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Reviewed by:
  • Our Victorian Education
  • Vicki Macknight (bio)
Our Victorian Education by Dinah Birch; pp. 192. Oxford: Blackwell, 2008. $81.99 cloth, $37.99 paper.

It is hard to disagree with Dinah Birch's central thesis that Victorian debates about education can help us think again about the structures and governance of contemporary British education. It was the Victorians, Birch argues, "who first conceived of education as a formal process that would be crucial [End Page 165] to the life of the nation and all its citizens, with prescribed courses of study, and outcomes measurable by examination" (2).

In writing about education, Birch is interested less in the details of policy or pedagogy and more in the overarching ideal of what education could do for individuals and society. For the Victorians, Birch writes, education was to transform individuals into beings of intellect and imagination, and British society into a modern meritocracy. During the era, elementary school was made free and compulsory for all children, and the numbers of secondary schools expanded dramatically. Universities, colleges, and night schools extended the age one could continue in education. These were signs, according to Birch, of a social revolution led by education and accompanied by broad debates over just what education should do. What place should moral or religious teaching have? How should women be involved? How might the education system balance the needs of the nation's children with those of each individual? How should factual learning be balanced with the human urge for creativity and imagination? Instead of focusing on any one age group or type of education, Birch looks at these debates through a literary lens.

Birch is a scholar of Victorian literature, able to navigate through the work of a long list of Victorian poets and writers. From all, she finds support for her contention that British education needs to be structured but flexible, and all children included in its humanizing efforts. "The need for national structures remains apparent," she says, "but it is also increasingly clear that its processes must co-exist with a flexibility that can make room for the individual pupil" (145).

Birch freely acknowledges that in advocating these things she is not making a novel claim. And just as well. Who would disagree that we should educate children in a personal and individualistic way rather than in huge inflexible systems? That we should foster independent thought, encouraging children to grapple with the darker sides of human life, rather than educating them for thoughtless work? And who would suggest that pride in personal achievement and awareness of what one does not understand would be better than the pressures of competitive examinations in which for some to score highly others must score poorly? The difficulty is how to achieve these things.

In all, Birch is animated by an admiration of the poets and writers she studies. This is well placed, of course, and she does not shy away from dealing with issues on which their thought radically differs from our own. She also writes clearly of the intersections between gender, class, and religion and their varying and sometimes contradictory impacts on debates around education. These points are explored through the first three chapters, particularly chapter 2, "Religious Learning." Here she explores the views espoused by Victorian writers on the value of religion in schools, the problematic dominance of religious values in politics and social life, and the moral questions that emerge when religious authority diminishes.

Perhaps the most engaging part of this book, for me anyway, was the chapter [End Page 166] focusing on women. Here we find ample evidence for the contradictory impulses that governed the thoughts of female writers (some of whom also worked as teachers) as women gained a larger role and stake in public education. Over the century, as education for males and females became established in larger institutions, women faced questions that lie at the heart of gender difference. Should female students attend schools set up in the masculine mode? they asked. For many the answer, perhaps surprisingly, was no. There is something special, many argued, about the emotional and imaginative capacities that are fostered in the more private spheres of domestic and...


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pp. 165-167
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