Voltairine de Cleyre, “Secular Education” (1887)

There are four instruments which, wielded by dominant minds, bend and mold the sentiments of the masses to meet the form and spirit of the times: The force of early influence, the school, the platform, and the press.

These are the four grand educators, and education is the strong right arm of progress, that arm which bares its mighty muscles and strikes upon the hewn rock of time the chisel-blows which carve the tablets of an advancing era, there to remain until the surges of the incoming ages shall hav swept them away, leaving a smooth face whereon shall be inscribed the newer thought, the better hope, the fuller life of the millennium.

To underestimate the power of anyone of these four is to commit oneself to an error in judgment which betrays a lack of generalship, since a good general will never underrate the strength of either his own or his enemy’s forces; and whether influence, school, press, and platform are ranged on the side of your battalions or against them, they exert a power which it will not do to overlook if you desire to win the conflict.

To the public school system the nation looks, and in a measure has a right to look, for the formation of the character of its youth. I say it has a right to look in a measure. But there is an education which begins before that, an education which is rooted deeper, which reaches farther, which endures longer than that, and might be called the education of early circumstances; the education of parental influence; the education which makes the child of Catholic parents get down upon its knees while yet scarcely able to lisp its mother’s name, and make the sign of the cross while that mother repeats: In nomine patris, et filius, et spiritus sanctus; the education which makes the child of Calvinistic parents afraid to be happy on Sunday for fear of offending an all-loving father; the education which should make the child of Secular parents understand that it is better to study how to liv than how to die; that it is better to hav a religion of deeds rather than a religion of creeds; that it is better to work for humanity than for God.

Secularism owes this duty to itself—that it instruct its children I their earlies infancy to think—Think for themselvs. One of our Secular papers has for its motto, “The agitation of thought is the beginning of wisdom.” Once the people being to understand that; once they begin to appreciate the fact that aroused thought creates questions, that questions provoke answers, and that unsatisfactory answers call forth a denial from reason; once they got waked up to the propriety of asking the clergy questions, you will see the frock-coated gentlemen coming down mightily from their clerical stilts. They’ll get down at about the rate the old Scottish minister did with the foxes’ tails. I suppose you’ve all heard of that. A certain Scotch clergyman who, after the manner of ministers in general and particular, was very fond of hearing himself praised, said one day to the sexton, whom he met in the vestibule after service, “Well, Sandy, an’ how did ye like the sermon the day?”

“A weel, meenister, it were vera guid.”

This tickled the old gentleman immensely, and he wanted to hear it again, so pretty soon he recommenced,

“An’ so, Sandy, ye likit the sermon, did ye?”

“Weel, meenister. Ye ken that sometimes ye are a wee bit gien to exaggeration an’——–”

“Exagger—what?”

“Weel, meenister, I didna mean fae pit it ower strang, but ye ken that—weel, ye sometimes stretch the truth a bit.”

“What, Sandy? Me stretch the truth, an’ me a meenister! Sandy, I’ll tell ye. Ye ken that ye sit in the kirk afornent the pulpit. Weel, the next time ye hear me exaggeratin’ wull ye look up and whustle?”

“I wull.”

So the next Sunday our minister had a very carefully-prepared sermon, taking his text from that part of the scripture which tells about Samson catching the three hundred foxes and tying their tails together; and had he but stuck to his notes he would hav been all right. But no; he could not forbear to extemporize; and closing the big Bible he leaned forward upon it, remarking as he did so, “Noo, brethren, this is wi’ mony a vera sair pint; how Samson could ha’ caught the three hun’erd foxes, and having caught them, tied their tails thegither. For ye ken that, in this country, it taks a grat mony men an’ a grat mony houn’s to catch one fox, let alone three hun’erd foxes. But, brethren, if ye’ll gie me yer attention for a few munits I’ll make that a’ perfectly plain to ye. We’re tauld in the scriptures that Samson was the strongest mon that ever lived; noo, while we’re not tauld that he was the gratest runner that ever lived, we’re not tauld that he wasn’t; and so I infer from that that Samson was the gratest runner that ever lived. But noo we come to a mair sair pint still. Having caught the three hun’erd foxes, how was it that he tied their tail thegither, for ye maun ken that it wad be a vera difficult matter for a mon to tie twa foxes’ tails thegither, let alone three hun’erd foxes. But ha’ patience wi’ me, brethren, and I’ll make that plain to ye. Noo, there ha’ been mun who ha’ na staid on thar farms and dairies like yersel’s, who ha’ na been to the universities like mysel’, but h’ been away an’ traveled I’ foreign countries, I’ Palestine and the Holy Land. An’ these travelers tell us that thar foxes there are a vera different creetyer; that their tails are vera much longer than they are here; that, in fact, thae foxes there hae tails f-o-r-t-y feet long!”

(A prolonged whistle.)

“Wait a meenit, brethren. Some writers tell us that thae foxes ha’ tails forty feet long, but ither writers inform us that this is a grat exaggeration. That thae foxes’ tails are nae mair than t-w-e-n-t-y feet long!”

(Another whistle.)

“Wait, brethren! While some writers hae tauld us that thae foxes’ tails are forty feet long, and ither writers he tauld us that thae foxes’ tails are twenty feet long, I mysel’ hae studied the matter, and I hae come to the conclusion that this is a vera grat exaggeration. That, in fact, the foxes’ tails are nae mair than t-e-n feet long!”

(Another prolonged whistle.)

“Sandy McDonald, I’ll nae tak’ anither inch off thae foxes’ tails if ye whustle till ye whustle off the top o’ the kirk! Wad ye hae the foxes wi’ nae tails at a’?”

Well, if the people will only keep on whistling, they will get the preachers down to within five or ten feet of the truth.

Secularism owes this duty to itself, that it educate its children in the bottom facts of truth, and not leave them exposed to the deceitful allurements of well-masked falsehood.

Oh, it is a power, this early influence! And therein lies the secret strength of the church; therein lies the hidden source of might to that magnificent organization—the finest which this world has ever seen—that teacher of the dark and damnable doctrins of ignorance, the Roman Catholic church. Therein lies the power which enables it to stretch out a long arm under the Atlantic ocean, to reach a hand beneath the people of the United States, to press its fingers down upon our political parties and its thumb upon our political liberties, and when the opportune moment comes, will enable it to drag them all back, back under the iron heel of the Italian despot.

Do you think them unable to do it, simply because a few Freethinkers oppose a feeble remonstrance? You might as well hope to keep out the storm tides of the ocean with a few poor, rotten dykes. It is going to take the barrier of well-educated minds to stem that torrent; and education, to be most effectiv, must begin in childhood. Earliest impressions are most enduring, and earliest superstitions are hardest to be rid of.

Do not deceive yourselvs. If you do not educate your children, the church will do it for you, and with an object.

Think you, when their numbers are grown vast enough, that they will hesitate to roll their car of Juggernaut over the writing form of mental liberty? Think you that they will pause out of respect to your sentiments; do you suppose they are afraid of hurting your feelings? Oh, no, “they ain’t built that way!” Think you that this vast array of falsely instructed minds, fortified with the barrier, “Thou shalt not think,” grounded upon ignorance just as firmly as the adamantine rock is grounded upon its base—think you that it will hesitate to work out its nefarious schemes on account of any so poor a barrier as Secularists hav thus far interposed? Ah! you fail to comprehend the power of your enemy’s forces.

There are 225 000 000 Catholics in the world, and the United States has its full proportion of them. Do you realize the power of that army of dupes in the hands of pope and cardinal? Do you realize that they multiply like rats, and are daily and hourly making proselytes? Do you realize that they are constantly working in the ditches and sewers and underground cities of thought? Do you realize that the stratum of our liberties has a sub-stratum, and that that sub-stratum is being honeycombed, tunneled through and through by these never-ceasing, never-tiring forces of what Mr. Putnam so aptly styles “organized ignorance”? Do you realize that the sentiment of this overwhelming mass, only waiting to elect a majority in senate and house to establish this government upon a Christian basis, with that high-handed outlaw God upon the throne of the Constitution, with the Catholic church the power behind the throne—do you realize that this vast sentiment, held in check by the one article of the Constitutions which guarantees that there shall be no union of church and state, is the sword of Damocles suspended by a hair?

Ah! we hav need of secular education; we hav need of a Secular Union; we hav need to throw ourselvs in the breach; we are standing with our hand on the throttle of the avalanche. And what is true of the Catholic church is true of the Protestant in a less degree. It isn’t because they lack the will; it’s because they lack the power of organization. Nor does its activity end with the matter of influence. It has wedged itself into our public schools; it has been wrought into the scientific brains of their faculties (yes, and very poor faculties some of them hav, too), until our schools hav become, not institutions devoted to purely secular teaching, but actually Christian places of worship. Yes, indeed, Christian places of worship; where the Protestant God, and the Protestant Jesus, and the Protestant Bible are set up as little idols for Jew, Catholic, and Infidel alike to fall down and worship. The approved text-books of the common schools are in general such as are fraught with reverential nonsense concerning the bounty and goodness of a supreme being in fitting up the beautiful home for man’s abode; when everybody possessed with common sense knows that unless he has a lot of rich relations, God won’t help him a bit about getting a home. And some of the more advanced works on zoology, chemistry, and geology hav spent much valuable space and printers’ ink in the silly endeavor to reconcile Darwin, rock literature, and common sense with that snake-apple yarn. It’s high time all this foolishness was abandoned. If scientists will continue to make books pandering to the follies of Christian prejudice, it is the duty of Secularists to demand and to earnestly support that demand that religious sentiment be kept entirely out of educational works. It is enough that our schools should teach concerning the here and the now; it is enough that they should deal with known quantities and assured facts. There are quite enough of them to keep any ordinary mind well employed for some time, without speculating concerning the pin-feathers on an angel’s wing. It has more to do with the specific gravity of a comet’s tail. It is out of the province of a public school system to decide whether the pavements of the New Jerusalem are 18k. fine or weighed by the table of 24 grs. make 1 pwt., 20 pwt. 1 oz., 12 oz. 1 lb.

It is an inconsistency to declare ourselvs a nation of freemen so long as the precepts of truth are incumbered by religious falsehood, and the whole incorporated into the mental food which is ladled out to our youth by teachers who believe because their salary depends upon the precarious foothold of popular favor. And we, as Secularists, are inconsistent when a religious system is taught in our public schools in any form, and yet we raise no voice of protest. If the faithful want their children instructed in the “mysteries of religion” let them go to those who make that their business; but it were better for them to beware how they endeavor to foist this ism of that upon an institution which must and shall be committed to purely secular teaching.

It is much to be regretted that so-called Liberals and Freethinkers do not seem to appreciate the necessity of colleges which shall be established upon an entirely secular basis, to the exclusion of all chimerical and—yes, parasitical theology. There are certain moneyed Freethinkers in these United States who hav given more or less to the support of various churches which might much better hav been used to found a college of this kind. But no; these gentlement prefer to see their names in print as the “generous Mr. So-and-so,” patron of the Methodist God, or the Presbyterian God, or the Congregationalist God, or some other poor little god who needs patronizing, rather than as founders of secular colleges. Too much laxity in this matter has led to serious backsliding. (I know that is a Methodist term, but, however, it applies.) We hav not only failed to advance, but hav actually lost ground. Girard College, once the stronghold of secular training, has become a religious institution—a soft snap for priests; and though the design of its founder is thwarted, and the original bequest forfeited thereby, yet those who pretend to venerate that great and noble man stand idly by, witnessing the defeat of his life object, watching this rank and sickly growth of superstition springing green over the ashes of Truth’s fallen empire. Where are your Secular principles? Where is your enthusiasm for the liberation of mankind from mental slavery, that you do not at least reclaim the gift of Stephen Girard? I know of but on college in this supposed realm of thought-liberty which is wholly free from superstitious fetters—that is at Liberal, Mo.

Ah! if only our Liberal friends were but half as anxious to propagate truth as our orthodox opponents are to promulgate falsehood. If only they were half as willing to work with mind and heart and pocketbook for the elevation of humanity as to listen to pretty speeches about it. When I see the money that is spent in dotting our cities, towns, villages, and farm lands with church spires, and church colleges, and church institutions of all kinds, even to church gambling houses, and then compare the spectacle with the few, the very, very few, Freethought institutions, I am forced to believe that a little hell-fire doctrine is a pretty good thing to burn holes through pockets. Why, you people who talk so much about elevating humanity are not half as anxious to do something practical in the line as your opponents are about sending us to hell. What is the reason we can’t hav secular colleges?

The churches hav theirs, and they’ve a great big stumbling-block to get over, too, which isn’t in our way, because there’s nothing about Secularims to provoke theological disputes, simply because there is no theology to dispute about; while a Baptist must draw back from a Presbyterian institution with a shake of his head at the idea of foreordination, and a Presbyterian will look at a Baptist college with a contemptuous, “Take no stock in you, it’s too well watered.” But pray, what is there to keep anyone out of an exclusively Secular institution? I fear again that the power of such education is not fully appreciated, and remember it is in the hands of the church to use for the advancement of their objects. And they use it. Here again comes in the power of Rome. They hav sprinkled our country with monastic and conventual institutions which exert a secret, deadly influence which makes itself felt to an extent you are little aware of. I know of what I speak. I spent four years in a convent, and I hav seen the watch-works of their machinations. I hav seen bright intellects, intellects which might hav been brilliant start in the galaxies of genius, loaded down with chains, made abject, prostrate nonentities. I hav seen frank, generous dispositions made morose, sullen, and deceitful; and I hav seen rose-lead cheeks turn to a sickly pallor, and glad eyes lose their brightness, and elastic youth lose its vitality and go down to an early grave, murdered—murdered by the church. Can you hesitate to work for secular schools when you recognize the power of this instrument in the hands of the enemy?

Once the minds of the people hav been educated in the principles of truth by a thorough system of early training, they will be enabled to judge better of those matters of interest which are brought before the people by the two other great instruments—platform and press. These work together, and surely the power of eloquence, that subtle, transcendent power, which appeals to both mind and heart, which locks sentiment and reason in each other’s arms, should use its every fiber, its every nerve, its every sinew, to draw the rapt and listening soul toward the gate of liberty. And the free press! Ah! that is the grandest of them all! That is the power which penetrates the darkest hovels, the deepest dungeons, the lowest cesspool of humanity. That is the sublime educator of the masses; that is the hand which is stretched out to each and every one. That is the guerdon of our liberties.

And inasmuch as it is the noblest and highest instrument when right used, so when perverted and turned from its course does it come the most baneful. A few months since an influential, wide-awake Michigan newspaper made the statement that religion was even more essential than education to the welfare of the state, and if not otherwise provided it would be a necessity for the state to furnish it. That paper had a very poor opinion of itself as an educator; it had a very poor opinion of the press of this country. Unfortunately there seemed to be a little policy in the matter, as the said paper has a large Christian support; but I’m thinking if the worthy editor who wrote the article were asked which the world could do without best, religion of the Detroit Evening News, he would hav reconsidered his decision.

He would hav said as I say, “That is false!” The press and the platform are the vox populi, the call of humanity; the cry for liberty; the cry which goes up from all the weary, struggling, surging sea of life; the cry which catches the ear when we wake and listen and hear the mourning of the desolate homes, laid waste by that rich, grinding, hated, accursed monopoly, the church.

Voltairine de Cleyre.


Voltairine de Cleyre, “Secular Education,” The Truth Seeker 14 no. 49 (December 3, 1887): 774-775.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2193 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.