The Common School
Centre for the Study of Conflict
School of History, Philosophy and Politics,
Faculty of Humanities, University of Ulster

The Common School frontispiece

The Common School

by Seamus Dunn
Published by the University of Ulster, Coleraine 1993
ISBN 1 87120 689 8
Paperback 31 pp £3.00

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Centre for the Study of Conflict
University of Ulster
Northern Ireland
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The Common School

by Seamus Dunn

Centre for the Study of Conflict
University of Ulster

The Author

Seamus Dunn is Professor of Education at the University of Ulster. He is currently Director of the Centre for the Study of Conflict, a research centre based at the universitys Coleraine campus. He has written and published widely on many aspects of education in societies experiencing conflict and violence. Much of this work has referred to Northern Ireland.


I wish to discuss two opposed understandings of the nature of education, each with a long history.1 The first perceives education as a way of preserving differences between groups, these differences being defined variously in terms of caste, class, religion, gender, intelligence, language or dialect spoken or nationality. For many of these groups, separate and distinctive schools are not just desirable but necessary if their particular form of difference is to survive and prosper. Occasionally such schools seek to proselytise, but more often they are exclusive -exclusive because the group has deeply-felt religious convictions, or wishes to preserve a particular cultural identity, is a minority within the society, or has a particular power-base which it is reluctant to share.

The second, and contrasting, view of education is that it is a way of generating a sense of unity or common purpose or national coherence within a state or country; especially when the state is multinational in the sense of containing different national or ethnic groups. This view can arise from a sense of patriotism, in the wake of war, revolution and social disorder; or from a particular social or political ideology. For example, the Polish government for over forty years used a state system to promote an ideology of a classless, egalitarian, collectivist state. More recently, the African National Congress has been describing how future South African schools and universities will function in the shaping of national goals. The concept received its fullest theoretical analysis in nineteenth century America using the title The Common School and the debate centred round what became known as The Common School Agenda.2 So, at its simplest, the contrast I wish to discuss is between, on the one hand, a singular system of education, often state-based; and, on the other, a fragmented system representing particular group interests.

Much of the debate has always been related to churches. The historically close relationship between religion and education ensures that the strongest pressure for separate schools has come from religions and denominations, and their primary motivation rests, not in a wish to preserve differences, but in the need and duty to educate the children of their own members about their special dogmas and beliefs. But, whoever the separatists are, and whatever their motivation, the outcome is the same: separate schools for Catholics or Jews or Muslims or girls or whites or Irish speakers or the rich or the clever: it is perhaps cynical to notice that there is rarely much fuss about who controls schools for the not-so-clever.

To begin to discuss questions like these it is necessary to examine historical contexts. In the Western world, up to the sixteenth century, the only schools in existence, normally, were those controlled by church authorities: and, since the church did not reproduce itself biologically, education was a necessary process in the constant refilling of the ranks of the church elite. Since church and state were often hard to separate, this situation was accepted as normal and uncontroversial, and constituted what was in effect a state system, if an extremely limited and parsimonious one. It was also a system easily maintained so long as the church's unique power-base remained united.

When this unity began to falter, as a result of a number of powerful and significant social forces, educational change inevitably followed. The religious reformation sparked off by Martin Luther, the emergence of the concept of nationalism, the invention of the printing press, all contributed to an effective challenge to the church's previous unity. Martin Luther's notion of a personal piety led him to the view that everyone should be taught to read so as to have personal access to the Bible and to the new religious ideas of Protestantism. Gutenberg's invention made possible multiple copies of the Bible in the vernacular languages of Europe for the new Protestant communities of Germany, Holland, France, Switzerland. In England William Tyndales translation of the New Testament became widely available immediately after its first printing in Germany in 1525.

As a contribution to the curriculum of the new Protestant schools, Luther translated the Bible into German, compiled a German Hymn book, and, perhaps most important of all, created a pocket catechism in 1529 - an important pedagogical innovation involving a system of 'question-and-answer' which was quickly taken up by the Catholic church.

These changes illustrate the continuing truth, once known to Socrates, that the school curriculum is a political matter; it is to do with compromises over what is important to know and what it is permitted to know. It presents particular choices about what is certain and what in question, what is significant and what unworthy of notice.3 It is for this reason that, since the reformation, popular education has been the source of continuous political and social conflict.

The Catholic Church has always been, and to some extent remains, deeply aware of the subversive potential of books. It quickly realised, however, that the spread of freely available literature was unlikely to be reversed and was, from the Church's point of view, in need of control. A Catholic catechism was produced in 1555 by the first German Jesuit, nearly thirty years after Luther, and this system became so much the norm that it persisted as a basic school text until recently, and many of us learnt from its later editions. In succession the counter-reformation looked to schools as a weapon so that the emphasis on and pressure for Catholic schools was often strongest where Protestants were active. For example, in Montpellier in 1677 the new Catholic bishop began a crusade to bring Protestants back to the Catholic faith by opening new schools, increasing the number in a decade from 47 to 86. Clearly schools were not perceived as neutral institutions.

A second important factor in the demand for separate schools was the emergence of the secular state, and its gradual usurpation of many of the historical powers of the church. The conviction that unregulated state power is dangerous was commonly held, not only by both Catholics and Protestants but also within classic liberalism. In a famous passage from his book On Liberty, John Stuart Mill reflects this unease with state power in words which have a contemporary flavour to them:

All that has been said of the importance of individuality of character, and diversity in opinions and modes of conduct, involves, as of the same unspeakable importance, diversity of education. A general State education is a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another: and as the mould in which it casts them is that which pleases the predominant power in the government... in proportion as it is efficient and successful, it establishes a despotism over the mind.4


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1This paper was given as a professorial lecture in the University of Ulster on 5th May 1993. The author is grateful to Professor Valerie Morgan for helpful comments and advice.

2Some of the ideas in this paper, including its title, resulted from reading The Myth of the Common School by Charles Leslie Glenn (1988) Amherst, London: The University of Massachusetts Press, 369 pages.

3Glenn, (1988) op. 11.

4Mill, John Stuart (1859) On Liberty, Edited Gateway edition, 1955, Chicago: Henry Regenry Company, page 157.

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