What counted as knowledge before the First World War?

One of the questions that has been raised during the massive open on-line course (MOOC) on World War I: Changing Faces of Heroism that I am teaching on is the extent to which working class men would have had knowledge of ideas of classical heroism in the years before the war.  A second-year PhD student here at the University of Leeds, Claire Martin, is working on the subject of the circulation of medical knowledge among working-class women in Yorkshire in this period. While not directly related to the First World War, Claire has kindly agreed to write a summary of some of the relevant historical discussions relating to the subject  of class and education, demonstrating just how complex and important questions of class, culture and education are to our understanding of the era.

If you ever read autobiographies and oral interviews of British working-class people who lived in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, you might notice a somewhat unsettling recurring feature. Systematically, the authors or respondents insist on the ordinariness of their lives and experiences, as they are being recorded. They are telling you that their stories are not remarkable, that they are not important. They are surprised that anyone would be interested in them. Interestingly, you don’t tend to find such disclaimers in autobiographies left by their contemporaries of the upper classes. There the authors seem on the contrary quite confident in asserting who they are, and what they did. (Gagnier, 1991: p.13) When you compare the two, it feels as if at that time your social status determined whether or not your story was worth being told, or indeed whether or not you could claim to have a story to tell at all. As I was reading these stories, it became clear to me that class shaped these people’s conception of what and who was important and worth being remembered. In other words, class shaped people’s ideas of what counts as knowledge.

To understand this, we need to look at the cultural context of Britain at that time. The second half of the nineteenth century was marked by a cultural revolution, inspired by the ideals of the enlightenment, and which promoted individualism. Free public libraries were opened throughout the country in an attempt to make knowledge accessible to all. In parallel, changes in education legislation meant that, by the 1870s, most people in the country were literate. The idea behind all this was to enable anyone, regardless of their background, to develop independent judgement. This was also a way to include people who had long been excluded from the traditional intellectual life by simultaneously enabling them to acquire knowledge and telling them that their stories and experience qualified as objects of knowledge too. (Joyce, 1999: p.39) Wonderful as it sounds on paper, however, the reality was quite different. The importance of education for all was increasingly recognised and access to it was certainly made easier, but working-class knowledge and experience were not so readily validated by contemporaries of the upper classes. During that period, the working classes remained the object of much contempt, more often than not described as a mass of uncultured, vulgar people by middle-class observers. They were not expected to think much or know their classics, if you will. The truth is, of course they did, but middle-class people would not recognise the validity of their cultural practices.

One of the main reasons for this was because working-class culture was based on practices which were fundamentally at odds with middle-class ideology. There was a real cultural clash, a collision between two completely different approaches to knowledge and its transmission. In working-class communities, knowledge was traditionally transmitted orally: working-class people were culturally used to asking their relatives and peers for answers to their questions rather than to open a book. (Rose, 2001: p.220) Besides, knowledge was seen as something to be shared with the community, and not selfishly kept or pursued for one’s own interest. In opposition to this, people from the upper classes relied essentially on writings and academic accreditation, and completely dismissed informal practices and oral tradition. So on the one hand you had intellectual practices based on long-lasting traditions of orality and mutuality, and on the other hand an equally deep-rooted culture dominated by writings and individualism. British intellectual life at that time was suffused with middle-class values, and the imposition of this cultural model was institutionalised: schools for instance promoted competition, and individual learning and achievement. What counted as knowledge was entirely defined by bourgeois ideology, and working-class knowledge and cultural practices were dismissed.

It would be wrong – and incredibly condescending – to think that working-class people did not engage with classical culture at all, and that their knowledge was essentially trade-specific or practical. Working-class culture was extremely diverse, both in terms of content and practices. Education was very much a collective activity, which happened in everyday informal settings, in a fairly unstructured way. We know that working-class girls for instance disliked being taught domestic science at school, and preferred learning directly from their mothers or other female relatives instead. (Roberts, 1984: pp.30-34) In his autobiography, Arthur Gill, the son of a Leeds shoe repairer, recalls the daily political debates between customers in his father’s shop. (Gill, 1969: pp.144-46) Most people read the newspapers, and discussed the news at work. People might not have had the means to buy or possess books of their own, but they would borrow them, club together to buy copies, or listen to public readings. In fact, reading aloud was a widespread practice, and for long a prime form of working-class education: people would read aloud in their homes, and listen to public readings on the street, in the pub, in various clubs, or in factories. (Rose, 2001: p.58)

In his extensive study of British working-class intellectual life at that period, Jonathan Rose provides a fascinating account of working-class attitudes to knowledge and its transmission, and calls our attention to mutual improvement societies. In the second half of the nineteenth century, working-class people founded a number of cooperative education groups and mutual improvement societies based on their own cultural traditions. People would meet in various interest clubs, Sunday schools, and friendly societies, to listen to papers and debate ideas on a variety of topics – from politics to economics, literature, religion, history, or philosophy. (Rose, 2001: p.58) Cooperative education represented an alternative to dominant cultural practices and their middle-class bias. There was no hierarchy for instance, as you would find in a school with the teacher being the one who knows and speaks: everyone was on an equal footing. (Well, men were, that is – but that’s another story…) Considering that these people, owing to their social status, knew from experience the fundamentally oppressive nature of all hierarchies, this is hardly surprising.

In fact, working-class self-education was a form of cultural class struggle, based on the idea that knowledge is power – an attractive prospect for people who had long been denied both. Not everyone embraced this pursuit of knowledge though, and some working-class people resented what they saw as an accommodation to middle-class ideology. One example that illustrates very well how these tensions could translate in practice is that of working-class students who performed well at school and secure scholarships to go to university. These students ended up in a very awkward position, simultaneously ostracised both by their own community, who were suspicious of their selfish (because non collective) learning, and by a system that denied the validity of their experience and that functioned on values diametrically opposed to their own. (Rose, 2001: p.88)

What this means for the social historian or indeed anyone interested in working-class culture at that time, is that we need to look beyond classical and institutional knowledge alone, and to be aware of the erasure of working-class knowledge and experience by bourgeois practices and ideology. Contemporary social commentaries will tell you what middle-class observers thought of working-class people. School curriculums will tell you what kind of knowledge was deemed important according to middle-class ideology. What working-class people knew or enjoyed, what they read, what they discussed, how they acquired and engaged with knowledge – all this is absent from such records; and just as working-class knowledge and cultural practices are dismissed, so too are working-class people. Good thing some of them decided to record their own stories and experiences, unremarkable as they thought they were.


Gagnier, Regenia, Subjectivities: a History of Self-Representation in Britain, 1832-1920 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991)

Gill, Arthur, I remember! Reminiscences of a Cobbler’s Son (1969), Burnett Archive of Working-Class Autobiographies, Brunel University Library

Joyce, Patrick, “The Politics of the Liberal Archive”, History of the Human Sciences, 12 (2) (1999), pp.35-49

Roberts, Elizabeth, A Woman’s Place: An Oral History of Working-Class Women, 1890-1940 (Oxford: Blackwell, 1984)

Rose, Jonathan, The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001)


Critical Ramblings

After a week in the archive last week I have been reading a few articles in an attempt to get a bit more into the correct mindset before writing my own.  With one exception, none have been directly related to my research (there isn’t a whole lot out there as far as I can make out) but two were articles that I have been meaning to read for some time as they have been cited in many other things that I have read.  The experience was enlightening, although possibly not in the ways the authors intended.

The first of these was actually a chapter in a collection of essays, Ilana Bet-El’s ‘Men and Soldiers: British Conscripts, Concepts of Masculinity, and the Great War’ in Billie Melman’s Borderlines: Genders and Identities in War and Peace 1870-1930 (Routledge, 1998). Bet-El’s argument is that British popular memory of First World War soldiers as men is dominated by the Myth of Volunteer (her capitals) at the expense of the masculine experiences of conscripts who, in fact, made up the majority of service personnel over the course of the war. While Bet-El certainly has a point, she does fall into the trap of ascribing too much meaning to the way in which a man became a soldier, the very criticism she has of the civilian population at the time, who she sees as being out of touch with the realities of warfare.  Thus the experiences of maleness in wartime as one of endurance and survival which she ascribes exclusively to conscripts surely applies as much to the experiences of volunteers once they were in the front line as to those of conscripts.  She also doesn’t play entirely fair with her sources, using public propaganda posters in relation to volunteers but personal documents when discussing conscripts.  This does bring new sources into the debate, but it is rather a case of comparing apples and oranges.

My notes on Bet-El’s articles are thus full of exclamation points and pointed asides about her claims, many of which I disagree with.  What is encouraging, however, is the date of the article.  Having wondered why she was using such a monolithic definition of masculinity (and one that tended to over-emphasize the importance sexuality, although this was clearly in response to the historiographic context she was arguing against), I went back and checked the dates and realized that almost all the more interesting and subtle analysis of masculinity and the First World War had been published after this article.  So John Tosh’s discussion of domestic masculinity and its relation to adventure and, even more significant, his analysis of ‘manliness’ as opposed to ‘masculinity’, and Joanna Bourke and Michael Roper’s work on male emotions in wartime has all been published in the past decade and a half, which is before you consider the reconsiderations of war enthusiasm, recruitment and citizenship that have also appeared.  That the field has developed so much, and introduced so many complex and interesting questions to the debate is very exciting and encouraging for those of us who are trying to take the work further.

Mentioning Mike Roper brings me two the second article which has been raising my blood pressure, Tracey Loughran’s ‘Shell Shock, Trauma, and the First World War: The Making of a Diagnosis and Its Histories’ in the Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences (Vol. 67, no 1, 2010, pp.94-119), which cites The Secret Battle extensively.  Again, this is an article I have been meaning to read for a while and it was definitely worth the wait.  I think Loughran’s argument about the need to locate understandings and diagnosis of shell shock in the wider intellectual context of the early twentieth century is spot-on and I am looking forward to her book on the subject which is tantalizingly in production.  What I was less convinced by was her argument for a middle way approach between those who locate an emotional truth of the war in art and literature and what she refers to as the ‘myth and memory’ school of historians who locate that truth in ‘the widest possible range of documents, representing the widest possible range of people’, citing Dan Todman’s The Great War: Myth and Memory.  I think this is a bit of a misrepresentation of the myth and memory argument which certainly isn’t about the weight of sheer numbers.  It is primarily about the very thing Loughran herself is interested in, context, and providing a counter-balance to what might be described as a hegemonic understanding of the war based on a relatively small number of sources.  Certain stories about the war have great prominence – the war poets, men shot at dawn, most recently men with facial injuries.  Trying to tell the stories of other groups, not necessarily larger but equally relevant and representative, can be difficult, especially if those stories appear to contradict the ’emotional truths’ of the better known groups. Understanding how those particular groups came to dominate the historic narrative isn’t everything, but it can help to make the case for why stories about conscripted men or those suffering abdominal wounds or those whose psyches were resilient or adaptable enough that they didn’t display symptoms that could be defined as shell shock are also worth hearing.  Yes, there must also be an ’empathetic imagining of a subject’ in order to ask ‘questions with a human meaning, which ultimately makes the practice of history worthwhile.’  But that empathy is not necessarily precluded by casting a critical eye over how particular stories come to resonate so strongly, any more than the ability to be historically accurate is precluded by the fictional form.
So, that is rather a long-winded way of me getting some first impressions and criticisms off my chest.  Working on a long-term independent project, it can be difficult to find an outlet for such ideas and critiques.  Articles are not, in themselves, subject to book reviews, and I cannot write full reviews for everything I read in any case.  But in the absence of a reading group or seminar series in which to express my ideas, this blog must serve instead as an outlet and record.  Which is, of course, the point.

Age and Class

I am currently supposed to be writing an article on the politics of voluntary medical services in wartime but keep on being distracted by thoughts about age and class in relation to wartime masculinity.

‘Indeed, to the end of his life the Dean never really understood what work it meant to run a house, a college, or a camp efficiently. All through his life meals appeared, rooms were cleaned, beds were made, clothes were washed and mended, and he took this for granted.’ (P. Pare and D. Harris, Eric Milner-White 1884-1963, A Memoir (London, 1965) quoted in E. Madigan, Faith Under Fire: Anglican Army Chaplains and the Great War (Palgrave, 2011).)

Milner-White served as an army chaplain during the war, hence Madigan’s interest in him, but the point he is making about the class background of the majority of Anglican chaplains (public school and university educated, middle to upper class social millieu) and the sense of entitlement that this bred applies equally to a great number of other men who served in combatant roles during the war, as Madigan himself notes. The idea that these men might not have known how to run a camp, because that sort of organizational work was something that others did, is quite a startling one. It is forcing me to ask who had the sort of organizational and logistics skills to make the army function in wartime (I am starting to believe the old soldiers’ theory that the NCOs really did run everything) and to return to Ross McKibbin’s endlessly fascinating discussion of the stratification of social class in Classes and Cultures: England 1918-1951 (Oxford, 1998) for a reminder of the complexities of the British class system in the first half of the twentieth century.  It is easy to talk about the ‘middle classes’ and assume that we know what we mean by that (usually ourselves) but applying that label historically takes some careful thought, something I will admit I haven’t been taking enough care with recently.  I tend to focus on continuities in my work, ways in which social and cultural assumptions have not changed that much over time despite all the great historical event of the last hundred or so years, or at least have developed from a common base that remains recognizable today. It is very healthy to be reminded that some things have changed enormously and that getting to grips with why those changes occurred and what the implications might be is part of my job.

And then this morning I received an e-mail from my colleague asking if I could recommend any studies on the experiences of middle-aged men during the war. And I can’t. Age was a hugely important aspect of the recruitment process in Britain during the war and had profound influence on ideas of appropriate service and, consequently, masculinity during the war years. (It was also hugely influential in ideas about shell shock, something I am exploring for a paper I hope to give at a conference in the spring.) Yet, while underage volunteerism has been discussed fairly extensively in the literature, I can think of no study of those too old to serve. There are plenty of anecdotal stories of over-aged men who volunteered, and many did serve in non-combatant roles (including those being studied by my colleague who contributed to the logistics effort). But there is no systematic academic analysis that I can think of. If anyone can suggest any, I would be profoundly grateful as this is something that I am going to have to look into in more depth, if only because I suspect a number of the orderlies and ambulance drivers I am studying fit into this category.

And, after that digression, I return to the politics of the British Red Cross, the St. John Ambulance Association and the Friends Ambulance Unit.