A teenager’s thoughts on democracy

It is clear from his diary that something Anthony Ryle particularly disliked about school life was the lack of friends with whom he could share his strongly developing interest in politics. He began to overcome this feeling when he started attending conferences organised for schools by the Council for Education in World Citizenship—an offshoot of the League of Nations Union, founded immediately before the war to interest young people in international affairs and especially the settlement of international conflicts. CEWC stressed co-operation and mutual understanding between nations as the foundation for world peace, but held also that social justice and political freedom within nations were necessary contributions to the avoidance of conflicts between them. Consequently the subjects of political, educational and economic reform were regularly on the agenda at the conferences, and seem often to have provided the most stimulating sessions. Many of the organisers of the CEWC’s Inter-Schools Committee were young leftists, many still at school, and information about the policies and institutions of the Soviet Union features prominently amongst the material produced by the CEWC about social and economic issues—an interest enhanced by the widespread admiration in Britain for the Soviet War effort after the German invasion in June 1941. Even apart from the example of the Soviet Union, the businessmen, economists, civil servants and other experts invited to address the conferences generally dwelt on the importance of planning and regulation of the economy, and equalised distribution of resources and services, as the means of improving social equality and productive efficiency, and were in favour of reform to achieve these goals.

The kind of political representation which could effectively deliver reform was a topic which necessarily arose in these discussions. For Anthony, it chimed with his own annoyance at the way school life was organised and discipline administered, especially in boarding schools’ segregation from the outside world, and from the opposite sex. After evacuation to Newquay, Gresham’s School became neighbour to Benenden girls’ school, also evacuated. The conjunction led to struggles with the authorities in both schools which Anthony records in his diary. The CEWC conferences were attended by pupils from all kinds of schools, girls’ and boys’, and provided a welcome opportunity to mix freely amongst young people with interests and enthusiasms like his own.

The Inter- Schools Committee published a magazine called Phoenix, edited, written and designed by the young people, as a forum for discussing the kinds of issues dealt with by the CEWC conferences. Anthony contributed two articles on school democracy. One, published in Phoenix at the end of 1943, as ‘Training for democracy’, appears in draft in his diary. In it he argued that

education for life in a democratic state must entail to some extent the practice of democracy, while the existing forms of school government are essentially authoritarian. Nobody will deny that discipline is essential for the proper running of any community, but I contend that the essence of democracy is that this discipline should be, to the greatest possible extent, self- imposed. …  orders from above with no discernible basis of reason and rules with no apparent basis of necessity have disastrous effects … I have only too frequently suffered and  been angered by the gropings of prefects after a proper attitude to their power, and I have observed with interest the development, through stages of officiousness or of negligence, of the ability to lead, or shall I say to order without rousing resentment? … so, I submit, we require a more enlightened form of school discipline.

His second article, written in reply to criticism of the first, was published in the Spring of 1944 as ‘School democratisation: the thin end of the wedge’. Here is the text of that article:

In the last Phoenix I wrote an article under the title “Training for Democracy” calling for the granting of self-government to school communities to the greatest possible extent. Since then I have been challenged as to the practicability of this: “it’s all very well on paper,” say the critics, but it would not work in practice, because boys and girls are not interested in governing them­selves, and anyway children are not rational or responsible.

In answering, I would say firstly that nobody can tell whether school-children are rational until they have been given an opportunity to try to prove it; at present, they are given no power and hence develop no responsibility. And I do not suggest that anything approach­ing full democracy is ever attainable in immature communities. I am afraid I must agree that “boys and girls are not interested in governing themselves”—neither for that matter are most men and women, which is just what I am complain­ing about.

No; what I suggest as a first move is a practical proposi­tion; that public opinion in schools be made articulate by the formation of school newspapers, published three or four times a term, entirely by the pupils themselves. Briefly, the paper I visualise would con­tain: (a) Articles expressing views and giving news about general educational topics;  (b) A section discussing the school’s constitution, that is, discussing possible additions or amendments to existing school rules; (c) A section corresponding to Questions to Ministers in Parliament, where grievances and grumbles might be aired with emphasis on constructive suggestions, and with explanations (if any) from the authori­ties concerned;  (d) A section giving statistical evidence of school opinion on contro­versial school issues. The paper might well include a literary section and a section for school societies, but these are outside the scope of this article.

Such a paper would arouse a very real and useful interest in the affairs of the school, and it would provide a much needed outlet for the thousand grumbles and criticisms of ordinary school life.

I think that the establishment of such a paper would in itself be a great advance, but in addition the paper might well prove to be only the thin end of the democratic wedge, for once people get interested in the government of their community, they begin to demand that they take a part in it. The satisfaction of this demand would result in the gradual democratisation of school life.

Through papers of this kind public interest would be aroused, public opinion both expressed and formed and a sense of social rights and duties would be awakened. I believe that the first step, an essentially practical one, which any school might take today, is the establishment of “pupils papers.” Give us these, and we will soon show how much school democracy we want, and of how much we are worthy. Whether we’ll get it remains to be seen.


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