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Beyond The Bible - history of moral education in Great Britain

David Nash explores the movement for moral education that attracted quite a following at the turn of the century, and draws some parallels with today's emphasis on `good citizenship'

Modern concerns about teaching morality in schools have turned around the issues of multiculturalism and citizenship. The extremely plural nature of the religions and lifestyles represented in modern Britain means that an entirely Christian scheme of civic and moral education is deemed inappropriate. Moreover government circles worry that the young are failing to take a sufficiently active part in civil and political society and that a policy of `Education for Citizenship' represents the best way of rectifying this. Objections to the nondenominational approach have suggested that Britain has historically been an overwhelmingly Christian country in which such values have guaranteed high levels of social cohesion and have offered a readily accessible standard for moral and responsible behaviour. However challenges to the Christian version of moral education have been going on since the Victorian period. Indeed concerns about the relationship between morality, social harmony and national self-image are themes that run through modern history.

Many believed that Christianity had bestowed special privileges upon Britain enabling it to manage the most advanced and civilised empire in the world. Moreover, it was the duty of those schooled in this morality to export its achievements to less fortunate areas -- a trend expressed in areas as diverse as missionary work and the economic philosophy of Richard Cobden. Nonetheless by the latter half of the nineteenth century it was no longer enough to preach that adherence to Christian morals would earn a place for the individual in heaven. Many of the generation influential at the end of the nineteenth century had seen the literal truth of Christianity shaken considerably. The gap between this generation and its forebears is illustrated in Edmund Gosse's novel Father and Son (1907), in which Gosse's father comes to resemble the fossils which served to undermine the Christian version of the creation story.

Victorians who objected to Christianity attacked the value of the Bible as a primer for moral and citizenship education. Annie Besant, when a secularist, refused to allow her (laughter to read it on the grounds that it was obscene and totally unsuited to teaching morality. Perhaps the most subversive example of this attitude was that of Arthur B. Moss, the East London School Board visitor, a convinced secularist, who insisted that the Bible be taught in the Board Schools under his jurisdiction arguing that it would inspire moral revulsion and hence produce a good generation of secularist citizens. Such a negative approach nonetheless focused attention firmly upon the growing importance of national schemes and persuaded some to take moral education in a much more distinct direction.

Many of these socialist and secularist individuals were influenced by Auguste Comte -- often cited as the founder of modern sociology. His philosophy in this context argued that the final positive age of Man, freed from the shackles of religion, would arrive through the development and exercise of humane and moral behaviour and the encouragement of constructive leisure time. The barriers to this positive epoch were the four inter-linked evils of Christianity, capitalism, urbanisation and imperialism which between them had created a vast landscape of moral impoverishment. Although the Board Schools were a national institution they nonetheless still had scope for considerable local initiative and provided the first opportunities for previously excluded political groups (such as women, secularists and minority religious organisations) to establish power bases in provincial cities.

This was the method used by the most successful advocate of moral education Frederick James Gould who worked at various times for the Rationalist Press Association and the Moral Instruction League as well as actively advancing the cause on the Leicester School Board. Gould subordinated all other ideological battles in order to advance the cause, of secular education. He outraged other secularists by using the Bible in Board Schools, although he argued this was purely to find examples to demonstrate moral lessons. Widely published, Gould argued that moral education along the lines he advocated already occurred in isolated instances and that it was the teacher's task to change `the fragmentary into the connected and the scattered into the organised'. His favoured method of teaching involved the constant use of example and analogy -- preferably from biographies or Shakespeare. His morality was socialist and meritocratic so lessons had a clear political content which avoided the `Christian' associations with empire, kingship and aristocracy in favour of what he saw as human virtue.

The search for alternative sources of morality accelerated in the wake of the early twentieth-century conflicts that involved Britain. The Second Anglo-Boer War convinced some observers that existing schemes of morality had failed the supposedly most developed civilisation on earth unleashing a jingoistic attitude that would henceforth dictate individual and national behaviour. Liberals and socialists were concerned that unfettered capitalism would turn the country into a moral desert while secularists were concerned that Christian morality should be replaced by more deserving ideals of citizenship. There was a growing view that the proper education of the young was the most effective means of promoting morality and ending over-zealous nationalism and foreign competition. By the end of 1901 Gould had successfully persuaded the Leicester School Board to enact his scheme of moral education without the Bible. Beside lessons on self-respect, truthfulness, kindness, work and duty was a section entitled Society and the State. This was described as encompassing ... not the details of British battles and trifling incidents in the lives of kings, but of the history of mankind, and of all the wonderful works of the human race in the past, inventions, literature, and the arts ... the functions of the state and the duties of citizenship; the blessings of cooperation and international peace.

This initiative was also advocated for use among adults. The honorary secretary of the Moral Instruction League, the ethicist Stanton Colt, wanted the creation of Neighbourhood Guilds to provide a co-operative vision of society and regenerate community life which had suffered as a consequence of urbanisation.

By the Edwardian period many socialists were interested in the possibilities offered by moral education. Ramsay MacDonald was convinced that citizenship was essential to the promotion of socialism and civilisation, saying in 1901: A state can live for a century on wealth; if it desires to live forever,its foundation must be human character. A people whose reading is the sensational Press can neither live nor die for a state. They can shout for it and drink for it, but that is all.

Robert Blatchford similarly believed that ideologically uplifting education and culture were essential for the well being of the working classes. His `Cinderella' clubs offered working-class children hospitality, entertainment and the socialist message alongside ideas that had been popularised by followers of the craft socialism of William Morris.

By 1914, Gould had constructed a syllabus of `Moral and Civic Instruction' which reiterated his earlier ideas. Advocaring the value of stories and positive role models Gould maintained a firm conviction that such an education should also avoid addressing the sexes differently in any way, nor should it consider children as anything other than young adults. A section on `civics' portrayed the model citizen as one anxious to participate in the governing process and to improve upon defective laws, echoing modern concerns about educating the next generation in the workings of the democratic process. Even the seeds of multi-cultural education were here since Gould wanted his pupils to consider British citizenship as a phenomenon that embraced `many races, colours, creeds'.