The Incomprehensible School
"The concept of objective truth is fading out of the world "
- George Orwell
The secondary school, like the old poorhouse, is no place for human beings. It is time to call the schools to account. They operate a confidence trick on a massive scale. In the twilight of western Christianity they have replaced the church as the main institution for controlling the thoughts of the young. The schools are the main providers of the package of ideas about our world with which the young enter employment or unemployment. The group that controls the schools controls the society. There is little hope of major continuing improvement in our disintegrating society until we cope with the schools.
Since it was introduced a hundred years ago, public education has largely escaped basic questioning. It is here that we shall find answers to questions that baffle our generation. Why did the majority of people in Britain support, or permit, the Falklands war? Why do millions of people support the present popular daily newspapers? Why do Labour MPs and TUC chiefs and university professors jostle one another to get a seat in the House of Lords? Why has the bright hope of the Labour Party faded? Why have the majority of Scotsmen and Scotswomen become more docile than their seventeenth and eighteenth century ancestors? The major answer is to be found in the secondary schools' curriculum.
I should give my credentials for making these statements. From the age of five until seventeen I attended a school in a small Aberdeenshire town and Robert Gordon's College in Aberdeen. Then I went to Aberdeen University and took a degree in English Literature and Language. I taught at a pioneer school in Hampshire. In 1946, when I returned from service as a RAF navigator, I re-entered Scottish education as a teacher of English and History in a wool town in the Scottish borders. Thereafter I was appointed head of the English department in a Fife school. Six years later I became headmaster of another Fife school in a coal town. After eleven years I became headmaster of a large Aberdeen comprehensive. Five books, A Question of Living, Escape from the Classroom, The Sins of the Children, State School and The Unbowed Head described these schools and the efforts we made to alter the classroom work.
I travelled widely in Europe, Asia, Africa and America, wrote articles on travel and education for the newspapers and programmes for radio and television. I reviewed books for the daily and educational press and lectured in most of the universities and colleges of education in Scotland and England. While in the RAF I was married, and my wife and I know what it is to try and educate also our own family.
When I was sacked from my job in Aberdeen for refusing to re-introduce corporal punishment and was bundled out of the state system, I had leisure for the first time since I had entered it at the age of five, to look around and consider what life is about and what education should be about. Until then I had been content largely to accept the picture of education presented by liberal newspapers like the Guardian and by many radicals. I felt that the schools, however conservative, were sound at heart and accessible to ideas. I knew that much of the history they taught was untrue, that science was a drilled memory exercise lacking in the enquiring, probing, scientific spirit, that opinions in literature were enforced by the award of marks for saying the acceptable things in the external examinations. But I put much of that down to bumbling inefficiency and a blind, misguided loyalty to the tradition. Ultimately in the educational firmament, I felt, there were top people who had a deep and abiding concern for the well-being of their pupils, of all their pupils, who had sized it all up wisely and, since politics is the art of the possible, were biding their time until the time was ripe for change.
Maybe this child-like belief in a kindly power stems from early religious teaching. The image of a heavenly father, able and ready to rule us, attaches itself to our view of those he has appointed on earth to control us. "The Lord Jesus Christ" has the same title as the peers in the upper house of parliament and this choice of words colours our thoughts. We continue into adult life to cherish a longing for security and a disposition to trust. "Underneath are the everlasting arms." This faith in the fundamental goodness of government survives the shock of disproving experience. It was only after I had ceased to be preoccupied with the daily busyness of a school and had time to reconsider the philosophy and its detailed programme that I began to ask questions, not rhetorical, about the growth retarding effect that the schools were having on the young.
Why is so much of the classroom work incomprehensible to the majority of pupils?
Why does the system have such a low opinion of the intelligence of most of its pupils?
Why do so many pupils dislike their schools?
Why do so many primary and secondary schools hit their boys and girls with a leather belt or cane?
Why do state schools and private schools allow the external examinations to dominate their curriculum?
Why have educational initiatives in Europe and the USA and the USSR so uniformly failed?
Why is fundamental research encouraged in science and discouraged in education?
A simple hypothesis suggested itself in a unifying answer to these questions. The school is not intended to be a caring association. We were naive to accept the traditional job-description put out by the educational priesthood that they were helping the young to develop, and understand, and enter fully into their heritage. It is not so. The schools do not exist for the benefit of our children. Their purpose is to control them, all their thoughts and words and deeds, all their work and play. There is no assurance that the majority of them will not be forsaken. It's a colder, uglier world than we were brought up to believe.
One evening in wartime when I was undergoing RAF training in South Africa I was walking through a dark wood along a track that led uphill from Grahamstown to the air station. Ahead of me I heard trails of singing, frequently broken off, and resumed. When I drew level I found that the singer was a Zulu. He was slightly drunk. We walked along together. Sometimes he spoke and sometimes he lapsed again into song. Then he said in a brief interval of concentration, "Once I believed that Jesus would make everything all right. I don't believe it any more." This book is the story of a comparable discovery.
Once a new hypothesis is formed (that is, that the educational system is not a caring system) random facts that were unintelligible within the old package of ideas, take on a new significance and connection and can be understood. The incomprehensibility of much of the classroom work is no longer a cause for surprise since understanding is not what schools are about. They are mainly about communicating the accepted answers. If you can't make head or tail of them (as I often couldn't) you are not supposed to prosecute your own enquiries. You should just let the waves of incomprehensibility wash over you. Most of us go through school puzzled, or even disturbed, or else insensitive to the whole operation, accepting it as fully and freely and uncritically as the MP in Brideshead Revisited accepted the whole Roman Catholic canon, so that he could marry the girl. The schools provide the training ground to accustom adults to the non-asking of questions. The political priests use their colleagues who work in the educational sector to produce disciplined members of the work force who have put the luxury of private questioning out of their minds. That makes it easier for them to distort and squeeze the truth to accommodate it to their systems, whether it's the political system of Westminster, Washington or Moscow. The school serves the same purpose in all of them. The incomprehensible political speech is the inevitable consequence of the incomprehensible school lesson.
Three quarters of the school population, alike under western capitalism and Russian communism, are 'non-academic' according to the educationists. It's a vague term of abuse. But once you begin to entertain a more realistic hypothesis, the device of undervaluing the majority is simply explained. Independent-minded characters must be convinced that they lack intellectual ability. If they were more intelligent, they would understand and accept the classroom and ballot-box package. When the heretics proved stubborn, St. Dominic called down the wrath of heaven, and of earthly princes, upon them. "Where blessing can accomplish nothing, blows may avail," he thundered. The vocabulary of the exasperated indoctrinator doesn't alter much down the centuries. Today's political priests speak of "short, sharp shocks". The recusant pupils are said to be difficult, out-of-step, uncooperative, recalcitrant, disruptive, extremist. Like the 13th century Vatican, the Scottish Education Department and the Westminster Ministry are not perturbed that they have alienated and antagonised a large proportion of their flock. It just shows the bloodymindedness of all heretical characters. The vocabulary of required virtues makes a daily incantation in the schools. The words are obedience, humility, long-suffering, endurance, respect, reverence, discipline, patience, submission.
In church and school I was brought up to be respectful and uncritical. In this book I've tried to put together an educational autobiography so that the indoctrinating mechanisms and their influence on one individual can be studied in detail. If we are to escape from the prison, we have to know its personnel and practices, its hierarchy, its promotion ladders, its warders and their routines and privileges, its searchlights and dogs, the tunnels dug as a part of earlier attempts to escape. This is the story of how a child in a Scottish rural community saw the world, the picture of earth-life presented by school and church and received folklore; the widening horizons illumined by questing amateurs and clouded by defensive professionals; a teenager's innate and continuing belief that things should make sense confronted with the forbidding incomprehensibility of his mentors in school and university; the sense of wonder and enquiry and hope re-emerging under the stimulus of people throughout the world who this century tried to alter their society's set pattern of ideas and to make education intelligible; their widescale failure, in the USSR and the USA and western Europe, to make any appreciable difference to the way children are still everywhere herded and controlled and puzzled and disheartened.
The final chapter is one more effort to take the ordering of our thoughts and feelings out of the hands of the priestly rulers, and pool our wisdom and devise a better way of bringing up our children. Altogether, the book could be called a sketch plan or manifesto for the educational revolution.