“Ah, you are going to Andalusia, you must have pescaíto frito.”
“Yes,” I said, “Is it better than the sardines here in Asturias?” One of my favourite restaurants is a place by the dock in Luanco where they flash fry the sardines and whip them out to you on a chipped old plate with a glass of white wine.
“Sure, pescaíto is different.”
“Better than fish and chips?” I was thinking of a fish and chip shop in Minehead, Somerset, where they only used the day’s fresh catch and you could choose between plaice, haddock, hake and cod.
“Pah, no comparison! In the freidurías they use a light batter, not like that thick stuff they use in England. It’s a part of the culture.”
Is there an essential difference between fried fish in Spain and fried fish in England? One of the problems facing me last week was how to communicate Summerhill in England to Córdoba in the South of Spain. How do you communicate across cultures? How do you describe what happens at an English boarding school to people who think that boarding is a cruel device invented by the English because they do not love their children? I was helped by the fact that Antonia Navarro Tejero invited me to Córdoba to talk about English teaching at Summerhill. This gave me a narrow focus from which the bigger picture could emerge. In this post I want to emphasise how important it is not to lose sight of that bigger picture: why aiming for a Summerhill-style education makes sense; how you can make the leap from pescaíto frito to fried fish.
There is nothing like being in the south of Spain to feel the deep roots of human culture seeping up through your feet. Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Visigoths, Byzantines, Muslims and Christians have all passed through leaving relics of their civilizations for us to admire. I’m sure they all had their own ways of frying fish. We learn a lot about the tyrants in the generals in the history books but there is a great swell of untold history to do with simple stuff like preparing food and bringing up children. It seemed fitting to me to have this deep historical backdrop to my talk: a reminder that generations of men and women have gone before us perhaps asking the same question: what shall we do and how shall we do it?
I am not going to give you the full text of my talk. I tried to explain how children made the transition from second language learners at Summerhill to studying first language literature alongside native speakers. I wanted to get over that they have a strong motivation to learn the language in order to communicate and take part in community life. I was always trying to get them to read real books: not any one in particular, but one they had chosen for themselves. If they started reading whole books for themselves in English they multiplied their learning opportunities and made exponential progress: there was really no comparison between the progress of someone who read and someone who simply relied on classtime. Classes were there for children and helped to straighten out grammatical issues and recurrent errors, but learning was not exclusivly dependent on the teacher.
What shall we do and how shall we do it? It was easy to move away from the academic pretext of the talk and refocus on what children actually do at Summerhill. I could feel the level of interest rise. No one is interested in my ideas about English teaching, but a school where kids do not go to classes is fascinating. It is a huge challenge for people who are stuck in their own stodgy systems. They can hardly believe that it is possible to learn without measuring the learning. They lean on the levels and take comfort in the qualifications. If you get to level B1 that seems to say something about you. If you are only at C3 you need to get back to the text books. My suggestion that children learnt English by themselves and then came to class for a bit of retrospective polishing seemed unbelievable: was I really saying that all those levels were a waste of time?
Yes. I was. I have taught English in Spain, dumbfounded by my adult students’ crippling sense of failure when they made mistakes. This is far from what happens generally in Spanish life, where people seem to be easy-going, carefree and tolerant. There is a special word for the kind of sloppy building work that is common here- chapuzas- and the builder is more than likely to say, “¿Qué más da?” or “Me la pelo,” both Spanish equivalents of the Anglo-Saxon teenagers’ “Whatever!” Why aren’t people happy to make a chapuzas when they speak English? What stops them communicating when they are not confident their language is absolutely correct? I think they have so internalised the figure of the school teacher that they are inhibitied. If you link that with the fact that they have been through an education system that steers them away from real books to text books that teach them functional English, then you have a sure fire recipe for the national neurosis about English: everyone studies it; no one speaks it.
I am not an expert on English language teaching. There are surely some interesting things you can say about from moving from level C3 to B1 but I do not know what they are. You would have guessed this already by the fact that I mentioned fried fish and Phoenicians at the beginning. It seems to me that if you lift your head from your desk for a moment, stop thinking about how the certificate in English is going to help you in your search for a job and consider the fascinating weave of cultures and communication surrounding you, then you might discover something of what Neill called “interest” to motivate you. You will stop worrying about your marks and grades and say, “No, no, I want to go back and read that again, because it was fascinating to me: it stirred something in my guts. I want to get out and talk to people because they interest me.”
The same applies to democratic education. Attention to detail is vital to managing an educational project but having an eye on the bigger picture keeps you sane. The world is tottering on the brink of insanity with a shocking rise in right wing extremism and intolerance from Hungary to the United States. Traditionally stable democracies like the United Kingdom are frighteningly drawn towards authoritarian government. The pantomime of forming a government in Spain has been drawn out over months revealing a fractured society where none of the old divisions between authoritarians and democrats have been healed. In this context it is foolish to keep your nose to the grindstone, it is wise to raise your head and ask where it is all going and what your part in it is.
Neill started Summerhill between the two world wars. He thought that Summerhill could cure the hate in the world. His message appealed to the hippies, and was taken up with almost millenarian fervour in the sixties. The association has often been used to tarnish the seriousness of what he was saying, that authoritarian education systems lead to unhappy populations who are ready to accept authoritarian governments. Yet Neill’s idea of a happy childhood with interest as the guiding light in all types of learning is more necessary than ever today when governments, curriculum planners and their lackeys who design textbooks, teachers and school principals are all peddling authoritarian solutions. These go from the openly unpleasant and xenophobic visions of petty nationalists who want to provoke hatred of the outsider for their own ends to the petty functionaries in a controlling super-state that insist everyone should jump through the same hoops and sing along to the same tune.
It gives me enormous and perverse pleasure to tell people that in the tight little world I worked in- English teaching at Summerhill- freedom was a better educator than the textbook, looking at the Phoenicians of more longterm value than doing your homework. And this is the real Summerhill takeaway: an anti-authoritarian education. Look around you and think about what is going on in the world. Decide for yourself what you want and need. Try to think beyond your immediate desire for a comfortable life and a good job. What kind of a world do you want to build for your children? What shall we do and how shall we do it? It is a question that has been going around since the time of the Phoenicians. There have been waves of intolerance, aggression and authoritarianism that cast the brief moments when something more enlightened appears into greater relief. This should not deter us. We should keep struggling for freedom, openness and anti-authoritarian governance because, in the end, there is no significant difference between pescaíto frito and fish and chips, and I would never get into a fight over how thick the batter is.
What do you think?