JANICE GREER and PEG BLOSSOM have been trying to interest other parents in the Chicago area to start a school, perhaps on the model of Summerhill.
High School U.S.A.
IT IS TIME FOR US TO COME TO GRIPS WITH THE FACT that we are the ones responsible for creating the violence that is present in our society, and that we can do something about it by realising what we’re doing. Psychiatry has laid bare the fact that we affect the child in infancy and childhood. But once we put the child in the schools we stop probing. Can’t we continue the search and find out what conditioning in the schools fosters so much hatred in adults? The very methods we are so virtuous about in the schools are not giving the results we think they are, but are creating an anger and resentment that lasts the whole of our lives. At the High School level this conditioning reaches its peak. The following notes on High Schools are the result of discussions between concerned parents.
Schools create life and death pressure to succeed, but to succeed into what. High schools pressure kids at a College level for the school’s glory, and parents sit on the side lines and root them on. We take advantage of the fact the children want to please the parents and teachers. They do a lot against their own grain for the parent’s approval (love). The parents exploit this. The students should please themselves. High School should be a time for self discovery, and for sampling at the student’s own speed. Instead they are taught techniques, not how to think. The students are interested in knowing where they will fit, what they would be good at, but instead are driven for excellence in subjects that have no meaning to them at this time.
We dull them in an incubation period so they won’t know what the world is really about. They get reward for falseness in testing instead of truth. The truth of the matter is they really don’t understand, can’t possibly understand most of what they are writing or reading, or getting tested on. But they have to find tricks for studying to get a good grade. To get a good grade things have to be done superficially so everything that is required can be finished on time. A trick for doing things you don’t like to do as well as what you do like thereby dulling your true feelings. There is no energy left for what you really want to do therefore setting a pattern for all your life. It leads to a subtle feeling of guilt if you’re really are having a good time at something.
We don’t let students start at their own level. We set up standards for them. They should be allowed to start at a beginning level, even if garish, whether in clothes, music, art, history, ideas, anything. We don’t let them begin at the bottom and work up to the level they are able to reach. Only through a long slow process of freedom of choice, and plenty of trial and error, plenty of errors, can a person develop any authority on his own. We would then be able to break through the mediocrity of our culture, and wouldn’t rely on fashion or critics to judge for us. We must have the judgement to act on our own insight and decision, and not from the mere wish to copy convention.
Another destructive aspect of the grading system is the emphasis put on each student for self-attainment and the continual competition fostered between each child. A whole group of children can’t be doing well, each at his own speed under the present system. But we are so proud of the curve system where some are Champions, some failures, and they can rise only at someone else’s expense. Work isn’t done for a feeling of self-fulfilment, or for the community, but for the grade. Even in some lower grades where the grading system has been abolished the slow learners still feel pitted against the fast learners. And under the new SRA reading method the child knows by the colour pencil he has to use. The methods are subtle but even more deadly than report cards. A line graph, black and white which seems invulnerable, you’re below average, in the middle or above average. A mother feels as if God has spoken when they show her where her child rates against his room mates, the area, and the nation. After 12 or more years of this conditioning what wonder the adult thinks more of his profit than the value of his product or service. He has never had the experience of community action. It was wrong if you helped another pupil write a theme, or pass a test.
For at least 80,000 years man was a hunter, until possibly 8,000 years ago when he began to settle into agricultural communities. Man’s emotions, drives and physical inheritance all are geared for survival as a hunter. Our patterns of living should take into account what is a natural part of our make-up. In the near past boys of high school age satisfied their drives by going to sea, into armies, the frontier, or becoming apprentices in the economic world. It wasn’t necessarily perfect solutions to their needs, but now the children seem to be in school as much because there just isn’t any other place for them. They aren’t wanted in the home or the economic world. So we pile them into bigger and bigger schools of hundreds or thousands of children. the architecture of which is like a modern jail, and fearfully watch them so anticipated violence won’t break out. Well for the most part the students have been so well conditioned through grammar school that very little violence breaks out there. But is it any wonder that our world fantasises on the greatest of all possible violence. I agree with Jung that maybe we shouldn’t maintain that atomic physicists are a pack of criminals, but unconsciously they must be aiming at some kind of violence when they plan a weapon, and they could just as easily be inventing something useful and beneficial to humanity. And we could be giving a healthy direction to the instinctual drives instead of creating a pent up danger through distortion and submerging of the hereditary urges.
Since the educational institutions tend to perpetuate themselves and seem to be indistinguishable from freedom and democracy one must overcome a feeling of extreme disloyalty to criticise its foundations. Just as a parent retains a feeling of submission when entering a school building or talking to a teacher. But there are alternatives, and there should be as many different types of schools as there are communities. Perhaps we needed a homogeneous system to draw together our large country into a workable whole, but now it is outmoded and detrimental to a creative thriving people.
The great architect Le Corbusier, who was apprenticed to architects, but never went to school past the age of 13½ wrote, “The schools are the product or 19th century theories. In a time of complete upheaval they have, with their diplomas, officially applied the brake. They have killed architecture.” And I would add they kill and dull and maim innumerable minds in every field.
While schools might be varied there are some basic musts for any school that aims at giving the students self-esteem, and a feeling of achievement.
1. Schools must be small. I would say between 50 and 300 students, obviously you cannot get an organic community in the large prison-like structures we now have.
The ideal environment is one that the students can modify. One of the barriers against change is the excuse it will cost money. This however is easily breached. There are tenements going begging to anyone who will take them off the landlord’s hands, and mansions left to estates that would be charitably given. Considering the tremendous cost of the huge buildings we now put up, a change-over would be relatively economical. The buildings should be small and unimportant. New buildings or old they should be so unimportant that they invite change—of the space, colour, wall. They should allow for experimentation and each new group of students should be encouraged to modify their surroundings to suit themselves. This includes being messy, splashing or splattering paint, making murals on the floor, stars on the ceiling, anything. We have a fetish about being neat and set up arbitrary ideas, this alone makes us angry inside. All children have their own sense of order, and it is very different at different stages.
Groups of boys could learn construction together and with today’s mobility they could meet from the suburbs and city. The boys who will go off to college to become architects and the boys who will go into construction trades. There is a nesting urge in us and most important are the students who will construct for the sheer delight a man takes in building, repairing and seeing what their hands can produce. Architects moan because their clients don’t want or appreciate good form, or the joy of a beautiful wood. A boy who has worked with lumber and had the feel of lumber would demand good materials and workmanship when he buys a house. In addition all of the students should be involved in making the environment. If they feel they have some control over their environment they will demand, not ignore better city planning, and will not allow destruction of what is beautiful whether made by man or nature. But this insight cannot come about through books—it can only be learned through the handling of space and materials.
2. There must be no grades. The grading system is destructive and has no positive value.
The children from the most economically deprived areas are humiliated by being pitted against the averages of others who have been trained from nursery school in the techniques for success in school. Haven’t these children feelings, sensitivity like any others. For 12 years we tell them they aren’t good enough. But good enough in what? In writing a paper, organising words found in reference books? Passing tests with symbols not understood, putting down these words they don’t understand. I could quote from Tolstoy, Goethe, Plato, Pavlov, Thoreau, Ruskin, Kierkegaard, all to the point that words are the most superficial level of learning. Herbert Read writes, “It is not merely that we have disguised our feelings as symbols, but what in effect we have done is to accept a limited number of symbols as an adequate account of the total reality, and what escapes our consciousness is what ultimately destroys us, individually in the form of insanity, socially in the form of war.”
The student working with his complete self, without pressure of time, who develops his own project will know how he is doing, he will judge himself. If he makes poor choices he knows eventually where it doesn’t work, and will progress. If his work is carefully kept, valued and respected—never marked on and written on—if it is kept in order his progress will be easy to see, and he will evaluate it himself. He begins to value himself if the work he does is valued and respected (and if it is degraded, he is degraded). If he is pleased he will have a tremendous desire to share what he’s learned. This is a natural human need. We negate the need to share knowledge with our system of competition. The child who has the desire to give, and the opportunity to give will be able to take in other areas.
What a cross we have given each child to bear. Those who feel inadequate because they cannot hope to compete, and the student who has managed to please the teachers feels guilty because he has cheated himself.
3. A fluid Curriculum. The curriculum may be stimulated by the teacher, but should be planned by the students within a very loose time structure.
There should be regional differences in courses. Why shouldn’t the special problems relating to an area or culture group be discussed, probed, evaluated in depth. Why minimise them in an overall story which we pretend is history. One of the important aims of education should be to give students some idea of who he is and where he came from. The Puritans have no immediate relevance to the problems confronting a negro student whose family is supported by ADC, but he could certainly understand a discussion about his position in our society politically and economically. He could understand evolution and survival of the fittest, as well as the idea of the individual cell being part of a total whole, a community. He would have something to say about morals and ethics in our society. We have humanists, psychiatrists, anthropologists who could help with seminars and projects with these students (and all students probing their background). And from experience I know it would be reciprocal, the professionals would find themselves learning things from the students.
It is the last time most of them will be in school and there is no more important knowledge we can give them than some insight into their emotions, into the problems they are confused and worried about. Why can’t we be truthful with them and let them discuss and probe into the areas that bother all of us. Using the same method as used in group therapy they could find out they are not carrying fears that are unique with them, but are common. Fears of homosexuality, disturbing dreams and emissions, family relationships full of tension. Why lie and call the Oedipus drama theatre when it is a myth dramatising the relationships within every family.
Our advertising tends to glorify in a glow of perfection lovers, wives, mothers. It makes the average person feel inadequate and a failure in their real life situation. How much better the old fairy tales of queens who were jealous of the princess, brother against brother, and children being put out of their house by their parents (rejected) like Hansel and Gretel. It is the last time they will be in school where they can learn the real dance we all go through, and perhaps some bad family patterns can be broken and some insight given into the compulsions that determine who we marry.
Every subject studied is actually to find out Who we are, Why we are here. Psychology and religion are at the basis of every subject studied whether it be chemistry, literature, history or biology. At the basis of all our studies is our search to find out what our life really is, and if we treated subjects from this viewpoint what subject could be boring. But in the present curriculum each subject pompously parades as an end in itself.
But learning should not be emphasised as a verbal process. Art materials, drama, music, dance should be the most important part of the school. In the creative process the student reaches into himself for perceptions. He learns to see and feel for himself. Forms take shapes particular to him, and feelings will not be sublimated to become the breeding ground of hates. A person who can work through his feelings and relationships in the art mediums does not have resentments that fester in him. He develops confidence because every line he has put down or every movement he has made is a part of himself and he sees the progress and achievement that comes from his own attempts. He should feel satisfaction and be relaxed after each day at school. Now students speed out of school after five hours of being pent-up, and tensions are set up that are never released.
4. Human Relationships: When you think of a great teacher you think of someone who is excited about a particular field, and has a strong viewpoint. Ideally the teacher should be hired because she has a love and excitement for a subject, instead of a desire to teach in general. Her preparation should be in her field and the educational system should be set up so that she continues to work in it in conjunction with teaching. Instead of years of lesson plans, traffic plans, and curriculum planning she can work out her methods and ways of teaching and handling the group by trial and error. Teachers should also be given a knowledge of themselves through psychological help all through college. The student must not become tools the teacher manipulates to satisfy her own weaknesses. There should be some place the teacher could go at any time to discuss his relations to his students, and as a group the teachers should be able to talk over problems.
The teachers should lose their fear of having relationships with pupils. Attachments to teachers is one way of breaking away from the family when he is not ready for the responsibilities involved in sexual relationships. It has the element of sex but can be constructive and is a normal and healthy way of development.
We don’t call it fascistic, but our school, teacher set-up has a strong element of fascism in it. The students shouldn’t be dictated to, they want to talk over their own ideas, the beginnings of their own solutions, they want to make their own decisions, set their own goals.
A teacher who is herself working on a project part of the day will automatically show the pupil more by example than can be learned through any other teaching method. When there is a good relationship the students tend to work out solutions to problems that the teacher is struggling with, and she incorporates it into her own work. She refines the students’ ideas and in this way they both go forward. In a natural atmosphere a group will develop between certain students and the teacher. If a teacher is right for them there is no reason she should be forced to stop at the end of a semester or year, and the students forced to readjust to a new situation. There is usually a breaking point where the teacher and the group wil1 be finished with each other. At that point the group too might rearrange itself. We all know the feeling of being finished with a friend who was really a teacher to us and suddenly you know enough or had worked through the relationship and it was over. If we continually break into activities and relationships before they are consummated we contribute to the fragmentation that is a problem in our culture.
Every time a variation on our education is broached you get the response there aren’t enough teachers available. Poppycock, there just aren’t enough diplomas. Everywhere there are people who come into small schools and give a little of themselves. Who would be glad to give of their time, for the pleasure they would have being needed for themselves. Doctors, lawyers, merchants, chiefs. The school hours could be flexible to enable the students and teachers to take advantage of the hours that can be given to them. When personal relationships develop between students and “resource person” apprenticeships could
develop. Working as an apprentice a few days a week or a few hours a day would be a way for students to sample the real atmosphere of a profession, or to just partake of the adult world as he feels ready.
Jane Addams knew what Tolstoy meant when he said we spread a “Snare of preparation” before the young people’s feet, “hopelessly entangling them in a curious inactivity at the very period of life when they are longing to construct the world anew and to conform it to their own ideals”. We deaden their intuitive abilities.
There is another source for teachers that we neglect, and that is the student himself. An excited student want to share what he has learned, and there should be a constant interchange between the students all day long. The idea that sterile silence is the best environment for education is false. How does a student know that he has really learnt something unless he tries to pass on that knowledge in his own way while he is still involved in it. In a new book on education by a leading authority it was suggested that the students each have their own cubicle for studying. We are alienated, fragmented, isolated in the words of psychologists today. Why not let the students grow up in an atmosphere of friendship, relationships, and awareness of each other?