From the Archives: Of Penises and Progressive Schools

Like most other culture-war issues, the enduring battles over the proper form and function of schooling have tended to fight with caricatures rather than realities.  Each side has produced compelling fictions about the dangers of ‘tyrannical’ traditional schools or ‘anarchic’ progressive ones.  Among fans of progressive education, the generations have not produced a more damning portrait of traditional schooling than Dickens’ Mr. Gradgrind.

Gradgrind hammered home his bullheaded vision of the proper goal of schooling:

‘“Now, what I want is Facts.  Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts.  Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else.  You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them.  This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children.  Stick to Facts, sir!”

‘The scene was a plain, bare, monotonous vault of a school-room, and the speaker’s square forefinger emphasized his observations by underscoring every sentence with a line on the schoolmaster’s sleeve.’

A little bit later in the story, Gradgrind receives a visit from an official in the government bureau of education.  The two reach perfect agreement on the essence of proper schooling:

‘“Fact, fact, fact!’ said the gentleman.  And “Fact, fact, fact!” repeated Thomas Gradgrind.

‘“You are to be in all things regulated and governed,” said the gentleman, “by fact.  We hope to have, before long, a board of fact, composed of commissioners of fact, who will force the people to be a people of fact, and of nothing but fact.  You must discard the word Fancy altogether.  You have nothing to do with it.  You are not to have, in any object of use or ornament, what would be a contradiction in fact.  You don’t walk upon flowers in fact; you cannot be allowed to walk upon flowers in carpets.”’

This sketch of the cruelties of traditional education from 1854 could just as easily be a conversation from 1954 or 2004.  The caricature of traditionalist education is that it harps senselessly and incessantly on the need for young children to memorize and regurgitate ‘Facts, Facts, Facts!’  Every traditionalist since 1854 has lambasted “progressive” schools for including fads and frills, of ignoring the overwhelming importance of ‘Facts, Facts, Facts!’

For their part, traditionalists can’t hope for a more ridiculous picture of the perils and puerility of progressive education than we find in the 1955 novel Auntie Mame, by Patrick Dennis.  This is a title that resonated powerfully with Americans when it first came out.  It stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for over two years, and sold over two million copies.  Inevitably, it was made into a Broadway play and musical, then into a Hollywood movie.  Apparently, the musical still makes an appearance every now and again.

The novel tells the story of young Patrick Dennis, a ten-year-old orphan sent in 1929 to live with his free-spirit Aunt Mame.  Mame lives the life of the New York intellectual avant-garde to the hilt.  At first, young Patrick is terrified by the outlandish characters his aunt surrounds herself with, but he soon embraces her slapdash bohemian elegance.

When it comes time to send the boy to school, Aunt Mame subverts his dying father’s last request that the boy be sent to a “conservative school.”  Instead, she finds Patrick a place in a “completely revolutionary” school run by her friend Ralph, a man who scolds Mame for allowing the boy to read.

When young Patrick arrives at the “progressive” school, he falls in with a school regime that typified contemporary stereotypes of the foibles of progressive education.  The portrait so perfectly captures the enduring caricature of excessive progressive schooling that I’ll include a good long chunk of it here:

When we got there, the big room was filled with naked children of all ages racing around and screaming.  Ralph came forward, as naked as the day he was born, and shook hands cordially.

‘Isn’t he lovely,’ Auntie Mame gushed.  ‘Just like a Praxiteles.  Oh, darling, I know you’re going to love it here!’

A square little yellow-haired woman, also naked, rushed up and kissed Auntie Mame.  Her name was Natalie.  She and Ralph were running the school together.

‘Now you just tag along with Ralph and enjoy yourself, my little love, and I’ll see you back at the flat in time for tea.’

Auntie Mame departed with a gay wave and I was left alone, the only person in the place who was wearing any clothes.

            ‘Come in here and disrobe, yes?’ Natalie said, ‘then join the others?’

            I always felt a little like a picked chicken at Ralph’s school, but it was pleasant and I never had to do anything.  It was a big, stark, whitewashed room with a heated linoleum floor, quartz glass skylights, and violet ray tubes running around the available ceiling.  There were no desks or chairs, just some mats where we could lie down and sleep whenever we wanted, and, in the center of the room, a big white structure that looked like a cow’s pelvis.  We were supposed to crawl in, around, and over this if we felt like it, and whenever one of the younger children did, Ralph would give Natalie’s broad bottom a resounding smack and chuckle, ‘Back to the womb, eh Nat!’

There was a communal toilet—‘Nip the inhibitions in the bud’—and all sorts of other progressive pastimes.  We could draw or finger-paint or make things in Plasticine.  There were Guided Conversation Circles, in which we discussed our dreams and took turns telling what we were thinking at the moment.  If you felt like being antisocial, you could just be antisocial.  For lunch we ate raw carrots, raw cauliflower—which always gave me gas—raw apples, and raw goat’s milk.  If two children ever quarreled, Ralph would make them sit down with as many others as were interested and discuss the whole thing.  I thought it was awfully silly, but I got quite a thorough suntan.

But I didn’t stay long enough at Ralph’s school to discover whether it did me good or harm.  My career there—and Ralph’s too, for that matter—ended just six weeks after it began.

Ralph and Natalie, under the misapprehension that their young followers did any work at school, organized an afternoon period of Constructive Play so as to send us all home in a jolly frame of mind.  The general idea was that the children, all except the really antisocial ones, were to participate in a large group game that would teach us something of Life and what awaited us beyond the portals of the school.  Sometimes we’d play Farmer and attend to the scrubby avocado plants Natalie grew.  At other times we’d play Laundry and wash all of Ralph’s underwear, but one of the favorite games of the smaller fry was one called Fish Families, which purported to give us a certain casual knowledge of reproduction in the lower orders.

It was a simple game and rather good exercise.  Natalie and all the girls would crouch on the floor and pretend to lay fish eggs and then Ralph, followed by the boys, would skip among them, arms thrust sideways and fingers wiggling—‘in a swimming motion, a swimming motion’—and fertilize the eggs.  It always brought down the house.

On my last day at Ralph’s we’d been playing Fish Families for about half an hour.  Natalie and the girls were on the linoleum and Ralph started to lead the boys through the school of lady fish.  ‘A swimming motion, a swimming motion!  Now! Spread the sperm, spread the sperm!  Don’t forget that little mother fish there, Patrick, spread the sperm, spread the . . .’

                        There was a sudden choking sound.

                        ‘My God!’ a familiar voice gasped.

            We all turned around and there, fully dressed and looking like the angriest shark in the sea, stood [Patrick’s “conservative” trustee] Mr. Babcock. . . . With one deft motion, he yanked me out of the melee.  ‘God damn it!  You get your clothes on and hurry.  I want to talk to that crazy aunt of yours and I want you to be there with me!’  He threw me in the dressing room.  ‘As for you, you filthy pervert,’ he shouted to Ralph, ‘you haven’t heard the last of this!’ . . .

The next day Ralph’s school was raided by the police, and the tabloids, caught in a lull between ax murders, became profoundly pious about all of progressive education.  Over delicately retouched photographs of Ralph and Natalie and the student body were headlines such as SEX SCHOOL SEIZED, with articles by civic leaders and an outraged clergy that all seemed to begin: ‘Mother, What Is Your Child Being Taught?’

Some of the emphasis on Freud as a panacea for curing children of traditional hang-ups seems a bit dated, but the notion of over-eager progressive school leaders establishing bedlams under the cover of freeing young minds does not.  Every generation of progressive school leader has suffered from comparisons—voiced or silent—to this kind of caricature of the dangers of progressive schooling.

Of course, progressive educators will counter that this kind of cartoonish depiction says nothing about the realities of progressive education.  More important, though, to understanding the seemingly permanent culture war over the proper nature of education, this stereotype of the eventual result of progressive schooling has always had enormous cultural power.  Many traditionalists have argued that any opening in the traditional school regime will lead eventually to some sort of chaotic free-for-all.  For most traditionalists, however, Patrick Dennis’ rose-colored nostalgia for the bumbling Freudian ineptitude of Ralph and Natalie mistakes the more common result.  Not only will students “never have to do anything” constructive in such muddle-headed progressive schools, but the students will soon be robbed of any sense of traditional morality.  They will descend, as in Ralph’s game of Fish Families, to little more than scrabbling beasts, learning that they should consume raw vegetables from the field, that they ought to defecate in public, and that they should see the end and goal of their animal existence as nothing more than laying eggs and spewing sperm.

READINGS: Charles Dickens, Hard Times, For These Times (New York: Signet Classics, 1961); Patrick Dennis, Auntie Mame (New York: Vanguard Press, 1955).

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  1. Thank you for the post, Adam, I do plan to assign _Aunt Mame_ in my concepts of childhood class, as part of a primary source analysis assignment. Cheers!! Jon

    • Jon,
      Had you seen it before? I just ran across it in some research I’m doing into perceptions of “progressive” education in the 1950s. But it seems as if other people have already used this snippet as a well known formulation of those perceptions. It was new to me!


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