L.B. Pekin on St. Christopher’s

L. B. Pekin was the author of 5 books published by Virginia & Leonard Woolf's Hogarth Press in the 1930s - Public Schools: their Failure and their Reform (1932) Progressive schools: their Principles and Practice (1934) and a Hogarth pamphlet The Military Training of Youth (an enquiry into the aims and effects of the OTC).He also penned a short book on Darwin in their 'World-makers and World-shakers' series (1937) with a jacket by John Banting or possibly Richard Kennedy (who did most of Pekin's jackets). Kennedy later wrote A Boy at the Hogarth Press. L.B. Pekin's real name was Reginald Snell. This pamphlet on St Christopher's, a progressive school at Letchworth (still going strong and still vegetarian) was loosely inserted in his book on public schools.

The Way of Life
at St Christopher School, Letchworth


   It is too easy for a school to make extravagant claims for its contribution to the happiness and welfare of mankind. We can never know how much, in the end, we are able to do for our children. At the most we can but believe that by giving them a community in which they may develop most freely, according to the mysterious laws that guide the growth of the human spirit, they will be able to become most thoroughly themselves, knowing themselves and knowing what they midst do with their lives. At the most we can believe this–and at the least, too; in either case our responsibility and our opportunity are alike tremendous. Every school worthy of the name must be founded on a faith; none will perfectly succeed in living up to its highest hopes. In the paragraphs that follow we shall give the most honest description of one school that is built on a firm faith in a certain way of life, if we set out the things we believe to be good for the growth of the human spirit in the child; and we shall want to make the honest admission that such a description must needs be rose-tinted–it cannot give a fair picture of the daily difficulties and occasional perplexities, the half-failures and the part-victories that must occupy a large share in the life of any school. Here, at any rate, are some of the things which we believe and for which we work.

   Our aim is the highest development of the individual, compatible with the good of the community, for the service of his fellow men, and our method is that of a co-operative community life, to which the things of the spirit, the intellect and the body should give each its own important contribution. To be a real community, a school must have a wide basis and a genuine toleration and acceptance of differences; we believe that we can claim these things as ours. The range of age is wide, since our educational scheme is planned to cover the child's whole development, from Montessori School to entrance to a University or profession. At the moment our youngest child is 4 and our oldest 18. The range of our children's social background is wide. We have sons and daughters of the more and the less well-to-do, of professors and shopkeepers. Economically, this is explained by the co-existence in the School of a boarding and a day community, which we believe to be of fundamental importance, not only for the breaking down of income and other social barriers, but for the contact which it makes possible with the life of the town of which we are a part. We welcome the co-operation of our parents, through individual contacts and through the "Parents' Circle," which exists for the discussion of common problems and mutual constructive criticism. In the boarding houses there is no rigid separation of older and younger; the children are housed in groups of similar age, but among them are adults who share their meals and very much of their ordinary "home" life.

   The range of nationalities is wide. The School knows no barrier of colour, any more than of caste or creed, and at times there have been isolated representatives of as many as twelve different nationalities living together–but living in a consciously English, not cosmopolitan, community. The scope of religious and political outlook among both Staff and children is as wide as it could well be; in neither of these things do we recognise an orthodoxy, but we do recognise and respect a desire to search for truth, and to live out what an individual believes to be true for himself. We are not concerned that our children should come to believe what we believe (even if that could be defined!); we are very much concerned that they should discover to what things they personally must give allegiance, and that they should be strong enough, spiritually, intellectually and physically to give that allegiance with all the best that is in them. The range of interest and circumstance among the Staff is wide. There are men and women, married and unmarried, living in and out, all of them drawn to the School by a definite urge towards this type of education, but being very far indeed from representing a "type," either of teacher or of human being. Finally, the School is co-educational; boys and girls prepare for the wider life outside by getting to know and understand each other, respect each other's special gifts and appreciate each other's difficulties, by sharing a school life in all the essential ways in which they may healthily share it. Our approach to the special problems of co-education is based on psychological knowledge and experience, without rigid adherence to any particular cult. Our co-education is whole-hearted, and–what is not less important–we hope whole-headed too. Here then is the aim, and here is the method: the training of children through daily experience of the building and working of community living to the service, through their own most fully developed individualities, of that larger community which comprises all living things. We can best illustrate the theme by touching, necessarily briefly, on a few of the special opportunities that children are given to develop their physical, intellectual and spiritual natures to the utmost.

   The three things overlap and intermingle, of course, but certain sides of school life may conveniently be dealt with under those rather exclusive and misleading headings. On the physical side there are the opportunities that all schools try to give, for children to lead open-air lives. We live on the edge of a town, and face open English country. There are the usual games–cricket, football, hockey and field sports for the boys; lacrosse, rounders, netball and sports for the girls; tennis and swimming for both jointly. There is physical training given by experts, for which a gymnasium open to the air and outside apparatus are available. Great emphasis is laid on swimming in the summer-time;  youth hostelling; and weekend camps, in which the €children themselves are responsible for the arranging, transporting and cooking, are features of the boarders' life. Classrooms which may be thrown open on one side to the air are a boon in summer-time. It would be difficult to think of any part of the School or its activities that has an "indoors feeling" about it. Clothes are designed to let the child's limbs, and the sunlight get to know each other, while the diet is on food reform lines–of which a further word later.

   Intellectually we set ourselves the standards that other types of school aim at, and prepare for the usual examinations that are demanded of us, feeling that they are neither so helpful as they are generally believed to be, nor so wicked as some would have us suppose. The curriculum is wide, and we try to strike a balance between strictly bookwork and so-called "handwork," which really demands a harmony of hand and brain. Opportunities for practising numerous crafts are unusually wide,–carpentry, metal work, weaving, pottery, printing and bookbinding being perhaps the chief, though these by no means exhaust the list. The fine arts and music occupy a central position in the life of the School, the emphasis in the latter case being less on brilliant individual performance than on genuine understanding and appreciation. We find both in music and dramatics a most valuable means of emotional expression for the child. Every school day begins with the performance of good music to the whole assembled community. As far as possible we try to bridge the gap between books and life. In the Junior School some "subjects" are not taught as such at all, and the use of the Project system, which combines learning with doing, is found to be a useful substitute for specialisation. Later, we try to link up Language teaching with dramatics and singing in foreign languages, History with debates arid impromptu acting, Geography with visits to London dockyards; English with the production of magazines and dramatics again, Art with visits to galleries and exhibitions, Science with the children's own hobbies, Biology with the breeding and thoughtful care of pets, and so on. Our aim is to make the classroom wall as thin a division as possible. Inside the classroom we do not use rewarding marks, order places, or indeed any of the usual accompaniments of the competitive system which, we believe, can only do disservice to what should be pursuit of a common aim.

   The spiritual life of a school is peculiarly difficult to capture in words; all that has been described hitherto could just as fittingly come under this heading, because we believe that all sides of our school life are manifestations of the same fundamental spiritual attitude. We are not ashamed to describe this as the belief in the power of love, as expressed by all the great religious teachers of mankind, and as taught and lived especially by Jesus. Belief in the power of love has, for a school, certain necessary corollaries : one is belief in the divine in every child (which is by no means the same as believing that education means leaving the child alone). To an important extent the children are self-governing. Obviously this is a gradual process; but our aim is men and women who can govern themselves in the truest sense, and our method is the steady increasing of the children's responsibility for the working of the community from their earliest years, so that the seniors reach a high degree of real co-operation and understanding with the adults. Apart from academic curricula and health, most of the affairs of the School are decided in free discussion by the whole community, older and younger together. We believe in freedom for the child, without holding that the freest ship is the one that has cast adrift its rudder; and we are old-fashioned enough to hold that a sense of duty to others is one of freedom's most genuine expressions. All school officials and the "servers" who correspond (with the difference implied by their title) to the usual prefects, are elected by the community.

   We believe in the equal spiritual value €of all useful work, and do. our utmost to. break down the false distinction between truly honourable and "merely manual" labour. Thus aIl members of the community share in such everyday household tasks as washing-up and the cleaning of rooms; and the boarders begin each day with a spell of normal "housework." This helps children (and domestic workers) to appreciate the fact that division of labour in a community is a matter of time and not of class. We have no faith in the value of punishment as such, and our ideal would be a complete abandonment of it as an educational method. Of the usual forms of retributive punishment, and of much deterrent punishment, we can fairly claim to be free. Meanwhile there remains the necessary residium of the checks or "automatic consequences”–as they are properly to be considered–which are inherent in the very nature of social life. Religious life in the School takes no single form, because we regard religion not as a list of beliefs but as a way of living. We do not forget that Christianity is an absolutely vital part of the heritage of western civilisation, and the (non-theological) study of the Bible goes right through the School. For the rest, that vital flame in every human being which is religion finds expression in such varied ways as the daily morning assembly (consisting of music, reading and meditation), the voluntary Sunday evening service (where Staff, visitors and children themselves may give a short address or reading), quiet moments of individuals or of small groups at many times and places (in the dormitory, in the chapel, round the camp fire)–and, we hope, above all in the way in which we behave towards each other in our daily lives. A final, and perhaps the most important, corollary of the belief in the divine in every human being is belief in the divinity and unity of all life. If this means anything at all, it will not stop at mankind, but embrace the animal creation. Love knows no boundaries, and we are aware that (in Schweizer's words) "we have no right to inflict suffering and death on another living creature unless there is some unavoidable necessity for it." Thus, the diet of the whole boarding community is meatless; and the same belief in the oneness of life finds expression in our attitude towards man's treatment of animals and towards the diseases of his own bodily frame.

   We must end with the thought with which we began : how far this way of education succeeds, how far it really solves the problems that face all teachers alike, we shall perhaps never know. We do know that it is not easy. The term "free and easy" has been applied to some schools in our movement; never was there greater irony in a phrase! Freedom is not easy; democracy is not easy; love is not easy. In a community like ours of some 300 children and 70 adults, there are countless problems and small reason ever to feel complacent. But we have a sense of being alive; and, paradoxically, faith in our ultimate values appears to grow stronger, rather than weaker, with the increase of difficulty in the world around us. That is the way of faith; it has quality, not quantity as its measure. And we still have faith that the whole child, not the child who has been moulded this way or that, but the child who has learnt through living in harmony with other boys and girls to attain a fuller harmony with the spirit that flows through all creation, will best be able to lead a full life–a life that is generous and controlled, that knows its weakness and its strength, that finds the truest forms of freedom in service. In other words, we believe that it is not for teachers to prescribe laws for the human spirit, but to give it a chance to grow.

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