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.

Knee Deep in Claret has nothing of the intellectual aspirations of these two books, but again it displays Scottish tenets. One is that Scots exuberantly indulge in one or other of the sins of the flesh – in this case, wine-drinking. The other tenet is that Scottish history as known by the general public should be well spattered with howlers, and so long as the tenor of the history is anti-English, errors are venial. And so we have the statement that Claverhouse was defeated at Killiecrankie, that James V died in a Border skirmish, that before 1707 Glasgow merchants had taken over the tobacco trade, that the 18th-century Highlanders were Catholics. There is also a confusion between the Covenant and the Act of Union, which would not have been committed in the 18th century even under the influence of alcohol.

The wine trade was an important element of mercantile activity in Scotland, carried on in specially large ships and catering to the common patterns of aristocratic consumption found all over Western Europe. The authors provide some delightful illustrations of the materials dedicated to the trade, and accounts, anecdotes and orders for shipments of various dates. It would be more helpful as history if these were referenced, and indeed the need to supply chapter and verse for statements such as the claim that the Scots of the 18th century were inflamed against the Union might have obliged the authors to distinguish between their own prejudices and those of their ancestors. But it is probably wrong to view this book as a work of history. It is a repertoire of information about wine bibbing.

Some of the items are intriguing. There is the description of the supply and consumption of communion wine in gallons; the availability of claret by the cartload in 18th-century towns, so that you could take your own jug along for filling; the more squeamish insistence of 20th-century consumers that it be not perceptible in delivery, so that it went out to them in laundry baskets; and the whole organisation of the trade in Bordeaux and its hinterland. Claret, claim the authors, was a symbol of Scottish national identity. For all that, it was drunk in England on such a scale that Scottish control of the trade to England was a valuable source of revenue.

Scots have long held self-congratulatory beliefs about their educational system. It is claimed that in the 18th and 19th centuries it was a bond, with all social classes using the parish school, and at the same time a source of social mobility so far as it enabled the ‘lad o’ pairts’, the bright boy from a humble home, to move upwards to middle-class status and a professional career. The two concepts serve in different ways to assert a high standard of social democracy. Robert Anderson’s Education and Opportunity in Victorian Scotland does not destroy these beliefs, but he shows that the latter one was true only in a very limited state, and that many people were determined to keep it limited. The 19th-century middle class was strongly opposed to generous educational opportunities beng made available to the lower orders: many of this class were even prepared to accept the English belief that a study of the Classics was a necessary sign of social quality, and to have the schools for the bulk of the population cut off from this subject in order to maintain class distinctions. In most cases, the old endowed schools or hospitals, and the burgh schools, were suffering decay in the mid-19th century: the movement to ‘reform’ them turned the endowment to providing relatively cheap fee-paying day schools for the middle class, with pressure groups making sure that fees were not so low as to encourage a large artisan entry. Parts of the original endowments were used to provide bursaries for those who wished to go to university. A few boys from the working class, tokens, were allowed the chance to use these reformed institutions, but care was taken to ensure that there were not enough of them to alter their middle-class character. It was the policy of the cuckoo in the nest. A small number of middle-class boys had first been allowed to share in the endowments made for the poor early in the 19th century. By the 1870s there was a powerful ‘reform’ movement pressing for the new type of school. Some of the hospitals, notably Heriot’s, fought a rearguard action, and used the local government elections to frustrate the reformers. This merely meant that the reform movement got its way by government commission.

At the same time those few rural schools which had offered more advanced training to the poorer children were subjected to ‘rationalisation’, so that this training could be concentrated in the towns. Then, with the only passage to university lying in the urban schools, the traditional system by which the level of the first year of study at university was kept low was abandoned. There could then be no passage from parish school direct to higher education, and Latin, in Scotland as in England, became the middle-class password.

The ‘lad o’ pairts’ could still find his way up, but these reforms saw to it that he was a rarity. Some schools of high reputation managed to keep relatively low fees and still provide a route to university – those of the Edinburgh Merchant Company were conspicuous in this: but even for these, a working-class child needed a bursary. Once he reached such a school, his development would follow the old-fashioned academic disciplines. The quality that these schools, and others, could maintain persuaded the teaching profession to accept that the older system of movement from parish school to university had no special merit. And of course all these changes altered the function of the universities. In the 1890s they took to protecting themselves from those inadequately prepared by means of entrance examinations, and so could concentrate on training boys to serve the professions: school-teachers, usually with ordinary degrees, civil servants, doctors and lawyers with more specialised qualifications. The universities settled down to give formal qualifications, and ceased to be part of general culture – places which could be attended for a while by anyone with a curiosity for particular branches of learning.

The value of Dr Anderson’s book, a pioneer work in subjecting the history of educational change to stringent historical discipline, is its recognition throughout of the relationship of educational institutions to the society they serve, as well as to one another. ‘The bourgeois society of the 19th century chose to stress the “lad of parts” aspect of the Scottish tradition, the boy from a humble background who used education to escape from his class, rather than ... the more communitarian aspect of the tradition represented by the literate village community or the well-read and articulate artisan. The idea of the career open to talents ... was part of a legitimising ideology by which civil equality and social inequality were reconciled.’ This long, cool look at what the middle class was up to, Anderson’s examination of the debates and manoeuvres, and the recognition that education is an important means of social manipulation – these place the book in a class of its own so far as studies of the history of education are concerned.

The first function that Scotland: The Real Divide will perform is to show aspiring propagandists how not to set about their work. It shows all the signs of hasty and careless production. Political in aim, it could well have been held back till nearer an election, and the editors might have used the time gained to force some of their contributors to clean up their papers. The worst presented paper, that by Stephen Kendrick on ‘Social Change’, has a remarkable repertoire of literary bad manners: unlabelled columns in tables, tables labelled and promised but non-existent, unexplained initials.

The most conspicuous weakness is the lack of a historical dimension. Sometimes this merely means the offering of non-facts as if they were facts. Kay Carmichael criticises the rate of increase of child benefit since 1948 without recognising that it did not exist at that date, and attributes attitudes to the Scottish Poor Law which were those of the Charity Organisation Society. More serious is the use of facts intended to bring out a comparison or illustrate a point but set out in such a way that the point is missed. Ian Levitt claims that ‘lagging health indicators show poverty,’ but the only figures he advances, the number of hospital in-patients per year, expanding from 1890 to 1960, are mainly a sign of the increase in hospital provision. There is a failure to acknowledge that association of figures is not necessarily causative, or even causative in the way asserted. Thus Kay Carmichael’s correlation between poverty and mental ill health may mean, as she thinks, that poverty drives people to mental breakdown, but also may mean that people fail to hold down well-paid jobs when their mental health is disturbed. There are instances of the half-statistic: John Hubley says that ‘a social class V male is almost four times as likely to die of lung cancer,’ which might carry conviction if he had stated with what group the comparison is being made. The low-paid, we are assured by Fred Twine, cluster in the four areas of high urbanisation. But so do many of the well-paid. The lack of a sense of valid comparison or of change over time reaches its peak in a general list of the inadequacies of Scottish housing written by the editors. We are told that 20 per cent of households have no phone, 47 per cent no central heating and 51 per cent no car. By these standards Louis XIV at Versailles should have been on the housing list.

To write convincingly about poverty it is necessary to start with definition, for the term means different things to different people. It was all very well for Beveridge to accept the idea put forward by Rowntree that there was a figure in money terms which would guarantee physiological support, with some small spending power in addition for personal indulgence. Since then, we have come to know a bit more about the vagaries of nutritional need, and have had hammered home comparative ideas. People feel poor if they cannot participate in the normal activities of their own social group, so poverty should be measured against the average wage. People feel poor if their own expectations are frustrated, so presumably there should be a measure based on the images projected by the media to the school leaver. It may be difficult to decide on any one standard and stick to it. The editors are not keen on the line put forward by Peter Townshend, of 140 per cent of the supplementary benefit level, because it would leave over one and a half million people receiving less than half the average wage. An even stronger objection is that every time a generous government raises the supplementary benefit level several thousand more people are held to be in poverty even though their circumstances have not changed. Yet this is still a better measure than the number of households without central heating.

The trouble is that no level is convincing except that of absolute physical need, and that we hope to have put behind us. If this were to be adopted, at least the authors here would have to recognise how much more everyone commands today in resources than did the poor at the start of this century. But then they would have to be a bit more cheerful, and that would be against the purpose of this book. As it is, we are shown people as deprived because they are poor, or unemployed, or disabled, or single parents, or ill-housed, or old, or women, until the idea of ‘undeprived man’ begins to appear as artificial as Piltdown Man.

Yet some good points are made. Trevor Davies and Adrian Sinfield, on the unemployed, where Scots are right to carry a chip on the shoulder, show that – as in the 1930s, they might have added – the social costs of unemployment have been ignored by the Government. They put forward the idea of a right to leisure which means a right to a spending power to cover spare time. The book ends also with an article by Ronald Young which shows that in Strathclyde some effort is being made to develop community activity. If the sufferers of poverty can be helped to organise an attack on its contingent problems, and an administrative machinery created to make decisions effective, something will have grown on this waste land.

For all that, some of the things that are wrong with Scotland are not faced. In papers on class inequality and on education the various authors accept the male bias of government statistics. Class mobility is measured in the comparison of the occupational groups of sons and fathers. It is about time this way of looking at things stopped. A more serious failure is that wrong decisions made by the Scots themselves are not criticised. If only 44 per cent of the population have their own teeth, this is a sign of misapplied affluence – of the ability to buy teeth-rotting foods as children and dentures as adults. There is no attention paid to the special problem of the Scottish use of alcohol, nor to the fact that Scotland heads the line of developed countries in which the expectation of life for the middle-aged is falling. This creeping intensity of ill health in middle and old age must come, not from lack of spending power, but from misuse. Our ways of life are an enemy to life itself.

Wealth and Virtue, by contrast with the last, has a sense of history, and does not take the line that there is a sharp discontinuity between Enlightenment thought and earlier movements. It stresses how Enlightenment thought grew out of civic humanism. It indicates, but does not sufficiently explain, the puzzle of how the richness of 18th-century speculation on man, his mental processes, his society and the forces that shaped it, changed to the narrow dogmas of 19th-century economics. Many articles here point out the puzzle, but, as J.G.A. Pocock states, solving it will mean rewriting a long stretch of complicated intellectual history.

There is a lot of good stuff in this volume. It opens with the two editors on ‘Needs and Justice in the Wealth of Nations’; one part of this essay traces concepts of property from Grotius. It is the other, discussing the role of the state in the economy, which I find particularly stimulating, for it brings forward what, by the late 18th century, had become almost an obsession: the twin issues of the corn trade and price control of grain, on the one hand, and the problems of support and control of the poor. Adam Smith’s support of property rights meant that, for him, aid to the poor had to become a matter of benevolence, not of claims. He could believe that strengthening the market, which had already removed the risk of famine from Britain, would go on to remove the problem of poverty. Today we are more aware of the selective effects of economic growth, and we have the history of the Irish potato famine to enlighten us, but the optimism of the 1770s can be seen as softening the severity of this early element in political economy.

From there the book takes up various themes of the 18th century, ending with an assessment of the views of Millar – rather more disorganised than earlier famous figures. His disorder may be one of the reasons why political economy dropped so much of earlier thought overboard. There is an important paper by T.C. Smout evaluating the economic growth of Scotland in the crucial quarter-century in which so much ground was gained, and indicating the phenomena that Adam Smith and Sir James Steuart had to weld into their schemes of things. There is a paper by Peter Jones, ‘The Scottish Professoriate and the Polite Academy, 1720-46’, which shows what has often been asserted, but not proved: the links between the clubs, the academics and landowning society. In particular, it brings forward the views of David Fordyce, a little-remembered enthusiast for the obligation of citizens, by which he means gentlemen, to devote a large part of their lives to mental improvement.

Several papers skirt the important issue of the restricted social group which was accepted by civic humanists, and by some members of the Enlightenment, as capable of full membership of the thinking community. But John Robertson tackles this, to show how Hume suggests that in the long run economic development would bring sufficiency and independence to all, and so widen true citizenship. This is a welcome step away from the rigid and narrow class-based sympathies of Fletcher of Saltoun. Pocock goes on from this to emphasise the concern of the men of the Enlightenment for the effect of commercial growth on diversification of personality, and sees that this, too, breaks the narrow concept of citizenship accepted from the Greek city states. He points out, in a parenthesis, that nothing was yet done to dint the male bias of such thinking.

Many of these writers see that early political economy was indeed political: the writings of Adam Smith, as Donald Winch shows, form a programme for legislation. It is good to hear Hume’s argument for the desirability of high wages set out; perhaps less good to have Adam Smith condemn the lack of public spirit among merchants. Was he unusually unlucky in the traders that he got to know? Istvan Hont reminds us of the emphasis of Smith and Hume on economic growth, and implies that the creation of a terminology for 19th-century economic debate did much to constrain its intellectual content.

The themes raised here are not relevant solely to the 18th century. There is still a real issue, however much masked by universal franchise, over the question of in which groups can true citizenship be enjoyed. The problem has been going since the writer of Ecclesiasticus penned the famous passage beginning: ‘How can he get wisdom that holdeth the plough?’ The degree to which commerce can provide benefits for all is, as much as anything else, a source of squabbling in the Common Market. The degree to which an economy is rigid or elastic, and the problems of institutional features for the benefit of the poor which result in increased rigidity, is a major 20th-century problem as well as one of Enlightenment Scotland. This book is a better start for the consideration of the relationship between wealth and poverty than is Scotland: The Real Divide. The issues of today are merely translations into modern idiom of the long-standing problem of why anyone in these northern latitudes should be owed an income by the rest of the world.