Decline and fall of the eighteenth century

2nd December 1994 at 00:00
The era that spawned Voltaire, the Industrial Revolution and the novel is rapidly disappearing from schools. Sean Lang explains why.

Most educated people", wrote the historian Robert Hughes, "have felt twinges of nostalgia for Georgian England"; but this is unlikely to hold true in future, because the century that spawned Voltaire, Clive of India, bonnie Prince Charlie, the Marquis de Sade and the Gordon Riots, not to mention the epoch-shattering French, American and Industrial revolutions, is rapidly disappearing from schools.

English teachers have long made a leap from Jacobean writers to the fertile ground of the 19th-century in selecting authors; when the School Examination and Assessment Council's celebrated English anthology appeared, nothing seemed to sum up its remoteness from current English teaching more than the fact that it included Dr Johnson's Rasselas. According to Geoff Fox, lecturer in English education at Exeter University, teachers find 18th-century literature inaccessible. The biting satires for which the century is most famous depend too heavily on their historical context: Swift's bitterly sarcastic Modest Proposal, which puts forward cannibalism as a humane solution to Irish poverty, is one of the few pieces that will stand sufficiently independently for most classes to use.

The 18th-century development, the novel, does not fare much better, as teachers prefer to tackle later Gothic or Romantic writers. Samuel Richardson's Clarissa Harlowe made riveting television but it remains the longest novel in the English language, and, moreover, it is written entirely through letters sent by the characters to each other. The result is that at A-level, where boards do include one or two 18th-century titles, few teachers opt for them. Adrian Bushen, head of English at Hills Road sixth form college, compares 18th-century writers unfavourably with Milton and even Chaucer. They may seem more esoteric than Alexander Pope or Henry Fielding but in the end the themes they deal with are more universal - either Chaucer's bawdy stories or Milton's eternal themes - and students find them more relevant. "Eighteenth-century writers bring too much historical baggage with them," he argues.

The period has virtually disappeared from history classrooms, too. Some of the economic developments are included in the key stage 3 unit on Expansion, Trade and Industry, but political history only features as a tail-ender to the mainly Tudor and Stuart unit.

At A-level the picture is much the same: indeed at one board, as Alan Midgley, chief history examiner at the Associated Examining Board, points out, it is impossible to study the period as a whole because the syllabus splits it in two. He puts the blame for the period's demise partly on the shoulders of Sir Lewis Namier, whose pioneering but painstaking research into political factions member by member still dominates university study of the period. If A-level students encounter the century at all, it is likely to be as a run-up to more detailed study of the 19th-century. Even the French Revolution is often skipped, as teachers and students find it too complex to deal with so early on into their courses.

Does any of this matter? Is there anything really to miss in the disappearance of the age of periwigs and tricorn hats? John Fines, president of the Historical Association, is convinced that there is: "The 18th century is full of the most wonderful, incredibly successful, clever people: it is gormless not to know about them." He apportions blame for the neglect to the national curriculum. "It's the result of saying 'we must select what we must know', he argues, pointing out that the corollary of this is that vast areas get labelled as 'Things we do not need to know about'." In effect that is what has happened to the 18th century.

At present there seems little sign of change. As university courses begin to offer the sort of choice normally associated with American ice-cream parlours, students follow their teachers' practice and steer clear of the period, so that future generations of English and history teachers may know even less about it.

However, Geoff Fox points out that feminist literary research is leading to a revival of interest in 18th-century female writers such as Fanny Burney and especially Mary Wollstonecraft. John Fines argues strongly for bringing the heroic but maligned Queen Anne back to prominence. If this trend permeates schools and colleges all may yet be for the best in the best of all possible worlds, as Voltaire put it. If the name means anything to you.

Sean Lang teaches history at Hills Road sixth form college in Cambridge

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