READING GUIDE TO: Johnson R (1981)  'Really Useful Knowledge: radical education and working class culture 1790 - 1848' in Dale R et al (ed) Politics Patriarchy and Practice: education and the State vol. 2, Basingstoke: Falmer Ford/OU Press.

There is considerable evidence of many genuinely popular educational traditions, some discussed in E P Thompson's book, which follows studies of the radical press. It is worth noting that even the radical press kept a distance between its writers and its audience, which raises the whole issue of the popularity of different types of radicalism. 

The dilemma for radicals was an obvious one. On one hand, they were critical of  'provided' education, including a certain proposals for state education. So in this sense, radicalism involved an opposition to the spread of education. On the other hand there was an awareness that education did lead to a general understanding and a practical grasp of affairs. Alternative educational goals were also present, including those connected with  'really useful knowledge'. Further, education was seen as a matter of political strategy. Finally there was a  'vigorous and varied' educational practice. There was a demand for adult education and also for parental educators, but no real distinction existed between adult and normal education: there was a rejection of the  'middle class culture of childhood'. 

Demand for education was part of a more general dilemma -- knowledge was widely sought for its use value, but the poverty of existing resources, in both connotative and qualitative terms, lead to genuine dilemmas about how to provide better facilities. Education promised liberation, but it threatened subjection  (page 5). And this led to a divergence in radical thought. On the one hand there was a rejection of 'useless knowledge', seen as a matter of tyranny, where the schoolmaster was in the same role as a factory owner or priest. This view is well developed in the work of Paine and Cobbett -- they derided school routines and opposed the ideology or rationale of schooling by which all evils were ascribed to  'popular ignorance' (page 6). The ambiguity extended even to the new forms of the 1830s, including the Mechanics Institutes, and schools provided by the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge. There were many parodies of such 'useful knowledge'. Instead, radicals promised to rely on their own collective enterprise -- this was  'radical education'. 

In terms of forms of education, there was support for informality rather than formal methods, as in the example set by Owenite counter-institutions. Educational pursuits were not to be separated. They were to be improvised, ephemeral. Education was not seen as taking place only in schools, nor was knowledge confined to books -- it was also found in nature and life. These views lay at the heart of the struggle and contestation over education in the period. There was a demand for resources to fund this kind of education outside the control of capital -- for example to fund literacy in families and neighbourhoods, work place discussions, even Sunday schools, and, of course, to fund the radical press too. There were also travelling lectures, educational networks -- limited and fragile, of course so that the  'working-class intellectual was a rare creation' (page 8). 

The radical press offered the epitome of radical education. It was closely linked to Chartism, and offered a very flexible medium. It could be read again and again, or read aloud, allowing for different levels of literacy among the audience. The  'Northern Star' was perhaps the best example. The press also offered a genuine educational content -- reviews, notices of lectures, criticisms of schools and schoolmasters, and notes about the new schools including Sunday schools. It was in the business of enlightenment. 

In terms of content, the aim was to develop a  'really useful knowledge'. The aim was to oppose capitalist notions of utility and/or education as recreation or diversion. Real knowledge was to be practical for the knower, relevant to the experienced problems of life. There was a widespread attack on  'wilful abstractness or abstruseness, of the failure to speak plainly' (page 9). Radicals were against  'preaching'-- they wanted intellectual work 'for us'. Education was to be comprehensive in every sense, rather than 'confined by monopoly or controls'. It was never just a pragmatic matter --'knowledge was not just a political instrument; the search for truth matters' (page 10). There were of course priorities in terms of the struggle for emancipation, however. 

  1. For example a demand for political knowledge -- Paine was still popular, but the state was different in the 1830s: it was in the business of disciplining capitals and regulating their accumulation, attacking the defences of the poor rather than promoting natural rights or the rights of the aristocracy [against capital]. The idea of natural rights in that context, referred to power struggles between property and the working class,  rather than aristocrats versus people as in Paine. Actual opportunities and actual majorities were what was important.
  2. Secondly a demand for a social science based on the Rights of Man, populism, and the class nature of the State. Owenism leads to notions of community and altruism, following education. There was to be a co-operative society based on Reason. It was not like that at present because of the socialisation of people in various nasty institutions which corrupted them. Owenites were especially against (capitalist)  families, schools and the Church.
  3. Thirdly a way to change the economy, to remove poverty and exploitation. Following a basic labour theory of value in economics, profit was seen as a tax, and a capitalist as a mere factor of production. There was a basic exploitation in the exchange mechanism,however [NB not as in Marx's theory]. However, co-operation would cut out the middleman. Political, social and economic demands were all combined to produce an overall theory of exploitation, of class and of the State, of domination as a matter of using social pressures and forces to mould 'character'. [NB check out the views of J S Mill on this argument -- eg here

Other demands included a curriculum based on science and literature too. Owen's ideas on education were remarkably progressive. Take the issue of  'skills':  wider definitions were common, involving mind and body, book learning and competence  (including making a living). The current State education narrowed down and separated -- it abstracted knowledge from its context, and it was coercive. It advocated local skills to make a living  -- for example teaching the skills of farm labouring to produce people working in husbandry and in the local 'cottage economy'. Radicals denied that ignorance arose simply through illiteracy alone, and debunked those who were educated but unwise. Literacy was important, if for no other reason, to defend the poor against the literate rich  (Cobbett is the main advocate here). This was a limited view, according to E P Thompson, linked to the limited horizons of the small producer and farmer, but it was also based directly on experience. A common argument was that there was an unfair monopoly on, or 'distortion of' knowledge -- a classic feature of capitalism. The 'secrets of the trade' were being monopolised  (page 14). The early split between mental and manual labour was seen as crucial in this monopoly, as was an early emphasis on science in the curriculum simply because it was productive  (this was being argued in 1832!!)  (page 15). Political and moral sciences became apologetic.Cooperative activity was a way out, aiming to reunite the splits between different roles, and to reclaim lost capitalist knowledge. 

On the issue of the popularity of these views, the story of Chartism helps us pin down its extent. The history of  Chartism shows that, for example, there was local leadership, there were activist intellectuals deliberately setting out to educate the people -- there is  thus some support for Gramsci's view on the role of 'organic intellectuals' [intellectuals closely linked with the working classes and devoted to their struggle]. How 'organic' were these links? Johnson thinks there was a close relation between intellectuals and members of the working class from 1816 to the 1840s: 

  1. One sort of evidence turns on the origins of the leaders, although this is not a perfect  test. Nevertheless, the leadership of Chartism was largely indigenous working class (page 16), and there were  'few open roads to co-option' anyway [in other words few avenues for working-class intellectuals to be seduced into joining the bourgeoisie -- a real risk with intellectuals usually]. 
  2. The 'organicism' of intellectuals can also be tested by looking at the links between theory and practice, according to Gramsci -- for example whether the source of problems to be discussed comes from working-class experience [or form 'theory']. Nineteenth-century educational demands did qualify on this test too -- after all, for Britain, there was no outside source of socialist theory, except perhaps Paine. 
  3. Finally these were loose organisations so there was very little bureaucratic alienation, preserving the characteristics of informality and connections between academic and non-academic aspects of the project.