Stories from an island

5th December 2003 at 00:00

Gary Thomas finds a collection of insider perspectives on post-war special education giving voice to those who remain voiceless

How do we know anything about education? The stuff with which educators work - learning, thinking, behaving - is so intangible that trying to measure it is like trying to catch air in your hand. Children learn, create and think in strange and idiosyncratic ways, and their behaviour in the institutions that society has constructed for learning may be wilful, paradoxical and self-defeating. Only a brave person pronounces definitively on how learning happens, how teaching should proceed or how we should study it.

The complexity of education has led some analysts to seek new ways of understanding how people think, learn and behave. Gone for them is the tired emulation of scientific methods for studying human affairs; methods that have proved wanting, producing little more than tautologies. Instead, they suggest, we would do better to listen to the stories people have to tell, for those stories have meaning woven into them through the structure of narrative. That structure provides a grammar that enables speaker and listener to understand one another. Like the educational psychologist Jerome Bruner, they trust in "the narrative construal of reality".

This is what Derrick Armstrong has done in this fascinating book. Armstrong has listened to those who have experienced special needs education and constructed a set of "insider perspectives" on life within and later outside special institutions. He stands in a proud tradition of studying difference and "deviance", from Erving Goffman's 1960s classics, Stigma and Asylums to, more recently, the work of Philip and Dianne Ferguson in the United States.

Armstrong begins by justifying listening to the voices and narratives of "insiders" (sadly, such justification is necessary) and then offers excerpts from the narratives of 30 adults who attended special institutions or schools between 1944 and the present.

What emerges is not an indictment of a system, but a balanced analysis - historical and cultural, as well as educational - of a separate education network that grew in tandem with the mainstream one. The separation itself was what so often stigmatised the children, for some of the accounts of what happened in the schools themselves are quite positive. For example, Keith, who moved to a special school at the age of five, says: "I don't have sad memories (of special school). The children and staff were very good. We'd help one another. I made good friends". But he goes on to point out that at 16 he couldn't get a job "because I was labelled 'green card' (special needs)".

Karen, a girl who did well in primary school, was transferred to a special school at the age of 11. As she puts it: "I was basically out of education completely - I mean, it wasn't like school, you didn't have to work. It was just playtime for us because we literally played with our games all day. It was worthless. I wasted 18 months." Subsequently she returned to a mainstream school. "When I went back, I'd forgotten simple things like doing times tables and graphs."

Like an island far away from the mainland that develops its own ecology, special education grew separately from the mainstream, accumulating a different set of priorities, pedagogies and philosophies. Some of these have been helpful and some less so. But what is clear from Armstrong's book is that the central problem for the people who were sent to these schools was the simple fact of their separateness. It was this that created so much difficulty for so many of his respondents, both at school and afterwards.

The book argues that the development of special education has been about institutionalising social control, and provides a complex and challenging analysis of what Armstrong calls the "ordinariness" in the life stories of people with learning difficulties. He describes the "hidden transcripts" of dissent within the ordinary lives of these people, and, using Juergen Habermas, the German social theoretician, as his theoretical template, examines how "the life world is defended against the domination of space by instrumental and anti-democratic forces".

The theoretical analysis goes a step too far here, for one's understanding of a narrative account is dependent on one's own interpretation. This individualisation of interpretation and meaning seems to me to be at the heart of any narrative approach to research: the engine of construction is in the power of the narrative and the mind of the listener. It seems contradictory to expect help from a theoretical template. To paraphrase Obi-Wan Kenobi: "Go with the narrative force, Luke".

Subsequent chapters tackle citizenship (noting that "learning difficulties" is a metaphor for the absence of citizenship rights) and the formulation of policy on inclusion and exclusion.

Armstrong concludes this powerful, difficult and important book by drawing on the work of the Brazilian educationist Paulo Freire, who spoke of the relationship between dominators and dominated. As Freire pointed out, the dominator does not impose a culture on the dominated. Rather, relationships of dependence are created that themselves depend on one set of people having a voice, and the other conforming to a culture of silence. In this book, Armstrong helps to give voice to the voiceless. As he puts it:

"Speaking one's own history is a crucial step towards liberation from the constraints that the labels of subordination have imposed. These labels have meaning precisely because they signify subordination."

For me, more could have been made of the life stories - for these are summaries and excerpts rather than stories - and less viewing through theoretical lenses. But there's enough of the former to make this a meaty, informative and moving book, and one that anyone interested in the rise and fall of special education should read.

Gary Thomas is a professor in education at Oxford Brookes University

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