Authoritarian Schooling: A Catalogue of Damage compiled by David Gribble



They're better than us

Authoritarian education teaches that some people are better than the others. This is comfortable for those identified as superior, but what about the rest?

In Beauchamp's Career, published in 1875, George Meredith described Cecilia Halkett, one of the principal characters, in these terms:

She was one of the artificial creatures called woman . . . who dare not to be spontaneous, and cannot act independently if they would continue to be admirable in the world's eye, and who for that object must remain fixed on shelves, like other marketable wares, avoiding motion to avoid shattering or tarnishing. This is their fate, only in degree less inhuman than that of Hellenic and Trojan princesses offered up to the Gods, or pretty slaves to the dealers.

In the modern West prejudice against women is on the wane, but prejudice against children is widespread. Children are automatically looked down on as inferiors. This is, as Meredith says of the fate of women in the quotation above, only in degree less inhuman than that of human sacrifices and slaves. Children, like Cecilia Halkett, 'dare not to be spontaneous, and cannot act independently if they would continue to be admirable in the world's eye.' The assumed superiority of adults is so deeply ingrained that it usually not seen as prejudice at all.

It is obvious that children who accept their inferiority abandon their own self-respect. They rely on the judgements of older people to tell them what is right and what is wrong. They refrain from criticising their elders, not only in face-to-face disagreement, but also deep in their own minds. They regard an adult's greater strength and experience as a guarantee of superior morality. At my school I learnt that authority gives the right to be wrong, but children who have abandoned their own self-respect go one step further. They believe that when it seems to them that authority is wrong, that is an illusion. They have learnt that authority is always right.

This attitude corresponds exactly to the position of the conventional woman of the late nineteenth century. She was expected to rely on the judgements of men to tell her what was right and what was wrong. She learnt to refrain from criticising men, not only in face-to-face disagreement, but also deep in her own mind. She was expected to accept that a man's greater strength and experience (experience from which the contemporary culture excluded her) was a guarantee of superior morality. She was expected to believe that when men appeared to be wrong, that was an illusion men were always right. A woman's self-respect was expected to be limited to complacency in fulfilling men's demands.

Authoritarian schools welcome children with a similar attitude. They like children whose self-respect is limited to complacency in fulfilling the demands of their teachers.

Children who deny their inferiority have few options open to them. They can conform outwardly while they inwardly resent the way they are treated, they can adopt the techniques of peasant resistance described by Joanna Gore in Leave me Alone (see link below) or they can resort to anti-social behaviour, rebel openly, insult teachers, disrupt classes, play truant or run away from home. They refuse to accept not only the objectionable aspects of adult behaviour, but also those aspects which in a more equal atmosphere they would be able to appreciate as beneficial. In schools where this attitude is established, gentle teachers are hounded and only the dominating ones survive.

Children as a whole are marked out as inferior to adults, just as Cecelia Halkett, as a woman, was marked out as inferior to a man, but for many that is not their only inferiority. Some children are marked out as more inferior than others.

Exam systems are supposed to pick out the more able students, but, because they test only a few of the many different kinds of intelligence, they only pick out those who are more able in certain limited kinds of task. What is worse is that in picking out the supposedly most able, they also inevitably pick out and humiliate the rest. Young people who have no interest in what they are being taught at school are obliged to pretend to work at it for many years, and the reward is failure and shame.

Different people have different talents. I can't lay a brick or reverse a lorry or make a chair-cover. But I did not have to spend ten years of my life trying to learn to do so, and I am not ashamed of my inability. Builders and lorry-drivers and upholsterers have to spend a large part of their early lives studying things that are not going to be any use to them, and at the end of it they are going to find themselves considered inferior to teachers and actors and doctors.

Authoritarian schooling sets up the basis for a society in which there are always successes and failures. The successes learn arrogance and look down on the failures and the failures feel their inferiority acutely. They are deliberately shamed in order to encourage the others. In an effort to retain their self-respect they often choose some other group to look down on, and this often results in bullying, sexism and racism, both in school and afterwards.

In addition the academically unsuccessful will probably have low expectations and be more likely to get involved in criminal activity. Even their lives may be shorter. Their so-called education will have done them irreparable damage.