I have recently been re-reading the Queensland School Readers of 1948. The school reader was a ubiquitous part of primary education, in Queensland and elsewhere, through the twentieth century – in many places they were used from an earlier date – in others they are still in use. As a carefully compiled collection of reading material for the young, school readers offer us an almost unique insight into those values seen as desirable to inculcate in future citizens.

Many of the stories in these mid-century school readers have demonstrated lasting appeal. Extracts from Don Quixote and A Christmas Carol retain relevance as examples of classic literature. Stories of heroism on the battlefield would not be out of place in contemporary ANZAC Day celebrations. Tales of great scientific discoveries, and of notable figures such as Louis Pasteur and Marie Curie are still taught in schools. Many of these I remember reading when I was myself a primary school student in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

This much is familiar, and seems to fit into the narrative of the secularisation of state education. Within these readers, however, is a thread of protestant Christian religious belief. The school reader for fifth grade, for instance, describes  Paul Bunyan’s 1678 Christian allegory Pilgrim’s Progress as ‘one of the best and wisest books to be found in the whole world’, a book ‘which all boys and girls should read.’[1] Similarly, a poem by John Oxenham, published in the third grade reader and entitled What Can a Little Chap Do? includes the stanza:

“He can look to the light,

He can keep his thoughts white,

He can fight the great fight,

He can do with his might

What is good in God’s sight;

These are excellent things he can do.”[2]

These are far from the only examples in the set of readers. They serve to highlight a fact of secular state education which sometimes goes overlooked: that it was not always secular in the sense of being non-religious – that, instead, the word secular could be used to describe instruction that was merely non-denominational. 

When we seek to examine historical forms of education – or, indeed, any historical social structure – we cannot assume that our contemporary meanings apply. Yesterday’s secular values may be today’s Christian morality.

 


[1] Queensland Department of Public Instruction, Queensland School Reader: Grade III, 13.

[2] Queensland Department of Public Instruction, Queensland School Reader: Grade V, 140.

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