Anarchy 103/The business and politics of education

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  There is a vicious circle, from school to college of education back to school, which goes on repeating a poor an unhelpful pattern of human relationships—the teacher afraid to relax, simply because he does not know how to do this without losing his authority; the child longing to break through, to find in this person who is so important to him more than the frosty player of a narrow role.

The business
and politics
of education


THE SCHOOL THAT I’D LIKE (Penguin Education Special), 4s.
THE HORNSEY AFFAIR (Penguin Education Special), 6s.

To anyone acquainted with creative methods of teaching, or to any anarchist, the ideas thrown out by school students in The School That I’d Like are not surprising. Indeed, to feel that suddenly the ideas and experiences of Tolstoy with his village school, of Homer Lane’s Little Commonwealth, of Bertrand and Dora Russell’s Beacon Hill School, of present day Kirkdale School in South London, or Tod­dington School founded by Roy and Helen Frye and the Homer Lane Trust, have been revealed as essentially “child-oriented” (in that phrase of the professionals), is only to reveal the blindness of some teachers, and the conservative nature of any institution, state, ministry or county education committee.

  But the excitement of this selection of thoughts and ideas on school is the maturity and individuality of the young writers.

  The social structure of colleges of education, the attitude of staff towards students, the apathy and acceptance of the authoritarian basis by the students, the school atmosphere of compulsory continuous lectures, bulwarked by the step from school to college—which is no step at all—all this creates the dull, conformist and petty person­ality of the majority of teachers in their “probationary” year. The majority is not all, but the minority are a handful, and are pushed around if they have their own ideas and strong convictions.
For the college of education in no way resembles a place for intellectual discussion of wide-ranging subjects or even a place for thinking and questioning. Rather it is a factory for producing young teachers whose knowledge of the world is limited to school/college/school and their particular family environment. They are bound to have a very limited understanding and experience of jobs, people and ideas, with the exception of a few older students who have at least done other things.

  I met five of the most independent students of one Midlands college of education, all of whom had been in difficulties with their course or their tutors and lecturers because of their independence. They were quite obviously students with their very own ideas, able to discuss and argue their views, and in doing so coming into conflict with staff members who were unable to accept, or who found ways to trivialize, any such personal but controversial views, let alone to listen to students as an organised body with rights and demands of adulthood.

  Still less were these staff members able to comprehend the necessity for political societies within the college: political societies less concerned with party-politics (the vote-catchers and power-seekers) than with the politics of such philosophies as pacifism, socialism, anarchism, and concerned with the enlargement of students’ ideas and with understanding that there are many answers, and even more questions to be asked of education. Although Penguin Books have issued A. S. Neill’s Summerhill and Leila Berg’s Risinghill (and are publishing this autumn Neill, a book of photographs of Neill’s school with a commentary by Leila Berg), and have begun an education series, how many students read these books? And just as important, how many staff members of colleges of education, moulders of future teachers, read these books? And how many realise the fundamental philosophy behind such libertarian schools as Kirkdale or Kilquhanity?
The anarchism and pacifism which has inspired such schools is not coincidental, but a direct outcome of experiences and friendships within a society which is horrified when ideas are followed up by actions. It must be sobering to realise that just one man or woman with the vision of a person like A. S. Neill, with the example of just one small school, can create the climate which realises the need for universal libertarian education, as opposed to the military compulsion and discipline of the authoritarian school. For on analysis, most of ordinary schooling is centred around disciplining the class—keeping young people under control—rather than realising their individual needs and natural inquisitiveness to learn. To learn by touching things, feeling things, holding and handling things. To learn by triggering-off the desire in people, young and old, to find out more about the person or idea touched upon. To learn by playing records and asking questions. To learn by methods which have become commonplace in primary schools—by work and play projects which last as long as the task itself, not reduced to quite arbitrary periods of half-an-hour, forty minutes or an hour or whatever the timetable predicted as the length of lesson. (Many of the boys and girls writing in The School That I’d Like underline these points.)

*   *   *

  Last year, just after the occupation of Hornsey College of Art by its students had begun, I was in London and after reading the press comments on a document issued by the occupiers, I decided to take a bus to Hornsey and get a copy. It was Document no. II The Structure and Content of Art Education, one of the central and most impressive of a long series of leaflets and manifestos; all of which contained practical ideas and dangerously alive suggestions which horrified authority (those lecturers who were not part of the occupation, that is) and which gave to take-over—originally planned to last for twenty-four hours, an impetus and maturity which enabled the Hornsey Commune to last some six weeks in an increasingly hostile official
world. But an impetus which gave any student or any onlooker who had not completely lost his or her imagination, a feeling which was expressed in one of several very simple and very imaginative posters: don’t let the bastards grind you down. Only a beginning, and a very well-worn army and factory phrase—a phrase of conscripted hands who have no say in what goes on, though what goes on intimately and continually affects those hands! And this, of course, is what the whole take-over and running of the Hornsey College of Art was all about.

  However, just as the students and supporting staff kept the college open 24 hours-a-day during the occupation, they also carried out programmes of work on the physical presence of their very old and dismal building; they painted and decorated; they took down a typical, trivial screen of glass which separated staff from students in the canteen; they successfully ran the canteen with a zest and enthusiasm and efficiency and sensuality which had to be experienced to be believed. Some ran a disc-jockey service; others showed films in the late and early hours; while various magazines and pamphlets were freely given out at the main entrance.

  Beyond these human activities were the never-ending open meetings thrashing out every conceivable problem from the organisation of courses to the function of the art college, in this democratic power-hugging official-ridden Obedient Society.

  The Hornsey Affair covers the whole story with detail and insight, revealing the nature of our institutions of education, based as they are, on authority and power. It is the more impressive for being written by a group of students and staff, not simply one pen, one idea. The sections of the book begin with quotations from Proudhon, Wilhelm Reich, Victor Serge, Debray, McLuhan, Gramsci, Saint-Just: (“Those who make a revolution by halves are only digging their own graves”), but beyond these thinkers and agitators are the students’ own statements. Their very own manifestos. Their own experiences within their very own quiet and drab buildings transformed into loud and colourful rooms of a living commune. A community based on real interests and common purposes. In miniature an example of the growing conflict between official man and unofficial man. Between the institution and the institution’s victims/students/patients/tenants/workers/prisoners. Between the administrators and the inso­lent, unmanageable, self-confident people who have outgrown administra­tion.

  It is a truism in colleges of education that the child, youth, or student must be the centre of the educational process. Yet sometimes in the past students have been made to feel like things that exist for the convenience of academics, or uninteresting by-products of research. The Hornsey revolt is a reminder that stu­dents, like employers, teachers or the community at large, have something to contribute even in the most sacred academic precincts. In a more enlightened world perhaps the Hornsey sitters would have been allowed to control their college and their education for a year as an experiment; at the end of it the rest of us would have been able to judge the quality of work, personality and suitability for employment in the twenty-first century that resulted.
richard bourne on Hornsey in the Guardian

  I have discussed so far the impact of the Hornsey revolt on the established order. I suspect its impact on the Left will be just as great and just as necessary. With a few exceptions (Wilde, Morris) the British Left has shared the philistinism of society as a whole; indeed this is one reason why its urge to transcendence has been so feeble in the political sphere. If the promise of this book is fulfilled, then it will release the student movement from this dismal inheritance. It has also been supplied with a splendid example of the truth that reforms, if implemented by direct mass action, are far more subversive than the most “revolutionary” of abstract programmes.
robin blackburn on Hornsey in The Listener