Saturday, 6 March 2010

On first looking into Makarenko's Road to Life

A pedagogic poem

A week or so ago I saw something rather nice, Susie Mallett's enthusiastic posting on having just read Makarenko's Road to Life. Oh that I should have heard such a thing more often over the last twenty-odd years!

I am reminded of Keats's thoughts on first looking into Chapman's Homer. It seems to suit Susie's response rather well.

 Much have I travell'd in the realms of gold,
 And many goodly states and kingdoms seen

Judging from her blog, she has most certainly done this.

Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-browed Homer ruled as his demesne;

And if those western islands are places where CE is practised, and you read Homer as András Pető, then she has been there, seen that and done it too

So here's the beef –

Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;

For Chapman, read Makarenko

Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star'd at the Pacific —

The Pacific? Think of that huge unending expanse of developmental and educational ideas of a certain kind, in which Conductive Education is but a tiny drop – as nothing compared with the mighty whole than has been waiting out there for exploration for aeons, open to any bold souls that dare sail out and look.

                              — and all his men
 Look'd at each other with a wild surmise

The uncomprehending moety within Conductive Education (and, to be fair) the greater, even more uncomprehending and antipathetic masses of most of the established professions and services)

Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

Perhaps in her case the watershed came with reading the three volumes of Road to Life. She would not have been the first to stand upon this particular Darien (though perhaps one of the first in Conductive Education) and seen the world as never before. And of course there there are other paths to commanding theoretical heights that open up the ocean-broad vista of a whole new world .

To invoke a quite different literary source, she seemed about ready to throw her arms into the air, cry Thalatta, thalatta **, charge on down to the seashore, and plunge into this new sea – for now she knows for sure that she has been on the right road all along, and that she is going to make it.

Makarenko and Conductive Education

In the West, if Makarenko is thought of at all, he can come across as a rather cold and austere figure. This is not how Susie Mallett read him. A prominent example of his approach in operation outside the USSR was the the transposition of his work with unsocialised and delinquent and young people to the Hungarian People's Republic, at Fót Children's Town (Fóti Gyermekváros) for orphaned and deprived or maltreated children, run on explicitly Makarenoist lines. Here are extracts from a report in the Times Educational Supplement of 1964, from an unnamed 'special correspondent':
  • Mere facts and figures can give no idea of its heart-warming atmosphere. The whole place radiates happiness...
  • ... it is one of those utopian communities that one reads about but never expects to see because they sound too good to be true. Therapy to restore self-confidence is attempted not so much by clinical treatment as by the creation of a genuinely family atmosphere... The stress on group organisation, as the principal was at some pains to emphasise, does not mean that individuality is in any way suppressed...
  • No one paid me the slightest notice, Everyone was intent on minding his own business...
  • With so much going on it was impossible for an outsider to fathom the careful organisation that lay behind it all. Enough to say that from start to finish I never saw a glum face.
Quoting this in 1986 (p.167), I remarked –

One might also see parallels between aspects of Conductive Education and the work of more recent Soviet writers in the Makarenkoist tradition, e.g. V. A Sukhomlinskii (1977). In the West, however, discussion of the group as an aspect of Conductive Education, has not involved the developed pedagogic approaches elaborated by such authors.

I still hasn't, another spectacularly wasted opportunity over the last twenty-plus years.

Notes and references

Malett, S. (2010) Looking at things from a different point of view, Conductor, 2 March
Makarenko, A. S. (various editions, in many languages) Road to Life (A Pedagogic Poem)

Keats, J. (1816) On first looking into Chapman's Homer

Special correspondent (1964) Fót Children's Town: the Makarenko approach, Times Educational Supplement, 27 November, p. 974

Sutton, A. (1986) Problems of theory,. In P. Cottam and A. Sutton eds) (1996) Conductive Education: a system for overcoming motor disorders, London, Croom Helm, pp.153-177

Xenophon  Anabasis

* The words 'The sea, the sea' come from Book II of Xenophon's Anabasis. Actually, when I first met them some fifty-odd years ago they were expressed as Thalassa, thalassa but now seem more usually stated in the Attic dialect, as Thalatta, thalatta. I don't know why.

** There are also of course many tempting, smooth-looking paths along the way, that peter out into narrow theoretical ravines, leading nowhere.


  1. Thank you for this wonderful read.

    You have put into words so much more eloquently how I feel when I am reassured that I am on the right path.

    And it really is with great excitement that I travel further. I am not one for throwing my arms in the air but I will be travelling with enthusiasm and “Begeisterung” as always.

    As you can see on my posting today, I have been given reassurance once again this weekend that the path that I have chosen to follow is the right one.

    In my posting about reading Makarenko I mentioned briefly that I once worked in a setting which was very similar to the Gorky Colony. Not with “orphaned and deprived or maltreated children” as you mentioned in the Hungarian town, but with young adults with physical and mental disabilities.
    I worked here for three years in a setting where group work was the norm, smiling faces were the norm, busy-ness was the norm and working together, helping each other and looking after the individuals were also the norm.

    Happiness radiated from this place that I left only with the hope that after my year off travelling the world I would be offered a place to study as a conductor at the Petö Institute. That is eventually what happened and I still hold the dream of once again working, this time as a conductor as well as teacher and art therapist, “a la Makarenko/Gorky”!

    Just as a “PS”, I just received a mail from "Kenny’s Bookshop" in Ireland, telling me that my order of another three Makarenko/ Gorky books are wending their way to my doorstep. More about that after a good read during the Easter hols!

  2. I could not find your link to Xenophon, Anabasis. I think it is because the brackets are missing!

    It seems again that brackets are not liked on blogs.
    I found this one with brackets around Xenophon, is it the one you were linking too?

    Here on my comment and in the preview the URL is shown with the numbers 28 and 29, and percentage signs where the brackets should be!! I expect it is going to be published like this too.

    It all doesn't matter, it was worth hunting for.

    Thank you again for lots of interesting Saturday afternoon reading.

  3. It's all Greek to me, how the Interent works.

    I don't know what went wrong. The bit in brackets didn't look right to me either!

    Go to Wikipedia and look up Xenophon (Anabasis). Or do it via Google.

    BTW The URLs have gone funny, most of them anyway, on your own latest posting too.