Wednesday, November 19, 2008

A Penny for Your Thoughts

It is easy to forget what a struggle mere access once was. There were no state schools in Britain until 1870. Thirty years on, in 1900, the majority of state schools still did not have a library. No, manual laborers and their families could not look to the government to educate them; they needed to gather resources on their own. Many of them did just that. Rose brilliantly evokes a rich working-class culture of self-education. One needs to read every detail presented in this example-filled study to appreciate the depth and breadth of this achievement.

Welsh coalminers, for example, created a formidable intellectual culture among themselves. The Tredegar Workmen's Institute built up a circulating library of 100,000 volumes. When an economic downturn led to massive layoffs during the 1920s, out-of-work miners in Ynyshir were reading, on average, 86 books annually. Likewise, during the labor shortage created by World War I, companies would entice and retain workers by providing educational and cultural lectures for their employees. John Edwards found that his real education began down in the pit, where he learned from other miners about the ideas of Herbert Spencer, Charles Darwin, and Karl Marx. When he first heard of some poetry by George Meredith, he went to the miner's library to check out the volume, only to discover that there were already twelve people on a waiting list for it.

A middle-class visitor was stunned to overhear two miners discussing Einstein's theory of relativity. Another recalled a worker who would cheer himself up after losing a game of billiards by rehearsing the philosophical theories of George Berkeley. The man who spent a portion of his weekend year after year systematically collecting fossils from the mine's rubble heaps exemplifies a multitude of ordinary people thirsty for knowledge. Ironworkers would sing opera choruses together while on the job. Striking miners would give vent to their feelings by declaiming lyrics from Handel. Laborers would name their children after their favorite classical composers: "in one family there was a Handel, Haydn, Elgar, Verdi, Joseph Parry, Caradog, Mendy (short for Mendelssohn) and an unforgettable Billy Bach, together with an only daughter Rossini (called Rosie for short)."

From Reading Habits by Timothy Larsen, McManis Professor of Christian Thought at Wheaton College. He is the author most recently of Crisis of Doubt: Honest Faith in Nineteenth Century England (Oxford Univ. Press), and he is at work on a book about the Bible in the 19th century.

Copyright © 2008 by the author or Christianity Today International/Books & Culture magazine.
Click here for reprint information on Books & Culture.

September/October 2008, Vol. 14, No. 5, Page 34

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