From 'Polite Learning' to 'Useful Knowledge'
'Manners makyth man...' but as the 19th century dawned; English intellectuals became increasingly concerned with expanding education and 'useful knowledge' down to the lower orders.
On Saturday July 30, 1763, Samuel Johnson and James Boswell 'took a sculler at the Temple-stairs, and set out for Greenwich'. As they 'sailed down the silver Thames' – the phrase Boswell used in his journal at the time – he asked Johnson 'if he really thought a knowledge of the Greek and Latin languages an essential requisite for a good education'. 'Most certainly, Sir' was the reply; 'for those who know them have a very great advantage over those who do not. Nay, Sir, it is surprising what a difference learning makes upon people even in the common intercourse of life...' 'And yet', the irrepressible Boswell rejoined, 'people go through the world very well, and carry on the business of life to good advantage, without learning.' Johnson agreed that this might be so 'in cases where learning cannot possibly be of any use', and he illustrated the point by reference to the boy who was rowing them:
This boy rows as well without learning as if he could sing the song of Orpheus to the Argonauts, who were the first sailors.' He then turned to the boy. 'What would you give, my lad, to know about the Argonauts?' 'Sir,' said the boy, 'I would give what I have.' Johnson was much pleased with his answer, and we gave him a double fare. Dr Johnson then turning to me, 'Sir,' said he, 'a desire of knowledge is the natural feeling of mankind: and every human being, whose mind is not debauched, will be willing to give all that he has, to get knowledge.'
There are interesting ambiguities in this characteristic conversation. Johnson makes, as it were, a strong claim and a weaker claim. The strong claim is that learning – knowledge in the sense in which he primarily understood the term – is, simply, desirable in itself and for its own sake, and that human beings have a natural appetite for it. The weaker claim is that knowledge is desirable because it is useful – because it confers advantages 'in the common intercourse of life, which, (Johnson adds), 'does not appear to be much connected with it.' He is not, therefore, concerned with knowledge that is directly instrumental to what Boswell calls 'the business of life': his concern is in effect with 'polite learning', above all with a command of the classical languages of the ancient world and the knowledge to which this admits its possessors. Such a command and such knowledge are the product of what Boswell call 'a good education'.
Just over a century later, in '1873, another conversation is recorded – admittedly in fictional form, but there is good reason to suppose that the fiction here – in Thomas Hardy's early novel, A Pair of Blue Eyes – is autobiographical and in substance true. In the course of this conversation, Mr Swancourt, the rector of a parish in Cornwall, quotes a line from Horace, which is immediately capped with the next line by Stephen Smith, the young architect. 'Excellent – prompt – gratifying', is the comment this draws from the rector. His young guest has responded as the rules of polite learning required – or has he? Urged by the rector's daughter Elfride, with whom he is in the process of falling in love, Stephen construes the couplet accurately; but, Mr Swancourt remarks, 'you have a way of pronouncing your Latin which to me sounds most peculiar.' Unusual aspects of the young man's education begin to emerge – the first hint of the eventual damaging revelation that, for all his command of Latin, he is the son of a local master-mason. The shibboleth of polite learning has found him wanting.
The episode thus reminds us not only that the tradition of learning to which Samuel Johnson adhered was still very much alive in the 1870s and destined to remain so for decades thereafter; but also that the form as well as the content of that learning was essential to its 'polite' character and function. And form in turn was a product of the channels of communication – the educational processes through which the relevant knowledge was passed from one generation to another. A later and greater Hardy novel – Jude the Obscure – raises the theme, in a sense, to tragic heights.
Midway, more or less, between these two conversations, there are important milestones or signposts along the path of an alternative tradition – the tradition of 'useful knowledge': the publication in 1815-17 of Jeremy Bentham's Chrestomathia; the foundation in 1826 of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge; and the appearance in 1854 of Charles Dickens' Hard Times, dominated by that 'eminently practical man', Mr Thomas Gradgrind. Dickens' attack on a myopic obsession with the factual and the practical was of course carried out in a perspective very different from those of 'polite learning'. Nevertheless his Gradgrind is an important indicator of the extremes to which a preoccupation with useful knowledge was believed by some to have led, just as the more urbane onslaught of Thomas Love Peacock shows us the world of polite learning energetically defending itself against the Steam Intellect Society. On behalf of that Society, as it were, the essential case was that the intellectual and cultural accomplishments of polite society were merely ornamental.
That distinction between the ornamental and the useful is crucial for Bentham's argument in favour of the proposed chrestomathic school and its curriculum. He does not – logically, as a utilitarian, he cannot – deny that the ornamental may be useful in so far as it is conducive to pleasure; and he accepts that competence in reading the classical tongues may provide its possessor 'with the means of innoxious and inexpensive entertainment'.
But this is not the primary business of education 'for the use of the middling and higher ranks of life'. Thomas Southwood Smith (himself a founder-member of the SDUK), introducing Chrestomathia in Bowring's edition of Bentham's Works, carried the social scope of the chrestomathic idea even further, arguing not merely that for 'persons of the middle classes... the subject-matter of instruction... should consist of the physical sciences, as well as of language'; but also that 'some advantage would result to the community from opening the book of knowledge to the very lowest of the people'. Nor should the pages opened be only those containing 'the facts that there is a devil, a hell, a so-called heaven, a Sunday, and a church'. It is the nature and properties of 'the objects of this present world' that must above all be transmitted to 'the working classes'. And it is worth noting that already in the 1820s Francis Place among others had concerned himself with the problem of teaching the social as well as the physical sciences to those classes – essentially, that is, the principles of sound political economy.
So far, then, some impressionistic indications have been given as to the supposed nature of the antithesis embodied in my title. What, then, was the nature of the two 'traditions', of 'polite' and of 'useful' knowledge and how did they contribute to the transmission of ideas between the mid-eighteenth and the mid-nineteenth century? 'Polite learning' was clearly an extension of the learning that was supposed to have been 'reborn' in the Renaissance. It was doubtless also a dilution of that learning, a popularisation if not a vulgarisation of it. If it would be an exaggeration to speak of a democratic revolution in the republic of letters, that is perhaps only because we have become accustomed to think of democracy in other than the classical terms of the ancient world. Whether we decide for or against describing the process as the democratisation of classical culture, it seems clear enough that cultural values still largely classical in their source and character were being made available to new and broader social groups in an increasingly commercial society. To say even this much, however, is implicitly to recognise that to conceive of learning as 'polite' is to conceive of it as more (or less) than learning pursued for its own sake. Yet the values and concepts transmitted in the form of 'polite learning' were transmitted with a view, precisely, to rendering the recipients fit for 'polite society:
What are these wond'rous civilising arts,
This Roman polish, and this smooth behaviour,
That renders man thus tractable and tame?
The lines, cited by Johnson in his Dictionary to illustrate the word 'polish' in its social signification, are, by what may be more than mere coincidence, from Joseph Addison's Cato. And Addison, along with Richard Steele, but preponderant in the partnership, has been regarded as having a fundamentally important role in the emergence and development of what has been called the 'moral journalism' of the eighteenth century. This of course takes me back at least a generation before the notional terminus a quo in my title; but the fact surely is that if we are to understand anything of the content and quality of 'polite learning' and, perhaps especially, of the means whereby its values were transmitted, we cannot afford to ignore the Spectator and its numerous progeny of didactic periodical literature. Widely read and, still more to the point, discussed, these periodicals were fundamental to the 'wondrous civilising arts' which produced 'polite society'.
A crucial part in that process was played by the proliferation of local, provincial groups for cognate purposes. One such – the oldest to have survived to the present day – was the Spalding Gentlemen's Society; but if most others were less perdurable, it is their multiplication that is important here. The hundred years between 1750 and 1850 saw the mushrooming of 'Literary and Scientific' or 'Philosophical and Archaeological' societies – or whatever variant title appealed to those who came together to talk, to publish more or less learned papers, to set up museums and libraries. Much of what these local literati and cognoscenti did, wrote and said may have been small enough beer; but it was sufficient to rescue the men of substance in the country at large from what Marx in a different context was to call 'the idiocy of rural life'. It was an important part of the social process in the 'assembly towns' of provincial England.
The Spalding Gentlemen's Society crystallised out of relatively informal gatherings at which, precisely, an essay from the Tatler and in due time the Spectator would be read and discussed. But in the mind of its creator, Maurice Johnson, it was to look further than that. He had frequented the learned world as well as the coffee-house society of the capital; and in what he himself called 'an endeavour new, and untried before' he 'entertained' (in the words of one of the Society's historians) 'the bold design of establishing a Literary Society in the very heart of the fens of Lincoln.' To this end, not only were the Tatler, the Spectator, and a whole succession of similar publications, down to and including Samuel Johnson's Rambler, subscribed to and their contents discussed; members were encouraged, even required to submit communications of their own; and a library was gradually built up, to which each new member was expected on his admission to present at least one volume.
From the outset, and increasingly, like most such societies, the gentlemen of Spalding were particularly concerned with 'antiquities'; but then antiquarian pursuits were emphatically part and parcel of the polite learning that was to be fostered. That this was indeed the object was explicit from the outset, the original proposal institutionalising what had for a year or two been done informally, being expressly for the establishment of 'a Society of Gentlemen, for the supporting of mutual benevolence, and their improvement in the liberal sciences and in polite learning...'. No one, the Rules and Orders over the years repeatedly insisted, was 'to talk politicks' – or, it was carefully added in 1745, 'to dispute about religion'. The 'liberality' of this or that 'science' might be a matter of some elasticity; and in the Rules and Orders of 1723 the members were urged 'to communicate whatever is useful, new, uncommon, or curious' (the 1745 revision has 'useful or entertaining') 'in any art or science'. Nevertheless the emphasis on the 'liberal' and the 'polite' is inescapable.
Such a society was avowedly for 'gentlemen'; and the term connotes a degree of exclusiveness. Yet there is a sense in which the object of 'polite learning', its cultivation and transmission, was – within reasonable limits – to include rather than to exclude. The threshold was there to be crossed and the educational means were there for those who wished to cross it. Specifically, the schools for young gentlemen (in many cases those whose parents hoped that their sons would become gentlemen) that multiplied in provincial towns and around the outskirts of the capital provided – and no doubt in some cases provided more effectively that the great anarchic public schools of eighteenth-century England – the rudiments at least of the classical culture without which it was not possible to pass muster as a gentleman.
Typical of the process and the period is a Latin/English edition of Virgil, 'For the Use of Schools, as well as of Private Gentlemen'. This is dedicated 'To those Gentlemen who have the immediate Care of Education' – and dedicated in terms that splendidly evoke the ultimate moral purposes of polite learning. To illustrate its character, I quote briefly what might with advantage be rehearsed at greater length:
It is generally allowed, that no Latin Author has a juster Title to be read in the Schools than Virgil... his style is so strictly pure and chaste, that the most raw and unexperienced might be left to steer their Course through the whole of his Works, without meeting with those Rocks and Quicksands, on which unpractised Virtue runs no small Hazard of being shipwrecked... He animates the Soul to the love of Virtue... corrects the Passions... makes us feel the Peace and Serenity they bring, when conducted by Reason, and regulated within the Bounds of Prudence and Moderation... 'Tis hoped, therefore, that the following Attempt to facilitate the Study of so useful an Author, will be well received, Gentlemen, by you, who are Trustees for the Public, in the important, and truly sacred Work of Education...
This leaves us in no doubt as to the moral purpose of what was to be inculcated 'in every well-regulated Seminary of Learning'; and indeed that purpose had a political dimension as well, for the author invokes 'the present melancholy State of this Nation' as the source of his 'more than ordinary Zeal in the Cause of Virtue'. But the virtues and benefits of polite learning could be appreciated in other contexts too and sometimes in quarters that may at first be surprising. Even Jeremy Bentham could stay his hand for a moment in his savage attack on Sir William Blackstone to allow that it was the great Commentator who 'first of all institutional writers... taught Jurisprudence to speak the language of the Scholar and the Gentleman'. It was, Bentham acknowledged, advantageous to have 'put a polish upon that rugged science... decked her out... from the toilette of classic erudition.' It was however a strictly limited advantage, and one that (as Bentham made clear forty years later) did not in his view extend at all to political life:
The classic scholar may be better qualified for decorating his speech with rhetorical flowers; but the chrestomathic scholar, after a familiar and thorough acquaintance has been contracted with things, with things of all sorts, will be, in a much more useful and efficient way, qualified for the general course of parliamentary business.
With the concept of 'a familiar and thorough acquaintance... with things of all sorts' we have entered the territory of 'useful knowledge'. 'The age we live in is a busy age,' declared Jeremy Bentham in 1776, and 'every thing teems with discovery and with improvement.' That teeming process was already generating its own institutional forms. The Society for the Encouragement of Arts, founded in 1754,' and crowned, as it were, in 1847, when it became the Royal Society of Arts, is of special significance here. Though it was to have a role of some importance in regard to the fine arts, its essential and original purpose – of encouraging the union of art and commerce – was not to be a dead letter. 'The contemporary enthusiasm for science,' it has been said, 'led [the Society] along paths of utilitarian research...'; and the extraordinary display of the results of such research in the Great Exhibition of 1851 bore striking testimony to the palpable achievements of 'useful knowledge'.
In reflecting upon the question of the transmission of knowledge and ideas in this period, indeed, it is well worth remembering the emergence of the exhibition in its modern form as a means of affording direct visual contact with what had actually been achieved by the application of appropriate knowledge. There is a case for saying that Scotland, through some of the activities of the Board of Trustees for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, established in 1727, led the field here; and in Ireland the Royal Dublin Society had launched a series of exhibitions by 1829. By then too the exhibition had to some extent established itself in France. What is important, however, is that wherever and whenever the idea took root it expressed the essential importance of 'an acquaintance with things'.
A further significant stage in the organising of useful knowledge came with the establishment by Count Rumford in 1799 of the Royal Institution. Receiving its royal charter two years later, this body is described in its constitution as:
A Public Institution for diffusing the Knowledge and facilitating the general Introduction of useful mechanical Inventions and Improvements, and for teaching by Courses of Philosophical Lectures and Experiments the Applications of Science to the common Purposes of Life.
Nothing could better express the essential concept of 'useful knowledge' and its differentiation from 'polite learning'. Yet it is important to note how far removed the knowledge in question is from mere hand-to-mouth empiricism. We are not only fully in the presence of 'applied science' in its modern sense; we are also confronted with an organisation which was to make substantial contributions to fundamental research. To recall the fact that, following Rumford's initiative, it was Humphry Davy who above all ensured the success of the enterprise would in itself be enough to establish its intellectual credentials. When we add the fact that the apostolic succession, as it were, passed from Davy to Michael Faraday, we can no longer be in any doubt as to the quality of the tradition we are exploring. If part of that tradition is to argue that knowledge, to be valuable, must be useful, an equally important part is the insistence that, to be useful, the knowledge must be authentic, systematic, based on a scientific or philosophical grasp of fundamental principles.
Diffusion too, however, remains at the heart of the enterprise. Whether by education, by publication, by exhibition and demonstration, by lectures, or by any other suitable means that might seem appropriate, what was known could not be truly useful unless it was widely known – available in principle at least to all. It was only to be expected that the diffusion would be both gradual and, so to speak, graded. In a society still inevitably governed by considerations of rank and status it was natural that the needs of the more influential classes should be provided for first. Neither the lectures given at the Royal Institution nor – to move for a moment into the field of social science - McCulloch's Ricardo Memorial Lectures of 1824 were intended or expected to attract audiences from what Southwood Smith termed 'the very lowest of the people'. It was indeed, in McCulloch's case at least, very much the governing classes whose members were to benefit from the knowledge diffused on such occasions. Even Bentham's projected chrestomathic scheme of education – the term derived, as he pointed out, 'from two Greek words, signifying conducive to useful learning' – was intended for 'the higher ranks of life' as well as for 'the middling'. But it was the age of those 'middling' classes above all:
By the middle rank of life, for the use of which the proposed system of instruction is designed, useful and not merely ornamental instruction is required.
And one of Bentham's explicit concerns in Chrestomathia is to argue that 'the superior classes' have nothing to fear from the diffusion of useful knowledge to 'their now inferiors':
From any such increase in the quantity of useful knowledge possessed by the middle classes, the only manifestly natural and probable results are, improvement in respect of health, domestic economy and personal comfort; a more extensive disposition than at present to look for amusement and recreation in art, science, oz literature, in preference to sensuality and indolence. In all these ways will the condition of the middle classes be made better; and it appears not how, in any of them, the condition of their superiors should be made worse –
the less so, Bentham argues, since it is open to those superiors, if they so choose, to add proficiency in useful knowledge for themselves to their existing 'superiority in all those branches of ornamental instruction, of which the exclusive possession will continue their own'.
Bentham makes an explicit comparison between the instruction offered by the Royal Institution and his own projected chrestomathic school. In this context he first of all insists that the branches of instruction emanating from 'that elevated seat', suitable as they undoubtedly were for 'superior and extraordinary minds', were not therefore to be supposed – 'by an inference equally groundless and pernicious' – to be 'unfit, or in any degree the less fit, for ordinary minds, for minds of all sorts in the middle class, or even in some degree the lower classes'. Secondly, however, he claims that:
Whatsoever degree of usefulness may belong to that institution, an indefinitely greater degree of usefulness must belong to the one here proposed. There, it was all amusement and decoration; here, to amusement, will be added solid and substantial use; there, it was confined to adults; here, it will be imparted, and indeed confined, to children, who, by it, will be raised to the level of men; there, it was, and is, confined to a few – even of the ruling and influential few; here, it will be communicated to a large, and, it is hoped, to a continually increasing portion of the subject many, – of those whose title to regard is founded on the most substantial and incontestable of all foundations, that of numbers, – and, in whose instance, the beneficial effect of useful instruction will be seen to rise in proportion to their present need of it.
The emergence in this passage of Bentham's political concerns is important; and the politics of 'useful knowledge' must be examined a little more fully later. For the moment what has to be noted is that whatever superiority the chrestomathic school might have proved to have over 'that dignified institution', the latter had one inestimable advantage: it existed, as Bentham's projected school was never, in the event, to exist.
The University of London – University College as we now know it – did come into existence; and if it owed less than has sometimes been supposed to Benthamic inspiration, it has a real claim to be regarded as one of the institutions of 'useful knowledge'. Once again, moreover, there is a pre- occupation with the needs of the middle classes. Thomas Campbell, who first proposed the establishment of such an institution, had in view 'the youth of our middling rich people'. Campbell referred to 'the liberal arts and sciences'. The Prospectus issued in February 1826 spoke in terms of 'the highest means of liberal education' and of 'liberal instruction'. But the notion of what was in this sense 'liberal' had been significantly broadened out to include modern as well as classical languages, the natural sciences as well as mathematics, jurisprudence and political economy as well as moral and political philosophy, and a medical curriculum culminating in 'Clinical Lectures as soon as an Hospital can be connected with the Establishment'. In addition a paragraph in the Prospectus is expressly devoted to the educational needs of 'The young men who are intended for the scientific profession of a CIVIL ENGINEER', – a clear indication of how far things have moved on from the world of polite learning.
That further movement still was envisaged had, however, been clear for some time: James Mill's article on 'Schools for All' in 1812 is merely one pointer to the radical character of the movement with which, beyond all other names, that of Henry Brougham is associated. Brougham had of course a major part to play in the London University project; but he was by then also heavily engaged in the spread of Mechanics' Institutes. The germ of that development lay as far back as the turn of the century, when George Birkbeck launched his highly successful 'Mechanics' Class' at the Andersonian Institution in Glasgow, though it was not for almost a quarter of a century that the separate Glasgow Mechanics' Institute was established in July 1823. The example was seized upon by I.C. Robertson, editor of the then recently launched Mechanics' Magazine, and both Birkbeck and Brougham responded to the suggestion that a similar Institute should be set up in London. Within little more than a year, by the time Brougham (in January 1825) published his Practical Observations on the Education of the People, there were fourteen Institutes in existence; but the catalytic effect of Brougham's pamphlet brought the total close to a hundred by the end of the year. Though in many cases the significant life of these institutions may have been virtually at an end by the middle of the century, the movement remains the most striking manifestation of the essential notion of useful knowledge and its diffusion.
In its original form the movement for the founding of Mechanics' Institutes was concerned primarily with the teaching of elementary science as the basis of the trades in which members were engaged – a concern very plainly manifested in Robertson's Magazine. Similarly, when Brougham and his associates launched the SDUK in 1826, there was a degree of concentration on science and technology. For better or for worse, however, it proved impossible to maintain any such preponderance on a permanent footing. And indeed Brougham for one had always had broader educational goals in view than the purely technical. Yet both in the Institute movement and in the work of the SDUK there was a concern to establish and maintain a secure place for the natural sciences and the application of scientific principles, a concern quite alien to the accepted educational tradition of 'polite learning'. It would be absurd to suggest that these purposes were defeated and that the older tradition simply reasserted itself. That is not what happened. It did however prove hard, and in some respects even impossible, to maintain for 'scientific' knowledge the place which Birkbeck and Brougham and Southwood Smith believed to be its due. Certainly after the first ten years or so there was a discernible movement in the Institutes away from the sciences and towards such subjects as history; and within two years or so after the initial success of the Library of Useful Knowledge, the SDUK embarked on the parallel series of the Library of Entertaining Knowledge. The implied distinction is indeed not easy to grasp in view of the respective contents of the two series – nor is the conception of entertainment, which could evidently include an account of cholera under the rubric; but the new series certainly involved some relaxation of educational austerity.
Whatever may be thought of the concepts and categories with which the SDUK and the Institutes operated, there can be no doubt as to the suspicion and hostility aroused by their activities. The notion that Brougham was, in the words used by John Bull, 'inflaming the minds of the lower orders' may have its ludicrous aspect if we think, for example, of his treatise on Insect Architecture, published in the Library of Entertaining Knowledge. It was, however, not entirely a laughing matter; and it brings us up against some decidedly important questions. The concept of 'useful knowledge' invites the question, useful to whom and for what purposes? And to answer that kind of question may entail the discovery Bentham was obsessively fond of recalling: namely, that what is useful from one point of view may well appear not merely useless but dangerous from another. The problem here is ultimately that of the politics of useful knowledge.
There is an inescapable paradox here. The education of the people, whether advocated by Brougham and the Whigs of the Edinburgh Review, or by James Mill and the 'philosophic radicals', was vehemently attacked as subversive of the social order. Yet the education envisaged by these advocates was in some ways essentially conservative. Bentham's concern – perhaps insincere, yet still significant – to allay aristocratic fears of middle-class enlightenment has been noted already. In regard, however, to the much larger and more explosive question of the working classes, the issue was sharper and the defence correspondingly more crucial. Nor can there be much doubt as to the burden and thrust of that defence. The keynote was struck as early as 1813 by the Edinburgh Review: despite the danger that 'the great body of the people' might' grow into a fitted and degraded caste', it was the reviewers' hope that 'a universal system of education would encourage foresight and self-respect among the lower orders'. To this end nothing was more important, nothing more useful from every point of view than the diffusion of a proper understanding of the principles of political economy. It was such understanding that was to persuade the great mass of the people to accept a situation which, determined as it was by economic laws, could not be significantly altered or modified, least of all by what Burke had called 'the dangerous enterprises of innovation'.
Francis Place has already been briefly mentioned in this connection; but there is another figure of rather special importance to be considered. Harriet Martineau will never come anywhere near the status of grand cru exceptionnel in the vintage rankings of the history of ideas. In the splendid recent tripartite 'study in nineteenth-century intellectual history', That Noble Science of Politics, she is mentioned once – and then only in a quotation within a quotation. Even so, the words – they are Alfred Marshall's – will bear quoting again here:
Never again, [Marshall wrote]: Will a Mrs Trimmer, a Mrs Marcet, or Miss Martineau earn a goodly reputation by throwing economic principles into the form of a catechism or of simple tales, by aid of which any intelligent governess might make clear to the children nestling around her where lies economic truth.
All very well, no doubt; and yet it does a good deal less than justice to at least the third and most significant of the ladies in question. Thomas Carlyle, to whom Harriet Martineau was 'one of the strangest phenomena' he had encountered, appreciated her integrity, her sincerity, and 'her quirk, sharp discernment'. More to the present purpose, Brougham himself was moved to exclaim that 'a deaf girl in Norwich was doing more good than any man in the country'. The good was being done by Harriet Martineau's tales illustrating political economy. John Stuart Mill could in 1850 be dismissive about this 'mere tyro' in political economy; but at the time he was more favourably disposed. He did, it is true, tell Carlyle that Miss Martineau 'reduces the laissez faire system to absurdity as far as the principle goes, by merely carrying it out to all its consequences.' Reviewing her work in the Monthly Repository, he dissented strongly from her views as to the poor law. Yet on balance his verdict was favourable:
... as an exposition of the leading principles of what now constitutes the science, it possesses considerable merit... even... small blemishes are rare and do not materially impair the value of the work, for which we may safely venture to bespeak numerous readers and a favourable reception.
There can be no doubt as to Harriet Martineau's intentions in her Illustrations of Political Economy – nor, up to a point, of her success. Her aim was to be a 'teacher of the people', and her doctrine was a conflation of the principles of political economy and a necessitarian philosophy heavily indebted to Joseph Priestley and the unitarian theology in which she had been bred. For her economic principles she seems to have relied mainly on James Mill's Elements of Political Economy, that 'belligerently schematised summary', as it has been called. The lessons she wished to teach were undoubtedly simplified and at times crude; but it has been claimed with some justice that their aim was at least to persuade both sides in the developing industrial economy of the necessities and responsibilities of their respective situations. The knowledge Miss Martineau sought to impart was such as she – and many others – believed to be essentially useful to society at large.
The quite unforeseen publishing success achieved by the political economy tales – a monthly sale of some 10,000 copies and a readership of perhaps twelve or fifteen times that figure – is a familiar fact. It was in no way surprising that Brougham sought eagerly, in John Stuart Mill's phrase, 'to attach her to his car'. He had some success, inasmuch as Miss Martineau's four tales under the title Poor Law's and Paupers Illustrated – based on advance access to the evidence accumulated for the great poor law report – were published, with much more limited success, by the SDUK. That Society had indeed tried in vain to retrieve its earlier decision not to publish the political economy tales; and that series was also sought after by the more radical Society for the Diffusion of Moral and Political Knowledge. The tide of useful knowledge in the vital area of social science must have seemed to flow strongly in the early and middle 1830s.
Notwithstanding such visible successes, however, one must in the end strike a more sceptical note. And here too the case of Harriet Martineau is instructive. Certainly her endeavours made some headway in the essential task of winning working-class readership; but her biographer, R.K. Webb, concludes in regard to the Illustrations of Political Economy, 'that their circulation was almost entirely middle- class'. From a radical working-class viewpoint there might be moments when the Poor Man's Guardian could find something to praise in the Illustrations. It may be supposed, however, that in such circles, the view expressed in the same periodical just before Harriet Martineau's tales began to appear, remained more persuasive:
The juggle of the political economists... is now seen through; when translated into plain English, political economy means nothing more nor less than this – Give up the whole produce of your labour – fill everybody's cupboard but your own – and then starve quietly!!! Oh, no, no; the wealth- producers must obtain useful know- ledge of a very different description, if they desire to better their condition –
the requisite useful knowledge, in the Guardian's view, being knowledge of the tactics of street-fighting.
The distinction drawn in my title seems to me to be a valid one; but this is not to say that there has been in practice a sharp and total division between what I have called the traditions of polite learning and of useful knowledge. There has indeed been a degree of fusion and of cross-fertilisation. It can also be argued, however, and it has been argued that our society has suffered from a persistent dichotomy between those two traditions reflected in our educational system and reflecting upon our social and economic achievements and failures. Where C.P. Snow and F.R. Leavis have contended, it takes a bold man to intervene; but that contention has, I suggest, something to do with the themes explored in this article.