Monday, 22 December 2014

TIMES CHANGE

Things change with them
And the more they change...
The more they remain the same

REVIEW

I have just received a very welcome early Christmas present from an old friend in the Antipodes, a copy of the recently published second edition of The Little Red Schoolbook. This was a double surprise because, I have to admit, I had not realised that this book had been republished, indeed I had almost forgotten that it ever had. But oh, the strange thoughts and associations that came flooding back when I held this seemingly innocuous little book in my hands.

The Little Red Schoolbook was written by Danish schoolteachers Søren Hansen and Jasper Jensen. It was translated into English and published in the United Kingdom in 1971. It was very much a book of its time, a time of revolutionary resistance, student uprising, revolution theology, radical this and radical that (I even saw a magazine called Radical Accountant), kiddies' lib and every sort of alternative education, the Permissive Society, 1968... etc., etc. Behind this all, of course, loomed Mao Tse Tung's very real Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.

This does not mean that it was all Freedom Hall in the West, far from it, as it was also a time of stuffy, determined opposition to change by established regimes, and often heavy-handed oppression of things new, even in the most liberal democracies of the day. It was a time of hotly debated conflict and change – of 'revolution'.

The allusion if this book's title, obvious to everyone at the time, was to the 'little red book' of Mao Tse Tung. When The Little Red Schoolbook began to be distributed outside school gates, there was political and media uproar around the world (well, around the 'free world'). The Pope condemned the book as immoral, the Australian Government nearly toppled, and in the UK all copies were seized and destroyed as being obscene (a decision upheld by the European Court of Human Rights). This was only one of a whole range of repressive actions against free speech – and free thinking – of that era.

The nature and direction of some of the would-be radicalism on display, with its superficial progressivism sometimes masking deeper reactionary positions, was not altogether to my own taste at the time, but my sympathies were wholly on the side of liberation and against the grim forces of oppression and uniformity.

I myself never saw a copy of the first edition of The Little Red School Book, though one could hardly not hear of it at the time. A subsequent, censored edition was a toothless tiger, and but this notorious book soon faded from the collective public memory.

Society got on with the very real processes of social and cultural change that echoed and even exceeded the very positions for which this book had been so condemned.

The present (pun intended)

It has been a strange, dissonant experience reading back and forward through my little gift. What on Earth would anyone under say 40 to 50 find to take exception to in here here? True, some of the stuff on drugs might still appear a little advanced to some, but what is remarkable now about discussing such things publicly? The stuff on sex seems downright mainstream but today's standards. Critical comments of curriculum, school organisation are run of the mill. The book's attitude to teachers and parents as victims of the system in their own right is endearingly benign. The dismissal of fixed intelligence is such old hack... and so on and so on. The whole publication seems so... well, innocent.

At one level this leaves the second edition of the book (nicely annotated to help the modern reader where words, institutions etc have changed) as a nice piece of nostalgia for oldies – and for everyone else, an interesting historical benchmark to indicate just how much society has changed over the last couple of generations.

The struggle continues
(traditional revolutionary slogan

The publishers conclude their introduction to the second edition –
We hope this republication of three original text helps in a small way to draw attention to this largely forgotten book, which we feel in many ways is very relevant today.

In a new Foreword, surviving author Søren Hansen adds –
More sophisticated methods to discipline and standardise children have been carefully been put in place. Children have been placed in a competitive arena. Education is no longer a personal process of forming a child into an adult. Now it is examination, classification, a standardised curriculum, intellectualisation, league tables etc. Gone are the creative subjects. It is 'Beat you buddy'. The pupils are the losers.
 Unfortunately, I still believe this book is needed.
The same may of course be said about the situation of their teachers, and their parents – and the rest of us. Old oppressions and shibboleths may have passed into history, only to be replaced by new unquestionable orthodoxies guarded and policed in new, insidious ways.

At another level, then, the 'revolution' still awaits...

Reference

Hansen, S., Jensen, J. (2014) The Little Red Schoolbook (2nd edn), London, Pinter & Martin


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