Light and Air
- Childhood, Culture and Class in Britain: Margaret McMillan 1860-1931 by Carolyn Steedman
Virago, 343 pp, £16.99, February 1990, ISBN 1 85381 123 8
In these unfriendly times, Margaret McMillan, once the subject of such biographies as The Children’s Champion and Prophet and Pioneer, occupies some unvisited pantheon of educational reform. The order of precedence set out in the title of Carolyn Steedman’s book is sign enough that she has no intention of re-establishing the McMillan cult. She has produced instead something much more awkward and interesting. Childhood, Culture and Class is less a life than a set of interconnected essays, which approach the themes and particular difficulties of McMillan’s work from a succession of unpredictable starting-points. Denying the reader the usual shape and satisfactions of biography, it offers through narrative, textual analysis and speculation both a timely questioning of McMillan’s achievements and a meditation on the oblique connections between a public life and its private sources, between political argument and figures of rhetoric whose force arises from their roots in the deepest, shared hopes and disappointments of a propagandist and her audience.
Vol. 12 No. 9 · 10 May 1990
In his interesting discussion of Margaret McMillan’s work (LRB, 5 April), Ken Jones seems to me to have misunderstood what is particularly valuable in her work. He remarks that her emphasis on the human being, and not on the worker, leaves education with little to say about work. But is this not the direction of good current theories of education? One might take a leaf from the books of feminist discussion to investigate to what extent McMillan’s rhetorical stand was but a way of holding back the rhetoric of the day, while she went about her proper business – which was to pay attention to the actual children in her daily care at the beginning of the 20th century. Whether they learned a trade, became good citizens, fitted into a preconceived and inadequate role, was a secondary element in education. In a purely practical sense, she has been proven correct. How many workers were trained in certain vocations which they had then to abandon when the world changed? Or to defend ‘irrationally’ because there was no alternative, and they had been trapped by the ‘vocational’ or ‘work’ system of education?
That McMillan appealed to Nancy Astor seems to show that it was women who understood what she was getting at. It seems to me a grave error not to listen for what someone like McMillan can teach us, as a voice coming from the front line of tedious daily work in the classroom. The error is especially egregious when it involves not listening to what a woman has to say about the education of small children.