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Social Paralysis and Social Change: British Working-Class Education in the Nineteenth Century.

This book grows in stature as it proceeds. It offers a sociologically-informed but not theoretically-dominated analysis of the development of working-class education in Britain (including Scotland, Wales and Ireland and incorporating a brief comparative case-study of New York City) between 1800 and 1870 (at which point the book ends rather abruptly). Education--or schooling--is seen in the context of six thematically-presented external forces which have a two-way relationship with it in terms of causation and influence: these are, in no necessary or determined order of priority, religious organization and conflict, cultural values, the state, social differentiation and inequality (embracing regions as well as classes and cultures), economic organization, and the family. Changes in the supply of, and demand for, working-class education are explained in terms of the successive outcomes of recurrent conflicts between and within these variables, which produce "truce points" which set a new course and impose new ground-rules which in turn generate new conflicts in their working out and ultimately produce new "truce points" and chart a new course for further change.

Smelser himself harks back to his first book, Social change in the industrial revolution, first published in 1959, and comments that this return to Victorian Britain and to historically-orientated research felt like a return to his youth. But the thirty-odd years of experience in between have helped to generate a much happier outcome. That first book was deeply flawed. Much of its detailed argument has since been destroyed by historians who burrowed away in archival sources which Smelser did not use, motivated in part, no doubt, by irritation at the grandiose claims which Smelser then made for a triumphalist structural functionalism which was supposed to fill the empty boxes where the historians' theories ought to be. The new Smelser is much more effective at marrying up the characteristic virtues of the historian and the sociologist. The theory is more eclectic and less dominant, although British--and European--sociologists may find it a little old-fashioned. More importantly from a social history perspective, perhaps, Smelser's angle of vision enables him to provide an interesting, detailed and open-minded interpretation of the course of educational change, with explanations on offer for the contrasting trends in England and Ireland and the distinctive features of Scotland and Wales. The primary sources are all printed, but the labor of wading through the parliamentary debates and the Blue Books, and making sense of the results without suspending the critical faculties, must have been enormous. The chapter on the socially anomalous status of pupil-teachers, teachers and inspectors, and the conflicts to which these unclear identities gave rise, is particularly interesting and convincing, and the conclusion relates the findings to wider debates in American sociology (note the emphasis here) rather than merely summarizing. The book as a whole is complex, especially when it charts the overall pattern of change and the influences at work, but very rewarding.

Smelser does not attempt to assess the results of all this conflict and activity. He ignores the literature on literacy and popular reading habits, and does not grapple with the question of education and social mobility in the depth which should have been possible, apart from the specific issues raised by the recruitment of teachers from the working class. These thematic omissions and limitations are perhaps legitimate, but potential readers should be made aware of them. Relatedly, perhaps, important cognate themes like economic and living standards trends and social structures are treated rather crudely and superficially, and errors are made which suggest a limited wider grasp beyond the author's chosen themes. The appearances of Sir Joseph Rayner Stephens and Dr. Leon Playfair are perhaps symptomatic. And the 1870 Education Act did not withdraw all state funding from denominationally-run schools, although what it did do in this respect is a matter of more complexity than is suggested here. This is a long book--370 pages of text--and there is plenty of scope for quibbling about details. But I would prefer to end on a more positive note, emphasizing the value of the enterprise and its utility in helping both to complicate and to clarify our understanding of the important issues which are here discussed.

John K. Walton Lancaster University
COPYRIGHT 1994 Journal of Social History
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Copyright 1994, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Walton, John K.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1994
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