Alex Bloom

Alex Bloom: part 3 : Freedom in Community

Michael Fielding

This is the last of three extracts from a draft chapter for a forthcoming book, Education, Childhood and Anarchism: Talking Colin Ward, edited by Catherine Burke and Ken Jones, to be published by Routledge later this year. Alex Bloom Parts 1 and 2, were in the last two postings and can still be read on this site.

Deliberative democracy

One of the very remarkable teachers who worked with Alex Bloom at St. George's in the early 1950s was James Porter, later to be a key member of the James Committee on the future of teacher education and Director of the Commonwealth Institute. In one of many conversations we had about the school and Alex Bloom's work I remember him saying to me with some passion that, in the decade following the end of the Second World War, there was a strong sense in which children were seen as precious. Precious was used here, not in a dilettante sense, but in a doubly serious sense that pointed, firstly, towards children's inalienable, unique significance: children were individuals in their own right, not as Fascism would have them believe, of only derivative, organic value. Secondly, when James said to me more than once in conversation, 'Michael, you need to understand that we only just made it. We only just made it,' he was reminding me of the monumental nature of the struggle for freedom exemplified in the bomb ruins of Stepney that surrounded the school. Children were thus precious in a way that spoke of the precarious and traumatic nature of the struggle that had so recently engulfed the world. Education in and for democracy mattered profoundly. Democracy as a way of living and learning together was the bedrock on which education and schooling must be founded. Hence Bloom's commitment to the creation of a 'consciously democratic community' (Bloom 1948: 121). For him,

'It is a vital part of our belief that the modus vivendi claims paramount importance. We are convinced that not only must the overall school pattern - the democratic way of living - precede all planning, but that it proclaims the main purpose of education in a democracy. Our aim is that children should learn to live creatively, not for themselves alone, but also for their community.' (Bloom 1949, 170).

For him, lessons in moral education, or, in his own words 'giving instruction in ethics' is a 'fatal mistake.' (Bloom 1952, 136). Since education was, in his view, 'fundamentally a matter of relationships,' his abiding concern was 'with the practice of right human relations' since '(h)e is educated who is able to recognise relationships between things and to experience just relationships with persons.' (Ibid). Education was thus a way of being and living in the world, and 'since this ars vivendi cannot be taught, it must be learnt. And it can be learnt only through and by actual living. Through living one learns to live. School therefore should be a place where such learning is not merely possible but is made possible' (Ibid).

One of the most remarkable features of St. George-in-the-East was the highly sophisticated development of joint student and staff involvement on a weekly basis, in the decision-making, ensuing action, and communal accountability that shaped the aspirations and actions of the school as a living democratic community. As with the issue of creative curriculum enquiry, I would refer readers interested in a fuller exploration of the school as a deliberative democracy to Bloom's own publications (especially Bloom, 1952, 1953), to the work of James Hemming (Hemming 1951) one-time governor of the school, internationally renowned moral educator and President of the British Humanist Association, and to my own initial forays in this aspect of the school's work (Fielding 2005). One of the most interesting features was Bloom's development of the whole-school meeting or what he called the School Council. Here, the whole school celebrated its work, reflected on its achievements and its unfulfilled aspirations, and reaffirmed its a commitments to democracy as the pre-eminent way of living and learning together as an inclusive, highly diverse community. Here, students and staff, each as significant persons and citizens in their own right, challenged each other, warmed to each other, laughed with each other, renewed and reaffirmed democracy as a way of living and learning together.

Liberty as democratic fellowship

At the heart of Bloom's work was a particular view of human flourishing which brings together the two concepts of negative and positive liberty into a unifying whole. This third concept of liberty I call democratic fellowship. It transcends the sometimes exclusive boundaries that circumscribe its membership to a patrician elite or an enlightened cadre and rejects the self-serving solidarities of sectional fraternity in educational institutions lambasted by Colin Ward (Ward 1995, 45). It is an expansive, inclusive form of unity guided by democracy's constitutive principles of freedom and equality within the context of care, or, in its broadest sense, of love. Unremittingly intolerant of the lazy dereliction of laissez-faire and the cold indifference of formal equality, democratic fellowship provides the existential grounding of educational and political principle in ways which help us to judge the reality of both intention and realisation.

In his writing and in his daily practice Bloom points firmly towards the affirmation of an open, shared humanity as both the end and the means, of education in and for democracy. These assumptions thread their way through all his work and inform the short statement - 'Our Pattern' - to which he refers a number of times in his writing and which provided an evolving statement of aspiration and practice that St. George's teachers placed at the heart of their discussions and their work. In essence this argues for the fundamentally communal nature of individuality and for the companion necessity for communities to encourage the freedom and creativity on which they depend for their legitimacy.

'The child must feel that ... he does count ... and that the school community is worthwhile. ... Perhaps the crux of things, now, lies in the realisation of the individuality of each child with all that this implies of individual treatment, individual approach, individual work.' (Bloom nd)

Again and again Bloom argues for two basic requirements: firstly, the removal of fear as a pre-eminently corrosive impediment to negative liberty; secondly, the absolute necessity of affirmation and significance through the authenticity and energy of one's contribution as exemplifications of positive liberty. Taken together they point to the deeper necessity of 'friendship, security, and the recognition of each child's worth.' (Bloom 1952, 136-7); in other words to a lived understanding of shared humanity, to 'a binding together (religare) of human beings within a community for a moral purpose' (Ibid, 137). This third requirement, this third concept of liberty, is fundamental, since without it the other two have no realistic chance of success. It provides the most important of the 'conditions of freedom' to which I referred earlier. As William Morris has it in The Dream of John Ball, 'fellowship is life and lack of fellowship is death: and the deeds that ye do upon the earth, it is for fellowship's sake that ye do them' (Morris 1968).

'You have to fight for freedom all the way - parents and teachers, and everyone else.' A.S.Neill on Alex Bloom (Anon 1954, 14)

Colin Ward brings his obituary of Alex Bloom to a close by reflecting on the significance of his work and the possibility or otherwise of it enabling others to extend and deepen the kind of freedoms, mutualities and possibilities which they both worked for throughout their lives. He begins by observing that 'People often seem to demand from progressive teachers more than can be expected of them, like those critics of A.S. Neill who triumphantly declare that none of his former pupils has turned out to be a genius' (Ward 1955) and then goes on to recount a conversation in which he put it to Bloom that his work had been described as 'no more than a drop in the ocean'. Bloom's response was interesting, saying that 'he hoped it would be more like a pebble in a pond - a sharp impact in a particular spot, sending out a series of ripples over a much wider area.' (Ibid). The difference in terminology is instructive and reminds me of the remarkable poem, 'The Clod and the Pebble' by William Blake, another unwavering champion of the human spirit. In both instances images of acquiescence, loss of identity, stasis and passive absorption are supplanted by the language of assertion, affirmation, movement and visible change.

Understanding how Alex Bloom managed to do what he did, how he lived and created a quite different reality to the dominant norms of authoritarian schooling in the class-ridden, still largely deferential society of post-war England, is almost as important as reclaiming the narrative this chapter, sympathetically, admiringly, but inevitably briefly, seeks to retell. If we are to continue 'the work of bringing freedom to education' (Ward 1955) we need to attend to it with renewed imagination and commitment. It is part of a longer story of struggle to which both Alex Bloom and Colin Ward so bravely, compassionately and beautifully contributed and one which other contributors to this volume in Colin Ward's memory tell with the same conviction and hope.

 

Acknowledgements

I dedicate this chapter to the memories of Alex Bloom and Colin Ward and also to James Porter and his wife Dymphna, great champions of St. George-in-the-East. In gratitude and admiration for 'bringing freedom to education.'

References

Anon (1954) They All Share the School Prizes East London Advertiser Friday July 23, 14,15

Anon (1955) 'Obituary: Mr A.A. Bloom' Times 24th September, 9

Bloom, A. (1941) Equality of Opportunity - for What? London Head Teachers' Association Bulletin No.16, November, 130,132

Bloom, A. (1948) Notes on a School Community New Era 29 (6), 120-121

Bloom, A. (1949) Compete or Co-operate? New Era 30 (8), 170-172

Bloom, A. (1952) Learning Through Living, in M. Alderton Pink (ed) Moral Foundations of Citizenship London, London University Press, 135-143

Bloom, A. (1953) Self-Government, Study and Choice at a Secondary Modern School New Era 34 (9), 174-177

Bloom, A. (undated) Our Pattern

Fielding, M. (2005) Alex Bloom, Pioneer of Radical State Education Forum 47 (2&3), 119-134

Morris, W. (1968)[1886/87] The Dream of John Ball in Three Works by William Morris London: Lawrence& Wishart

Ward, C. (1955) Alex Bloom: a teacher of freedom Freedom 1st October, 14

Ward, C. (1995) Talking Schools London, Freedom Press


Extracts from a draft chapter for a forthcoming book, Education, Childhood and Anarchism: Talking Colin Ward, edited by Catherine Burke and Ken Jones, to be published by Routledge on October 31st this year.

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