Tuesday, 6 May 2008

Sing, Muse…

… or leave Conductive Education seriously undersold

Educational practice is hard to describe. An observer inevitably selects, directing attention to this feature or that according to what seems personally significant or interesting or expected. Moreover, the process has a temporal dimension. What is observed at one moment of a process moves towards the attainment of long-term goals. Statistics can confirm the spoken or written word, still photographs can capture an image and documentary film or video provide a powerful impression. Combine all the available media, however, and one may still fail to capture the essence of an educational process. Perhaps the art of education is conveyed only by a work of imagination.

Unfortunately, conductive education still awaits its Makarenko….

I wrote the above words (Sutton, 1986, p.27 ) nearly twenty-five years ago (so long ago, indeed, that I still spelled Conductive Education without initial capitals!). They were the opening words to a long book chapter in which I tried to bring together everything available outside Hungary in the attempt to describe Conductive Education. It is fair to say that most of this (my own contributions included) was dry, factual stuff. No wonder, for this book was being prepared for an academic publisher, with an academic/professional readership in mind.

The book was soon overtaken by events. It was published early in 1986. From 1 April that year onwards it was caught up the public furore that followed the BBC’s two television features Standing up for Joe (1986) and To Hungary with Love (1987) and perhaps rather more copies were bought by parents than by professionals and academics. They were all in for a dry read! All the same, the book ran to, I think, four reprints, and the publishers were gearing up for another when Philippa Cottam and I, the editors, pulled the plug on it. We were beginning to realise how inadequately it represented Conductive Education and how misleading had been so much of the earlier reporting and analysis by Western commentators and would-be emulators. We had produced the first (and in English, the last) academic overview of Conductive Education and had succeeded in perpetrating some serious misunderstandings. In the world as it should the proper thing to have done then would be to wait a little while, crystallise our criticism of what we had already done, elaborate our new understanding and then create a radically revised second edition or, better still, a completely new book. In the event, Philippa died, terribly young, and I was progressively swallowed up into the struggle to sustain Conductive Education in practice against the forces ranged against it.

Two accounts with feeling

It was not therefore this book but Standing up for Joe and its sequel To Hungary with Love that proved pivotal in thrusting Conductive Education into public consciousness. No subsequent television coverage of Conductive Education, and certainly no written account, has had anything like the same emotional and political impact. Both films were billed as documentaries. Looking back, they were heavily personal documents, strongly dependent upon the emotional commitment of the production team and perhaps better described as semi-documentary in nature. As statements of Conductive Education both were flawed but as films, at quite another level, they were brilliant. Ann Paul, the producer, and Michael Dean who wrote and narrated the script, brought more than factual reportage to the task: they brought their understanding and their creative imagination.

Art or science?

Much of the factual error in that book, not least in my own chapter quoted above, lives on, further compounded in the ‘technical literature’ that has accumulated over the years, especially in the English and German languages. Horror of horrors, it now clutters the brochures and websites of Conductive Education centres and one even sees and hears real, live conductors, who should know better, trotting it out in the attempt to explain Conductive Education to others.

Forgive me then for my part in helping pass on the dry, mechanistic, loveless ‘principles of the Conductive Education’, however unwittingly I did so and however much since then I have tried to expiate my sin. Dry, mechanistic and loveless accounts of practice do seem to strike a chord out there, and what I have tried to do to supplement this since then and what I am going to say now are not really acceptable to modern professional ideology and what passes as academe in the field of motor disorder.

Before going further, however, I have to insist that I am not denying here in any way the absolute necessity for the technical understanding and development of conductive practice. Indeed, the themes that I touch on below should all also be subject of cool, scientific analysis. Supposed scientists who say that such phenomena cannot be studied ‘scientifically’ say no more than that their science and its methodology fall hopelessly short of the task in hand and perhaps also that they themselves are simply scientific wimps.

Art and science

Simple. They are not mutually exclusive. Conductive pedagogy has to be both (‘Love is not enough here. It must be an intelligent love.’ – Mária Hári, speaking to camera on Standing up for Joe).

My message is a simple one. It is a message that many within Conductive Education, conductors, service-users, and some others too, know full well – and express often enough privately. It is just that conductive pedagogy and upbringing are concerned fundamentally with creating the human essence, involving centrally, among other things, emotions, hopes, values, love, faith etc, etc, not just within individuals but in people’s relationships with others and in the whole social nexus of which they are a part.

Enough said, it’s self-evident, we all know that, don’t we? Real pedagogy means both art and science – look in a good dictionary if you do not believe me. But do we have the vocabulary, the methodologies, the confidence to express and communicate this in public? So far, apparently we do not.

Which arts?

Any and all of them.

The last two postings in Conductive Education World (on 1 and 3 May 2008) touched upon graphic art and poetry as means to enhance the sense of the conductive experience (perhaps some of its essence too). Yes, painting/drawing and song/verse are used extensively in everyday conductive practice but relatively little effort over the years has gone into describing, analysing and communicating how they contribute to the whole and the messages of Conductive Education itself. And what about other ‘arts’, music, dance, theatre, they all happen regularly in conductive groups, where is their ‘literature’? And where is literature itself, not just verse but also prose – novels, short stories, essays, biographies?

Where are the liberal arts, history, philosophy? Why does Conductive Education allow itself to sit so unprotestingly in the cage of the natural and social sciences? Why does a system that so frequently (and usually meaninglessly) invoke the word ‘holistic’ to describe its own workings adopt such a reductionist view of how it should itself be described, analysed and communicated.

Why, where, how? I know, people have enough to get on with as it is in their daily lives and there are demands enough already upon their time from their practical work. Maybe this is explanation enough, or maybe there are deeper reasons and this is just excuse. No matter either way, Conductive Education is not being successfully communicated by those who ‘know’ and twenty-five years on it remains widely and seriously misunderstood.

And as a result, it is being seriously misunderstood and undersold.


Sutton, A. (1986) The Practice. In P. J. Cottam and A. Sutton (eds) Conductive Education: a system for overcoming motor disorders. London: Croom Helm, pp. 27-86

Philippa Cottam

One of the brightest young speech therapists of her generation, who died of breast cancer in 1990) She was thirty-two years old and had just born her son. Published posthumously were her brief critical notes on the so-called ‘principles’ that she herself had so enthusiastically (and fruitlessly) followed in her own venture into attempting a conductive practice in the mid-eighties:

Cottam, P. (1994) Inspired by Conductive Education: a note on the development of Ester Cotton’s principles, The Conductor, vol. 5, nos 3-4, pp. 50-54

‘Sing Muse…’

The opening words of the Prologue to Homer’s Iliad.


Anton Sergeovich Makarenko (1888-1939) Soviet pedagogue and would-be literary figure whose apparently auto-biographical account of his own pedagogic practice owed much to his hope of emulating his literary hero, Maksim Gorkii. Perhaps because of this his books were immensely influential in the educational systems of the Soviet Union and other countries in the Socialist camp (including of course, Hungary). His classic Road to Life, even though a prose work, bore the subtitle A pedagogic poem. Translations are available in umpteen languages, including English:

Makarenko. A. S. (1951) Road to Life: a pedagogic poem. Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House.

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