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Ignorance of the working classes

From Friedrich Engels, The Condition of the Working-Class in England in 1844 (1845).

Translated and edited by W. O. Henderson and W. H. Chaloner (Stanford University Press and Basil Blackwell, 1958); pp. 124-28.

There is no compulsory education in England. In the factories, as we shall see, compulsory education exists only in name. During the parliamentary session of 1843 the Government proposed to enforce compulsory education for factory children. The factory owners resisted this proposal vigorously, although it was supported by the workers themselves. Large numbers of children work throughout the week in factories or at home and consequently have no time to attend school. There are evening institutes which are intended to serve the needs of such children and young workers, who are fully employed during the day-time. These institutes have very few scholars and those who do attend derive no profit from the instruction given. It is really too much to expect a young person who has been at work for twelve hours to go to school between 9 p.m. and 10 p.m. Most of those who do attend fall asleep, as is proved by hundreds of statements by witnesses before the Children's Employment Commissioners. It is true that there are also Sunday schools in existence, but they are quite inadequately staffed and are of value only to pupils who have already learnt something in a day school. The interval between one Sunday and another is too long for an ignorant child to remember on the second attendance what he has learnt on the first a week before. On the basis of thousands of proofs contained in the statements of witnesses examined on behalf of the Children's Employment Commission, the Report of this Commission emphatically declares that the existing provision of day schools and Sunday schools is wholly inadequate for the present needs of the country.

This Report gives a picture of the abysmal ignorance of the English working classes which one might expect to find in such countries as Spain and Italy. What else is to be expected? The middle classes have little to hope and much to fear from the education of the workers. In an enormous budget of £55,000,000 a mere £40,000 is devoted to public education. If it were not for the fanaticism of the religious sects - which does at least as much harm as good - the amount of education available would be even less. The Anglicans have established their National schools and the various dissenting bodies have founded theirs, too, simply and solely in order to bring up children of their members in their particular faiths; and, if possible, now and again to filch the soul of some poor little child from a rival religious body. The result is that polemical discussions - the most sterile aspect of religion - dominate the school curriculum. The minds of the children are crammed with dogmas and theological principles which they do not understand. Consequently a narrow sectarianism and a fanatical bigotry are awakened in the children at as early an age as possible, to the serious neglect of any reasonable instruction in religion and morals. . . . The churches are still to this day quarrelling and so, for the time being, the working classes must remain steeped in ignorance. The factory owners boast that the vast majority of the children in their employment have been taught to read, but the standard of reading is very inferior, as may be gathered from the reports of the Children's Employment Commission. Anyone who knows his alphabet claims to be able to read and with that the manufacturers are content. . . . The Sunday schools maintained by the Anglicans, the Quakers and, I believe, several other religious bodies, do not give any instruction in writing at all because 'this is too secular an occupation for Sunday.' A few examples may be given to illustrate the level of education of the English workers at the present day. They are taken from the Report of the Children's Employment Commission, which unfortunately does not include information concerning the true factory areas. . . .

In Wolverhampton Commissioner R. H. Home found among others the following examples: A girl of eleven years who had attended both day and Sunday school, but had 'Never learnt of another world, nor of heaven, nor of another life. . . .' Another young person, 17 years of age, 'did not know how many two and two made, nor how many farthings there were in two-pence, even when the money was placed in his hand.' ' . . . You will find boys who have never heard of such a place as London, nor of Willenhall (which is only three miles distant, and in constant communication with Wolverhampton).' '. . . Some [of the children] have never heard the name of Her Majesty, nor such names as Wellington, Nelson, Buonaparte, etc. But it is to be especially remarked, that among all those who had never even heard such names as St. Paul, Moses, Solomon, etc., there was a general knowledge of the character and course of life of Dick Turpin, the highwayman, and more particularly, of Jack Shepherd, the robber and prison-breaker.' A youth of 16 did not know 'how many twice two make,' nor 'how much money six farthings make, nor four farthings.' A youth of seventeen asserted that '10 farthings make 10 halfpence'; a third, sixteen years old, answered several very simple questions with the brief statement 'He be'nt no judge o' nothin'.'

These children, who are crammed with religious doctrines for four or five years at a stretch, know as little at the end as at the beginning. One child had 'attended a Sunday school regularly for five years.. . .Does not know who Jesus Christ was, but has heard the name of it. Never heard of the twelve apostles. Never heard of Samson, nor of Moses, nor Aaron, etc. Another had 'attended a Sunday school regularly nearly six years. Knows who Jesus Christ was, he died on the cross to shed his blood, to save our Saviour. Never heard of St. Peter or St. Paul.' A third 'attended the Sunday schools of different kinds about seven years; can read, only in the thin books, easy words of one syllable; has heard of the Apostles; does not know if St. Peter was one, nor if St. John was one, unless it was St. John Wesley.' To the question who Christ was, Home received, among others, the following answers: 'Yes, Adam,' 'He was an Apostle,' 'He was the Saviour's Lord's Son,' and (from 'a young person 16 years of age'): 'Jesus Christ was a king of London a long time ago.' In Sheffield Commissioner J. C. Symons made the Sunday school children read to him. The children could not tell what they had been reading about, or what sort of people apostles were. After he had put this question, 'to nearly every one of the 16 in succession without a correct answer, a little sharp-looking fellow cried out with great glee, "Please, Sir, they were the lepers".' A similar state of affairs is reported from the Potteries and from Lancashire.

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