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The politics of cognition: liberalism and the evolutionary origins of Victorian education

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 October 2017

Department of Philosophy, 50/51 Old Elvet, Durham University. Email:
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In recent years the historical relationship between scientific experts and the state has received increasing scrutiny. Such experts played important roles in the creation and regulation of environmental organizations and functioned as agents dispatched by politicians or bureaucrats to assess health-related problems and concerns raised by the public or the judiciary. But when it came to making public policy, scientists played another role that has received less attention. In addition to acting as advisers and assessors, some scientists were democratically elected members of local and national legislatures. In this essay I draw attention to this phenomenon by examining how liberal politicians and intellectuals used Darwinian cognitive science to conceptualize the education of children in Victorian Britain.

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Copyright © British Society for the History of Science 2017 

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1 Desmond, Adrian, The Politics of Evolution: Morphology, Medicine, and Reform in Radical London, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1992 Google Scholar. Scull, Andrew, The Most Solitary of Afflictions: Madness and Society in Britain, 1700–1900, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005 Google Scholar.

2 Recent studies of this genre are Leggett, Don and Sleigh, Charlotte (eds.), Scientific Governance in Britain, 1914–79, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2016 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Proctor, Robert, Golden Holocaust: Origins of the Cigarette Catastrophe and the Case for Abolition, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011 Google Scholar; Oreskes, Naomi and Conway, Erik M., Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, New York: Bloomsbury, 2010 Google Scholar. For Victorian Britain see Hamlin, Christopher, ‘Scientific method and expert witnessing: Victorian perspectives on a modern problem’, Social Studies of Science (1986) 16, pp. 485513 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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5 For Lubbock's early life and education see Hutchinson, op. cit. (3), pp. 5–35. A more detailed picture is given, particularly in relation to the influence of Lubbock's mother, in Patton, op. cit. (3), pp. 15–36. For Lubbock's summary of his daily reading in 1852 see Patton, op. cit. (3), p. 23.

6 Winter, Sarah, ‘Mental culture: liberal pedagogy and the emergence of ethnographic knowledge’, Victorian Studies (1998) 41, pp. 427454 Google Scholar. Hadley, Elaine, Living Liberalism: Practical Citizenship in Mid-Victorian Britain, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2010 CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Winter, Sarah gives further details on the educational strategies pursued by liberal intellectuals and politicians in The Pleasures of Memory: Learning to Read with Charles Dickens, New York: Fordham University Press, 2011 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; see especially Chapter 5.

7 The story of the integration of the self-actualizing principles of liberalism into progressive educational circles during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is told by Simon, Brian in The Two Nations and the Educational Structure: 1780–1870, London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1981 Google Scholar.

8 The broader context of the early nineteenth-century pedagogical debates surrounding object lessons is outlined in Tomlinson, Stephen, Head Masters: Phrenology, Secular Education, and Nineteenth-Century Social Thought, Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2007 Google Scholar; and Melanie Judith Keene, ‘Object lessons: sensory science education 1830–1870’, unpublished PhD thesis, Cambridge University, 2009. For Hamilton's, Elizabeth thoughts on objects of experience see Letters on Elementary Principles of Education, vols. 1 and 2, 7th edn, London: Longman, 1824 Google Scholar.

9 The overlapping educational and ethnographic themes depicted in Henriette Browne's images of children are explained throughout Reina Lewis, ‘Race – femininity – representation: women, culture and the orientalized other in the work of Henriette Browne and George Eliot, 1855–1880’, PhD thesis, Middlesex University, 1994.

10 The centrality of scientific methods to liberalism and the larger reform movement is detailed in Goldman, Lawrence, Science, Reform, and Politics in Victorian Britain: The Social Science Association 1857–1886, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and in MacLeod, Christine, Heroes of Invention: Technology, Liberalism and British Identity, 1750–1914, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007 Google Scholar.

11 The core elements of Victorian liberal politics are succinctly summarized in Parry, Jonathan, The Rise and Fall of Liberal Government in Victorian Britain, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993, pp. 120 Google Scholar; and Otter, Chris, The Victorian Eye: A Political History of Light and Vision in Britain, 1800–1910, Chicago: The University of Chicago, 2008, pp. 154 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

12 Spencer, Herbert, Education: Intellectual, Moral, and Physical, New York: Appleton and Co., 1860, p. 140 Google Scholar. Spencer used the word ‘faculties’ in this case to refer to natural cognitive abilities or proclivities.

13 Winter, ‘Mental culture’, op. cit. (6); and Hadley, op. cit. (6).

14 Knight, David, Public Understanding of Science: A History of Communicating Scientific Ideas, London: Routledge, 2006, pp. 135152 Google Scholar.

15 Middleton, Nigel, ‘The Education Act of 1870 as the start of the modern concept of the child’, British Journal of Educational Studies (1970) 18, pp. 166179 CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Stephens, W.B., Minutes and Reports of the Committee of Council on Education 1839–1899, Leeds: Microform Academic Publishers, 1985 Google Scholar. Sturt, Mary, The Education of the People: A History of Primary Education in England and Wales in the Nineteenth Century, London: Routledge, 1967 Google Scholar.

16 For liberal interpretations of the act see Holdsworth, W.A., The Elementary Education, 1870, Popularly Explained, London: Routledge, 1870 Google Scholar; and Simon, Brian, Studies in the History of Education, 1780–1870, London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1960 Google Scholar.

17 For the centrality of patriotism, science and morality to Victorian liberalism see, respectively, the following: Parry, op. cit. (11); Parry, Jonathan, The Politics of Patriotism: English Liberalism, National Identity and Europe, 1830–1886, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Parry, , Democracy and Religion: Gladstone and the Liberal Party 1867–1875, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989 Google Scholar.

18 Vance, Norman, The Sinews of the Spirit: The Ideal of Christian Manliness in Victorian Literature and Religious Thought, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985 Google Scholar. Mangan, J.A. and Walvin, James (eds.), Manliness and Morality: Middle-Class Masculinity in Britain and America, 1800–1940, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1991 Google Scholar.

19 Hutchinson, op. cit. (3), p. 23. T.H. Huxley would eventually become the editor in chief of the journal, using it to disseminate ‘scientific naturalism’. DeArce, Miguel, ‘ The Natural History Review (1854–1865)’, Archives of Natural History (2012) 39, pp. 253259 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

20 ‘Certificate of a candidate for election’, the Royal Society of London, Special Collections, GB 117, EC/1858/11.

21 Pearn, Alison, ‘The teacher taught? What Charles Darwin owed to John Lubbock’, Notes and Records of the Royal Society (2014) 68, pp. 719 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

22 Many scientists questioned the connection between the cognitive evolution of humans and Darwin's mechanism of natural selection in the decades following the publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859. See Livingston, David N., Adam's Ancestors: Race, Religion, and the Politics of Human Origins , Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008 Google Scholar; and the many works of Bowler, Peter J., including Evolution: The History of an Idea, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989 Google Scholar; and The Eclipse of Darwinism: Anti-Darwinian Evolution Theories in the Decades around 1900, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992 Google Scholar. For Alfred Russel Wallace's views see Wallace, Alfred Russel, Darwinism: An Exposition of Natural Selection, with Some of Its Applications, London: Macmillan, 1889 Google Scholar.

23 Lubbock's views on social evolution are detailed in Patton, op. cit. (3), pp. 53–90.

24 Murray, Tim, ‘Illustrating “savagery”: Sir John Lubbock and Ernest Griset’, Antiquity (2009) 83, 488499 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

25 Darwin wrote about child psychology in his notebooks and publications for his entire career. For his early reflections see Darwin, Charles, The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 4: 1847–1850 (ed. Burkhardt, Frederick), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988, pp. 410433 Google Scholar. For an overview of the evolutionary foundations of Darwin's views on child psychology see Morss, John R., Biologising Childhood: Developmental Psychology and the Darwinian Myth, London: Erlbaum, 1990, pp. 1129 Google Scholar.

26 The place of associationism in nineteenth-century pedagogical theories is addressed throughout Shuttleworth, Sally, The Mind of the Child: Child Development in Literature, Science, and Medicine, 1840–1900, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

27 Lubbock, like Darwin, treated association as self-evident and used ‘association’ and ‘associated’ (and related cognates) throughout his works to describe the cognitive process through which ideas were retained and grouped in the mind. See, for example, his discussion of incongruous association’ in Lubbock, John, The Origin of Civilisation, London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1870, p. 273 Google Scholar.

28 The permeability of associationism as a metaphor in cognitive psychology, politics and literature is explained in Rylance, Richard William, Victorian Psychology and British Culture 1850–1880, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and in Young, Robert M., Mind, Brain, and Adaptation in the Nineteenth Century: Cerebral Localization and Its Biological Context from Gall to Ferrier, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970 Google Scholar.

29 For associationism's connections to early childhood instruction (including home schooling, literacy and pedagogy) and delinquency see, respectively, Winter, The Pleasures of Memory, op. cit. (6); May, Margaret, ‘Innocence and experience: the evolution of the concept of juvenile delinquency in the mid-nineteenth century’, Victorian Studies (1973) 17, pp. 729 Google Scholar; esp. 13–14. For the ubiquitous presence of the associationist model in nineteenth-century children's literature and literature about children see Vrettos, Athena, ‘Victorian psychology’, in Brantlinger, Patrick and Thesing, William B. (eds.), A Companion to the Victorian Novel, Oxford: Blackwell, 2002, pp. 6783 Google Scholar.

30 Hamilton, op. cit. (8), Martineau, Harriet, How to Observe: Morals and Manners, London: Charles Knight and Co., 1838 Google Scholar; Spencer, op. cit. (12). For John Stuart Mill's associationism see Mill, John Stuart, An Examination of Sir William Hamilton's Philosophy, London: Longmans, 1865, esp. pp. 251270 Google Scholar. Mill's school of thought is often called that of experience and association’. Skorupski, John M., John Stuart Mill, London: Routledge, 2010, pp. 1623 Google Scholar.

31 The importance of Lubbock's publications and collections to the field of prehistory has recently been underscored by a number of authors: Owen, Janet, ‘From Down House to Avebury: John Lubbock, prehistory and human evolution through the eyes of his collection’, NRRS (2014) 68, pp. 2134 Google Scholar; Pettitt, Paul and White, Mark, ‘John Lubbock, caves, and the development of Middle and Upper Palaeolithic archaeology’, NRRS (2014) 68, pp. 3548 Google Scholar; Bridgeland, David R., ‘John Lubbock's early contribution to the understanding of river terraces and their importance to geography, archaeology and earth science’, NRRS (2014) 68, pp. 4963 Google Scholar.

32 Lubbock, John, Pre-historic Times, Illustrated by Ancient Remains, and the Manners and Customs of Modern Savages, London: Williams and Norgate, 1865, pp. 487, 465Google Scholar. His views on the perception of time and language are given on pp. 460 and 464. The relationship between children and ‘savages’ is also flagged in the table of contents (under Chapter 13) and in the index under ‘Savages and children’ (where the reader is directed to page 462).

33 Lubbock, op. cit. (27), p. 355. For his comments on children and language, see pp. 4, 283, 356, 360.

34 The long-standing presence of the model of the child as savage or animal is addressed throughout Shuttleworth, op. cit. (26). It is succinctly summarized on pp. 4–5.

35 Lubbock, op. cit. (32), pp. 462–463.

36 Lubbock, John, Pre-historic Times, 3rd edn, London: Williams and Norgate, 1872, p. 570 Google Scholar.

37 Crawford, Sally, ‘“Our race had its childhood”: the use of childhood as a metaphor in post-Darwinian explanations for prehistory’, Childhood in the Past (2010) 3, pp. 107122 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

38 These two themes occur throughout his popular essays and speeches. See, for example, his essay on Self-education’ in Lubbock, John, The Uses of Life, London: Macmillan, 1894, pp. 111126 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

39 The discourse of honesty was often addressed by Victorian educationalists under the rubric of ‘moral character’. This point is raised throughout Aldrich, Richard, School and Society in Victorian Britain: Joseph Payne and the New World of Education, London: Routledge, 2011 Google Scholar. Moral concerns also played an important role in the nineteenth-century emergence of child psychiatry. Leticia Fernández-Fontecha Rumeu, ‘Pain, childhood and the emotions: a cultural history’, unpublished PhD thesis, University of Greenwich, 2017.

40 Lubbock, op. cit. (27), pp. 270–274.

41 Lubbock, op. cit. (27), p. 274.

42 Spencer's position on inherited intuitions was famously communicated to the reading public via a letter (written to John Stuart Mill) that was included by Bain, Alexander in Mental and Moral Science, London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1868, pp. 721722 Google Scholar. Spencer's views on education are given in Spencer, op. cit. (12). For further relevant details of Spencer's conception of education, nature and science see Cavanaugh, F.A., ‘Introduction’, in Spencer, Herbert, Herbert Spencer on Education, ed. Cavanaugh, F.A., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1932, pp. viixxxiii Google Scholar.

43 Lubbock's critique of Spencer's position is given on pp. 270–272 of Lubbock, John, The Origin of Civilisation and the Primitive Condition of Man: Mental and Social Condition of Savages, London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1870 Google Scholar. To aid his critique, he cites Hutton's, R.H. famous anti-Spencerian essay ‘A questionable parentage for morals’, Macmillans Magazine (1869) 20, pp. 266273 Google Scholar.

44 Scholars interested in Darwin's views on child development often approach them via his comments on habit, instinct and the ‘moral sense’. See Richards, Robert J., Darwin and the Emergence of Evolutionary Theories of Mind and Behavior, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1989, pp. 206217 Google Scholar. For a succinct summary of Darwin's views on the social causes of instinct and habit in humans see Krebs, Dennis, The Origins of Morality: An Evolutionary Account, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011, p. 46 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

45 Lubbock, op. cit. (43), pp. 270–272.

46 Simon, op. cit. (7).

47 Crary, Jonathon, Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle, and Modern Culture, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999 Google Scholar. See also Otter, op. cit. (11), Chapter 1.

48 Kuklick, Henrika, The Savage Within: The Social History of British Anthropology, 1885–1945, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991, pp. 2026 Google Scholar. Stocking, George, Victorian Anthropology, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1991, pp. 248252 Google Scholar.

49 For George O. Cutler's views on the connection between ethnology, education and attention see Cutler, George O., The Philosophy of Intellectual Education, Ancient and Modern: An Essay, London: Simpkin and Marshall, 1862 Google Scholar. For Gilbert Malcolm Sproat's views on prehistoric people and education see, respectively, Sproat, Gilbert Malcolm, Scenes and Studies of Savage Life, London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1868 Google Scholar; and Sproat, Education of the Urban Poor, with a Full Discussion of the Principles and Requirements of Remedial Legislation Thereon, London: Bush, 1870 Google Scholar.

50 John Lubbock, op. cit. (43), pp. 4–5. The quotation is taken from Sproat, Scenes and Studies of Savage Life, op. cit. (49), p. 120.

51 Sully, James, The Teacher's Handbook of Psychology, London: Longman's, Green and Co., 1898, p. 223 Google Scholar. Sully's understanding of childhood psychology was notably influenced by his evolutionary views, as were the views of other writers such as George Romanes during the last decade of the century. For Sully and Romanes see Shuttleworth, op. cit. (26), pp. 145–148, 253–263.

52 Crary argues that the techniques of observation were inherently based on a technology-driven visual epistemology that emerged during the late eighteenth century. See Crary, Jonathon, Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992 Google Scholar. Lubbock's views on the uses of devices, specimens and apparatus are discussed throughout Lubbock, John, ‘Our present state of elementary education’, in Lubbock, , Addresses, Political and Educational, London: Macmillan, 1879, pp. 70102 Google Scholar.

53 John Tenniel, ‘The three R's; or, better late than never’, Punch, 26 March 1870, p. 121.

54 One of his more popular essays was Lubbock, John, ‘On the present system of public school education’, Contemporary Review (1876) 27, pp. 163171 Google Scholar.

55 House of Commons, Elementary Education Code – Choice of Subjects Debate, 10 March 1876, vol. 227, §1809.

56 Vallgårda, Karen, Imperial Childhoods and Christian Mission: Education and Emotions in South India and Denmark, London: Palgrave Macmillan 2014 Google Scholar.

57 For progressivism see Stocking, op. cit. (48); and Stocking, George, After Tylor: British Social Anthropology, 1888–1951, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1995 Google Scholar. For the developmental unity of humankind (monogenism) see Augstein, H.F., James Cowles Prichard's Anthropology: Remaking the Science of Man in Early Nineteenth Century Britain, Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1999 Google Scholar; and Desmond, Adrian and Moore, James, Darwin's Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin's Views on Human Evolution, London: Penguin, 2009 Google Scholar.

58 House of Commons, Elementary Education – Revised New Code (1871) Debate, 19 July 1872, vol. 212, §1462.

59 Seaman once astutely noted that, while Victorian liberalism promoted a laissez-faire ‘I'm-all-right-Jack’ mantra, its view of the poor was that's your bad luck, mate’. Seaman, L.C.B., Victorian England: Aspects of English and Imperial History, 1837–1901, London: Routledge, 2002, p. 303 Google Scholar.

60 House of Commons, Extra Subjects in Elementary Schools Debate, 1 May 1874, vol. 218, §§1531–1537.

61 House of Commons, Extra Subjects in Elementary Schools Debate, 1 May 1874, vol. 218, §1534.

62 The ideological and intellectual context of the Victorian fear of children being savages or returning back to savagery is discussed throughout Herbert, Christopher, Culture and Anomie: The Ethnographic Imagination in the Nineteenth Century, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1991 Google Scholar. Lubbock's discussion of the topic occurs in House of Commons (1874), vol. 218, §§1534. Notably, Lubbock extracted the quotation from Huxley's, T.H. More Criticisms on Darwin and Administrative Nihilism, New York: Appleton, 1872, p. 45 Google Scholar. But Huxley himself was quoting from pp. 207–208 of Chapter 5, On instinct in man and animals’, in Wallace's, Alfred Russel Contributions to the Theory of Natural Selection, London: Macmillan, 1871 Google Scholar. So Lubbock was actually quoting Wallace.

63 House of Commons, Extra Subjects in Elementary Schools Debate, 1 May 1874, vol. 218, §1537.

64 HC Debate, 10 March 1876, vol. 227, §§1800–1812, quotation taken from §1805. He makes the same autodidactic point in HC Debate, 19 July 1872, Vol. 212, §1463.

65 Winter, ‘Mental culture’, op. cit. (6), p. 447. See especially the discussion on self-possession that occurs at pp. 447–448.

66 HC Debate, 19 July 1872, vol. 212, §1457. Lubbock discusses the relationship between capital and science by approvingly quoting from an unspecified report written by the Social Science Association for the Committee of Council on Education.

67 HC Debate, 10 March 1876, vol. 227, §§1801, 1804. House of Commons, Education, Science, and Art, 12 July 1877, vol. 235, §1217. House of Commons, Elementary Education Code – Natural Science – Resolution, 4 July 1878, vol. 241, §§777–780. House of Commons, Education, Science, and Art, 8 August 1881, vol. 264, §1319–1320. House of Commons, Education Department – The New Code – Observations, 3 April 1882, vol. 268, §598–605.

68 Lubbock discussed object lessons on a number of occasions. See House of Commons, Elementary Education Code Debate, 4 July 1878, vol. 241, §778. HC Debate, 19 July 1872, vol. 212, §1459. HC Debate, 10 March 1876, vol. 227, §1802. HC Debate, 4 July 1878, vol. 241, §778. HC Debate, 3 April 1882, vol. 268, §600.

69 Spencer, op. cit. (12). Committee of Council on Education, Minutes of the Committee of Council on Education 1850–1851, London: Clowes and Sons, 1851, p. 741 Google Scholar. References to ‘object lessons’ occur throughout the report. The word ‘faculty’ here is being used to denote a natural ability.

70 Lubbock's comments were based on his own observations in school visitations and upon the testimony of male and female teachers who used object lessons. HC Debate, 3 April 1882, vol. 268, §§604–605.

71 John Lubbock, ‘National Education’, in Lubbock, op. cit. (38), pp. 98–101.

72 Lubbock associated this form of acceptance with ‘happiness’. He discusses this state of mind throughout his works as well as in an essay entitled ‘On peace and happiness’ published in Lubbock, op. cit. (38), pp. 281–296.

73 The text of Huxley's speech was reprinted in ‘Notes upon passing events’, Journal of Gas Lighting, Water Supply & Sanitary Improvement, 28 February 1871, p. 142.

74 Sutherland, Gillian, ‘Education’, in Thompson, F.M.L., ed., The Cambridge Social History of Britain 1750–1950, vol. 3, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990, pp. 149151 Google Scholar. Huxley, Thomas Henry, T.H. Huxley on Education (ed. Bibby, Cyril), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1971, pp. 3235 Google Scholar.

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