The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes by Jonathan Rose

You may think this is the most pretentiously-titled book that I own but I’ve got plenty more where this bad boy came from.

This 500-page whopper primarily charts the rise and fall of the great working class autodidact tradition – what the British working classes did to educate themselves in the absence of a state-sponsored education system before the 1870 Education Act (eg Mutual Improvement Associations and Miners’ Libraries), what sort of books they were reading, what they hoped to get out of such learning and what they actually achieved, and the (predictably resentful) view of their fellow citizens, both working and middle class, to aspirational individuals.  There’s also interesting information on early schooling systems and adult education institutes (e.g. the Workers Educational Association and Ruskin College), sexual education, an explanation of why Marxism never took route in Old Blighty (a chapter that could be summarized as saying, ‘Marxists are patronizing g*ts who don’t actually like the working classes and want to be the new Boss Man’), the working class perspective on ‘Bohemia’ (summary: ‘how lots of posh kids who didn’t have to hold down a proper job made out they were doing something very arty and anti-establishment and made the poor kids who had to earn their shilling feel rather excluded’) and what Modernism was really all about (summary: ‘Joyce and Woolf used funny language and peculiar novel structure that only the Uni kids could understand, meaning the working classes had to stick with the Classics and felt excluded. Again’).

Yes it’s a very big book and I really did feel very clever when I finished it. I then went to shout at the enemy in Bromley Waitrose and cried when I realized Virginia Woolf hadn’t come out well in all of this. We all have our cross to bear.

It’s a bit male-centric in its approach but it gives a wonderful sense of the lengths people will go to for education and culture (‘I was starving in more ways than one’), the desire for knowledge for knowledge’s sake, and the distance self-education can take you – not just in terms of a career, but in the sense of oneself as an individual with a capacity for political thought. It is full of moving individual stories – uplifting ones such as shepherds leaving each other books in designated crannies in boundary walls and more poignant ones such as the East End scholarship girl whose mother would not watch her perform at her Speech Day as ‘it was too grand for me…It was the other mothers’ and the boy who didn’t tell his parents that his painting was being exhibited in the Manchester Art Gallery as he couldn’t imagine them making the journey (‘Could (mother) have found her way there? And wearing what? A shawl?’).

The analysis of why this tradition died, and the present lack of social mobility was rather disheartening (journalism being used as a great example – where previously there was a diverse plethora of newspapers which invited (some) working class contribution, now we have Giles Coren) and I was left wondering what the future will bring. But then I recall the story of young Alf, on his first trip from depressed Jarrow to a symphony concert in Newcastle City Hall in the 1920s, and remember the power of the Arts to transform lives: the ‘rapture that even a (fellow) child could recognize’ showed that this ‘backward reader, potential street sweeper, butt of so many masters’ easy sarcasms had escaped us all and entered into his kingdom’. Go on have a cry. I did.


4 Comments Add yours

  1. Alison says:

    This is a really interesting and moving review. I wonder if all the current cuts to adult education and narrowing of school curriculum will lead to some resurgence of this kind of DIY learning?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks Alison! I hope there is a resurgence, but then again worry that we’ve regimented our children into an exam-prep mindset to the point that they cannot carry out independent learning. I remain optimistic though.


  3. This is a fab book, it left me fired up and angry and inspired and sad. Sounds like it struck you similarly. I love your summaries of bohemia and modernism.

    I worry that education has become a bit too much of a sausage factory – you do primary school, secondary school, college, university and sit exams because that’s what you’re told. There doesn’t seem to be a yearning for education at the moment, or knowledge – it’s all about the pieces of paper. Still, as long as people are reading books like this and actually thinking about this stuff, there is still hope.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. SO glad to hear from someone else who enjoyed this book! Yes it fired me up plenty. Education is such a gateway to so many things, but it feels like it is becoming about getting a passport to a job (which is of course vital – I work in Skills policy so I’m not averse to the point that school should make young people employable!) rather than access to the wider cultural horizons the book discusses. All I can do is to highlight the wealth of cultural delights out there to the young people I know (whilst retaining my ‘totally hip aunt’ status, hopefully…)

      Liked by 1 person

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