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This was truly mass-produced education. Soon it was possible to be self-sustaining by charging as little as four shillings a year.
Joseph Lancaster was a zealot, which was a source of both strength and weakness. He believed his system would revolutionize society by eradicating illiteracy and therefore ending poverty. To propagate the faith, he wrote a short manual, The Lancasterian System of Education, and printed several thousand copies. He lectured all over the world, giving away copies of his manual to anyone who professed conversion to his ideas.
Biographer Salmon describes Lancaster's travels and successes: "During 1808 -1810 he made 16 missionary journeys, traveled 6,837 miles, delivered 141 lectures, and was instrumental in establishing 95 schools for 25,000 children." All that in an era of slow carriages and boats.
Lancaster was a great salesman, but he was terrible at business. Although he earned huge lecture fees, he gave much of it away to sincere or not-so-sincere audience members who said they needed seed money to implement his plan. He also liked to live well. Robert Dale Owen, the Scottish-born American social reformer, wrote that Lancaster was "a strange mixture of honest self-sacrificing zeal and imprudent self-indulgent ostentation."
His major break toward national fame came when the aristocrat Lord Somerville attended a class and quickly became a backer in 1803. Somerville told others what he had seen, and soon, according to Lancaster's biographer and friend William Corston, "foreign princes, ambassadors, peers, commoners, ladies of distinction, bishops and archbishops, Jews and Turks, all visited the schools with wonder-waiting eyes."
This ferment reached King George III, who granted an audience to Lancaster. "I have sent for you to give me an account of your system of education....One master teach 500 children at the same time? How do you keep them in order, Lancaster?" asked the king. Lancaster described the monitorial system. The king was satisfied. "I highly approve of your system, and it is my wish that every poor child in my dominions should be taught to read the Bible; I will do everything you wish to promote this object." The King promised 100 pounds annually, from his own funds, not the state's.
This modest patronage transformed a growing private business into a national insitution. But in the end it proved fatal, as it aroused conservatives-including defenders of the Church of England-to active opposition. To his critics, Lancaster was a dangerous radical intent on creating a social revolution. Teaching the "unwashed masses" reading and writing and the virtue of self-reliance, he was making it possible for them to crack the traditional class barriers.
His most vociferous critic was Sarah Trimmer. She warned that Lancaster's emphasis on merit, not class, might lead to the day when "boys, accustomed to consider themselves nobles of a school, may, in their future lives, from a conceit of their own trivial merits...aspire to be nobles of the land, and to take the place of the hereditary nobility."
Mrs. Trimmer also attacked Lancaster for his nonsectarian approach to education. "My schools were not established to promote the religious principles of any particular sect," attested Lancaster, "but, setting aside all party distictions, its object is to instruct our youth in useful learning [and] in the leading and uncontroverted principles of Christianity." Lancaster's liberalism enraged Tory clergymen. "If this be liberality," thundered the Archdeacon of Sarum, "it is liberality at the expense of Christianity."
Lancaster's opponents soon turned to championing a rival educational method, the "Madras" system of an obscure Scottish clergyman, Dr. Andrew Bell. The system, though it relied on monitors, taught neither self-reliance nor familiarity with the workings of the free-enterprise system. It reinforced all the negatives of the class barriers. "In utopian schemes for the universal diffusion of general knowledge," preached Dr. Bell, "there is a risk of elevating those who are doomed to the drudgery of daily labor above their situation, and rendering them unhappy and discontented in their lot."
Lancaster at first praised Bell's experiments with the Madras system, but as it became apparent that conservative leaders of the Church of England were trying to use Madras to eliminate the Lancaster system, he turned bitter, denouncing Madras as a tool of those opposed to the advancement of the poor. "The ignorance of the poor," he wrote, "who constitute a very numerous class in Britain, was felt necessary to keep the enormities and oppressions of the establishment in darkness."
The church, in promoting Madras, used the same tactics that many modern retail or fast-food chains use against one another. Wherever Lancaster opened a school, the church opened one of its own directly across the street. Backed by huge school construction funds from Parliament, the tactic was a success. Gradually, the church split Lancaster's market and, step by step, bled him to death.
But as much as the Tories and the church were responsible for bringing Lancaster down, his own profligate ways hurt perhaps even more. Early on, a number of nationally prominent men came together to form a board of directors ("The Committee of Managers") to promote the system along realistic business lines. They fused the best of utopian faith in Lancaster's system with years of financial expertise.
The committee's first task was to separate Lancaster's personal and business monies, but this infuriated the mercurial innovator. He believed that all incoming money, whether from his lectures or books or from school tuition or contributions, was for his discretionary use, including indulgence in the high lifestyle to which he had grown accustomed. The committee would brook no more of his erratic behavior.
Writes biographer Salmon of the members: "They freely sacrificed their time and money for the sake of the man, but, even for his sake, they would not sacrifice the system. They saved it from the bigotry and blindness of its opponents, and.. .they would save it from the folly and caprice of its inventor."