In 2015, thanks to the agency of one of our HPS post-docs, the Library acquired a collection of pamphlets concerned with science education in Britain in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They were once part of a larger collection belonging to the Board of Education Library (part of the government department concerned with education in Britain from 1899-1944, a forerunner of the current Department for Education). This post highlights the work of one author who features prominently in discussions surrounding the role of science in education.
In a series of articles, beginning in the late 1890s and continuing into the first decade of the 20th-century, the social theorist and mathematician Benchara Branford attempted to synthesise various currents in late Victorian political and educational thought. The publications explored new approaches to teaching, the philosophy of knowledge, and the social value of education, structuring these themes according to a distinctively Victorian historical consciousness. Drawing from evolutionist thought and popular philosophy, Branford’s essays demonstrate the role of cultural context in shaping educational theory.
One such article, published in the Journal of Education in September 1898, takes as its inspiration late 19th-century models of human physical development. Later published as a pamphlet under the title, The Genesis of Geometry in the Race, Branford’s essay presented intellectual development as a form of evolutionary recapitulation: ‘The most effective presentation of geometry to youth, both as regards matter and spirit, is that which, in main outlines, follows the order of the historical evolution of the science.’ Accordingly, Branford argued, the most efficient programme of education would mirror the historical stages of accumulated knowledge. Attempting to instil complex mathematical principles through the reading of classical texts or textbooks, without first cementing foundational principles, was inverting the natural order of intellectual development:
To clearly understand this is to perceive the monstrous inversion of natural order exhibited by the present traditional method of presenting geometry to schoolboys in the guise of Euclid. It is a continual attempt to balance a cone on its apex!
In 1899, Branford authored a pair of articles titled ‘Measurement and Simple Surveying,’ which explore the teaching of philosophical principles and foundational geometry through carefully guided dialogue. Structured in the form of lesson notes, Branford’s articles detail a series of discussions in which a class of schoolchildren are encouraged in the philosophical consideration of measurement. One lesson, for example, centred on the dimensions and definition of a thick chalk line:
We finally agreed that it might be meant for one line but really contained two line (top and bottom); in fact that it was really a small surface, and that we could not draw one line on the board with the chalk without drawing two.
A third publication, published in 1904 and titled ‘Science and Occupation’, explores the nature of knowledge itself. The pamphlet considered a perceived ‘crisis’ in education, caused by global integration, the disappearance of the apprentice system, and the need to prepare new generations for an unpredictable labour market. These concerns were typical of a period in which public intellectuals such as Thomas Henry Huxley endorsed campaigns for the widespread provision of ‘practical education’. Traditional institutions and social structures were considered inadequate to meet the demands of the 20th Century:
To a great extent for centuries the highest organised knowledge or science as applied to occupations has been the monopoly of the professional classes: yet, if there is one thing more than any other that now requires democratization, it is assuredly science.
Branford’s essays reflect a period that saw numerous reforms and innovations in education. In 1891, the Elementary Education Act was introduced, guaranteeing primary education free of charge. By the end of the decade, the Board of Education had been established, a body with the power to oversee education throughout the United Kingdom. Branford’s publications respond to these changes, highlighting the need for flexibility within a national syllabus and the problems accompanying standardisation in education:
In time I fervently hope that each teacher will construct his own syllabus. With this he will educate most efficiently; it will be the loved issue of his own labour. The better the teacher, the more degrading becomes a syllabus imposed from without.
Branford was fiercely critical of the inflexibility and parsimony of an educational system directed by budgetary considerations:
It is, I venture to think, one of the fundamental weaknesses of modern education that, from a false economy and other motives, we are compelled to educate our pupils in such large groups and by methods so similar.
The issues discussed in these publications have endured in the era of comprehensive education. Branford’s work frames these problems, and proposes solutions, according to the particular intellectual resources of late Victorian society. Despite this, much of their content remains pertinent. Throughout the essays, Branford advocates the incorporation of scientific and mathematical knowledge within a broader semantic context: ‘It is high time that teachers turned their attention to the history and philosophy of the subject they teach.’
Dr Stephen. A. Courtney
History and Philosophy of Science
 Branford (1868-1944) published on a variety of topics, including education, political reform, and the nature and potential of humanity: A Study of Mathematical Education (Oxford, 1908); Janus and Vesta (London, 1916); A New Chapter in the Science of Government (London, 1919); Eros and Psyche (London, 1934).
 Benchara Branford, The Genesis of Geometry in the Race, and the Education of the Individual (High Holborn, 1898), 4.
 Branford, op. cit. (2), 16.
 Benchara Branford, Measurement and Simple Surveying (London, 1899), 3.
 Thomas Huxley, ‘Technical Education’, Fortnightly Review 23 (1878), 48-58; Lay Sermons, Addresses, and Reviews (London, 1870); Science and Culture, and Other Essays (New York, 1890).
 Benchara Branford, Science and Occupation (London, 1904), 10.
 Branford, op. cit. (4), 5.
 Branford, op. cit. (6), 12.
 Branford, op. cit. (2), 8.
Barwell, M. E., ‘The Advisability of Including Some Instruction in the School Course on the History of Mathematics’, The Mathematical Gazette 7 (1913), 72-79.
Branford, Benchara, Measurement and Simple Surveying (London, 1899).
– The Genesis of Geometry in the Race, and the Education of the Individual (High Holborn, 1898).
– Science and Occupation (London, 1904).
– A Study of Mathematical Education (Oxford, 1908).
– Janus and Vesta (London, 1916).
– A New Chapter in the Science of Government (London, 1919).
– Eros and Psyche (London, 1934).
Garnet, Smith, ‘Eros and Psyche’, Times Literary Supplement, 5 September 1935, 548.
Huxley, Thomas, Lay Sermons, Addresses, and Reviews (London, 1870).
– ‘Technical Education’, Fortnightly Review 23 (1878), 48-58.
– Science and Culture, and Other Essays (New York, 1890).
‘Mr B. Branford’, The Times, 12 May 1944, 7.
Richmond, Kenneth, ‘A Prophet of Reconstruction’, The Times Literary Supplement, 28 December 1916, 631.
– ‘The Great Synthesis’, The Observer, 7 October 1934, 10.
Gillard, Derek, Education in England: a brief history (2011): http://www.educationengland.org.uk/history
Morely, John, National Education (London, 1873)
Radner, Sanford, ‘George Meredith and Late Victorian Education’, History of Education Journal 9 (1957), 14-16.
Scott, John, ‘Branford, Benchara Bertrand Patrick (1867-1944), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2015: [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/97276, accessed 26 June 2017]
Scott, John, ‘Life, The Universe, And Everything An Undiscovered Work Of Benchara Branford’, Journal of the History of the Behavioural Sciences 45 (2009), 181-187.
Spencer, Herbert, ‘Education: Intellectual, Moral, and Physical,’ Humboldt Library of Popular Science Literature, 19 April 1880, 255-321.
Tracey Michael, The World of the Edwardian Child (London, 2008)