GENERAL ARTICLES

Fear Goes To School

There’ll be no brave new world, in fact no world at all, unless we all help to rid the schoolroom of fear

SELWYN DEWDNEY June 1 1947
GENERAL ARTICLES

Fear Goes To School

There’ll be no brave new world, in fact no world at all, unless we all help to rid the schoolroom of fear

SELWYN DEWDNEY June 1 1947

Fear Goes To School

SELWYN DEWDNEY

WHERE IS the brave new world of technical and social miracles we promised ourselves through the long years of the second world war? Why do we look so furtively into the future today, turning our eyes away from the spectres of atomic and bacterial warfare, mass unemployment and revolution?

Why are we afraid?

Early in the hungry thirties we heard the President of the United States tell his people, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” We know from experience how true those words were, then; why have we done nothing about it?

In my opinion we lack the courage to face the future squarely because all through our education the greatest single motivating force was fear. And fear still goes to school in Canada today.

It is true that we have learned a little. Fear is being used less in our kindergartens and lower grades than formerly. Even in the upper grades an increasing number of teachers have learned to treat children ns potential adults, and have developed the courage to be themselves. But the peak may already have been reached. For, moving in from outside, is the paralyzing pressure of modem society, with its nervous tension, its worship of efficiency and material success, its shrinking from the issues of the day. Our teachers have been neurotic enough. Today they are in danger of becoming more so; and the future happiness of our children lies in the balance.

I o some, especially to teachers whose living and thinking habits have become fixed, this will be anything but obvious. Taxpayers, proud of the handsome new educational plants their money has built, will not be anxious to believe it either. And parents whose children are getting good marks at school will be equally sceptical.

But let’s have a look at a really up-to-date Canadian high school as if we had never been in one before.

We’ll suppose you have a boy called Johnny who goes to this school. He’s 15 and is halfway through his second year (grade 10). Johnny has been at you for a week to attend open house tonight—he’ll get 10 extra term marks if he produces a parent for the occasion. Okay, you’ll go.

“Pretty Good Show”

V^T7TIEN YOU arrive at the school you’re really ▼ ▼ glad you ve come. There’s a snappy show in the assembly hall to warm you up: a girls’ chorus no lesson the stage, a smart, gym display, two songs in French by a mixed choir, and some tap dancing. There are a lot of kids in the audience having a whale of a t ime. In fact the kids are having so much fun t he principal has to quiet them. You like the way he does it; he just stands there quietly, smiling, and in five seconds there isn’t a whisper. Not much fear here.

You can see Johnny is pretty proud of his school. And who wouldn’t be? Monel metal table tops gleaming in the labs, thermostatic temperature control, air conditioning, big shining windows with the blinds all neatly in line halfway down.

And look what the kids can do. Complicated experiments in the chemistry lab; girls turning out batches of hot biscuits, and modelling dresses they’ve made themselves, in the domestic science room. There’s even some of that modem painting in the art room. The teachers are friendlier than they used to be when you went to school, more competent-looking, too. You notice that Johnny a bit leery about you meeting some of his own teachers, but anyway there’s so much to see and many people around that there isn’t time. You talk to Johnny’s home-room teacher and he tells you that Johnny’s doing pretty well in everything but French, which makes you smile because you were the same way yourself. Before you know it it’s all over.

Walking home with Johnny you remark, “That’s what I call a pretty good show.”

“We’ve got a pretty swell school,” agrees Johnny.

Then, just to get a rise out of Johnny, you add, “Too bad it’s just a front.”

That’s where you get your big surprise.

“Dad,” he blurts out, “why does everybody have to put on a front?”

“Why, I guess it’s just human nature,” you answer, knowing it isn’t an answer.

Ordinarily that would stop him. But tonight, maybe because it’s the first time in months you’ve ever done anything together, he just goes ahead as you d asked him to. And you listen because you’ve been through it all yourself, and it makes sense.

“Everybody puts on a front,” Johnny tells us. “In English classes, for instance, you’re studying some fancy poem like “The Lady of Shallot.” Silly stuff that doesn’t mean anything, but if you got up and said that, you’d have your head bitten off, so everybody just pretends he likes it.

It’s all this phony long-hair stuff that gets under your skin the teachers just don’t talk your language. Maybe it’s real for them, but if it is, why don t they let their hair down and make it real for you? Or in study periods, for instance, you’re just looking nowhere in particular, thinking about something, and a teacher comes along and asks you what you’re doing, and you say you’re thinking, and she gives you a detention.

“Can you tie that, a detention for thinking? Maybe you aren’t thinking about your work, maybe you are how does she know? Anyway, it’s the front that matters; as long as it looks as if you’re studying that’s all they seem to care about. Some of them don’t seem to care what you do as long as you keep quiet and don’t chew gum.

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There’ll be no brave new world, in fact no world at all, unless we all help to rid the schoolroom of fear

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“And why are some teachers so hipped on your standing up to answer, and saying ‘Sir,’ every second word? They give you long-winded lectures, on being respectful and polite, but you haven’t any real respect for them because whenever a discussion gets round to" sex, or religion - things that matter —they’re afraid to say what they think. For that matter you’re scared to ask them what they think. That’s the thing that bothers you — everybody puts on a front because they’re all scared of what the other guy thinks. What makes everybody scared?”

You think about that talk you always meant to have with Johnny about the facts of life and never got around to, and you pretend you don’t hear that one.

“It’s a funny thing,” Johnny says, “how you can be scared of a person who can’t really hurt you. Of course, you can be scared to death of being laughed at. That’s what I like about old Jonesy. There was one time for instance when one of the girls made a funny answer and everybody laughed at her. Well, Jonesy swore, right in class. He said the most damnable thing a guy can do to anyone else is to laugh at him when he’s giving an honest answer.

“There’s another thing about Jonesy —he doesn’t try to scare you by saying you won’t pass, or keep you in after four and ram the stuff down your throat. Somehow with Jonesy you get the idea it’s what you do for y ourself that counts. I mean you get to feel that you’re on your own. You just couldn’t put on a front with Jonesy, even if you wanted to.”

That night after Johnny has gone to bed, you and his mother have something to talk about besides the bills.

Just telling her what Johnny told you makes you think: “You know, this front that Johnny talks about has me bothered. It isn’t just at school. It’s right here at home too. We pretend to be better than we are in front of him, and then bawl the daylights out of him for doing what we do when he’s not around. He sees through us just like he sees through his teachers. When he asks embarrassing or involved questions we dodge them. We treat him like a kid and expect him to act like a grownup. No wonder the kid’s scared to be himself with us. Why, we don’t know any more about what’he really thinks or feels than he knows what makes us tick. You put on a front when you go to church, and I put on a front at the office.”

So, there’s the skeleton in the closet. Skeletons are not pretty to look at, and we can protest quite rationally that society is more than a skeleton; but if fear is the basic structure surely the whole body will be affected.

Now let’s look at things through a teacher’s eyes. A teacher faces three problems. The first is discipline, without which a classroom is the last place where anyone can work. The second is how to get students to master the dull but essential details common to every subject. Thirdly, if there is any time left, the student should learn to think out his own values.

The first eye opener for the young teacher is the problem of discipline.

In spite of all his training, when he stands alone before 30 or 40 strange faces for the first time, he gets his first dose of fear. And yet he still wants to \ be brotherly. Afterall,he has only ceased being a student a few months previously, he scarcely even feels like an ] adult.

Forty grinning faces take in the | situation. This is their meat, an adult without the armor of a front. So they take him for a ride and a cruel one. The more earnestly he tries to treat them as he would like to be treated himself the more cruel the ride becomes. Sooner or later he must learn to use what they j have been taught to expect, what his ¡ own experience as a child has made j most familiar to him, the whip of fear. For after all, it is fear that drives him — fear of not being able to hold his job, fear of being laughed at, fear of failure.

Cunning Use of Fear

At this point the reader may well ask - What’s wrong with using a certain amount of fear in bringing up a child? After all, he’s got to get used to it.

It’s a point worth going into. After all, if you want to adjust your child to j society as it is, there is no better teacher than fear. For the child who does not face his fears courageously reacts in one of three ways: he succumbs and learns to be a spiritless drudge who does what he is told, or he compensates by turning into a bully and using fear on others, or he dodges and developes cunning. So fear can produce three types mechanically useful to society: the drudge for routine jobs, the slave driver who bosses the drudges, and the “big success” who schemes his way to the top. Fear, in so far as this is a world of dog eat dog, works.

When we look at our schools it is all too easy to pick out teachers who fit into one of these types. Some teachers achieve discipline by sheer monotony. Perhaps they do the least harm, at least their students are not afraid of them. The bullies love the sound of the word “discipline.” The males bellow and bang heads with books, the females use their tongues.

But the teacher who has learned through fear to use his cunning, smiles quietly. “Discipline?” he asks. “I have no problems in discipline.” He is the artist in the use of fear. He studies his victims and bides his time. Betty is a good-looking girl who doesn’t take him or his subject too seriously. Today she is gazing out of the window, daydreaming the dreams of adolescence.

The silence of industry hovers over the bent heads of the class—all but Betty’s. The teacher’s voice comes gently, from between gently smiling lips under cold shrewd eyes. “Would you like to tell us what you are thinking about, Betty?” He scores a direct hit. Forty grinning faces turn on Betty, her face flames scarlet, and that is all. Except that Betty hates him and his subject for life, and whenever she daydreams, hereafter, is careful to pretend that she is working.

When it comes to the learning process, and teaching the child to think, the enlightened teacher knows that competition is vicious. In the lower grades a child’s report no longer contains his standing in class. But the whole philosophy of North American life stands athwart this movement, and all too many teachers have absorbed it body and soul. As the exceptional child ascends through the grades he is made to feel more and more that the one thing that matters is material success. Driven by fear of failure, lured on by the promise, “There’s always room at the top,” he fights his way up. The competition stiffens. Gone is the leisure to think his way through his personal problems. There’s no time to stop and wonder whether there is anything wrong with the world; the man that gets ahead accepts the world as he finds it. As his experience broadens and 11is responsibilities grow all he can learn from fht/m are the things that will advance his own ambitions. And so, if he is persistent, he reaches the top.

Tragically, it is not until then that the mature man discovers the hideous trick played on the growing child. Inexorably, his habits drive him on, till his stomach or his heart gives out. Tired, frightened, and bewildered, he spends his last days and his accumulated power trying to divert the social trends his own self-centred ambition has helped to make inevitable. We should be in a desperate way indeed if this were the typical successful Canadian; but dare we say the danger is not there?

Are Teachers Different?

And so, even with his brightest student, the teacher who uses fear may fail. However it may be disguised, fear can do nothing hut destroy. Given the moral pressure and the example over a long enough period an intelligent student will develop habits of docility, industry and ambition; and any wellrun school can present a façade of punctual, well-behaved, hard-working students. But se//-discipline, the urge to acquire knowledge or skill for its own sake, and an understanding of himself, his fellows, and their common problems, can never be forced on the student from outside. They must grow from within. Many teachers know this and try desperately to do something about it, but they are almost hopelessly handicapped.

There are other fears that beset teacher’s life, long after he has mastered the problem of discipline. Unless he happens to conform to type congenitally, he is afraid to be himself. When he meets the doctor and bricklayer and insurance man who live on the same street, he cannot forget that he is a teacher, especially in the smaller community where everyone knows that he is one. When he makes new acquaintances he is apt to be apologetic about his occupation. For he remembers his own attitude to teachers as a child.

He remembers thinking of them as race apart, superior to the common run, and yet lacking the humanity of ordinary people. He remembers as child wondering whether the normal activities of the body functioned in the case of teachers. He remembers, too, the discreet enquiries into his social habits that were made when he was hired to teach. He imagines that critical eyes are focused on him whereever he goes. In his first years of teaching he even shies away from his own students when he meets them on the street. He is afraid to be himself, or swings to the opposite extreme and becomes the self-assertive type that loves to preside over meetings of the pseudocultural society. If he has unconventional ideas of his own he knows better than to air them.

For the teacher is afraid of the outside world. All his life he has spent either as a student or a pedagogue within the four walls of a school. He has always led a protected life. ?^nd the older he gets the more he feels the impossibility of ever going into any other kind of work. If he no longer sees eye to eye with the school authorities on matters of policy or curriculum he feels helpless to do anything about it. How could he support his family if he were fired? Already under a heavy nervous load he is all too willing to take on more work and a lower wage rather than endure the extra strain of fighting for an easier existence.

Surely it is inevitable that some of this fear should creep into the teacher’s work. For the outside world judges by results. The parent does not ask what kind of an adult will my child become, but what kind of a job will he be able to get? He wants to know what kind of a front his child will be able to present to the world, not whether or not he has learned to face his problems squarely.

So the teacher concentrates on results. Cover the course. Push them through. These are his teaching watchwords. Tests, examinations, are the measuring stick; and woe to the teacher that falls short.

Here we come to the frustrating impasse in modern education. At the top is the pressure of an increasingly technical world, demanding more and more highly specialized skills and knowledge. From below comes the pressure of parents, increasingly conscious of the strain of school life on their children, echoing the resentment against their own school experience, and demanding less homework, more recreation, fewer exams and tests, and more “practical” subjects. So, increasingly students are coming up from the lower grades knowing less, and less able to meet the tough demands of modern specialization. Increasingly the universities are demanding an adequate background for the strenuous program they have set themselves: producing trained technicians and specialists who will also be capable of thinking and acting creatively for the whole of society. As the vacuum below increases pressure grows from above, till more and more the harassed teacher has to concentrate on the immediate goal of covering the course, and is less and less able to deal with the more fundamental but long-range purpose of teaching his students to think for themselves.

“Why All the Fuss?”

Nor does it help the teacher to have school boards and the public obsessed with the childish idea that teachers can be moral examples to their students by abstaining from moderate smoking and drinking in public places—as if making a hypocrite out of a human being could make him anything but a vicious example for a child.

Or they enquire carefully into his “religious” life as though church attendance automatically produced honesty and courage and understanding. How can teachers lead discussions about things that matter in the classroom when their jobs are at the mercy of religious quacks or moral hobbyists who insist either that their views be propagated, or no views?

When teachers are like sheep how will the children they teach be anything better?

But the reader will want to interrupt here to say, “But these conditions are not peculiar to Canada. Things are much the same in the U. S. and Great Britain, and probably in Europe too. We’re no worse than the others, so why all the fuss?”

It’s a point well taken, because it leads us directly to an extremely pertinent question. Why have the countries of the western world, which have led the world in popular education, produced so many technical miracles—and so many social catastrophes? Why was it that the very nation which led these western nations in modern education also led the world back to barbarism? How could Germany, which gave us the kindergarten, present us also with Buchenwald and Belsen? It is a

pertinent question for Canadians, for our systems of education are derived almost entirely from the original Prussian model.

Whatever the political or economic answer the psychological answer is clear. German education did not produce enough men and women with the honesty, courage and understanding needed to make Prussianism and Nazism impossible for Germans. It did produce thousands, and it was for them that the concentration camp was invented in all its loathsome details.

Let us not forget that our democracy is only safeand real — as long as its citizens can think for themselves. But today, when science is learning new sources of power, we are still powerless to change ourselves. No system of education yet devised has produced more than a handful of individuals who cannot be led by the nose.

What is the solution?

.First we must throw overboard the glib optimism of the age which believes a magic formula can be found that will solve every human problem. There isn’t any magic formula for education. There is nothing but hard work for everybody concerned—and everybody must be concerned. If enough of us are, we can shift the weight of emphasis in education.

To do this we must first recognize, with more than words, the fact that our future is literally in the hands of our teachers. We rightly place a high value on the services of our medical profession and pay them accordingly, though we work them to death in the process and make them wait for their money. We are just beginning to realize that mental health is as vital to happiness as physical, but we ignore the fact that teachers play a decisive role in shaping the mental health of the next generation. Every teacher should be a trained psychotherapist. We should recognize this; demand it; and pay for it.

If humanity is to survive as something more than a mechanized ant heap we need adult men and women who can see-—and have the courage to look—beyond the ends of their noses. We need them not merely as leaders but as people who can lead themselves; we need them not by the thousands but by the millions. We already have the technical equipment—our school plants. We have thousands of teachers who would gladly be honest and courageous and understanding enough to nourish these qualities in our children if we supported them.

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Above all we who are parents must root out the fear and falseness in our own lives and homes, and replace it with understanding. We must reveal ourselves to our children as we are; weak, erring men and women who nevertheless are strong because we no longer pretend, and understanding because the gap between us and our children has disappeared. Then we can turn to our teachers and say: “It’s up to you. Do the best you can with these kids of ours.” But let’s not add in our zeal, “If you don’t, we’ll fire you.”

There will be no miracles of course. Fear, out of practical necessity, will motivate many teachers and many children for many years to come. But this is the direction we must take in education if there is to be any future worth living toward; and we must take it, unmistakably, now.

For in my opinion fear still goes to school in Canada today; and as long as fear is the child’s chief motive each new generation of adults will be as fearridden as the last.

Some readers will protest that this article gives a gloomy and incomplete picture of Canadian education. But surely they do not believe that dwelling on our virtues is the best service we can render our children. And if we viewed the total field of education, including, to mention a few, the influence of the comic strips, the movies, and the radio, the picture might be even gloomier.

This is no time for self-congratulation over little victories that have been won here and there. It is a time for every parent and every teacher and every responsible citizen to do some heavy private thinking about the values by which they live, even if it means skipping the club tonight. And it is time we did some of our private thinking aloud even at the cost of losing a good business contact, or antagonizing a boss.

We’ve been afraid long enough.

Will it be enough in the world of tomorrow, with its fabulous possibilities for good or for evil, if our children have no more courage, no more wisdom, than ourselves?