Why is it time to use the centenary of women’s votes to transform our schools into communities fit for a democratic society based on equality? - National Democracy Week - July 2018

 

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          Celebrating the Centenary of the Suffragist Pilgrimage 1913 and Millicent Fawcett, at Summerhill School with six local primary schools. 

 

 

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This is the next in our series of articles for National Democracy Week 2018. Michael Newman reflects on why it is time to use the centenary of women’s votes to transform our schools into communities fit for a democratic society based on equality. For more articles in the National Democracy Week series, see our campaign page here. We’ll be publishing new articles every day this week, so keep a look out for more takes on this important topic.

 

 

  

With the centenary of women’s right to vote gaining justifiable news and cultural coverage, with a statue of Millicent Fawcett to be unveiled in Parliament, numerous events, celebrations and documentaries, it is interesting how this embedding of the history of the struggle for women’s rights into our culture and education is in stark contrast to the struggle for the rights of the child.


This is particularly worrying as we need to ask ourselves, with the ongoing struggle for women’s dignity and the right not to be treated as a sexual object, can women ever be equal and free if our girls are educated in a culture at odds with rights, and with the power of authority rather than the dignity and liberty of the individual.


Indeed, these were the questions we find being explored, and models of teaching being created to develop answers, from over one hundred years ago, from the start of the culture and politics of fighting for women’s rights, and the rights of the poor and powerless. Mary Wollstonecraft and her husband, William Godwin, wrote about the need to raise children within a culture of rights, liberty and equality. Their daughter, Mary, wrote a novel, for which we are celebrating the bicentenary, that portrays the creation of a human with no rights as a new being, no name, no school, no family, no identity, no health care, no protection, no community… no children’s rights, ‘Frankenstein’.


When we attend these celebrations, when we listen to the speeches, and read the articles, and see the exhibitions, let us remember the women who struggled for the rights of girls, seeing these as the foundations of their rights, and as teachers struggled to ‘liberate the child in the school’. They created a community of practitioners, researchers, politicians, artists, inspired by Maria Montessori, Harriet Finley Johnson and Lillian de Lisa, and called it New Ideals in Education. From 1914 they met every year, influencing each other’s practice, supporting innovation, and developing the concept of the modern school, the school created for a democratic society based on human rights and equality.


As audience members let us ask the speakers, ‘what about the childhood culture of our girls, and about the heroines who struggled for their rights?’. As speakers and writers let us find out what the heroines wrote, said and did in terms of their image of what schools should be like to ‘liberate their daughters’, and share this with our audience.


Let us not just celebrate the adult rights and heroines as if they are somehow disconnected from that of the children. Let us not just be satisfied with teaching resources on the suffragists and suffragettes struggles for adult rights, or on them as role models for how adults should act, and simply use the history to inspire our children as the next generation of activists and citizens, who as adults will continue the struggle.


If so, we continue the vacuum that is the lack of culture and history of girl’s rights, of the historical and ongoing struggle to ‘liberate our children’, which as adults we so comfortably seem to overlook, ignore or simply create a false history that rationalises our prejudices. Let us use this opportunity to renew our history, to inspire our children through including their history, their rights, their citizenship as part of our culture, a culture of the ongoing development of democracy.


As part of this history let us include the centenary of the 1918 H.A.L. Fisher Continuation Education Act and the aspirations to create learning and teaching that reflects and promotes a world of equality, democracy and justice. This is not for the sake of competing in a world market, or liberating the working class through exam achievement, but for developing a culture, a culture that will be based on us all ‘singing once more…’


For, as expressed in Board of Education Pamphlet No 43, HMSO 1921 by the HM Inspector of schools, Mr J.D. Wilson, written in 1918, “‘If art which is now sick is to live and not die, it must in the future be of the people, for the people, by the people; it must understand all and be understood by all.’ These are the words of a dreamer, our greatest of modern times, William Morris, artist and craftsman. If, not an isolated prophet, but a whole generation could dream such dreams they would come true, for what a people desires in its heart that its hand will fashion. The humanistic teacher in the continuation school stands between the prophet and the people, and can make them dream his dream if he have the will.”


We are so used to splitting down knowledge, skills and processes, and even values and emotions, into impressive lists of component parts and then seeing them as delivered and measured by specific unique techniques. It makes for great pictograms and TED presentations, as well as innovative products and marketing opportunities. Methods, projects that develop creative thinking, philosophy, teamwork, emotional development, resilience, play, mental health, co-operation, participation, gardening, from farm to plate, restorative justice, cultural awareness, volunteering, citizenship, British values, decision-making, identity… They are great at allowing the creation of multiple charities and annually repeated headlines and adding appropriate cross curricular initiatives and pilot projects or out of school activities, but when do we discuss, see or promote the integrity of them all.


This pamphlet, that tells us it is not an authoritative voice but one to stimulate debate and discussion, starts with the destructive results of the industrial revolution on culture and the need for schools to bring together culture, industry and citizenship. Written in the year of the Education Act it presents the need not just to build schools out of bricks, but out of a new attitude to teaching and learning to involve us all in culture. This would be the first time all adolescents would be involved in schooling.


Let’s leave the words with its author, Mr J.D. Wilson, concluding the pamphlet:
“Culture means ‘cultivation’, cultivation of the common soil of the human spirit, and the flower and fruit which spring there-from grow naturally from that soil, with roots that go deep down into the heart of man. All the great cultures of the past have been popular in origin…


“Such a culture will assuredly come. The human spirit has been thrown off balance by the magnitude and rapidity of that material transformation of the globe which we call the Industrial Revolution; but it will regain its tranquillity and begin to sing once more. When it does so its songs are likely to be in dialect form. For the new culture will be both international in outlook and intensely local in basis. There will, in fact, be many cultures within the bosom of the nation, cultures whose frontiers will be determined partly by geographical, partly industrial conditions. The sons of Cotton, with the songs of Edwin Waugh and greater Lancashire poets, as yet unborn, on their lips, will reach out hands of fellowship to the dark men in the Southern States, in Africa and in India. Leeds will have its Cloth-Hall rivalling the shattered glory of Ypres, in which tournaments of song will be held, while every Yorkshire township will possess its local theatre, in which dialect plays will be performed and where the people will watch the conditions of their own life and work in the mirror of dramatic art. The form of the miner will be immortalised in bronze and stone, the colours of the forge and blast-furnace on a hundred canvases. Even music itself may catch something of the rhythm of the engine’s throb and the clangour of machinery. ‘If art which is now sick is to live and not die, it must in the future be of the people, for the people, by the people; it must understand all and be understood by all.’ These are the words of a dreamer, our greatest of modern times, William Morris, artist and craftsman. If, not an isolated prophet, but a whole generation could dream such dreams they would come true, for what a people desires in its heart that its hand will fashion. The humanistic teacher in the continuation school stands between the prophet and the people, and can make them dream his dream if he have the will. In any case let him write up over the door of his class-room: Nihil humani a me alienum puto. And if the students ask what the words mean, let him reply, ‘They mean that we must try to make poetry out of the spinning-mules.’ “


P118-119, ‘Humanism in the Continuation School’, by Mr J.D. Wilson, HMI, Board of Education Pamphlet No 43, HMSO 1921 (prepared in 1918).


The image is worth repeating and for linking it to the Director of the British Museum, when asked recently by the author of this article about children’s culture and the Museum, stated it was a place of creating poetry, of objects and images creating responses that creatively join them together…


“And if the students ask what the words mean, let him reply, ‘They mean that we must try to make poetry out of the spinning-mules.’”

 

Michael Newman

 

Michael worked full-time at A.S.Neill's Summerhill School for 16 years, and now campaign for children's rights through a social enterprise, New Ideals in Education. Find out more at www.newidealsineducation.co.uk and www.facebook.com/NewIdealsinEducation/

 

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