Education, literature and the paradox of ‘the whole child’

Professor Robert Davis of the University of Glasgow writes a poignant reflection on the Plowden report, which defined the era of child-centred education for the generation for which it was written – and for decades to come.

2017 was the 50th anniversary of the Plowden Report (Children and their Primary Schools), a landmark document in the history of 20th-century progressivism, which announced major reforms in curriculum and pedagogy across the schools of the United Kingdom and which echoed powerful modernising impulses elsewhere in the developed world. The elusive search for the origins of ‘progressive education’ has led some historians to question its entire viability as a concept for capturing an undeniably broad and piecemeal diversity of 20th-century educational innovations. Nevertheless, wherever we trace its roots, it seems clear that a number of key concepts steadily became dominant in educational thought on both sides of the Atlantic between 1920 and 1960 (to the undoubted reproach of the didactic models of learning and teaching that had monopolised schools since the coming of state-sponsored mass education to the industrial nations in the closing decades of the 19th century). Paramount among these supposedly ‘new’ ideas was the discourse of ‘child-centredness’, and the language of the ‘whole child’ – each among the first phrases, incidentally, to excite the scepticism of philosophers of education such as R.S. Peters and Robert Deardon of the Institute of Education in London in the first issues of the Journal of Philosophy of Education in the middle and late 1960s.

Like ‘progressive education’, the terms ‘child-centredness’ and the ‘whole child’ already possessed, by the 1960s, a complex pedigree. Rousseau’s direct influence in the late 18th century on (most significantly) Johann Pestalozzi had succeeded in embedding the concepts by the 1820s very explicitly in radical philosophies of, particularly, infant education across Europe and into parts of North America. By the end of that decade, Robert Owen and Friedrich Froebel were each campaigning vigorously in Britain and Germany on behalf of the revolutionary ‘kindergarden’ or nursery movement, where learning and teaching for very young children would be centred upon play and led by the interests and inclinations of the child rather than (in Froebel’s model especially) the direction of the teacher. Owen’s British experiments were destined to end in defeat at the hands the traditionalist opposition of church and state, while Froebel’s spectacularly successful kindergarden networks nevertheless saw the language of child-centredness carefully cordoned into the specialist pre-5 environment where his thinking and reputation took root, with consequently very little impact on the expanding compulsory sectors.

Nevertheless, it is safe to say that more inclusive notions of ‘child-centredness’ and the ‘whole child’ sustained a kind of subterranean afterlife throughout the later 19th century in radical educational circles in Britain. Such ideas resurfaced in a series of immensely important government enquiries chaired by W.H. Hadow in 1926, 1931 and 1933 that heavily criticised the Victorian approaches to learning and teaching – then still prevalent in UK primary and secondary schools. The ’31 document (which approvingly referenced Owen and New Lanark) declared:

We desire to see the child as an active agent in his early schooling, making … an active participation in its process, through his own experiences and his own activities, and relating his growing knowledge at all points to the world in which he lives.

Although these ideas were to be eclipsed by more pressing domestic and international anxieties as the 1930s unfolded, they survived as a subversive memory – a hope, indeed – in British educational thought until a more welcoming climate emerged with the onset of the Swinging Sixties. This period heralded the rise of a new metropolitan youth culture and the election of Harold Wilson’s Labour governments in 1964 and 1966 on a platform that included far-reaching educational reform. Bridget Plowden was actually commissioned to conduct her investigations into English schools by the outgoing Conservative Government in 1963; but under the direction of the new Labour Education Secretary, the socialist intellectual Anthony Crosland, the egalitarian mission of the enquiry was very significantly radicalised. Crosland and his advisors had in turn been deeply influenced by the central, supposedly scientific justification for the doctrine of child-centredness provided between 1930 and 1960 by Jean Piaget’s model of developmentalism.

Contemporary ‘neo-traditionalists’ mock Piagetian theory for what they see as its poor empirical evidence base, but Peters, Deardon and others discerned at the time a deeper problem. On the one hand, the new mid-20th-century progressivist discipline of ‘educational psychology’ was advocating an optimistic, unfettered view of the child’s predisposition for learning perfectly aligned with Plowden’s reformed pedagogy. But on the other, the work of some of the most influential psychologists and anthropologists of the time was describing a quite different child secreted at the heart of modern society: an anxious, troubled, aggressive creature trapped in the gothic Freudian-Kleinian struggles of the family romance, or self-centredly and unempathetically striving for dominance over rivals in the pursuit of its appetites and an obviously unappeasable desire for security. It was for this reason that the earlier Hull House experiments of John Dewey in Chicago had eventually repudiated the dominant American Froebelian conception of the kindergarden as a reproduction of the domestic emotional ambience of the family, in favour of the rigorous cosmopolitan practices of the ‘peer group’ and the ‘school community’ supposedly so critical to the fortunes of an essentially immigrant society. If the family is intrinsically psychodynamically maladaptive, Dewey had argued, effective education could not possibly proceed from the imitation of its affective life or its understanding of the child. The 1960s were also, we should recall, the era of Phillipe Ariès’s Centuries of Childhood, which in bowdlerised form had found its way into the textbooks of many caring-profession diploma and degree programmes – instructing intending nurses, doctors, teachers, social workers that childhood and the nuclear family were contingent, bourgeois ideological constructions of the very bureaucracies they were training to serve. The extraordinarily popular Scottish psychiatrist Ronnie (‘R.D.’) Laing, a media hero of many ’60s ‘liberation’ movements, turned most vitriolically on the family and its supporting institutions, denouncing them as the cradle of injustice, oppression and patriarchy, producing only damaged children and frustrated adults, and against which schizophrenia was a perfectly valid emancipatory protest.

Even Piaget himself became part of this same malaise through the use in his writings of a concept for the description of early childhood which he later came to regret: egocentrism. Now for Piaget, the term was confined to the description of purely epistemological processes, not affective or moral states. But in the psychoanalytic climate of the period, it is unsurprising that it was swiftly mobilised for estranging and othering children, culminating in the notorious observation in the best-selling mid-century teacher training manual by Hughes and Hughes, Learning and Teaching, that ‘it is well known that young children are, as a general rule, determined little egotists’. A host of popular and influential figures – led by high-profile academics such as Bowlby, Winnicott and Gesell – compounded this problem by foregrounding a developing child characterised by innate aggression, violent fantasies of control and group destructiveness. There were variants within this literature, across gender, age-band and social class especially, but the trends remained consistent; and such was the prestige of these authorities that their ideas routinely migrated into formal guidance for schools, teachers and even parents.

These difficulties were of course cultural as well as educational, and their cultural dimensions have been so far largely neglected in the critical assessment of the coming of Plowden progressivism. But Plowden both reflected and stimulated a new climate in teacher education in which the study of, for example, children’s literature was earnestly cultivated for both aspiring teachers and their pupils as a potent antidote to the previous supposedly failed models of instructional literacy. This was also pivotal, of course, to the success of any effort to export child-centredness beyond the pre-literate, pre-compulsory confines of the nursery into the later stages of childhood. Hence the education of the ‘whole child’ championed by Plowden in England, and by the so-called 1965 Primary Memorandum in Scotland, would abandon in schools the force-fed language training and decontextualised literary comprehension extracts of the old system in favour of the ‘real books’ and the appreciation of valuable works of literature to which children and young people might be instinctively attracted when shared appropriately with them by their suitably well-read and sincerely ‘child-centred’ teachers. This is a principle that has of course remained absolutely central to mainstream literacy teaching in most democratic education systems for the past 50 years, and the examination of Plowden advanced in this analysis does not seek to overturn it. But just as the 1960s psychological messages to beginning teachers from their formal programmes of study (as well as their surrounding culture) were paradoxical ones, so also the otherwise salutary advocacy to them of high-quality children’s literature was also singularly ambivalent.

Some of the finest books for children and young people that accompanied the Plowden Report off the printing presses of 1967 and 1968 dealt candidly with experiences of childhood and youth which – reflective no doubt of the volatile, contradictory tensions in that same surrounding society – were rarely celebrated for the presentation of ‘whole’ children or of benign, ‘child-centred’ environments. Leon Garfield’s Carnegie-honoured and hugely popular Smith (1967) described a deprived Regency pauper childhood of exploitation and treachery, where childhood is neither special nor valued and where the pursuit of a defining trust (a cornerstone assumption of progressivism) between adults and children is as elusive as the literacy which – when eventually acquired – simultaneously empowers and mortally imperils the central character. In the same vein, the Carnegie Medal Winner of 1967 – and certainly one of the best and most influential children’s books of the last 50 years – Alan Garner’s The Owl Service, presented a dark vision of childhood forever in thrall to the sins and repetition-compulsions of the adult generation, condemned interminably to repeat the same cycle of errors and betrayals across the epochs regardless of environment or circumstance.

The Owl Service also audaciously probed further into the cultural territory in which Plowden’s optimistic account of childhood, and adult-child relations, had pitched its claims. As well as highlighting an almost genetic taint passed across the generations, and destined to pollute indelibly the faltering communications between adults and children, The Owl Service engaged with the experience of ‘youth’ – just at a time, indeed, when this fugitive cultural category was beginning to overtake ‘childhood’ as the primary focus of 1960s educational solicitude and artistic preoccupation. Garner daringly highlights single-parent and blended families stamped by class, regional, linguistic and postcolonial ethnic divisions. The novel also famously unleashes intense sibling and sexual rivalry into the narrative, in forms darkly reminiscent of the forces claimed by the influential analytical psychologists of the time to be pervasive and determinant in the lives of children and young people. There is, of course, a moment of redemption in The Owl Service: a terminal renunciation by one of the central characters, the priggish Roger, which finally rescues the doomed Alison from the vindictive clutches of the past. But it comes at immense cost, with the socially and ethnically excluded Gwyn left both unreconciled and in full possession of the ineradicable knowledge of his family’s myriad ancestral crimes.

Even those children’s books of ’67–’68 – popular in both wider society and the expanding network of teacher training institutions which focused directly on the experience of school, or of simply becoming educated – rarely presented these settings in benevolent, ‘child-centred’ terms. Barry Hines’s 1968 A Kestrel for a Knave – memorably adapted as the Ken Loach film Kes (and thereafter often taught in schools too) – described somber northern English schools marked by casual violence, bullying, extreme physical punishment, routine humiliation and the pervasive alienation of pupils and teachers. Even the teacher with a heart in the novel, Mr Farthing, can only seriously identify with the central character Billy around the nurture of the kestrel – the injured bird with which the boy has bonded standing for the brief moments of flight from his bleak domestic and educational existence. Hines’s contribution in Kes stood with a group of important writers for children reminding the ’60s generation, and the large teacher-influx within it, that many working-class schools in Britain operated in ways far removed from Plowden’s principles, serving children and young people whose lives, learning and identities were far from ‘whole’ or integrated.

The pursuit of such ‘wholeness of being’ marks another text hugely popular with late-’60s readerships and which in the decades since has only accrued increased esteem and recognition. The late Ursula Le Guin’s 1968 A Wizard of Earthsea was a gift to the grammar-school Tolkien generation, flush with the countercultural values that were sustaining the environmental movement, hippiedom, the anti-Vietnam protests and the idealism of the Summer of Love. Earthsea was instantly celebrated for its retrained ecocentrism, its laid-back Zen-style wisdom of naming and knowing and its invocation of alternative styles of archipelagic working and being closer to nature and other living things. Insofar as Earthsea is an intrinsically educational text – concerned with the training and instruction of the boy-mage prodigy Ged at an elite wizard school – all of its conditions at first seem ideal for a child-centred, holistic conception of learning and personal discovery of precisely the type envisaged by Plowden and its related literature. Yet, as we know, Ged’s education takes an unexpectedly malevolent turn, when from his unquenchable curiosity and juvenile individualism (qualities unstintingly celebrated in progressivist literature) he inadvertently unleashes the destructive havoc of a shadow creature – and which he, maimed and incapacitated, must spend the rest of the novel seeking to undo. Earthsea, thereafter, becomes a kind of bildungsroman – a journey of the traumatised Ged into the realms of Earthsea beyond the confines of even this most inclusive, holistic society where he can begin his education again and in an entirely altered and humbled state of mind. We might go so far as to say that Ged needs to become a decentred learner, whose brokenness and injury take the focus away from him and on to the setting and the personalities whose needs he must learn to serve with his impaired magical talents. This shift in perspective is most fully underlined at the climax of the story, where reader and protagonist each discover that the abomination Ged must seek to recapture and subdue is the abject, refractory elements of his own self, sharing his name and his identity:

Alone and clearly, breaking that old silence, Ged spoke the shadow’s name,

And in the same moment the shadow spoke without lips or tongue, saying thesame word: ‘Ged’. And the two voices were one voice.

Alone and clearly – I emphatically do not invoke Earthsea or any other of these novels as a casual repudiation of Plowden or any other investment in child-centredness, yesterday or today. I wish only to suggest here that the social, cultural, and literary ambiguities of 50 years ago, like those of the present time, require that we think through – again and again – the emblematic educational slogans of every era in which we practise our professions, recognising that the resources of art and literature can assist us immeasurably with the task of understanding the inevitable incompleteness and vulnerability of ourselves and of the children and young people in the classrooms before us.