October 13, 2016

Transcript: Alt Ed Summit 1968!

Below are some lightly edited and subjectively selected extracts from the transcript of an unprecedented one-off informal discussion, initiated by Leila and held at her south-west London house in late September 1968, between John Holt (US author of How Children Fail and much else), Michael Duane (head of Risinghill Comprehensive, London), A S Neill (head of Summerhill progressive school in Suffolk England), Robert McKenzie (head of Kilquanity School, Scotland) and herself. The original transcript – 17 quarto pages of single-spaced carbon-copy – is held in Leila’s archive at University College School of Education in London.

Holt: You were speaking to me last night about “motivation” which is getting to be a new word in British educational jargon, and what it means is exactly the same as a word that we ordinarily hear in another context, which is called “brainwashing”. Of all the bad things which are done in schools at home (ie USA) to me this is the most sinister. I would describe motivating as making a child think that he wants to do what you want him to do, and, frankly, as opposed to this kind of very subtle psychological pressure by which a child is gradually cut off from his own identity, his own wishes…. I think the stick is dreadful, but at least the child knows that he is being beaten and that the guy beating him is his enemy, and there’s no horsing around. I’m not saying that we have to choose between these alternatives but I do want to say that to propose, as an alternative to pacifying children by hitting them with sticks, having them dealt with by psychology seems to me to be very dangerous.

McKenzie: I think that what’s happened is that the psychologists and psychiatrists started off as being honest people. Now they are servants or the State, as, in fact, most teachers are.

Holt: Yes, they are.

Berg: The sort of psychology you are talking about is really the psychology of advertising. You want to buy so-and-so. Really you have never heard of so-and-so, but you are persuaded that you truly, of your own accord, and spontaneous desire, want to buy this thing.

???: Yes, but surely this happens when a psychologist believes that his job is to produce a specific result, which is not what psychology is about at all, really, I would have thought.

Holt: Not what it ought to be.

Berg: Not what it’s supposed to be. To me psychology is a matter of freeing people from tangles they have got into that stop them from being able of their own accord to make their own choices. And nobody lays down what their choices are, in what I call psychology. The psychiatrist’s or the psycho-analyst’s job is to free them so that they can make their own choices, whatever they are.

McKenzie: Yes, but isn’t it the same choice as teachers are up against? You can either teach people as Neill teaches people – John Aitkenhead said about him, “The rest of us go for all this (the exams) and heaven too, but he was prepared to settle for heaven alone.” There are two possible things we can do – one, think of the child and two, think of the State – the examinations and status and all this business. The psychologist is in the same position. Sometimes they are honest people thinking of the child, but I get the impression that most of them are employees of the State.

Duane: …I’ve got to the point when generally I begin to feel a kind of despair for the whole education system in this country. I see lots of students who come to me in colleges of education straight from school and I am appalled at the lack of real identity, of self-sufficiency that they have. They are unable to criticise – they are unable to look at authority in any form, particularly the authority in the college where they are – unable to stand back and say, “This is what I want; it’s in conflict with what the authority wants, but can I arrive at a reasonable compromise?” This would be something to go on. I’m terrified of the fact that they cannot do anything except totally say, “What the authority says, what the principal says, what the deputy principal says, is right. I must conform.” For a long time I’ve been trying to analyse why this should be so, and I can’t help feeling that ultimately, it is that they are all products of an academic system. The academic system says, “You must learn, not at first hand, not by finding out, not by experimenting – and in fact it is the ‘naughty’ boys at school who are the ones who try things out for themselves – so by the time they come to do their examinations and leave school, they have totally abrogated the right, themselves, to test what they are told in order to find whether it is satisfactory. They have been the ‘good’ children in school, ie they have done everything they’ve been told. Therefore they have now become totally psychologically dependent on an authority which will tell them this is right, and in this case the State, the local education authority, whatever it may be, becomes that authority for them. Is my analysis correct?

McKenzie: Dead right. There’s a short appendix to that. In the English examinations you always get more marks if you quote.

Duane: Yes, exactly.

Neill: It’s the same at university.

Duane: I tell my students this. They come to me and say, “What shall we do about the exams? How do we pass them?” and I say, “Quote! Whatever you do. If you’re not sure, invent a quotation and invent the name of the author (and say) this book was published in 1964 in America. There is no time, when the marks have to be produced, for the examiner to check whether what you say is correct.”

Holt: In my own writing and speaking I’ve criticised traditional education for a lot of reasons, but I think my chief quarrel with it now, my deepest objection to it, goes beyond anything I have said, not even in my second book – and I drew it, oddly enough, from Laing’s book The Politics of Experience. In that book he’s writing about people we choose to label schizophrenic and he says that conventional treatment is based on the invalidation of experience – in other words, the supposed doctors or supposedly well people say to the supposedly sick people that their way of experiencing life and reacting to it and communicating about it, is all wrong and has to be wiped out, done away with. When I read this I suddenly had a horrifying vision which has stayed with me ever since, which is that virtually all traditional practices of normal schooling, indeed all child rearing, are based on the invalidation of the experience of the child. We say, in effect, to the child, that his experience and his feelings, his concerns and his interests – what he wants, what he knows, what he hopes for, what he fears, is nothing, it counts for nothing, and we wipe it out, we perform what I call a ‘spiritual lobotomy’.

Berg: My father is a man who says “It is absolutely ridiculous of you (speaking to me) to say that people should be allowed to make their own mistakes. You’re saying that people should go back to cavemen or something, that we should all start from the bottom again This is nonsense.” He is a person who sees his own immortality in his children and his grandchildren. Therefore, whenever they have made a choice of their own which is not the choice he has made for them, he says they’ve stabbed him in the back. This is the kind of thought. Well, the point is, he once talked to me about his father and he said, “My father is an absolutely marvellous man. He was such a good man and such a wise man, and such a loving man.” He then started to tell me of when he was a small child and his father – this was a very poor Jewish family living in a slum district, they came from Russia, as refugees from a progrom – his father put a plate of herring in front of him and this small child, as my father was then, didn’t want it, he didn’t like it. But his father took it away and gave it to him the next day and still he didn’t like it because it made him feel sick. His father produced the herring day after day after day until it was green. And finally the child, who was my father, ate the herring.

Holt: Goodness gracious!

Duane: Christ!

Berg: Wait, you’ve not got the pay-off line yet. He ate it, and it was so awful that his father – and my father at this point said “My father, you see, was such a good man – he immediately gave me an emetic.” Can you beat this?

Holt: Not easily anyway.

Berg: “He didn’t want it to harm me, he just wanted me to be obedient.” Now the twist in this, which is told ostensibly to show how wise one’s parents are, whereas – think what was really in that child’s mind, what was really that child’s reaction, of utter fury and helplessness and nausea – which has all been turned into “how wise and noble my father was.”

Duane:…turned against himself…

Berg: Now he passes it on completely. He passed it on to my brother, who, incidentally, committed suicide about three weeks ago, which is quite another story, but until about a month before my brother committed suicide he was absolutely convinced that his father was the wisest and noblest, and all the rest of it, person in the world – whereas in fact my father had never allowed my brother to make any choice whatever for himself. My brother spent his whole life working with his father because his father absolutely refused to let him do anything on his own, and if he attempted to do so, or if my brother’s children attempted to do so, instantly came back with, “you’ve stabbed me in the back.” And my brother believed that my father was absolutely noble and wise, and finally, I would say, he committed suicide because he had reached the point where he had got to see that this wasn’t true, and he just couldn’t take it.

Neill: ….But what can you do? How much influence can you have on the next generation?

Duane: This is why Bernstein’s research into language – into the difference between the language of the middle and the working class – is so shattering, because it shows that the very structure of their language, which is based on their experience and on their position in society, is a conservative force, prevents them from breaking out and thinking afresh.

Berg: Certainly it prevents them from self-awareness. This is awful.

Duane: The effects of this language ramifies into every aspect of one’s own personal feeling of self-identity, of self-regard, as well as into the outer experience of exploration or re-thinking.

Holt: The identity question is enormously important, and it’s interesting what you say about this, because one of the things we are beginning to discover, to our astonishment and horror – and we ought to be smarter than that, we ought to have known that it was coming – that the working-class, the organised working-class – union members in the United States, people whom we thought of as being the great backbone of the New Deal and a great force for progressivism – these people are all for George Wallace, they are all – and I use this word with the utmost care – fascists.

Duane: But we had the same thing a few months ago – the dockers and Enoch Powell.

Holt: Yes, I was here at the time. One of the things I think we can point to, at least, a certain class of people, with a good deal of really objective evidence on our side…. There are people in your country and mine who are, quite genuinely, not fascists, who are “small-d democratic libertarian” but who are not persuaded of the importance of the things we are talking about in education. Now I think that we can show, using the experience of my country even more than yours, that there is a very real connection between the identity-destroying mechanisms of conventional schooling and the growth of political fascism. A man who feels himself nothing, and above all nothing worthy, is going to try to find a sense of identity by merging himself with some kind of authority.

Neill: As they did in Germany.

Holt: As in Germany – and he’s going to try to find a sense of worth by finding people who are even more worthless than he is, as the Germans did with the Jews and as we do with our blacks.

Duane: And as we do with our immigrants.

Holt: So that there is a sense, I think, in which we can say, and in a very dispassionate way, that in spite of its good intentions – where they are good – the traditional school, at least in contemporary society, is a kind of breeding ground for fascism.

Duane: There’s no doubt at all about that. I’m sure you are absolutely right about that.

Holt: And with the example of the United States staring you in the face, perhaps people will be warned here. We are in a very, very dangerous situation.

Holt: We have to work on a great many fronts, and another thing we have to do, and it’s a struggle for me personally, is avoid despair. We have a problem of keeping up our own morale. If you look objectively at our society or at our so-called civilisation from any distance, it’s very hard not to conclude that it’s going over the edge of the cliff. Maybe it will, but, having recognised this possibility, there’s not much point dwelling on it. What I think we have to do – I like to say that anybody trying to reform modern society or any part of it is like in a guerilla war area. He has to skulk around and find a place in the underbrush to get off a shot here and a little shot here. We have to look for vulnerable places, places where we can apply a little leverage. Certainly one is in the field of examinations, and there must be some in teacher-training. In other words, find as many different places in which we can attack this system as we possibly can.

Duane: There was a head of a junior school in London who wrote an article for the Evening Standard which he called The Battery Children. In his primary school the kids were coming in and shouting whenever you were talking to them at a short distance. He couldn’t understand this until he went to see where they live. They live in these tall blocks. The mothers from the fourth and fifth floor balconies would lean over and yell at the children and the children would yell back at the mother. They had one child who came into the school, got himself into his desk and wouldn’t move for anything. This went on for a long time an they thought there was something wrong with the child. They got the school doctor to examine him – nothing wrong. Then one day the mother happened to be off work and came in and they found that from the age when he had started to crawl this child was put in a high chair and strapped in, because every time he clattered about the floor or dropped his toys the neighbour from downstairs made a great fuss about the noise and disturbance. So this child, from two until he came to school, had been a ‘battery child’.

Holt: To that I want to add something, and here there may be a difference between my country and yours, but the traditional educators like to say – the elitists like to say that one of their functions is to keep all the cultural traditions of the past, the high culture, great literature, Shakespeare and so on and so forth. One of the things I’m beginning to see is that the young people who have been our educational elite as they have gone through schools, in their anger and resentment are rejecting this high culture. I met a young couple this past summer – both students or graduates from some of our very best colleges, the elite colleges, both intelligent, very serious young people – and I heard them describe their marriage ceremony which they had devised for themselves and written out. Well, it was interesting in that they had – and not accidentally, but deliberately – left out of this anything from the past. Nothing of literature, Shakespeare, the Bihle, Bach music… It was all contemporary. In other words the high culture is so associated in their minds with the lying older generation that they are going to have nothing to do with it. I like to say to English teachers at home, “It will take about ten more years of Shakespeare in the schools to finish him off for good.”