In this year of the referendum on Scottish Independence (September 18th) it was appropriate that my ruminations on the future of education, and specifically the ‘Curriculum for Excellence‘ as it has been labelled, should find me making greater acquaintance with one of the country’s most progressive educationalists of the 20th Century, R.F. MacKenzie, a figure whose name I had heard but about whom I knew very little. Appropriate in more ways than one, in that not only was Mackenzie regarded by many as ‘ahead of his time’, but he firmly believed that it was through the state education system that the British establishment maintained its position of power and privilege, and that only by breaking this mould would ordinary Scots be released from their educational and creative straitjacket.
“The doctrine of power depends on a belief that the majority need an intelligent élite to guide them. The élite spread the axiom that the majority of earth-dwellers are unintelligent and, to justify the assertion, flood the educational system with incomprehensibility. The majority of children, obviously failing to comprehend, are adduced as proof of the majority’s limited intelligence. The lesson is ‘Leave it to the élite’.”
R.F. MacKenzie, A Search For Scotland
R.F. MacKenzie was born in 1910 in rural Aberdeenshire, the son of a country stationmaster, and spent much of his childhood travelling between the rich agricultural soil of his immediate environment and the rugged North Sea coastline, with its tales of fishing, survival and adventure. It was travelling further afield which was to enable him to look more forensically in later life at the country he loved dearly: as a young man he taught in Switzerland and Nazi Germany, served as aircrew in the Royal Air Force, travelled widely in Europe by bicycle and lived for a while among the Calvinist Boers in South Africa, before returning to Scotland and taking up a career in teaching. The insights he gained from these experiences, as well as the lessons learned from fellow-Scot and radical teacher A.S. Neill of Summerhill School fame, were to inform his career and his philosophy of education, which would generally be described as liberal and progressive. Like Neill before him, MacKenzie believed that a person’s education should begin in his or her natural environment and stem from a natural desire to answer the great questions in life – Who am I? How did I come to be here (on the earth as well as in this particular place)? Why is this place the way it is? How can, and should, I shape it while I am here? – and that children needed stimulation, not discipline, in order to learn.
Learning outdoors is a key feature of the Mackenzie doctrine, having played such a part in his own early education. It is one which he was able to put into practice early in his teaching career, and in his first Headteacher post at Braehead Secondary School in Fife, a ‘Junior’ Secondary for pupils who failed what was then known as the ’11+’ or ”Qualifying’ examination at the end of their Primary schooling. It was with such pupils, whom he believed had been failed by the system, that MacKenzie had most success, often taking them, literally, back to nature in the form of walks and expeditions in the Scottish countryside. In A Search for Scotland, his last book, published two years after his death in 1987, he describes such an adventure:-
“On a June crossing of the high plateau of Scotland from Braemar to Rothiemurchus, from the Dee to the Spey, in which thirty teenagers took part, we discovered a little of the enquiry and discovery that appeals to them, the experience that gives them enjoyment. We left the Linn O’Dee at nine in the morning and stopped four miles later, near Derry Lodge, for breakfast. Some had sandwiches. One gourmet fried bacon and eggs; we thought he would go far. We followed the less-frequented track of the Lairig-an-Laoidh up the Derry Burn past ancient Caledonian pines, quiet, flat-topped like the mediaeval bonnets that Aberdeen professors wear for graduation ceremonies. The gouging out of two neighbouring corries has left between them the tight-rope of an arête but we had twenty miles of tough walking ahead of us and there wasn’t much time to look at it. A.S. Neill, kindest of critics, said that we were compulsive teachers, too keen to offload geology on our pupils. I imagine he was right because when we stopped for mid-morning break to eat a sandwich and gulp lemonade, the pupils were much keener on dropping rocks in the burn to throw up a cascade of water and soak their unsuspecting companions than on listening to a cascade of geological information…….
The compulsive educationalist tries to gather some crumbs of validation for his own over-serious classroom preoccupations. The sixteen-year-old, staggering in his self-imposed task of carrying a half-hundredweight boulder, legs apart, is learning about density, the feel of granite, the musculature of the human skeleton, the endlessly entertaining phenomena of this miracle substance, water. It comes back to the full meaning of the word ‘know’. What is ‘knowing’? We repacked our rucksacks after the midday siesta, laced up our boots and resumed our journey.”
It was a philosophy which was ultimately to lead to his downfall, dismissed from his post as Headteacher at the ill-fated Summerhill Academy in Aberdeen in 1974. His own account of these events is recorded in The Unbowed Head, but according to Walter Humes of Stirling University it was a failure resulting less from deficiencies in the man or his philosophy than from a combination of external factors, including the inherently conservative nature of the Scottish educational establishment and the difficulties of scaling up an approach which had worked in a previous school with around fifty – albeit challenging – pupils.
Many would argue that there is an inherent contradiction in a man who is himself so well-read and able to quote extensively from the Classics, the Bible and Shakespeare, doggedly pursuing a child-centred, ‘discovery learning’ approach to schooling. Surely a proper education must be about the acquisition of knowledge? My guess is that Mackenzie himself would not have argued against the idea that knowledge was the key to learning, but would have had very sound views on what it is that stimulates the desire and motivation in individuals to acquire it. It could be said in fact that much of what MacKenzie was trying to do was to put into practice the principles of the current Curriculum for Excellence, and that the barriers which stood in his way then remain firmly in place now. Whatever your view, I challenge you to deny that the following extract, written 25 years ago, does not still have some resonance today.
“The richest of the resources that Scotland is wasting is her young. We would be immeasurably richer for their cooperation, and their reintegration into the community. Many years of dealing with these edgy youngsters of industrial Scotland have convinced me of their intellectual ability and potential goodwill as well as their spiny independence. I suspect that our prolonged schooling of them is to hold them down, to protect us adults from their explosive initiatives. Keeping them into their late teens memorising swathes of barely comprehensible information takes the steam out of them. Maybe schools aren’t the best way of bringing up the young. All the politicians in the last election thought that excellence in education is better examination results.”
R.F. MacKenzie, A Search For Scotland
For a more comprehensive analysis of the life and works of R.F. MacKenzie I would recommend that you read Walter Humes’ excellent paper ‘R.F. Mackenzie’s Manifesto for the Educational Revolution‘ in Scottish Educational Review No. 43 (2011)
See also rfmackenzie.info
Listen to a discussion on R.F. MacKenzie and A Search for Scotland on the Inside Learning podcast
‘The Ideal Classroom?’ image from The Shieling Project at A Thousand Huts