Columbia University Seminar in Irish Studies (#535)

Minutes of the meeting held Friday, February 1st, 2002

Chair:  Dr. Mary McGlynn, Baruch College, CUNY
Rapporteur: Dermot Ryan, Columbia University
Submitted:  February 18, 2002

Attending:  Terry Byrne (College of New Jersey), Michael Malouf (Columbia University), Gertrude Hamilton (Marymount College), Diane Menagh (Fairfield University), Rita Loughlin (Irish Teachers Assoc.), Martin J. Burke (Lehman College and CUNY Graduate Center), Seamus Blake (WFUV, Fordham University), Barbara Young (Malloy College, RVC), John O’ Connor (Irish History Roundtable), Ed Hagan (Western Conn. State University), Margurite Lanner.

Speaker: Coílín Parsons, Columbia University.
Title: "Literary Education and Secularization in Irish School Readers, 1832-1870.”

Coílín Parsons argued that it was on England’s borders and in her overseas possessions that the study and teaching of English literature as a curricular core was first seriously advocated and attempted.  The impetus for the emergence of the discipline lay in either a desire for assimilation into a new British polity, in Scotland’s case, or in the necessity to find a suitable alternative to replace religion as a curricular core, in the case of both India and Ireland.  The essential innovation in the reading books used in the Irish National schools was the decision to pursue a secular though moral education, with literature at its core.  This was in sharp contrast to the religious bent of working-class education in Britain.  The astonishing popularity of the Irish readers in British schools provides a fascinating case study through which to read the adaptation and adoption of educational experiments.
While controversies abound, there is a large measure of consensus around the assertion that Ireland in the early years of the nineteenth century posed a major question, if not a problem, for the British administration.  In 1822, the first permanent national constabulary in the British Isles was established in Ireland.  At this time also, unprecedented expenditure on and direct government involvement in improved welfare services and a Board of Works marked Ireland out as a site of state intervention and experimentation that would not have been tolerated in the doctrinaire laissez-faire environment of Britain.  These reforms were part of a complex of methods for maintaining hegemony.
The move to establish a state-sanctioned primary education system did not emerge from an educational vacuum.  The most successful of the organized attempts at establishing a nation-wide education system was that of the Society for Promoting the education of the Poor in Ireland, or the Kildare Place Society.  Conversion anxieties heavily informed the consolidation of Catholic opposition to the Kildare Place Society.  The objections of the Catholic hierarchy in the 1820s to Scriptural readings made it clear that the system as it stood could not become one of national education.  A solution was proposed by a committee of the commons in 1828, which recommended that a system be adopted “which should afford, if possible, a combined literary, and a separate religious education.”  From the very outset, then, the system of national education in Ireland is a solution to the problems of religious differences in a specifically Irish context, in which the government is both more free to intervene than in Britain, and perhaps also more eager (given the history of Jacobinism and agrarian unrest in Ireland since the late eighteenth century).  The combination of these factors led, in 1831, to an experiment unthinkable in 1830s Britain—the establishment of a secular, non-sectarian national educational system.
The Irish commissioners recognized that the criteria for good citizenship no longer rested in religious affiliation, but rather in the ability of the literate citizen to take full and active part in the growing economy of the empire.  The peculiar religious situation in Ireland necessitated experimentation with an education that would produce precisely that type of “good citizen.”  
The Commissioners succeeded remarkably well in supplanting the popular chap-books with their own readers.  It is noteworthy that while these readers deal with biblical history in a markedly secular fashion, the poetic pieces that punctuate the entire reader are of a decidedly spiritual and moral nature.  In the more advanced volumes of the readers, even secularized biblical history is no longer required to maintain a distinction between religious and literary instruction: the former is finally superseded by the latter as the primary mode of moral instruction.  Poems are no longer interspersed among all the other lessons, but form a discrete section of their own, ending the book with a suitably moral tone.
Under precisely those sectarian pressures that has necessitated the setting up of a secular national school system, education in Ireland shifted inexorably from state-supported non-denominational schools in 1831 to state-subsidized denominational schools in 1870.  In England, on the other hand, the “1833 solution” was one of state-subsidized denominationalism, which had changed by the Forster Act of 1870 into a state-supported non-denominational system.  Having illustrated the peculiar Irish and colonial concerns that informed the compilation of these readers, the question that remains to be answered is why these books came to be so popular in England.  
The books and the Irish experiment in general had the effect of creating the conditions in which secularization and the move to literature in the British educational system could begin to be contemplated.  After the Act of Union, the resulting increase in the number of citizens eligible for citizenship was offset by an expanding conception of the demands of citizenship, and a requirement that the subject engage with the state across a broader range of economic, cultural, and political sites.  It is in the particular situation in Ireland that the educational institutions of rational citizenship are forged and the role of literature in the shaping of the modern citizen-subject is first contemplated. Coílín Parsons took questions from the floor.  A sampling follows.
Q: In the news recently, we’ve read a lot of descriptions of Muslim schools ungoverned by State authority, which are seen as centers of militant fundamentalism.  Do you think that this is analogous to Britain’s concern about education in Ireland?
A: Yes and no.  It is true that there is a proliferation of sites that are uncontrolled in general and this, certainly, is a concern of the British administration.
Q: Shouldn’t we set the expansion of a national school system in the context of 1798?  Isn’t this a part of a larger discourse that links literacy and republicanism?
A: The administration’s response can’t really be reduced to this.  They took a long time to come up with a practical response to the notion that literacy was linked to Jacobinism.
Q: I wonder if you need to historicize your notion of “secular.”
A: I understood secularization as principally anti-sectarian.  There is a desire to pull scripture completely out of education.  There is a growing sense that religion can be pulled out of the curricular core and literature will do the work.  What I mean, in crude terms, is this process of pulling religion out.  It’s striking that as you move through the books chronologically, religion drops out.
Q: The bible schools were using Gaelic literature as a form of proselytizing.  Wouldn’t you agree that the Catholic hierarchy agreed to national schools as a compromise to avoid this?  Thus, it is not merely a form of political control, but also cultural control.
A: Absolutely.  Any bible reading is overtly Protestant.  After the 1850s in Ireland, we see an increasing sectarianism in education.  The paper that this is extracted from, however, is about a disciplinary formation: the formation of literary studies, so this was my main focus.
Q: Did Arnold comment on any of this?
A: He commented as far as to say that it was a wonderful model of secular education.
Q: It’s interesting to think of how important a role Catholicism plays in the development of literary studies.  Did you encounter any commentary on the use of catechism in the schools?
A: It’s being used on the spare days, because you can read complaints about it during the period.