Childhood and the counterculture

The hippies and the idea of childhood

The tension I have identified here was particularly apparent in relation to the idea of childhood – in ways that, as we shall see, had particular implications for Schoolkids Oz and its editors’ eventual trial.

According to Peter Braunstein, the counter-culture was part of a broader ‘rejuvenation’ of society that took place in the 1960s, at least in the United States – a rejuvenation that was apparent not just in culture and consumer goods, but also in politics. With the discovery of the youth market, and the coming of age of the baby boomer generation, young people moved in from the margins to occupy centre stage. Young people’s tastes and preferences became the driving force in popular culture; the constraints and conventions of the older generation were dismissed and swept aside. Yet this change was not only about young people themselves: it was also about the idea of ‘youthfulness’ – youth was a state of mind, not just a matter of one’s chronological age. As Braunstein suggests, it was as though the whole country was undergoing an extended late adolescence.

This argument relates to youth, but it can also be applied to childhood. Indeed, the idea of childhood was central to the hippie ethos. Hippiedom valorized a child-like state of mind, a state of wonder and simplicity. The hippies aimed to be at one with nature and the earth, in a kind of primal, pre-technological innocence: they were, after all, the flower children. They sought to live in and for the present, refusing to plan for the future, or to view their lives in terms of career or progress. This ethos was undoubtedly promoted by the use of psychedelic drugs, especially LSD: for many of their advocates (from Aldous Huxley to Timothy Leary), the psychedelic ‘trip’ involved a return to childhood, and even to infancy. According to William Burroughs, drugs were a means of ‘deconditioning’ the mind, and throwing off the rigid, one-dimensional constraints of adulthood.

As Jenny Diski argues, the counter-culture enabled the Sixties generation to follow through on Peter Pan’s imperative never to grow up: this was, she says, ‘the longest gap year in history’. At least in the early years of the counter-culture, there was an abiding fantasy that life could be lived as a kind of permanent free rock festival, without the need to work. One could hang on to childhood, or irresponsibility, forever. Of course, this was largely a middle-class fantasy, which held a particular appeal for the growing numbers of university students. As middle-class parents emerged from post-war austerity, they were keen to indulge their children, not merely by providing copious amounts of consumer goods, but also by allowing (and funding) them to defer their eventual entry into adult life. In this context, ‘dropping out’ could be conceived as a temporary condition, rather than a permanent excommunication. By contrast, working-class young people lacked this cushion of privilege and security, and could not so easily afford to extend their childhood in this way; and this led to a degree of class tension and resentment within the counter-culture itself.

A central emphasis here was on the idea of play. The 1960s was a period of almost full employment, but the development of technology held out the promise of a utopian future, where most work would be done by machines. This allowed adults to imagine a world where they would be free to play – or at least where work itself would become another form of play. Richard Neville’s counter-cultural ‘manifesto’, mentioned above, was the book Play Power, published in early 1971, a few months ahead of the Oz Trial. While there are some overtly political ‘new left’ elements here, Neville’s core argument is for a kind of hedonism – a playful pursuit of pleasure. Play in these terms is about the freedom to have fun: it embodies values that adults (or at least ‘straight’ adults) have somehow lost in the process of growing up. Play is joyful, spontaneous, innocent, and not constrained by any utilitarian considerations, or by the responsibilities of adulthood. Play is not competitive, unlike most forms of sport. It is essentially anarchic; but it also contains a potentially dangerous, anti-social element – even a vein of savagery – that disrupts and challenges sexual repression and the Protestant work ethic. Play, Neville wrote, ‘adorns life, amplifies it, and to that extent is a necessity both for the individual – as a life function – and for the society… as a cultural function’.

The imperative to play was to some extent apparent in changing styles of political protest: the outrageous and unpredictable antics of the ‘yippies’ in the United States challenged ‘serious’ ways of doing politics, and were influential internationally (and continue to be so). However, play was also evident in more widespread cultural practices. The fashion styles of the hippies were to some extent about ‘dressing up’ games, combining outlandish articles that one’s parents or grandparents might have worn, but in a playful way. And as Diski argues, drugs were also a kind of ‘fascinating, magical toy’:

It wasn’t coincidental that we took to blowing bubbles through plastic hoops and making morphing patterns in bright colours with oil and heat [in psychedelic ‘light shows’]. And notice how taking acid dripped on to sugar cubes or blotting paper combined the magical contraption with the favoured, forbidden foodstuffs of our childhoods.


Children’s liberation

However, in contrast with this view, one can identify a very different account of childhood within the counter-culture – an account that derives more from the political, ‘new left’ side than from the cultural, hippy side. The late 1960s and early 1970s saw the emergence of arguments for ‘children’s rights’ and ‘children’s liberation’, in some ways as a logical extension of other civil rights movements of the time. These approaches particularly informed arguments for what is variously called ‘child-centred’ or ‘progressive’ education. These are loose terms, but broadly speaking these approaches challenged the emphasis on adult authority and coercion, and emphasised the educational and developmental significance of play in learning. Of course, these kinds of approaches had a much longer history. In the US, it’s possible to look back to the work of the educational philosopher John Dewey, and in Europe to pioneering Romantic educators such as Maria Montessori and Johann Pestalozzi. In the UK, there is also a tradition of progressive education, most notably in schools like Summerhill, led by the charismatic Scottish headteacher A.S. Neill.

In the late 1960s, many of the key ideas and approaches here were drawn from US educational thinkers. As long ago as 1960, Paul Goodman had argued in Growing Up Absurd that the ‘organised society’ – and particularly the education system – was creating a generation of alienated and apathetic young people. Goodman argued that ‘childlike’ qualities should be more widely valued, and that the idea of childhood could function as ‘a resource for the rescue of a corrupt society’. If Goodman’s arguments seem to pull in the hippy direction I have described above, those of John Holt are very different. In his books How Children Fail and How Children Learn, and especially in his manifesto-like Escape from Childhood: The Needs and Rights of Children (1974), Holt challenges the ways in which children are kept separate from the adult world, and is scathing about adults’ condescending and bullying attempts to direct their activities. Children, he argues, are much more competent that adults give them credit for: they need to learn from their mistakes, rather than being forever ‘protected’ and controlled by adults. For Holt, childhood amounts to a kind of ‘prison’, from which children need to escape as soon as they can. Unlike Goodman (and indeed the hippies), Holt challenges sentimental notions of childhood innocence and naturalness – and especially the view of children as ‘cute’. Viewing children as embodiments of wisdom and beauty, he argued, was ultimately patronizing – a way of not taking them seriously as people.

Holt was a significant influence on teachers and writers in Britain, most notably his friend Leila Berg. Berg was a publisher and children’s author, who became interested in children’s rights and informal teaching methods in the 1960s. Aside from producing countless books for children, she also helped to found the activist journal Children’s Rights. Her key publication addressed to adults is probably the book Look at Kids, published as a mass-market Penguin paperback in 1972. Like Holt, Berg argues against adults’ tendency to patronize, coerce and oppress children. Here again, children are seen to be more competent than adults generally assume: they are capable of self-regulating, and should be left to explore the world at their own pace, free from adult intervention or manipulation. Berg implicitly represents the child as free and natural, although her focus is very much on the urban environment. However, her account is far from celebratory or sentimental, let alone cute: there is a good deal here about the indignity of poverty, and the violence and suffering children endure at the hands of abusive parents and a repressive welfare system. Berg urges her readers to look at, and learn from, children; but she is also bitterly critical of policies and practices (for example, on the part of schools and urban planners) that constrain their lives.

By the mid-to-late 1960s, for the most part in London, several libertarian ‘free schools’ were opened, and a wave of campaigns and publications appeared offering critiques of the mainstream education system, and arguing for children to have a greater say. As Patricia Holland recalls, several of these publications included letters from children, and some were produced by school children themselves, with titles like Braindamage, Miscarriage and Blackbored. Meanwhile, the Schools Action Union was formed in London in 1969, to campaign on issues such as selective schooling, the examination system and the use of corporal punishment. As this implies, Schoolkids Oz was far from being an isolated phenomenon – or even an original one – in this respect.

These developments did not go unchallenged by the authorities. Members of the Schools Action Union frequently encountered punitive responses from the authorities. Risinghill, a London state secondary school run by the progressive headteacher Michael Duane, was closed down in 1965, at least partly because the staff refused to use corporal punishment (it was subsequently the focus of a book by Leila Berg); although Neill’s Summerhill was a private, fee-paying school, and thus free from official interference. Meanwhile, an English translation of The Little Red Schoolbook, a book written by two Danish researchers containing criticisms of mainstream education alongside plain-speaking advice about legal rights, drugs and sex, was successfully prosecuted for obscenity in 1971: the trial overlapped with the Oz Trial, and the defence in both cases was led by the illustrious John Mortimer.

As we shall see, elements of this more political approach to children’s liberation were certainly apparent in Schoolkids Oz, even if the publication itself was largely produced by older teenagers. At the trial, key proponents of children’s rights, including Berg and Duane (who were both members of the editorial board of Children’s Rights magazine) were invited to appear as expert witnesses for the defence. Berg’s ‘Charter’ of children’s rights – which overlaps with Holt’s manifesto in Escape from Childhood – was even cited in court, although it was (quite absurdly) reduced by the prosecution to a recommendation that ‘children should indulge in sexual intercourse all over the streets of London’.

To some extent, these liberationist ideas overlapped with those of the hippies, described above, although it is important to emphasise some of the significant differences between them. While the hippies seem to conceive of childhood as a desirable state to which adults should seek to return, the new left argument sees it as a state of oppression that needs to be overthrown. For the new left, children (like women, blacks and other oppressed groups) are in need of liberation; for the hippies, it is as though they are already liberated. Again, at the risk of oversimplifying, a binary chart might help to clarify this distinction:


Childhood as innocent, natural Childhood as an oppressed state
Childhood as a distinct, separate phase of life Challenging distinctions between child and adult
Play as subversive Play as developmental
Children are already free Children need to be liberated
Adults should be more child-like Children should have adult privileges
Adults need to escape into childhood Children need to escape into adulthood


Of course, in reality these two views of childhood were by no means simply opposed – and in some respects each presumes the other. For instance, they share a notion of ‘liberation’ or ‘escape’, and a wish to challenge conventional notions of adulthood; and to some extent both of them rest on a binary distinction between adult and child, even if this is something that writers like Holt appear keen to dismantle.

Interestingly, Jenny Diski (from whose critical memoir of the sixties I have been quoting) was herself involved in some of the radical children’s liberation movements of the time, working in a London ‘free school’. According to Diski, part of the aim here was to pass on to the next generation of children the counter-cultural idea of childhood as in itself a form of liberation:

The Peter Pan generation were trying to give our younger selves the liberated childhood we had belatedly discovered and were presently acting out, just as our parents had funded us to have a carefree misspent youth that they had lacked… We were a generation that wanted to give the children the childhoods we wished we had had, or thought we wished we had had. (109, 117)

Diski elegantly sums up the paradoxes here, but in my view her account rather underestimates the political dimensions of this children’s liberation movement. At least in the UK, there was a class element to this: the children who were the objects of this movement were largely working-class, while many of their teachers were middle-class. It was also, predominantly, an educational movement, seeking to engage with mainstream schools, working within the system rather than seeking merely to escape from it. Retrospectively, it might be tempting to see it as a kind of naïve wishful thinking, but that is to underplay the genuine insights and political commitments of those who were involved.


Read more…