Education and the Industrial Revolution

May 1993, from David Friedman:

I have just been reading a fascinating book: Education and the Industrial Revolution by E. G. West. It is a history of British education through the 19th century, and is interesting for three reasons.

  1. It provides strong evidence that a fully private system of education can do a reasonable job of providing for the working class of (by modern standards) a poor society. England around 1830, before the first government subsidies of education, spent about 1 % of GNP on schooling. Fifty years later, with a large government run sector rapidly replacing the private sector, the figure was about 1.1%. And this was a period when incomes were rising sharply, so one would expect relative spending on schooling to rise (given that education seems to be a superior good) anyway.

    West provides comparisons to a variety of other countries, including Germany and the U.S., which had compulsory government run systems earlier than Britain. So far as one can tell (the data, of course, are not very good) both input and output measures (average number of years of schooling--there do not seem to be any measures of quality of output that are really comparable across countries) suggest that the British private system in the early part of the century was doing as well as or better than the other systems then and later.

  2. It is an interesting account of how historical myths get created and propagated. Numbers purporting to show the failure of the British system were generated as part of the political process, then used uncritically by later historians--who ignored other numbers, sometimes with much solider evidence, that pointed the other direction. The most popular trick was to compare the number of children in school by the number of children in a specified age range, such as 3-13, and imply that the difference represented children who never saw the inside of a school. Where detailed studies were done, it typically turned out that almost everyone was going to school, but for an average of less than ten years (I think about six). The Prussian compulsory system, to which British reformers pointed, claimed to have everyone in school--but for seven years, not the ten which the reformers were using to calculate the gap in the British system.

    Also, the reformers made much of Scotland's supposedly superior national system of schools. It turns out that by the early 19th century, only a third of the Scottish students were at (government run and subsidized) Parish schools, with two thirds at private ("adventure") schools. And even the Parish schools seem to have received the majority of their income from school fees.

  3. It is also an interesting account of the dark side of Benthamite utilitarianism. There was a definite tendency for utilitarians to be in favor of individual freedom in theory but centralized state direction (run by them) in practice. On education, the division was between Bentham and his disciples as the bad guys and Godwin as the good guy (arguing, among other things, that the state was the last place in the world you would want to go for moral instruction of the young), with John Stuart Mill caught in the middle and straddling the fence. It appears, incidentally, that vouchers were invented, at least in the 19th century, by Tom Paine.

In any case, I recommend the book highly.