Authoritarian Schooling: A Catalogue of Damage compiled by David Gribble





Certain to be wrong







W. B. Curry was the head teacher of Dartington Hall School, Devon, from 1931 to 1957, and it was he who developed its character as a school where freedom and self-government were combined with a respect for academic learning. He wrote two books about it, The School (1934) and Education for Sanity (1947), and he contributed to The Modern Schools Handbook, edited by Trevor Blewitt, which was published in 1934. Dartington Hall, The Formative Years, by Victor Bonham-Carter, published in 1958, includes sixty pages by Curry about the school. Most of what he had to say was about how Dartington was run, but this is not a catalogue of good schools, it is a catalogue of bad practice, so here you will only find some of his criticisms of traditional methods.

First, his explanation of the misguidedness of marks and competition.

[We at Dartington] find ourselves departing, for purely educational reasons, from the tradition that marks and competition are necessary in order to secure an adequate standard of effort and industry. First because experience shows that, while it undoubtedly encourages some of the children, it is apt to discourage those who most need encouragement, and it does not therefore succeed in its professed object; secondly because, by directing the attention of both teacher and pupil to the aspects of the subject-matter which can be marked, it is apt to direct the attention away from those aspects which are most significant; and thirdly, by relying upon motives which are extraneous to the subject-matter in hand, it fails to provide a basis for any enduring interest in the study itself.

The Modern Schools Handbook, p 59

Punishment is another issue which concerns him.

. . . [It] seems that conventional discipline is more often the cause of misbehaviour than its cure, and that the attempt to prevent wrong-doing by means of fear is likely to cause the child to avoid being found out while at school, to afford him training in methods of surreptitious anti-social behaviour, and to fail altogether to develop any genuine insight into the problems of individual and social morality.

The School, p x

The commonest method of influencing behaviour is by means of punishment and the threat of punishment. The first thing to be said about punishment is that for the most part it is useless. I have yet to meet anyone familiar with schools who is prepared to deny the proposition that in schools where punishment is habitual it is the same children who are habitually punished. Nevertheless, this proposition, if true, is a very effective indictment of the system of punishment. If punishment has any educational significance it is presumably as a means of restoring to a state of grace those who have lapsed from virtue. Punishment as a mere deterrent is not education. The truth is that in school after school the same boys are being caned week after week, are being kept in on their half-holidays Saturday after Saturday, and are doing their weekly ration of so many hundreds of lines. In many who I have met, the notion that they are 'agin the government' has simply become part of their 'persona.'

The School, pp 35 - 36

Some of his criticisms, including the reference to corporal punishment above, written almost eighty years ago, were directed mainly at the private boarding schools of the period, but much of what he had to say remains disturbingly relevant. Here he launches into the games culture that still prevails in many schools in the UK, particularly boarding schools.

[There] is in conventional schools a considerable worship of what is called good form, i.e. a set of arbitrary rules about relatively trivial matters. It becomes of the utmost importance which way one's shoe-laces are tied, whether one's hands are in this or that pocket, whether the bottom button of one's waistcoat is undone. In this way trivial things become important and important things become trivial. The boys are given an inflexible outlook and made practically incapable of acquiring a reasonable standard of values. I doubt whether the harm done by the worship of good form is generally realised. It is incompatible with tolerance, and those who are incapable of acquiring it, owing to some marked originality of intellect or temperament, are made to suffer very greatly indeed. It is destructive of sympathy and kindliness, and in spite of its fundamentally irrational and trivial nature it can act as an insuperable barrier between people who might otherwise have understood each other. As a means of keeping inferiors in their place it is unsurpassed. It produces complete inflexibility of temper, and is therefore a means of utilising the powerful weapon of taboo in order to crystallise the status quo. Traditional education seems to have had, as one of its main objects, the production of inflexibility of outlook. It is not surprising than mankind should find it so difficult to adjust to new ways, and to solve new problems.

The School, pp 19 - 20

This need to crystallise the status quo seems still to inspire politicians, who make superficial organisational changes without ever facing the real failings of traditional methods of education.

The reason for our blindness may well be that, as Curry says, 'A large proportion of us had our natural curiosity blunted or destroyed by being forced to learn too soon, by being forced, while quite little, to sit at desks learning unsuitable subjects for long hours.' (Education for Sanity, p 80)

He also suggests another possible reason:

[A] point which is often overlooked is that owing to the docility of young children it is very easy to get them to learn things parrot-wise which they haven't really grasped. In subjects which have no relation to their experience, you can get them to learn, and to reproduce when required, the right verbal answers to questions which they don't really understand. I mean that there is no clear and correct image or concept in their minds corresponding to the words they are using. Storing the mind with useless and half-understood verbiage is a habit easily acquired in youth, and judging by the conversation of a great many adults, it is a habit which is quite widespread. It is particularly common in politics. But it is destructive of intellectual force and sincerity, and obviously it is much worse than straightforward ignorance. I think that premature academic learning often produces this habit. That is why, in my opinion, forcing the children to begin book-learning too soon is a greater danger than leaving it until too late.

Education for Sanity, pp 78 -79

And in his introduction to The School Curry summarises my reason for assembling this catalogue:

Whatever we do will be in some degree experimental, and we shall be criticised on this account. But it is better to do something which may be right, than something which is certain to be wrong.

The School, p xi