April 1, 2016

Chained Children (Cambridge Revue 8/11/68)

Look at Kids inside cover_banner
Photograph from inside cover of Look at Kids

In my original preface to my book on Risinghill School in London, which was later cut, commenting on the extraordinary way people all over the country and beyond our country had been caught up into the Risinghill battle as if it were their own personal concern, I wrote that the reason surely is that

‘Risinghill School and the battle for it was an intense distillation of our society and its problems’.

In 1965 when I wrote that, unknown to me Jonathan Kozol, Herbert Kohl, James Herndon, in Boston and in New York, was each involved in his own private distillation of this same universal challenge, each of them meeting it and fighting it in his own corner, and each of us in the same way, from notes made on the spot and at the time, evolving a book.

In Death at an Early Age, Jonathan Kozol describes how, sent young and inexperienced to teach at a ghetto school, he stood by while ‘more experienced’ teachers destroyed the identity, the dignity and the confidence of children by treating with contempt what they had to offer and forcing on them middle-class aims which they cynically knew the children could never feel or achieve…and deliberately (that is, ‘for their own good’) worked against the children’s roots and culture, and deliberately (‘for their own good’) destroyed the children’s speech and trust in communication…and offered them, chalked on the blackboard, only pleasant words to describe what the children knew to be unpleasant, thus blandly and brutally invalidating the children’s true experience… and sadisticallly or cynically or hypocritically physically-assaulted human beings smaller that themselves…while the education authorities made bewildering and crushing statements to parents who were hungry for education, handing out insults as if they were somehow compliments.

He grew more and more aware of outrage, until one day he read to these Negro children a poem by Langston Hughes, Ballad of a Landlord, a simple unacademic poem about the eviction of a poor Negro. He showed them the photograph of the poet on the dust-jacket – a Negro. At the children’s own request, he mimeographed it, and the children took it home. Without any suggestion from him, practically every child in the class memorised it.

The next thing that happened was he was sacked. The Education official told him that no poem which was not on the official list could ever be read, and that furthermore no poem by a Negro poet could be read if it involved suffering. The Principal told Kozol he was not to say goodbye to the children; he must simply leave the school and not come back. The parents rallied to defend him, but were treated by the authorities with contempt.

Despite my instinctive belief in the universality of the Risinghill situation, I am amazed at the closeness of the parallels – the same figures, the same situations, the same statements. There is scarcely a page in my copy of Mr Kozol’s book where I have not underlined sentences and scribbled in the margin ‘cf Risinghill’.

Jonathan Kozol knew he would have legal difficulties in bringing out his book – he has my sympathy – and dealt with these by making his teachers composite characters out of the many actual teachers he knew and worked with. Yet how well one knows them, particularly perhaps the Reading Teacher, that epitome of the phoney progressive.

‘I don’t know’, comments Jonathan Kozol, ‘that it is quite so vicious or malignant or even dangerous to pupils to come straight out and admit that you can’t stand them as it is to go on and on in the way that the Reading Teacher did, and to pretend endlessly that you have some kind of massive and inscrutable and all-enveloping love for the very children whom you are at that moment destroying’.

The Reading Teacher is the kind who in Boston will praise my book and deplore Jonathan Kozol’s and, in London will praise Jonathan Kozol’s and deplore mine.

I hope people will realise that this is not a book simply about Negro children in Boston, just as my own was not simply about Cockney children near King’s Cross, and just as Herbert Kohl’s Thirty-six Children and James Herndon’s The Way It Spozed To Be are not just books about Negro children in various American cities. they are about people who all over the world are denied their birthright as living unique individuals, and are forced to become what society needs them to become. Our schools are the tools society uses to fit everyone into ‘their place’, and the higher and higher degree of sophistication with which this is done need not blind us to it. Society’s anger – and this includes the anger of the pseudo-progressive whose bluff has been called – is unleashed not on the incompetent teachers, not on the morally-delinquent teachers, not on the mentally-unbalanced teachers, not on the brutal teachers, but on the teachers who refuse to cut children down to the shape society has decreed for them. These last, unlike the others, do not hold the system together, but they are the only ones who are any use to humanity.

A few weeks ago, A S Neill, John Holt, Michael Duane, and Bob Mackenzie sat in our house and we talked for hours about education. John Holt told us about a progressive headmaster in America who was asked by someone ‘What kind of teachers do you want in a school like yours?’

‘I’ll tell you the kind I don’t want’, he said emphatically. ‘What I don’t want are the missionaries. And now I’ll tell you the ones I do want. I want the rebels.

That head still cheers me these days when the missionaries sicken me even more than the unhyprocritical reactionaries; he makes me feel things are getting better. But then I think of Kozol writing

‘No boy whipped for society’s, not his wrong, is ever likely to have his whole sense of dignity returned. No young man made to lie and apologise for something he did not do in order to avoid a greater punishment can ever be graced again with the gift of belief in a world or society in which authorities are just. And who in the slow calendar of days in which ‘things are changing’ will find a way, after that change, to give back to the boys…the lives that have been taken from them by the Boston public schools… The slowness of change is always respectable and reasonable in the eyes of those who are only watching; it is a different matter for the ones who are in pain.’

And I am filled with anger again, and wonder how much longer this century this cynical unholy alliance will keep our children chained.

©Leila Berg
published in Cambridge Revue 8/11/68