Educating the Secular Citizen

Dr Susannah Wright, Oxford Brookes University


The origins of research are often partly biographical. I have to go back to my grandad, on my dad’s side. He was a kind, gentle, man, thoughtful and well-read, though family poverty meant he had to decline educational opportunities himself to make ends meet. He was not overtly religious – as far as I know he never went to church, though my Dad and siblings were sent to Sunday School for a while – but with an incredibly strong sense of family and social duty. And he was a stalwart activist for the local Labour party prone to getting cross with Margaret Thatcher on the TV. I wanted to know more about where this social, secular, morality came from. And during a few months volunteer teaching in Tamil Nadu, I had to take this strange subject called ‘moral instruction’. Without reference to any religious norms, even in a Catholic school, I had to ask pupils to read from text books which taught them the benefits of listening to adults and sharing sweets. Debate was not expected, but I’m not sure how convinced the pupils were. I’ll add to this a love of the detective work side of historical research, which has for many years drawn me to ‘puzzles’.

So through these tangled routes, I’ve ended up drawn to investigating how and why early twentieth century secularists campaigned so tenaciously, and with an impact which was at one level negligible, but at another more than might be expected, to educate secular citizens in British schools. One doesn’t have to delve too deeply into social and cultural historiography to read about the alignment of English – or British, depending on author and context – citizenship with Christianity. Christianity infused institutions, legislation, public ideals, discourse among friends. But I became aware of challenges to these mainstream assumptions which ruffled feathers and shaped responses, whether in ways intended or not. And I thought these challenges merited further investigation, not only as neglected (if minor) points of historical interest in themselves, but as a gap within a wider story about the intersection of civic ideals, religious belief and non-belief, a story which would be incomplete if this gap were to be ignored.

Sir Michael Ernest Sadler, president of the First Internal Moral Education Congress, held at the University of London in September 1908.

These challenges came from within organised secularism. Campaigners wanting to remake the British citizen in their own, secular, image, saw unrivalled opportunities for long term influence in the schools. Initially they focused on citizenship of the nation state (through the Moral Instruction League, an organisation with its origins firmly in secularist bodies), and then in the interwar years saw British citizenship looking beyond the nation to incorporate a dimension of world citizenship too. This time individual secularists worked, almost as moles, within the mostly Christian League of Nations Union. Campaigners did not achieve all they set out to, the secular British citizen in English schools proved elusive. But they were heard, if not entirely agreed with, to a degree perhaps unlikely given the unimpressive membership figures of the secularist groups from which they came. And, given the challenges they presented to what were apparently deeply held and prevalent assumptions about British civic identity being Christian at roots, why were they not totally ignored?

Looking back on the article at point of publication, I seem to be working through a series of paradoxes, and to have raised more questions than I have answered. How and why did secularists forge the alliances that they did? They operated in a period when elite intellectuals could speak openly about agnostic religious beliefs, but teachers doing so might be barred from promotion or in some cases sacked. If interest can be judged by print runs and attendance at talks, could secularists have offered something to a group of ‘uncommitted’ teachers might potentially have suffered from voicing their concerns in public? Did arguments framed as calls for more professional autonomy (which churches were thought to restrict) also touch on an affront to personal ideals and beliefs too, but one which could not be articulated explicitly? Were Christian supporters – typically self-identifying as liberal or progressive Christians – able to bolster their claims for their version of Christian citizenship (a holistic one which included everyone, and spoke to ‘secular’ aspects of moral duty as well as ‘religious’ ones), against a more doctrinally and denominationally focused one? Was the support partly because secularists’ version of civic morality was – except for the absence of Christianity as a central component of civic morality – not all that different from more mainstream ones?

A second paradox: why did secularists not work together better? One might think they would combine resources against a larger oppressor, but their voice was far from a coherent and consistent one. They fought Christian critics, and they fought each other too. For some, the end goal of creating secular citizens meant no engagement whatsoever with Christian texts or institutions. For others, creating secular citizens was best achieved through compromising on these points, and this included drawing on religious texts for moral exemplars (though with doctrine removed), and working with Christians willing to offer even partial support, to achieve results. And individuals changed their own views, about best strategy, and even about religion, with some reconverting to Christianity, much to the disappointment of their former peers.

East Riding Archives DDBB-2-8-16: Class at Beverley Grammar School , 1930s

As a third paradox, how does all this sit with wider debates about secularisation. Because it is not an easy fit. Secularists are, even now, not well covered in many histories of religion, and this is particularly true of their efforts to work in schools. They are also a mere footnote in educational history where the narrative that emphasises – quite rightly in many respects – Christian control over educational administration, and influence over the curriculum, remains dominant. But secularists’ efforts in schools can, I think, inform, broader historiographical debates about the place, or lack of place, for religion, in civic discourse and civic activity. If they do, they inform it in a complex way. On the one hand they failed to fundamentally dent conceptions of British citizenship as Christian, on the other, they constituted a long term, ambitious, and tenacious project of shaping of civic identity and public discourse through the socialising medium of the school – potentially a secularising force?

And my final paradox relates to the primary sources themselves. A small, controversial group like the Moral Instruction League, perhaps not surprisingly, failed to generate its own archive. I relied on something of a smash-and-grab approach to collecting files here and there in numerous repositories – one which leaves inevitable gaps. The League of Nations Union, one of the largest voluntary associations in interwar years Britain, has a huge organisational archive, but one in which the secularist input might be harder to find. And, as ever, if the aim was to look to the future, to achieve long term change by reaching the young in schools, it is their perspectives which are almost impossible to access.


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About the Author: Dr Susannah Wright in Senior Lecturer in Educational Studies at Oxford Brookes University. She works on the history of education and childhood, with a focus on themes of secularism, and war and peace. She is the author of Morality and Citizenship in English Schools: Secular Approaches, 1897-1944 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017) and numerous articles, including ‘Educating the Secular Citizen in English Schools, 1897–1938’, Cultural & Social History, vol. 12, no. 2 (2018), pp. 215-232.

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