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May 29, 2003
Dangerous propaganda

Home schooler Julius Blumfeld writes:

I had a row with Mrs B a few days ago. The cause was the Usborne Encyclopedia of World History. Usborne are highly reputable educational publishers who produce nicely laid out and easy to use books for children.

The Encyclopedia has a section on the Industrial Revolution. There is the usual recital of the horrors of the new towns with an illustration of a slum with a smart horse and carriage driving past and a caption with the words "The factory owner drives past quickly".

The text then continues:

Making changes Members of the trade unions and some wealthy people put pressure on the government to make life better for the poor. In the second half of the 19th century, factories became safer, and better houses were built. New drains and sewers made the streets cleaner, which helped to prevent diseases from spreading.

Going to school

In 1800, parents usually had to pay to send their children to school, so many children from poor families never learned to read or write. Over the next hundred years, laws were passed which allowed children to have a free education.

So life became better for people because the Government made it better and poor children learned to read and write because the Government passed laws to give them a free education.

To be fair to the authors, this sort of stuff is entirely conventional. Usborne are merely reflecting received wisdom. Nevertheless, I find it worrying. The book is designed for children and we all know that young children are incredibly receptive to the first ideas that get into their heads. Home educated children like ours are no different that way.

Yet when I ranted to Mrs B about the insidious dangers of this sort of statist propaganda, she looked at me as though as I was a paranoid nut and told me to stop exaggerating. So I told her she was an ideological dupe and stomped off.

I wonder who is right.


Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:33 PM
Category: BiasThe curriculum

And there is also the fact that people worked in factories because by doing so they could earn several times as much as they had done in their previous agricultural existence, and that the work in factories was also probably less backbreaking. This is an important message, not only because it is interesting to find out how we reached the modern world, but because it makes the developing world of today somewhat easier to understand.

Comment by: MIchael Jennings on May 30, 2003 10:22 AM

Parliamentary Report on infant mortality rates, 1832:

Leeds (heavily industrialised) 51%

Rutland (rural) 23%

While it might make logical sense to suggest that people moved from rural to urban areas because it made them better off, this ignores the other reasons for the move. Developments in agriculture which preceded the industrial revolution made farming more efficient, a by-product of which was that fewer labourers were needed; Acts of Enclosure prevented the rural poor from making the part of their living that they traditionally made from the use of common land (eg grazing their livestock); the industrial revolution produced factories that were more efficient than cottage industry, making that traditional employment disappear too.

Now that isn't to say that, in the long run, the industrial revolution was not a good thing. Of course, in the long run, people did become better off. However, this does not mean that life was not bad - indeed, perhaps somewhat worse than it was before - for those at the sharp end of the industrial revolution.

Comment by: Tom on May 30, 2003 01:00 PM

And which part of what is written in the Usborne book is incorrect? Pressure was indeed put on the government, partly by unions and partly by the wealthy, to improve conditions, and despite the opposition of the employers, the Factory and Mines Acts did mitigate some of the particularly grim aspects of early nineteenth-century industrial conditions. Municipal drains and sewers did indeed make the streets cleaner and prevent the spread of disease. School attendance increased as the government made provision for it, so that many more children went to school for longer in 1900 than in 1800, and many of these schools were indeed provided by government.

Now, you may disapprove of government intervention to do such things, and you can even say that primary education, industrial conditions and sanitation would have been much better in 1900 if the government had spent the previous century doing nothing. But those facts as presented in the book are true.

This sounds almost Marxist to me. There's truth, and revolutionary truth, and because we don't like the fact that government did things that many people might now consider to be beneficial, we should pretend that these are lies, because by doing so we tell a greater truth.

Comment by: Tom on May 30, 2003 01:13 PM

Of course, none of us were around in the 19th Century so it is difficult to tell whether either a) state intervention did improve things above the level that might otherwise have been attained or b) state intervention had serious unintended consequences elsewhere.

What I can say with some authority is that in my lifetime just about everything the state has done or attempted to do has made things worse than they already were.

If it is this bad now, it is not unreasonable to assume that it always was - whatever the history books might say.

Comment by: Patrick Crozier on May 31, 2003 01:19 AM

E. C. West, an economist and author of "Education and the State" says that when the British government entered the education business it "jumped onto the back of a galloping horse". His research indicates that most working people could read and write before State subsidized education, and that the growth in literacy slowed after State intrusion. West is also the author of an excellent article, "School Vouchers in Principle and Practive; A Survey", in the __World Bank Research Observer__ (online; go to archive. Feb, 1997).
There is no reason to suppose that the State operation of schools will yield a greater return than a school voucher subsidized market. There is little reason, even, to suppose that State subsidies and compulsory attendance laws enhance overall welfare. I reason axiomaticaly. a) Most parents love their children and want their children to outlive them. b) If you live among people, there are basically three ways you can make a living: b.i) you can beg, b.ii) you can steal, b.iii) you can trade goods and services for other people's goods and services. c) Most parents accept (b) and prefer option (b.iii) for their children. d) Therefore, most parents want from schools what taxpayers want from schools, that children be educated to contribute to their community. State operation is not necessary, nor (much) oversight.
Further, given the vast range of human abilities and interests and the vast range of possible career options, and given that the State cannot subsidize education without a definition of "education", it seems likely that recipients of the State's subsidies will bend the State's definition of "education" to suit their purposes, to the detriment of individuals who might better pursue some idiosyncratic course. This has happened. School has become obsessively bookish. Observe that "academic" has become a synonym for "irrelevant".

Comment by: Malcolm Kirkpatrick on June 1, 2003 06:16 AM
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