Prof Clive Harber – A Tale of Two Books

A Tale of Two Books

 In November 2009 Educational Heretics Press two, very different, books that I had authored – both probably a bit strange in their own way. The first, serious, one was entitled ‘Toxic Schooling : How Schools Became Worse’ and the second, not very serious at all, was entitled ‘Isn’t That Dangerous? African Travels Among Academics and Other Wild Animals’. Roland Meighan asked me to write a short piece for PEN about reactions to the two books. 

 The first book reviewed thirteen key texts that were critical of schooling that were written and published during the 1960’s and 1970’s including Freire, Illich, Rogers and Holt and then compared them to evidence about what was happening in schooling globally today. The idea was to see if their analyses stood the test of time. The titles of the two chapters in which the comparison takes place – Schooling Today: Much The Same and Schooling Today : Making Matters Worse –  are a bit of a giveaway about the conclusions reached based on the evidence. Prior to this book I had written another book published in 2004 entitled Schooling As Violence. This argued, as did Toxic schooling, that despite the globally hegemonic assumption that schooling (almost always equated with education) is a good thing and provided opportunity for all, there was equal and compelling  evidence that schooling both reproduces society as it is (warts and all) and actually contributes to making matters worse in terms of bullying, corporal punishment, sexual harassment, racism and militarisation. I tried to make it clear in both books that I wasn’t saying that schooling never did any good, only that we don’t give equal attention to the harm it does or the lack of difference it can make. As there were countless other books, articles, newspaper reports, television programmes etc extolling the virtues of schooling in a taken for granted way this was just a small attempt to balance the books a bit.

 However, as I have discovered, this does not necessarily make you popular. It has been surprising the hostility I have sometimes encountered in giving public lectures on these themes – perhaps understandable in that many in the audience have a stake or vested interest in formal education and the arguments of books like Toxic Schooling seem to undermine their professional raison d’etre. One person accused me of saying that I didn’t want girls in developing countries to go to school when I was merely arguing that if, as part of the Millenium Development Goals, we are going to get more girls into school internationally then we have got to make sure that they are safe when they get there, which is very far from being the case at the moment. What is perhaps more surprising is that not only those who disagree but those who are sympathetic to the general thrust of the book still say ‘but you should have written more about the positive side of schooling/education’. In my defence:

  1. There is a chapter at the end of each book which discussed what I regard as positive educational alternatives.
  2. In the 30 years I spent writing and speaking about positive, democratic alternative forms of education nobody ever came up to me and said you should write/say more about the negative face of schooling/education.
  3. The books were explicitly about the negative aspects of schooling – that was the whole point.

 Some of the reactions from friends and foes alike have taught me a lot about what human minds seem to be able to cope with when it comes to bad or uncomfortable  news. I’m now slowly working on a new book about education and democratic political development part of which will look at positive examples of democratic education in practice in developing countries but it’s already obvious that the examples of why such practices have not been actually been implemented hugely outweigh the success stories.

One in-house reviewer of the second, humorous book told Educational Heretics Press that he couldn’t believe the same person wrote both the Africa book and Toxic Schooling which I regard as a huge compliment as I was trying to make a difficult leap from academic writing to humorous travel writing. The Africa book came out of thirty years of doing research on, and working in, education in many different countries in Africa. Along the way, particularly given my passion for wildlife, some surprising and unusual events occurred – the things that happen to you unexpectedly while you’re trying to go about your official business. 

 Generally the book seems to have been well received (apart probably from my extended family who got it as a Christmas present whether they liked it or not), with many saying they laughed out loud and one person even saying that he was told to shut up on a train for making so much noise in reaction to the book. Another person told my wife that she couldn’t put it down as she wanted to find out what happened to us next to which my wife commented that it wasn’t supposed to be a thriller and that it would only fuel my delusions about being James Bond. Though Jackie Zammit, who  reviewed it in this esteemed organ, said that it brightened up her Monday morning and that she had to force herself to put it down until she got on the train that evening. At least two people have taken it on holiday and read it in context in Kenya where they said it made a lot of sense. Interestingly, it was reviewed in ‘The Teacher’, the magazine of the National Union of Teachers – in the section for pupils! I’m too modest to quote the reviewer who said ‘He makes for an entertaining hero, guiding us through many amusing and thought-provoking incidents – an inspiring read for teacher and pupil alike’. So, apart from some odd looks from people at work who now realise what I get up to on my travels, I’ve been very pleased with the reaction to the book and nobody yet has asked for their money back.

Both books are available from Educational Heretics Press

Clive Harber, University of Birmingham

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