Fantastic Pictures of a Future Society

Last month the postponed celebration of Robert Owen’s Anniversary took place in the World heritage site of New Lanark. I was fortunate enough to be be invited to speak within the education theme. If you have an interest in the development of education particularly in the early years, the start of the influence of capitalism and ways to build a better society then you really must visit New Lanark.

The conference brought together a wide range of international speakers focused on Robert Owen’s educational legacy (more on that to come), company towns, slavery and colonialism education, co-operation and the idea of world heritage and global and local communities. The breadth of these themes are a measure of Robert Owen’s influence in so many areas. This blog gives a short summary of the presentation entitled “Fantastic Pictures of a Future Society.”

The title comes from The Communist Manifesto and summarised Marx and Engels views on Robert Owen and the Utopian Socialists. They saw them as an example of the first yearnings “for a general reconstruction of society.”

Owen’s legacy was embodied in the the cotton mills of New Lanark and in his time, from 1800 to 1825, when he managed the factory. In that place and time he put into practice his thoughts about a new society, provision for his workforce and implemented his changes in education. He also made a heap of money. While talking about Owen I linked his legacy in part to some of my experiences in education.

Robert Owen :scenes of New Lanark and its link to colonialism

In the mid-1980s I started as a teacher in John Bosco Secondary School in the Gorbals. We used the book, in the middle of the slide above, in lessons about prejudice and discrimination as part of the Modern Studies course. The text Roots of Racism is free to download from the link in Further Reading (See below)

While building upon the of his father-in-law David Dale Owen’s major contribution in New Lanark was extending the range of practices attending to the workers’ social needs. Previously a significant proportion of the workforce were young pauper apprentices, the care experienced youth of their day. Owen moved to employ families and provided early learning care for the children enabling the women to work in the mills. For a small payment the equivalent of a nursery school was opened. In addition he limited the working hours of children and young people and offered them school education too. The sketch of the classroom in action is beside photographs of the present day setup in the school room of New Lanark.

Owen offered a paternalistic view of a New Society for his workers while minoring their working practices and character through his silent monitor. The silent monitor meant that Owen could judge and evaluate his workforce on a four point scale.

in 2002 I joined the Scottish schools inspectorate as they launched their self-evaluation manual How Good Is Our School? which operated with quality indicators differentiated on a four point scale mirroring Owen’s monitoring from 1800s . Perhaps we could have saved a lot of money and effort by using Owen’s block of wood to inspect schools and centres! Perhaps not.

My presentation considered a wide range of points connected to factory towns, the present-day use by management consultants of Owen’s ideas and New Lanark as a form of institutionalised social order. I also aimed to share an evaluation (on a four point scale of course) of the quality of educational provision at New Lanark in terms of pupils’ learning experiences, learners’ personal and social development and leadership.

There are a lot of questions about Owen’s leadership, his promotion of a set of practices about social provision and education. However comma his work as personified at New Lanark is remarkable and places him as an original thinker and practitioner of ideas linked to socialism, put into practice on the banks of the Clyde in 1800 to 1825 when he was in charge at New Lanark. Two points remain to be made first he viewed education for all as important. Secondly, he built his fortune on cotton picked by slaves – his fortune at New Lanark was built on the banks of the rivers Clyde and Mississippi.

Remember and visit New Lanark.

Further reading

Communist Manifesto with its mention of Owen’s socialist utopianism

Owen as an educator / Margery Browning in Robert Owen, prince of cotton spinners (1971)

Roots of Racism

Michael Morris The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Improvement: David Dale, Robert Owen and New Lanark Cotton

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