Authoritarian Schooling: A Catalogue of Damage compiled by David Gribble





Poisonous pedagogy






In her book For Your Own Good the Swiss psychologist Alice Miller describes the traditional methods of upbringing in the nineteenth century, which she calls 'poisonous pedagogy'. Practitioners of poisonous pedagogy believe, she writes, that 'adults are the masters (not the servants) of the dependent child', that they 'determine in godlike fashion what is right and what is wrong,' that when an adult it is angry it is the fault of the child, that 'the child's will must be "broken" as soon as possible.' She then lists false information that has been passed on from generation to generation and dutifully accepted by the young. Here is the complete list.

A feeling of duty produces love.
Hatred can be done away with by forbidding it.
Parents deserve respect simply because they are parents.
Children are undeserving of respect simply because they are children.
Obedience makes a child strong.
A high degree of self-esteem is harmful.
A low degree of self-esteem makes a person altruistic.
Tenderness (doting) is harmful.
Responding to a child's needs is wrong.
Severity and coldness are a good preparation for life.
A pretence of gratitude is better than honest ingratitude.
The way you behave is more important than the way you really are.
Neither parents nor God would survive being offended.
The body is something dirty and disgusting.
Strong feelings are harmful.
Parents are creatures free from drives and guilt.
Parents are always right.

For Your Own Good, pp 59-60

This list refers to the relationship between children and parents, not the relationships in schools. In A Really Good School, my satirical novel about the worst school imaginable, the headmaster adapts it for his staff. (Although the school now accepts girls and has a few women teachers, he still assumes all staff and pupils are masculine.)



Teachers are the masters of learners.
The school determines what is right and wrong.
The school provides everything that a reasonable parent could desire.
Children's enthusiasm and curiosity are a threat to authority.
Human behaviour is driven by competition.
The body is disgusting
 Emotional problems are irrelevant when you are in the classroom.
If anything goes wrong, it must be the boys' fault.


Unwelcome behaviour must be prevented by punishment.
Teachers must be respected, simply because they are teachers, whatever their failings.
Learners must be humiliated so they become eager to please.
No teacher must ever show affection for a child.
Any boy who asks for more must be ignored.
Boys must always be ranked for everything.
A master must not consider what a boy feels; he only needs to correct what he does.

There is some exaggeration here, but not as much as might be hoped. In most schools teachers are considered to be the masters of learners, and to deserve respect whatever their failings. Many teachers limit their professional duty to teaching, and take no account of their pupils' personal difficulties. Competition is deliberately used to encourage effort. In some primary schools teachers may actually be dismissed for comforting small children in distress by hugging them or taking them on their laps.

In my book two students discover the headmaster's guidelines left in a photocopier and produce their own version.



Learners are not the servants of teachers.
Pupils determine what is right and wrong.
The school demands a great deal that any reasonable child would question.
Children's enthusiasm and curiosity remove the need for authority.
Human behaviour is enriched by cooperation.
The body is miraculous.
The classroom is irrelevant when you have emotional problems.
If anything goes wrong it must be the school's fault.


Punishment is unwelcome behaviour and must be avoided.
Children must be respected simply because they are children, whatever their failings.
Teachers must be eager to please, so they must not humiliate.
Everyone must feel free to show affection to anyone else, of whatever age.
Any teacher who ignores a child must be rebuked.
Children must never be ranked for anything.
It must be remembered that behaviour is only superficial; what matters is what you really are.

There is exaggeration here too, but also a great deal of truth. The damage done by an education system that does not acknowledge some of these truths is profound. Children who are ignored, treated disrespectfully and punished for failing to conform learn to ignore others and treat themA_really_good_school disrespectfully, and to rebel against authority because authority is unreasonable. Children who are not allowed to develop their own moral views but subjected to a morality that has been decided for them by others have a choice between irrational conscientiousness and revolt. In a class where enthusiasm and curiosity are discouraged, interest in what is being taught evaporates.

I was trying to write about a school so awful that it could not possibly exist, but my son, a climber whose advice I took for a chapter in which a group of children are driven to some nearby rocks to climb in the rain without rainproofs, told me that my description of the outing was not funny because he had seen it all happening. Philip Toogood, former head of Madely Court Comprehensive School, said in a review that in his teaching experience he had encountered examples of every incident in the book (except murder, I hope, though he did not actually say so).

Alice Miller's list deserves to be read over and over again, partly because, like the headmaster's guidelines, much of it seems at first glance to be perfectly reasonable. It is worth going through the list and negating each item a feeling of duty does not produce love, hatred cannot be done away with by forbidding it, parents do not deserve respect simply because they are parents, children do deserve respect simply because they are children, obedience makes a child weak, and so on. It is not until we are actually brought face to face with the underlying ideas of the poisonous pedagogy that is still practised all too widely today that we recognise the poison that most of us absorbed without question throughout our childhood.

As Alice Miller says in her preface to For Your Own Good, 'When people have been beaten or spanked as children attempt to play down the consequences by setting themselves up as examples, even claiming it was good for them, they are inevitably contributing to the continuation of cruelty in the world by this refusal to take their childhood tragedies seriously.' (For Your Own Good, p. x)

Nowadays there are fewer parents who were beaten or spanked when they were children, but they excuse other punishments in the same way, claiming that it did not do them any harm. Obedience is seen as a virtue that can only be instilled by force.

The effects of unthinking obedience can be catastrophic. Just one of the examples given by Alice Miller is this anecdote about the trial of Joseph Eichmann:

To the end of their lives, these people [the Nazis] carried out the orders they were given without ever questioning the content. They carried them out . . . not out of any sense of their inherent rightness, but simply because they were orders.
        This explains why Eichman was able to listen to the most moving testimony of witnesses at his trial without the slightest display of emotion, yet when he forgot to stand up at the reading of the verdict, he blushed with embarrassment when this was called to his attention.

For Your Own Good, p 67

In our schools it is not so much the truants and the disaffected who suffer from imposed obedience, but the compliant children who have accepted the idea of obedience as a moral necessity. Like the Nazis, though on a much smaller scale, they learn to blame themselves for trifling disobedience that does not matter, and not to worry about things that do matter, as long as they have been told to do them. As Gemma Sim said at the International Democratic Education Conference (IDEC) in Australia in 2003, when she was seventeen years old, 'We all have the mindset that we are dependent on people who are above us.'

Alice Miller quotes a colleague who said, 'I wonder if what is called pedagogy may not be simply a question of power, and if we shouldn't be speaking and writing more about power struggles instead of racking our brains about finding better methods of rearing children.' (For Your Own Good, p 278)

She herself describes the effects of poisonous pedagogy as 'soul murder.' In my novel, A Really Good School, that is what the corporal murders represent. If the story is read with that in mind, there is no exaggeration.