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Books Education for Social Change

Engrossing account of the Woodcraft Folk sheds light on its occasionally flawed idealism

WITH some of its groups across Britain currently meeting via Zoom, nobody can accuse the Woodcraft Folk of failing to move with the times.

But scratch the surface and you will always find hallmarks of its history, exemplified by the chorus of the Folk’s anthem, which begins: “Hark! The beating of the tom-tom.”

In its early years, much of the Folk’s practice was inspired by an idealised — and yet somewhat twisted — understanding of American-Indian culture. In reaction to the apparent alienation of Western civilisation from the natural world, the pioneers of “woodcraft” thinking — well before the Folk itself was established — sought to emulate the American-Indian connection to the land.

Rich Palser’s enlightening book Education for Social Change explores the darker side of this story. Like many other left-wing movements of the time such as the Fabians, the early Woodcraft Folk’s political and educational philosophy was grounded in a belief in eugenics.

The slogan propagated by Folk founder Leslie Paul is enough to send a shiver down any contemporary Woodcrafter’s spine: “You cannot achieve A1 socialism with C3 people.” The Folk of the 1920s saw its task not simply as one of changing hearts and minds. “We set a standard of mental and physical health, below which it is unlikely any of us will marry,” Paul noted bluntly.

Palser’s book is a study of how the Folk came to abandon this standpoint in its first decade of existence. Previous writings on the Folk, Palser says, have noted the shift but failed to adequately explain it other than through leaders’ growing consciousness of the rise of fascism and the advocation of eugenics on the far-right.

Building on original research at the Folk archives, Palser charts how Paul and his comrades came to accept not just the reactionary nature of this philosophy but also its misunderstanding of evolutionary science.

The “recapitulation theory” which underpinned both the Folk’s fetishisation of American-Indian culture and its embrace of eugenics argued that, in Paul’s words, “the stages of child development correspond strongly to similar stages in the evolution of man.” Through pursuing the primitive, educational movements could take human development to its highest standard.

By 1938, Paul was describing recapitulation as “not... a very logical doctrine however pretty a picture of child development it gives.” Children played similar games at the same stages of their lives across different world cultures, he noted, whereas recapitulation would suggest that children in cultures closer to nature would not enact the later stages of development.

Thus it was educational theory and practice, as well as international politics, which spurred on the Folk’s turn.

Naturally, this also signified a shift in the Folk’s own methods. Closer relationships with European socialist youth movements led to tensions between their collective ethos and the Folk’s emphasis on self-expression and self-development.

Woodcraft camps, and the practice of woodcraft itself, became less about harking back to a romanticised bygone age and more about equipping young people for their lives beyond.

It is a principle which has held ever since. “Capitalist education, like scouting, is about fitting people into society,” the Labour MP and former Woodcraft Folk chair Lloyd Russell-Moyle said in a 2017 interview. “Liberal education is about creating an alternative world. The point of socialist education is... you take people out so that [they] can go back into the real world to not just reject the world we have but change it.”

Palser’s narrative wanes somewhat when discussing the Folk’s dilemmas over organising young adults. Education for Social Change remains, however, an invaluable service to our understanding not only of the history of socialist and co-operative education but also of the dangers of warped idealism.

Education for Social Change is independently published, price £10.

CONRAD LANDIN

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