Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Layer 391 . . . Hislop, Do-Gooders, Radicals, Utopians, Reformers, Education and Schools

This week saw the beginning of a new TV series made by the ever-lovable and naughty-but-nice Ian Hislop.

This excellent review tells it like it is:

Ian Hislop’s Age of Do-Gooders Review: Have I Got Do-Gooders For You!

Ian Hislop unpeels from his well-grooved seat on Have I Got News for You this week to deliver the first of an eye opening series about the moral supermen (and women) whose social influence on modern Britain has been too often overlooked. These historic ‘Do-Gooders’ are not the notable politicians or army generals we already know about (or should know), but the restlessly forward thinkers and social campaigners that have brought moral substance to British society as we now see it.

With boyish enthusiasm, Hislop takes us on a ride into class-split Victorian life starting with Wilberforce, the great campaigner who fought against slavery; to Robert Owen, who turned a mill factory from a bone crushing sweatshop into something a bit less like a sweatshop; Thomas Wakley, who exposed the downright idiocy of contemporary medical practice; moral crusader George Dawson, who made Brummies take responsibility; right up to pioneering social worker Octavia Hill, the true life Mary Poppins who reinvented social work by managing hundreds of homes for poor families.

Documenting the progression of thought is hard to pull off well, especially when the achievements are not always tangible. Hislop charts these quiet revolutionaries with vigour, drawing light parallels to issues of corruption and neglected responsibility we face today . . . This is actually pretty important stuff, when you think about it.

Watching the programme I was most struck by the work and ideals of Robert Owen, and his New Lanark mill, institute and schools.

Here's a man who was considered by his contemporaries to be too radical and 'utopian', but whose spiritual intelligence made him original, creative, humane, decent and empathetic. As Hislop pointed out, he recognised that "the market" is not an incredibly benign force. He therefore created decent accommodation for his employees, and also built schools for their children.

And not just any old schools either. He insisted on the curriculum being based on the development of all of the intelligences, as we might now say. He wanted children to learn how to get along with one another, how to share things, how to show kindness, and so on. All the things we'd now call personal, emotional, social and spiritual intelligence. In Owen's schools the arts, including music and dancing, had a central place.

Clearly these are things that other Victorian industrialists like Cadbury tried to do. The nearest we get to it these days is when employers decide to be a bit less stingy and pay people like cleaners and clerical assistants a 'living wage', instead of just a 'minimum wage'.

More info on Robert Owen here:

Robert Owen's educational venture at New Lanark helped to pioneer infant schools and was an early example of what we now recognize as community schooling. Yet education  was only a single facet of a more powerful social gospel which already preached community building on the New Lanark model as a solution to contemporary evils in the wider world.

Robert Owen (1771-1858), social and educational reformer, remains a controversial and enigmatic figure. Having profited enormously from enterprise in the early Industrial Revolution he set about trying to remedy its excesses through environmental, educational, factory and poor law reform. Synthesizing reformist ideas from the Age of Enlightenment and drawing on his own experience as an industrialist he constructed A New View of Society (1816), a rallying call for widespread social change, with education at its core. New Lanark, the test-bed for his ideas, became internationally famous.

Robert Owen continued his . . . campaign by promoting labour exchanges, consumer co-operatives, trade unions and other Owenite organisations. By the 1830s the man had become a movement headed by Owen as Social Father. Always education, for what Robert Owen was by then calling the New Moral World, was central to his thinking.


Wikipedia says this about Owen:

Robert Owen (14 May 1771 – 17 November 1858) was a Welsh social reformer and one of the founders of socialism and the cooperative movement.

Owen's philosophy was based on three intellectual pillars:

    * First, no one was responsible for his will and his own actions because his whole character is formed independently of himself; people are products of their environment, hence his support for education and labour reform, rendering him a pioneer in human capital investment.
    * Second, all religions are based on the same ridiculous imagination, that make man a weak, imbecile animal; a furious bigot and fanatic; or a miserable hypocrite; (though in his later years he embraced Spiritualism).
    * Third, support for the putting-out system instead of the factory system.

Very strange - that suggestion that by embracing "Spiritualism" Owen was somehow veering back towards religiosity, whereas he was clearly trying to develop ideas about the nature of the human spirit and spiritual intelligence, without any need to believe in God or super-human deities.


With the financial support of several businessmen from Manchester, Owen purchased Dale's four textile factories in New Lanark for £60,000. Under Owen's control, the Chorton Twist Company expanded rapidly. However, Robert Owen was not only concerned with making money, he was also interested in creating a new type of community at New Lanark. Owen believed that a person's character is formed by the effects of their environment. Owen was convinced that if he created the right environment, he could produce rational, good and humane people. Owen argued that people were naturally good but they were corrupted by the harsh way they were treated. For example, Owen was a strong opponent of physical punishment in schools and factories and immediately banned its use in New Lanark.

David Dale had originally built a large number of houses close to his factories in New Lanark. By the time Owen arrived, over 2,000 people lived in New Lanark village. One of the first decisions took when he became owner of New Lanark was to order the building of a school. Owen was convinced that education was crucially important in developing the type of person he wanted.

When Owen arrived at New Lanark children from as young as five were working for thirteen hours a day in the textile mills. He stopped employing children under ten and reduced their labour to ten hours a day. The young children went to the nursery and infant schools that Owen had built. Older children worked in the factory but also had to attend his secondary school for part of the day.

Owen's partners were concerned that these reforms would reduce profits. Unable to convince them of the wisdom of these reforms, Owen decided to borrow money from Archibald Campbell, a local banker, in order to buy their share of the business. Later, Owen sold shares in the business to men who agreed with the way he ran his factory.


Robert Owen was a man ahead of his time. During his lifetime, he endeavoured to improve the health, education, well-being and rights of the working class. This driving ambition to create a better society for all took him around the world, from a small mill village in Lanarkshire in Scotland to New Harmony, Indiana in America with varied success. Although, he encountered much criticism and opposition in his lifetime, he influenced reformers who came after him and many of his views are as relevant and resonate today in their modernity and progressive nature.

A Model Community

Under Robert Owen’s management from 1800 to 1825, the cotton mills and village of New Lanark became a model community, in which the drive towards progress and prosperity through new technology of the Industrial Revolution was tempered by a caring and humane regime. This gained New Lanark an international reputation for the social and educational reforms Owen implemented.

New Lanark had the first Infant School in the world, a creche for working mothers, free medical care, and a comprehensive education system for children, including evening classes for adults. Children under 10 were not allowed to work in the Mill.

Leisure and recreation were not forgotten; there were concerts, dancing, music-making and pleasant landscaped areas for the benefit of the community.

When Owen opened the Institute for the Formation of Character, which was effectively a community education centre for his workers, he outlined his visionary plans for an astonishingly progressive and enlightened system of education which he believed was the key to a happier society, and universal harmony.

"What ideas individuals may attach to the term "Millennium" I know not; but I know that society may be formed so as to exist without crime, without poverty, with health greatly improved, with little, if any misery, and with intelligence and happiness increased a hundredfold; and no obstacle whatsoever intervenes at this moment except ignorance to prevent such a state of society from becoming universal.”

- Extract from Robert Owen’s "Address to the Inhabitants of New Lanark"
New Year’s Day, 1816

Nearly 200 years further on, and have we yet achieved a society without crime, without poverty, without misery, and with intelligence and happiness increased a hundredfold? I think not. Ignorance still rules, OK?

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