By David Gribble
Book of the week in the Times Educational Supplement
‘Books such as this test fundamental beliefs. Do we belong to the libertarian idealistic left ... or the Gradgrind disciplinarian right?
... Gribble has spent the past 10 years or so seeking out examples worldwide to prove that the Summerhill approach would work for disadvantaged youngsters.’
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About the book
Book of the week in the Times Educational Supplement, January 21, 2005
Review by Tim Brighouse
David Gribble is probably foremost expert on current non-authoritarian education internationally. In Real Education, published in1998, he looked at 18 schools in different countries and contexts and in its sequel, Lifelines, he writes about 4 more ‘self-governing’ projects for the young. His specific purpose in the latter is to discover whether ‘freedom, trust, warmth and love’ are a luxury or a necessity. Do such approaches work only for well-heeled liberal kids? Can poor children only be dragged out of ignorance and misery by force? Do we spare the rod and spoil the (working-class) child? In order to find an answer to this vastly important question, David and his wife, Lynette, visited, lived among and interviewed participants at Doctor Pedro Albizu Campos Puerto Rican High School in Chicago, Moo Baan Dek in Thailand and Butterflies in Delhi as well as researching and writing about David Wills’ Barns Hostel in Scotland set up for ‘unbilletable’ boys during the second world war. The resulting book is a fascinating and moving account. Reading Lifelines we find ourselves (if we are middle-class westerners) in an alien, almost unimaginable world of child deprivation and exploitation; a world of street gangs and violence – adult on child, child on child; a world of abuse, hunger, abandonment and homelessness; a world of runaways and orphans; a world where the police are corrupt child-beaters and the rest of the ‘authorities’ are indifferent or just as bad; a world where a ten-year- old child is expected to provide for his family and may well be beaten if he doesn’t. In short, we have reached the underside of capitalism, the world ill-divided, the way we live now at its most disgusting. What do we find? Something many aspiring educators would not predict: the seeds of freedom, trust, warmth and love taking root in cracks in the hard concrete, in fissures and flaws in the system - and flowering, that’s what we find. The success of children’s freedom, that’s what we find. David Gribble sets it down first hand with painstaking objectivity, mostly in the voices of the students, teachers and graduates of these amazing examples of child-resilience and also in excellent photographs of their world. The Barns Hostel developed out of David Wills’ own journey from ‘basher’ to Quaker; the Puerto Rican High School from the struggle of Puerto Rican immigrants to claim their rights, culture and language; Moo Baan Dek from the unexpected amalgam of Buddhism and A S Neill’s ideas developed to care for children from the slums of Bangkok. Butterflies (for me the most inspiring section of the book) was founded by Rita Panicker, who established a network of street educators to offer classes on a totally voluntary basis to child street workers (usually rag-pickers) in Delhi. But the organisation’s success depends just as much on the élan of the street children themselves with their ‘Bal Sabha’ (democratic meeting) and their wall newspaper, ‘Bal Mazdoor ki Awaz’, with their solidarity and creativity, their eagerness to learn and their determination to be free. Two important principles emerge from this book. Firstly, David Gribble’s secularisation of Wills’ belief that, even if it didn’t work (but he shows it does) respect and freedom are just as much the inalienable human rights of children as of adults. When we see how many human rights these children have been denied we cannot fail to understand the moral. Secondly, as Gribble puts it ‘For the rich, such education is suitable; for the poor, it is essential.’ Imagine these children, coerced and bullied all their lives, being coerced to learn on top of all that and you see the nonsense of compulsory education. Lifelines is essential ammunition for anyone who needs to counter the argument, so disastrously fashionable these days, that non-authoritarian education is a disproven Sixties experiment of the liberal left. It is also a valuable lesson to those, themselves on the left, who, entangled in the politics of state versus private, or the virtues of various methodologies of teaching reading or maths, fail to see that freedom and self-government for all children is the only revolution that deserves to work and really will work.