English For the Rejected. David Holbrook. C.U.P. 1964. 30s.

Visions of Life. David Holbrook. C.U.P. 1964. 24s.

In his book English For the Rejected David Holbrook pleads for the recognition of the importance and dignity of the children in the lower streams of the Secondary Modern and Comprehensive Schools and advocates a kind of teaching founded on this recognition. Its principles do not differ from those expounded in his reader for higher stream children, Visions of Life.

Today, most c and d stream children spend their English periods struggling through irrelevant vocabulary, ‘comprehension’ and punctuation exercises. Set books, the ones rejected by the a and b stream classes, are read around the class, a particularly joyless task as there are so many poor readers, who stumble uncomprehendingly through their passage, to the embarrassment of all. The result is that many leave Secondary School less self-confident and less literate than they were when they entered.

What Holbrook has tried to do is to demonstrate the value of free creative writing in bringing these children towards literacy. English For the Rejected concerns his work with one class of 19 children in their third year at a Secondary Modern. Through the development of ‘the creative and imaginative functions of the mind’, freed from the compulsion to ensure that every word is spelt correctly, and encouraged to write about the things that are deeply meaningful to them, such as their fears, their families, their ideas of their futures, these children reveal a new mastery of words, a freshness of touch which may make work of apparently abler children seem dull by comparison.

Through this kind of writing the child has gained an enjoyment of language and the ability to communicate a lively experience. But Holbrook does not hesitate to claim much more. One child after writing various disconnected pieces finally achieved a story which ended: ‘so they got married and lived happily ever after’. Holbrook adds ‘And thus she was fortified against what seemed from a distance a very strange and threatening environment.’ Through their writing these children learn to see an order in their personal experience, learn to develop close and meaningful relationships with other people, and so, Holbrook claims, are able to face the world, assured and prepared for the life they are to lead. The conventional element of this fantasy ending does not strike him. That this education for self-respect is better than the usual arid kind of Secondary Modern English there can be no doubt. But to master the threatening environment the child needs a great deal more than the desire to create a loving family, important though this is. This is simply adaptation to the status quo. The child cannot really control his own life without some development of his powers of rational as well as imaginative language. In denying this to children, Holbrook is denying their importance as rational beings. Even the literary pieces in Visions of Life will not widen the range of things over which the child has control and understanding. The child must move out from personal experience if his personality is to be protected from the ‘threatening environment’. Holbrook never sets the child questions which could give a contemporary relevance to his literary pieces. His authors are classical, their topics impinge on the sensibilities but escape the exigencies of everyday life. Does Holbrook (like Newsom with his girls) want to produce a culture which immunizes the child: poetry in poverty?

Henrietta Roberts