The Great Scots Education Hoax

Rosalind Mitchison

  • The Companion to Gaelic Scotland edited by Derick Thomson
    Blackwell, 363 pp, £25.00, December 1983, ISBN 0 631 12502 7
  • Experience and Enlightenment: Socialisation for Cultural Changes in 18th-Century Scotland by Charles Camic
    Edinburgh, 301 pp, £20.00, January 1984, ISBN 0 85224 483 5
  • Knee Deep in Claret: A Celebration of Wine and Scotland by Billy Kay and Cailean Maclean
    Mainstream, 232 pp, £9.95, November 1983, ISBN 0 906391 45 8
  • Education and Opportunity in Victorian Scotland: Schools and Universities by R.D. Anderson
    Oxford, 384 pp, £25.00, July 1983, ISBN 0 19 822696 9
  • Scotland: The Real Divide edited by Gordon Brown and Robin Cook
    Mainstream, 251 pp, £9.95, November 1983, ISBN 0 906391 18 0
  • Wealth and Virtue: The Shaping of Political Economy in the Scottish Enlightenment edited by Istvan Hont and Michael Ignatieff
    Cambridge, 371 pp, £35.00, November 1983, ISBN 0 521 23397 6

Historians of any society have to learn to be wary of the accepted myths of their subject. Sometimes these bogus visions of the past are deliberately created or fostered by the governing group. Sometimes they come from an educated but perhaps unsophisticated middle class, anxious to gain historical sanction for its security and power. Sometimes these beliefs are the possession and creation of the working class. The most extreme and absurd tend to be those connected with nationalist themes – for instance, the Risorgimento, the myth of Irish national sentiment (wild geese and all), or the counterweight Protestant myth in Northern Ireland in which William III for ever rides a white horse. The interest of the Scottish sample of such beliefs lies in the fact that Scottish myths are not an expression of either successful or of frustrated nationalism. They mostly involve Scots holding with immense pride, but little input of research, beliefs about Scottish evangelical piety, widespread early literacy, general unanimity in belief, easy access to higher education and thereby social mobility, radical thinking in politics and philosophy, ardent Jacobitism. These cannot all be true, for some are contradictory to others. And they stand in contrast to another group of beliefs held on the whole by the young – concerning the special Scottish contribution to bawdy songs, drunken conviviality, early class consciousness, hardiness and poverty. Items from both sets of belief contribute directly or by opposition to the subject-matter of most of these books.

Derick Thomson’s Companion is a response to intensifying interest in Highland culture. It is handsomely illustrated on a wide range of themes, but there is a thoroughness in its approach which makes it more than a tourist souvenir. There are two pages, for instance, of notes on the individual MacMhuirichs, hereditary pipers to Clanranald, but almost nothing on their chiefs – a very proper distribution of effort. The pages on Gaelic phonemic structure austerely present information which will be of help only to those trained in phonetics: amateurs will still be unable to pronounce Gaelic place names. Gaelic is a complex and difficult language, and it is no use pretending to the English monoglot that it is anything else. For myself, I would have liked to see more references to the economic life of the past in this book: there is, for instance, no entry for lazy-beds, that misnamed arduous form of patch cultivation, or for the linen industry, the Board of Trustees or the shieling system, all items of significance in the past. But culture, even if narrowly conceived, is handled with scholarship and dignity.

It is much harder for a historian to get to grips with Experience and Enlightenment because the disciplines, or perhaps dogmas, which sustain the argument of the book are drawn, not from history, but from sociology and psychology. It is an attempt to see, from the early life of four conspicuous figures in the Scottish Enlightenment, why they were able to abandon two aspects of contemporary Calvinist culture: ‘dependency’, which is acceptance of the idea that mankind is subservient to some agent or agents outside human control (God, I suppose, is meant), and ‘particularism’, defined by the author as ‘the orientation’ which treats individuals not ‘in conformity with a general standard but rather in light of their possession of properties that have a particular relation to one’s own properties’. I have read and reread these definitions without getting much light on the second one. It is not just that I find sociological prose cloying, but that I have a nasty suspicion that this book is trying to measure the disappearance of something visible only to the eye of sociological faith. ‘Particularism, in fact,’ complains the author, ‘is not even an 18th-century Scottish word.’ My respect for the past goes up.

Charles Camic believes, I think, that the great men of the Enlightenment could pioneer new areas of thought only if they had been removed from their fathers’ influence at an early age, and later subjected to university in large, impersonal classes. So Adam Smith, a mother’s boy all his life, can be seen as free from parental domination because he was a posthumous child. Camic offers various references to the Scottish concept of patriarchy, but the belief that parental domination over thought and behaviour can come only from the close presence of a father is dogma, not perceived fact, and assumes that all units in a society adhere to the same social ethos. He then passes on to the schooling of ‘the enlighteners’ (his word). Here, since he simply has not done the homework which would show what went on, he is at a loss. By the age of higher education – in other words, their teens – his thinkers went to universities which had abandoned the cosy but undemanding regenting system – by which youths were taught all their courses by the same man – for the professorial system of specialists. And it is this which is supposed to have removed from their minds the presumptions of ‘particularism’.

Camic is not claiming that these socially liberating factors created the ideas of his thinkers, but that they made them possible. A soaring intellect does not necessarily result from the early absence of papa. One cannot deny that his four, and several lesser lights, had this early deprivation: but parental death was statistically likely for a substantial minority under 18th-century mortality levels. At some point in their lives Adam Smith, John Miller, William Robertson and David Hume began to question the theology in which they had been reared: Camic is convinced that ‘their revolution was a union of circumstances’ – in other words, that it was their rearing which freed them for it. That Adam Ferguson did less original thinking, in Camic’s eyes, is because his student life was passed at St Andrews, backward in clinging to regenting.

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