Journal of Interdisciplinary History 33.1 (2002) 114-115
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For Home, Country, and Race:
Constructing Gender, Class, and Englishness in the Elementary School, 1884-1914
For Home, Country, and Race: Constructing Gender, Class, and Englishness in the Elementary School, 1884-1914. By Stephen Heathorn (Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 2000) 300 pp. $50.00
Did school reading profoundly shape English nationalism at the start of the last century? Can we presume that ideas from school texts were transmitted into action in the evolving democracy? The "formation of national identity" is a current preoccupation of British studies practitioners, and this account of the building of a "secular nation" through the professionalization of the writing of school readers is set within this fashionable paradigm (8, ix). Alfred the Great, Queen Elizabeth, racial "others," hearth, village, and domesticity—all appeared as ornately conjured icons in new school "readers" that were both more sophisticated and more regulated. The book rightly relies upon a strong preexisting literature on education practices in board schools, the schools established by an 1870 parliamentary act and made compulsory in the 1880s. In 1884, an extended franchise reached just under half of male urban dwellers. A more inclusive democracy begot doctrine in a highly centralized and powerful statist polity in which the school-reader pundits refined and enhanced the nostrums of mid-century liberal orthodoxy.
Heathorn investigates publishers' records to quantify what was being bought and sold, school board records to uncover the selection process, and oral and literary sources to assess individual memories of reading. School-reader narratives became the basis for attitudes toward war and empire, race and nation, and "gendered" family roles. Heathorn tests various sociological and poststructuralist approaches, challenges a social-control model advanced by historians of British imperial propaganda, and offers great nuance and complexity while still insisting upon a notion of "cultural hegemony" (217). Heathorn handsomely succeeds in ordering and conveying new and well-grounded information. If [End Page 114] childhood imagination works in the way that Heathorn presumes that it does, his larger points are incontestable, given the evidence marshaled.
Dozens of reader texts, carefully structured by this new authorship of middle-class academicians, flooded the board schools. Millions of working-class children with lives limited to "neighborhood and family" were now exposed to the "messages" of the new history, geography, and literature (3, 12). A Whiggish master narrative of English heroes' achievements encompassed empire flawlessly. The characteristics of African-American "pickaninnies," Indians, Maoris, and Aborigines were illustrated by tale and legend. Anglo-Saxon demigods, much unlike the increasingly polyglot late nineteenth-century populace, dominated adventure stories, and seemed to conquer others without enslaving them, to settle lands without recourse to self-destructive war, and to return to homes graced by industrious and hygienic wives and mothers. The new liberal collectivist canon decried rank prejudice and a progressivist London County Council even banned crude, jingoistic Navy League pamphlets. The steady inclusion of working youth who could aspire to making a contribution to civic culture and racial endeavor was wrought without bludgeoning. When Heathorn comes to the end of the saga, however, he admits to a perception of the spread of "juvenile delinquency" and to the refashioning of the schools' mythology by impervious and insouciant music hall rogues (160). Although many would enlist in the coming war, Heathorn prudently gets his young charges near the battlefields without attempting to report what they retained or believed as the events of war unfolded.
The imaginary world of the late Victorian and Edwardian children's school readers, so splendidly explored in this work, was a great asset to a benevolent imperial and domestic vision that foundered. A scholarly knowledge of its content is instructive, but as Heathorn strongly suggests at the end of his engaging analysis, the "original meaning" he imputes to these narratives does not itself reveal what or how children learned, nor did its apprehension secure for them a better world in 1914 (217).
Susan D. Pennybacker