Maths for the Masses

In this blog, Ciarán O’Donohue a PhD student in the Department of History, Classics and Archaeology, discusses the decision to teach mathematics to the first students of the Mechanics Institute. This is part of the 200th anniversary blog series that celebrates the College’s bicentenary in 2023.   

The Massacre of Peterloo

The Massacre of Peterloo. The commander is saying “Down with ’em! Chop ’em down my brave boys; give them no quarter! They want to take our Beef & Pudding from us – & remember the more you kill the less poor rates you’ll have to pay so go on Lads show your courage & your Loyalty!”

Many of us will be familiar with the common questioning of why certain concepts are taught in our schools. Mathematics, and especially its most intricate systems, are often first to face the firing squad. It is not unusual to hear someone discussing education to ask: “Why are we not taught about credit, loans, and tax? I’m never going to use Pythagoras’s Theorem!” Certainly, when the subject of mathematics is brought up, the utility of algebra and theorems are often jovially dismissed as unimportant.

Two centuries ago, the picture was very different. The question of whether mathematics would be useful or dangerous knowledge to teach to the working class was one that was debated extremely seriously. In November 1823, the same month that the London Mechanics’ Institution was founded (which has now come to be named Birkbeck, University of London), Bell’s Weekly Messenger seized upon the propriety of teaching maths to London’s lower orders, lamenting that “the unhappy scepticism in France has been justly ascribed to this cause.” The implication was that teaching maths to the wider populace had caused them to question the order of society, and directly contributed to the French Revolution and its aftermath. Pertinently, this was an order which the British government had spent a fortune, not to mention the lives of hundreds of thousands of British subjects in the Napoleonic Wars to restore.

A revolution in Britain itself was still palpably feared in the 1820s, and its spectre was made more haunting by the Peterloo massacre just four years before this particular article was written, in August 1819. And so, surrounding the foundation of our College, and which subjects were appropriate, a war of words was waged.

The idea of teaching London’s working classes mathematics filled many with visceral dread. It was believed this would cause them to also become questioning like France’s peasants, eventually seeking proof for statements which they had hitherto blindly accepted.

The teaching of mathematics to mechanics, then, was considered by many to be socially, politically, and morally dangerous. Not only might it turn them into a questioning multitude, unwilling to simply accept what they’re told, it might also make them question the very structure of society and push for a semblance of equality. For critics, both outcomes could readily lead to revolution.

Henry Brougham, one of the founders of the College, believed that this catastrophe could be averted by teaching a reified body of knowledge, including a simplified version of mathematics. Writing of geometry, Brougham argued that, rather than “go through the whole steps of that beautiful system, by which the most general and remote truths are connected with the few simple definitions and axioms” it would be sufficient (and indeed safer) if the masses were to learn only the practical operations and general utility of geometry.

Similarly, many religious supporters of extending mathematical education to the mechanics believed that it would make people more religious, not less, if only it were taught in the right way. As God was believed to have created the world, the logic and order inherent in mathematic systems was held to show traces of his hand at work. An appreciation of mathematics and its traceable, systematic connections would thus create a renewed appreciation of God; not to mention for the order of the world as divinely ordained.

Likewise, moralists perceived more benefits in teaching the mechanics mathematics than drawbacks. The issue for them was not if the mechanics were to learn or read, but rather what. The key issue was that the mechanics were already largely literate. The rise of cheap literature, especially of the sentimental and pornographic varieties, preoccupied the minds of moralists and industrialists.

As the lower orders were believed to be motivated primarily by sensuality, learning mathematics was presented as a salve to degeneracy; a way to occupy their time with higher minded pursuits and strengthen their characters against wanton immorality.

Perhaps most worrying was the growing and uncontrollable availability of radical political writings. This more than anything was likely to upset the current order of society. The perceived and highly theoretical disadvantages of a mathematical education were thus infinitely preferable to such a realistic and allegedly growing threat. It was believed that the teaching of mathematics and science through a dedicated course of study, being undertaken as in the evenings, might reduce the time and energy the working man would have to devote to reading political tracts, let alone political activism.

It is, however, worth noting that, although many mechanics were literate, and most had rudimentary mathematical skills, the wider debate was far removed from the reality. Many mechanics required far more elementary lessons in mathematics before the advanced classes could even be attempted.  Although mathematics and science initially formed the centre of the curriculum at Birkbeck in the 1820s, by 1830 the reality of need had been discovered: advanced classes had been removed altogether, and instruction in elementary arithmetic was given to vast numbers of members. This was to continue to be the reality for much of the next 30 years.

How far, then, the raging debates about the inclusion of mathematics in the curricula of new centres for working-class education impacted the trajectory, is still a topic for debate.

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The Students’ “Joy-Night”

Professor Joanna Bourke, Department of History, Classics, and Archaeology, recalls a period in history when student expression was far more rambunctious and gave way to the ritual of ‘ragging’



Once a year between the 1880s and the 1930s, Birkbeck students went wild. In what was called the “Joy Night”, they threw their energies into a boisterous ritual that saw hundreds of fancifully dressed (often in gender-bending ways) students waylaying the Foundation Day speaker prior to his lecture. They would then ceremoniously cart him to the College’s theatre, just off Fetter Lane. The noise was deafening: bells were rung, whistles blown, clappers thwacked, and rattles vigorously shaken. This was a very public ritual: in Fleet Street and Fetter Lane, crowds of people stepped out of their offices and shops to watch this “students’ rag”. Most witnesses to the “ragging” cheered the high-spirits of Birkbeck’s students; a few “tutted” disapprovingly about “childish” antics. Once at the theatre, Birkbeck students sang silly songs, beat drums, released balloons or streamers, and mocked the authorities. They refused to let speakers start their lecture until they had loudly sung the “Birkbeck Anthem”.

College song

College song pt 1

College song pt 2

College song pt 2

In 1934, it was the turn of Walter Elliott (the Minister of Agriculture) to be “ragged”. The students forced him out of his taxi and made him ride up Fetter Lane on pantomime-cow. He was photographed “clinging with one hand” to the “cow” and waving his hat with the other hand “in the manner of a Wild West rider (but looking less sure of his seat)”. The Minister was then led up the steps to the platform of the lecture theatre by two young men: one dressed as a yokel and the other as a fairy. Once on the platform, the “fairy” curtsied before presenting the Minister of Agriculture with “a basket containing a pig’s head and some kippers”. The Minister was then required to sign this declaration:

“I, Walter Elliott, alias Bo-Bo the Gadarene, whose father was Hi-To, begat of Circe, do hereby present all my estate in piggery to the students of Birkbeck College.”

Under Elliott’s signature were the words “Chief of the Pig Board, Chief of the Milk Board, Chief of the Hops Board, Chief of the Herring Board”. The fairy then reappeared, giving everyone on the platform a bottle of milk, each with a straw stuck through the tab, to suck. Only then was the Minister of Agriculture allowed to give his lecture.

Ridiculous? Well, yes, but that was the point. Foundation ceremonies could be very dreary occasions: “ragging” certainly livened things up. They were also an effective way for graduating students to “let off steam”. More importantly, they were a negotiated inversion of staff-student relations in an institution that was markedly hierarchical. “Ragging” was a classic example of “authorised transgression”. They were carnivalesque, temporarily inverting the rules and power structures while simultaneously blunting social criticism.

From 1939, however, a more serious mood crept over university culture as well as British life more generally. Austerity was not conducive to the wild pelting of eggs and flour, let alone men wearing lipstick in lecture theatres. Birkbeck students were also increasingly part-time and older: they had less time for the “high jinxs” of their predecessors. Alas, the carnivalesque misconduct of the “Joy Night” faded away.

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How welcoming is academia to LGBT staff?

This post was contributed by Professor Matt Cook, of Birkbeck’s Department of History, Classics and Archaeology. This comment piece first appeared on Thursday, May 5, in the Times Higher Education. The article “How welcoming is academia to LGBT staff?” features six academic’s responses to the question.

Birkbeck values its diversity and celebrates IDAHO – International Day against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia.

“Many of those engaged in these early struggles and projects have sustained strong supportive networks. I have benefited hugely from these”

Professor Matt Cook

Professor Matt Cook

As a gay academic working on queer themes in history, my feelings of comfort and belonging owe a lot to the emergence of new areas of scholarship, to my discovery of community among colleagues and students – and to good timing.

I began my postgraduate studies in the mid‑1990s, just as work on gender and sexuality had gained some credibility and was even fashionable in some places – not least at Queen Mary University of London, where I found myself. By the time I emerged with my PhD in 2000, much ground had already been laid and my specialism was not the impediment to gaining an academic post that it had been for the preceding generation. There was a growing sense that explorations of sexuality had a real significance to broader understandings of society, culture and politics – past and present.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the scholars in the UK who inspired me – Jeffrey Weeks, Lynne Segal and Sheila Rowbotham among them – wrote much of their early work outside the university sector or against the grain of the jobs they were being paid for. They were nurtured instead by political and community networks arising from women’s and gay liberation, from the Gay Left collective and also from the History Workshop movement and journal (which, from its inception, had taken gender and sexuality – and those working beyond the academy – seriously). Such scholars had to argue that women’s and gay history were not marginal or peripheral areas of study and had a place in university departments. Once hired, some of them (including those I’ve mentioned) faced overt disdain or were “benignly” expected to focus on other things seen as more significant.

There was some notable resistance to this marginalisation. At the University of Sussex in 1991, Alan Sinfield and Jonathan Dollimore established the Sexual Dissidence master’s programme, exploring history, literature, post-structural and queer theory. It felt especially urgent in the context of the Aids crisis, Clause 28 (which prevented UK local councils from “promoting homosexuality”) and a broader homophobic backlash. Unsurprisingly, it was derided as insignificant, trendy (an insult in this context) and part of a “Loony Left” agenda. But, tellingly, the programme is still running 25 years on.

Read the original Times Higher Education article here

Read the original Times Higher Education article here

Many of those engaged in these struggles and projects have sustained strong supportive networks. I have benefited hugely from these. Research and teaching projects have meanwhile allowed me to work with LGBT community groups and with archive and museum professionals – giving me sustaining anchor points outside academia.

At Birkbeck, University of London – my institutional home for the past 10 years – I have found further communities. One is a history department with a collective commitment to wide-ranging historical work (and the intersections that it fosters). Another is with colleagues brought together through the Birkbeck Interdisciplinary Gender and Sexuality research centre. A third is with students whose engagement with their studies has often been underpinned by much more direct experiences of discrimination and marginalisation than I have had to deal with. Being a white, middle-class man has made me an insider in more ways than my queerness has set me apart.

Matt Cook is professor of modern history at Birkbeck, University of London and the author, most recently, of Queer Domesticities: Homosexuality and Home Life in Twentieth-Century London (2014).

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