Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Revolution in a Schoolbook

The Little Red Schoolbook, written by two Danish teachers (Soren Hansen and Jesper Jensen), was originally published in Denmark in 1969 and in the UK in 1971. This book caused quite a controversy (see YouTube links below) when it was published in the UK since it was perceived to threaten many of the dominant (puritanical) religious and moral values of the time. Indeed, there were several court cases and the publishers were raided by the police under the auspices of the Obscene Publications Act and many copies of the book were seized. It was later allowed to be published in edited form.

Fortunately for me, my parents were open-minded and curious enough to buy (at the grand sum of thirty pence) one of the original unedited copies when it was first published in the UK. It manages to squeeze a great deal of information into its 208 pages all with the laudable aim of empowering schoolchildren and informing them about many of the issues which really concern young people but from which adults feel they should be "protected". The Little Red Schoolbook continues to be in many ways revolutionary in its frankness and it covers a range of subjects including teacher's authority, punishment, drugs, sex, contraceptives, abortion, and organising demonstrations. In many ways it's a shame there's not an updated version still in print or at least a pdf available for download.

A few days ago I was sent this book by my parents since it had come up in a recent discussion. I'm amazed at just how radical it still seems and to be reminded of just what a powerful influence it had over me as a young teenager. I still remember the first time my brother showed me this book. Inevitably this was to read the sexual content eg:

    "The usual word for a boys sexual organ is cock or prick. The usual word for a girl's sexual organ is pussy or cunt. Many grown-ups don't like these words because they say they're "rude". They prefer words like penis and vagina.
    When boys get sexually excited, their prick goes stiff. This is called having an erection or "getting a hard on". If a boy rubs his stiff prick it starts feeling good and this leads to what is called orgasm. This is called masturbation or wanking. Girls masturbate by rubbing their clitoris, and this may lead to orgasm too."

I remember taking this book to school and showing it to my friends who were astonished that something so matter-of-fact, honest and sensible could be aimed at them and it couldn't have come to our attention at a more appropriate time in our developing awareness (both intellectual and carnal). No doubt the information about sex was the major source of our interest in this book at this time but there is also a great deal of additional information, which I know I also avidly consumed, and which I'm sure has had a significant influence on my development as an individual and my beliefs about life and teaching. It is only since seeing this book again that I've realised just how profound this influence has really been.

    "Teachers and their authority
    Most bad and authoritarian teachers are tied up in knots or afraid of something or other. They are often afraid of their pupils and think they have to appear strict and unapproachable. They're afraid that their pupils may be right and that that they may be wrong. They're afraid that there'll be chaos if they give up their power and authority.

    This fear arises because they don't believe in other people's ability to organise themselves and find their own solutions to problems. This lack of faith in others may be due to a lack of belief in themselves. They're insecure and have to rely on their authority all the time."

I particularly liked the following:

    "Punishment: what is allowed?
    The best way of teaching is to use encouragement and rewards, not punishments. Psychologists discovered this a long time ago. But not all teachers and parents have discovered it yet. There are many kinds of punishment. There's caning, detention, telling off, ridicule and sending people out of the class. Some punishments are allowed in school. Others are forbidden. For example it is forbidden for teachers to take things away from you and keep them. If a teacher has confiscated something of yours he has to give it back. (This applies to The Little Red Schoolbook too!)"

I remember openly carrying the book around school in the hope that one of the teachers would dare to confiscate it.

    "Marks are a means of power
    ...If marks are only used as a guide for the pupil, and the teacher explains to each pupil why he's given him a particular mark, this is acceptable. (Although you might well ask what is the point of giving a mark at all in this case.) But marks aren't usually explained to pupils. Instead they're used to compare different pupils, and may even end up on a noticeboard, without any explanation. In this case marks are meaningless.

    Don't accept marks as the be all and end all. And remember that there are many teachers who are fed up with the whole business of marks too. They realise that marks in themselves don't mean a thing. Talk to your teachers and try to find out what they think of marks."

And finally from the concluding words:

    "Sometimes you have to fight against people who don't have much power, people who are afraid of change and afraid of having to make an effort themselves. This won't last long. In the long run teachers and pupils are on the same side in the struggle against the forces which control their lives.
    You can't separate school from society. You have to change one to be able to improve the other. But don't let this put you off.
    Every little thing you change in school may have results in society. Every little thing you change in society may have consequences in school.
    Work to change always starts with you. The struggle is carried on by many different people in many different places. But it's the same struggle."


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