For some months, when speaking to teachers or to anyone else concerned with education, I have said that while there were many recently published books on education (my own among them) that I thought they should read, if they felt they had time for only one it should be The Lives of Children. It is by far the most perceptive, moving, and important book on education that I have ever read, or indeed ever expect to. For while I hope that in years to come we may learn much about human growth and development that we do not now know, I doubt that any one book will advance our understanding as much as this one.
It describes the lives of twenty-three children in the small private school in New York in which Dennison taught, and which has since been disbanded. They were black, white, and Puerto Rican in equal proportions. All were poor, half were on welfare, and about half “had come to us from the public schools with severe learning and behavior problems.” They were, in short, children of the kind that our giant educational system conspicuously, totally, and hopelessly fails to reach or to help. This school, spending no more money per pupil than the city’s public schools, did not fail. The children got well, grew, learned.
This book must be seen also as a destroyer of alibis and excuses. We cannot say any longer that we do not know why we are failing, or that we do not know what has to be done instead, or that we cannot afford to do it. If we go on failing much longer, stunting and wrecking as we have the lives and spirits of millions of children, it can only be because for peculiar and dreadful reasons of our own that is what we really want to do.
What the book is about may be summed up in Dennison’s statement, that might well be on every wall of every school or school of education in America, that “the business of a school is not, or should not be, mere instruction, but the life of the child.” He continues:
The really crucial things at First Street (School) were these: that we eliminated—to the best of our ability—the obstacles which impede the natural growth of mind; that we based everything on reality of encounter between teacher and child; and that we did what we could (not enough, by far) to restore something of the continuum of experience within which every child must achieve his growth. It is not remarkable that under these circumstances the children came to life. They had been terribly bored, after all, by the experience of failure. For books are interesting, numbers are, and painting, and facts about the world.
The key ideas here are reality of encounter and the continuum of experience. There is no reality of encounter between adults and children in most schoolrooms (or homes, for that matter), because most teacher do not feel free, do not dare, either to let the children say or to say themselves what they really feel and think. Their concern is that nothing shall be said or done in the classroom that might get them into trouble—and the trouble they can get into is real enough, as is clearly shown every year by the experience of brave and honest teachers. But what is worse is that they are neither brave nor honest enough to admit that their primary concern, the overriding reason for everything they make or let happen in class, is staying out of trouble.
It is bad enough that thousands of teachers all over the country who in their hearts would like to assign, for example, The Catcher in the Rye are afraid to do so. But children might learn a great deal about education and society—much more than is in their civics books—if their teacher said to them, “I know a book that I think you would enjoy and from which you would get a great deal, but I don’t dare assign it to you, I don’t even dare tell you its name, for fear that some of your parents, or some people in the community, will kick up such a fuss that I will lose my job—and I can’t afford to lose my job.” Here might be the foundation for a real curriculum and a great deal of honest talk and true learning. Our schools pretend, not altogether hypocritically or dishonestly, to be much concerned with morality, but as Dennison says, “an active moral life cannot be evolved except where people are free to express their feelings and act upon the insights of conscience” (italics mine) and this freedom hardly exists anywhere in our schools.
Of an incident in which a teacher took time, to a degree unthinkable in most schools, to help two children settle a bitter quarrel (but they settled it, not she), Dennison writes:
…[the children’s] self interest will lead them into positive relations with the natural authority of adults, and this is much to be desired, for natural authority is a far cry from authority that is merely arbitrary. Its attributes are obvious: adults are larger, are experienced, possess more words, have entered into prior agreements among themselves. [italics mine]
This last is of critical importance. I do not know of a more compact or complete definition or at least description of what we mean by the elusive word “culture.” The children, living in this culture, sense it all around them, sense that in spite of its bewildering variety it must make some sense, and want more than anything else to find out how it works. What nonsense it is to speak of children living in “unstructured” situations—no one does, every human situation has a structure—or to assume that children are indifferent to the real nature of the world and society around them, and will learn nothing about it unless it is crammed down their throats.
…When all this takes on a positive instead of a merely negative character, the children see the adults as protectors and as sources of certitude, approval, novelty, skills. In the fact that adults have entered into prior agreements, children intuit a seriousness and a web of relations in the life that surrounds them. …These two things, taken together—the natural authority of adults and the needs of children—are the great reservoir of the organic structuring that comes into being when arbitrary rules of order are dispensed with.
Organic structuring; the natural authority of adults: these are two more of the key ideas that are central to this book. In a hundred places Dennison describes how children playing, working, or even fighting—some of the best descriptions in the book, and the most significant, are of fights—will out of their needs and desires find a way to create a natural order, an order that works, and out of which further activity, growth, and order may develop. Dennison points out, “the way they find is neither haphazard nor irrational, but is a matter of observation, discernment, generosity, intellegence, patience.” Remember again that the children of whom he is speaking were labeled by their public schools as unteachable and incorrigible.
Elsewhere he speaks of “the barrier of compulsion,” by which he means simply that in proportion as we demand or hold over children the power to compel we give up and lose the power to influence and help. One particularly moving passage—and there are many others—makes this point well:
So many adults these days live in a world of words—the half-real tale of the newspapers, the half-real images of television—that they do not realize, it does not sink in, that compulsory attendance is not merely a law which somehow enforces itself, but is ultimately an act of force: a grown man, earning his living as a cop of some kind, puts his left hand and his right on the arm of some kid (usually a disturbed one) and takes him away to a prison for the young—Youth House. I am describing the fate of hundreds of confirmed truants. The existence of Youth House, and of the truant officer, was of hot concern to two of our boys. They understood very well the meaning of compulsory attendance, and understanding it, they had not attended. We abolished that act of force, and these chronic truants could hardly be driven from the school.
Like Dennison, I have for some time now urged that we abolish or at least greatly relax the laws requiring compulsory attendance. No other change I advocate, however radical, provokes such a terrified and hysterical response. Proposals to wipe out half the human race with hydrogen bombs do not generate one-tenth as much anger. People say shrilly, “If we didn’t make children go to school, they would never go, they would run wild, etc.!” No one seems to consider that children do not run wild on the 180 or so days a year they do not go to school, or that, as Paul Goodman once pointed out, in at least one instance statistics showed there was more juvenile crime when school was in than when it was out. In any case, these fears about what children would do if not locked up in school are groundless for many reasons, but this above all others—they need us! At least, they need whatever in us is real and helpful and interesting, and in any of us there is far more of this than we are ever allowed to make available to them in school.
The heart of the book—if one can speak of such a thing in a book virtually every page of which contains more truth than can be found in most writings on educational psychology—is the third chapter, only eleven pages long. It deals largely with the learning problems of twelve-year-old Jose. Dennison begins:
Here we come to one of the really damaging myths of education, namely, that learning is the result of teaching, that the progress of the child bears a direct relation to methods of instruction and the internal relationships of curriculum… To cite these as the effective causes of learning is wrong. The causes are in the child. When we consider the powers of mind of a healthy eight-year-old-—the avidity of the senses, the finesse and energy of observation, the effortless concentration, the voracious memory—we realise immediately that these powers possess true magnitude in the general scale of things…. Why is it, then, that so many children fail? Let me put it bluntly; it is because our system of public education is a horrendous, life-destroying mess.
There is no such thing as learning (as Dewey tells us) except in the continuum of experience. But this continuum cannot survive in the classroom unless there is reality of encounter between the adults and the children. The teachers must be themselves, not play roles. They must teach the child, and not teach “subjects.” …The continuum of experience and reality of encounter are destroyed in the public schools (and most private ones) by the very methods which form the institution itself….