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International Socialism, Summer 1966


Peter Ibbotson

Robert Owen


From International Socialism (1st series), No.25, Summer 1966, pp.30-31.
Thanks to Ted Crawford & the late Will Fancy.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The Concept of Popular Education
Harold Silver
MacGibbon & Kee, 63s

To Keate, flogging away at Eton, and his contemporaries, education was a fight against innate corruption. Children were creatures of the devil; for the wealthy, the birch was available for exorcism; for paupers there was minimal education (in ragged or workhouse schools) on the ‘rescue principle,’ with specific reference to avoiding moral misconduct.

The opposing view was that of Godwin, Locke, Rousseau and the rationalists: children were essentially good. All were born equal, and it was unjust for society to deprive the individual of his equal right to the fullest development. From the educational ideals of Locke, Rousseau and Helvetius it was but a short step to the beginning of a total social philosophy blueprinting the most desirable forms of social organisation conducive to individual development.

Mr Silver is concerned with Robert Owen’s part in the spread of the rationalists’ educational ideals. Owen’s role in the circulation of principles is unclear; but his role in securing the practice of educational innovation is very clear indeed. His stimuli were ideas being discussed and absorbed in the 1790s; he put them into practice at New Lanark where, for the first time in English educational history, there was consideration for the children as children. The wide curriculum, based on what would interest the children, was in contrast with the narrow, limiting views of the proponents of minimal education. (Owen tried to have his pupils understand mathematical processes, not just learn them by heart – so much for the ‘modern maths’ approach of the 1960s! His ‘stream of time’ visual aids in history were equally before his time.)

New Lanark challenged established assumptions about education, and successfully challenged them by its efficacy. Organised religion attacked him; radical economists attacked him; alarmed by his intense desire for a total reorganisation of society, the government lost in him its (albeit only lukewarm) interest. The obscurantists had a field-day and, neither for the first time in history nor unfortunately for the last, killed a popular movement by denigrating the man behind it.

Owenite ideas, however, had far-reaching effects. They helped to generate popular demands for education. They helped to generate working-class opposition to contemporary ordered and structured society. They helped to generate among the working class the conviction and desirability of acting – partly through the spread of education – against the status quo. They marked ‘not a diversion from purer political and industrial aims, but the infusion of a sense of purpose and meaning into the whole.’ Inspired by Owenism, the Chartists came near to establishing their own system of schools and further education; frightened governments reacted by massive injections of state aid into the church schools, and by emasculating the education provided therein. Church and State closed their ranks against the threat of a revolutionary movement based on the spread of educational ideals, and succeeded in imposing their own education system – not what the People wanted, but what their ‘Betters’ wanted them to have. The defeat of Owenism in education saw the beginning of elitism as the mainspring of the publicly-provided system and the death of the first attempt (in modern times) at workers’ control in any branch of society.

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