February 28, 2003
A mechanical evening

I've just finished listening to one of my last-Friday-of-the-month talks, given by Philip Chaston (who writes for Airstrip One), about the Mechanics Institutes that flourished in the early to mid nineteenth century in Britain. Informally organised, deeply distrusted by the Tory Establishment, they attracted huge numbers of students eager for self improvement and useful mechanical knowledge.

What did these places achieve? Were they, for example, the cause of the British industrial revolution, or were they the consequence of it? Hard to say. Bit of both, probably. The main consequence of listening to the talk, for me, was to stimulate in me a desire to learn more about these things. Philip gave us a blow by blow account of how they developed, what they did, who they taught, what they taught, and so on, and it was very interesting, but I like grand simple, perhaps over-simplified theories of how things work. I like a moral to my stories. Philip did not supply much along these lines. He spoke a bit about the parallel between the Mechanics Institutes and home schooling, but this was rather bolted on afterwards, or so it seemed to me. I grabbed Philip afterwards and asked him about this, and he said, well, yes, I guess it comes from being a historian. "I don't really do morals" he said.

The story did, however, have a bearing on this idea that "official" education systems give birth to unofficial systems which fill in all the official gaps. And here there may be a moral. For the rise of the Mechanics Institutes was not the end of the story. While they filled such a gap (basically technology instead of theology) they flourished. But then the official system finally got around to observing the same gap, got its technological act together and drove the Mechanics Institutes out of business.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:18 PM
Category: Technology