Education in the West -
The Retreat of the Humanists
"To reform education is, in many ways, to reform the society that the people of California have created. Thus, the Commission urges all Californians to consider what kind of educational system, and what kind of society, they seek for their children and the larger community."
Report of the California Commission for Reform of… Education (1974)
In the nineteen-thirties a door had closed in Russia, but elsewhere doors were opening. Serene, middle-class reformers were working away quietly in small schools like Bedales, Bembridge, Dartington, Frensham Heights, Forest School, St. Christopher's, Summerhill in England, and, later, Kilquhanity in Scotland. As long as the system in Britain felt itself secure, it tolerated these schools as one tolerates a kindly, picturesque eccentric, and that toleration gave Westminster a reputation for liberalism. Working in one of these schools I felt was like working in the research lab of a big firm which would incorporate our successes into its system, and there seemed to be a friendly relationship between the boardroom and the lab. A.S. Neill referred to 'my friend, the editor of the Times Educational Supplement'. There was evidence that the results of experiment were filtering into the main system. Well-known educationists acknowledged the value of some of the lab work. Universities and colleges of education directed students to visit the labs and write essays about them. Many students saw, in action, ideas that they had regarded as utopian and impractical. They saw children working happily, unsupervised, 'undisciplined', confident, and the vision remained with them, however limited the opportunities they had to realise it when they took up employment in private or state schools.
After the war, some of the wisdom seeped into official reports. The Plowden and the Albemarle and Newsom reports in England and the Primary and Secondar ?? ??? Scotland were heartwarmingly outspoken. No reader could escape the conviction that here were influential people who meant business. I was convinced that the tide was beginning to turn. I felt assured that even those who weighed everything in a commercial balance would accept that our children are our most precious assets and would support educational changes which were directed at improving and developing these assets. Educational paperbacks, supporting us, sold well. We thought that this warmer influence would permeate education and it took us a long time to realise that it wasn't happening. Minor reforms, issuing from the small pioneer schools, were taking place in some larger state schools; but the system itself wasn't thereby altered. Newspapers which glorified a 'free' economy vilified a 'free' school.
In the Sixties there was a more urgent attitude amongst educators. An international conference at Williamsburg in the USA agreed that in all countries of the world, curricula, methods and the learning process itself "require the most immediate attention to ways and means of replacing inflexibility with innovation, traditional or outdated ideas with fresh approaches and new ventures". Still optimistic, I felt that the educationists were getting to grips with the real problem and realising that things as different as juvenile delinquency and balance of payment difficulties have their roots in an inadequate and inflexible system of education. In 1969 a British biologist, Sir George Pickering, said, "If the education system has been designed at all (and, of course, it hasn't) it must have been designed to eliminate Britain as a world power in the second half of the twentieth century".
The Province of Ontario published a report, Living and Learning, which said that 'vast amounts of energy are devoted to consumption of factual content that is biased in selection, places undue emphasis on personal achievement... and is almost totally unsuitable as a tool to understanding today's problems'. The result, it said, was an inability to contribute effectively to the solution of Canada's problems. Like the Russian pioneers, they opposed corporal punishment and the writing of lines, isolation, detention after school, extra work, sarcasm and ridicule. They wanted teachers to act and be treated as professional people, making decisions and being supported but not directed by administrators, directors of education and headmasters. They saw teaching as becoming (with scientific research, food production and the health service) 'one of the four giants of the future'. They wouldn't pay teachers less than administrators. They wanted methods of assessment to replace the 'marks, examinations, report card syndrome', and were especially critical of the American multiple-choice tests. They summed up their proposals by saying, "Fragmentary action programmes already surround us on every side. The real goal will be reached when our social philosophy cherishes children and we act accordingly".
The official education departments of western civilisation showed little disposition to listen to the advice. In the Seventies as the problems of western civilisation became still more acute, the reformers were digging deeper to find the cause of educational indifference. One of the contributors to a book published by the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (1971) said, "Schools are not institutions that are deeply embedded in the culture of western civilisation, or in the civilisation of any other part of the world". Another contributor said that "The Province of Ontario is well on the road to a radical examination of the faith in schooling which has dominated it throughout its relatively brief history". It was an early stage in the erosion of a belief. We'd thought of the school as a Rock of Ages. Now we were beginning to see it as a temporary, leaking shack, maybe not worth repairing.
The most prestigious of the attacks on the old educational order was the USA report, Crisis in the Classroom (1970) written by Charles E. Silberman. The study began when Carnegie Corporation officials found themselves besieged with calls from university presidents asking what to do with their schools of education and the Corporation allocated $300,000 and recruited some of America's most famous educationists to answer the question. The answer is devastating. The schools, said Silberman, "are quite literally destructive of human beings. I think they are the most grim, joyless places on the face of the earth. They are needlessly authoritarian and repressive - not because the teachers and principals are stupid or venal, but because nobody ever asks why: why the rules, or why the curriculum?" He broadened the notion of educator to include not only school teachers but also such other "teachers" as press and TV journalists, college professors, clergymen and museum directors. "The defect in the training of educators - and this includes journalists - is that it doesn't force them to think about the purpose of what they're going to be doing for the rest of their lives." He says that the professional (architect, teacher, lawyer, engineer, doctor, journalist) should be much more than a man with knowledge. He should have a deep concern for human values and use his knowledge to provide services that society needs. For example, the social worker's job is not merely to help people to adjust to society; it is also to help people to change society. Journalists handle well the dramatic events (a moon landing, a riot, a presidential assassination) but haven't learned how to handle the undramatic events that shape the future. Children absorb most of their ideas on values and conduct not from lessons but by the way schools are organised, the way adults talk to children and to each other, the things they approve of and reward, or disapprove of and punish. (We all know this but we go on teaching lessons and preaching sermons as before.)
The following quotations show the radical nature of the report.
"American schools had taken over the curriculum and the instructional methods of European schools, which had developed to instruct mainly the upper class; they made little attempt to understand the special needs of their new students."
"The criteria for deciding what should be in the curriculum should be to ask whether the subject or material is worth an adult's knowing, and whether having known it as a child makes a person a better adult. If the answer to both questions is negative or ambiguous, then the material is cluttering the curriculum."
I think Silberman realised that we can't begin an overhaul of education as long as we retain our attitude of tutored respect for the venerable institutions, and he provided some inside knowledge about them. Too many professors, he said, practise an intellectual colonialism as they set about their task of rescuing the natives from their ignorance and savagery, and he quoted a chancellor of New York University who said (in 1967) that the university was expected to "encourage those attributes of being which are associated with the cultured gentleman". Universities try, sometimes desperately, to become more like the institution on the next highest rung of the ladder and there is a pressure towards uniformity and conventionality.
Twelve members of the Ohio State University College of Education traded places for a week with the headmasters of twelve schools in a midwestern city. One dean discovered that life there was a 'charade'; neither teaching nor learning took place and violence was endemic. There was an archaic building, an uncaring community, an irrelevant programme of studies, a student population out of hand, an overpressed staff, a sympathetic but frustrated central administration. "We educators stand impotent, frightened, dishevelled, in the face of such tragedy," wrote the dean. Silberman diagnosed the lack of imagination as one of the main causes of the educational malady.
"The willingness of teachers, especially of those occupying administrative positions, to become submerged in the routine detail of their callings, to expend the bulk of their energies upon forms and rules and regulations, and reports, and percentages, is another evidence of the absence of intellectual vitality.... Mountains of facts were piled up, condensed, summarised and interpreted by the new quantitative technique. The air was full of normal curves, standard deviations, coefficients of correlation, regression equations."
The same picture emerges from Stone and deNevi's book, Teaching Multi-Cultural Populations, (1971) which was written to alert the USA to its failure to integrate and cherish its Indian, Puerto Rican, Mexican, Negro, Japanese and Chinese minorities. Chinese youth in San Francisco listened to the superintendent of schools who confronted them with "a grand drizzle of statistics and terminology... budget of 82 million dollars, tax ceiling of 97 million, teacher-pupil ratio, bad linkage with the State Labour Department". A cherry bomb went off and somebody shouted "Bullshit! Don't try to shine us on with these numbers, man, " and all hell was let loose.
Alarmed, the state of California published a report of its own in 1974, "Report of the California Commission for Reform of Intermediate and Secondary Education". There was plenty to be alarmed about and it published the figures. By the age of twelve an average American youth has watched at least 10,000 hours of television. 69% of marriages ended in divorce. Only 45% of eligible Californians had voted in the 1974 election. Nevada and California had the highest alcoholism. Suicide was the second highest cause of death for Californians between the ages of 15 and 24. Rape had increased 100% in the past ten years, juvenile drug arrest twentyfold. There was much child abuse. VD was rising. School vandalism cost 10 million dollars annually. And the educational system, the report added, had not changed significantly in more than sixty years.
Almost all caring teachers and loving parents throughout the world would agree with the California Commission's hopes for its own children. It wanted them to have a thirst for knowledge, skills to find work, and succeed in it, self-knowledge and self-esteem, care for the environment and a global perspective on it, an appreciation of all peoples and all cultures, the ability to read, write and count, an understanding of the American system of government and a citizen's rights and responsibilities, an understanding of the economic system and of the management of money, knowledge of human biology and psychology, a sensitivity to artistic, literary and other aesthetic experience and to the beauty around them.
But, alas, having described so clearly their aim, the Commission side-stepped the means by which it is to be achieved. "Rather than drawing a detailed blueprint of change that might hinder the flexibility and creativity the Commission seeks, this report is intended to rouse the imagination of educators, parents and learners." The implementing of the recommendations, they said, is the job of the California State Department of Education.
And that was, for the most part, the end of that. The Report of the California Commission for Reform of Intermediate and Secondary Education took its place on the shelf next to the Silberman Report, Crisis in the Classroom, which was optimistically subtitled, The Remaking of American Education. In a book called Schoolteacher. A Sociological Study (1975), Professor Lortie of Chicago, studying the failure of even the Silberman Report to initiate reforms, said that we must start analysing the devices by which institutions stymie change. For example they use new methods in showplace schools while resisting their widespread adoption. This tactic can 'cool out' enthusiasts until their ardour has waned. Another ruse is to change the rhetoric of school practice while leaving the substance intact.
Lortie's realism about the determined hostility to change offered by institutions should help to dispel the fallacy, widespread in European and American cultural universities and colleges of education, that liberal discussion is like yeast, working quietly until it leavens the whole lump. There is a rigorous debate, a full and frank exchange of views, and we kid ourselves that we can go home now, confident that the new world will start on Monday morning, although we know in our heart of hearts that it won't. In his foreword Silberman said, "My motive is political, in the broadest sense of the term - as George Orwell defined it, "to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other people's ideas of the kind of society that they should strive after." Well, maybe his report did persuade some people to alter their ideas, but it didn't alter American schools or American society. Israel Scheffler, professor of Education and Philosophy at Harvard, wrote a book called Reason and Teaching (in which he condemned the elitist teaching of Plato's Republic). Scheffler's purpose, he said, was "to enlarge the intellectual perspectives of the student". But the experience of those who have worked for educational change in the twentieth century is that enlightenment, enlarging the intellectual perspectives of the students, is not enough.
The story of education in Britain this century is no more comforting. The experimental work of the Thirties, bright with hope, has largely ceased to exist, except in some embattled outposts struggling with their accounts. A.S. Neill's influence continues but not entirely in the way he'd have hoped. There is a greater courtesy to pupils, a more humane atmosphere in many classrooms. But the schools themselves haven't changed all that much. When nobody was looking, someone let the steam out of these initiatives, using the same tricks as Lortie describes in America. It's only the educational priesthood which kids itself, in characteristic western fashion, that things are much better now. The pupils themselves are not taken in. As the pupil said who was quoted at the beginning of the Newsom Report, "It could be all marble, Sir, but it's still a bloody school."
Neither in Britain nor the USA did the work of the pioneers have much effect on the schools. Nor did the educational experimentation conducted by the western world this century have much impact on its political system. Harold Wilson saw comprehensive schools as merely extending the benefits of 'public' school education to working-class children. On school education his simple views were akin to Stalin's. Stalin and Wilson were uncritical admirers of the old educational order, examinations and marks and the paraphernalia of 'subject' teaching. Neither of them could be described as enquirers. They were, over a large area of human life, what their early schooling had made them, accepters. The possibility of subjecting the old ideas on education to the same searching and probing enquiry as the old ideas on physics had been subjected to, never occurred to them. It didn't occur to them that in education, too, we could cut free from much of the inherited furniture of our minds, the frameworks on which our ideas are constructed, realising that it is these very frameworks that impede us, defeat us. We have been brought up, for example, to believe in schools and our thinking on education has revolved round them. We should now be entertaining the proposition that schools are not in the best interests of children and an alternative way of bringing up our children should be sought. To leave politics in the hands of these educational backwoodsmen would be like leaving medicine in the hands of doctors whose knowledge of physics hadn't advanced beyond Aristotle's.
It is not an accident that the 'new class' of rulers on both sides of the iron curtain were opposed to major educational change. The ideas and attitudes of both groups were moulded when they were children in schools respectful to tradition. If he had been born in Russia, Wilson would have fitted comfortably into the new class of rulers described by Djilas. The ample diaries recounting the life style and private ambitions and squabbles of several of Wilson's cabinet colleagues show how much they had in common with their counterparts in Moscow and Belgrade. Mammon is a resilient character. He survives, equally, attempts at major political change promoted by slow evolution in the western states and by revolution in the communist states. He just lets religious and political and educational explosions erupt and is content to wait until they have spent their force and then he resumes his throne. Like the Jesuits, he knows and trusts in the abiding influence of early schooling. Since he has been able to mould them through their upbringing, he controls a fifth column among the reformers and can count on them to restore his old order. The analogy of the fifth column is not accurate, though. It implies a minority of infiltrators. But all reformers have come under the influence of their schooling, including their leaders. Luther was too much of a Catholic priest to let the Reformation get out of hand, George Washington sent Tom Paine packing from Philadelphia, Napoleon saw the French Revolution off and Stalin was having no educational nonsense in the Kremlin.
It was not only in the schools that the people in power became less indulgent towards experiment. Philip Donnellan, veteran radio producer, said, "Features always insisted that it was the responsibility of the producer to stimulate the minds of the audience and alert them to the reality around them; but others saw this as a dangerous process which could be subversive and must be controlled.... Today, there is less probing than ever of the potential of imaginative broadcasting in sound and television."
Mammon's empire, whether in capitalist or communist countries, is founded on the control of the many by the few. (Characteristically both of these elites claim that their system is 'democratic', but neither is ruled by the people.) Both depend on authoritarian schools to keep the populace quiet. The west, which has more experience of sophisticated control, puts on a facade of liberalism and freedom, and holds the schools and the universities and the media on a loose rein. But when things get difficult, the rein tightens. In Scotland a 1984-type language has replaced the genial, cultured tones of the official reports that appeared in the immediately post-war period. Recent official pronouncements are grimly worded. Pupils who don't obey orders are to be treated as law-breakers. The official Scottish report on Truancy and Indiscipline (1977) proposed to remove these troublesome nonconformists to other centres, vulgarly referred to as sin bins. The report said that transfer to the centres shouldn't be by compulsion. It was hoped that parents would recognise "the wisdom of co-operating with authority" but, if they refused, the authority would take stronger measures, legal sanctions. The controllers of Scottish education no longer try to conceal the iron hand. If you don't see the wisdom of co-operating, they'll use the law to compel you. "Conform and co-operate, or else..." Education in Britain is at the same time clarifying and darkening. The issues are now more starkly defined, the outlook more sinister. A contributor to a 1974 Ward Lock book on Recurrent Education quoted a statesman who told a group of senior administrators and others, "I am glad to speak to you; to you who have made peaceful evolutionary change impossible and have made violent revolutionary change inevitable."