|Issue 2 - February 1972|
|Think Free Or Else|
on a Teacher Training College
Should a student at Bede ever express dissatisfaction with the college he will be told that he entered of his own free will after having read the prospectus. The onus is placed on the student; he can leave the college if he doesn't like it. Most stay and the authorities feel justified in acting on the premise that students stay because they wish to learn according to what the college considers to be necessary academic requirements for a potential teacher.
Now in the first place I would doubt that anything so strenuous as an exercise of free will is involved in making the decision to come to Bede. To say that students want to learn anything at all, let alone the rubbish presented by Bede College academics, is being a bit too idealistic in many cases. Reasons why students come to Bede are many and varied. A lot of students accept from the start that academic life at Bede is a game and they attend the college because if they play the game to the satisfaction of the authorities life can be good; others merely come because they want a licence to teach.
Academic requirements are not great. Students study their main subject plus Education Theory, Basic English, Maths, RI, PE, Health Education, and Curriculum Studies. In Education Theory the student is merely required to absorb a number of theories about children's needs, the learning process, the importance of particular subjects in the curriculum, etc and must be able to regurgitate these theories when asked; it's just like conditioning rats. This sterile attitude predominates throughout all departments. Understandably in such a 'learning situation' it is the comedians and clowns amongst the staff who are popular with the students; not those who show some sensitivity.
If you can get on the same wavelength as the tutors it isn't hard to con them into believing that you're a super-student. The first assignment I had to write when I entered Bede came from the PE Department:
"'It is one of the prime tasks of physical education to see that the organic state of the body is kept in good repair and to enhance its functional efficiency' - Critically examine this statement and discuss its validity".
I didn't object to doing the occasional press-up but this sort of thing was a bit rich. I wrote something to the effect that no doubt the advice PE experts gave us was very good but if we took this advice we'' be very bored. I also suggested that yoga was more beneficial than physical jerks.
My essay was dealt with very harshly and given bottom marks. "Facts are what we want my boy!"
So the next time when I was asked to write an essay entitled - "To what extent do games satisfy the needs of Primary School children?", I decided to bring matters to a head by copying a page from a book (pp109/110, Education through Art by Herbert Read). It would be so obvious that this page, which literally bristled with the names of anthropologists, psychologists, philosophers etc, was not my own work and the tutor would be forced to accuse me of copying. I would have replied by telling him that he'd asked for facts and that's what I'd given him. The only difference between this essay and the first one I'd written was that this one was full of other people's opinions (I couldn't understand any of them) without one of my own. There was nothing which could be called a fact. I got a top mark for the essay with the comment: "High quality of thought set down and I'm sure you must understand it." Laugh? I thought I'd never stop!
I have no doubt that in theory the college would accept that one of the main aims of education is to free the individual: "Ignorance keeps us in fetters." Etc. In practice there is a total lack of any meaningful questioning. You must give evidence of having read the "recommended books" but don't you ever dare express any naked prejudices or opinions of your own. Everything is a matter of fact and I'm not exaggerating. Members of staff are totally impartial, totally non-committed to any political, social or emotional viewpoint to a degree which is exasperating. Their efforts at innovation consist of nothing more than attempts to sweeten the pill; trying to make their unattractive, sterile ideas seem meaningful.
They do believe in the good old tradition of liberal debate providing that it isn't going to spread into the dimension where ideas are actually applied. You would think that there would be lively and informed debate of current educational issues: 'the little red school-book', the uproar over a recent sex education film - not a chance. One issue which should be at the top of the list of priorities is the whole question of whether or not education should be made compulsory. The Freedom Road programme, entitled 'Education for What?', shown on BBC TV on Jan 2nd, which dealt exclusively with this question could provide lively debate for months. But such questions are only introduced to the students as throw-aways and the answers left blowing in the wind, as the young Bobby Dylan would say.
In such a hierarchical institution as a teacher training college the outlook of those in authority is obviously of prime importance. Let me give you the latest example of the attitudes of the principal of Bede College, known fondly as KGC, to democracy and free speech.
A reporter from the Durham Advertiser, wanting information for an article on Bede College, was given an interview by the principal; several other college authorities were present. After being given the soft patter by KGC the reporter asked one or two questions regarding a recent scandal, the publication in the college of an anonymous magazine called VOICE. He got no reply to these questions but after the interview KGC rang the editor of the Advertiser and asked if he could see a draft of the article. Christ only knows what he found to complain about because on past performance this reporter is the last person likely to shake the foundations of the Establishment. But KGC did complain; in fact he redrafted the article and asked the editor to publish this redraft. Apparently we are now to be treated to a very boring defence of the disciplinary structure of Bede written by KGC. One of the strongest criticisms he made of VOICE was that it was anonymous; there will be no name attached to KGC's redraft of the Advertiser's article. The reporter has disowned the article and no doubt KGC will remain as modest and elusive as ever.
What in fact did VOICE say? Not very much; it was a pathetic cry in the wilderness. It was not the specific criticisms it made which shook the authorities but the mere fact that it had ever been published at all. Reaction centred around a very uncomplimentary remark made about a member of staff. Personally I think the most significant item published in VOICE was the following extract from the minutes of a meeting of the Qualifications Committee of the Academic Board, held on 28th May 1971. Obviously we were never meant to see this document:
In an article which Mike Brewer and myself wrote in ISM, the college magazine, we had this to say about the attitude scale:
"Now although we admit that an objective study of punctuality, participation, attendance etc may reveal the extent to which a student is not committed to his work, it takes no account of WHY this state should arise Is the only reason for silence in discussion groups one of poor attitudes to work? Similarly with lack of enthusiasm, poor attendance and the other meaningless trivia which have been suggested as essential to the assessment of students. Has anyone ever been to a lecture course which completely fails to stimulate, deserves not at all to command the presence of students, has so little depth of interest that discussion in groups is not only futile but trivial and boring "
Four students were discovered to have produced Voice. Two of them were suspended for a term, one of them subsequently withdrew from the college, a third, who was a University student, was recommended for expulsion, a fourth, who had already left the college, was told never to ask Bede College for references when applying for teaching posts.
Several months later Bede students held a referendum on 3 motions of the college authorities to VOICE. The following was the result of the first motion:
Motion: "That the JCR demands that the college authorities rescind the disciplinary action taken against the 4 students involved in VOICE.
This shows an obvious defeat of the motion but what is amazing is the number of dissident voices being raised in a college which is notoriously apathetic or reactionary in its attitudes.
What is the origin of the powers which the college uses in such a heavy handed manner? For this we turn to section 26 of the INSTRUMENT OF GOVERNMENT of the college:
You might be imagining that I risk expulsion myself by writing this article. No danger; I've already been expelled, at the end of last term with only two terms left to complete the course. Still, one thing about the lads on the Board of Governors, they're so polite when they stick the knife in you; they didn't tell me I was expelled, they said: "Mr Hill; we must ask you to withdraw".