THE UNBOWED HEAD:
the life and work of R F MACKENZIE
UNIVERSITY OF DUNDEE
Institute for Education and Lifelong Learning
Saturday, November 14th, 1998
PRESENTATION BY PETER MURPHY
Earlier this year I made the story of R F Mackenzie the subject of talks I gave to the Probus Clubs in Carnoustie and Monifieth. I was astonished on each occasion that I did this by the way in which both audience were captivated by the Mackenzie story and stung into active debate about educational issues - I only hope that I can employ a similar alchemy today in front of no less a mixed audience, though emanating from a wider geographical area., an audience that well represents RF's family, friends and former colleagues, but sadly bereft of some of the luminaries that supported him over the years - Bob Bell, for instance, of the Open University, who is in Finland just now, and Paul Foot, the radical journalist, who claims in his letter of apology that his family won't let him travel this far north!
I was at pains in setting the scene for my talk to the Probus Clubs to let them have a flavour of what it was like back in 1974 - especially in Aberdeen - of how people reacted to Mackenzie's dismissal from his post as Head at Summerhill Academy and equally how my own thinking, my own career, was dramatically influenced by my having come into contact with him when I was PT of English at Summerhill Academy in the late sixties, early seventies. And I tried to do that by taking them back to 1974 and reminding them of events that took place that year, such as the Miners' Strike that brought down the Heath government, Watergate in America, the disappearance of Lord Lucan, petrol going up to an astonishing 50p a gallon, Sir Alf Ramsey being dismissed as England team manager, that gave that year its special flavour. And then I related to them how my own experiences as Head Teacher at Logie Secondary School in Dundee, commonly known as the Pen or the Penitentiary (or Colditz) brought home to me in stark terms the cancer at the heart of Scottish education that Mackenzie wanted to expose and eradicate - the senseless drilling and regimentation of children, the exposure to flagrant and excessive use of the belt and verbal castigation, the curbing of their spirit, the stunting of their imagination, the stigmatising of their personalities - being seen in most teachers' eyes as "no-hopers" and "no-gooders"- and the subjection of the vast majority of the pupils to the rituals of a system thrilled to certification by exams - Logie, the school I became Head Teacher of in late 1971, dramatically encapsulated all that Mackenzie fought tooth and nail during his professional life to bring an end to. I summed up the view of Mackenzie that the Aberdeen man-in-the-street would have had of him the day he was sacked in the following satirical poem that was published in the TES (Scotland) not long afterwards, written in the dialect of a native Aberdonian:
An Aberdonian's Farewell to RF Mackenzie (1974)
Whit's that? They've gi'en him the sack?
Nae afore time! Gi'es mair o' yer crack!
Nae man deserved better tae get the shuv......
Gangin' aboot sayin' skweels are places for luv!
Whit next? A' they young anes need nooadays
Is a gweed skelp...... nane o' yer sympathy an' praise,
An' sic like trash. A'body kens whit skweels are for....
Yer there tae learn an' dae whit ye're telt,
Nane o' this speakin' back....that deserves the belt!
Teachers hae enough tae dae in the classroom,
Withoot fowk haverin' oan aboot the impendin' doom
O' Scottish education near deid frae a glut o' exams....
Whaur wid oor lads o' pairts, oor Jeanies an' Tams
Be, withoot their 'O' Grades an' Highers as weel?
Na,na,oor kids dinna want a holiday camp,they want a skweel.
Ach weel,maybe things '11 quieten doon noo in the Lang Stracht,
Noo that mannie wi' the daft notions 's been sacked!
To understand Mackenzie; to determine his place in our thinking, as teachers, academics, politicians, as ordinary human beings, we need to know where he came from and what made him come to hold the views that he did; we need to look at what he did in his life-time, assess the impact that he made and, finally, see what relevance his work and what he stood for has for us now as we square up to the millennium; and, in a Scottish context, the political ramifications of the establishment of a Scottish Parliament.
As a "lad o' pairts", Mackenzie followed in the tradition of other writers such as John R Allan and Lewis Grassic Gibbon in using the rural background of that part of Scotland with its distinctive culture, as a back-cloth against which to set out their own vision of life. Mackenzie, in a Search for Scotland and in his many feature articles for both The Scotsman and the Glasgow Herald over the years, found constant inspiration in the stories that were part and parcel of the language and lore of the North East. In this article he wrote for the Glasgow Herald in February 1954, for instance, he poses the question, "Is there in the North East a stronger inclination than in other parts of Scotland to enter into the spirit of the past and to understand it by translating the records of the past into the idiom and familiar background of the present?" And he answers the question by telling the following story.
- "Over 25 years ago one summer afternoon a Sunday school teacher in Aberdeenshire was telling his class about the journey of Joseph's ten brothers from Canaan to Egypt to buy corn. It was hardly surprising, the teacher said, that for all these years his brothers didn't know Joseph. But how was it that Joseph knew his brothers?
It was a difficult question, but one pupil shot his hand up at once, with the eagerness of a child who has suddenly understood. He said, Joseph would have seen the name on the cairts!"
For that youngster, the gaps in the background of the story that the Bible does not give, had been filled in by his own imagination. Jacob and Joseph and Pharaoh were real people, as real as the Aberdeenshire farmers he knew. There was Jacob with a pretty big place down in Shechem; it must have been a big farm because he had all his sons working for him. Joseph had struck out for himself and was doing well as manager of an even bigger farm, owned by a man called Pharaoh. Jacob had told his sons that they would have to go to Pharaoh's farm; it was the only place in the countryside where you could get corn.......... when they got to Egypt they had been well done to. They had loused and stabled their horses and gone into supper. All this unbeknown to Joseph. Joseph, maybe, had been coming up the close in the gloaming when he saw the strange carts. He went across to see whose carts they might be, and there, on a bright plate on the front of each, he read: Jacob and Sons, Mains of Shechem, Dothan."
From his father, the stationmaster at Wartle, in the heart of Aberdeenshire, he learned, in particular, to question the validity of the accepted way of doing things; why was it, for instance, that every rural community seemed to be dominated by the triumvirate of the Laird, the Dominie and the Minister? Had they some God-given right to hold such sway over the rest of the community? Similarly, was the sound but stodgy education he had received at the local schools and later at Robert Gordon's College (where he was dux) all that it was cracked up to be? And what about the intrinsic value of the Honours English course he had done (at considerable expense to his parents) at Aberdeen University? This is how he puts it in retrospect in his memoir of these years:
- Even today I have difficulty in describing how I felt as a University student from a working class home. The educational landscape was indistinct as if I were seeing it through a fogged-up railway carriage window. An admission of the naivety of what I felt may help to clean the window. I was aware of my father's qualities; but then, I thought, if he is, as I believe, why is he content to remain a village stationmaster? The current cultural belief was that such people rose, like cream, to the top The University never repudiated that view.I wanted to know what the University was for, but it wouldn't say.
Is the University about giving glittering prizes to those with sharp swords or giving wisdom to ordinary folk? But it was left vague, so that working class folk in Aberdeenshire should continue to believe that the University offered the bread of life to any of the people in the hinterland who sought it. All the University offered, however, was the cultural galshichs of an acquisitive society.
But little of that was clear the day we graduated. The usual greetings was sometimes followed by the query: "What does it feel like to be an M.A.?" It was partly humorous, but there was in it a hankering after magic. We replied, "It's no different." What wisdom the University failed to give us we would have to seek for ourselves.
This is, in fact, what Mackenzie proceeded to do - he actively set out to seek out wisdom for himself: first of all, by touring Europe on a bicycle along with his close friend, Hunter Diack, in 1932-33 and seeing for himself the insidious advance of fascism in Italy and Nazi-ism in Germany and the political unrest in the Balkans. This cycle tour formed the core of the book Road Fortune that Mackenzie and Diack wrote, describing their adventures, and was eventually published by MacMillan in 1935. The two young graduates showed a maturity well beyond their years in assiduously recording the highlights of their journey by using their powers of observation to convey the physical features of the countryside they were passing through and the character of its people. Mackenzie, in particular, had, by the end of the cycle tour, realised from what he had seen that stirring and terrible events were about to unfold in Europe. He remarks in his memoire of that time how he felt a sense of destiny engulf him in being there as a writer to record the way in which such events would impinge on the lives of ordinary people caught up in it all. "I want to set down something of this, something about the men and women I have known, and the events, known or guessed at, that were going on at the backs of their minds."
Mackenzie felt compelled in the thirties, then, not to settle down and get a job as a teacher that his parents, particularly his mother, wanted him to do; but instead to wander about the continent, especially in Germany, taking on tutoring jobs to keep himself in money and acting as a sort of unofficial foreign correspondent for the Aberdeen Press and Journal to which he sent back a whole series of articles on Nazi Germany in the middle of the 1930s. In between he also found time to write articles for the North East Review written by a group of Left Wing intellectuals - the forerunner of the present-day Aberdeen Leopard magazine - no longer, perhaps, so Left Wing, but reflecting the couthier aspects of the life of folk in the North East of Scotland.
It was also in France during the cycle tour that Mackenzie and Diack encountered a cult figure of the time, HG Wells, at his holiday home at Grasse in the south of France. Wells had already made a significant impact intellectually upon Mackenzie through his Outline of History. Wells, an amateur historian, had the knack of putting history into a perspective that made it comprehensible to the human mind, "I was amazed (confessed Mackenzie in his memoirs) and then delighted at the chapters on Caesar and Napoleon. Wells was saying, "I'm a man - they were not more. Let's have a look at them. These were the words of emancipation. They were the keys that fitted the locks with which my school and University education had enclosed me in a prison of ideas. Wells said about his early life that he felt that Oliver Goldsmith held his hand. I felt the same indebtedness to Wells."
From this early realisation how history could be perceived as a living entity that had a deep relevance to our perceptions of our own time on earth, Mackenzie developed an encyclopedic knowledge of the way in which both town and countryside had been shaped by previous generations and by earlier civilisations going back to Roman times. This insight into the human condition was reinforced by the impact that the outbreak of the Second World War had on his personal life. The death of his father in 1940 and a family move from Insch into Aberdeen brought Mackenzie back from his wanderings on the continent. He was called up for active service and served in the RAF as a navigator until 1945. The training he had to undergo to become a navigator took him to Florida in the USA and then to South Africa which opened his eyes for the first time to apartheid and to the great similarity that existed between the Presbyterianism of the people of Scotland and the close-knit religious and political exclusiveness of the Afrikaaners. But it was the melting pot of the citizen army that made-up the bulk of the British armed forces in the Second World War that most profoundly affected Mackenzie. In his war diaries and in the memoir he later reconstructed of the time, he marvels at the way in which ordinary working class recruits could master the most intricate of navigational concepts and at the way class barriers had been broken down by the sheer need to muck in together - "The clerk of the Gas and Coke Company found he was making as many marks in meteorology as the University graduate. Traditional drills were universally described as "bull-shit". Questions half-formulated themselves in drilled minds. Old values were in suspension, and there was a generosity of outlook which made us more accessible to new ideas. It was ironical that these potential generations of a new society were too busy dropping bombs to apply this generosity to a wider purpose."
Mackenzie's early thinking on education had, at bottom, a practical basis, arising out of his experiences in the RAF. There he had seen for himself the untapped potential of ordinary working class servicemen being released by exposure to the training for skilled jobs in the services. Clearly, school education had failed thousands of such people if their underlying potential had been either ignored or simply untapped. It prompted him to wonder if it was the school curriculum that was at the root of the problem - a curriculum based on learning information that had no relevance to the lives of the pupils involved, and in the hands of teachers who were simply going through the ritual prescribed for them by the State of cramming for the 11- plus in the Primaries and Leaving Certificates in the Secondaries. He had, of course, earlier in 193435 the sort of teaching experience in an independent school in the New Forest that had a profound effect on his later thinking on education. The school was known as the Forest School run by a society called The Order of Woodcraft Chivalry. The keynote of the school was its informality. At the Primary stage pupils had complete freedom to stay away from classes. At the Secondary stage "shadows of the prison house' began to close in on them...... parents who found that the laisser-faire attitude of the Forest School militated against their children's educational future very often chose to take their children away to an "orthodox" school at the age of thirteen."
Mackenzie had no knowledge of botany, though he had to teach it and told the pupils so. In that situation learning became for both teacher and pupil a process of discovery. In those Botany lessons which largely took place in the New Forest he and his pupils came nearer, he remembers, to integrating education into a full enjoyment of life "than he had ever been able to since." And he sums up thus in his journal of this formative period of his life.
- I was at the Forest School from the age of 24 to 26. It was as if the school had taken me up to a high place and let me see the kingdoms of the world, broadening my horizons. These two years stand out in my memory. Since than, former pupils have written that for them too, their years at Forest School were among the best in their lives. There was freedom and partly, because of that, there was what Goethe (in a letter to Schiller) called "tranquil activity". I'd been into the educational future and it worked.
However, that educational future did not materialise in the way Mackenzie hoped. Once the war was over, he had to get himself a job (he had got married to Diana during the war). Although he contemplated going into the BBC as a writer and broadcaster, it was into teaching that he eventually went, and he was appointed to a post teaching English and History at Galashiels Academy in August 1946. Although he enjoyed living in the Borders, he soon found that the sort of education that was being offered in schools such as Galashiels Academy was no different to what he himself had experienced as a pupil at Robert Gordon's College in the late 1920s. He felt disillusioned at what he saw as a period of retrenchment setting in after the liberating atmosphere in society associated with the war years.
In 1951 he was appointed to the post of PT English at Templehall Junior Secondary, Kirkcaldy, where he was lucky enough to serve under a go-ahead and enlightened Headteacher, Jack Stewart, who did a lot of pioneering work in outdoor education, encouraging, for instance, pupils to go on gliding trips to map out the terrain of the county of Fife as part of their geography lessons. It was in this period of his life, when he was in his forties, that Mackenzie's children were born, Neil in 1952, Alasdair in 1955 and Diana in 1958. He was captivated by them in the sense that he seemed to see in them a reflection of his own hopes and aspirations for the future. He found in them, especially in their infancy and as they grew in awareness of the world around them, a source of inspiration for his educational philosophy. He says in his journal of the time - "It's their openness to experience, a lack of perceived thought or feelings, the newness of everything that maybe reminds us adults of our own largely forgotten childhood, nostalgically."
Thus Mackenzie came more and more to believe in the sanctity of the child and to glorify 'childlikeness' much in the same way as Rousseau did. He saw it as a state of grace which we would do well as parents and as educationists to take full account of and to nourish in the early years when children were at their most impressionable - and he concludes in his journal, "Wordsworth had a keener insight into the world of children than most educators. When he spoke of the visionary gleam, he wasn't playing with words, like Isaiah, he was trying to describe reality:
The growing child
Beheld the light and whence it flows,
He sees it in his joy.
He is glorious in the light of Heaven-born freedom.
Wordsworth spoke of "those first affections, those shadowy recollections which
are the fountain-light of all our days, a master light of all our seeing:
Which neither listlessness nor mad adventure,
Nor man nor boy,
Nor all that is at enmity with joy,
Can utterly abolish or destroy."
His appointment as Headteacher to Braehead Junior Secondary School in Buckhaven in Fife in 1957 at last gave him an opportunity for the first time to put into practice the broad philosophical framework he had come to envisage for education as he saw it. At the age of 47 he still had the energy and drive to make some of the things he had come to believe in, emerge into reality. Although Braehead School was situated in an old dilapidated building formerly used by the High School, at least Mackenzie had the advantage of starting off the school from scratch and to work with a staff many of whom responded to his wish to review the curriculum and to have a much more humanitarian approach to the pupils in their care. On the positive side Mackenzie's influence created over the years at Braehead, an atmosphere where experiment in Art, Music and Technical Subjects brought about work of rare quality - culminating in the Art Department, especially, in the creation of "tranquil activity" with pupils totally immersed in the joy of doing the work they were doing.
The developments in outdoor education, particularly under the leader ship of Hamish Brown, the first-ever appointment in Scotland of an outdoor specialist, brought about a revolution in the way such activities could be exploited for the benefit of pupils from a deprived urban background. As Brown himself puts it when he wrote of this period of his life in a book called The Last Hundred some thirty years later, "As far as I know, my appointment was the first in a Scottish State school to do what would develop into outdoor education. My remit, "To take the boys and girls of Braehead into the wild and do what I liked with them" had teachers suggesting specific nasty things to do to some of them. But that worked both ways too. I once lay in a tent listening to a conversation in the next tent (kids seem to think tents are sound-proof) where they were making up "ropes" of teachers they'd take up the Ben(Nevis) - then cut the rope."
The pioneering work that Hamish Brown did in exploring the tremendous possibilities for introducing town-based pupils to the Scottish mountains as a key part of their education became part of a much wider vision that Mackenzie had developed, with the Inverlair project as its centre-piece. Inverlair was a shooting lodge in Lochaber (formerly owned by British Aluminium) that Mackenzie had hoped could be transformed with a grant from Fife County Council into an outdoor centre that could house, on an all-the-year-round basis, large groups of pupils whose education, while they were there, would revolve round the opportunities that could be gained from living together as a unit and exploring their native land and be involved in a radical programme of learning by discovery:
- We could ourselves put in a new septic tank...... teach pupils how to adapt a water-heating system to our plans for the house. We could keep ponies and bees and get the reeds out of the tennis courts....we could section one of General Wade's roads to see how he made them, and would establish an observatory and also a wireless station in contact with the school..... there would be forestry in cooperation with British Aluminium foresters who were prepared to work with us. We could ask the Crofters' Cooperative ay Roy Bridge, four miles away, if we could come in with them in their experiments in soil reclamation. Inverlair would also be the base camp from which expeditions would set out across the West of Scotland, using a chain of bothies on treks as stepping stones, never being more than a day's march from a bothy and enabling pupils to travel light without tents.
Even though the Inverlair Project was doomed to failure - Fife County Council after a long look at the proposal decided against it on the grounds of expense and the poor state of the building - Mackenzie kept the dream alive in his inner thoughts:
- The Welfare State had produced the fittest generation of Scottish children who had ever lived and we wanted to resume where the Welfare State had stopped. It might, after all, be only a dream, but the school had a distinguished staff capable of translating the dream into reality, and the goodwill and tenacity to overcome the obstacles. We decided to encourage the dreamers.
The consequences of such a vision inevitably led Mackenzie into conflict with the authorities. In resisting the claims upon his time of preparing pupils for presentation for "O" Grades; in alienating the support of the more articulate parents; in trying unsuccessfully to abolish corporal punishment; in publicly proclaiming his opposition to the introduction of Comprehensive Education that he saw as a purely administrative change, not a change organically away from the rigours of the exam system, Mackenzie incurred the wrath of the Educational Establishment in Fife. As a result, no place was made available for him in the new scheme of things when it was announced that under plans for implementing Comprehensive Education in Fife, Braehead was to be phased out. Mackenzie was left in a sort of limbo. Neither had he, of course, been slow to convert his message into print, both by articles in the newspapers (the Glasgow Herald and The Scotsman,in particular) and by writing three books, the so-called trilogy - "A Question of Living", "Escape from the Classroom", and "The Sins of the Children" which encapsulate the experiences of the Braehead years, and also his public condemnation of the education system in Scotland. This had condemned children, particularly deprived children, to spend their years of Secondary schooling in circumstances that stunted their imagination and powers of communication, and made them resentful and suspicious of adults because of the authoritarian nature of the regime. His books reveal an alternative approach to education based on treating children as human beings whose life-style would be transformed in a school situation that depended, not on corporal punishment for its effectiveness, but on a curriculum that was suited to their needs as adolescents and taught by adults who loved and respected them individually as unique human beings.
His subsequent years at Summerhill Academy did not, in fact, take forward significantly his ideas on education. Summerhill was, to a large extent, certainly latterly, from 1972 to 1974, a catalogue of misfortunes as far as Mackenzie was concerned, ending in seeming tragedy with his being sacked from his post as Headteacher in April 1974. The book, "The Unbowed Head", about these events, that was published in 1976, confirmed him in the view that what was at stake in education was more than just the breakdown in relations between himself and the majority of his staff but the very essence of what we are educating young people for. This he saw as especially vital in regard to what he calls "the Dissident Minority" - those pupils, in almost every school, who don't fit into the system for reasons of their upbringing, their recalcitrant behaviour, their inability to cope; but for whom, Mackenzie would argue, an appropriate education is as vital as for the pliant majority. In this sense, Mackenzie could be described as a social revolutionary who publicly took the side of the minority, if only to illustrate the fundamental flaw at the heart of state education which is cynically to use the schools as an agency of state control. Hence, one could argue, the growing emphasis, in the latter years of the 20th Century towards conformity and uniformity in the way that schools are run and the concept of regulation by statute, whether it be Health and Safety regulations (which effectively killed off Outdoor Education) the imposition of Exam League Tables, the imposition (in England of Hit Squads to target failing schools - all of which has been made worse by the post-Dunblane syndrome of cluttering up schools with CCTV cameras, controlled entry and high-wire fencing, which reflects a widespread climate in society itself of a deep-seated malaise and lack of trust.
The conflict at Summerhill between the majority of staff who held to a reactionary view of education based on the Scottish tradition of strict discipline and emphasis on academic attainment, and the minority who supported a relaxation in the relationships between teacher and pupil and a curriculum more appropriate to the children's needs, mirrored the central dilemma in education that Mackenzie sought to bring to our attention in "The Unbowed Head". The book could be described as a book of rebellion. It has the conviction, the indignant anger on behalf of others, the identification with the oppressed as exemplified in this extract:
- Gradually, I realised the full significance of what was happening when the pupil (William Brown) shouted back at the teacher...... it is part of a world movement. In Chile, the Dominican Republic, peasants, learning to read, were beginning to think their own thoughts and were refusing to be cowed. There was an awakening in which a human being recognizes himself as a person, an active subject rather than a passive object, aware that he can improve human situations, and acting with others, change society and make life truly human'. And he goes on, "People need to abandon the stooping gait and walk tall. They have the ability to cope with the problem of living. If a civilisation doesn't give them that....it denies them the vital thing..... and that society is tyranny. Because it denies this to its young people, Scottish education is tyranny.
Mackenzie's radicalism remained with him for the rest of his life. Even after the traumas of Summerhill, he seemed to take on a new lease of life, being much sought after as a speaker at educational conventions, and taking the opportunity to travel abroad in Europe and America, observing things for himself, much in the same way as he had done in the thirties. His energy and enthusiasm was prodigious and he never stopped writing, and in so doing, pursuing assiduously the themes of his earlier books - questioning the validity of the education system and its reliance on corporal punishment and examinations for its existence. His scathing attack on the decision to replace the "O" Grades in Scottish schools in 1983 with a new system of assessment illustrates his unswerving opposition to what he regarded as only cosmetic changes to the status quo: "The possibility that there is something wrong in basing almost the whole of Scottish education on external exams is not one that recommends itself to the educational administrators. When the exams are seen not to work, they react by developing a still more convoluted system of exams, new certificates, one of them at Foundation, General and Credit levels, and the other made up of modules and similarly when corporal punishment is abolished, they concentrate on other punishments (alternative sanctions). The possibility does not occur to them that it is the requirement to drill dull information into unwilling heads that forces teachers to use punishment and distorts education. The abolition of exams would reduce the need to make schools punitive institutions." And he concludes, "I know of no single measure that would do more to release the flow of initiative in our society than the unblocking of ideas in school - the abolition of the external examination.
The consistency of Mackenzie's opposition to the Establishment and the grip that it exerted on the educational process and the sharpness and incisiveness of his attack on it over the course of the sixties, the seventies and the eighties, marks him out as one of the most significant figures of dissent in recent educational history. But of course, Mackenzie was much more than just a dissenting voice. The powerful polemic encapsulated in the trilogy and in "State School", which, in a sense, condenses the main strands of his argument into one volume - all that - and the controlled anger and passion of the case he puts forward of his side of the argument with regard to events at Summerhill in the Book, "The Unbowed Head" characterises him as an extraordinary man with a unique sense of vision.
Published articles on Mackenzie in the ten years since his death have been few and far between. However, David Gordon did a valuable paper for the Scottish Educational Review in 1988 that, under the title of "The Legacy of RF Mackenzie," argues that Mackenzie's critique of the Scottish educational system was the most coherent and valuable aspect of his work that has relevance for the educationist of today.
In coming to this conclusion, Gordon rightly emphasises the degree to which Mackenzie can be defined as much as a social reformer as an educational one, though, in Gordon's view, Mackenzie expected too much of schools by exaggerating their potential as agents of social reform However, he goes on to argue that Mackenzie's lasting relevance has at its core his criticism that in educational and political terms the way we educate our children is inimical to the welfare of the children for whom it is designed. Within that overall criticism, (Gordon identifies four strands in Mackenzie's critique of Scottish education that have direct relevance to any assessment we are to make of Mackenzie's stature as an educational thinker. The flrst of these strands can be taken under the heading of "Education for Docility."' "This means in effect, that in his view the establishment through the agency of the school system creates a climate in a school which stultifies the imagination of children, makes them unwilling and unlikely to question the status quo and leads inevitably to a perpetuation of all of the values the establishment wants to nuture ln order to preserve the interests of the few (the elite) at the expense of the many (the population at large). As Gordon puts it, "An Establishment regenerates itself through the educational system, and the few are chosen by certification - the reward for conforming."
Secondly, Mackenzie identifies what may be called "The Loveless School" as having a traumatic effect on the emotional development of children. Even though corporal punishment has gone, Nevertheless, in Mackenzie's view, schools still continue to place a premium upon control and in doing so, do not permit the flowering of the individual pupil's unique gift. Streaming, for example, brings about an insidious labeling of children. He deplores such elitism and the criteria upon which it is based. Not to treat each child as equal and unique is to lack love and respect, and to lack love and respect is to be brutal. Guidance systems may have gone some way towards ameliorating the brutality of the system, Mackenzie would argue, but he would view the introduction of guidance systems as largely cosmetic because they are there because of deficiencies in the system; and the deficiencies in the system have not disappeared because they are there. The third strand relates to his criticism of the school curriculum. Although the curriculum has become more relevant and more skills based, Mackenzie would still argue strongly that teachers too often refer to subjects as though they were the ends and not the means. Gordon puts it, "Resistance to whole-school activities and developments is strong and defending the subject has long become a conditioned reflex. Despite Social and Vocational Skills and other new, multidisciplinary "subjects", the old barriers seem depressingly intact."
Mackenzie's most radical proposal, of course, was to scrap the exam system. Schools are elitist, Mackenzie argues, because they are judged by their exam results. With the introduction of Exam League Tables in the early nineties, it is hard to deny that Mackenzie's assertion still holds good. Nowadays, more than ever, a "good" school is one with high academic success. But Mackenzie also objects to exams because they measure only what is easily measured and the real values of education, since they are difficult to assess, are not subscribed importance in the curriculum. As Mackenzie puts it, "You cannot put a percentage on human beings, or evaluate how much they got out of Rachmaninov concerto, or building or sailing a boat." Although Mackenzie does not examine the implications for other institutions of scrapping the exam system, he does clearly see it as the most powerful tool in the hands of the establishment. Not on]y does it inhibit enquiry, it inspires boredom: it impedes experiment and progress; it enslaves the curriculum; it ignores real values; it measures useless information; it iqnores character.
Much of Gordon's analysis of what is of lasting value in Mackenzie' critique of the Scottish education system can, therefore, still be seen as applicable to education now and as it might develop into the next century. Clearly, Mackenzie expected too much of the schools that they could provide the degree of social and educational reform that he was looking for He is right to suggest that in the past schools have never been the agents of social reform; they have acted instead as agencies which have inhibited change. However, in the light of the emergence of a Scottish Parliament early in the new century, Mackenzie's more extravagant claims for a new Scottish society and a vast regeneration of Scottish culture (something less than credible in 1988 when Gordon wrote his article), now seems far from impossible. On the other hand, I would agree with Gordon in his conclusion that Mackenzie "does not sufficiently stress the fact that it. is his fellow teachers who provide the main obstacle to the advance of the kind of education he advocates." The evidence of my own experience as a head teacher would lead me to concur with the view that the teaching profession needs to look at itself as perhaps one of the qreatest stumbling blocks to a more enlightened overview of what sort of education we need to aim for in the future that enshrines the ideals Mackenzie was advocating for our children.
Mackenzie, in his constant campaigning against what he saw as the debilitating effects of the establishment on peoples' ability to question and challenge the assumptions underlying the way we are governed and what passes as "established truth" on TV and in the press, got considerable sustenance from keeping in touch over the years with other educational radicals such as John Aitkenhead and AS Neill. With Neill, in particular, he kept up a correspondence over many years. Neill was known best for founding earlier in the century, Summerhill, a small, independent school in Suffolk which became one of the best known schools of its kind in the way that it allowed complete freedom to its pupils to develop their lives without constraints of any kind and to run the school more or less as they wanted it to be run. The abiding influence that permeated the school was that of Neill himself who, like Mackenzie, was a sworn enemy of the establishment and had an absolute belief in the goodness of children.
Even in his late 80s Neill kept up his correspondence with the likes of Mackenzie, encouraging him and giving him the benefit of his astringent wit often delivered in his native Scots dialect - as in this extract from a letter he wrote to Mackenzie in December 1972 when Mackenzie's problems at Summerhill Academy had taken a turn for the worse.
- Dear Bob,
Man, that's a hell of a picture you paint of Scots dominies. But English ones are similar..... makes it difficult to be an optimist about education. In essence the Scots are where I was when I wrote my Log 1915, so it wasn't a surprise when the students of my own varsity, recommended me for an Honorary degree and the Senatus turned it down..... It disna bather me; it just maks me lach. I'm kinda oot o' things noo. Ower tired to see visitors and to lecture. Mike Duane looks in sometimes, but, not being able to go to London, I see few fowks. I'm past writing, but my life comes out in May, "Neill, Neill, Orange Peel" the chant the kids greet me with, the wee ones. I hope I'll live to see it out. At 89 I canna have lang. Don't think I fear death since I think it is extinction. That is what annoys me, never to know what has happened to kids and freedom, to my grand-daughter of 5 months. So bugger old bastard Father Time, says I.
Rumour said you had been ill.I do hope it is wrong, for the world needs bonny fechters like you, there are so few about now....Duane, Aitkenhead, Holt, and others in USA. The so-called progressive schools are half-dead. St. Christopher's advertises itself as having "ordered freedom".
You must feel very lonely amongst the local teachers who are so anti-life.I admire your sticking to the State system.......I ran awa frae it. Aweel,as guid a New Year as this lovely world of oors.... White-house, Nixon, Heath,etc.will allow."
Mackenzie, therefore, found great solace, throughout his life, in keeping in touch with fiery rebels such as Neill who appreciated more than most the lonely, hazardous path Mackenzie had chosen for himself as a radical reformer in the State sector compared with the degree of freedom to experiment enjoyed by Neill and Aitkenhead in the private sector. Yet all three shared a common vision of a child-centred education that was relevant to the needs of all children whatever their background. This common purpose, even though they met each other but rarely, brought the three men close together spiritually during the course of their lives.
What was also extraordinary about Mackenzie were his rare qualities as a man, and as a human being who could influence others by the sheer power of his presence. As Elizabeth Garrett, his former Depute Head at Summerhill said in an article she wrote for the TES (Scotland) in 1975, "RF stirs deep feelings in the people who know him well; they love him, are empowered by him or they loathe him for the way he upsets their certainties and questions their truths; few are unaffected by him. "And, indeed, quite apart from the legacy he has left us as educationists, RF has left us who knew him with a sort of spiritual strength arising out of the sheer courage of the man who was willing, against all the odds, to take on the system and to subject it to scrutiny and put forward alternative strategies. His books, from both the Braehead and the Summerhill era, have left us with the image of his deep sense of outrage at the plight of children caught up in a loveless education system. And through it all, we can sense only too well, his courage in the face of adversity, his doggedness, his resilience, his single-mindedness. These qualities were very much in evidence in the last years of his life, when he strove, though gravely ill, to complete his last testament contained in his book, "A Search for Scotland" that was published posthumously in 1989, two years after his death. It was written as an expression of his enduring love for his native land and as a penetrative analysis of where we are heading as a nation at the back end of the 20th century.
The very best of his book, "A Search for Scotland" is found in the sensitive evocation of the Scottish countryside, especially in remote areas, where his spirits are refreshed and invigorated by what he sees and the feelings he experiences, as in this description of a journey on the island of Harris,
This feeling of oneness "with the inanimate and animate furniture of our parcel of earth" is not far removed from the sort of insights into our pilgrimage on earth that Mackenzie hoped his pupils would get glimpses of in their sojourns in the Scottish wilderness - insights inspired by their discovery of wild places and by the association in their minds of such places with feelings of freedom and "getting away from it all". It is but a short step from this sense of spiritual well-being that he hoped pupils would eventually acquire from such experiences to the kind of visionary statement that Mackenzie makes in the book, hailing such experiences as the beginnings of new directions in education, leading ultimately to a revolution in the way we bring up and nurture our children. In Rannoch I have seen the vision of Isaiah explode into reality. The mountains and the hills broke forth before them singing and the trees of the fields clapped their hands...... we began to get glimpses of how a Scottish cultural revolution might be set in motion. It would begin in country places."
- "We drove along the twisting road round the Lochs of Grosebay, Stockinish and Fiodabey towards Roal at the south point of Harris Water lilies were in flower. The ubiquitous seaweed ,orange-gold, ornamented the rocks at water level. Seals swam and climbed on the rocks....a plover endured our inspection for a long time unfrightened. I'd no idea that peewits were so richly coloured. It had metallic-green wings, blacks, whites, purples, chestnuts, orange, more in keeping with the peacock than I had thought. Sitting in a van at a Harris roadside close to an unconcerned peewit we achieved vaguely a feeling of community with the animate and inanimate furniture of our parcel of earth...... fitful glints of sunshine, the changing clouds, the standing stones, the shiny black coal-like mussels and other shells, yarrow, heather, seals and cormorants and curlews. We entered into the spirit of St Francis, acknowledging as brothers and sisters all these things that happened to synchronise with our tenancy of the Scottish islands and mainland."
This is the side of Mackenzie's philosophy that has prophetic overtones which was part of his magnetism as a unique human being. To balance that, however, Mackenzie was far from being a saint - he could rage and rant he could lose his temper easily; he was very sensitive to criticism, partly brought on by consistent brushes with authority and by a sense that the powers that be (as in Fife and Aberdeen) were "out to get him". But, at bottom he was essentially not a politician - he was, indeed, an 'innocent" and, at times, a sentimentalist - I remember him crying quite openly as he watched some of my youngsters performing the musical, "Oliver" on the stage at Summerhill - crying happily, I may add, at the skills and composure these pupils from a working class background were showing in public before an audience.
It reflects the sort of memory of RF contributed by Bert Johnston who was an Inspector of Schools for many years. But, at the time of the incident he relates, was on the staff of Jordanhill College of Education. He was attached to Braehead for half a term about 1962:
- The occasion was a pre-Christmas, evening/social for pupils and staff. Maybe there was just a touch more formality, convention then on such occasions "Dance" rather than "disco". Dancing was a more strictly boy-girl activity than nowadays. Mackenzie was anxious that the occasion would be immediately cohesive and participative. But there they were; boys at one end of the gym, girls at the other. They knew what was expected. A band was playing. The length of the gym continued to separate them. And minutes were passing five, ten, fifteen. So Mackenzie decided something had to be done. I recall his darting to one end, grabbing the arm of the first boy he met, tugging him the length of the gym, grabbing the arm of the first girl contacted at the other end, and endeavouring to get them going as the first pair in the middle. I suppose, in retrospect, I remember this so clearly because not only was it real drama..... the Mackenzie intervention was sudden, overt, individual; there was an audience, realising what was about to happen and wondering what was implied for them..... But the incident illustrated Mackenzie's intensity, single-mindedness, frustration - and, I suppose, his innocence. There was a sense of desperation too. The convention, the formality were "agin him". And there wasn't enough time.