Victorian literature: A Learning Society?

Victorian literature

Detail from 'The Railway Station' by William Powell Frith, RA courtesy of Royal Holloway University of London

Detail from ‘The Railway Station’ by William Powell Frith, RA courtesy of Royal Holloway University of London

Throughout these suggestions runs the idea that the body of scholarly knowledge can and should work in dialogic relationship with pedagogic practice. We may in a sense be able to take our lead from the Victorians here. As teachers of the nineteenth century, we can take advantage of the fact that we are dealing with a culture obsessed with education, teaching, the creation and maintenance of cultural influence. Students might for example learn a lot from dipping into Matthew Arnold’s elementary school inspection reports. They would in any case make a change from heavily trodden texts like Culture and Anarchy or ‘The Function of Criticism at the Present Time’), and working in pairs to identify the assumptions made about education. These texts won’t, of course, necessarily be familiar to undergraduate students, even if they are to us…. But if nothing else, the weight placed upon the need for children to learn poetry by heart, might raise some startling questions. But you don’t have to be teaching Carlyle, Newman, or Arnold to tease out implications from this strand.

Without reducing the ‘otherness’ of Victorian culture to a mirror of ourselves, we could in lectures or presentations start from contemporary (twenty-first century) pre-occupations – free market vs. social management; utilitarian and instrumentalist accounts of ‘skills’, the devastation of natural environments by industrial progress, evolution and ‘intelligent design’, the break up of traditional communities, the undermining of traditional authority by new popular and commercially-driven media. We might then consider working backwards in inciting students’ curiosity about a world in a frenzy of social, economic, and cultural change. In doing so, we are likely at the same time to find ourselves trying to evade thematic reductionism. What’s great about the Victorians is that key issues and themes seem to recur and reoccur in so many different contexts and literary works/genres. So an environmentally aware approach to the arrival of a high carbon economy might help frame the 1840s in a way that learned-up phrases about ‘the industrial revolution’ do not.

My own course on the Victorians starts with a class brainstorm. I just say to the class “what do you know about the Victorians?”. They’re Level 3, so they’ve mostly had chances to stumble across them elsewhere, but there’s always a lot to work with from such a beginning. The point about the industrial revolution being the start of a whole way of life now bringing the planet to its knees is also a very contemporary point to make. This can then lead to a discussion about how the Victorians themselves thought about what industrialization was bringing – both good and ill.
(Rosie Miles, University of Wolverhampton)