Authoritarian Schooling: A Catalogue of Damage compiled by David Gribble



The teacher as an enemy




Some teachers have difficulty in keeping order in their classrooms. The staff-student conflict page on this site gives examples of recommended put-downs taken from a Times Educational Supplement web forum. One wisecrack from that source that I have not quoted elsewhere is the line, 'Me teacher, this classroom, you pupil. What part of that sentence don't you understand?'

It is funny, but it is plainly hostile.

Its tone is also out of key with the original on which it is based. 'Me Tarzan, you Jane,' is a humble attempt to make conversation. The uncivilised man who has been brought up by gorillas is making his first attempt to communicate in human speech. 'Me teacher, you pupil,' reverses the implied status. The teacher, a well-educated adult, has to use primitive language because his pupil is too stupid to understand anything else. He (I am assuming that the teacher who sees himself as Tarzan is male) is deliberately and insultingly exaggerating the gulf between teacher and pupil. The belief that teachers are superior and that this superiority gives them the right to be rude to their pupils is one of the major faults in authoritarian education.

These are some of the consequences:

    •  It suggests that there is no value in what is being taught, because there is no reasonable argument for persuading people to learn it.
    • It creates an aversion for the subject being taught, because compulsion engenders resistance.
    • It prevents young people from following up things that are of real interest to them by denying them the opportunity to find out what their real interests are.
    • It deprives the young people of choice, so that they are prevented from developing their ability to make reasonable choices.
    • It denies the possibility of a friendly relationship between teacher and taught, along with all the benefits that that can bring in terms of social learning as well as intellectual stimulus.
    • It stirs up a conflict between teachers and young people that can result in disrupted classes, insolence and sometimes even physical assault.

There are thousands of teachers perhaps even a majority of teachers who would never want to insult their pupils like this, but in order to behave in the way they believe to be right, they have to fight the system. The system has created an atmosphere in which hostility to children is the norm.

Once children have learnt to regard teachers as antagonists they will naturally try to disrupt classes, even though most of them would prefer to be able to lead a peaceful and purposeful existence.

Where teachers and students are enemies there is little hope of any useful education, yet there are teachers who believe that the only way to teach anything at all is to dominate their classes. In schools where this creed has been established, teachers who do not dominate their classes are driven to despair.

There are other ways. In 1994, for instance, Lorna Farrington took over as Head of Highfield Junior School in Plymouth, UK, where the atmosphere was chaotic to the point of violence. One of her first changes was to invite the children to make their own rules for their classrooms. By the time I visited the school, two or three years later, the atmosphere was quiet, friendly and businesslike.

For years I have been writing books and giving talks about the kind of education I think right, variously described as, for instance, democratic, progressive, child-centred or non-formal. I have visited many schools and other places of education around the world (and I would include Highfield in this list) where the children have a much greater degree of control over their own lives and their own learning than in any traditional school. They come to the teachers voluntarily, looking for instruction. There is no need for domination.

This is true, for instance, at Butterflies, the organisation for street and working children in New Delhi, at Moo Baan Dek, which is a village for abused, orphaned or abandoned children in Thailand and at the Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos Puerto Rican High School for young people escaping from the regular schools in the Chicago gangland.

Something like the Tarzan line, 'Me teacher, you pupil,' might be used properly in places like these, but not in the form suggested. In these places the child comes to the adult and says, implicitly, 'Me pupil, you teacher.' That leads to real co-operative learning.

A situation of mutual hostility between teachers and pupils is a barrier to both teaching and learning, but that is not the only damage it does. Those who have learnt mindless hostility to authority at school may suffer from it for the rest of their lives. A man I know not only hurt his eyes at the age of fifty or so by diving into a school swimming pool where there was a notice forbidding swimming because of excess chemicals, but also ignored the instructions for a Flymo and cut off two of his own fingers. There are times when obedience to authority is entirely rational, but many of us have learnt to defy it.