Authoritarian Schooling: A Catalogue of Damage compiled by David Gribble



We're better than him

Prejudice – judging others as inadequate on the basis of an irrelevant categorisation – is recognised as deplorable, yet it is nurtured by most educational systems. Young people who leave school with high academic qualifications are expected to feel that they are better than those who have not been so successful.

In 1968 Jane Elliott, an American teacher, decided to demonstrate to her class that there was no justification for racial prejudice. She conducted an experiment which involved dividing children into blue-eyed and brown-eyed, telling them that the blue-eyed children group were superior to the others and watching the results (see A Class Divided, by William Peters, or Over many years she repeated her experiment with various other groups, including adults. She did not just tell one group it was superior to the other, she set an example by bullying the supposedly inferior group herself. In her original class this was devastatingly effective – the 'superior' group flourished and the 'inferior' group became miserable and less able to learn. When she told them she had made a mistake, and that it was the brown-eyed group that was superior, the previously 'inferior' group flourished and the previously 'superior' group wilted.

She had shown that any group, encouraged to believe that it was superior, even if it was for an irrelevant reason as such eye colour, would automatically begin to view others as inferiors in all respects.

Racial prejudice is one obvious example of this behaviour, but another is gender prejudice. In the nineteenth century in Britain women were simply excluded from positions of responsibility outside the family (except for the Queen herself, of course). They were not allowed to go to university because it was assumed that they were less intelligent than men, and the assumption that they were less intelligent than men was reinforced by the fact that they did not go to university. In order to get their books published George Eliot and the Brontë sisters adopted men's names – though the Brontës were eventually able to drop their pseudonyms. A woman's duty was to get married, have children, support her husband and care for her family.

'Why have women passion, intellect, moral activity – these three – and a place in society where no one of the three can be exercised?' asked Florence Nightingale. The answer was Jane Elliott's – prejudice. Men considered themselves to be a superior class and simply did not realise that their discrimination against women was anything other than ordinary common sense.

This prejudice against women is on the way out, but the prejudice against children persists. The authoritarian view is still that children are not yet people, they are merely in the process of becoming people.

It is commonly thought that the purpose of education is to provide children with the knowledge they need to do well in life, and the criterion for judging this is their eventual material success. 'Good' schools are not those that best suit their pupils, but those that best adapt their pupils to fit into the more respected positions in society. Ex-pupils from the most highly regarded independent schools in Britain assume their superiority as a right; they recognise each other by their accents, their tastes and their assumption of the right to be treated with respect, and they exclude others who they describe as oiks, Essex girls, chavs or 'little' people (as in 'I know a wonderful little man who can fix your lawnmower'). This has become so much part of their thinking that they do not even see it as prejudice – they see it as an observation of how things really are.

Even authoritarian schools no longer intentionally teach the superiority of the male, or the dominance of the white man, but they still teach, not explicitly but through their practice, the importance of class. They condition children to believe that it is important to be able to think, 'We are better than them.'

Education teaches the educated to look down on the uneducated, the athletes to look down on the unathletic, the rich to look down on the poor. The idea that skills and knowledge should be used to help others who are less skilful and knowledgeable, rather than for personal advancement, is the exact opposite of what most children learn at school, no matter how often charitable behaviour may be commended in school assemblies.

This is a pleasant situation for the successful, even though they may be spending more energy on retaining their position and winning more signs of status than they spend on fulfilling their own personal needs or enjoying their own talents. And as an inevitable result of their own eagerness for superiority they suffer from a loss of independence. They have to conform. It is only the conformists who are likely to succeed. The teachers approve of them, and their status rises. Conformity becomes more important than altruism.

The attitude persists in adult life, where wealth takes the place of academic or sporting success. Just as those with the best A-Levels look down on those without any exam passes, those with inherited wealth assume superiority over those who have none, and those who receive huge salaries assume superiority over those who earn less. In modern Western society such assumptions are self-fulfilling, but are bankers, for instance, paid huge salaries because they are superior, or do they assume they are superior because they are paid huge salaries?

Prejudice is an excuse for injustice, but we have all been so deeply trained in the assumption that some people are better than others that it is almost impossible for us to consider the idea that we are in fact all of equal value. 'All men are created equal,' says the American Declaration of Independence, and the French say that they stand for liberty, equality and fraternity, but in the USA and in France, as in other nations, 'some are more equal than others', and those at the top make sure that their education systems help to sustain the status quo.