Peter Sedgwick

Whose Maturity?

(Winter 1964-65)

Peter Sedgwick, Whose Maturity?, International Socialism (1st series), No.19, Winter 1964-65, p.33. (review)
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The Secret Places
David Holbrook
Methuen, 35s.

Teachers of English will know David Holbrook as one of the pioneers of imaginative literary work with schoolchildren. Much of his English For Maturity and English For The Rejected was illuminating and practically suggestive, and his anthologies for school reading are indispensable teaching aids. The Secret Places offers little that is new, and much that is opinionated and perverse. Holbrook’s earlier flirtations with neo-Freudian theory are dominantly reiterated: his (very commendable) moral preferences for monogamy and romantic love are hypostatised into quasi-biological norms of human health (‘maturity’), and disagreeable responses within the school-culture are filtered through pseudo-medical diagnostic terms like ‘sick’, ‘disordered’, ‘disturbed’ (e.g. ‘They are so disturbed that they will keep on writing four-letter words on their books to see how I react’). This so compassionate, so complacent attitude towards social deviancy mingles at time with a prying and intrusive claim over the pupil’s inner life: Holbrook wrote not long ago to the New Statesman asking teacher-readers to send him any instances they could report of class-room autoerotism associated with Beatlemania.

Most of the best writing in the book is from the work of pre-adolescent girls. Very few of the pieces by their male compeers are anything other than crude and superficial; all in all the masculine material offers little support for the view that free writing in the classroom can tap the secret sources of art that have been hitherto clogged by the commercial media. By the time secondary education is reached, pop influences are paramount, and structured set subjects (such as Holbrook himself suggests in the earlier books) offer the best prospect for vigorous imaginative writing. Not all textbook exercises are as bad as those Holbrook picks on in his chapter on The Textbook Myth; there are, after all, relatively specific communication skills which can be taught in an English lesson. To sentimentalise over unconscious spelling errors as Holbrook does (‘“The geres gacled and the ducks gact” is magnificent courageous English’) is plain silly. Holbrook seems to have developed a distressing tendency to ‘knock’ rival educational copy: we simply do not know enough about the learning of literacy to justify his sort of attack upon systematic primers like The Mickey Mix-up Reader, (which, despite Holbrook’s epithets of ‘childish’, ‘banal’, ‘violent’, ‘crude’, etc, are in my own experience effective and appealing). Another target is the educational administrator: ‘“social man”, who is in the office and responsible to the education committee, wants to pretend that the essential problems of teaching do not exist.’ I have no doubt that shocking examples of petty censorship and tyranny, such as Holbrook cites in his epilogue, could be cited from many authorities. But he seems to be unaware that there could be any problem of ethics or public diplomacy arising from a teacher’s use of the national press to publish personal material involving his pupils, however anonymously disguised. Holbrook implies that his role has now become that of an educational anthropologist, accumulating ‘field notes’ in the class-room for future books. If this is so, his commitment is no longer primarily to teaching, and practising teachers will have to remember this when they read his work.

Peter Sedgwick


Last updated on 4.9.2007