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REFLECTIONS ON MY PARENTS' VIEWS ON EDUCATION (2010)

By Sean Walmsley

 “We believed that it was a good thing to bring children up in the country, and a country that bordered on the sea; that the most important foundation for their lives was good health, and a sanity induced by a close contact with nature; fresh air, good food; space, a garden, woods, lanes, streams, hills, beaches for them to explore as they grew bigger. The good simple things first! But we did not wish them to grow into Eskimos or Masai warriors. Their ultimate jungle would be that of modern civilisation: their hunting when they grew up would be for careers, money, fame, love. That would be their own affair. Whatever they wanted to do or become, they would be no worse off for having learnt at first hand the ways of natural things: for knowing about trees and flowers, the birds and fishes and insects and the weather, for having learnt to swim in the sea, and climb a cliff and sail a boat or ride a pony. “But it was essential too that they should have early practice in the ways, the conventions and disciplines of human society. It was right that they should have a decent house to live in, with level floors, real ceilings, a roof that hadn't to be patched after (and often during) every storm; with a real bathroom and water hot and cold, and possibly with electric light and power.” 

 

At last year’s Annual Meeting of the Walmsley Society, I was asked to participate in the reading of extracts from Leo’s writings, so artfully gathered by Nona and Jack Stead. 

The passage above resonated with me, not just as I read it, but ever since. Here’s why.

Although I don't doubt that both of my parents shared these views before I was born, I'm not convinced my father and mother were quite on the same page as far as my education was concerned. I suspect that in her earlier days, my mother was pretty free-spirited, but by the time I was in kindergarten, taught by my mother in her own school, there wasn't much evidence of the kind of educational philosophy espoused by A.S. Neill that I think both my parents hoped all their children would be brought up with. I gather that what Leo wanted was for the children to attend Dartington Hall or Bedales, which clearly embraced A.S. Neill's child-centered approach. 

It turned out that by the time it came to decide on my education, my mother's educational philosophy was actually quite conservative. It wasn't that she'd abandoned a passion for the natural world--far from it. Rather, I don't think she shared Leo's passion for a child-centered education. In fact, the choice of boarding schools I was sent to from a tender age of 8--to 18--demonstrates her increasingly conservative views on education. (Until I read Shells & Bright Stones, I wasn’t aware that both Leo and Margaret were adamant that their children should be educated privately in boarding schools).

I vividly recall the first prep school I was dispatched to, in Ringwood, Hampshire. That was where I first learned the perils of being left-handed. Apparently it wasn't only the Romans that distrusted left-handers (that's where the word 'sinister' comes from), and so I was forced to have my left hand tied behind my back, so as to learn the proper hand with which to write. Protestations to my mother eventually prevailed, but not before I became ambidextrous. Dartington Hall or Bedales would never have tied my left hand behind my back!

My next prep school--St Andrew's in Woking--and my public school--Bradfield College--were pretty conservative, too, and I can't say I was happy in either of them. There was an awful lot of bullying at Bradfield, and my first years there were terrifying. However, at St Andrew's I got my first real taste of classical music--the headmaster's wife would play the piano on Sunday evenings, and I developed a passion for Chopin, Beethoven, and Liszt that's remained with me ever since. And at Bradfield, I escaped from the relentless bullying into theatre and photography, joined the music club and seriously furthered my appreciation of classical music. I also found solace in trout fishing on the River Pang. I had to join the Corps, but managed to finagle my way into Signals, which involved no combat, and ended up on the Yorkshire Moors for the first time!

The first educational experience that I really enjoyed was at Trinity College, Dublin, studying history. Finally, I could choose what I wanted to do rather than having others do it for me..

As some of you know, my mother spent the last twelve years of her life living with my family. So I got to experience first-hand the educational philosophy she wanted to share with our children. Above all, what she wanted to pass on to our children was a passion for nature, for knowledge about the world and its peoples, and a love of reading. She was a born teacher, and even in retirement never stopped teaching. 

Although I would have probably preferred to have attended Dartington Hall or Bedales, I survived my prep schools and public school--and even taught in both a prep school and public school for a while--so perhaps these experiences didn't cause permanent scars. And I wonder if I would have developed life-long passions for music, photography and the arts if these weren't refuges from the more painful rigors of boarding school life. (My own children, however, went to state schools, except for one year that Katharine spent at Emma Willard, a private school in Troy, NY.)

Some of you have met Katharine, my daughter, who now follows in both her mother's and grandmother's footsteps, teaching in the early grades (she currently teaches 2nd grade, in Northampton, MA).  She, too, has inherited a passion for nature, for knowledge of the world, and for the arts that she's now passing on to her students. 

All of this came flooding back to me as I read the passage about Leo's and Margaret's philosophy for their children's education. In retrospect, I think Leo was quite a bit more liberal than Margaret, but in their fundamental views about nature and knowledge of the world, they did indeed agree. And it was no accident that one of my books--which strongly advocated focusing on knowledge as a primary aim of elementary education--is entitled: "Children Exploring Their World."

Acorns don’t fall far from their tree…