The Industrial Revolution

Author: Jesse Darrell

Date published: Unknown

Contact details: Contact tab available on Waldorf library site

Published in Child and Man, Volume 17, #1, 1983 (UK)



This article discusses the Industrial Revolution, a pivotal main lesson taught in the Eighth Grade.

In the Eighth Class in Rudolf Steiner schools the children are in their four­teenth year, and in their study of history the Industrial Revolution is the central theme. It can become an experience of outstanding significance for them; es­pecially is this so during these present years of mankind when they cannot but be aware of the crisis in which the off­spring of that event, the economy that has become world-wide, is now struggling. Since the Fifth Class they have been following the historical development of man from the ancient oriental cultures down to that stage in the latest phase of which they themselves are living. Throughout there has been a deep-lying correspondence between the direction the consciousness of mankind as a whole has been taking and the one followed by their own souls since birth. In the sense of this article humanity and individual alike descend from a spiritual into a material world, from an instinctive community with their creative sources into an equally unpremeditated condition of isolated personality.

In Class Eight the children have not yet entered into the full experience of puberty, and so the full experience of this latest stage lies ahead of them. If  the class teacher speaks of the Industrial Revolution as he has of earlier phases of history, and brings it artistically before them through the biographies and life conditions of the human being creating, experiencing and working in it, then imaginative social feelings awaken in them, man to man as it were, which will mature into the judgment and discrimina­tion which they will need as they go on. In contemplating the unfolding of the past into the present, it is as if they look into a living time-mirror, and come to something of that self-knowledge which at the same time is a knowledge of the world and man’s place in/ it. Within such a knowledge they are now capable of recognizing two ways in which the two mighty factors of cause and effect are related. Their elementary study of the sciences from Class Six on, pedagogically appropriate through their increasing connection with their own bony system, has prepared them for the mechanical expression of this relationship on the grand scale in the power-machine. On the other hand they can now also begin to grasp in thought the entirely different expression of it in the moral responsibility of men for the social and historical effects of their own actions.

A new world The Industrial Revolution was not just a revolution in industry; it brought about a whole new world for the human being in all his life conditions. The old ways of living the world over had always kept him neighborly to the living earth. In Britain -and this article will only con­cern itself with her, as the initiator of the new order -the vast majority of the population was still engaged in agricul­ture, arable and pastoral, dwelling in villages and hamlets, and living their lives in accordance with nature’s diurnal and annual rhythms. It was deeply con­servative, faithful to custom, an hierarchi­cal society almost as little inclined to change as nature herself. And even when men exceeded the limits of human and animal muscle power in their work, taking advantage of wind and water for their ships, windmills and water mills, they had there also to submit to nature’s will. If the wind dropped, both ship and windmill were becalmed; and if the summer stream dried up, the water-wheel ceased turning. It was a world where men still felt, however dimly -even in the 18th century when the great change began and even though in farming itself new methods were coming in –    that they shared elements of life that were common to nature and themselves.

Through its introduction of the power­machine , and much more emphatically and decisively of the steam-driven machine, the . Industrial Revolution brought this old”‘ world to its end, and the modern age began. In the hundred years preceding the Great Exhibition of 1851, the century in which this age was firmly established, five out of every six workers had come to be town-dwellers, in one way or another earning their living in connec­tion with what the Revolution had brought about. It had fallen to the historical lot of Great Britain to in­augurate the machine-dependent world, though the thinking of such men as Copernicus, Galileo, Descartes, Machia­velli as well as of Bacon, Newton, Locke and Hume had prepared human hearts and minds to conceive and receive it. It required also in man a power of what might be called aggressive expansionism in the will, and this the English had al­ready shown they possessed in no small measure. When their protracted attempt at the conquest of France was fortunately thwarted in the 15th century, they began in the 16th to take their part in the new global commerce made possible by Portugal and Spain. By the end of the 17th century they had ousted the Dutch from their commercial command of the seas and in the 18th battled success­fully with the French for empire in India and North America. By this time the advancement of the nation’s trade had long been the central concern of its governments; in the middle of the cen­tury Chatham kept in close contact with the City over his foreign policy.

Tough feeling of personality In their internal political life the English had disposed of the danger of monarchi­cal absolutism such as was established in France and elsewhere, and had come to arrangements of law and government which left the industria1 and commercial ground relatively clear for the individual initiatives the new economic conditions would demand. The great chartered com­panies, for example, like the East India or the Hudson’s Bay, were left very much to their own devices in the pursuit of trade. At the same time there was a deep ­seated respect for and a sufficient main­tenance of the law and order of the land which such conditions would also require for their fruitful development. As a free citizen the Englishman had sacro­sanct, invaluable rights, such as freedom of speech, taxation only with consent, fair trial before imprisonment, and with these he went around with a tough feeling of his own personality, of what was due to himself; he was for instance
a very litigious being, very ready to defend his rights at law to the uttermost.

English ships in the 18th century were not only bringing wealth to their owners through the lucrative carrying-trade bet­ween the European nations and between them and the farther parts of the earth, but also through the increasing export of English woolen cloth. The making of such cloth for centuries had been far and away the chief manufacture of the land and according to Defoe, provided gar­ments for prince and peasant, even priests and nuns and indeed everybody, in all parts of Europe and many places beyond. As the 18th century drew on however the woolen industry -and the much newer but also growing cotton industry as well -found itself greatly hampered by a difficulty peculiar to textile manu­facture. It was simply this, that the spinners could not keep up with the weavers and supply them with enough yarn to keep them working at the capa­city which the ever-increasing demand  for cloth required: it took six spinning wheels to keep a single loom going. This exasperating hindrance to a swelling trade at last called forth two inventions which unlike those preceding them, really worked and could be operated by hand as before -Hargreave’s jenny and Crompton’s mule -but also a third, Arkwright’s more massive water-frame, which needed a flowing stream for its operation. Since it could produce far more yarn than anything worked by hand it was this that, led by Arkwright himself, the more enterprising manu­facturers turned to. Thus it was the water frame -in making it necessary to gather men and power-machines together in one building -that initiated the Indus­trial Revolution and its social consequen­ces. The factory had arrived.

Important for the children to experience
Yet it was not water-power that was to be the driving will-force of the 19th l century machinery: less than twenty years after Arkwright had set up his first cotton-mill in Derbyshire, the new rotary steam-engine of James Watt with unconscious historical irony called the ‘sun and planet’ – was applied to a spinning­ machine, and freed the mill-owners from the hill-streams; they could now put their factories where they wanted them. Usually they did this near to the coal­mine that would supply the fuel needed, and near these so often it was that the new industrial towns grew up. From this time on the steam engine supplied an ever-growing number of industries with its giant motive-force, and it is important without much technicality at any rate to indicate some of the transformations brought about not only in the centrally important textile industry, but also in the equally basic coal-mining, in iron and (later) steel manufacture, in the pottery, chemical, ship-building, engineering in­dustries and others too. Most of these will only be looked at from a distance, perhaps, but it is important for the children to experience the penetration of the Industrial Revolution in its further development into every nook and cranny of modern civilization. In addition to what made possible the producing of ever vaster quantities and varieties of goods, there were the inventions which finally led up at last to the adequate means of transporting them, which were vital to such ceaseless expansion. The line of progress in this field led from Metcalfe’s, Telford’s and Macadam’s immense advances beyond the earlier turnpike trustees in road-making, advances alongside those which gave the country an invaluable canal system, to the great triumph of Stevenson’s ‘Rocket’ at 30 miles an hour in 1829.

Within 20 years of this there was a national network of railways of well over 6,000 miles. Some writers have spoken of this remarkable development as a second Industrial Revolution, so greatly did it accelerate in every sphere the rate at which Britain was becoming an industrial country. In social life also as well as in economic the railways brought great changes. Everyone could now go easily from place to place, eve,n over long distances and at speed, and in this unpre­cedented movement experience more keenly than ever that they were indeed living in a changed and changing world.
The Industrial Revolution has put into man’s hands an ever-increasing capacity to make use of the material world, and through this he has won astounding ad­vantages of every externally practical kind. Whereas in the 19th century how­ever the common opinion was that this commodity-producing ability was guarantee of endless human progress, there is an increasing realization to-day that the failure to achieve an inner advance in moral and social understand­ing in any degree pari passu with the expansion of materialistic science and technology threatens ma~1kind with self destruction. Like some perverse god, it remakes itself into the image of its own power-driven creation. This one-sided development in the human situation becomes sufficiently apparent to the fourteen year old in the cut-throat competitiveness that ruled and rules in the economic life, or in the inhumanity which condemned so many workers, men, women and children, to appalling conditions of life and work in the earlier phases of the Revolution, with only a very partial amelioration in the later.

Adolescents respond to idealism
On the other hand, such improvement as there was, instigated by men like Richard Oastler, John Fielden, Michael Sadleir, Lord Shaftesbury, Robert Owen and the many others who included Charles Dickens and Charles Kingsley, bears witness to the social conscience in their fellows which was so deep asleep but with immense effort could be roused. Such a moral force was also brought into action, for example, in the abolition of slavery in England and her participation in the infamous slave-trade. Young adolescents warmly respond to the creative idealism which recognizes the individual spirit in every human being. They can also awaken to the fact that the Industrial Revolution through so many of its developments has made the world one economic whole, in which its dif­ferent peoples are dependent on each other; like the pressures distributed throughout a body of water -the economic life is so often pictured in terms of flow and circulation -the good and bad fortune of any section of the world’s population ultimately affects all nations.

Again, the machine which, as the indispensable mechanical animal that it is cannot but be a specialist, turns all its human attendants into specialists also. Thereby the satisfaction of personal achievement t in work has largely vanished, and the co-operation of many in the pro­duction of a single article has become as compulsive as any law of nature. Such co­operation lies in the very substance of man’s life on earth, but to-day its implica­tions need to be consciously recognized and understood and acted upon if a schizophrenic disaster is not to over-take mankind. The unity of the economic world calls for practical arrangements which fully take it into account, and the dehumanizing effect of industrial specialization countered by a sharing by all in a total picture of the economic organism of the world and the part played in it by the particular work a worker is engaged in. Such a total pic­ture can only become really effective in rousing men’s hearts into new social feeling, however, if it comes to form part of a total picture of man that represents him as he truly is, a being rooted in the earth and blossoming in the spirit. Then the brotherhood, equality and liberty proclaimed by that other Revolution across the Channel, which Class 8 has also come to know, will be better understood and become creative in the spheres in which they properly belong. The children of 14 years of age can be helped by a history teaching which is in the first place concerned in the sense of Steiner pedagogy with the nature and welfare of the entire man to become seekers ultimately themselves for the remedies that can truly heal the modern world-sickness. The ever-developing tech­nology resulting from the Industrial Revolution frees humanity step by step from the need to give so much time and energy to earning a living within the material world, although the economic and social implications of this have still to be fully recognized and applied. The cultural and ultimately spiritual issue which arises, and w ich calls urgently already for understanding and action may be thus expressed: How are the human forces of will which will less and less be needed in the economic sphere to find a fruitful kind of creative activity, one indeed which will take man into the next phase of his evolution? Such a discovery and the healing that could flow from it requires above all an education of children which concerns itself with the whole man.

Following a long and rich career as a class teacher, Jesse Darrell now lectures on both sides of the Atlantic.

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