Joanna Bourke


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Oxford University Press
8 September 2022
ISBN: 9780192846631
656 pages

From the publisher

Birkbeck traces the 200-year history of Birkbeck, University of London from its founding at a time when social elites deplored the notion of educated working people to the present day. Joanna Bourke writes a lively history of the institution, and how it contributed to the shaping of modern British higher education. Two hundred years ago, Birkbeck was founded as the London Mechanics' Institution (LMI). When it was established in 1823, one third of all men and half of all women were unable to read or write. British elites were vehemently hostile to educating working people. The country was in political turmoil and it was feared that education would destroy society. This was the context in which the LMI was established. From its foundation, it was unique. Birkbeck traces its history from 1823 to the present, with Joanna Bourke using the history of Birkbeck to reflect on life and culture in London over the past two centuries. What does it mean to be educated? Why have Birkbeck's students been prepared to give up so much in order to study for a higher degree? How does education help us become fully human and self-fulfilled by learning how to use all our faculties - knowledge, imagination, sympathy? The story of Birkbeck contains some blood, oceans of scholarly sweat, and not a few tears. But it is also a story of laughter, intellectual excitement, scholarly eccentricity, collective as well as personal ambition, and, most of all, the quirky passions and personalities that make up the Birkbeck community. It is a story of a unique university but also of higher education of Britain. It shows how knowledge can empower people to better themselves and improve the world.