Democracy’s Children: Education, Citizenship and the Totalitarian Challenge to the Late British Empire, 1931-1951
Lynton Lees

About the research


NAEd/Spencer Dissertation Fellowship

Award Year



Columbia University

Primary Discipline

In the mid-1930s, as Nazi education reforms pushed the boundaries of the pedagogically permissible, leading educators across Britain’s settler empire appointed themselves guardians of liberal democracy for future generations on the world stage. This dissertation recovers for the first time how British educators crafted new models to teach children to be democratic citizens, in response to totalitarian claims upon the young. Using a qualitative, multi-archival approach, this project reconstructs the prolific network of imperial educationalists who established these new pedagogical theories and practices designed to teach children to ‘think for themselves’ and exercise self-governance, while becoming as ideologically committed to democracy as the Hitler Youth seemed to Nazism. These pedagogues then sought to export their models globally: from centers of educational research in Britain’s white settler colonies, to educational reconstruction in West Germany, and through experimental schemes with Jewish child refugees brought to Britain after 1945. By reconstructing a moment of global educational rivalry, this research advances our understanding of how ideological conflict can both generate new educational knowledge, and also expose core tensions within existing educational practice. Twentieth century-imperialists justified the project of empire as a pedagogical form of guardianship and civilizational development. Yet educators refused to extend education for democratic citizenship to imperial subjects of color, deemed unfit for self-governance on the basis of race. This project reveals how educational theory and practice functioned as a tool of exclusion, reinforcing a racist imperial hierarchy that was far from democratic.
About Lynton Lees
Lynton Lees is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History at Columbia University. Her research explores the political history of education, liberal democracy, and citizenship in the late British empire. Placing education within broader political, social, cultural, and imperial contexts, her work examines how education across the British world was shaped by a growing sense of democracy’s fragility and contingency in the interwar and postwar period. Her research traces the development and dissemination of new forms of education for democratic citizenship across the British world, in postwar West Germany, and in rehabilitative projects for displaced child refugees. Recovering the exclusion of Britain’s non-white imperial subjects from these blueprints for self-governance, it furthers our understanding of education’s historic relationship to race and imperialism. Her archival research was supported by the North American Conference on British Studies.Originally from northwest England, Lynton holds an M.A. from Columbia, and a B.A. from the University of Oxford. She was a visiting student at Princeton University and Birkbeck College, University of London. In 2015, she founded the Oxford First-Generation Society, now the largest organization in the U.K. representing first-generation college students. She previously ran the Access and Outreach department at Christ Church, University of Oxford, working to remove barriers to higher education for disadvantaged young people. As a graduate student, Lynton has taught widely in modern British and modern European history. She served as the Lead Teaching Fellow responsible for graduate student teacher-training and pedagogical development in Columbia’s History department in 2019-2020.

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