Adventures in Progressive Education: Bertrand and Dora Russell's Beacon Hill School

7th July 2013 at 11:48


Bertrand and the Cash Street Kids


I was recently reminded that Bertrand Russell, one of the 20th century's greatest mathematicians and philosophers, and a rock star to me in my Caliban youth, opened a fee-paying school with his wife Dora in 1937. Beacon Hill, in the South Downs of Sussex, was a primary school that embodied the Russells' modern views on many things: feminism, what it meant to be human, sex education, libertarianism, and the nature of human curiosity. It can be seen as part of a tradition known as progressive education, which traces its intellectual ancestry to proponents such as Pestalozzi, Dewey, Rousseau, Locke, and Kilpatrick

Other schools existed in a similar vein; in fact, England in the first half of the twentieth century saw a blossoming of many such experiments of schooling, of which AS Neill's Summerhill in Suffolk still exists. For the most part, however, their ambition outstripped their longevity; Beacon Hill was forced to close in 1943 after years of financial difficulties and dwindling numbers; the Dartington Hall School in Devon lasted until 1987; Homer Lane's Little Commonwealth closed in 1918.


"I would rather Summerhill produced a happy street cleaner than a neurotic scholar."A.S. Neill



The Beacon Hill prospectus stated that the school was founded on the beliefs:



" knowledge of any sort or kind should be withheld from children and young people; Respect for the individual preferences and peculiarities of the child, both in work and in behaviour; Morality and reasoning to arise from the childrens actual experience in a democratic group and never of necessity from the authority or convenience of adults."



As Deborah Goreham put it:



"The school was co-educational and under the heading sex and anatomical teaching the Principals promised complete frankness on anatomical and physiological facts of sex, marriage, parenthood and the bodily functions. Formal teaching was available, but much of it, especially for the younger children, involved blocks, clay, paint and Montessori things. No child was to be forced to go to lessons, but for those seven years and older certain work is set per week and the child was expected to make an effort to complete his weeks work.



The Russells concluded their prospectus with the following ringing assertion: We aim at producing, not listless intellectuals, but young men and women filled with constructive hopefulness, conscious that there are great things to be done in the world, and possessed of the skill required for taking their part."



Russell (or as Debrett's calls him, '3rd Earl Russell') may have been the epitome of privilege, but it could never be said that he did not at least capitalise on it. Where many similarly blessed contemporaries went on to lives of anodyne comfort and invisible importance, he burned like a sun: a philosopher of historical renown, an activist who was imprisoned for his beliefs, a campaigner for women's and child rights when such things were laughed at, and against modern woes such as nuclear war. A wit, a wag and a wise man, for all his faults, here at least is something to justify those aristocratic myths of natural selection and divine anointment.

He also, like many of us, knew nothing of how to raise a child, nor how to teach one. What he did have, was money and status. I will surprise no one when I say that it is generally far easier to achieve great works, whether they be folly or wonder, when one is pushing at a series of open doors. The Russell brand allowed the word to be made flesh, and he and his wife could put their speculations into practice. It is perhaps understandable that the Russell's wanted to create an educational environment so radically opposed to their own: by all, and his own, account, the young Lord Russell had a fairly miserable childhood. Both his parents died young, and he was home tutored; he thought of suicide often, and claimed that only mathematics, and the desire to learn more, sustained him. One can scarcely wonder that his views of traditional educational were sour. Dora Black's education seems to have been a little happier by comparison, and represented an even more traditional theme: private co-ed primary; a scholarship to Sutton High School; Girton, Cambridge, where she met Russell. But they both shared devout and then-heretical views on social justice, feminism, religion, and education.



Russell was involved deeply with the school for five years; he withdrew when his relationship with Dora soured, which was a consequence of their attempts to live in an open, progressive marriage. But both parties found it increasingly impossible to accommodate the realities of other lovers, especially when Dora became pregnant to one, and Russell started an affair with the help. Again, the Platonic ideal of the theory failed to reify in the lived experience.



Russell said as much about the school. Writing in his autobiography, he admitted that:



"In retrospect, I feel that several things were mistaken in the principles upon which the school was conducted. Young children in a group cannot be happy without a certain amount of order and routine. Left to amuse themselves, they are bored and turn to bullying or destruction



I know a great number of teachers who could have told him as much before he launched.



Dora continued to run the school, but it sank into the gravity of financial entropy, and closed in 1945. Many of the pupils, particularly in the early years, had been family, friends of family, and the children of the wealthy (when it opened, it had 12 pupils). Like most great efforts to realise grand theories, it failed to sustain itself. It was a sincere and generous attempt to rewrite the social education of the child, to produce, as Russell said, people with the ability to see the problems of the world, and the skills to face them. But the emphasis on freedom for the child, and their democratic involvement in their own education, would never be more than an aristocrat's pocket experiment.



Dora said, 'The impression too often given is that [Beacon Hill] was a wild place run by crazy amateurs. Not only were we both academically qualified, but we had been studying modern psychologists and theories of education: during 1926 Bertie had been writing his own book on the subject. We knew about Freud, Adler, Piaget, Pestalozzi, Froebel, Montessori and Margaret McMillan. Once we took John and Kate to spend half a day at the McMillan open-air nursery school, while we talked with her and studied her ideas in action.'



Such sincerity and naivety may find an echo in 21st century naysayers who warn about dilettantes opening Free Schools. The claim that a degree from Cambridge and a bookshelf full of educational theory prepares one for experimental child rearing is as sound as a belief that a degree in Chemistry makes one a chef.



Russell Crowe's maverick captain in Ridley Scott's Master and Commander made his motto 'Men must be governed.' This sentiment strikes at the heart of the Progressive  Movement, which believed that children were intrinsically curious and benevolent, and that left alone with merely a nudge or two, would discover manners and wisdom by themselves, eg the Montessori school movement. But such theoretical approaches to learning and nurture run into the same dilemma that other equally optimistic social projects encounter: humans are marbled with egoism. Our preferences, especially when young, dominate our will. Crudely put, we are often very selfish, and children especially so. The infant cries without concern for the needs of the tired parent, and such enlightenment has to be taught, not discovered,not left to chance. While it is appealing to believe that altruism and enquiry are a child's innate telos, such a proposition can only be justified with a very small number of children. Scaled up, conflict and self-interest become dominant notes to human discourse.



Of course, the polar opposite of such optimism is also untenable; to imagine that children are vicious, and must be yoked and goaded constantly is an equally reductionist view. But the error of school projects such as Summerhill or Beacon Hill is that they pretend humans are something they are not.



While these institutions represent the extremities of progressive education, their more moderate counterparts still exist, which we see in the DNA of much UK state schooling: child centred education, personalised, learning, discovery learning, project based work, group work, thematic study, student voice, and on and on. Individually, each of these has some value in appropriate contexts. Collectively, and cumulatively, they represent a robbery of the most valuable commodity a child will ever receive from the state: an education.



Fortunately, the extreme organisms like Beacon Hill fail to thrive; in Darwinian terms, they are not fit, and they gasp for oxygen which is only provided by the life support systems of wealthy, idealistic patrons. And despite the wishes of the most ardent progressive cultists, children still learn despite the best efforts of some of their teachers that they should not, simply because it is nearly impossible to run a school on entirely progressive principles. At some point, even the devoted have to acknowledge that children must be told facts, encouraged to remember them, and later display them in some form of formal scrutiny, all in an atmosphere of collegiate socialised norms.



Ironically, while schools like Beacon Hill were previously the exclusive preserve of the wealthy classes (who could afford the privilege of children being taught badly because such children could access tutors who would remedy the fault, as well as possessing charmed destinies cushioned from failure), these days the possibility exists that the state could fund them as Free Schools. Indeed, applications already exist, such the proposed Montessori Free School in Brighton. It is deeply ironic that the most vocal critics of the Free School system, who are often the most committed campaigners for progressive education, might see at least some of their ambitions realised in the shadow of their nemesis's Grand Design.

Bertrand Russell was unavailable for comment.



All extracts, quotes taken from:



Gorham, Deborah. 'Dora and Bertrand Russell and Beacon Hill School'



Goreham, D. 'Griffin Barry'



Russell, Bertrand. Autobiography, Routledge 2009



Summerhill School Website, Policy Page (accessed 6/7/13, 17:33 GMT)