Anarchy 103/Education: an immodest proposal

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an immodest proposal …


In anarchy 53 published in July 1965, Colin Ward made a modest (but consciously outrageous) proposal for the repeal of the Education Act. Since then the movement for change in our schools has grown much stronger. New primary schools are being built entirely differently from the ones we adults attended, with freely-planned internal spaces to suit informal group working, and the new methods, having been publicised on television, are discussed in millions of homes. Edward Blishen has edited a collection of children’s essays The School that I’d Like, published by Penguin, that constitutes a passionate and sustained attack upon our present educational order. Michael Duane’s radical but short-lived regime at Risinghill has become widely known and discussed through the publication of Leila Berg’s Penguin book.

  And, of course, student unrest is spreading from the colleges to the schools, and the Free Schools Campaign has got under way. Now, if not repeal, at least a new Education Act is being talked about, current ideas are being evaluated and new thinking sought after. It is an important moment for anarchists to develop and communicate their view of the educational scene.

  It is generally observed by discerning adults as well as by children themselves that, as things are at present, children have no rights. It is also observed that our education system falls far short of what it should be. Perhaps this is not just coincidence; the school’s educational short­comings may be linked to the current inadequate notion Society has of children’s civil liberties. If human rights are in some measure denied
to children it is because we do not yet regard them as full human beings and our adult code of civil liberties is not felt to apply to, as it were, imperfect adults in a state of transition.

  Children are frail, vulnerable, inexperienced and immature in varying degrees. So are we all. And it is of the essence of human rights to depend, not upon these variables, but upon the one and only constant: humanity itself. If intrinsic human rights exist, as such, they exist for all human beings alike; what would be an infringement of civil liberties for adults infringes the liberties of children no less.

  An essential part of the present education system is compulsory attendance at school between the ages of five and fifteen (or its very definitely hedged-about equivalent). No conscientious objection is allowed, no pay is awarded in consideration for work done, submission to the authority of the school hierarchy is demanded and disobedience as well as absenteeism is punished. No amount of apologies: that education is a privilege, that teachers are enlightened and that the child’s welfare is foremost in everyone’s mind disguises the true nature of this situation; in a word, it is slavery.

  The child is born a “free” citizen, so he is told, lives in a “free” country where he is part of the “free” world. At the age of five he learns otherwise. He becomes subject to a state decree which funda­mentally affects his daily life and his whole future and which is inescap­able, even unchallengeable. This is, in effect, and perhaps is intended to be, a traumatic experience conditioning the person to the concept of obedience on which the authoritarian state system depends.

  Compulsory attendance at school also places the teachers in a difficult position and forces them into an authoritarian role. Because dissent cannot be expressed by withdrawal from the educational insti­tution, it has either to be repressed or expressed as rebellion. Rebellion has to be ruthlessly crushed for the sake of the continuing operation of the establishment. It is more convenient if the pupils can be forced to submit to authority, and thus powers of coercion have to be assumed leading to a system of punishment sufficiently severe to generate mental and bodily fear in the intending dissenter. Small wonder that teachers are reluctant to give up the right to use corporal punishment as a “last resort”. The entire relationship between pupil and teacher is soured by the fact of compulsion and this is a handicap that few teachers have the power to overcome. Not only a child’s civil liberties therefore but the whole quality of education is at stake.

  Compulsory attendance became part of our school system at a time when our assumptions about the nature of children, our view of human rights and the needs of our society differed radically from those of today. Now that we are beginning to recognise a child’s claim to full human dignity and moving towards the educational enfranchisement this view entails, it should be possible to re-examine the social function of compulsory schooling and find out how essential we feel it to be.

  If education is primarily seen as a means to some utilitarian end:
the plant installed to manufacture suitable components for an all-demanding technological society, compulsion is obviously as desirable as it was in the days when our industrial and imperial status called for a constant supply of literate and semi-literate recruits. Those were also the days when young children represented a source of unskilled labour. What the economy approved for reasons of its own (increasing industrial sophistication exacting some degree of literacy), reformers demanded in order to save from ignorance and exploitation the helpless children of the poor.

  Economic requirements have nothing to do with the rights of children. But the concern which inspired Victorian philanthropists is still at the back of all our minds as the justification not only for retaining but for increasing compulsory school attendance today. Reforms of one age have a trick of turning if not into abuses at least into stumbling blocks for later generations, however. Perhaps our inherited approval of enforced education is as old-fashioned now as is the progressive penal system of the nineteenth century.

  With regard to primary schools at any rate this is certainly so. Children from five to twelve years old cannot be employed as labourers any longer nor have they any built-in resistance to school as such. Babies spend all their spare time learning, so do little children whose play is education. And now that primary schools are being adapted to their pupils instead of the other way round and turning into places enjoyable to learn in, there is really no valid argument for enforced attendance. All young children are so naturally curious and gregarious that they cannot easily be kept from school except by extreme social handicaps such as suffered by Gypsies and for which the remedy lies elsewhere.

  At adolescence the pattern changes. A child’s energies are no longer turned outwards; preoccupied with growing-up, many children do not focus on the acquisition of general knowledge or particular skills unless these relate closely to what they feel to be their real con­cerns. Though the early ability to memorise facts may persist it is, in other ways, a bad time of life to go to school for many people. The diversity of response at this age suggests that a wide choice of educa­tional possibilities should be available beginning with the choice of whether to go on with formal education at all.

  What is the alternative? Fears of juvenile unemployment and delinquency are not unreasonable seeing how wasteful and destructive adolescents can be in their spare time. But these children only exhibit the symptoms of an uneducated, uninterested society; if they are freed from the compulsory work which often fails to engage their attention or respect and so becomes enforced idleness of a demoralising sort; if education is freed from the straitjacket of compulsory attendance and the present examination system, the symptoms may diminish not in­crease. Long-term idleness is not a natural way of life except for a few
dedicated characters who would pursue it anyway. The majority of children badly want occupation of a constructive sort, their destructive­ness is a protest against what they feel to be an irrelevant, uncaring environment which they are powerless to effect.

  Until the 19th century most adolescents were treated as adults. Nowadays many in the same age-groups, maturing even sooner, we are told, want to be done with school and to try grown-up life, assume responsibility, earn money, be treated as equals in an adult world. On the other hand it is common for fully grown men and women who have had their quota of education to feel cheated of it still. In a recent report on Glasgow gangs the only way out of the vicious circle of futility and violence (not poverty) suggested by one or two of the grown-up members was to have had a better education. “But it’s too late now,” they said. Secondary schooling is something that should be freely available at all times of life, is the natural conclusion if one views education as a process of individual growth, discovery and enrichment; a liberty to be enjoyed rather than a law to be obeyed. If these two concepts, voluntary and long term (or rather spread-out) schooling are put to­gether, they can be seen as two sides of a single workable solution. Fully supported secondary education could be made obtainable by means of a voucher system, a series perhaps of twelve monthly voucher forms automatically acquired at adolescence, and valid throughout life. Further vocational training could then be awarded with grants as it is now. After an interval of unskilled or apprentice work, restricted of course by protective legislation (which would benefit a number of secondary school children who work far too long hours at present), very many people would not only appreciate school more but be better equipped to profit by it. A probable loss in facility would be more than balanced by enthusiasm and experience of life. Single sex education, school uniform, compulsory religious instruction and corporal punish­ment are questions which would solve themselves in this situation by vanishing; discipline becomes a matter for real self-government in a voluntary school community. One envisages a state of affairs in which pupils and teachers could form a corporate and sometimes interchange­able body and where school itself could be a real social centre.

  The spectre of the eager child prevented from staying at school by his parents or by economic necessity does recur but even this situation becomes less acute than before if the assurance of further education is borne in mind. How to discover a child’s genuine choice in the first place, how to safeguard his earnings while he works, how to arrive at a suitable financial allowance during school days, and what to do about students with children of their own, are all problems which need solving. If leisure becomes more general however, with the introduction of a four- or even three-day week, one can see how practicable as well as how valuable spread-out schooling could be.

  It may be objected that voluntary education would suit academically inclined people who would be keen to take up their school entitlement
early and follow on with courses qualifying them for “successful” adult life, but that children with duller intellects would withdraw from school earlier as they saw no prospect of success, and would not even get the smattering of literacy they acquire now from enforced attendance up to fifteen. Better, it may be said, to improve methods of teaching to rescue these children from their present boredom and sense of failure.

  And here we are confronted again by the original obstacle to educational progress as we see it. A system of education, however well meant, that seriously infringes the civil liberties of children from the age of five to fifteen, that narrows the scope of teachers, and that resembles slavery, does not admit of adequate improvement. To find a ready-made educational pattern which offers real hope for the misfits and throw-outs, the despised and rejected of our current system and therefore of society, we have to step once more outside the compulsory framework.

  In Further Education, students who have shown no previous academic ability can succeed in the courses they have chosen. To begin with they are starting fresh at something different and their aptitude for the new skills is still an exciting mystery. The students have chosen to go on the course and are ready to give it a good try. They have the feeling, too, that at a College of Further Education they are part of a course which has been put on to suit demand, whereas at secondary school everyone knows that the system with the same syllabus would go on regardless of whether they were there or not. How better could the advantages of Further Education be transferred to secondary schools than by bringing in this vital ingredient of choice? The whole atmos­phere would be transformed. The sharp difference between success and failure as exemplified by streaming would disappear. Students, instead of being collected together by birthdays or the alphabetic acci­dent of their initials or divided by arbitrary intelligence tests would be grouped according to interest. The diversity of age and experience in such a class coupled with identity of interest would be stimulating and beneficial to group working. Instead of the curriculum being dominated by largely abstract examinations, students would occupy themselves with the more exploratory and creative projects that lie close to the true nature of education. When the student’s vision of his future place in society became clear he would choose to equip himself appropriately and study for the necessary qualifying examinations, and those studies would be more effective because inner-directed and tuned to coincide with his personal needs.

  But all this will be no good, the objection may still go, if the child chooses not to attend—puts off taking up his entitlement.

  At worst children making this deliberate choice would have gained something in terms of self-respect. Their imaginations and intellects would not be damaged by enforced attention to what they see as dreary,
pointless tasks. Outside school, it is true, the work opportunities for such a person are likely to be pretty dreary too but may well not be so demoralising, and the voucher scheme would mean that the opportunity to return to school would always be there. When this time came there is every chance that it would be with renewed interest.

  And if the entitlement were never taken up? Such cases would be rare, and certainly not significant for the well-being of society. With schools competing with one another to make themselves attractive to students, with an unlimited breadth of courses available and with financial support for the student appropriate to the needs of the equiv­alent person out of school, most people would be eager to take advantage of the educational facilities to the full. Look at the flood of demand for adult education that exists now.

  And look once more at the dreary ranks of secondary school children who have opted out. Even the academically successful are often a poor advertisement for our present education system in terms of happiness, creativity, self-fulfilment.

  It would seem that the violation of civil liberties represented by compulsory schooling is an inescapable issue in education today, from whichever standpoint one approaches it. One could go further and relate this problem to the central dilemma of our time. Now that the potential of human existence is so amazingly extended and so uniquely threatened, we all need educating first and foremost in the practice of freedom and the exercise of choice.

  The 5th issue of The Libertarian Teacher is obtainable for 3s. post free from 36 Devonshire Road, Mill Hill, London, N.W.7.