Academic journal article Journal of Social History

Redefining Public Education: Contestation, the Press, and Education in Regency Spain, 1885-1902

Academic journal article Journal of Social History

Redefining Public Education: Contestation, the Press, and Education in Regency Spain, 1885-1902

Article excerpt


Social scientists and historians alike have long stressed the centrality of print culture in the formation of national identities. [1] They have rightly emphasized that literate citizens are at the vanguard of nationalist movements and concurrent processes of nationality. If a literate polity is so essential to the nation-building, identity-forming project, then how did these movements proceed when a significant minority, a majority in many European states, could not read? Many studies do not address the large numbers of non-literate citizens that, in theory, belonged to the national communities being created all over Europe during the last quarter of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth century. Were non-literate Europeans included in these 'imagined communities' and if they were included, how so? Were non-literate Europeans counted as citizens, or discounted and marginalized by their better-educated compatriots? [2] The spread of literacy in Regency Spain (1886-1902) provides some i nteresting answers to these questions. [3]

As my evidence will show, education is much more than just the formal process of attending a public or private school and being drilled in the fundamentals of reading, writing, and arithmetic. In fact, there are myriad ways in which education takes place outside the traditional formal avenues that are run or overseen by the state. This is particularly true of political education (politicization). The mission of any state-run education system is to create citizens who are "schooled" in the rudimentary behaviors that are necessary to enable them to participate in the political goings on of their particular town, city, state, nation.

But politicization also takes place in areas of society that are unencumbered by the "official" aims of the state. The path to a politically active citizenry is not solely dependent on a state's formal education system, and literacy can be a misleading statistic with respect to a people's level of political consciousness. The last decade of the nineteenth century saw the advent of a broad, politically active citizenry in Spain. That development was a complex interaction of public advocacy of the formal education system and burgeoning efforts to promote workers' literacy via the working class press and direct action organizations that were protagonists of an informal education system. This essay explores that interaction and, simultaneously, examines the role and workings of such an informal education system in turn-of-the-century Spain, arguing that an active, vociferous political press was a pivotal element of its development.

Nearly all modem states contain within them informal education systems that also politicize their citizens, though in ways that often do not coincide with the state's wishes. This is especially true in liberal polities that are predicated on popular sovereignty and free speech. Such a situation often produces classic conundrums. For example, liberal states advocate free speech, yet struggle to control the speech of illiberal groups like the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazi parties and the like. Liberal societies are predicated upon freedom of the press, but they often seek to restrict, if not eliminate entirely, pornography. Finally, liberal nations write constitutions that guarantee popular sovereignty, but have a long history of restricting and manipulating the right to vote. In the face of such contradictions, sites of informal education proliferate in liberal societies; places like taverns, reading clubs, associations, mutual aid societies, even the family dinner table serve as places where politicization occurs un restricted by state concerns.

But in order to understand why an informal education system developed in Spain we must first look at the public debate about education that took place in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. This debate was critical because, as I will show here, Spanish liberalism could not survive without creating an educational system based on liberal precepts. …

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