getting any more involved was a highly contentious issue. Most schools were controlled and funded by religious organisations, but were split between the established Anglican church and dissenters. When the government first became involved in schools, it was thus bitterly opposed by many dissenters as they feared that their children might become indoctrinated to Anglicanism. And naturally, the government could not teach dissenting religions. Yet the proposed compromise of teaching no religion at all was unacceptable to both sides. Schools were crucial, the groups believed, to keeping religion alive.

So the utilitarians came up with a workaround. Rather than getting the state too involved directly in managing the schools themselves, it would instead influence the curriculum. By holding examinations, and then paying teachers based on the outcomes of the tests, they could incentivise the teaching of certain subjects and leave the schools free to teach whatever religious beliefs they pleased. Indeed, by diverting more and more time towards teaching particular subjects, the reformers saw it as a secularising blow “against parsonic influence”. The tactic was initially applied to adult education. The Society of Arts would first trial out examinations without payments, to test their viability. Then Cole would have his department take over the examinations, first for drawing, and later for science, using his budget to fund payment-by-results. The effects were dramatic. The Society’s relatively popular examinations in chemistry, for example, rarely had more than a hundred candidates a year. But when the department instituted its payments, it soon drew in thousands. By 1862, when the government wanted to improve the teaching of reading, writing, and arithmetic in schools, they adopted Cole’s suggestion that they also use payment-by-results.

What followed was a repeating cycle of world’s fairs, followed by calls for education in new subjects to keep Britain competitive, followed by the creation of examinations to encourage those subjects. It did not always succeed — in the 1870s, the government would not pay for examinations in technical subjects for adults, so the ancient guilds and livery companies of the City of London were persuaded to do it instead. (The organisation they set up to do so still offers vocational qualifications today.) But overall, the strategy worked. Eventually, in 1899, the Department of Science and Art was merged with the Committee of the Privy Council on Education, to form the first Board of Education — what was to become the Department of Education. Thus, despite substantial religious resistance to government involvement in education, the utilitarians had won.

For more, you can read my new book on the history of the Society of Arts, which is finally officially published! You can get 25% off the hardback and free shipping when ordering directly from the publishers, here, using the code AAM20. And if you’ve already read it, please leave a review somewhere.

Until next week,


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