Authoritarian Schooling: A Catalogue of Damage compiled by David Gribble




Most school administrators seem to believe that learning is a painful drudge. If this is not so they have organised their schools in an extraordinarily unsuitable way. Going to school is compulsory, and a set curriculum is usually compulsory and children are punished for not doing preps. The attempt is made to motivate children by competition, by promotion prospects and by the chance of winning gold stars or prizes, but seldom by persuading them that the work they are doing is useful or interesting. Often additional work is set as a punishment, and what is set as a punishment at one moment can hardly be presented as a pleasure the next. It seems clear that to most people concerned with education learning is a sour, weary business and children have to be driven or cajoled through it by threats, sanctions and bribery.

Gribble: Considering Children, p 88

When I wrote that passage in 1985 I was more concerned about the irrationality of the procedure than the damage that it did. Since then the damage has become clear to me: if a teacher assumes that children will only work if they are forced to, then even the initially willing and enthusiastic children in her class will learn not to work unless they are forced to.

The obsession with compulsion is often combined with the notion that children can only be kept quiet by giving them something to do that is 'fun', such as playing pencil-and-paper games or colouring in diagrams.

Falko Peschel (see link to 'Universal Boredom' below) found that young children do not come to school in order to have fun, they come to school hoping to learn things that will be interesting and relevant to them and give them an enjoyment that is much deeper than superficial 'fun'. It is only after weeks of a compulsory curriculum that is of little or no interest to them, and of no conceivable use, that they begin to feel that learning is an annoying imposition.

When children become accustomed to unreasonable rules, there are a number of unfortunate results. To be compelled to wear a school uniform, for example, is a humiliation, to be compelled to call your teachers 'miss' and 'sir' dehumanises your relationship to them. These are damaging results, but much more importantly, after children have been treated in this way for a while they are likely to expect all demands made from a position of authority to be unreasonable.

This applies even to academic work in the classroom. Although I was generally an obedient student, for example, I always found set books less interesting than other books by the same authors, even at university.

In the 1934 Modern Schools Handbook Paul Roberts, the head of Frensham Heights, gave a rather more surprising example. 'It is often found,' he wrote, 'that children coming from schools where games are compulsory, wish to avoid them.' Compulsion is not a good way of developing interest and enthusiasm, even in as popular a subject as games.

When you are told that you must see such and such a film, or watch such and such a television programme, or meet such and such a person who you are bound to like, you are likely to have your expectations raised too high and to experience a consequent disappointment. When you are forced to read a certain book or learn certain facts you are likely to be hostile. The education system has not yet recognised this.

Most young people welcome the opportunity to work with the old, the disabled or the very young, but if it is presented not as an opportunity but a requirement they are inclined to become reluctant. (And it often is presented as a requirement I have heard of a school where for one afternoon a week you have to do either military training or 'voluntary social work.') Schools are able to crush children's enthusiasm for socially useful activities simply by making them compulsory.

In the 1934 Handbook W. B. Curry of Dartington added another point about the counterproductivity of compulsion. 'It is sometimes maintained,' he wrote, 'that it is good for children to study subjects they dislike. This view seems to confuse learning a subject with attending classes in it. If the teaching is in fact dull and the subject wholly uninteresting, the child will not work hard enough to get anything of value, even out of the discipline. He will acquire instead the technique of satisfying minimum requirements.'

A. S. Neill, writing in the same book, put it more aggressively: 'Because we have been opposed to the real interests of the child,' he said, 'we have had to compel the child to adapt himself by imposing upon him a barbaric code of reward and punishment, thereby introducing the child to fear and deceit and hate.'

Fear and deceit and hate. Even in 1934 traditional schools cannot have been aiming to teach such lessons. Yet Neill was able to write, with prescience, 'We have had disciplined schools for a long time in Europe, and they do not seem to have led us anywhere in particular. Today, Europe is an armed camp ready for war.'