In 1939, the radical Scottish educator A.S. Neill published the text of an imaginary speech that he envisioned delivering to the National Union of Teachers in Britain to mark the start of the upcoming, new school year. “At any moment the world may be plunged into an inferno of despair and terror and agony,” he wrote. “It seems highly probable that millions of the children sitting in the schools today will be killed. When the war is finished what is left of humanity will be faced with the herculean task of building up a new kind of civilization.”
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That bleak prediction was to come true. A few months after Neill published his undelivered address in his book "The Problem Teacher," on September 1, 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland and World War II began. Neill contemplated the implications of preparing for the world that would emerge after the war: “The pupils of our schools, those who survive, will build the new world. Are we doing anything to prepare them for this task? What will our little lessons on school subjects do to help them to a new life? Will their silly little examination successes help them to endure the misery they may first have to face? Will that iniquity, home lessons, help to make them conscientious citizens of a new world?”
The provocative questions raised by Neill, who is recognized as one of the pioneers of open education in the 20th century, was almost forgotten in the period after the war. But his remarks are worth remembering now as well, when the level of nuclear dread is surging to heights not known since the Cold War – and when many parents and teachers are asking themselves whether the education their children are receiving is relevant to the experiences and challenges they will confront in the years and decades ahead.
It goes without saying that none of this is of any interest to the Israeli education system. For a variety of reasons, Israelis respond with almost complete indifference to any problem that does not affect Israel exclusively. Like a child who’s certain that Mom and Dad will protect him even when he gets to retirement age, the Israelis rely on the air force and the Lord of Hosts to protect them from every possible form of trouble – from asteroids slamming into the planet to an attack by zombies. And in any event, it’s not our problem, it’s “the world’s.”
Under the aegis of the local repression mechanism, the educational discussion in Israel is occupied with whether farmers in science textbooks should be praying for rain, or with the origin of the writers who are studied for the matriculation exams, whose books most pupils won’t read anyway.
Elsewhere a different approach is apparent. In the United States, the realm of education to prepare for conditions of crisis and catastrophe is quite well developed. True, it’s implemented primarily at the family level by means of “preppers,” who devote their lives to deploying for the collapse of civilization.
Numberless books and instructional websites created by such people explain how to train children who will survive the catastrophe while the others will be, say, eaten by cannibals. An online survivalist manual titled “10 Ways to Prepare Children for Social Chaos” recommends that parents accustom children to the eventuality of crisis by means of role-playing games that simulate disaster scenarios and reconnaissance drills. Some even recommend taking the children to flea markets so they can learn how to bargain should the economy fall apart and become a barter economy.
There are also manuals with titles like “How to Rebuild Civilization from Scratch,” which aims to provide political knowhow to survivors of the calamity, whatever its cause, who will need to attempt to avoid a rapid deterioration into a violent primal stage. For example, they point out, usefully, that because any new governmental system might last for the next hundreds of years, those developing it need to consider their responsibility for the future and the precedents they will set.
In Europe, a program called “disaster education” has been formulated in recent years, but its character differs from the American version. It emphasizes the importance of community and of the need for education for social resilience in situations in which all social customs and norms and institutions have collapsed, and when it is precisely the children who may need to seize command and educate their parents, who will feel lost amid the new reality. The model is Tilly Smith, the smart British schoolgirl who in 2004, while vacationing with her parents on the island of Phuket in Thailand, was able to warn the dozens of bathers on the beach of an impending tsunami, based on signs she had learned in geography classes.
There are those who are critical of the pedagogical conception that’s inherent in disaster education. They would argue that the present approach in this educational track exaggerates the need for resilience and self-defense, and encourages panic on the one hand and a macho approach on the other. Preparation for disaster, goes the argument, gradually creates a post-catastrophic traumatic society, even before the catastrophe has struck. The result is constant panic, which plays into the hands of bully leaders like Donald Trump.
That was not A.S. Neill’s intention. Optimistically, he was convinced that the post-disaster world would be totally different from the one he lived in and that universal socialism would prevail in it. Education, as he sees it, is intended to cultivate the broad horizons and the openness that are so necessary for the inhabitants of tomorrow’s world.
It’s probably not possible to deploy for such a radical change in the reality of life after a nuclear war or complete climate meltdown, and impossible to forecast which traits would actually be most beneficial in a post-catastrophic world. If we look to biblical precedent, Noah did not try simply to save himself and his family from the flood, or to maximize the investment opportunities the flood promised. The task that was imposed on him was to save the knowledge and diversity of the pre-flood world and to impart them to the world of the future.