child’s utopia

It was founded in the mid 1930’s and really reflected the John Dewy “progressive education” ethos of a liberal education; the progressive critique of the conventional assumptions about learning, pedagogical principles and economic thinking as well as religion. The Burgess school was kind of an “orthodoxy” of this avant-gard style education. Do as you please and no nonsense about it was pretty much the motto. A vanguard experiment without rules. In a way, the idea to work outside of instinct, outside of calculation has merit. At least to some degree. Here they could eat and sleep when they choosed. The headmaster, James East, a Cambridge graduatet and former theology student asked for no obeissance except climbing on the roof. I suppose you could think of an Abbie Hoffman or Jerry Rubin as candidate style material….

(see link at end)…Welcome to Burgess Hill, The Mod ’60s Boarding School Where You Can Do Whatever You Want Sure, now is the time of Waldorf and Montessori educations — an age where we let children learn and discover at their own pace by assembling corn husk dolls and baking pita bread — but the new millennium of progressive education has nothing on Burgess Hill, the 1960s boarding school in Hertfordshire, England. Populated by young, gum-chewing mods, Burgess Hill was a school where students were allowed to smoke, listen to records, make modernist paintings and do the twist. Said one student of the education, “We learn no more than we would at a normal school, but there are compensations, like being happy.”

—Established by James East in the 1950s, Burgess Hill School (aka the Beat School) in Hertfordshire, England, allowed its pupils to do what they wanted, in the belief this was the best way for youngsters to learn. Rules were frowned upon, and “Tradition,” it was claimed, “was clinging to the dead past.” Even smoking in class was tolerated, for as Headmaster East explained to Time Magazine in 1962:
“Kids always smoke, and I’d rather know about it than have it done in secret.”—Read More:

Other compensations? Taking your dog to class and wearing cat-eye sunglasses like Queen of the Beatniks.Read More:

It was a place of little furniture, mostly wooden benches and tables. The advantage claimed was that students wanted to learn, otherwise they wouldn’t come to classes. It eventually closed in the early 1960’s for lack of funds. The end of a child’s utopia.

( see link at end) …Boarding school in the 1960s usually conjures up images of cane-wielding disciplinarians, Latin lessons and smart uniform. But not if you had the fortune to go to the avant garde social experiment that was Burgess Hill – where lessons were voluntary. Fancy a cigarette during class? No problem. Plough through the school grounds on a motorbike? Ditto…..

…’But here’s a boarding school where youth is not merely allowed but encouraged to have its fling.’…And the ethos of the school, according to its headmaster, James ‘Jimmy’ East (apparently a Cambridge MA) is simple: Every child should first find himself – education can come later.’…And education clearly was not priority… since students were discouraged from learning to read or count. The narration continues: ‘Stafff of the school believe that if you blindly forbid children to do something, then they will certainly revolt.’ What follows is something that would probably give Ofsted a heart attack: A girl reaches for her pencil case and takes out a cigarette, which she then lights up. The voiceover adds: ‘The answer is to allow them to find out whether these conventions are good or bad. Besides, smoking calms the nerves.’ The scene then cuts to a worryingly young child, aged around 12, smoking as he strolls through the extensive grounds – and the equally disturbing sight of rockers tearing through the woods on motorbikes (without helmets)….Meal time is also caught on camera – with the inclusion of a dog wandering around the tables in search of scraps. And what better way to see out a hard day’s learning than with a boogie. Classmates young and old ‘dressed in beat uniform’ dance to the twist… with the added twist of boys on bikes cycling among them.Read more:–wanted.html#ixzz210T4aWH9

—Novelists, too, revealed corporate injustices. Theodore Dreiser drew harsh portraits of a type of ruthless businessman in The Financier (1912) and The Titan (1914). In The Jungle (1906) Socialist Upton Sinclair repelled readers with descriptions of Chicago’s meatpacking plants, and his work led to support for remedial food safety legislation. Leading intellectuals also shaped the progressive mentality. In The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), Thorstein Veblen attacked the “conspicuous consumption” of the wealthy. Educator John Dewey emphasized a child-centered philosophy of pedagogy, known as progressive education, which affected schoolrooms for three generations.—Read More:


(see link at end)…Nevertheless, in the 1950s, during a time of cold war anxiety and cultural conservatism, progressive education was widely repudiated, and it disintegrated as an identifiable movement. However, in the years since, various groups of educators have rediscovered the ideas of Dewey and his associates, and revised them to address the changing needs of schools, children, and society in the late twentieth century. Open classrooms, schools without walls, cooperative learning, multiage approaches, whole language, the social curriculum, experiential education, and numerous forms of alternative schools all have important philosophical roots in progressive education. John Goodlad’s notion of “nongraded” schools (introduced in the late 1950s), Theodore Sizer’s network of “essential” schools, Elliott Wigginton’s Foxfire project, and Deborah Meier’s student-centered Central Park East schools are some well known examples of progressive reforms in public education; in the 1960s, critics like Paul Goodman and George Dennison took Dewey’s ideas in a more radical direction, helping give rise to the free school movement. In recent years, activist educators in inner cities have advocated greater equity, justice, diversity and other democratic values t

gh the publication Rethinking Schools and the National Coalition of Education Activists.

Today, scholars, educators and activists are rediscovering Dewey’s work and exploring its relevance to a “postmodern” age, an age of global capitalism and breathtaking cultural change, and an age in which the ecological health of the planet itself is seriously threatened. We are finding that although Dewey wrote a century ago, his insights into democratic culture and meaningful education suggest hopeful alternatives to the regime of standardization and mechanization that more than ever dominate our schools. Read More:

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3 Responses to child’s utopia

  1. stephen says:

    I went to Burgess Hill school as a nine/ten year old in the exact period of this film-clip – tho’ have no memory whatsoever of it being shot. Surviving these things was a family tradition – my mother went to Bertrand Russell’s ‘Telegraph House’ school in the early 30s.

    The pathe clip gives a surprisingly good impression of Burgess Hill, though amusingly over-emphasising how much work we did. Nothing can over-emphasise how much everyone smoked then . . I can still recall being taken up from the school into central London on the underground by the ‘English Teacher’ [Peter Vansittart] to see a Shakespeare production: there was a power-cut & the tube stopped for mebbe ten minutes . . I can still recall the noise as all those matches were struck, & their sulphorous smell, replaced by the smell of all those thick sweet virginia cigarettes, with all those stranger faces lit in their variable glow.

    • Madeline says:

      Hi Stephen, any way I could email you and ask you some questions about life at Burgess Hill? It’s really fascinating to me and I’m looking to do a project on it (recent college grad). Thanks! Would be much appreciated!

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