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For the Education and Improvement of the People’: Working-class Knowledge and Respectability in the Nineteenth-Century British Imperial World

My dissertation explores the role played within the nineteenth-century culture of ‘improvement’ by adult learning activities in the creation of class identities and ideas of respectability in regions across Britain, Ireland, and the Empire.  By examining the working-class pursuit of knowledge as a whole, bringing together mechanics’ institutes, public libraries, public lectures, exhibitions, educational periodicals, and cooperative learning groups, I demonstrate that these were not, as many historians have suggested, separate, isolated efforts disconnected by regional boundaries. When considered as a single movement of knowledge acquisition for the purpose of ‘improvement,’ the wider trend becomes apparent.
Respectability meant different things to those in the metropole than in the Celtic periphery and white settler colonies, where such organizations were often at the center of working-class communities. Class, like gender and race, was critical in determining which intellectual pursuits were considered ‘appropriate’ endeavors, and how knowledge was defined. Learning pursuits, which were self-driven and meant for self-improvement, are vital to our understanding of how the working class were understood as citizens, political actors, and as a part of the imperial intellectual landscape, both in their own estimation and as part of their wider social standing.
Scholars of education, leisure, radicalism, publishing, and literature have previously studied some of these activities individually, within specific geographic boundaries. I argue that studied in isolation, the impact of these learning activities on the working class is obscured. For example, local analyses of individual mechanics’ institutes have given the impression that they were short-lived and often shunned by the working classes. In Ireland, Scotland, Canada, and Australia, however, they often remained centers of working-class communities. My research combines social history with gender and labor history in imperial contexts, to uncover the often-unheard voices of men and women of marginalized social groups. Using the lens of working-class learning traditions, I bring together discrete but interconnected ideas and experiences from culturally distinct but demographically similar spaces to reveal a larger picture of working-class identity. Class was not simply as a social category, but an aspect of cultural identity that, like gender and race, is contingent and fluid. Financial and occupational station may have been the main factor in labelling someone as working-class in the period, but identity could be constructed or adapted for the environment, or translated differently by varying social groups and situations. Regardless of class, in every time period and in every culture, human beings tend to be curious, to desire greater understanding of the world around them, to have a voice in their communities; the working classes of nineteenth-century industrial Britain and its wider empire were certainly no exception.

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