The Establishment, the compact majority, believes in the system; the Establishment has the power to enforce it. The deadness and boredom of certain school subjects conveys itself to the teachers; and so, schools are filled with narrow, self-important men and women whose horizon is bound by the blackboard and the textbook.
Cultural Change: Why You Just Can’t Go Back to the Basics.
I was reading Summerhill the other day and was struck by the rich culture that surrounded the early days of the school experiment. Neill talks about music and theatre as though it were an everyday thing to make a choice between Rachmaninov and Charlie Parker, or to have a theatre performance every weekend in the school.
Why do these things not happen today? What has changed?
When I read accounts of the school in Neill’s day I get a vivid sense of the times: the fifties when all cars were black and there was no such thing as home-entertainment systems, an age before rock and roll when, if you had a TV it would be a monstrous box with a tiny screen. I imagine people like John Mills walking around with clipped English accents talking about duty and honour.
It’s easy to feel nostalgic for those times. How can you get a feel for poetry when your head is full of the latest sounds all the time? Who is going to stage a play when you have home cinema?
I read that an English private school headteacher is going to ban phones, ipods, ipads and other hand-held devices for certain periods of the day to get his kids away from the addiction of posting and reviewing continuously. The urge to impose a similar ban must have occurred to all of us, but isn’t it a kind of sanctimonious hypocrisy to impose the limit only on children?
In Spain, where I live, people go out for a walk and a drink in the evenings. The town squares are full of people strolling around, chatting, sitting in the plaza with a beer or a coffee whilst the children run around screaming. Yet something peculiar has happened recently. I look around me and notice a table of four, all with their mobile phones in their hands. The conversation dies back to a murmur. They are all somewhere else.
It is hypocritical to expect children to live in the fifties when you want the latest gadgets yourself. And we all know that it doesn’t work. Parents who don’t read don’t tend to have children who read, no matter the school they are sent to, or the rules it has about “quiet reading time”. Modelling by powerful role models easily outweighs theory.
So, when I read Neill and get visions of Enid Blyton kids having adventures in a poor school with a rich cultural environment, I push aside the sentimental reveries about home-made ginger ale and think instead, “What are children like today?” I don’t want to dress boys in shorts and tank-tops and send them off to climb trees shouting “Hurrah”. I don’t expect them to easily think that theatre is important, interesting or engaging.
Children today rapidly acquire a facility with computers, phones and games that makes even twenty-somethings look old and venerable. They have no problem with communicating across cultures, continents and time zones. They easily navigate through the creative potential of cameras for still and video. If there is a modern equivalent to the old-time theatre it would be short duration videos- funny, fast-paced and imaginative.
I like to get my hands in the dirt. Working in the garden, shovelling manure, makes me aware of the physicality of my existence. I like to get out and walk across the mountains. I like to feel that there is the option to walk to the nearest town at 17km distance instead of taking the car, and do that when I have the time.
These options go hand-in-hand with modernity. They do not defy it. I look for a recipe for cooking the leeks from the garden on the internet. I check the weather on the phone before heading off walking into town. And when I am there I check my email in the café that has wifi. This is part of a modern life.
The question for me is: how do you keep choices open? But I think there is no way back to past cultures.
What do you think?
http://www.summerhilldemocratics.net for more articles about democratic education.