Obedience is the bedrock of authoritarian systems: you do what you are told. In this post I put the case for bucking obedience and building a different world based on freedom.
I Won’t Do What You Tell Me
Conservatives tell us that in the past everyone just did what they were told and everything was better. The reason that things don’t work these days is because people want to do what they choose, they say. We should go back to the old days when there was a bit more respect and obedience.
I don’t believe it. There were always plenty of people saying that they would not bow their necks to the yoke.
That last phrase comes from the bible. I first came across it in a book about heretics in the South of France. The Inquisitor complained that the heretics would prefer to go to the flames than “bow their stubborn necks to the yoke of obedience”.
“Yup,” I thought. “That’s me. You can take your obedience and…”
Doing What You Are Told
Leonard developed a distrust and distaste for schools and teachers earlier than I did. He remembers his first days at school and the arbitrary nature of the disciplinarian authority. It is no surprise, therefore, that he ended up as a junior school teacher working with kids to create democratic classrooms using his Clubhouse Democracy model.
“Look,” he would say. “You don’t have to do what you are told so long as we can sort it out together to make this classroom work. I’ve still got the ultimate power. I’m not going to lie to you. I can step in if I have to, but I don’t want to.”
He would say to those classes, “I want to share authority with you.”
Authority and Power
I was at primary school in seventies England. It wasn’t that bad. As a result I have a tendency to feel that primary school is OK for little kids. I don’t want to invent a democratic education for little kids. Why not just give them a reasonably free conventional primary school education? At least they learn to read and write.
My rebellion came later when I moved up to secondary school. It was a harsh awakening after that easy-going primary school: an education in obedience. First you had to obey the teachers, of course. From your place at the bottom you could look up through the scaffolding of authority. The levels disappeared above you to the great transcendent power and authority of God to whom we had to sing hymns in the morning at the daily assemblies.
But I would not bow my stubborn neck to the yoke of obedience. I sang “Stand up, stand up for Jason” instead of “Stand up for Jesus.”
Leonard and I don’t agree about everything.
When I said I was writing about obedience he pulled a face and said, “Watch out.” He has a more generous view of power and authority than I do. He often points to the fact that Summerhill would not be here if it had been “horizontally managed”. It is here because it is a family business with a boss and employees. It is not a workers’ cooperative.
His idea is that you need a strong central authority in a school in order to devolve power to children. If the centre is not firm, it is not possible to reclaim that power and authority if things start to go wrong. We have both seen this happen: charismatics and egomaniacs can unbalance a school and pervert its core principles; disputes between empire-builders can create a poisonous working atmosphere.
Obedience to Dictatorship
That does not seem too controversial until you get to the question of doing what you are told. In my view, if you introduce obedience into a democratic school you will end up with something worse than the worst dictatorship. Imagine a group of people who think they have the truth demanding obedience from the rest.
- You cannot refuse, it is the will of the community.
- You cannot refuse, we all agree on these principles.
- You cannot refuse, our leader has told us it will be this way.
- You cannot refuse, it is in the holy book.
Frankly, I’d rather be burned as a heretic.
I’d Rather Be Burned as a Witch
I take it that freedom comes before democracy at Summerhill. You don’t have to read the books of Neill, you don’t have to know anything much about the philosophy and you definitely do not have to pass a test in being a Summerhillian.
The children have their freedom in all senses. I am often asked whether the meetings are compulsory and people are surprised they are not. “How can you have a consensus if everyone is not there?” I am asked. “The voting is unfair: a simple majority vote on an important issue and not even sixty percent of the community present? It doesn’t make sense.”
And here I shall say something heretical in democratic education circles. Freedom trumps democracy every time. I’d rather have a school full of rebels doing what the hell they like than a perfectly-functioning school of happy little democratic conformists.
But I’m a heretic and I’d rather be burned.