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THE BEST MEANS OF PROMOTING KNOWLEDGE AMONGST

THE WORKING CLASSES. *

The subject of Popular Education has frequently engaged our attention since the commencement of this Journal; but we have hitherto confined ourselves to the great fundamental branch of the question,—the provisions for elementary instruction by schools in which the poor may be taught reading and writing, and thus furnished with the means of acquiring knowledge. We are desirous now of pursuing this inquiry into its other branch-The application of those means—the use of those instruments—the manner in which the working classes of the community may be most effectually and safely assisted in improving their minds by scientific acquirements.

But, first, we would guard against the supposition that we are assuming susficient provision to have been made for elementary education, when we direct the reader's allention to its higher departments. There is no reason whatever for postponing the consideration of the latter until the former shall be completed. On the contrary, the deficiency now existing in the proportion of schools to the population of the country would in all probability be much diminished if useful knowledge were diffused among all those who have already learnt to read. The greater use they make of this acquirement, the more widely will the desire of having it be spread; the better informed a large portion of the people becomes, the more difficult will it be for narrow-minded men to keep any part of their countrymen in ignorance. Nay, the direct operation of knowledge will tend to eradicate ignorance. A father of a family, who can barely read, and has turned this talent to little account in improving his mind, may leave his children uneducated unless the means of instruction are assorded him by the State, or by some other charity; but one who has made some progress in science, or in acquiring general information, will rather sacrifice any personal comfort than suffer his children to be uneducated, and will take care that, in some way or other, they obtain that instruction to which his own improvement is owing. It is very far, therefore, from being true, that we should wait till schools are provided for all, and till all can read, before we consider how those who can read may best turn that faculty to account. A superficial view of the subject can alone make any one believe that the latter inquiry is premature if it precedes the universal establishment of elementary education. The planting of schools for the young, and assisting those more advanced in their studies, are works that may well go on together, and must aid each other.

The fundamental principle which chiefly merits attention in discussing this subject is, that the interference of the government may be not only safe, but advantageous, and even necessary, in providing the means of elementary education for children ; but that no such interference can be tolerated, to the smallest extent, with the subsequent instruction of the people. If a child be only taught to read and wrile, it is extremely immaterial by whom or on what terms he is put in possession of the instruments by which knowledge may be acquired. It would, no doubt, be a gross act of oppression if the government were to spend part of the money, raised from the people at large, in forming schools from which, by the regulations, certain classes of

Reports of Mechanics’ Institutions.--Vol. xli. page 96. October, 1824.

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VOL. I.

the community should be excluded. But if those schools are only so constructed that all may enter, no dangerous influence can result to the government, and no undue bias be communicated to the minds of the children, by having them taught the art of reading in seminaries connected with the establishment in Church and State. It is far otherwise with the use that may afterwards be made of the tools thus acquired. Once suffer the least interference with that, and the government has made a step towards absolute power, and may, with a little address and in a short time, is unresisted, reach ils journey's end. Such a jealousy as we are here inculcating is the more essentially necessary in a country where the existence of an established church, with its appendages of universities and public schools, has already thrown religious instruction into the hands of a particular class, and given the government great influence over the education, generally of the higher classes. In such a community, any interference with the diffusion of knowledge among the great body of the people would be pregnant with the most fatal consequences both to civil and religious liberty.

It is manifest that the people themselves must be the great agents in accomplishing the work of their own education. Unless they are thoroughly impressed with a sense of its usefulness, and resolved to make some sacrifices for the acquisition of it, there can be no reasonable prospect of this grand object being attained. But it is equally clear that to wait until the whole people, with one accord, take the determination to labour in this good work, would be endless. A portion of the community may be sensible of its advantages, and willing at any fair price to seek them, long before the same laudable feeling becomes universal; and their successful efforts to better their intellectual condition cannot fail to spread more widely the love of knowledge and the contempt for vulgar and sensual gratifications.

But although the people must be the source and the instruments of their own improvement, they may be essentially aided in their efforts to instruct themselves. Difficulties which might be sufficient to damp or wholly to obstruct their progress may be removed; and efforts which, unassisted, would perhaps prove a transient or only a partial enthusiasm for the attainment of knowledge, may, with judicious encouragement, be made both a lasting and universal habit. A little attention to the difficulties that principally beset the poor in their search after information, will at once lead us to the knowledge of those wants in which their more affluent neighbours can lend them most valuable assistance.

Their difficulties may all be classed under one or other of two headswant of money and want of time. To the first belongs the difficulty of obtaining those books and instructors which persons in easy circumstances can command; and to the second it is owing that the same books and instructors are not adapted to them which suffice to teach persons who have leisure lo go through the whole course of any given branch of science. It is also owing to their habitual occupation that, in some lines of employment, there is hardly a possibility of finding any time for acquiring knowledge. This is particularly the case with those whose labour is severe, or, though less severe, yet in the open air; for here the tendency to sleep immediately after it ceases, and the greater portion of sleep required, oppose very serious obstacles to instruction.

The first method, then, that suggests itself for promoling knowledge among the poor, is the encouragement of cheap publications; and in no country is this more wanted than in Great Britain, where, with all our boasted expertness in manufactures, we have never succeeded in printing books at so little as double the price required by our neighbours on the Continent. A gown, which anywhere else would cost a guinea, may be made in this country for half a crown; but a volume, sully as well or belter printed, and on paper which, if not as fine, is quite fine enough, and far more agreeable to the eyes, than could be bought in London for half a guinea, costs only six francs, or less than five shillings, at Paris. The high price of labour in a trade where so little can be done, or at least is done, by machinery, is one of the causes of this difference. But the direct lax upon paper is another; and the determination to print upon paper of a certain price is a third; and the aversion to crowd the page is a fourth. Now all of these, except the first, may be got over. The duty on paper is three-pence a pound, which must increase the price of an octavo volume eight-pence or nine-pence; and this upon paper of every kind, and printing of every kind; so that, if by whatever means the price of a book were reduced to the lowest, say to three or four shillings, about a fourth or a fifth must be added for the tax; and this book, brought as low as possible to accommodate the poor man, with the coarsest paper and most ordinary type, must pay exactly as much to government as the finest hot-pressed work of the same size. This lax onight, therefore, by all means, to be given up; but though, from its being the same upon

all

paper used in printing, no part of it can be saved by using coarse paper, much of it may be saved by crowding the letter-press, and having a very narrow margin. This experiment has been tried of late in London, upon a considerable scale; but it may easily be carried a great deal further. Thus, Hume's History has been begun ; and one volume, conlaining about two and a half of the former editions, has been published. It is sold for six shillings and sixpence; but it contains a great number of cuts neatly executed; the paper is much better than is necessary, and the printing is perfectly well done. Were the cuts omitted, and the most ordinary paper and type used, the price might be reduced to 48. or 48. 6d.; and a book might thus be sold for 128. or 148., which now costs perhaps two or three pounds.

The method of publishing in numbers is admirably suited to the circumstances of the poor. Two-pence is easily saved in a week by almost any labourer; and by a mechanie, sixpence in a week may without difficulty be laid by. Those who have not attended to these matlers, (“ the simple annals of the poor,'') would be astonished to find how substantial a meal of information may be had by twopenny-worths. Seven numbers, for fourteen-pence, comprise Franklin's Life and Essays; and thirty for a crown, the whole of the Arabian Nights. But in looking over the list of those cheap publications, we certainly do not find many that are of a very instructive cast; and here it is that something may be done by way of encouragement. That the demand for books, cheap as well as dear, must tend to produce them, no one doubts; but then it is equally certain, that the publication of cheap books increases the number of readers among the poor; and we can hardly conceive a greater benefit being rendered to them than those would confer who should make a judicious selection from our best authors upon ethics, politics, and history, and promote cheap editions of them in du ers, without waiting until the demand was such as to make the sale a matter of perfect certainty. Lord John Russell, in his instructive speech upon Parliamentary Reform, delivered in 1822, stated, that“ an establishment was commenced a few years ago, by a number of individuals, with a capital of not less than a million, for the purpose of printing standard works at a cheap rate; “ and he added, that it had been” very 'much checked in its operation by one of those acts for the suppression of knowledge which were passed in the year 1819, although one of its rules was not to allow the venders of its works to sell any book on the political controversies of the day." The only part of this plan which we can see the least objection to, is the restriction upon politics. Why should not political, as well as all other works, be published in a cheap form, and in numbers ? That history, the nature of the constitution, the doctrines of political economy, may safely be disseminated in this shape, no man now-a-days will be hardy enough to deny. Some points connected with those subjects are matter of pretty warm contention in the present times, and yet these may be freely handled, it seems, with safety; indeed, unless they are so handled, the subjects they belong to cannot be discussed at all. Why then may not every topic of politics, party as well as general, be treated of in these cheap publications? It is highly useful to the community that the true principles of the constitution should be understood by every man who lives under it. The peace of the country, and the stability of the government, could not be more effectually secured than by the universal diffusion of this kind of knowledge. The abuses which through time have crept into the practice of it, and the errors committed in its administration, may most fitly be expounded in the same manner. And if any man, or set of men, denies the existence of such abuses, and sees no error in the conduct of those who administer the government, he may propagate his doctrines through the like channels. Cheap works being furnished, the choice of them may be left to the readers. Assuredly a country which tolerates every form, even the most violent, of daily and weekly discussion in the newspapers, can have nothing to dread from the diffusion of political doctrines somewhat less desultory, and in a form more likely to make them be both well weighed at the time, and preserved for repeated perusa). It cannot be denied, that the habit of cursory reading, engendered by finding all subjects discussed in publications which, how great soever their merits may be, no one ever thinks of looking at a second time, is unfavourable to the acquisition of solid and permanent information.

Although the providing cheap publications furnishes the most ellectual means of bringing knowledge within the reach of a poor man's income, there are other modes deserving our attention, whereby a similar assistance may be rendered, and his resources economized. Circulating libraries may in some circumstances be of use; but, generally speaking, they are little adapled to those who have only an hour or two every day, or every other day, to bestow upon reading. Book clubs, or reading societies, are far more suited to the labouring classes, may be established by very small numbers of contributors, and require an inconsiderable fund. If ihe associates live near one another, arrangements may be easily made for circulating the books, so that they may be in use every moment that any one can spare from his work. Here, too, the rich have an easy method presented to them of promoting instruction; the gift of a few books, as a beginning, will generally prove a sufficient encouragement to carry on the plan by weekly or monthly contributions; and with the gist a scheme may be communicated, to assist the contributors in arranging the plan of their association.

It is, however, as we have remarked, not only necessary that the money of the poor, but their time also, should be economized; and this consideration leads to various suggestions.

In the first place, there any many occupations in which a number of persons work in the same room: and unless there be something noisy in the work, one may always read while the others are employed. If there are twenty-four men together, this arrangement would only require each man to work one extra day in four weeks, supposing the reading to go on the whole day, which it would not; but a boy or a girl might be engaged to perform the task, for a sum so trilling as not to be felt. This expedient, too, it may be observed, would save money as well as time; one copy of a book, and that borrowed for the purpose, or obtained from a reading society or circulating library, would suffice for a number of persons. We may add, that great help would be given by the better informed and more apt learners to such as are slower of apprehension and more ignorant; and discussion (under proper regulations) would be of singular use to all, even the most forward proficients; which leads us to observe,

Secondly, That societies for the express purpose of promoting conversation are a most useful adjunct to any private or other education received by the working classes. Those who do not work together in numbers, or whose occupation is of a noisy kind, may thus, one or two evenings in the week, meet and obtain all the advantages of mutual instruction and discussion. An association of this kind will naturally combine with its plan the advantages of a book club. The members will most probably be such as are engaged in similar pursuits, and whose train of reading and thinking may be nearly the same. The only considerable evils which they will have to avoid are, being too numerous, and falling too much into debate. From twenty to thirty seems a convenient number; and nearer the former than the laiter. The tone ought to be given from the beginning, in ridicule of speech-making, both as to length and wordiness. A subject of discussion may be given out at one meeling for the next; or the chairman may read a portion of some work, allowing each member to stop him at any moment, for the purpose of controverting, supporting, or illustrating by his remarks the passage just read. To societies of this kind master workmen have the power of affording great facilities. They may allow an hour on the days when the meetings are holden ; or if that is too much, they may allow the men to begin an hour earlier on those days ; or if even that cannot be managed, they may let them have an hour and a half, on condition of working half an hour extra on three other days. But a more essential help will be the giving them a place to meet. There are hardly twenty or thirty workmen in any branch of business, some of whose masters have not a room, workshop, warehouse, or other place sufficient to accommodate such a society; and it is perfectly necessary that the place of rendezvous should on no account be the alehouse. Whoever lent his premises for this purpose might satisfy himself that no improper persons should be admitted, by taking the names of the whole club from iwo or three steady men, who could be answerable for the demeanour of the rest.

Any interference beyond this would be unwise, unless in so far as the men might voluntarily consult their masters from time to time; and their disposition to do so must depend wholly upon the relations of kindness and mutual confidence subsisting between the parties. If any difficulty should be found in obtaining the use of a room from their masters, there seems to be no good reason why they should not have the use of any school-room that may be in their neighbourhood; and one room of this kind may accom

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