Looking Backward | Study Guide

Edward Bellamy

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Looking Backward | Chapter 21 | Summary

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Summary

Dr. Leete takes Julian West to see examples of the educational system. He explains that the value of universal education is threefold: the enjoyment and right of each citizen to an education, the desire to live among educated people, and the benefit to children of having educated parents. Dr. Leete tells Julian that education for all citizens isn't as expensive as he might think because there is an economy of scale in education, just like in any other industry. In addition, teachers are given the same pay as everyone else, regardless of the level of class they teach. Every citizen is educated from age 6 to 21, and this, along with equality of pay, eliminates the class divisions that plagued Julian's time when the poor often left school at a young age to learn a trade.

What strikes Julian most about his trip to the schools with Dr. Leete is the "magnificent health" of the students. He suggests "something like a general improvement in the physical standard of the race" has come about. Dr. Leete is interested in Julian's observation because it confirms what people in his day have guessed. It makes sense to Dr. Leete that after such a revolutionary change in the social system that "an improvement of the species ought to follow." He claims insanity as well as suicide has almost disappeared.

Analysis

Universal education is another feature of the society in the year 2000 that has eliminated class divisions. Because everyone receives the same education, there is no group who may deem themselves better than another. Manual laborers can converse with any of their peers as equals, something that was not common in Julian's day when most manual laborers had left school at a young age to work or learn a trade. In the 19th century, education was often accessible only to the rich, creating a division beyond money alone between themselves and the less fortunate around them.

The author paints a picture of a physically improved race of people in Chapter 21. The survival of the fittest is the basic tenet of the evolutionary theory developed by Charles Darwin. Social Darwinism holds that the same forces behind the physical evolution of animals and plants can be applied to societies as a whole. What is most striking about social Darwinism is that it was most often used to justify the division of the classes. The argument was that only the best, the rich, should be allowed to survive, to improve the race, while in the utopia of the novel, the weak are protected and class divisions are erased. How the race has improved when all its members are enabled to thrive is a bit of a mystery if the author truly holds to evolutionary theory. Perhaps the author holds that rather than a species adapting to the environment in order to survive as in evolutionary theory, the environment must have been changed to support the people who are then able to achieve their highest potential. It is what he calls "an improvement of the species."

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