Swans Commentary » swans.com March 10, 2014  



An Education Fit For The Elite
Part I of II


by Michael Barker



(Swans - March 10, 2014)   There is no doubt that the current British education system is unfit for sustaining, let alone extending, democracy; on the other hand it is certainly fit for the maintenance of capitalism and reproducing systemic educative inequality. But this is not to say that (historically-speaking) significant gains have not been made in extending a free education to all. It is just that those not insignificant gains that have been successfully clawed back from us by the ruling class are now in the process of being undone, all in the name of the free market. (1) This is an intolerable situation and is one that must be resisted by a mass campaign waged through the unions, and upon the streets, aimed not only at retaining a decent education, but fighting for a truly democratic education system for all.

While under-funded, much maligned comprehensive schools were decreed more than adequate by bourgeois politicians; elites on the other hand have always recognized the importance of a carefully conceived and well-funded education system for their own children... an education for political leadership, no less. This has led to a situation whereby a handful of educational establishments still continue to mold the ruling class' heirs apparent to man the commanding heights of our society, be they cultural, political, or economic spheres of life. Commonly known, and much despised by the working class, the mainstays of this educational aristocracy include Eton College and Oxford University, but lesser known and more unorthodox educational hubs for the well-to-do include Gordonstoun School (a favorite haunt of the Royals), and Dartington Hall School. And so it is to the latter of these two schools that this essay is dedicated.

Founded in 1925 at a historic estate at Dartington, near Totnes in Devonshire, Dartington Hall School (1926-87) was the brainchild of millionaire newlyweds Leonard and Dorothy Elmhirst, Dorothy (1887-1968) being the daughter of the well-known American financier and statesman, William C. Whitney, who served as secretary of the Navy in the first cabinet of President Cleveland. When Dorothy was just seventeen her father died, leaving her "with an independent fortune," and seven years later, in 1911, she married leading American investment banker Willard Straight. (2) In 1914, along with the help of Walter Lippmann and Herbert Croly, Dorothy and her husband founded the influential liberal magazine, The New Republic; but sadly, just four years later Willard contracted pneumonia and passed away. Despite this tragic loss Dorothy remained a committed progressive activist, and the following year she helped found the New School for Social Research, a successful educational establishment committed to nurturing America's growing liberal intelligentsia. (3)

It would be some years hence before Dorothy was ready to remarry, but when she did so in 1925 it was to Leonard Elmhirst (1893-1974). Leonard was an intrepid and moneyed agronomist who after studying history and theology at Trinity College (Cambridge University), had, in the 1920s, lived in India serving as the Secretary to the 1913 Nobel Laureate for Literature Rabindranath Tagore, a theosophically-connected individual who is considered to be "the chief exponent of the revival of Indo-Asian spirituality." While temporarily based in India, with funding coming courtesy of Dorothy, Leonard had helped Tagore set up the Institute for Rural Reconstruction -- which had been modeled on Lord Baden-Powell's Scouting movement -- during which time he became "deeply influenced by Tagore's almost mystical naturalism and his fervent belief in the doctrine of non-interference in the natural unfolding of a child's personality." (4) Tagore's influence on the Elmhirst's Utopian experiment at Dartington is particularly significant, especially when one considers that in 1925 Tagore's leading Marxist critic, M.N. Roy, berated Tagore's "eminently aristocratic" Utopian plans for India, noting that:

His solution to the present social problem is to replace the existing form of property-relations by an earlier form, already left behind in the evolution of modern civilization. He would replace capitalism by patrianarcho-feudal aristocracy. He begrudges the working-class that relatively higher standard of living which incidentally follows an improvement in social production. He is against modern industrialism because it disrupts the class of landed aristocracy to which he belongs. (5)

Around this time, Leonard traveled extensively, acting as an evangelist and fundraiser for Tagore, and when he subsequently settled down to marry Dorothy they decided to start a progressive boarding school that would be coeducational and "combine the ideas" of both Tagore and John Dewey. (6) This dream took its form in September 1925 when they purchased Dartington Hall, and much like Dorothy's earlier experiments in education, Dartington Hall School soon proved to be the ideal educational facility for the children of the thoughtful intelligentsia (but in Britain this time round).

Indeed, Dartington in the 1930ss could boast the following among its parents: Bertrand and Dora Russell, Aldous Huxley, actor Miles Malleson, novelist Ernest Raymond, architect Clough Williams-Ellis, broadcaster and journalist Stephen King-Hall, publisher Victor Gollancz, Ernest Freud -- the son of Sigmund and father of Clement, film director Robert Flaherty, and writer Richard Church. In the post-war period it could mention scientist J.D. Bernal, Sean O'Casey, Geoffrey Grigson, F.R. Leavis, Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth, and Richard Crossman. Indeed, one respondent from the 1930s period described the Dartington of his day as the "village school of the Bloomsbury intellectual set". (7)

In contrast to Dorothy's secular educative ventures in America, Dartington reflected Leonard's and her own developing passion for spiritualism, of which her own interest had been sparked by the unforeseen death of her first husband. Thus as Asa Briggs writes:

[I]t was not until after the death of her first husband, Willard Straight, that [Dorothy] turned to mystical religion, beginning with spiritualism and continuing through what came to be called, in the world of Gerald Heard, 'new age' thinkers, men (not women) who were to influence her in the 1930s as they search for the 'Life of the Spirit'. One of her closest friends of the 1930s, the actor Michael Chekhov (always 'Misha' to her), happily ensconced in Dartington, was a disciple of Rudolf Steiner... (8)

This Steiner connection is particularly interesting given that the grandfather of Michael Young (Lord Young of Dartington), a gentleman named Daniel Dunlop, was an early Theosophist and the former chairman of the British Anthroposophical Association, "a link unacknowledged by Michael himself." The only hint of Michael's spiritual interests lies in the name given to his daughter, Gaia. (9)


To e-mail this article


· · · · · ·


If you find Michael Barker's work valuable, please consider helping us

· · · · · ·



Feel free to insert a link to this work on your Web site or to disseminate its URL on your favorite lists, quoting the first paragraph or providing a summary. However, DO NOT steal, scavenge, or repost this work on the Web or any electronic media. Inlining, mirroring, and framing are expressly prohibited. Pulp re-publishing is welcome -- please contact the publisher. This material is copyrighted, © Michael Barker 2014. All rights reserved.


Have your say

Do you wish to share your opinion? We invite your comments. E-mail the Editor. Please include your full name, address and phone number (the city, state/country where you reside is paramount information). When/if we publish your opinion we will only include your name, city, state, and country.


About the Author

Michael Barker is an independent researcher who currently resides in the UK. In addition to his work for Swans, which can be found in the 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013 archives, his other articles can be accessed at michaeljamesbarker.wordpress.com. Please help fund his work.   (back)


· · · · · ·



1.  Melissa Benn, School Wars: The Battle for Britain's Education (Verso, 2012).  (back)

2.  Dorothy Elmhirst remembered how: "In 1911 I married Willard Straight who was at that time representing an American Consortium of bankers, allied with English and European colleagues, in financing railroad and industrial developments in China. Immediately after our marriage we went out to Peking where we lived for six months until the overthrow of the Manchu dynasty and the establishment of a new regime put an end to negotiations. After our return to New York, Willard continued to work, through J.P. Morgan and other banking houses, for the development of China... He died of pneumonia just as war [World War I] ended." Cited in Victor Bonham-Carter, Dartington Hall: The Formative Years, 1925-1957 (Exmoor Press, 1970 [1958]), p.20.

Also see Peter Cox, Origins: Dartington College of Arts (Dartington College of Arts, 2002).  (back)

3.  Peter Rutkoff and William Scott, New School: A History of the New School for Social Research (Free Press, 1986). Dorothy recalls how: "After Willard's death I immersed myself in work of many kinds: social and educational, industrial and economic, and I tried to do what I could to keep alive a spirit of toleration and freedom of thought during a period of great intolerance. The New Republic -- a weekly journal of liberal opinion, founded by Willard Straight and edited today by my youngest son Michael -- received my full support and I helped to maintain wherever I could the tradition of civil liberty." Cited in Bonham-Carter, Dartington Hall, pp.21-2.

Along with the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt, in the early 1920s Dorothy threw her support behind the reformist Women's Trade Union League: "Dorothy raised $20,000 toward the purchase of a headquarters for the WTUL, and she and Eleanor became close friends." W.A. Swanberg, Whitney Father, Whitney Heiress: Two Generations of One of America's Richest Families (Charles Scribner's Sons, 1980), p.465.  (back)

4.  Stephen Hay (ed.), Asian Ideas of East and West: Tagore and his Critics in Japan, China, and India (Harvard University Press, 1970), p.41; Maurice Punch, Progressive Retreat: A Sociological Study of Dartington Hall School and Some of its Former Pupils (Cambridge University Press, 1977), p.19. For acknowledgment of Lord Baden-Powell's influence, see Anne Phillips, Holistic Education: Learning from Schumacher College (Green Books, 2008), p.29.

Leonard had first met Tagore in the United States in 1921. Christian missionary Sam Higginbottom, "the mentor who had inspired Leonard to study agriculture at Cornell," then suggested that Leonard should serve as the director of Tagore's planned Institute for Rural Reconstruction (a venture that was funded by Dorothy until 1947). Higginbottom was the recent author of The Gospel and the Plow, Or, The Old Gospel and Modern Farming in Ancient India (1921). Larraine Nicholas, Dancing in Utopia: Dartington Hall and its Dancers (Dance Books, 2007) ,p.31.

In 1917, Dr. George Sidney Arundale, who would become the third president of the Theosophical Society (from 1934 to 1945), helped found the National University of India at Chennai (in 1920) under the auspices of the Theosophical Society. Tagore became the first Chancellor of the University, and Arundale became the principal of the Training College for Teachers. For a discussion of Tagore's connection with leading theosophist Nicholas Roerich, see Anita Stasulane's study Theosophy and Culture: Nicholas Roerich (Universita Gregoriana, 2005), pp.44-56. (pdf) It is also interesting to note that in 1920 Tagore led the opening program for Count Keyserling's mystical School of Wisdom. Writing Berlin in 1922, Marxist critic George Lukács begins his review of Tagore's book The Home and the World by observing how "Tagore's enormous celebrity among Germany's 'intellectual elite' is one of the cultural scandals occurring with ever greater intensity again and again -- a typical sign of the total cultural dissolution facing this 'intellectual elite'." Lukács adds that:

"The English bourgeoisie has reasons of its own for rewarding Mr. Tagore with fame and riches (the Nobel Prize): it is repaying its intellectual agent in the struggle against the Indian freedom movement. For Britain, therefore, the scraps of 'wisdom' from ancient India, the doctrine of total acquiescence and of the wickedness of violence -- only, of course, when it relates to the freedom movement -- have a very concrete and palpable meaning."  (back)

5.  Hay, Asian Ideas of East and West, pp.261-2. M.N. Roy as quoted in Advocate (Bombay, May 24, 1925).  (back)

6.  Punch, Progressive Retreat, p.19. Dorothy's interest in John Dewey's work came through her former service on the board of trustees of Teachers College at Columbia University. Dewey had joined the faculty of Teachers College in 1904, and Dorothy's three children (born 1912, 1914, and 1916) had attended Lincoln School, the demonstration school attached to Teachers College. Nicholas, Dancing in Utopia, p.30.  (back)

7.  Punch, Progressive Retreat, p.29. Although the Elmhirsts exerted significant control over the evolution of Dartington, when W.B. Curry was appointed as Director of Education to the School in 1930: "Most of the first generation of teachers were dismissed, and the Elmhirsts were kept at arm's length from what effectively became 'Curry's school' until his departure in 1956." Curry was a "devotee of Bertrand Russell" and his approach to education was surmized in his book The School and a Changing Civilisation (Bodley Head, 1934). "Curry was also to compare notes with another regular visitor, A.S. Neill, head teacher and founder of Summerhill, the progressive school in Suffolk..." "Neill had, in fact, been a regular visitor to Dartington before Curry arrived. Summerhill was originally located in Dorset, and Neill would motor to and from Dartington in a day." It is no surprise that one reason Dartington failed to "truly break new ground" in social experimentation was because "there was never any attempt to create, nor perhaps even a consciousness of, anything other than an enlightened capitalist enterprise." Dennis Hardy, Utopian England: Community Experiments 1900-1945 (Routledge, 2000), p.150, p.151, p.157.

By way of a contrast to Dartington School, there have been many precedents of explicitly anti-authoritarian educators, like for example those ideas pioneered at Robert Owen's New Harmony Community; but one of the most influential individuals in this regard was the Spanish educator and anarchist freethinker Francisco Ferrer (1859-1909). Following his untimely death, in June 1910 Emma Goldman helped set up the Ferrer Association to "keep alive American interest in the martyred founder of Modern Schools." Of the nine individuals elected to the Association's founding advisory board, five were socialists, these being Jack London, Upton Sinclair, Charles Edward Russell, J.G. Phelps Stokes, and his wife Rose Pastor Stokes; two were anarchists, Emma Goldman and Jaime Vidal; and the final two, Alden Freeman and Hutchins Hapgood, "defy categorization, combining elements of anarchism, liberalism, and conservatism." The Ferrer Association's founding president was socialist-turned-anarchist, Leonard Abbott.

Alden Freeman's involvement in the project would prove central to the rise and fall of the endeavour, as being financially wealthy -- he was the son of the treasurer of Standard Oil -- he became the primary funder of the Association's work. Upon Goldman's initiative, the aristocratic former professor of Germanic languages at Columbia University, Bayard Boyesen, was secured as the first director of the Ferrer School of New York. Freeman consequently stumped up most of the money to found the school, making a donation of $2,500, while another notable gift of $1,000 came from Pryns Hopkins, "who himself was to open a libertarian school the following year." (The rest of the money came in the form of smaller individual donations that contributed a further $700 to the fund raising efforts.) Freeman then "supplemented his gift with regular contributions, which were to continue for three more years." As if such elite funding was not controversial enough for such a progressive-minded school -- whose "chief ideological mentor" was Kropotkin -- the school soon found themselves in the paradoxical situation. This is because while the majority of their students was working-class immigrants: "Most of the teachers, by contrast, were of native, middle-class background."

Unfortunately, Bayard Boyesen's interest in revolutionary politics faded and he "drifted away" from the anarchist schooling movement, such that "in the summer of 1912, retired to his farm at Royalston, Massachusetts, to raise horses and dogs." His replacement was Will Durrant, who quickly fell in love with a fourteen-year-old pupil, which in turn led to his resignation in May 1913 (so he could get married). Durrant's subsequent replacement was Cora Bennett Stephenson, who in pedagogical matters followed the child-centered theories of the pioneering psychologist G. Stanley Hall, and it is notable that even during her short tenure she courted controversy by introducing what some considered to be the authoritarian Montessori teaching methods into the Ferrer School. Stephenson, however, remained as the head of the Ferrer School for just one year, resigning after a conspiracy "hatched at the Ferrer Center to blow up" John D. Rockefeller, Jr.'s mansion (in response to the Ludlow Massacre), which resulted in the accidental deaths of the anarchist plotters in the infamous Lexington Avenue explosion. As one might expect, Alden Freeman was "appalled" by this turn of events and cut off all funding for the Ferrer School, which meant that the school now faced immanent bankruptcy. At the same time other socialist and liberals disassociated themselves from the Ferrer Association, "ending the alliance between revolutionaries and reformers on which the association had been formed." The New York Ferrer School struggled on, but in the spring of 1918 it was eventually "driven out of business by the antiradical hysteria that followed America's entry into the war." Paul Avrich, The Modern School Movement: Anarchism and Education in the United States (AK Press, 2006), p.40, p.43, p.75, p.79, p.145, p.125, p.98, p,106, p.109, p.173, p.215, p.226, p.233.  (back)

8.  Asa Briggs, Michael Young: Social Entrepreneur (Palgrave Macmillan, 2001), p.115.  (back)

9.  Briggs, Michael Young, p.14, p.115. In his autobiography, Michael Straight notes that the mystic Gerald Heard was "a close friend of my mother, and she relied upon him for guidance." Michael Straight, After Long Silence (Collins, 1983), p.67.  (back)


· · · · · ·


Internal Resources

Patterns which Connect

America the 'beautiful'

Activism under the Radar Screen

· · · · · ·


This edition's other articles

Check the front page, where all current articles are listed.



Check our past editions, where the past remains very present.

· · · · · ·


[About]-[Past Issues]-[Archives]-[Resources]-[Copyright]



Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
URL for this work: http://www.swans.com/library/art20/barker149.html
Published March 10, 2014