How Dickens and Other Authors Shaped Attitudes to Education—with Lasting Impacts
In Education for All? BU political scientist Cathie Jo Martin says education systems continue to be influenced by ideas of writers from Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution eras
English poet William Wordsworth—he who wandered lonely as a cloud—is famed for launching literature’s Romantic era, but there was little affection in his views on educating the masses. He feared that schools for the working class would “make discontented spirits and insubordinate and presumptuous workmen.” But could those illiberal views have had an outsized impact beyond Wordsworth’s literary circles—and his time?
In her new book, Cathie Jo Martin, a Boston University College of Arts & Sciences professor of political science, suggests that fiction writers and essayists from the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution eras hold the secret to their countries’ paths to national education—with enduring effects still felt today.
Education for All? Literature, Culture and Education Development in Britain and Denmark (Cambridge University Press, 2023) mixes literary and computational analysis to explore the cultural roots of two distinct education systems and their impacts on low-skill youth. Why did Denmark develop mass education for all in 1814, Martin asks, while Britain created a public school system only in 1870 that underserved the working class?
“Cultural ideas about education itself, about society, about the working class, about coordination versus conflict—all of those things matter deeply to the sorts of policy solutions that people come up with in these countries,” says Martin. In other words, politicians and policymakers were influenced by the books they read.
Martin used archival material, a close reading of texts, and computational methods applied to large bodies of British and Danish literature to make the case that novelists served as social movement activists and influencers who shaped education policy in the 18th and 19th centuries. And she argues that their ideas have since been passed from generation to generation.
“We hear a lot about culture wars and, most recently, their effect on education policy, but culture itself is difficult to measure,” says Martin. “We had few ways to evaluate culture systematically before public opinion polls were created in the 1900s. Already an avid reader, I wondered if fiction writers in Britain and Denmark inspired policymakers to make different choices in developing schools.”
Stories about Schooling
Martin has long studied education systems, as well as social inclusion, human capital investments, and political negotiation. She also has strong ties to Europe—she formerly chaired the Council for European Studies—and to Denmark in particular, where she holds a research associate position at the University of Southern Denmark’s Danish Centre for Welfare Studies.
“I originally formed my hypotheses by reading novels from both countries, but then the computational text analyses made it possible to see long-term patterns and verify that my insights held up when applied to entire bodies of literature,” says Martin, a faculty affiliate and former research fellow at BU’s Rafik B. Hariri Institute for Computing and Computational Science & Engineering. Her previous book, The Political Construction of Business Interests (Cambridge, 2012), cowritten with political scientist Duane Swank, won the American Political Science Association’s politics and history book award.
To delve into the literature in more detail, Martin used natural language processing (NLP), a computer science subfield that uses machines and programs to understand human speech (it’s what powers your voice-to-text app). Martin applied NLP methods known as computational text analysis and topic modeling to over 1,100 British and Danish literary texts from 1700 to 1920, tracking details like common topics and word frequencies to examine the stories that authors told about schooling. This computational analysis allowed her to sift through 100,000 passages about education, which she then used to identify the relationship between cultural influences and public policy struggles, establish the role of novelists and their impact on 18th- and 19th-century education reforms, and show how stances toward education continue to affect public policy to this day.
“I had never worked with computational tools before,” says Martin, who received a grant from the Hariri Institute. She also collaborated with computer scientists in the institute’s Software & Application Innovation Lab (SAIL), a research, software engineering, and consulting lab. “Hariri wrote scripts that I could apply to corpora of literature.”
Education for All versus an Elitist Approach
In her book, Martin reveals how Danish authors convinced their politicians to educate all citizens to better society, while British authors, promoting individualism, influenced their politicians to create elitist education systems. While the Danes developed inclusive educational opportunities and skilled learning pathways, the Brits built academic education systems with no instruction in practical skills and that failed to support low-skilled workers.
Literary cultural actors provided the ideology for these education reform movements by creating ways of looking at the world, known as cultural frames. Through story arcs and themes, says Martin, they shaped societal values and beliefs, addressing questions such as “How should we think about the working class?” and “What is the role of the state to educate citizens?”
Danish and British writers put forth drastically different cultural frames. Danish authors envisioned mass education as the cornerstone for economic prosperity and a society founded on common goals. Through their stories, they advocated education for all people, and showed that failing to care for low-skilled youth threatened the social fabric and wasted resources. These writers saw state support as crucial in carrying out this important educational work. For example, theologian and author N. F. S. Grundtvig believed that the education of peasants and workers was a matter of national identity and essential to the collective.
Conversely, British writers who supported mass schooling, says Martin, “were less concerned about the collective society and more about producing cultured individuals.” Novelist Elizabeth Gaskell wrote heart-wrenching stories that stirred charitable impulses toward the poor, but didn’t see an ignorant working class as a detriment to society. Authors’ narratives often centered around individual determination in overcoming structural injustices, making it easier to blame those who did not capitalize on educational opportunities. Charles Dickens’ eponymous character in David Copperfield takes full credit for his successes: “I never could have done what I have done, without the habits of punctuality, order, and diligence.” Martin says many British authors also viewed the state as ineffective.
Influence on the Attitudes of Today’s Students—and Future Policymakers
Martin’s computational text analysis also showed these ideas had staying power.
“Novelists from each generation used these cultural frames and then passed narratives on to future generations,” says Martin. “In this way, cultural frames are important across generations, and even influence perceptions of and responses to contemporary issues.”
To dig into the sustaining effects of cultural framing of 19th-century novelists, Martin surveyed 2,100 young people in Britain and Denmark in a language perception study. Results showed that Danish young people supported the government’s involvement in education much more than British young people. Martin says it shows that the words of 19th-century fiction writers reverberate in education policy debates to the present day.
By highlighting how historical cultural impacts influence current education policy, she hopes that policymakers and educators reevaluate their ideas of education. Policymakers in the United States, as well as in the United Kingdom and Denmark, she says, struggle to provide skills for both academically and vocationally minded people, for example.
“While policies such as the No Child Left Behind Act, and its successor, the Every Student Succeeds Act, strive to provide education equality, the reality is that these policies introduce regulations that make it difficult for educators to tailor their lessons to meet the needs of students of varying abilities,” says Martin. “Goals of education include both supporting economic growth and fostering citizenship and social responsibility.”
Martin also believes that more appropriate schooling for all could help to resolve the intense polarization dividing Americans.
“Many Americans without elite credentials feel disrespected by the winners of the academic lottery. By providing appropriate schooling for all students, policymakers could help to reduce tensions between high-skilled professionals and lower-skilled workers,” she says. “Political renewal may well depend on reconceptualization of our collective social identities. This book is for people who care about educating kids of all abilities, are baffled by culture wars, and worry about the future of collective action in our dystopian world.”
Additional reporting contributed by Alex Grzybowski (CAS’25, Pardee’25).
This research was supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, BU’s Rafik B. Hariri Institute for Computing and Computational Science & Engineering, and the BU Center for the Humanities.
On Wednesday, February 7, 2024, Cathie Jo Martin will discuss Education for All? with panelists from Harvard University and SUNY Albany. The free Author Meets Critics event at 3 pm at the Kilachand Center, 610 Commonwealth Ave., will be followed by a gala reception. RSVP online to reserve a spot.