In a recent review essay, Correlli Barnett convincingly argues that

that the Arnoldian public school, with its high-minded emphasis on religion and the classics, and its late-Victorian successor's vaunting of team games and imperial patriotism, not only helped to create a non-technological intelligentsia and governing elite, but also served as a baneful model for the reformed grammar schools and, after 1902, for the new state secondary schools.

Eric Hobsbawm, who elsewhere also criticizes the British public school for its effect on the British economy, also points to Britain's strange lack of interest in scientific and technological education:

There is no reason why British technical and scientific education should have remained negligible, in a period when a wealth of rich amateur scientists and privately endowed research laboratories or practical experience in production clearly no longer compensated for the virtual absence of university education and the feebleness of formal technological training. there was no compelling reason why Britain in 1913 had only nine thousand university students compared to almost sixty thousand in Germany, or only five day students per ten thousand (1900) compared to almost thirteen in the USA; why Germany produced three thousand graduate engineers per year while in England and Wales only 350 graduated in all branches of science, technology and mathematics with first- and second-class honours, and few of these were qualified for research. There were plenty of people throughout the nineteenth century to warn the country of the dangers of its educational backwardness; there was no shortage of funds, and certainly no lack of suitable candidates for technical and higher training. [160]

According to several historians of British education, Sir Robert Morant, the first Secretary to the new Board of Education who himself attended Winchester and Oxford created "the new state secondary system in the image of the public school and grammar school" at the expense of science and technology.

Sanderson presents fairly the argument of Morant's defenders, that he promoted "liberal" education in the new state secondary schools in order to offer the bright lower-middle-class bookish the opportunity of upward social mobility via university entrance. Yet the fact still remains that Morant created a state secondary system which has served to perpetuate the antitechnological ethos and intellectual snobberies of the Victorian public school and Oxbridge. [Barnett]

Sanderson, says, Barnett, points out another related cause of later British economic decline, which first appeared

in this seminal period of 1870-1914 — the widespread lack of appetite of British employers, themselves often ill-educated "practical men," for recruits with formal technical qualifications, and their preference for people "trained" on the job by the traditional method of "sitting next to Nellie." Here was an abiding double bind: the British system proportionately turned out far fewer technically qualified personnel than, say, America or Germany, and yet more than British industry wanted. [Barnett]

Together with what Barnett describes as "the British distaste for a functionally coherent national system" this bias against technology led to the UK's eventual decline from the position of world leader in economics in 1870 to fifteenth place a century later.

In light of these arguments one should point out that today the United Kingdom places a heavy important tax on computers and related equipment of the kind levied on alcohol, tobacco, and various luxury items; some Asian countries, such as Singapore, have none. What do you think this difference implies about England's attitude toward the newest major technology? its economic future in a digital age?


Barnett, Correlli. The Collapse of British Power. London, 1972.

Barnett, Correlli. "Could do better: The failure to educate Britons to compete." Times Literary Supplement pp. 4-5. [Review Sanderson, Education and Economic Decline]

Hobsbawm, Eric. Industry and Empire: The Birth of the Industrial Revolution. rev. ed. New York: New Press, 1999.

Sanderson, Michael. Education and Economic Decline in Britain, 1870 to the 1990s.. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Wiener, Matrtin J. English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit, 1850-1980. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

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Last modified March 2001