Education for All: A Q&A with Professor Cathie Jo Martin

Political scientists don’t usually pay much attention to novels, but that’s the first place Professor of Political Science Cathie Jo Martin turned when she began research on public education in Denmark and England that forms the core of her new book, Education for All?: Literature, Culture and Education Development in Britain and Denmark. Martin embraced digital tools to scan thousands of fiction books and determine their impacts on public policy. We sat down with Professor Martin to discuss the history of education, the importance of literature and the power of computational analysis.

The following interview has been edited for clarity.

You recently published your book Education for All. What questions do you explore in this book?

One question is why countries come up with such different education systems at different points in time. Denmark feels very marginal on the world stage; it has no natural resources to speak of and very little influence, but it’s the earliest nation to come up with a public education system in 1814. England on the other hand is the leader of the industrial revolution, yet it does not develop public mass education until 1870. Denmark also developed an extensive vocational training system, so workers got access to secondary education in large numbers. Britain developed a secondary education system built around the grammar school model, but it’s just for academically-inclined people. They took all the money from the vocation training programs and put it into these new schools. At the start of the 20th century, only five percent of British people actually graduated from these programs.

Question number two asks how it is that cultural actors make a difference to political outcomes. In political science, we tend to be pretty skeptical of cultural explanations. It’s very difficult to measure culture. What is this relationship between public policy struggles and cultural influences?

The third question is why some countries form more solidaristic social policies than others. In Denmark, these policies in education, welfare, and industrial relations treat workers as valuable members of society with a lot of influence on policy outcomes. This ends up producing highly egalitarian systems. Britain, on the other hand, is a very unequal country. 


In your book, you talk about the role of fiction writers in developing these education systems. What sort of power did literature have over policy decisions?

These cultural actors get involved in two ways. One way is that they were important activists in specific policy struggles. There aren’t a lot of ways for people who are outside government to try to influence government policies. What authors were able to do was write these passionate novels that cast public policy concerns like poverty or education in a specific light. They had a lot of influence on the cognitive framing of these issues and the emotional resonance of these issues for individual citizens. They were people who could help frame issues and provide ideology for reform movements.

The other way that literature matters is that early novels create a series of cultural frames. They asked, “How should we think about the working class?” In Denmark, authors created views of workers as part of the solution because an educated workforce would be able to adopt technologies that could help Denmark compete in global markets. These novelists use these cultural frames, and then each generation reads these frames, reworks them to fit contemporary problems, and pass them on to future generations. I show this using my computational text analysis methods.


How did new computational tools help you uncover this larger story?

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. I had never worked with this tool before. I got a grant from Hariri, and the computer scientists there worked with me to develop scripts and build these corpora of literature. I had over a thousand pieces of work in these corpora.


Are there any questions that came up while writing that you’re still working through?

I have enduring questions about the origins of these cultural motifs. How far back do you have to go to understand the origins of these cultural narratives? I started with the 1700s, before party systems and democratization, so a lot of the institutional factors political scientists investigate had not developed yet. The 1700s was also a time when the modern novel was evolving. In Denmark, they reached back to old Nordic myths to claim that their views about society and workers came from those times. If I were to do future work in this area, I might read more of these premodern texts to figure out where these cultural legacies begin.


The Center for the Humanities helped Martin launch this project in 2014 when she was Henderson Senior Research Fellow, and we’re excited to see faculty embracing digital technologies that allow for quantitative and qualitative exploration in the humanities.

This research was also supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities.