Dramatic Changes

Photograph of a vernacular stone cottage from the early 1700s.

This brings us full circle to where this section started: change from Agriculture to Industry to Information.

This is the cottage I lived in until 2012. It was built in 1732 and although its appearance has changed very little, it has witnessed 285 years of mankind’s progress. It was built by William Fell, a local stonemason, ready for his marriage in 1733 to a girl from the next village called Mary Fletcher. You can read more about them in the “Cottage” section of this website.

William and Mary will have looked out of their windows at large fields divided into strips of land that their families had farmed for generations. They saw nothing to suggest that it would ever change. Yet the seeds were already sown. Farmer George was on the throne and inventors like Thomas Newcomen were experimenting with steam power. (Read more)

It was WiIliam's daughter-in-law, another Mary, by then a widow, who saw the first drama begin in 1794 when commissioners from London arrived to begin the process of enclosing the land amidst immense upheaval. Mary had to make a claim for land equivalent to her strips less the cost of fencing and hedging. We don't even know if she could read but she was plunged into a world of lawyers and meetings at the Blue Boar in Bainton. When the dust had settled, Mary Fell owned the paddock opposite. Her name is on the Enclosures Awards Map of 1799 and the earliest document in the cottage deeds refers to the cottage as "formerly owned by the widow Mary Fell”. The poet, John Clare, lived in the adjacent village of Helpston and this is what he wrote when hawthorn hedges changed the landscape:

"Enclosure, thou'rt curse upon the land, 
And tasteless was the wretch who thy existence planned."
- John Clare

The Industrial Revolution

But Mary had seen nothing compared to what was to come. She died in 1801 before the Midland Railway built its line just a mile away, visible from her bedroom window. within the next 100 years the entire economy of Britain changed from Agricultural to Industrial and the way ordinary people lived their lives also changed forever.

The Information Revolution
Now it is happening again. The Industrial economy into which we were born is no more; it has already changed into an information economy. Our years at school trained us to get secure jobs with a pension but these jobs are no more. Uncertainty, zero-hour contracts and the need to constantly re-train are the qualities we now see in the press on a daily basis. And as for a pensions, we are asked if retirement should be compulsory and encouraged to start building our own pension independently of any one employer. Unlike the Industrial Revolution, which took about 150 years to run its full course, this change is happening within a generation.

How do we educate children for an information society?
We have to look at the lessons of the past. During the period of change there was immense hardship. Change brought unexpected consequences. For example, when agricultural jobs were lost the old Parish Relief system broke down because there were too many poor people. It was years before a proper state benefit system was introduced. And as people moved out of the villages and into towns overcrowding led to slums and epidemics. Again it was years before public health gained a proper footing. And there were other consequences. In 1788 John Byng wrote that he couldn't conceive of any reason to teach the poor to read. In 1870 the Education Act introduced exactly that.

Computers in schools
Which brings us back to today. William Fell could not, in his wildest imagination, have conceived the things we now take for granted - universal education, package holidays, the publishing industry, television, motor cars, flight, space travel - it's impossible to stop listing things that William could not have foreseen in a million years. And these things are no longer new - they are absolutely normal for everyday people.

Believe it or not, we are now standing in William Fell's shoes. We cannot, in our wildest dreams, imagine what the future holds. Information technologies are going to cause change just as profound as those witnessed by the cottage in the picture above - and it's going to happen a lot faster.

We must educate our children to enter a world of profound change and the way to do that is not to ‘deliver’ a content-rich curriculum that the Victorians could easily recognise. 

Next: Education in the 21st Century

© Brian Smith 2015