Light and Air

Ken Jones

  • 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.

The conventions of writing about McMillan were established before she had reached fifty. ‘She had,’ wrote one contributor to an ILP newspaper in 1908, ‘a shining bold look, like Santa Barbara ... in a great fresco.’ At her death, she was praised for her ‘perfect inspired work for the little children of the slums’. In hagiographies of this sort, she dominates her times, which become a mere backcloth for her great deeds as pioneer of nursery education and of children’s medical care. Yet her life also presents the material for a different, less saintly drama. Converted to socialism in the late 1880s, the Scottish governess became in the next decade a full-time socialist agitator, a charismatic platform speaker, an intellectual of the Independent Labour Party in its Bradford stronghold. In the 1900s, she fought for her vision of a working class redeemed by universal health care and education, against the timid wisdom of her party leaders, who feared that state provision would only increase the fecklessness of the masses. Branded by them as obsessive, a disenfranchised woman barred from the new parliamentary field of operations of her party, she set up her own, exemplary ‘camp school’ in the dockside slums of Deptford. Proclaiming the welfare of children as a cause that transcended class interests, she ‘sought out the help of those with political influence’ and ‘those with money and power’. ‘Forced to operate by persuading them,’ comments Steedman, ‘she too was persuaded.’ By the Twenties, she had become enthralled by the glamour and political clout of Lady Astor, the Conservative MP who raised money from the rich for McMillan’s causes. Dedicating to Astor – with the epigraph ‘Party is not enough’ – the ‘Life’ she wrote of her own sister Rachel, McMillan concluded her political career with an appearance on this Conservative’s platform. It was apostasy in the grand, and familiar, manner.

This is not the way Steedman tells it. It is, she hints sardonically, the way it could be told. But to do it like that, to shape McMillan’s life into such a familiar story, would be to miss everything that is novel and problematic about her. For McMillan is distinguished from the MacDonalds and the Tonypandys of the Labour movement not only by her sex, and by the political options available to her as a woman, but also by the subjects of her theory and practice. These subjects were children. In focusing on the welfare and education of working-class children, McMillan contributed towards a significant widening of Labour’s programme and popular appeal: through work like hers, Labour became not merely the voice of trade union interests but the ‘People’s Friend’. In this sense, claims Steedman, she is more important for the understanding of the Labour Party this century than the ‘conventionally itemised’ parade of male leaders. It was not simply a topic that McMillan brought into focus, however, but an experience. She devoted forty years to evoking the potential of working-class children – ‘the children of the dark area’ – and to describing at the same time all that rendered them lost and hopeless. This tension creates at the heart of her prolific writing – didactic fiction, texts on child development, statements of educational mission – a complex and contradictory pattern of symbol and metaphor. It conveys a sense both of the future waiting to be born – ‘faces ... broken up, melted like sunned ice and showing the quick living water beneath’ – and of the suffocating present, in which working-class life is ‘a solitary groping from cradle to grave’. McMillan spent much of her life living and writing the terms of this contradiction; in the recursive movement of Steedman’s book it is a point arrived at many times.

In the end, the emancipatory aspects of McMillan’s programme were lost. The ‘sea of misery’ rising around her in Deptford submerged whatever hopes she had that the working class could redeem itself. What survived was only a kind of charity. Yet, asks Steedman repeatedly, did it have to end like this? Were the bases of McMillan’s theories such that they led necessarily to the election platform of Lady Astor? These are questions around which the book circles continually. It is a mark of Steedman’s uncertainty about the stature of her central figure that the answers she gives vary considerably in their emphases. Affirming McMillan’s now unfashionable insistence that ‘our common and material life might be made better,’ she writes at some points in terms that suggest ‘the erosion of a socialist perspective in actual events’; at others, noting the vices of philanthropy, she points to McMillan’s vision of the working class, a passive accomplice of its own misery.

McMillan’s socialist politics were at their most assured in the Bradford years ‘of active contact with the children of the people’. Elected three times to the Bradford School Board, she enriched the programme of her party with movingly attractive proposals for transforming the school and what was taught in it. ‘The children,’ she told electors, ‘were so liable to contagion ... that there should be the best ventilation and plenty of light and room. The children should be educated by playing and singing. They should break the discipline of ordinary regulations.’ This politics of light and air, play and song had solid foundations. ‘All true education,’ she wrote ‘is physiological’; the body must be nurtured if the mind is to grow. These were not just catch-phrases of the campaign trail, but the results of a serious study of child psychology, and of long investigation into the condition of Bradford schooling. Popularised with extraordinary energy, they offered the ILP – if only it had known what to do with it – a vision of children’s education as a regenerator of working-class life.

When the 1902 Education Act abolished School Boards, it removed from women – still without rights in Council and Parliamentary elections – the possibility of public office. McMillan’s part in Bradford politics was over. She was never again anywhere a political representative, and never again linked her educational efforts so directly to socialist campaigning. Her garden schools, planted among slums, carried of course a political meaning, and contrasted in their very location what was with what might be: but, lacking a connection to a transformative political project, they declined into what Steedman calls ‘a programme of mothercraft’.

In the earlier part of this history, we are encouraged to discern the outlines of a great achievement: an insistence that ‘the common lot of the common people’ was not the result of some ineradicable deficiency, but was open to immediate change; a tireless work of elaboration, that presented ideas and policies in many forms and to many audiences; a non-economistic politics that eagerly embraced social issues; an idea of agency, that imagined parents awakening, at the sight of their children’s transformation, to a sense of how, in their own lives, they had been robbed. No sooner does Steedman compose this picture, however, than with scrupulous scepticism, and acute textual analysis, she disturbs it. McMillan’s rhetoric and politics, in Bradford and Deptford alike, were based on the image of ‘rescue’. She populated her writings with children who were mere figures of literary pathos, deprived of their relationship to a culture and a community. Neither in her fiction nor in her journalism did she ever allow working-class characters to perceive important truths: theirs the suffering and endurance, hers the sharp perception and the call for change.

These are two very different accounts of a life’s work, between which the book moves restlessly. But in an important sense, Steedman’s uncertainties do not matter. She is, after all, less concerned to present a judgment of McMillan than to draw out the tensions that run through her life. McMillan is neither the repository of some lost socialist wisdom nor just a minor technician of reform. She is interesting because her work dramatises issues and strategies that remain fundamental to progressive educational change. Steedman seldom addresses this relevance explicitly; contrasts and parallels between past and present are austerely rationed. There is no such constraint on the reader, however, and for those who wish to reflect upon the political success of Conservative policy in education, Steedman’s McMillan provides much material.

There is, for instance, the issue of what Steedman calls ‘molecular change’. Between 1893 and 1902 McMillan’s Bradford campaigns helped bring about a slow national shift in the way that the needs of children were defined, and in policy for the early years of schooling. She combined practical reform with a highly effective politics of discourse that developed a language in which to discuss educational purpose. McMillan’s achievement casts a cold light on the more recent history of educational reform: in the Eighties it was Tory militants, not progressives, who succeeded in linking particular cases to a general and popular view of right and wrong in education – and nowhere more effectively than in Bardford, where the name of Ray Honey-ford, contributor to the Salisbury Review and headteacher opponent of multi-cultural orthodoxy, was chanted on the football terraces. When we seek explanations for such a striking reversal, it makes sense, again, to look back towards McMillan. Steedman notes her ventriloquising on behalf of her working-class subjects, and her preference for the less dialogic forms of discourse: the moral tale, the expert lecture, the speech which would carry listeners into such states of rapture that they could not afterwards recall what had been said. In these habits, she was helping to confirm a distance between the people and those reformers who claim to speak on their behalf – a distance that has now been richly exploited by populist critics of the ‘producer-dominated’ welfare state.

In other ways, too, original flaws in McMillan’s system of ideas and images are now, precisely because its influence has endured, exposed in all their insufficiencies. Steedman writes very well about the affective power of McMillan’s work – about its source in her sense of her own lost childhood, and its ability to tap springs of longing in the reader. In these sections, the author’s own wry presence is strongly felt. But the completeness of the language of desire that McMillan created is only lightly questioned. Under the pressures of present need, two problems, at least, could have been more strongly illuminated.

Mind and intelligence, McMillan insisted, developed through the training of the body. On this squarely material basis, she was able to fight to improve the physical condition of school and children. But what came afterwards? Assuming her first demands were satisfied, what – in the way of proposals for a curriculum that would enhance cognitive development in the mass of students – should follow? Here the vagueness not only of McMillan but of three generations of reform has left a space which a Conservative-inspired National Curriculum aims to fill. Likewise, there are problems with the way that McMillan presents the garden school. Her imagery here is elemental: cleansing water, the healing air, the restorative powers of the earth. Only fire is missing – but its absence is critical. Fire is transformative, an emblem of the process of work which McMillan, critic of industrial capitalism, wished to exclude from the school. ‘Everyone who thinks of education,’ she wrote in 1911, in a passage that Steedman does not quote, ‘has to think of the human being, not the worker.’ The problem with this, of course, is that it leaves education with little to say about work and its effect on people’s lives. Just as with the curriculum, there is a blank space gaping in the ideas of reform, and through these two theoretical gaps the Conservative assault has now poured. It speaks of liberating education by relating it to the work process, and of a curriculum based on clear definitions of knowledge-based ob-objectives. Compared to this apparent clarity, the language of infinite but vague potential left to us by people like McMillan, and now spoken by those who do not share the urgency of her commitments, sounds exhausted. Walking through Rotherhithe and Deptford now, we can grasp the need for a different rhetoric. For, where McMillan once cultivated her nursery gardens, the London Docklands Development Corporation sponsors lakes and city farms and gardens of a new sort, which beautify a redevelopment that has little to do with local interests.

Greenery has no radical meaning here. To suggest the outlines of an education that can investigate such mysteries we will need to rethink McMillan’s legacy.