• Email
  • Print

To the Rescue

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.

Dennison continues:

…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….

Continuum of persons and experience; reality of encounter. What these or the lack of them mean in real life is made achingly clear in Dennison’s description of Jose and of his work with him.

Jose had failed in everything. After five years in the public schools, he could not read, could not do sums, and had no knowledge even of the most rudimentary history or geography. He was described to us as having “poor motivation,” lacking “reading skills,” and (again) having “a reading problem”…

To say “reading problem” is to draw a little circle around Jose and specify its contents: syllables, spelling, grammar, etc.….

By what process did Jose and his school book come together? Is this process part of his reading problem?

Who asks him to read the book? Someone asks him? In what sort of voice and for what purpose, and with what concern or lack of concern for the outcome?

And who wrote the book? For whom did they write it? Was it written for Jose? Can Jose actually partake of the life the book seems to offer?

And what of Jose’s failure to read? We cannot stop at the fact that he draws a blank. How does he do it? What does he do?… Is he daydreaming? If so, of what? Aren’t these particular daydreams part of Jose’s reading problem? Did the teacher ask him what he was thinking of? Is his failure to ask part of Jose’s reading problem?

Printed words are an extension of speech. Reading is conversing. But what if this larger world is frightening and insulting? Should we, or should we not, include fear and insult in Jose’s reading problem?…

Jose’s reading problem is Jose. Or to put it another way, there is no such thing as a reading problem. Jose hates books, schools, and teachers, and among a hundred other insufficiencies—all of a piece—he cannot read. Is this a reading problem?

A reading problem, in short, is not a fact of life, but a fact of school administration. It does not describe Jose, but describes the action performed by the school, i.e., the action of ignoring everything about Jose except his response to printed letters.

With these few words Dennison shows up for the empty and pretentious and pseudo-scientific nonsense it is the whole structure of mystification (specific reading disability, aphasia, dyslexia, strephosymbolia, etc., ad nauseam) and quackery that has been erected in recent years by our selfstyled specialists in Reading and Remedial Reading. Some may feel the word “quackery” too strong. It is carefully chosen. Our doctors of medicine do not hesitate to call chiropractors quacks, but chiropractors, and even faith healers, have probably done more good and less harm in their fields than our reading experts in theirs.

Dennison then describes Jose’s behavior during a typical early reading lesson. The description is enough to break your heart, and to make you wonder later how our tens of thousands of psychologists and related experts can have been so blind and stupid as to have ignored for so long the importance of such behavior, which must have been duplicated, and must still be duplicated, by hundreds of thousands of poor and despised children all over the country. He continues:

…We need only to look at Jose to see what his problems are: shame, fear, resentment, rejection of others and of himself, anxiety, self-contempt, loneliness. None of these was caused by the difficulty of reading printed words—a fact all the more evident if I mention here that Jose, when he came to this country at the age of seven, had been able to read Spanish and had regularly read to his mother (who cannot read) the post cards they received from the literate father…in Puerto Rico. For five years he had sat in the classrooms of the public schools literally growing stupider by the year….

Obviously not all of Jose’s problems originated in school. But given the intimacy and freedom of the environment at First Street, his school-induced behavior was easy to observe. He could not believe, for instance, that anything contained in books, or mentioned in classrooms, belonged by rights to himself, or even belonged to the world at large, as trees and lampposts belong quite simply to the world we all live in. He believed, on the contrary, that things. dealt with in school belonged somehow to school…. There had been no indication that he could share in them, but rather that he would be measured against them and found wanting. Nor did he believe that he was entitled to personal consideration, but felt rather that if he wanted to speak, either to a classmate or to a teacher, or wanted to stand up and move his arms and legs, or even wanted to urinate, he must do it more or less in defiance of authority….

One would not say that he had been schooled at all, but rather that for five years he had been indoctrinated in the contempt of persons, for contempt of persons had been the supreme fact demonstrated in the classrooms, and referred alike to teachers, parents, and children. For all practical purposes, Jose’s inability to learn consisted precisely of his school-induced behavior.

Two things must be said here. The first is that contempt of persons is precisely and above all else what is taught, and learned, in almost every classroom in almost every school in the country, public or private, black or white, rich or poor, “good” or “bad.” It is what our educational system brings about, and in many places is intended, as directly and specifically as basic training in the Army or Marines, to bring about—contempt for others, contempt for self, the need and ability to get a sense of identity and worth only by submitting oneself to the demands of a superior and oppressive force and acting as its agent in oppressing others.

The second has to do with the word “belong.” Our educational system, at least at its middle- and upper middleclass layers, likes to say and indeed believes that an important part of its task is transmitting to the young the heritage of the past, the great traditions of history and culture. The effort is an unqualified failure. The proof we see all around us. A few of the students in our schools, who get good marks and go to prestige colleges, exploit the high culture, which many of them do not really understand or love, by pursuing comfortable and well-paid careers as university Professors of English, History, Philosophy, etc. Almost all the rest reject that culture wholly and utterly.

The reason is simple, and the one Dennison has pointed out—their schools and teachers have never told them, never encouraged or even allowed them to think, that high culture, all those poems, novels, Shakespeare plays, etc., belonged or might belong to them, that they might claim it for their own, use it solely for their own purposes, for whatever joys and benefits they might get from it. Let us not mislead ourselves about this. The average Ivy League graduate is as estranged from the cultural tradition, certainly those parts of it that were shoved down his throat in school, as poor Jose was from his Dick and Jane. The entertainment highlight of the class dinner at my 25th college reunion, and the nearest thing to a cultural event during the whole weekend, was a low-comedy parody of grand opera. It seemed to be just what most of my classmates expected and wanted.

Dennison continues:

The gradual change in Jose’s temperament drew its sustenance from the whole of our life at school, not from minuscule special programs designed especially for Jose’s academic problems. And not the least important feature of his life (it was quite possibly the most important) was the effect of the other children on him. I mean that when adults stand out of the way so children can develop among themselves the full riches of their natural relationships, their effect on each other is positively curative…. This is the kind of statement that many professionals look upon askance and identify as Romantic, as much as to say that the sphere of the world rides upon the tortoise of their own careers.

The development or demonstration of this is one of the most important parts of the book. Precisely because it depends upon so many specific incidents, it cannot well be summarized or even represented in a brief quote. Equally important, and equally hard to summarize, is the relationship of the adults to these interactions, the ways in which they use, and the children make use of, their natural authority. This matter—the proper relationship in a non-coercive school between the old and the young—is immensely important, and is not well understood, or even understood at all, by many people in such schools, or by teachers in more conventional schools who would like to make their classrooms more free but do not know exactly what they would do, what their task and function would be, if they gave up their present roles of straw boss, cop, and judge. As Dennison wisely points out:

If compulsion is damaging and unwise, its antithesis—a vacuum of free choice—is unreal. And in fact we cannot deal with the problem in these terms, for the real question is not, what shall we do about classes? It is, What shall we do about our relationships with the young? How shall we deepen them, enliven them, make them freer, more amiable, and at the same time more serious? How shall we broaden the area of mutual experience?

How did Jose get to his first reading lesson? What facts and conditions led to his going there?

….he suffered because of his inability to learn. He was afraid to make another attempt, and at the same time, he wanted to.

We established a relationship…spent several weeks getting to know each other, roughly three hours a day of conversations, games in the gym, outings, etc. We lived in the same neighborhood and saw each other in the streets. He knew me as George, not as “teacher.”

He understood immediately that our school was different, that the teachers were present for reasons of their own and that the kind of concern they evinced was unusual, for there were no progress reports, or teacher ratings, or supervisors….

He understood that I had interests of my own, a life of my own that could not be defined by the word “teacher.” And he knew that he, though not a large part of my life, was nevertheless a part of it.

Now given this background, what must Jose have thought about my wanting to teach him to read? For I did want to, and I made no bones about it…. The fact is, he took it for granted. It was the right and proper relationship, not of teacher and student, but of adult and child….

And so I did not wait for Jose to decide for himself. When I thought the time was ripe, I insisted that we begin our lessons. My insistence carried a great deal of weight with him, since,…he respected me…. My own demands were an important part of Jose’s experience. They were not simply the demands of a teacher, nor of an adult, but belonged to my own way of caring about Jose. And he sensed this. There was something he prized in the fact that I made demands on him. This became all the more evident once he realized that I wasn’t simply processing him, that is, grading, measuring, etc. And when he learned that he could refuse—could refuse altogether, could terminate the lesson, could change its direction, could insist on something else…we became collaborators in the business of life…. It boils down to this…we adults are entitled to demand much of our children…. The children are entitled to demand that they be treated as individuals, since that is what they are…. There is nothing in this process that is self-correcting. We must rely on the children to correct us…(to) throw us off, with much yelling and jumping, like a man in a pair of shoes that pinch his feet.

…I have mentioned conflict just here because I have always been annoyed by the way some Summerhillians speak of love, of “giving love”…we cannot give love to children. If we do feel love, it will be for some particular child, or some few; and we will not give it, but give ourselves, because we are much more in the love than it is in us. What we can give to all children is attention, forbearance, patience, care, and above all justice. This last is certainly a form of love; it is—precisely—love in a form that can be given, given without distinction to all, since just this is the anatomy of justice: it is the self-conscious, thoroughly generalized human love of human-kind.

And if we do not have justice in our schools, how will we have it in our society, and if we don’t what will become of us? Perhaps, though I have left much unsaid, and am haunted by the possibility that I may have left unsaid just what might have drawn, to this book some who otherwise may not read it, this is the place to end this review.

For, as we see in Dennison’s pointed and moving discussion of sexual freedom among today’s young people, or his comparison between the oppressed Russian peasant boys in Tolstoy’s school and the far more deeply oppressed and demoralized city boys in his own, or in any one of a number of other places, this is a book about our unhappy society—sick, sadistic, self-destructive, mystified, and manipulated at every level by self-serving experts and con men, and heading however waveringly toward war abroad and some kind of dreadful native variety of Fascism at home. There is still much we can and must do to to stop this slide to disaster—we have that much. freedom. But we must recognize that we are almost certainly too stunted and broken in spirit, too full of fear, greed, envy, self-doubt, self-contempt, disappointment, and rage to be able to create for the first time a society that is truly human, just, honest, and peaceful, with some reasonable prospect of survival. To do that, we must have the help of a new generation of people far more intelligent, more kind, more loving and respecting of life than most of us can ever hope to be, and our only chance of getting such help is by making our schools, as Dennison has shown us how, into the kinds of places in which such people can grow. Perhaps, if enough of us, many millions of us, read this book, take it to heart, try in every way we can to put its not too difficult lessons into practice, we may yet save ourselves.

  • Email
  • Print