Active Citizenship and the Humanities: The Victorian Model

By Marcella Sutcliffe

A recently funded AHRC project, carried out at the University of Cambridge, has provided a historical perspective to the current debates on the role of the humanities in civil society ( ). It is in the mid-Victorian era that the belief in the civic value and moral power of the arts and humanities reached its climax, yet by the late nineteenth century, Matthew Arnold, defined by contemporaries as ‘the most formidable and the most temperate champion of the humanities’, was seriously concerned. The increasingly subordinate role that the humanities had acquired since society had turned towards lionising the value of the sciences was evident. Parallel to the emerging ‘two cultures’ tension, the movement towards university extension courses reflected the tug of war between providing workers with vocational training and inspiring individuals with a non-utilitarian, liberal education.

The history of the adult education movement from the establishment of the Working Men’s College in London (1854) to the outbreak of the First World War provides the chronological setting of this study, focused on what it identifies as a ‘new generation’ of university men whose first aims were to challenge earlier paternalistic attitudes towards working-men by establishing cross-class fellowships based on sharing the pleasure of a liberal education. How did such friendships manifest themselves? Who were the agents? How did the advocates of the primacy of ‘high culture’ in civil society react to the challenges posed by an increasingly professionalized society where ‘useful’ knowledge, vocational training and scientific experiments took precedence on the humanizing value of the arts?

The research findings will be presented by Eugenio Biagini and Marcella Sutcliffe on 11 October, 7.00 pm at the exhibition launch at the Bishopsgate Institute (11-20 October). A talk on the research project will subsequently be held at the recently refurbished Working Men’s College (Camden, 23 October 7.00 pm). The exhibition will then travel to Cambridge, where it will take part to the Festival of Ideas (24-27 October).

Bishopsgate Institute, Talk, 11 October, 7.00 pm
Exhibition, 11-20 October

Working Men’s College, Camden, Talk, 23 October, 7.00 pm

Michaelhouse Café, Cambridge, Festival of Ideas, Talk, 7.00 pm
Exhibition, 24-27 October

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