From the January 1945 issue of the Socialist Standard
Notable advances have been made in recent years in the technique of teaching. Infant and nursery schools must be credited with a humane approach as between pupil and teacher, and there has been a corresponding seep seniorwards—Messrs. Squeers and McChonkuinchild are on their way to extinction.
These advances are only too liable to conceal the most important aspect of education in its wider social implications; the worker, above all, must firmly grasp the fact that while the educational machine remains an instrument of the governing class, it will of necessity be used in the interests of that class. Incidental advantages to the worker's child in any case will be negligible in comparison with the total gain accruing to the capitalist class as a whole.
Over 2000 years ago, a narrow Spartan oligarchy was bound by unfavourable geographical conditions to go all out for a very thorough "occupational" education. A brutal discipline bred a race of patriotic toughs ready to do the suicide squad act at Thermopylae; it could as efficiently organise a youth who held it a "sacred" duty to assassinate secretly any “dangerous" Helot—a member of Sparta’s racial underdogs.
Modern history affords complete evidence of the powerful instrument which that education machine becomes to the State. Fatuous historians of the J. R. Green type enthuse about the Tudor monarch’s love of learning; they instance the establishment of “grammar schools” (endowed grudgingly from the rich loot of confiscated monasteries). Virtue brought more than its own reward. The “New Monarchy" was materially aided in its stand against possible feudal reaction by an increasingly wealthy body of merchants and their “sea-dog" relatives; the grammar schools constituted a pool from which could be fished the budding Burghleys, the Hattons aud Raleighs, and the whole tribe of despicable lick-spittlers and crooks who foul that page of history which glorifies a not too meticulously “Virgin" Queen as “that bright Occidental Star” (see Preface to Authorised Version of the Bible).
The nineteenth century throws a high-light on the social bearings of education; let anyone who would get a clear picture of the condition of the working class in that period read J. L. and Barbara Hammond’s “The Town Labourer," and companion volume “The Village Labourer." The desolating morass of physical and moral filth which begun and ended the life of the average worker makes the epithet “savage” a gross libel on Choctaw and Cherokee. The stink was rank: it smelt to heaven, and a tiny section of the governing class, not so directly concerned in the nakedly brutal exploitation of the worker, were shocked. At least the sacrificial fires of Moloch must be damped down. Enter Mrs. Trimmer (“Town Labourer,." page 58), declaring that "the lower sort of children might be so far civilised as not to be disgusting.” Hannah More plumps roundly for “Education”: schools were established, and there was no ambiguous phrasing in the prospectus; these lower animals of a Loving Father’s creation were to be trained “in habits of industry and piety.”
“PIETY”: here the cat Piety leaps joyfully out of the bag to caterwaul with its lady friend industry. Wilberforce, fresh from discussing the “scandal” of chattel-slavery with Pitt under the spreading oak in Holwood Park, had “explained” that “Christianity makes the inequalities of the social scale less galling to the lower orders; their more lowly path has been allotted to them by the hand of God.” Hannah More was convinced that “Property would be safer if the poor were taught to read the Bible.”
The Education Act of 1870 practically superseded voluntary effort as far as the worker was concerned. The “Board Schools” which it created became factories where “grants,” based on individual performances in the “3 R's,” were ground out. At the outset, training of teachers was substantially in the hands of religious bodies; some day the naked truth about the majority of the “Church” training colleges may be told; inadequate premises, second-rate “tutors,” and low-grade clerical “principals” turned out a body of men and women who patiently bore the bullying of clerical “managers,” of Board or Government “inspectors.” The ruling class achieved gradually a more docile set of workers, and a body of “elementary” teachers clamant in their “loyalty,” never so happy as when running “Empire Days.” Miss Margaret McMillan, many years ago, wrote to the present writer, “They love the grind,” . . . and there the tragedy of it . . . Charity, my colleagues of a younger generation who have had relatively better conditions, for any specimens of the “old guard ” you meet.
The outlook in education to-day has some encouraging features; the new Act should make for happier pupils and give increased opportunity to teachers not bound down by time table and syllabus.
One big blot in the Butler Act seems to have escaped the criticism which it merits. The prescription of a “Corporate Act of Worship” as prologue to the more or less secular feast is probably its most important feature. Wilberforce and Hannah More, being dead, yet live. And their reincarnations administer a more subtle poison than their forbears. Backed by educational journalism, which bleats about the “priceless heritage” of the Bible, and yaps about “Christian Ethics,” the clerical brigade is quietly but firmly playing the old game with an additional weapon—to wit, a “Corporate Act of Worship”; what was vaguely prescribed before, and easily waived, becomes stark compulsion. Relying on a largely apathetic body of parents, the ruling class will get the children ON THEIR KNEES, physically perhaps, let alone figuratively.
The Socialist Party of Great Britain is uncompromisingly anti-clerical, with all which that implies; it is keenly alive to the fact that men have always fashioned their gods out of solid material and economic circumstances. The Party utterly repudiates leadership with its degrading correlate of “Worship.” Hitler has well demonstrated what can be accomplished with the young by inducing an attitude of reverence through prescribed ritual. In a way. he has played the game more successfully than the ruling class of this or any other country.
“Secular Education” of itself would by no means assure Socialism; far from it. But we might at least have expected from organised Rationalism a move in that directing; it would at least have afforded evidence that the endeavour to foist superstitious practice on the young was recognised as the evil thing it is, considered (if possible) even apart from politics. We commend for the consideration of our Rationalist friends the weighty words of J. M. Robertson (“Christianity and Mythology,” p. xviii.): “Those who realise the precariousness of modern gains in the battle against the tyranny of the past must continue the campaign, so doing what they can to save the optimists from, it may be, a rude awakening.”