The title of Jürg Jegge's first book is Dummheit ist Lernbar, which means 'Stupidity is learnable.' His second is called Angst macht Krumm, which means 'Fear screws you up.'
Jegge knew what he was talking about, because from 1971 to 1977 he had taught in a remedial class for so-called 'stupid' children in the village of Embrach, in Switzerland in the canton of Zurich. Then he moved on to the Kleingruppe Lufingen, which he ran until 1985. The Kleingruppe was part of an experiment in which children who were thought to be completely unteachable, even in special schools, were put into groups of six, each under a single teacher, housed in a building that had nothing to do with any school.
Jegge was the salvation of many children, but this is not a catalogue of successes. It is a catalogue of the damage done by traditional schooling. The stories Jegge's students tell about their previous education show over and over again that the 'stupid' child is not naturally stupid, but is made so by circumstance, the 'wicked' child does not want to be wicked, but is made so by circumstance, the insolent child is created by circumstance, the thief is created by circumstance, the bully is created by circumstance, the 'intolerable' child is created by circumstance. Here are a few examples:
In the kindergarten I had already learnt that there was something destructive, wicked about me. I had been told so about a thousand times.
Dummheit ist Lernbar p 73
When I couldn't find any way of making friends I turned into a thief. I tried to win over my school-mates with sweets. Of course I had no money, so I had to find some way of getting it. I began to steal from my parents. . . After I had begun pinching things I would have liked to have stopped. But I soon found out that I couldn't. A new wave of fear filled me with horror. The words ,'You can't give up stealing any more,' made me almost mad with fear. You see the thought came to me, ' You have turned into a thief and you can't give up, so you will be a thief until you die.' I could hardly look anybody in the eye any more. You will be a criminal. The idea that I might one day even end up in prison cut me off from the world around me.
Ibid, p 20
Laughing I went to the door and called out to the others, 'The cow has lost her marbles,' and slammed the door so that it thundered. You see by that time I had changed. I was no longer myself. Now I had become absolutely brutal and cruel. I had no conscience about anything any more . . . Today I wonder, 'How did that happen?'
Ibid, p 68
On the very first day, before the lesson, the teacher said to everyone, 'Vreni is a very poor girl without parents and without a secure home. That's why she is condemned to become a criminal (I'm not sure whether he really said "criminal" or only something similar). She will never get anywhere.' The other children had no time to get to know me before I was labelled. And straight away I was suspected when anything happened that anyone might have done – a rubber got stolen, or the blackboard scribbled over. And the worst thing was that I always felt guilty, even when I hadn't done it. I got every sort of sermon when I got worse at things. And I did get worse. I got worse in arithmetic, worse in language, worse in singing, and then I really began to steal, smoke and lie, and got lower and lower marks.
Angst macht Krumm, p 80
I was never any good in school. Even in oral work. Sometimes, when I knew the answer and put up my hand, the teacher said, 'Put your hand down, you always talk rubbish.' The other pupils laughed.
Dummheit ist Lernbar, p 66
Once, just once, I had very few mistakes in my dictation. I was so happy. Then the teacher said, in front of the whole class, 'Look, a blind pig has found an acorn.' The others laughed.
Ibid, p 66
Sometimes when people are talking about something, something occurs to me that might be relevant. But nobody is interested. Absolutely no one is interested in me. I don't know quite how I ought to say it. And when I do know, the others have already gone on to something quite else. So I don't say it.
Ibid, p 70
My name is Peter Good. When we had a test at school at the end we all had to stand in a row. The one with the best mark came first and the one with the worst mark last. That was usually me. Then the teacher always told me, 'You shouldn't be called Peter Good, but Peter Bad," and then everybody laughed.
Ibid, p 66
And these are Jegge's own words, firstly about a boy who had been made to repeat a year:
To begin with school did go really well for him. But soon the same difficulties appeared. He was 'linguistically weak', he did not take part in discussion, was a 'rotten student' because over and over again he 'forgot' his homework. And there was something else on top of that. He was the biggest in the class – and the stupidest, who often got laughed at. In order to do something, to attract attention, he began to play the class clown and soon also became 'cheeky'. The punishments piled up. Detention, being sent to stand outside the classroom and so on soon became normal for him. They said, 'I don't know what the matter with you is. You used to be such a good chap.' Now he 'knew' – 'I'm not just stupid, I am nasty too, nobody likes me.'
Ibid, p 41
It seems to me unscientific in the extreme to make pronouncements about the intelligence of these children before they have had the opportunity to develop for a considerable time in a stimulating and approving environment.
Ibid, p 77
The limitations of these children are certainly not fate. They are the result of a process. The children are not limited in themselves, but they are limited, closed in, prevented from developing – prevented by socio-cultural and psychological factors. To put it in other words . . . stupidity is learnable.
Ibid, p 76