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For Home, Country, and Race: Constructing Gender, Class, and Englishness in the Elementary School, 1880-1914. .

For Home, Country, and Race: Constructing Gender, Class, and Englishness in the Elementary School, 1880-1914. By Stephen Heathorn (Toronto, Buffalo and London: University of Toronto Press, 2000. xii plus 300 pp.).

Mass schooling was the most potent instrument of the British liberal state in the late nineteenth century in the urgent task of constructing a sturdy national identity as a response to dangerous rivalries abroad and threats of social disintegration within. Functional literacy for its predominantly working-class constituency was a major aim of the state system, but as contemporary commentators made plain, the classroom was also the key site for the making of good citizens alert to their personal and collective duties to the nation and the Empire. As Stephen Heathorn ably demonstrates, "learning to read the alphabet and learning to read the nation went hand in glove." Thus the elementary schools propagated an extensive 'vocabulary of identity', defining and extolling a secular credo of Englishness and the class and gender roles assigned in its service. Heathorn argues for a significant shift in ideological prescription in the period, as the drive to construct a mass nationalist culture displaced a previous emph asis on moral salvation, self-help, and the ineluctable truths of political economy. The claims for inclusive membership in the nation did nor, however, depose a continuing concern to maintain hierarchy and social place, and Heathorn shows just how the new discourse negotiated this and other contradictions in its message with remarkable aplomb.

This is a meticulously researched and important monograph that breaks new ground on what may appear as familiar terrain. Thus we learn that the literature commonly invoked to exemplify the imperialist propaganda of the period had only very limited circulation in the state system whose regime of instruction was based on hitherto scarcely acknowledged 'general purpose readers', of which Heathorn has examined an impressively large sample. In these readers (a booming market for commercial publishers) history was the prime conduit for imparting the inspirational new values of citizenship. A Whiggish master narrative of the onward march of liberty was reinforced with a racist celebration of the Anglo Saxon heritage as the warrant of true Englishness. Melodrama and romance gave a heightened color to tales of its noblest exemplars. Discursive legerdemain accommodated further contradictions that threatened to disrupt the nativist and masculinist freighting of this incremental tale of island greatness: a Frenchman, de Montfort, was unproblematically recruited as a champion of Anglo-Saxon democracy; a woman, Elizabeth, was firmly identified with the founding of Empire and the nation's mastery of the seas--feats achieved, however, by great men who prevailed over her typically female caprices. Episodes of armed struggle against tyranny had to be duly commended without endorsing a history of populist resistance, so the Civil War and Glorious Revolution lost some of their previous saliency--a foreshadowing of Thatcher's National Curriculum. The Scots, Welsh and Irish were enlisted as auxiliary Englishmen, their separate histories and geography elided. Other races were infantilised or barbarised, or held up as object lessons in the perils of racial degeneration. A passionate nativism marched in lock step with a sense of a lofty imperial mission. In their prescriptions of appropriate class and gender roles, the focal metaphor in the general purpose school texts was that of home and family. Workingmen should keep to their honorabl e social post as workers, able bodied breadwinners nurtured by wives and mothers dedicated to the craft of homemaking. This would ensure the strength and welfare of the nation, represented as one great family.

While such themes are discernible elsewhere, Heathorn makes a convincing case for the major significance of this neglected discourse, directed at youngsters for whom the classroom, like it or not, was likely to be the biggest show in town. In his astute deconstruction of its meanings and mechanisms he obliges us to recognise that the ideological messages of other institutions of the state or popular culture were secondary to that of the elementary schools, which operated at a more fundamental level of social and political socialisation. Notably original is his identification of the authors of the general purpose school texts that constitute his principal source. These were members of the professionalising cadre of academics simultaneously constructing the new canon of Eng. Lit. in the universities, repackaging their learned eulogies of Englishness for a mass audience.

The social historian's test for the wider utility of any such study is its account of the operational dynamics of a discourse, in context and on the ground. Heathorn is critical of the one-directional productionist perspective of the propaganda model adopted by some followers of John Mackenzie's seminal work on imperialism and popular culture. He locates his schoolroom texts within an extensive force field of cultural hegemony, in which the top down transmission of values was subject to various forms of contestation and negotiation. This argument is, however, only pulled out of the hat at the end rather than serving as an explicit theoretical model from the outset. Teachers are represented as the civilian equivalent of the officer class (NCOs would be more accurate) but there is little attention to their (not always complicit) role in delivering the message. The concluding chapter does provide an intriguing example of conflict over instructional content in a dispute between local education authorities and the ultra patriotic Navy League, and there is testimony to some disaffection in the schoolroom, but the general question of mediation and reception, admittedly difficult, needs more attention. Another book perhaps? As it is, Stephen Heathorn makes a strong debut with this one, at number fifteen the first male contribution to Toronto's long running series, Studies in Gender and History.
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Author:Bailey, Peter
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2003
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