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"We learned very little": Miriam Gross, aged 11, at Dartington Hall 

Dartington Hall school was one of a handful of experimental, co-educational schools founded before the Second World War. It was situated in Devon, in the beautiful thousand-acre estate which had been bought in 1925 by a philanthropic couple-a Yorkshireman and an American heiress. One of their objectives was to build a school in which children would be free from the restrictions and constraints of the educational system which prevailed at the time.

Betrand Russell, Aldous Huxley, Sean O'Casey, G.E. Moore, among well-known "free thinkers", sent their children there; Freud's grandchildren, Lucian and Clement, were pupils.

The school's "progressive" ideals were inspired by the American philosopher John Dewey, and involved a wholly unorthodox approach to how children should learn and how teachers should teach. Education, according to this view, was not about one person who knows more than another passing on that knowledge; rather, it was about encouraging children to discover things for themselves. They should be allowed to follow their own interests in their own way and at their own pace; expecting pupils to memorise facts or learn anything by rote was regarded as oppressive.

During the eight years I spent at Dartington these ideas were still regarded by most people as, at best, absurdly utopian or, at worst, hopelessly cranky; later, in the Sixties, many of them were adopted, with disastrous results, in state schools throughout England.

I was sent there in 1948, when I was ten, not because my parents were "progressive" but because most other boarding schools at the time didn't accept pupils who couldn't speak English. Until that time I had lived in Jerusalem, speaking German to my family and Hebrew at school. Naturally, I had a hard time at first, particularly as my parents were living abroad; but perhaps not as hard as it would have been at a conventional boarding school.

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Ayesha
March 12th, 2013
11:03 AM
Thanks for a very interesting article. I wonder if you went to this school at the same time as the children's novelist Eva Ibbotson? She attended this school and later fictionalised it in her brilliant book 'The Dragonfly Pool' and also 'A Song For Summer'. I highly suggest former pupils of this school read these two books, as I would love to know how accurate they are. Please do let me know! My email address is maybleandzengi@hotmail.co.uk. Again these books really are an interesting read and may even bring back a few pleasant memories. They are set in the time of WWII. thank you once more!

Tracy
September 16th, 2011
5:09 PM
I found Miriam's article fascinating but I think one of the areas that she only touched on was a key element in the success of Dartington.The fact that there was virtually no bullying and students were taught mutual respect and tolerance. These were life -long lessons that have served me well. I attended Dartington from 1961 until 1969. And for me it was a lifesaver. I came from a very turbulent family background and the love and care I received from the teachers and staff at Dartington, I feel prevented me from having serious problems later in life. Yes, maybe there was not enough academic rigor, although I, and most of my friends did attend university. And yes, maybe too much time was spent socializing and obsessing about boys. But one thing that all that contact with the opposite sex, from an early age, gave me was that I left Dartington feeling I was equal or better than any male. A lesson that has been most helpful in both my private and work life. Also the fact that the art room was open 24 hours a day gave me access areas of creativity that I would never have experienced at any other school.

Tom Merrington
June 18th, 2011
3:06 PM
The only time my education ever stopped was when I went to school, quipped G.B. Shaw. He wasn't thinking of a progressive school like Dartington when he said that. I think Miriam Gross's - balanced - criticism of the laissez faire attitude to education needs to be directed at its sources - John Dewey and J.J. Rousseau, rather than at the school itself, which merely attempted to apply their philosophis of education as a reaction to, and in the context of, conventional state and public schooling of that era, which remains very much about the protection of orthodoxy and status quo however detrimental that tyranny might be to creative solutions to humans' evident universally dysfunctional relationship with themselves and with the environment. John Harris was the Latin teacher imported when I was taking O level in 1961. Though conventional in his teaching I remember his humour always came through as when he greeted each class with a hearty 'Hillard et Botting vobiscum' to which we were trained to catholic reply 'et cum spiritu tuo' By then the Childs had replaced Curry and with a mandate to make the school pay for itself. Thereby forced onto the attritional battleground of the marketplace it was the beginning of the slow, long drawn-out media-exacerbated bankruptcy of its nurturing and buffering ethos, which surely did embrace impossible utopian extremes in loading adult responsibilities and self-disciplines on juvenile shoulders. Perhaps the balance was too idealistic and none of us former pupils can run a double-blind test, but I for one feel sure that if I hadn't had the space and respect afforded to me by that protective approach I would have been far more likely to have been crushed by life's later onslaughts. If the real world is such a hard and ruthless place can Dewey or Dartington be blamed for trying to resist and counter its vortex, whether or not you think such an effort futile?

Alasdhair
May 9th, 2011
3:05 PM
I think that Miriam has written a sympathetic even affectionate article about Dartington albeit one with a sting in the tail in terms of critique of the educational methodology. I think that where DHS had failings it was in assuming that all students would respond to its freedoms in a positive and scholastically successful way. And many did. But not all. And some like Miriam (and myself) with a bit of scramble at exam time. Equally, when one looks at conventional schooling such as Miriam's Latin teacher experience, there are children who respond well as she did, and others who rebel, especially if it is all there is to school. So the point I am making is actually a simple one - that children are different, that they change as they grow, that they cannot and should not be treated in the same way. There are visual learners, hands-on learners, contemplative or deductive learners - I am sure educational psychologists have many names. But within current economics they have to be treated as a homogeneous blob and then the discussion is (to be truthful) not one of which educational approach is best so much as which one is least harmful to the greatest number of children. I have had my daughter given 0/10 for spelling words English-correctly when she was asked to learn Phonics. Many of us have those crazy and sad examples. If there was a failing in DHS to my mind, it was that they perhaps could have provided a more individual approach. But how to provide guidance to teenagers, guidance that they follow, has vexed the minds and hearts of adults throughout history. It's a tough one indeed.

RNE
May 8th, 2011
8:05 PM
Miriam I enjoyed reading your article. While I can agree with much of what you write I think you are your own best critic because your summary at the end, I believe, justifies the raison d'etre of the school. In spite of the relative absence of pressure what percentage of pupils went on to good universities? Perhaps we learn the work ethic by observation and no doubt parental behaviour and genetics are important in this respect. As a boy I believe the school taught me to regard girls as equals if not superior. I certainly noticed the difference when I left Dartington to attend an all male establishment for three years. Nude bathing? There were far more interesting ways of making contact. With regard to pressure to work I found the Dalton system, which was introduced while we were there, a good way of applying pressure to work but also a good way for tutors to pick up problems at an early stage if they had a mind to. I could go on but that's enough for the moment as this is a new medium and perhaps rather public for me.

Gideon Mitchell
May 8th, 2011
6:05 PM
This passage strikes a chord. 'At Dartington, there were no rewards for effort in any subject, artistic or otherwise; nor were there penalties for idleness. As a result, at this stage of our education, we learned very little.' That was certainly my experience from 20 years later. In a good, more conventional school children don't just learn things, they learn how to learn. The basic habits you need to cultivate to be able to learn things just weren't taught or even particularly encouraged when I was there. It was not cool to try hard at anything. The place had an air of apathy and cynicism about it. Treating kids like adults before they actually are adults seems like a pretty fundamental mistake and I think that's why it didn't work, at least for me.

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