E.P. Thompson insisted that we recognise that

the first half of the 19th century, when the formal education of a great part of the people entailed little more than instruction in the Three R’s, was by no means a period of intellectual atrophy. The towns, and even the villages, hummed with the energy of the autodidact. Given the elementary techniques of literacy, labourers, artisans, shopkeepers and clerks and schoolmasters, proceeded to instruct themselves, severally or in groups.1

The term ‘autodidact’ suggests lone mavericks and eccentrics, but in this period it often took the form of organised working-class education, of‘mutual improvement’. Advances in cheap and improving literature, as detailed in Chapter 3, spread and intensified the energy driving self-education, and the institutional infrastructure for group learning came into being: ‘the working-class response to the lack of suitable educational facilities was to form their own’.2 Educational support was increasingly provided in communities nationwide via grass-roots initiatives, private enterprise and the state. The numbers of autodidacts instructing themselves individually dwindled when educational state provision became universal at the close of the 19th century.

This chapter traces classical presences in the major adult education initiatives offering opportunities to the working classes in the 19th and early 20th centuries. These included, most importantly, Mutual Improvement Societies, Adult Schools, Mechanics Institutes, University Extension schemes, the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) and the Labour Colleges. The demand for workers’ education was met sluggishly by state legislation. It was not until the Elementary Education Acts of 1870 and 1880 that more evenly distributed educational provision was achieved. Once compulsory education for children under

13 was standardised, poorer families enjoyed the greater cultural confidence that comes with literacy, while the wealthy continued to safeguard their social distinction via other means, such as costly private schools. Classics still had an important role. The classical bottleneck to social progress constituted by compulsory qualifications in Latin and Greek for entrance to many British universities remained in place for almost another century.3

In the 18th and earlier 19th centuries, some philanthropic individuals and groups established initiatives to ameliorate educational deficiencies, which meant teaching literacy and the Bible. Sunday schools proved popular because some children as young as 5 worked 6 days a week, 12 or 13 hours a day.4 ‘Ragged schools’ were charitable organisations founded from the 1840s onwards to educate the children of industrial workers, predominantly in deprived areas of large cities.5 ‘Classics’ as an educational discipline remained out of reach, since their curriculum rarely extended beyond basic literacy and numeracy to embrace cultural or historical subjects.

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