Communist Party of Australia

We acknowledge the Sovereignty of the First Nations’ Peoples.


Journal of the Communist Party of Australia


Keep the Workers’ Children in Their Place

by R.H. Tawney

Acknowledgement and introduction

We wish to express our thanks to Allen and Unwin in Sydney and Harper Collins in London for their help in attempting to trace the copyright of this short article by R.H. Tawney, and for their permission to publish it here as an introduction to the article on Australian education which follows.

The objectives of education in the modern state have changed little, if at all, since the first years of this century when R.H. Tawney took the Education Committee of the Federation of British Industries' to task for its opposition to the British government’s 1918 Education Bill.

Tawney’s article first appeared in the London Daily News on 14 February, 1918, almost exactly 80 years ago, and 70 years and ten days after the publication of the first edition of Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto, the 150th anniversary of which we commemorate in the present issue. Its discussion of the 1918 Education Bill’s hostile reception by the masters of British industry, therefore, marks a half-way point between the birth of the Communist Manifesto and the present day.

It is not easy to avoid noticing how little has changed in the 80 years since Tawney’s essay or for that matter since the publication of the Communist Manifesto — but it is also worth remembering that we have known a period since World War II in which, for all too short a time, social attitudes were charged with other more worthy principles.

It was a period that seemed to promise better conditions based on principles of social solidarity, when to speak of socialism and the common people was not considered a foolish aberration or a symptom of subversive intent. It was a time which saw the spread of socially inspired ideas and of socialist systems in many countries, both of which greatly influenced the character of education.

The masters of industry, this time on an international scale, wanted nothing of this, and moved heaven and earth to bring it — successfully as it has transpired — to an end. But history is marked by tides that come and go, and profoundly disappointed as many are by the turn of events that has swept society back to the laws of the jungle, there is no cause to be pessimistic about the future. For all the backward movement that the last decade has seen we have also seen that social justice and equal universal education can be, and have been achieved, and they will be again, when the jungle brutality, the injustice, the meanness and the shortsightedness of today’s legislators are recognised for what they are — a desperate attempt by a dying class to return to the past where they belong and feel at home.

From reading Tawney we can see that capitalism does not and can not change its spots and that “plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose” — the more it changes, the more it is the same thing. So, too, from reading the Communist Manifesto, we can see, from the extent and anger of popular resistance to the massive cuts to education and social services imposed by reactionary governments out of touch with all but the most privileged and backward-looking elements of this society, that “what the bourgeoisie produce, above all, are their own grave-diggers”.

Universal free education for all, that enlarges the life of all and enriches the intellectual quality of the whole of society, is still socialism’s objective. It still lies in the future, on a road still to be travelled.

The road behind us is strewn with the wrecks of every kind of educational compromise claiming, on the one hand, to serve the enrichment of human life, but revealing, on the other, that it is designed with a single quite different imperative in mind, an imperative stated simply in the title of Tawney’s article — “Keep the workers’ children in their place”.

Keep the Workers’ Children in their Place

While the nation as a whole has seen in the Education Bill1 thetentative beginnings of a new and more humane educational policy, there are those to whom the subordination of education to economic exigencies is still, apparently, an indisputable axiom. It would be unfair, no doubt, to attach too much weight to the Memorandum on Education recently issued by the Education Committee of the Federation of British Industries. Both in and out of the Federation there are a considerable number of employers to whom its naive materialism will be highly uncongenial.

But the document is significant as the expression of a point of view which, though it is not representative, is not deterred by any false modesty from desiring to appear so, and which aims at intimidating the Government into abandoning the central element in its educational program by the suggestion that the big battalions of industry have put their foot down. In thus attempting to mobilise the business interests against the children, the Federation of British Industries has unintentionally rendered a genuine service to the cause of educational reform. For it has revealed the motive and social policy which lie behind the opposition to the extension of higher education. They have only to be stated, in order to be rejected decisively by the public opinion of the community.

The days when education could be resisted by a direct frontal attack have passed, and the Education Committee of the Federation of British Industries is good enough to begin its Memorandum by assuring the public that it yearns for “an improvement of the education system”. But it contrives, when it comes to the consideration of particular measures of educational reform, successfully to dissemble the affection which it feels for reform in the abstract.

In particular, while it dwells on the need for better elementary education, and speaks feelingly of secondary education for “the more able children”, and demands a better system of training for teachers, it cannot accept the proposal which is the heart and kernel of the present Education Bill. Indeed, at the mere suggestion that all young persons should spend a small part of their time upon higher education, it cries and cuts itself with knives, quite like a person who is not fired by a passion for educational progress.

The Federation’s first objection to the Education Bill is that unlimited supplies of juvenile labour are indispensable to industry, and that the proposals of that arch-Bolshevik, Mr Fisher, will shake to its foundations the fragile fabric of British industrial prosperity. “A period of eight hours a week taken out of working hours would impose a burden upon many industries which they would be quite unable to bear, except as a process of very gradual development.”

Now it is true, of course, that any extension of education involves some industrial readjustment. It is also true that the lamentations of a certain section of employers over the prospective ruin of British industry have been part of the ritual which has accompanied the passage of every Education Act since 1870, and of every Factory Act since 1802; that experience has refuted these predictions as regularly as ignorance has made them; and that the “burden” imposed by the present measure is insignificant compared with that borne by French and German employers before the war in the shape of military conscription.

To suggest that British industry is suspended over an abyss by a slender thread of juvenile labour, which eight hours continued education will snap, that after a century of scientific discovery and economic progress it is still upon the bent backs of children of 14 that our industrial organisation, and national prosperity, and that rare birth of time, the Federation of British Industries itself, repose — is not all this, after all, a little pitiful?

After 50 years of practical experience of the effort of raising the age of school attendance, the onus of proof rests upon those who allege that education will impede industry, not upon those who argue that education will stimulate all healthy national activities, and industry among them. Nevertheless, it may very readily be conceded that the establishment of a system of continued education from 14 to 18 will involve, like all other reforms, some practical difficulties. Very well, then, the Federation consists of practical men, to whom the nation may naturally appeal for assistance in overcoming them. What help do they offer?

They offer, apparently, none. While well-known leaders of the cotton industry have been at pains to suggest how the circumstances of their particular trade might be adapted to meet the principle of the Education Bill, the attitude adopted in the Memorandum of the Federation of British Industries is one of frigid opposition to the whole policy of universal continued education.

Education, it states, ought not to be extended beyond 14, “until ... the labour market has adjusted itself to the new conditions”. Of any consciousness, as is felt by an increasing number of employers, that there is an obligation upon those who organise industry to take pains to adapt it to the requirements of education, of any suspicion that 55 and-a-half to 60 hours labour a week may actually be excessive for children who have just left school, or that to stop education abruptly at 14 is to stop it when it is just beginning to be most fruitful, or that there is a duty to the higher education to build a better world for all, there is, in this precious document, not a trace.

The Bourbons of industry who drafted it have learned nothing and forgotten nothing. Europe is in ruins; and out of the sea of blood and tears the Federation of British Industries emerges jaunty and unabashed, clamouring that whatever else is shaken, the vested interest of employers in the labour of children of 14 must not be disturbed by so much as eight hours a week.

But it is not merely for economic reasons that the Federation is opposed to higher education for all young persons. It is absolved from the necessity of proving that universal higher education is impossible because it does not really believe that universal higher education is desirable.

Behind the objection based on the convenience of industry lies another objection based on the theory that all except a small minority of children are incapable of benefiting by education beyond the age of 14. It is not actually stated, indeed, that working-class children, like anthropoid apes, have fewer convolutions in their brains than the children of captains of industry. But the authors of the Memorandum are evidently sceptical as to either the possibility or the desirability of offering higher education to more than a small proportion of them.

In the manner of a European traveller describing a race which is too backward to count up to more than ten, it draws a sharp distinction between “the more promising” child who is mentally capable of benefiting by higher education, and “the less promising” child who is not.

For the former there is to be full-time secondary education. For the latter there is to be elementary education up to 14, part of which, in the last two years of school life — a sinister suggestion — “might be directly vocational and intended to fit the child for the particular industry which he will enter at 14”; and then full-time work in the factory. Nor is it contemplated that the children who are “mentally capable of profiting by secondary education” will be more than a select minority.

In a charming sentence, which reveals in a flash the view which it takes both of the function of the working classes in society and of the meaning of education, the Memorandum enters a solemn caveat against the dangers of excessive education.“They would very strongly advise that in selecting children for higher education, care should be taken to avoid creating, as was done, for example, in India, a large class of persons whose education is unsuitable for the employment which they eventually enter.”

There it is, the whole Master Class theory of society in a sentence! One cannot refute it by argument, as one can refute the Federation’s particular prophecies of the industrial disaster which would be caused by a more general diffusion of higher education. For this is not a question of fact, but of ultimate belief, and those who think that men are first of all men have no premise in common with those who think, like the authors of the Federation’s Memorandum, that they are first of all servants, or animals, or tools.

One cannot, I say, disprove such a doctrine, any more than one can disprove a taste for militarism, or for drugs, or for bad novels. But one can expose its consequences. And its consequences are simple. They are some new form of slavery.

Stripped of its decent draperies of convention, what it means is that education is to be used, not to enable human beings to become themselves through the development of their personalities, nor to strengthen the spirit of social solidarity, nor to prepare men for the better service of their fellows, nor to raise the general level of society; but to create a new commercial aristocracy, based on the selection for higher education of “the more promising” children of working-class parents from among the vulgar mass, who are fit only to serve as the cannon-fodder of capitalist industry.

This, then, is the subtle discovery which, as they pore over the lessons of the past three years, inspires in the Federation of British Industries bright hopes of a more profitable future. There are classes who are ends and classes who are means upon that grand original distinction the community is invited to base its educational system.

The aim of education is to reflect, to defend, and to perpetuate the division of mankind into masters and servants. How delicate an insight into the relative value of human beings and of material riches! How generous a heritage into which to welcome the children of men who fell in the illusion that, in their humble way, they were the servants of freedom!

But why has the Federation reserved these revelations till now? If its gospel had been before the world in August, 1914, it might have reconciled us to the Prussian Government, which has long appreciated and practised it. Much money and several lives, both “more promising” and “less promising” — though perhaps the latter are hardly worth considering — might have been saved.

As it is, it is just three-and-a-half years too late. The Federation must try again. And before it does so, let it read and digest the remark of Bacon: “The Blessings of Judah and Issachar will never meet, that the same people shall be a lion’s whelp and an ass between burdens”.

  1. Leading to the “Fisher” Education Act of 1918, which abolished all exemption from school attendance for children under 14, extended public provision for higher education, and proposed a system of compulsory “continuation schools”.

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