‘Now we must educate our masters’ may not rank as high as ‘Play it again Sam’ in the list of best-known quotations which were never uttered but it carries a distinct resonance in discussions of political education. It was supposedly uttered by Robert Lowe on the occasion of the passing of the Reform Act of 1867. What he said was phrased less dramatically: ‘I believe it will be absolutely necessary that you should prevail on our future masters to learn their letters’ (House of Commons: 15 July 1867). Lowe was here giving voice to a connection between ruling and education which has been addressed by almost every major political philosopher since Plato. At every era of the development of government, thinkers have pointed to the need for an appropriate form of political education which will induct new rulers into the arts of government.
One traditional role of education has also been to transmit to new generations a continuing image of the community. It promotes cohesion and continuity. John Stuart Mill said that education in its stricter sense was ‘the culture which each generation purposely gives to those who are to be their successors, in order to qualify them for at least keeping up, and if possible for raising, the level of improvement which has been attained’ (J.S. Mill 1984:218). In a wider sense of education Mill praised the view which found ‘in the character of the national education existing in any political society at once the principal cause of its permanence as a society and the chief cause of its progressiveness’ (J.S. Mill 1969a: 140).
Mill recognized the way in which ‘a system of education, beginning with infancy and continued through life’ could sustain an independent national community. He suggests that