July 30, 2014
“The Little Red Schoolbook” is back! Expect playground sit-downs, principled truculence, children confronting you about masturbation…
by Sal Robinson
It’s been a long time coming—over forty years—but the full, unexpurgated edition of The Little Red Schoolbook, a controversial book of advice and information for children written by two Danish schoolteachers Søren Hansen and Jesper Jensen, is finally available again in the UK. Publishers Pincher & Martin released a print edition of the book earlier this month, and an ebook will follow.
Originally brought out in the UK in 1971 by Stage 1 Publishers, the book was deemed obscene, over 1,000 copies were confiscated, and its publisher Richard Handyside was put on trial in a case that eventually went to the European Court of Human Right, which ruled against Handyside despite affirming that “Freedom of expression…is applicable not only to ‘information’ or ‘ideas’ that are favourably received or regarded as inoffensive or as a matter of indifference, but also to those that offend, shock or disturb the State or any sector of the population.”
The book is full of frank talk, and it was the material about sex that prompted the obscenity charge; Hansen and Jensen took on masturbation, abortion, pornography, and other aspects of sexuality directly. They also had a sense of humor about it. Here they are (in Berit Thornberry’s translation) on masturbation, from a Guardian article by Joanna Moorhead about the reissue:
“If anybody tells you it’s harmful to masturbate, they’re lying. If anybody tells you you mustn’t do it too much, they’re lying too, because you can’t do it too much. Ask them how often you ought to do it. They’ll usually shut up then.”
Percentage-wise, though, far more of the book is about the less sensational subject of education – how people should teach and learn, relations between teachers and students, thoughts on exams, schedules, and punishment, on authority and protest. Pincher & Martin have been tweeting the entire contents of the book since publication, and though some of its advice for children hasn’t aged that well in the wake of the last thirty or so years of education (“If you think a particular teacher isn’t very good at teaching, you should try to work with him to make his teaching better” especially raises the specter of smug, entitled tweens telling you how to do your job), the fundamental message — that children should think and act both for themselves and collectively, which sometimes might involve staging a sit-down in the playground — is still good to hear, for children and ex-children alike.
Hansen and Jensen certainly considered their anti-authoritarian approach, rather than the content, the most radical aspect of The Little Red Schoolbook. Interviewed for a 2007 documentary about the Australian edition, Jensen commented: “I think the really controversial thing is that we went directly to the children, around the grown-ups, the parents, teachers…”
Writer Jenny Diski, who was a new teacher and involved in setting up a free school at the time, remembers the furor around the book when it was first published, writing the following in a recent blogpost for the London Review of Books:
It’s almost as much fun now as it was then to rediscover how scared such people were of releasing information to the young. They were running around squealing about no end of terrors from The Little Red Schoolbook, to the Schoolkids’ Oz edition, to those who were trying to alter teaching to take account of the pupils’ lives and needs, rather than the needs of capitalism for a workforce none too well educated… It’s hard to credit the meanness and stupidity and the fear of social turmoil that wafted around then. They needn’t have worried. It turned out it was only their funk that gave us the idea that society might change if we gave it a push in the proper direction.
Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.