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Are schools teaching British values?

By Stephanie Olsen


In June, (now former) Education Secretary Michael Gove announced that all primary and secondary schools should promote “British values”. David Cameron said that the plans for values education are likely to have the “overwhelming support” of citizens throughout the UK. Cameron defined these values as “freedom, tolerance, respect for the rule of law, belief in personal and social responsibility and respect for British institutions”. ‪At root, such a policy gets at the emotional conditioning of children. To adhere to a certain ideological conceptualization of “freedom,” to feel “tolerant,” or to be “respectful” (whether of parents, teachers, authorities or institutions), is to act according to implicit feelings of rightness.

Values are never just abstract ideas, but are expressed and experienced through emotions. And they are not ideologically neutral. To stress the education of British values is to put a form of emotional education on the agenda. Though many commentators have pointed out that the broad outlines of such an education already exist in schools, the fear of “extremism”, of the promotion of the “wrong” sort of values, has triggered a vigorous debate. What has largely gone unrecognized in this debate, however, is that it is emphatically not new.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, politicians and educationalists promoted a new education based on character training and the emotions, precisely to build British citizens who would respect and uphold British institutions. This brand of education was to be accomplished at school, but also at home, and in religious and youth organizations.

Herbert Fisher, the President of the Board of Education who spearheaded the Education Act of 1918, argued that the masses should be educated “to stimulate civic spirit, to promote general culture … and to diffuse a steadier judgement and a better informed opinion through the whole body of the community.” Other educational commentators broadly agreed with this mission. Frederick Gould, a former Board School teacher and author of many books on education argued that “The community cannot afford to let the young people pass out with a merely vague notion that they ought to be good; it must frame its teaching with a decisive and clear vision for family responsibilities, civic and political duties”.

Michael Gove, by Paul Clarke, CC-BY-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Michael Gove, by Paul Clarke, CC-BY-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Civic duties – the civic spirit – were to be taught to the extent that they would become ingrained, implicit, felt. This was to be primarily a moral education. Educators stressed character training, linking moral education to British imperialism or nationalism in an unashamedly patriotic spirit. Education reform was to improve future citizens’ productivity and develop national character traits.

Like Gould, educator John Haden Badley stressed the need to teach active citizenship and service. Education on these lines would provide “a deeper understanding of the human values that give to life its real worth”, cultivating and maximizing the potential of a “superior” Britishness. Meanwhile, in a speech in Manchester in 1917, Fisher argued that “the whole future of our race and of our position in the world depends upon the wisdom of the arrangements which we make for education.” He observed, in language strikingly familiar to contemporary political rhetoric, that “we are apt to find that the wrong things are being taught by the wrong people in the wrong way.”

But even in 1917 the rhetoric was clichéd. A generation of commentators before Fisher argued that the civic shortfalls in mass formal education could be fixed by informal education in youth groups and religious organizations and through improved reading matter. Much juvenile and family literature, whether motivated politically or religiously, stressed emotional socialization, especially in the building of morality and character, as critical for national cohesion.

The trouble with visions of national cohesion, as the last century and a half of educational debate bears out, is the difficulty in getting any two parties to agree what that vision looks like. At the turn of the twentieth century all agreed that children mattered. How they were to be educated was important not just to individual children and their families, but equally importantly, to the community and the nation.

Yet some reformers had patriotic aims, others religious; some civic, some imperial; some conservative, others socialist. Many combined some or all of these aims. All, whether explicitly stated or not, wanted to train, instrumentalize and harness children’s emotions. Children’s reading matter, the stories they were told, and the lessons they heard were known to be powerful forces in cultivating the emotions. Hence the high stakes, then and now, on the narratives supplied to children.

Michael Gove, in common with his Victorian forebears, turns to the “great heroes of history” to serve as models of emulation. Back in the early 1900s, Gould thought history “the most vital of all studies for inspiration to conduct.” The study of history is certainly no stranger to being manipulated for didactic ends in order to impart “British values.”

While Gove is only the latest in a long line to link British history, British values and education, there are surely lessons to be learnt from past attempts and past failures to implement this strategy. A generation of boys and young men at the turn of the twentieth century had grown up learning the positive value of patriotic service. In this memorial year, marking a century since the outbreak of the First World War, it seems appropriate to reflect on what values we might want to instil in the young. What feelings do we want them to learn?

Stephanie Olsen is based at the history department, McGill University (Montreal) and the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, Center for the History of Emotions (Berlin). She was previously postdoctoral fellow at the Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies at Harvard University. The co-author of Learning How to Feel: Children’s Literature and the History of Emotional Socialization, c. 1870-1970 she is currently working on children’s education and the cultivation of hope in the First World War.

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