An Open Letter to the “Elementary” Teacher
Thirty-five years ago I ventured to address an Open Letter to my ” Elementary” colleagues. At that time, old age prospects were dreary; pensions were yet in a foggy offing. The deadening system of “Payment by results” had only been recently lifted; official bullying from Whitehall and local “Boards” meekly borne and too often crudely reproduced by the heads of the “Three Departments” for their unhappy staffs. The drab degradation of the earlier days of “Elementary” education for all concerned (often accentuated in rural districts by clerical tyranny) has yet to be adequately portrayed.
Yes, there has been some amelioration since those bad old days; there has been a marked change for instance, in the relation between teacher and pupil—the free use of Christian name for the latter is significant. But let us not lay the flattering unction to our souls, that the humane teachers and their unions have been the main instrument in salutary changes. Relative amelioration in all directions have followed profound movements rooted in economic soil. The heyday of a lusty, brutal Industrial Revolution period had perforce to give way to a milder, a more cunning, exploitation of the worker, lest the goose that laid the golden egg perish from sheer inanition. A lessening of the awful gap that yawned between inspectors and school staff, improvement in financial position, a more generous curriculum were found by the more farseeing members of the dominant class to be necessary if the rival and formidable Robber Gang across the German Ocean were to be adequately met in the world market. A tamely contented army of “elementaries” was as essential as the “theirs but to do and die” red-coats; one would automatically follow the other. The Iron Duke, reviewing recruits who all stood a first-rate chance of military flogging in a near future, dryly remarked: “I don’t know what the enemy will think of these troops. They frighten me.” . . . It paid the hirers of cannon-fodder to abolish flogging (Bishops protesting), to introduce reforms which produced a Kipling Tommy for the sorry ruffian who stormed Badajos and stood up to Napoleon at Waterloo. It pays the exploiters of the working class (of whom we are members, sweet colleagues) to assist in organising a “loyal” flag-wagging, religious Education Service.
In 1906, Lord Rosebery was referring to the members of our craft as “Captains and Guides of the Democracy.” A young man of that year wrote in the Socialist Standard : “The declared reason for the existence of the National Union of Teachers is a furtherance of the interests of the child. Is there not a danger that it may become the happy hunting ground of the eloquent Party man in a hurry to round his own life into a success?” Unfortunately, long intervening years have effected little to make the query out of date. Captains arid guides help to push their paid servants into first-rate political jobs, Macnamara yesterday— some persistent heckler to-day?
The outlook of captains and guides to-day gives small hope of an awakening to stark realities which will face the worker after the war. To exemplify: —
The London Teacher, organ of the Big Unit of the mother Union, only recently, on the occasion of the Tercentenary of the English translation of the Bible, indited enthusiastic and uninformed blurbs on our “precious heritage.” Nine-tenths of the Book is, like the ill-gotten grapes of Mark Twain’s Innocents, “quietly but firmly dropped” by high dignitaries of a National Church which is now putting across by broadcast a devitalised and gutless hash which should infuriate the Roman Catholics no less than the genuine Hot Gospeller. I have always understood that the official policy of the N.U.T. is Secular Education. At the present time, trading on the inevitable upsurge of superstition which has always accompanied threat of dire calamity, a determined effort is being made to insinuate definite “Christian” teaching into the elementary schools . . . if only the Soviet Union would substitute a National Day of Prayer for Big Tanks, Kiev might yet be saved!
London County Council strongly appeal to the big body of “indifferents” to aid in stemming the new clerical offensive. Vigilance is required, as an event clearly showed when “agreed syllabuses” were in the air. The facts are these: The Head Teachers’ Association, unknown to the rank and file, were approached by a Roman Catholic member of the L.C.C. with a view to gaining a measure of support for the scheme. A general meeting passed certain resolutions (it was a hard and bitter fight), whose main intent was to nip the pretty little plot in the bud. Instructions were given to the chairman to forward resolutions to specified persons. The vigilance of a member discovered that the resolutions as passed had been emasculated by the chairman, who pleaded necessity for not offending any religious susceptibilities in high quarters.
As an example of clerical intolerance, and of Union feebleness (or worse), I invite you to ponder an incident which happened during this war.
The Folkestone Education Authority (dominated by Church interests) dismissed a young teacher who had gained exemption from military service on C.O. grounds. He asked his “Captain” for a testimonial which might enable him to continue his job under another authority. The testimonial writer went out of his way to state that “the teacher was a C.O. but as far as he knew, no attempt had been made to influence pupils.” The young man appealed to his Union (the National Association of Schoolmasters, engaged in the noble work, as you are probably aware, of preventing a woman from teaching in boys’ schools, incidentally fighting “equal pay” tooth and nail). As might have been expected, the affair was shilly-shallied out of existence.
In 1913, said: “What a bad bargain we are making in allowing children not properly furnished physically to attend schools which are set up at great expense to the country; such children are not being trained into useful citizens and useful industrial machines.” Here you have it, plain and plump. Go to it, comrades of the Chalk and Duster Brigade. Help to manufacture the pliable tool, for great will be his reward of Pie in the Sky when the not too Silver Bowl is broken.
Make no mistake. The Socialist Party of Great Britain is keenly interested in Education. It is at the present juncture practically an educational body. Propagandist and educationist are substantially parallel terms in the long run. Superior methods in instruction, in pedagogical technique, are recognised and welcomed by the Party, but in the realm of education for life, we insist upon the vital necessity of giving every scope for free thought; we regard dogmatic teaching, whether it touch the divinity of a shadowy Carpenter, or whether it embraces fulsome and unthinking homage to a Hitler, a Stalin, or a Winston Churchill, as a thing which menaces the indispensable values held by “Democrats,” let alone Socialists.
Noble educational aspirations cannot be implemented within Capitalism. Who can gainsay the penetration of much that Wordsworth wrote on the subject in the Third Book of “The Prelude,” where he saw
“Blind Authority beating with his staff
The Child that might have led him “?
Let me end on a sober note:
I put it to my colleagues that it is meet, right, and their bounden duty as teachers to make an effort to grasp the essentials of all big movements. Why will you continue to be cheated into the belief that the various varieties of State Capitalism advocated by Labour Leaders, by “Communists” (from the grip of the O.G.P.U. good Lord deliver us!) by fluffy and well-meaning I.L.P.-ers, worshipping at the shrine of Saint Hardie, that all these are Socialism. Study our “eight points.” Ponder them. Challenge them. We will reply.
With kind regards to all evacuated colleagues who are finding it desperately hard to keep the financial end up, and in the fervent hope that a second appeal of a more than ever convinced member of the S.P.G.B. will prove more fruitful than the first appeal of the young enthusiast of 1906,
I am, yours for the Child,