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James Hemming

Humanist, educationalist, child psychologist, writer and activist,  Vice-President of Humanists UK,  (1909 – 2008)

James Hemming was a member of Humanists UK from its formation in 1963. He served on its Executive Committee, was its President for many years, and was currently a Vice-President until his death in 2008. From the 1960s until the 1990s he played an important part in the work of Humanists UK Education Committee, which was principally concerned with enlarging Religious Education to a broader-based, objective, fair and balanced study of beliefs and values. During the 80s and 90s he was one of the humanist representatives on the Religious Education Council of England and Wales. Despite failing eyesight, he remained an active and keenly interested supporter of Humanists UK and its work in education well into his 90s. In July 2001 he was one of the signatories to a letter published in The Independent which urged the Government to reconsider its support for the expansion of maintained religious schools.

Many of James Hemming’s ideas on education remain all too relevant today. In The Betrayal of Youth (1980) he criticised an education system designed mainly to produce measurable results and proposed a curriculum which would mobilise all pupils’ resources, social and affective as much as intellectual, and encourage them to see themselves as competent. He wrote that an education in which knowledge of facts had priority over everything else would leave most pupils with a sense of failure: “To generate failure is to kill confidence. And confidence is the vitamin of human capability.”  He said in 1987:

“What is necessary for children is that they should have a complete, profound understanding of the full range of human sexuality, without any special bias being put on here and there, or trying to sell one particular line or another. Let them know honestly. If we don’t tell them what the facts are through education, they will pick up distorted and garbled views from the mass media and their friends. That is the choice: whether we give children the information they need to grow up as mature citizens, or whether we deliberately seem to be withholding part of it because it’s ‘wicked’.”

He instigated many initiatives on moral education, developing his views on this subject in books and booklets. His books included The Betrayal of Youth, Teach Them to Live, You and Your Adolescent, Problems of Adolescent Girls, Individual Morality and Instead of God; his booklets included Religious and Moral Education, Humanity and Christianity: The Common Ground of Moral Education , Honest to Our Children, and A Humanist Approach to Moral Education.

His writing style was informed by his clarity of thought and his humanity, which enabled him to communicate with an ease and freshness that made for excellent readability despite the complex topics on which he wrote. As well as education these covered, for instance, the great ultimate questions of existence, ethics, the structure of the universe and human psychology. His books were described as: “lively… written in a brisk firm style which matches the author’s intention to cut the cackle and address himself to common sense. He concentrates on life as it is lived.” (Sunday Times); “Thoughtful and thought-provoking.” (Evening Standard); “Both courageous and thoughtful.” (Sir Julian Huxley).

He was active in the work of the Campaign for Moral Education and closely involved in the formation and work of the Social Morality Council (later the Norham Foundation), serving on its Executive Committee and on the editorial board of its Journal of Moral Education. His considerable success in this area was aided by his ability to work with people with a wide range of religious and humanistic beliefs who shared his concerns. He had a particular talent for being able to “step into another person’s shoes.”  This, together with his personal warmth, his patience and his wisdom, enabled him to engage in productive dialogue, and in this he was a pioneer of the inter-faith communication and understanding that has now become so widespread.

His other contributions to education included spells as governor of St. George’s in the East Secondary Modern School in the East End, and Mayfield School, a girls’ comprehensive in Putney. He also spent some time lecturing in Africa, and wrote widely used books for schools. He was educational adviser to the World Education Fellowship and attended its international conferences. He was on the editorial board of its journal New Era in Education .

His political interests were reflected in his membership of Common Wealth, a new, idealistic, left-wing political party which won several by-elections in the 1940s, and, from the 60s on, in active membership of his local Labour Party. He was also a member of the Green Alliance. He was one of the many prominent writers and academics who appeared as witnesses for the defence in the trial of Penguin Books for publishing Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and was also a member of the Television Research Committee, set up to investigate the impact of mass media on the moral development of young people. In 1978 he was among the signatories to “A Statement Against Blasphemy Law” published by the Committee Against Blasphemy Law. In 1987, during the public debate on the notorious (and now withdrawn) “Section 28”, he declared homosexuality to be “morally acceptable as a way of life” in a BBC2 Day to Day programme.

He was a panel member for several years on BBC’s main advice programme If You Think You’ve Got Problems, and was a close friend of Claire Rayner, who also took part in the programme. He was also an Honorary Associate of the Rationalist Association.

Friends, relatives, colleagues and fellow-humanists reminisced warmly at a crowded celebration of his long and active life on 7th April 2008 at Conway Hall – click here to read the full script.

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