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Schooling under Control: The Origins of Public Education in Imperial Austria 1769-1869

Author(s):Cvrček, Tomáš
Reviewer(s):Cohen, Gary B.

Published by EH.Net (February 2021)

Tomáš Cvrček, Schooling under Control: The Origins of Public Education in Imperial Austria 1769-1869. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2020. xi + 301 pp. €59 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-3-16-159267-6.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Gary B. Cohen, Department of History, University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.


In 1774 the Austrian government under Empress Maria Theresa issued a general school ordinance (Allgemeine Schulordnung), which introduced a requirement of six years of primary schooling for children across the realm. Historians of the Habsburg Monarchy have typically praised this as one of the more progressive measures of enlightened absolutist rule, which spurred the advance of literacy, strengthened the state, and aided economic development. Scholars have also noted, though, sharp limits on the further development of education until the 1850s and 1860s, the meager funding and poor general conditions of many schools during the intervening decades, and the persistence of high rates of illiteracy in territories such as Dalmatia, Galicia, and Bukovina. Many voices in the polyglot Habsburg realm and later the successor states criticized the favoring of German-language instruction after the initial grade levels and the privileging of the German-speaking population in the educational system across the Austrian half of the empire through much of the nineteenth century.

Until now, though, hardly any scholars have examined with quantitative rigor the advance of elementary schooling in the Habsburg territories, enrollment levels in various regions, the extent of popular demand for schooling, or the financial calculations for public authorities and parents. In this welcome book Tomáš Cvrček, a lecturer in economics at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies of University College, London, offers new vistas on the economic, social, and political dynamics of elementary education in the Austrian lands of the Habsburg Monarchy. A native of the Czech Republic, he earned a doctorate in economics at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee. Cvrček demonstrates a strong grounding in the history of Habsburg Central Europe, great skill in assembling a range of statistical sources, and an impressive command of sophisticated analytic methods.

Cvrček identifies two broad categories of causal factors for the general advance of mass schooling in modern societies: the pressure of economic and social development and the impact of government policies and political and ideological purposes. Since, as he notes, the socioeconomic and political drivers are typically linked, how have they interacted? Cvrček organizes his examination of the Austrian experience in a hybrid chronological-topical scheme. The first chapter offers a chronological treatment of institutional developments with subsequent chapters addressing the expansion of the school network and its reach in the population; the political economy of primary schooling; the size, character, and costs of the teaching staff; the costs of attending and the enrollment and attendance rates compared to the total school-age population; the learning process, its effectiveness, and general outcomes; and finally, the end of the Theresian system with the liberal reforms of the 1860s. Wherever possible, Cvrček marshals statistical sources to analyze developments quantitatively, including among other aspects the costs of school operations and the revenue sources; the growth, density, and accessibility of the school network in different regions and socioeconomic milieux; and the changing levels of literacy in various regions and among different generations.

Gathering and analyzing evidence for all this is no mean feat. The statistical sources needed vary greatly in extent and quality across the imperial Austrian territories before the 1870s, and for few of the most important measures of school operations can one find time series data to cover adequately the whole period from the 1770s to the 1860s. Cvrček demonstrates notable ingenuity in assembling usable sources from various regions and extrapolating from what he has. To flesh out the analysis, he applies statistical tests of significance and variance, including regression analysis, and generates sophisticated indices at various points. Readers unschooled in such quantitative analysis may find some of this daunting, but in every instance, Cvrček presents the calculations transparently and explains what estimations and extrapolations have been necessary. Scholars with more expertise in advanced statistical analysis than this reviewer will need to judge the validity of Cvrček’s methods and findings for themselves, but I find the argumentation plausible overall.

Not only economic historians but readers interested in the broader social and political development of modern Habsburg Central Europe will find much of value in the findings here. The primary school network grew highly unevenly from the 1770s to the 1860s, both in its extension across the Austrian territories and in the pace of expansion. Rapid growth in the 1780s gave way to either stagnation in some regions or a return to the slower but steady growth rates that were typical before 1775. Elementary education as a whole stagnated in the 1830s and 1840s, but the central government expressed no dissatisfaction with that until the upheavals of 1848. When the imperial authorities initially mandated the provision of six years of required primary education, they imposed a curriculum of only two years’ duration which was then to be repeated in the subsequent years. At the same time, the government closed a number of secondary and higher educational institutions which it saw as unnecessary. Later, from the end of the Napoleonic Wars until after 1848, the central government opposed curricular and pedagogic innovations, and it tended to resist calls in cities and towns for opening more practically oriented Realschulen. Cvrček finds that from the late 1820s until the late 1860s, the overall enrollment ratio never exceeded 60 percent of all five to twelve-year-olds. School coverage of the eligible population throughout the period was lower than the regulations stipulated and, in fact, lower than the officials thought it was, thanks to their inadequate and faulty data collection.

Cvrček sees two underlying reasons for the limited development of primary education before a new round of reforms came in the 1860s. From the outset the central government, which perennially faced budget stringency, committed few financial resources to primary education and left the great bulk of the operating costs for the basic schools (Trivialschulen) to local communities and parents and the cost of facilities to local school patrons or communal councils. The other main factor was the sharp limits on how much schooling the fundamentally conservative government wanted for the general population. The authorities expected a basic grounding in religion, reading, writing, and some arithmetic but little more. The basic goal was to produce a populace that could function adequately in society and the economy with obedience to state and religious authorities and respect for one’s social superiors. Cvrček supports well these arguments with the evidence presented on the framing of the Theresian educational system and the limits on the expansion of primary schools up to the 1860s.

One must register some objections, though, when Cvrček concludes rather simply that the whole system expressed the socially conservative values of a government of the 1770s that were grounded in a “milieu of the gradually fading but still lingering serfdom.” It was “an imposition by a feudal ruler on her serfs to further her, not their, interests” (p. 280). Certainly, the Theresian educational system embodied expectations of a strict social hierarchy and submissive lower orders, but those assumptions applied to a variegated body of subaltern social elements which included free small peasant farmers and herders, servants, craft apprentices, and laborers along with the many serfs. Cvrček, in fact, shows his awareness elsewhere in the book that Austrian society in the era of Maria Theresa and Joseph II already showed considerable dynamism and included increasingly diverse middle and lower strata before the abolition of serfdom, the first waves of the industrial revolution, and the French Revolution had any deep impact.

Gary B. Cohen is Professor Emeritus of modern Central European history at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. He has published monographs, edited volumes, and numerous journal articles and book chapters on social and political development in modern Habsburg Central Europe. Currently he is preparing a contribution to a new Cambridge History of the Habsburg Monarchy on the monarchy’s legacy to governance, political culture, and society in the successor states.

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Subject(s):Education and Human Resource Development
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):18th Century
19th Century