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Secularism, race, religion and the Public Instruction Act of 1880 in NSW

Remy Low (Sydney School of Education and Social Work, University of Sydney, Sydney, Australia)

History of Education Review

ISSN: 0819-8691

Article publication date: 11 March 2019

Issue publication date: 11 November 2019



Through a political genealogy, the purpose of this paper is to demonstrate how the institutionalisation of the so-called “secular principle” in NSW state schools in the late-nineteenth century, which is commonly assumed to be a historical moment when religious neutrality was enshrined in public education, was overdetermined by the politics of racialisation and ethno-nationalism.


The historiographical method used here is labelled “political genealogy”. This approach foregrounds how every social order and norm is contingent on political struggles that have shaped its form over time. This includes foregrounding the acts of exclusion that constitute any social order and norm.


The secular principle institutionalised in the NSW Public Instruction Act of 1880, far from being the “neutral” solution to sectarian conflict, was in fact a product of anti-Catholic sentiment fuelled by the racialisation of Irish Catholicism and ethno-nationalist anxieties about its presence in the colony.


This paper makes clear that “the secular” in secular schooling is neither a product of historical and moral “progress” from a more “primitive” state to a more progressive one, nor a principle of neutrality that stands outside of particular historical and political relations of power. Thus, it encourages a more pragmatic and supple understanding of “the secular” in education. It also invites both advocates and critics of secular education to adapt their arguments based on changing historical circumstances, and to justify the exclusions that such arguments imply without recourse to transcendent principles.



Low, R. (2019), "Secularism, race, religion and the Public Instruction Act of 1880 in NSW", History of Education Review, Vol. 48 No. 2, pp. 171-182.



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