The Stricken Healer

James L. Henderson, Chairman, World Education Fellowship

What was it about George Lyward which made me feel that to expose student-teachers, however briefly, to his influence, could be a vitally important ingredient in their training? Probably much the same thing that kept me, as a teacher myself, coming back to him for wisdom over a period of more than thirty years. In this article I shall try to catch that quality in the man as it relates to the philosophical cross-currents and dilemmas of twentieth century education.

An interesting point of entry into the exercise is the reflection that his life-span coincides almost exactly with the growth and development of the progressive school movement, personified by such men as Badley, Geeheeb, Neill and Curry. His own educational style was very much part of this movement; indeed it determined many of its activities, while in some respects standing in marked contrast to it. In order to understand this paradox it is necessary to glance briefly at the relationship of the progressive school movement to orthodox education and also at the wider relationship of previously prevailing educational principles and practices to the social scene of Western civilisation at the beginning of this century.

Three main tendencies are quite clearly discernible, politically the ‘international anarchy’ which culminated in the catastrophe of the first world war; economically the increasing need for large-scale production and distribution which expressed itself in varying forms of both capitalist and socialist planning; and spiritually the eclipse of the Christian faith by an initially confident and eventually disillusioned materialism and secularism.

Now the ways in which people were bringing up their young were closely influenced by all these three strands. One response came from those who in the face of such challenges strove to hold fast to known values, the ideal of the ‘decent chap’ as a reluctantly acceptable alternative to the ‘Christian Gentleman’.

Another was extending a welcome to the expansion of state education in the cause of social justice, symbols of which in Britain were the 1918 and 1944 Education Acts.

A third was ‘progressivism’ in home and school, mainly middle class, which championed ‘child-centred’ learning, questioned all kinds of authority and leant towards permissiveness.

George Lyward’s own early life was a part of this complex. His experience as child and schoolboy in a humble London environment were often harsh and seering, but his natural gifts, musical, literary and above all imaginative, enabled him to respond with amazing resilience to a series of set-backs until, when still a very young man, he experienced a severe nervous break-down. In Kierkegaard’s words “he stuck his finger into existence” and found “that it smelt of nothing”.

In spite of a brief, mercurially successful schoolmastership at Glenalmond, which illustrated his capacity for teaching unorthodoxly within an orthodox framework, his disease or dis-ease became so acute that he was compelled either to discover in and through it the germs of his own healing or be destroyed by it. He found healing, but, as I often heard him remark, no cure. His genius lay in applying the wisdom he himself had gained in the course of that healing process to the therapeutic treatment of others.

Finchden Manor, and what this came to mean for its members and an ever-increasing collection of workers in all fields of education, were the result of Lyward’s willingness to be hurt in order to be healed. He himself had learnt how to bear the Amfortas wound of consciousness and to interpret the meaning of that wound in individual and collective terms as it applied to the contemporary predicament of mankind.

In what did and does this wound consist? It is the predicament caused by modern man’s advancing into consciousness, away from his roots in the past and the unconscious, without sufficiently safeguarding by legitimate means his supply lines of instinctual energy and therefore exposing himself to their illegitimate but inevitable expression in explosion. Belsen and Buchenwald erupted into German Kultur, Hiroshima was the catastrophic end-product of the Cavendish laboratory and the Gotingen physicists. All of this lay, I think, at the heart of Lyward’s gift for diagnosis and treatment of the main victims of the predicament, namely the boys and young men who came to him at Finchden Manor.

The fact that most of these had high intelligences is of particular significance as symptomising in individual terms the divorce between reason and emotion, which itself has been such a persistent feature of mankind’s twentieth century malaise.

Lyward could perceive in their plight the projected violence, frustration and lack of love, which are hallmarks of our over-urbanised, industrialised, fragmented and collectivised society. Surely it is just these forces which are now manifesting themselves so stridently in the loveless and licentious classrooms of today – those classrooms that with increasing inefficiency cage the bursting, instinctual energy of teenagers.

These adolescent boys and girls are being denied the opportunity of passing into adulthood through the absence of any ritual capable of helping them to make sense emotionally and intellectually of the human situation they have inherited.

My contention is that Lyward’s specialist work with small groups of delinquent youths has validity for education as a whole and that his message, properly understood, can do two things:

  1. Legitimise the permissive attitudes of parent and teacher to the child.
  2. Provide containers of security and ‘reassuring liaison’ with the past and their own unconscious, wherein this permissiveness can operate creatively and not destructively; in his own words that message is one of ‘stern love’.

This is a sentiment which is the precise opposite of sentimentality, which has been correctly defined as “sympathy based on insufficient knowledge”, an attitude towards human need which should be briskly rejected. Lyward’s power to heal proceeded from the synthesis of a deep capacity for empathy with another person’s condition and a frequently devastatingly rigorous intellectual analysis of it.

Drawing on notes of sundry talks with George Lyward, I would like to mention here two spheres of education as conforming to that criterion of general validity; one has to do with school discipline and the other with the teaching of history. In respect of the first it must be a common and distressing experience for many a teacher today to enter a classroom, the atmosphere of which is poisoned with an attitude of resentment, hostility or insolent apathy on the part of pupils, many of whom would rather not be at school and who fail to see that the lesson to which they are being exposed has anything in it for them.

Such a situation is of course only worsened if the teacher reacts to it with timidity or aggressiveness. Let him instead ‘relax towards the toughs’ (Lyward), not by giving in to them but by loving them, and Lyward does not mean necessarily liking them, but, to use his own splendid definition, loving them in the sense of ‘paying attention to them’. Of course such a realisation is not easy to attain; it springs, as Lyward demonstrated at Finchden Manor, from ‘the depth of group life’. This is not lightly achieved between teacher and taught in the framework of a disjointed and fragmented day school timetable. Yet surely it gives a most valuable clue to the handling of the soreness of class-teacher confrontation; the first thing to go for is group life in some depth as the prerequisite of any meaningful learning.

It may be that a class activity of however hum-drum a kind on condition it is genuinely desired by the general will of the class, can provide such a context – joint pursuit of a desired goal or joint caring for a common object of compassion. This will take time, but as Lyward was never tired of witnessing to, timing is all important in any educational relationship. The right moment at which alone the penny of enlightenment will drop, has got to be waited for. “Waiting consumes my life”, he used to say, and this waiting has to be conducted with gaiety and faith.

Then there is the paradoxical contention with which he used to puzzle enquirers; “Never make a contract with a child”, he would say. Why not? Because contracts imply equality of bargaining power between the partners concerned, which by definition cannot exist between adult and non-adult, it smacks of ‘conditional love’ which is the negation of true love.

It is perhaps just here, in that most practical encounter between adult and child, that Lyward’s difference from most of the progressive educationists of at any rate the twentieth century can be discerned. For that ‘unconditional love’ for which he calls is Agape and can only be invoked within the spiritual dimension. It is a kind of grace which the teacher cannot just order but has to pray for, and this he can only do if he believes in an object of his prayer, as Lyward certainly did, though in his case it seemed to take on an often strangely heretical Christian form.

Now this teaching of ‘stern love’ began gradually to permeate the thinking of the Home and School Council of Great Britain of which Lyward was for some years Chairman. (He was also oddly enough a member of the London Society of Rugby Referees!)

This mode of regarding teaching has been finding its way into the more recent thinking of the World Education Fellowship, in whose circles progressivism in education is being redefined in terms that, without denying the truths of ‘child-centredness’ transcend them and deepen the philosophical perspective within which children need to be viewed. For the authority with which ‘stern love’ is armed, seems to be the only authority that these children of a permissive society appear capable of both recognising and respecting.

With the regard to the teaching of history, Lyward as an undergraduate at Cambridge had already responded with assent to Professor Freeman’s plea for what he called the ‘unity and continuity’ of history.

Years later I made notes of one of Lyward’s talks, which threw a flood of light on my own clumsy efforts to teach history in such a way that it made sense to myself and my pupils. “You all know”, remarked Lyward, “what happened in 1066, but do you ever give a thought to Stephen and Matilda?

Those of you who were alive during the first world war may remember the rumours of war-profiteering. Do you know that the civil war between Stephen and Matilda went on for many years because the nobles kept it going; they were war profiteers. When I use the word ‘war profiteer’ about them, I am helping you to travel, to take your minds back from the present to the past which then becomes modern. I am sadly perhaps reminding you that the war profiteer is of all time.

Instead of the kind of linear teaching which I find myself inveighing against more and more as a stumbling-block to many of our children in school, and a possibly potent aid to the producing of a schizoid generation, I have been trying to move gently into the realm of subjective values, spanning time and place”.

The quite recent advent of the psycho-historian (see ‘Teaching History’ Nov. 1972, Vol. 11 Number Eight) is making that realm increasingly accessible to the student of his story, so here again is an instance of Lyward the pioneer.

It is fitting to conclude with one of Lyward’s favourite quotations:

“Look not for me
Among the bearded counsellors of God:
Look for me in the nurseries of Heaven.”
Francis Thompson

Whether these ‘nurseries of Heaven’ are Westminster Abbey where to his somewhat wry astonishment Lyward found himself preaching shortly before he died, or the homes and schools of our perplexed society, his spirit will be found alive and at work wherever parents and teachers have learnt how to pay attention to the young.

Dr James Henderson. Chairman of the World Education Fellowship, Senior lecturer in the teaching of history and International Affairs. London Institute of Education.
Lectures and travels on educational missions in Europe, the USSR, Middle East, Africa, India, Australia and the USA.

Gordon Toplis. Bedford School – Liverpool Universtiy (B.Arch.) – R.I.A.B.A. Wartime service R.N.V.R. (awarded D.S.C.). Combined architectural practice with teaching at the Polytechnic of Central London: Presently lecturer in architecture at Manchester University. Research into the architecture of Inigo Jones (M.A.) and into early 19th century speculative housing in Paddington. Married with two daughters.