Schooling in Western Europe: A Social History

Mary Jo Maynes

State University of New York Press 1985
A book review by Danny Yee © 2011
Schooling in Western Europe is not as ambitious as its title suggests: its focus is very much on Germany, France and Britain, with occasional glances at other countries, and it only really deals with the introduction of mass elementary education, from the end of the eighteenth century down to the early twentieth. That is plenty to cover in one hundred and fifty pages, however, especially as Maynes ranges widely within those constraints, touching on economic and political debates over the significance of changes as well as giving a feel for how and why they happened. She also finds room for quite a number of short quotes from contemporary sources, rather than just summarising modern studies (or what were modern studies 25 years ago).

Maynes begins with a survey of literacy rates and schooling at the end of the eighteenth century. Schools were provided by local communities, typically supported by communal funds, tithes, or an endowment. Teaching was largely limited to reading, writing and arithmetic, with most pupils learning one or two of those, and there was little sophistication in pedagogy, though the Brothers of the Christian Schools "anticipated many of the features of what would evolve as modern pedagogy in the nineteenth century". One historiographical issue here is that descriptions of schooling were mostly written by those arguing for reform.

The impetus for school reform was top down, originating with elites rather than from popular pressure. It was driven by a variety of ideologies, by utilitarians as well as idealists of different kinds, and faced resistance from obscurantists opposed to popular education.

"By the end of the nineteenth century, most of the major states had passed obligatory schooling laws. Most had managed to lure or force the overwhelming majority of their child populations into some sort of a classroom. Most had initiated public controls over the content of the curriculum taught in these schools, and over the training, qualities, and methods of the teachers who worked in them.
But the extent to which the new schooling bureaucracies actually interfered with the prerogatives of parents and local communities with respect to education, the nature of the social and political coalitions under whose auspices school reform was introduced, and the timing of reform varied tremendously"

Mass education involved a raft of practical changes, including innovations in the training of teachers, development of their professional identity and esprit de corp, and systems of inspections. Pedagogy saw a shift from individual teaching to "simultaneous" methods where pupils were taught all at once and expected to follow the same course of study; alternatives included "monitorial" schools with pupil-monitors teaching their less advanced peers. And specialised textbooks, mostly with a conservative ideological bias, began to appear.

A "bottom-up" perspective helps to explain the resistance or indifference often faced by reformers. The response of families, as seen in attendance rates, depended on the age and sex of their children and was driven by pragmatic considerations. The benefits of elementary education were mostly not obvious, with secondary education remaining the domain of the middle classes.

"Perhaps even more clearly than for boys, and more striking because it occurred rather late in the nineteenth century, the reform of girls' education in France was designed to restrict mobility, and to assure that the social and sexual status quo would not be challenged by the increased emphasis on schooling."

Working class activists opposing state education were mostly not obscurantist but advocated alternative forms of pedagogy, some of them traditional and some of them radical. They had little success, however.

"Despite the evidence that class-conscious workers all over Western Europe were aware of the class character of the education their children were receiving in the public schools, the fact remains that organized political movements acting on behalf of the working classes rarely went beyond asking for higher budgets for and more equal access to the very schools they criticized."

Links between education and development seem obvious, but human capital theory and other arguments that schooling was "a source of prosperity" have faced criticism, both now and during the period of reform. The historical evidence is mixed, and the effects of literacy on industrialization — and vice-versa — seem to have varied depending on local circumstances.

"One can certainly still argue that in some sectors of the economy industrial development did rely on the increasing skill levels of the industrial work force. But there is little evidence to link the availability of those skills with the elementary schooling reforms."

Maynes finishes with a consideration of the effects of universal schooling: on literacy rates, but also through simple attendance on everyday life and the processes of socialisation. Schooling was used to impose liberal or authoritarian hegemonies, but this did not, she suggests, have straightforward effects on identity or culture:

"Whatever the motives of school reformers, state officials, teachers, or, for that matter, parents of schoolchildren, in encouraging children to go to school, the effects of school attendance were shaped by forces larger than the expectations of any individual or class."

Schooling in Western Europe is an engaging overview of a complex but important historical social transition. In addition to references, it has a four page guide offering further reading recommendations for each chapter.

August 2011

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%T Schooling in Western Europe
%S A Social History
%A Maynes, Mary Jo
%I State University of New York Press
%D 1985
%O paperback, notes, index
%G ISBN 0873959779
%P 177pp