The Little Red Schoolbook (1969)

little-red-schoolbookBy Sophie Heywood

This first blog post for our new research network offers a brief introduction to one of the most notorious examples of children’s rights activism from the period: Bo Dan Andersen, Jesper Jansen and Søren Hansen’s Den lille røde bog for skoleelever (The little red schoolbook) from 1969.

It is a useful place to start our discussions on the children’s ’68 because it is an excellent example of the new and often highly provocative ways in which the boundaries between childhood and adulthood, and the structures that governed children’s lives, were being challenged in the ’68 years. This was a period of great experimentation and political militancy in children’s media, and these new ideas spread rapidly across national borders.

The Little red schoolbook was written in protest against the authoritarian school system ‘with its robotic discipline’ (13).[1] It was the work of two Danish schoolteachers and a psychologist, and their aim was to educate schoolchildren about democracy, school and social issues such as sex and drugs. Small and red (of course!), cheap, and written in direct, occasionally explicit language, it was intended for readers aged 12 and upward.

Children’s rights activism

What can this little book tell us about the ‘children’s ‘68’? First, and most obviously, we can see the way the adult authors attempted to appeal to their young target audience by adopting the jargon of the ’68 student revolts – notably in the title’s reference to Mao’s Little Red Book, which was brandished by many students at demos, and its famous opening line ‘all grown-ups are paper tigers’. In reality, it was far from being a Maoist text. In an interview from 2014, on the occasion of the re-edition of the UK version, Hansen admitted that the Maoist references had been a ‘cheap trick’.

More important than its trendy slogans was the book’s aim to give children the political tools to empower themselves – this was very much in the spirit of ’68. It fits into a much longer history of children’s rights activism that was amplified by the 1960s.[2] The children of the ’68 years were a generation that had been politicised by the student revolts, the civil rights movement, and the anti-Vietnam war protests. Examples of such schoolchild activism in America include the black pupils who defied mob violence to attend all-white schools, such as fifteen-year old Elizabeth Eckford in 1957, or thirteen-year-old Mary Beth Tinker who was turned away from her school in 1967 for wearing a black armband in protest against the Vietnam War. The Supreme Court subsequently ruled in Tinker’s favour. Crucially, she argued that she was not less competent to express her political opinion because she was a child, and she had a right to freedom of speech.

sois-jeune-et-tais-toi

Over in Europe, ’68ers were making similar claims. During May ’68 the French schoolpupils’ union organised a large-scale strike. This iconic May ’68 poster (left) protested against censorship of the young, depicting the President de Gaulle covering a young boy’s mouth and the slogan ‘Sois jeune et tais toi!’ (‘Be young and shut up!’). The little red schoolbook advised pupils they should ignore adults who deny children the right to decide for themselves because they aren’t mature enough:

‘People have said the same thing about Africans, Eskimos, Red Indians, [sic] Chinese, etc. You know yourself what this argument is worth’ (216).

These political struggles focused on schools. This was where children spent most of their time, and they had no choice in the matter, or any say in their running. For the authors of the Schoolbook, the system was broken:

‘Instead of helping you to develop as an individual, schools have to teach you the things our economic system needs you to know. They have to teach you to obey authority rather than question things, just as the exam system encourages you to conform, not to be an individual’ (p. 19).

They argued passionately for the abolition of corporal punishment, and its excessive use against working-class children and pupils with learning difficulties. It detailed how pupils could lodge complaints against teachers who mistreated them, who to contact in such cases, and even provided a model letter (68-77).

lindsey-anderson-if-posterThis call to rebel against a repressive, brutalising school system was a sentiment echoed in much popular culture of the ’68 years, such as Lindsey Anderson’s 1968 film If… about schoolboy revolutionaries, or Marguerite Duras’ picturebook for children, Ah Ernesto! (1971 – more about this picturebook on the blog soon!). The ’68 years witnessed the rise of movements criticising schools, see for example Ivan Illlich’s famous book Deschooling Society (1971).

Their message appears to have resonated. An Australian documentary on The little red schoolbook from 2007 showed footage of Australian children reading extracts from the book out loud in class, staging sit-ins in the playground, and British schoolchildren defending their right to strike to journalists.[3]

Children and the liberation movements of the ’68 years

The second aspect of the children’s ’68 this book introduces us to is the ways in which the nascent feminist and gay liberation movements influenced children’s culture. The Schoolbook wanted to ensure that younger generations had access to their help and ideas.

The authors sought to dispel the hypocrisies surrounding sex and to address the lack of adequate sex education. They gave some of the reasons why people may go to bed together, what they do, and what the consequences may be. They wrote candidly and without judgement about female sexuality and homosexuality. They explained to girls who they could to turn to if they found themselves pregnant, and what their rights were when dealing with the medical profession: ‘try not to panic. There are many ways of getting help’ (p. 122).

The authors did not hold back in their anger at the lies children were told. Their advice on masturbation was typically frank: ‘if anybody tells you it’s harmful to masturbate, they’re lying’ (102-3). On homosexuality, they provided information about the gay liberation movement, with relevant contact details, and added:

‘In purely physical terms, homosexuals make love just like anybody else, although of course they can’t have intercourse in quite the same way. Their love and feelings are just as real and genuine as anybody else’s. […] The time will come when homosexual marriages are recognised.’ (114-118)

For the historian David Limond, the Schoolbook is an early example of what is now known as the ‘harm reduction’ approach to sex education.[4]

An international scandal

Unsurprisingly, this provocation caused a ferocious response on an international scale. The little red schoolbook and the subsequent outrage show us that the children’s ’68 was a transnational phenomenon, in which radical ideas and culture for children spread quickly, just as the angry responses did too. This is why we have set up an international network to investigate this question together.

Let’s look in more detail at the example of the Schoolbook. The book originated in Denmark, a country famous for its liberal attitudes compared to many other western nations. It was then translated and published in Belgium, Finland, France, the Federal Republic of Germany, Greece, Iceland, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland, it also circulated freely in Austria and Luxembourg, and reached beyond Europe to countries including Australia, Japan and Mexico.

What is interesting here is the varying reactions the book provoked in the different countries. In Denmark, there was some initial concern, but the final printed version passed with relatively little remark. It was only as the book was exported abroad that it caused a sensation. The Pope denounced it as sacrilegious. In the UK, it went to trial in 1971, and was only allowed to circulate in an expurgated version. In France, it was banned outright, and the publisher François Maspero found his copies were seized by the Ministry of the Interior. The Greek publisher was imprisoned. The Australian government was nearly toppled, as an angry public turned on the Minister for Customs and Excise, Don Chipp, for allowing such filth into the country.[5]

It was for Europe however that the scandal over The little red schoolbook had the most serious repercussions. This is because the English publisher Richard Handyside took his case to the European Court of Human Rights in 1972, after a UK court decided the sections on sex could ‘deprave and corrupt’ young people. In a landmark decision, the European court upheld the UK court’s ruling.[6] This was based in part on the fact the book was aimed at children, and accessible to even very young children. The European court ruled that each state has the right to decide for itself, within certain limits, on the moral protection of its citizens. According to Helen Fenwick, a specialist in human rights law, this was one of the court’s most important decisions, for it set a precedent that has been used many times since in freedom of speech cases dealing with protection of morals or religious sensibility.[7]

In this way, this emblematic product of the ‘children’s ‘68’ tested the boundaries of childhood, and found them to be very solid indeed. However, many of the ideas it expressed – that children should have more of a voice, and access to decent sex education – are widely accepted in Europe in 2016. Over the course of the project we’re going to explore further this question of children’s political activism and their media with colleagues in the art education sector.

As we will show you in our next blog posts on other manifestations of the children’s ’68, they were not usually quite so dramatic, but they were regularly controversial, and always inventive.

 

[1] The main language of this research project is English, so all the references are taken from the 2014 English re-edition (‘the original and uncensored edition’) translated by Berrit Thornberry and published in London by Pinter & Martin. You can consult the censored edition published in 1971 by Stage 1 in the British Library.

[2] This paragraph owes a lot to the excellent chapter on this subject by Michael Grossberg, ‘Liberation and caretaking: fighting over children’s rights in postwar America’, in Paula S. Fass and Michael Grossberg (eds), Reinventing childhood after World War II (Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012), pp. 19-37.

[3] ‘The Book that Shook the World’, SBS Television, 2 November 2007.

[4] David Limond (2012) ‘The UK edition of The Little Red Schoolbook: a paper tiger reflects’, Sex Education: Sexuality, Society and Learning, 12:5, 523-534.

[5] You can read a confidential cabinet minute about The Little Red Schoolbook and Chipp’s decision here: http://vrroom.naa.gov.au/print/?ID=25377

[6] The decision can be consulted online: http://www.bailii.org/eu/cases/ECHR/1976/5.html see also http://rightsinfo.org/stories/the-little-red-schoolbook/.

[7] You can here her speaking about this decision and its impact in the BBC Radio 4 programme ‘Living Memory’ series, Jolyon Jenkins on The Little Red Schoolbook broadcast 21 December 2008 http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00c1d1k


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