In his book, How Children Fail, John Holt quotes Robert Heinemann, a teacher who had worked for a number of years with remedial students who had been rejected by the public schools in the USA.
He found that what choked up and froze the minds of these children was above all else the fact that they could not express, they could hardly even acknowledge the fear, shame, rage and hatred that school and their teachers had aroused in them. In a situation in which they were and felt free to express these feelings to themselves and others, they were able once again to begin learning.
(How Children Fail, p 170)
Fear, shame, rage and hatred. Hardly what we intend schools to engender.
When I was a pupil at Eton my mother usually took me back at the beginning of each term in her car. The end of the holidays was always a distress, but as soon we got within a mile or two of the school the distress turned to fear. It was a physical sensation, what is often described as a sinking feeling, of having one's heart in one's boots. It did not last for long when I was back with my friends, but my memory is that throughout the term I was frightened for part of almost every day.
As a pupil I simply took it for granted that fear was routine.
I was lucky that I was never bullied, but the fear of the boys with authority was coupled with a fear of the unsuccessful underclass, who asserted themselves by mocking those who worked hard or in some other way failed to conform to the subculture. One of my granddaughters, having finished at a democratic school at the age of sixteen, went to a conventional school where she was shocked to find that the only way to be popular among the other girls was to join in sneering at the unpopular. The 'scholars' at Eton, boys who had passed the scholarship exam and been promoted a year or two above their chronological age, were derided by the rest of us. At state schools some pupils say they feel safer with a school uniform, because then they cannot be mocked for the clothes they wear.
It is not only the other students who use fear to instil conformity. There is also something about the way lessons are usually taught than is deliberately frightening. Teachers use the fear of failure and the fear of ridicule as weapons of authority, and this memory too can last a life-time. A friend of mine joined a knitting class at the age of sixty. All the students had to knit, and she was shocked to find that she was frightened. She had been a teacher herself and yet the prospect of having her knitting compared with the work of others in the class horrified her.
Even aged sixty, in a friendly class with a kind and courteous teacher, the stress is ridiculously sharp. When you are a child, facing a teacher who feels her main job is to keep you quiet and humiliate you in order to establish her own authority, the stress is in many cases almost unbearable. One possible result is a complete inability to understand anything. This may well lead on to deliberate misbehaviour.
Daniel Pennac, the well-known French novelist, was in this position until he was fourteen, so he understands it from the inside. In his book, Chagrin d'école, published in English as School Blues, he tells of the loneliness of the dunce, ashamed of never being able to do what he is supposed to be doing. He remembers feeling as if he was being tortured, and wanting to make somebody pay for it, it didn't matter who, as long as somebody did. Rage and hatred are natural consequences of humiliation.
Hostile children and sarcastic teachers are not the only source of fear in schools. School buildings themselves can be intimidating, not only to the children who have to go there every day but also to people who left school long ago – those parents, for example, who avoid going to parents' meetings. I have even read that adults who choose to go to evening classes prefer them not to be held in classrooms. The classrooms themselves inspire dread. One child who was asked what an ideal school building would be like, replied that 'it shouldn't look like a school.'
When I interviewed Sands School students about their previous schools (see links headed 'And in 2010'), none of them mentioned having been frightened. I asked about it twice, and in both cases it was denied. Discipline is so effectively internalised that children come to feel that perpetual anxiety is a natural feature of their schools. There is no point in expressing fear of something that seems inevitable. If you are bullied or humiliated you just accept it and carry on.
There is something seriously wrong about adults collecting a bunch of young people into a room, setting them all the same task and then comparing performances under the illusion that this will stimulate those who have done less well. Those who habitually do less well will simply be frightened and ashamed at first, and later probably angry and vengeful.
But it is not only the less academically successful children who suffer from fear. Authoritarian education seems designed to frighten even the most able. The process is described as 'stretching' them, a word that is reminiscent of the rack. Those who break when they are stretched are reduced, like the non-academic children Robert Heinemann described, like Daniel Pennac, to shame, fear, rage and hatred.
Fear does not help you to learn. As Jürg Jegge, the Swiss educator, says in the title to his second book, 'Angst macht krumm' – fear screws you up.