Thursday, 4 October 2007

Conductive Education

Why me, why now, why this topic?

Three years ago today, on my sixty-fifth birthday, I retired from my job of Director of the Foundation for Conductive Education, a position That I had held since 1986, with explicit resolve that I would be simultaneously retiring from the everyday fray of the conductive movement. I would watch, wait and study, maintaining one toe-hold in practice through lecturing to student-conductors and supervising third-year dissertations at the National Institute of Conductive Education. I would give advice to individuals and institutions but only if asked. And I would prepare materials towards possible future publication. Like others before me I found it exceedingly disconcerting to let go but I have been lucky in that the Foundation eased the blow by retaining my services for part of the week for training and other academic activities. Over three years I began gradually to rediscover the advantages of not being full-time employed, able therefore to work at the pace that tasks demand and have therefore been able to nourish my persisting obsession with Conductive Education. I have now sufficiently ‘slowed down’ to look around and re-adopt some of the independent orientation of more that twenty years ago, from before I took the difficult decision to create an institution around my aspirations. It feels time to re-enter the conductive fray in ways appropriate to the changing times.

One way is through publishing this Blog, informal jottings around Conductive Education to air issues that, though often raised in conversation, are rarely if ever mentioned in print.

So much for the personal.

The times they are a-changing

The times of course change continuously. From time to time, though, they are subject to noticeable qualitative shift, as one stage, one period, gives way to the next, in which things will go rather differently from how they went before.

The last three years have been a good time to be somewhat distanced from the everyday hurly-burly of the conductive world. I cannot imagine a more dysfunctional and rent body of individuals than what I once termed the ‘conductive community’ (Snake Pit has at times seemed a better term than community). Back in the mid-eighties I had played a role in inaugurating the internationalisation of Conductive Education and what became the international stage in the development of this system. By the start of the present century, however, it was becoming clear to all but those determined not to see that this international stage had almost run its course. It was entering a paradoxical phase in which the continuance of old forms and expectations in Conductive Education was appearing more and more unlikely – though there was far from any consensus about where what one might do instead. I was glad that my personal circumstances have removed me from responsibility for running even part of the show as fundamental assumptions became increasingly untenable or indefensible.

I shall return to the periodisation of conductive history at a later point.

Myth and reality

Conductive Education has always depended on more than its fair share of myth. The international stage of its development has created new ones. When Conductive Education first broke out of Hungary in the late eighties and the early nineties, almost everyone involved, would-be users of the system around the world, conductors and even those looking in from ‘outside’, would look back constantly to how things had were recalled as being arranged in Hungary. More particularly, this almost always referred to how things were said to have been done at the Pető Institute in Budapest. Realistic or idealised there was an image of a sort of Golden Age, a classical period. This persisted over the course of the nineties and beyond even though many of those holding most strongly to this position have also asserted that things at the Pető Institute have been increasingly not what they once were. The late eighties and early nineties saw considerable documentation by outsiders of the work at the Pető Institute, more than ever before of since, but this was usually descriptive rather than analytic. Anyway, such documentation was rarely referred to by exponents of a Golden Age that was promulgated as myth not history) though perhaps its force was all the greater for this).

Whatever its validity, this way of construing what was happening in Conductive Education coloured the perceptions, goals and activities of families (the chief driving force behind the worldwide spread of Conductive Education), conductors and researchers alike. In this light the process of internationalisation, manifest chiefly through the opening of small, parent-led centres and other kinds of service-delivery, and made possible by the ever-growing and ever more confident and flexible diaspora of the conductive workforce, was inevitably seen as somehow decedent, second-rate a fall from grace. The conductive movement went largely on its way like Keats’s Joy, ‘his finger ever at his lips bidding adieu’, looking backwards not forwards and without clear long-term objective nor even necessarily looking where it was going.

To a considerable degree, however, the structure under which Conductive Education had been developed and taught at the old State Institute (subsequently the Pető Institute) were not the product of a predetermined plan for optimalised social implementation of András Pető's personal inspiration. Rather, just like has happened subsequently, in different ways because of different social contexts around the world, Conductive Education developed institutionally in Budapest, as a hard-fought accommodation to the economic and political realities of its then social context.. From 1962 this accommodations was made as an institution subject to the values and vagaries of the Ministry of Education of the Hungarian People’s Republic (though latterly of course as a ‘foundation’ within the new and very different Republic of Hungary – but that is another story). There is a nice phrase in German, Pető pur, (in contrast to Pető lite – the analogy is with Coke), the implication being that there is only one proper way to ‘do Conductive Education’. Pető pur is what German families saw when they first went to the Pető Institute and returned home with the intention of reproducing what they had seen by founding the Fortschritt movement.

Hungarian or what?

Here is another rarely examined question, indeed for most people something that never arises as a question at all, .the identification of Conductive Education with Hungarian-ness.

In the early days of establishing Conductive Education in the United Kingdom Conductive Education’s many vigorous opponents often asserted that the system was inextricably linked with Hungarian culture, with Communism, and even with the Hungarian language. Any attempt to transplant it to a new national context would therefore inevitably fail. Hungarian conductors would never be able to work in the UK, with British children and adults and within British structures. Correspondingly, British people would never manage to train as conductors. It is hard to imagine now but statements were bandied about publicly that – never mind their risibility in the light of subsequent experience and the transformation of Europe – would be regarded as overtly racist and liable to prosecution in today’s world.

I have to admit to bearing some personal responsibility for this focus.. In 1985 the book Conductive Education, edited by the late and much missed Philippa Cottam and myself, set its examination of Conductive Education very clearly within the system’s then sole national context. It went on to propose that Conductive Education would be best transplanted to a new national context ‘in as Hungarian a way as possible’ (p. 212) so as not to fall prey to the errors of previous attempts to adapt the system before understanding it. The book’s cover design comprised three bold stripes of red, white and green (the Hungarian national colours) and after the Foundation for Conductive Education came into being a year later I adopted this motif as the new charity’s corporate colours.

Ah well, first in, first out. It is perhaps timely now publicly to the pose the taboo question ‘What is so Hungarian about Conductive Education?’ Perhaps ‘taboo’ is a bit too strong a word. Perhaps, precisely because existing common assumptions are so strong, the question is simply never raised. Yes, of course Conductive Education ‘came from Hungary’ in the sense that it was in Hungary that we first found it (and there’s an ethnocentric statement if ever there was one!). But look at the system from the perspective of the history of ideas, from the perspective of the disappearance of the old Cold War division of Europe that split Central Europe into the ‘East’ and the ‘West’, and from the new perspective of Conductive Education as a world-wide phenomenon. Consider András Pető’s personal and intellectual roots in German/Austrian Jewry, and consider Mária Hári’s enormous task and achievement of recasting his heritage to meet official requirements within the national educational system of a People’s Republic. Now perhaps one can begin to restate the question.

Take away what seem likely to have been formative influences upon András Peto’s practice and the understanding during his German-speaking years – that is his professional training in Heilkunst and the ideas of Martin Buber. Take away something that framed all official thinking during the years in which Mária Hári laboured to ensure the institutional survival of Pető’s Institute under the auspices of the Ministry of Education – the all-pervasive and elaborate conceptual structure of Soviet psycho-pedagogy and upbringing. Then ask again, what was left that was particularly ‘Hungarian’ in Conductive Education, other of course than the people who did it, as it developed in Hungary.


  1. Dear Readers! I thought to answer one of the raised facts. Please post your comment if you think I was wrong about it.

    The main objective of conductive education is not only to develop the intellectual, social, emotional skills of students with disabilities but also to provide them with opportunities to develop their imperfect physical skills individually, in pairs, small and large groups using a special analyzed cognitive motor learning system. Students in addition to intellectual skills also need to equip themselves with special skills like how to overcome the complexity of problems due to their disability. In order to achieve this, new concept, strategy and methodology had to be introduced in the teaching motor disabled people. In the old (traditional) paradigm teachers were considered as the sole source of information but not as a facilitator who can help to overcome imperfect skills as well. This modern holistic educational approach, conductive education, was not known before Andras Peto in the world. AP and after him Maria Hari and numerous conductors developed CE in Budapest, Hungry with Hungarian patients to an unambiguously unique special upbringing system which has had probably pedagogically common components with the “socialist education” idea but it was not the same and it was to meet with special education requirements what was not known in both sides of the “Iron Wall”. In fact, the unique is in CE the special approach to disabled. Why is it Hungarian? It is simple, because it was developed there. I may it could feel not very fair to others but our world recognize things like this. Szogeczki Laszlo

  2. Andrew
    My first time i knew about Conductive Education here in Brazil, i always had in my mind go to Hungary. But, in the end I went to Birmingham with my twins. Once I was there i still had the feeling to go to the point - i mean, the nest.
    One day i came to you trying to explaind this feeling and asking your suggestion. And you answered me more or less like this:

    -- Conductive Education is like the telephone. I do not know anymore where it was developed. It exists and works, everywhere. No matter where it came from, it is globalized now. --

    And it is. I agree deeply. Now trying to offer conductive education for more children in my home town - Florianopolis-SC- Brazil - i feel like this. We are doing conductive education with a conductor, folowing the Peto paths, but probably we are doing in the brazilian `way` somehow. It is more then internacional , it is global - with all the characteristics that being global is.

    Thanks for having the opportunity to have news from conductive education by this blog. Congratulations.

    Leticia Kuerten