The Legacy of Homer Lane

Saturday, November 1st, 2008 by David Wills davidlane

It may well be true that to live in mankind is far more than to live in a name, but that is no reason for forgetting the name. We are all in debt to such a man, and the least that we can do is to remember with gratitude both the name and the man who bore it. Homer Lane lives in mankind and our debt to him is gradually being forgotten. It is the aim of this book to remember the man - his weakness as well as his strength, his frailties as well as his virtues - and to bring him and his name into proper perspective in the field where he ploughed so well and where now others reap.

This simple, perplexing, humble, vain, wise, foolish, tarnished, innocent, happy and tragic man was half a century before his time. Our generation are just beginning to overtake him, and are in danger of rushing blindly past the dim figure of the man who, with such ardour and vision, and through so many vicissitudes, blazed at the beginning of our century the trail they now so confidently follow.

Penology

He pioneered first in the field of penology and especially in the treatment of young offenders. “group therapy” and “shared responsibility” are two phrases which are now cautiously and with a sense of novelty and daring, finding a place in the vocabulary of those who work in this field, and they are being experimented with as if they were an invention of our day. Under other names and without the encouragement of like-minded colleagues, Lane used these methods fifty years ago.

It has become commonplace to say that offenders are often people who have been starved in childhood of affection, and that no healing technique can be successful that does not include the provision of the affection hitherto denied. This is precisely what Lane said - and did - at the Little Commonwealth.

“They must realise”, l said, “that I am on their side”. If a biographer may be forgiven for talking about himself, it pleases me (and presumably does nobody any harm) to think that my own work has not been entirely without value or influence. Miss Bazeley’s book about Lane, and his posthumous collection of papers, Talks to Parents and Teachers, were published just at a time when my own ideas were gathering shape and form and the encouragement I received from these two books was so great that it is pretty safe to assume that without it I should have hesitated, and we all know what happens to those who hesitate. This book is part payment of my debt.

Education

He plunged next into education, and the waters are still agitated by the concentric ripples of his entry. In this he was not quite so lonely a figure in his pioneering as he was in the sphere of delinquency. Other were following the same path - the path of freedom instead of imposed authority, of self-expression instead of a pouring-in of knowledge, of evoking and exploiting the child’s natural sense of wonder and curiosity instead of a repetitious hammering home of dull facts. These ideas again are all quite commonplace now, but we owe them as much to Lane as to any one man. True, he was not alone, but he was a love and respected leader among the avant garde of his day.

His teachings at this time - whether in the general sphere of education and child nurture or in the more narrow sphere of his work with delinquents - were directed at a general and not a particular audience, and they found enthusiastic acceptance in many diverse quarters. Teachers (and heads) in every kind of school fell under his influence, and passed on his teachings. Public schools and private schools, elementary schools and secondary schools all caught a breath of something new and exciting from this vivid and lovable man. One of his close friends was Mr J. H. Simpson, who has written of his debt to Lane and of how he tries to apply Lane’s principles, both as form-master in an old public school and as headmaster in a new one.

Another early friend and indeed disciple was A. S. Neill. Neill had been much maligned and scoffed at by the ignorant and fearful, and perhaps he is still considered by some to be a wild extremist; but he had had a large and liberating influence on English education. In his book The Comprehensive School, Dr. Robin Pedley says, “Neill more than anyone else has swung teachers’ opinion in this country from its old reliance on authority and the cane to hesitant recognition that a child’s first need is love, and with love respect for the free growth of his personality; free that is from the arbitrary compulsion of elders, and disciplined instead by social experience. Today’s friendliness between pupil and teacher is probably the greatest difference between the classrooms of 1963 and those of 1923. This change owes much to Neill . ……- and Neill owes much, as he never ceases to say, to Lane, whose pupil he was, and who encouraged him when he first began to use the methods with which his name is associated”.

Psychotherapy

Lane’s third field of pioneering was psychotherapy and this side of his work is more difficult to assess. He did leave a more or less coherent body of ideas about education and the treatment of young offenders, which have added to the sum of human knowledge and - where they have been applied - to human happiness. He left no such body of ideas about psychotherapy, but his work with individuals released hundreds of people from morbid fears, from pathological inhibitions, from physical sickness and from ignorance of their own nature.

This had the effect not only of increasing their efficiency and usefulness as social beings; it increased their happiness and enhanced the value of their impact on other people. Bishops, heads of great schools, politicians and peers, even a Viceroy of India, sat at his feet and confessed themselves healthier, happier and saner men because of his healing work. Lane’s influence through them on thousands of other people is incalculable.

Most of this ‘second hand’ influence is in the nature of things anonymous; but not all of it, for among those so influenced are two particularly articulate men, Christopher Isherwood and W. H. Auden. They, as all their readers know, spent some time as young men in Berlin, where they became intimate with a former pupil and enthusiastic advocate of Lane and his teachings, Dr. John Layard. Layard talked to them about Lane, and they imbibed something of his enthusiasm for the man. Auden acknowledges his debt to Lane in the autobiographical section of his Letter to Lord Byron and we are all Mr. Auden’s debtors.2

It happens then that we know how Lane’s influence has reached us all through the alchemy of one man’s poetry; but there must be thousands of others, less literate and outgoing, in whom he lives not “in a name”, but “in mankind”.

The Person

He had a warm, ebullient and attractive personality which few could forget, and a genius for friendship which few could resist. People who had known him - perhaps briefly - fifty or sixty years earlier, remembered him not only with pleasure, but with enthusiasm and delight. Of him the old and much mishandled cliché could properly be used - to know him was to love him. And those who loved him were of all kinds, of all opinions, of all walks of life. He was loved as much by some of the distinguished people who formed the committee of the Little Commonwealth as he was by its inmates; as much by his pupils as by their sponsors and relations. He generated all around him laughter and affection, and few, as Lord Lytton said, could long remain unhappy in his presence.

Yet it is tempting to see in the life of Homer Lane a tragedy in the true classical sense. We in the audience can see the seeds of disaster that inevitably germinate afresh with each fresh access of good fortune that befalls the protagonist. We know, as he does not, until the end that his life is an example of the converse of Browning’s heroic and optimistic lines, He rises, to fall; he fights better to be, in the end baffled.

Contradictory Urges

Throughout his life Lane was pressed by two furious urges. They are apparently contradictory, but undoubtedly spring - as opposing pairs of drives so often do - from the same unconscious source. It seems doubtful whether he was himself aware of them. In Freudian terms they may have arisen from too severe a super-ego, the result of his even puritan generations acting upon a highly sensitive constitution. This would account for the need to excel and for the pathological self-punishment. Rebellion against it could account for the attempt to create new moral and religious standards. This is just the tentative guess of the layman; but whatever the source, there is no doubt the existence of the two contradictory drives.

One was the urge to excel; not merely to excel, but to be the best, to be above all others, to be the only one; to be indeed the protagonist. The only Sloyd teacher in Southborough, Mass., the only man in Detroit who knew how to deal with juvenile delinquency - he expected when he came to England very soon to occupy the same kind of position in relation to delinquency as he had enjoyed in Detroit.

In fact, workers in that sphere were somewhat resistant; but what matter? He taken up by the advance guard of the education movement and had become a leading if not yet the leading figure when the collapse of the Little Commonwealth moved him into another sphere - the sphere of psychotherapy. Here he met an opposition which his fears - and his need to feel persecuted - greatly exaggerated.

The world of education is a liberal, generous world with vaguely defined boundaries which almost any man of good will can enter. The world of medicine is tightly closed and conservative corporation. When Lane took up the profession of healing he immediately adopted an antagonistic, aggressive attitude to those he felt were going to be his enemies. He challenged them not only by belittling them; he flaunted before them conduct contrary to their canons and, as it were, dared them to do the worst. They responded in the most humiliating possible way - they ignored him.

The very contempt of the medical profession was a spur to great effort. He began to formulate an attitude to health and sickness and to human behaviour in general which transcended the sphere of medicine and embraced the whole of life and conduct. In formulating his philosophy of life he began to see himself as the one true interpreter of God’s will on earth, the only man who really understood the message of Jesus Christ. From that somewhat presumptuous position it is only one short step to a position that cannot be regarded as rational. It is my view that he was in danger of taking that fatal irrational step when his final disaster befell him - if indeed he had not already take it.

Disasters

Just as his whole life was a constant heaving of himself into the foremost position, so it was also the reverse. Every disaster that overtook him - and we shall see how they followed one another in an ascending scale of magnitude - was not only his own fault in the ordinary sense; in each case he made sure that punishment would follow. The ‘faults’ it is true were sometimes venial, and the punishments which followed often out of all proportion to them; but not, we may assume, out of proportion to the sense of guilt which was the mainspring not only of the punishment, but also of the ‘crime’ which made it necessary.

In Detroit he did not say to an accusing journalist, “I am innocent of your charge; take it to the authorities and I will fight it”; he meekly resigned. At the Ford Republic he did not seek the counsel of those who could have saved him; he adopted an aggressive attitude, resigned, and sentenced himself to hard labour as a navvy. At the Little Commonwealth, though he was innocent of the gravest charges brought against him, he deliberately provoked his accusers. At his trial in 1925 he humbly agreed to the ‘bargain’ that was a tacit admission of the guilt he so strenuously denied.

His death? . . . ” There was no question of suicide, I suppose?” one friend has asked. Certainly not, in the accepted sense; he undoubtedly died of pneumonia and typhoid fever. But it was an essential part of his philosophy that we suffer only those illnesses of which we have an emotional need. He was nearly fifty. It might well be that in a dreadful moment of clarity he saw the essentially tragic nature of his emotional make-up, and the thought of making yet another fresh start was more than he could bear.

But, however tragic his own life may have been, he brought happiness and healing to others beyond measure, and we can perhaps almost be forgiven for believing that what he suffered in the end was the price he had to pay for the liberation of others from fear and pain and misery, the crucifixion that inevitably befalls the redeemer.

Reflection and Change

Arnold Toynbee has spoken in his Study of History of the value to civilisations and to individuals of a period of retirement and withdrawal, the effect of which is often a regenerative one. Such a period and with such an effect Lane seems now to have had. The man who came to Buffalo in March, 1912, was a different man from the one who left it about a year later. In that short period, when he was entirely divorced from his own world, he seems to have had a spiritual, or at any rate a mental, stocktaking.

The artist who is a true genius does not work to rules. He creates something of great beauty, and lesser men derive their rules from the study of the work of the master. Lane was in some such way a man of genius. Like the artist’s, his work was based rather on the promptings of intuition than on conscious ideas resulting from rational thought. He, like the artist, knew that his work was good. He seems now, during this period of detachment, to have looked at it from the outside, asking himself why it was good. What were the rules to be observed by those who would copy it?

He discovered that, although he had been using a conscious technique that was novel and which few others had used, his work was unique because it was permeated by a spirit which was wholly his. He had vaguely realised, as we saw earlier, that the George Junior Republic superficially so similar to his own, lacked something which his had. He began to see that, whereas other workers in this field conducted themselves as if they were in a different camp, a different category from those they sought to ‘save’, he himself belonged to the same camp. He was one of them.

How far recent events contributed to this revelation we cannot guess; but certainly now he began to realise that he was, as he was to put it later, “on their side”. If he had been asked to explain this he might have said that he was on their side because he recognised their anti-social behaviour as an expression of “positive virtues wrongly expressed”, that their very misdeeds were something to be admired and respected as evidence of these “positive virtues”. He may not have realised that there was more in it than that, that he found it easy to identify himself with the boys in his care because he was himself constitutionally a rebel, that he himself was unstable and insecure, and therefore readily able to understand and sympathise with those in similar predicament.

It is extremely difficult to discover how much self-knowledge he had, but certainly during this obscure and somewhat baffling period of retirement from his world, he discovered something of revolutionary importance about what he had been doing, as distinct from what he was;

Whether at once, as once at a crash, Paul,
Or as Austin, a lingering-out sweet skill.”

whether the result of reading, or merely of introspection we have no certain means of telling.

The Influence of Pioneers

But it does seem likely that reading may have helped. He was known, while still at the Ford Republic, to have read something of Madame Montessori. It was not until he came to England that he was talking about Pestalozzi, and it seems very probable, therefore, that he may have read - or heard - about him during this period. Madame Montessori’s writings had a certain interest for him because of their novelty, but it seems unlikely that the relatively cold, scientific academic personality of the Italian woman can have appealed to him as much as the poor, warm-hearted Swiss.

If he read Pestalozzi’s own account of his work at Stanz he cannot have failed to be impressed by the similarity in the atmosphere and physical conditions between Stanz and the beginnings of the Ford Republic. There was the same group of unruly children with a tiny staff and grossly inadequate building There was the same family atmosphere and the same attempt at regeneration through industry. He may have recognised too, perhaps somewhat ruefully, the same financial ineptitude. He must have read it with growing excitement and the most intense sympathy ….

“I laughed and cried with them. They were out of the world, they were out of Stanz, they lived entirely with me and I with them. When they were ill l nursed them. I slept in their midst. I was the last to go to bed at night and the first to get up in the morning.” ” The very bases of an organised plan were wanting and were only to be found in the children themselves, and it was better so. Had I started with the discipline of rules, the severity of external order would not have accomplished my purpose.” “Such a discipline as there was grew up step by step out of our needs. I saw an inner power awake in the children, the universality of which far exceeded my expectations, and the particular expression of which both astonished and touched me.”

Lane could not have read these words (which I quote from the admirable translation of J. A. Green) without being thrilled to the core. And what principle lay at the foundation of Pestalozzi’s work? He tells us himself, and we can imagine Lane almost shouting aloud at the revelation, “I knew no order, no method, which did not rest upon the children’s conviction of my love for them. I did not care to know any other.”

All this may seem a little fanciful. We do not know that Lane read Pestalozzi while he was in Buffalo. But read him he certainly did, and very probably at this time, and it does seem very likely that this was how he came to realise fully, for the first time, exactly what it was he had been doing. But from whatever source, there came to him at Buffalo a new light which illuminated all he had done before and which was to be the generative principle in all he was to do in the future.

He knew he had been doing something unique. Now he knew what it was. He had been using the reforming and regenerating influence of love, where most people use the stunting and corrupting influence of hatred, condemnation and punishment.

Henceforward this was to be at the core of his work and the centre of his teaching. The self-determination which he had hitherto preached was now seen to be merely a corollary of this startling fact, that those who would help the delinquent and anti-social and unhappy must “be on their side” - must love them.

This principle he was henceforward to apply with undeviating steadfastness, but rarely with discretion and never, it is to be feared, with any real understanding of the inflammable nature of the forces released by this method.

The Little Commonwealth

I have said that the nature of the regime at the Little Commonwealth was milder and more lenient than at Ford, and that this may have been due in part to Lane’s reading of Pestalozzi and his period of retirement at Buffalo. In fact, he seems to have developed a different conception of what the nature of the place should be. The Ford Republic he thought of primarily as an institution, but in his open-hearted and wide-armed way he incorporated the whole place into his own family.

At the Little Commonwealth his own family was lost in the larger community. “It was several days”, said one visitor, “before I was able to identify the Lane children”. Daddy - as he had come to be - slept in one cottage. Mabel in another. (Heather, with ‘her’ babies), and the children, when they were not away at school, slept wherever room could be found for them, all sharing, of course, the common life of the Institution. (Mabel, once again, appears as a rather dim background figure, sometimes perhaps wondering what it was all about, but staunchly supporting her man and cheerfully working her fingers to the bone, not, one feels, for the sake of the citizens - though she was interested in them - but for him.)

On the other hand, he now no longer regarded the community as an institution; he regarded it as a family. It is questionable how far he did this consciously. He did not often refer to it as a family; in fact it was several families, and it was as several families that he thought of it consciously. Nevertheless, the relationship which he encouraged - the affective relationship - was rather that of members of the same family than that of fellow citizens.

There was not only the underlying affection for one another, there was also the familiarity - in the real and literal sense of the word - and there was the mutual criticism and forthrightness that is to be found in a healthy family. Mutual affection between members of a family does not consist only of tender feelings and kind words. There is a kind of roughness which presence of the underlying affection - and the assumption of its presence - makes possible; and all this was present at the Commonwealth.

The Effects of Familiarity

Much more perhaps than is commonly realised, this was where Lane began to influence education in this country. The very progressive schools nowadays are noted among their critics (or they were in the early days) for the uncouthness and rudeness of their pupils and staff. Perhaps some of them go to extremes. But the roughness and familiarity between all concerned - adult and juvenile - that is to be found many modern boarding schools, has its origin here. Whether avowed or not, it is the family feeling, and Lane initiated it.

Although to strangers some of its manifestations may seem unpleasant, its background is mutual affection and mutual respect, and humility on the part the adults. Because the adult does not think of himself as essentially a superior being, he does not say, “I forbid you to do such and such a thing”. He says rather, “Don’t be a silly ass” (or even, indeed, “bloody fool”); “If you do that, it will have such and such consequences and you’ll wish you’d never done it”.

The effect of this approach is to induce neither unwilling obedience nor rebelliousness, but rather acceptance of the facts and an acting upon them. Even if the facts are not accepted and acted upon, there is not in these circumstances the further crime - and punishment - of disobedience, or in addition, whatever consequences may have flowed from the ill-advised action; and confidence in the adult is maintained or even enhanced.

In most schools nowadays, and especially in boarding schools, there is a much more free and relaxed atmosphere than perhaps there has ever been. While this is due in part, of course, to the general loosening of relationships in this country, it is also due in large part to Lane’s pioneer work at the Little Commonwealth. Particularly is this true in the case of special schools for delinquent, difficult and maladjusted children. Approved Schools have been slow to accept Lane’s example, and in view of his later relationship with the Home Office, this is not surprising. But in the new schools for maladjusted children established during the last twenty years or so, free of the disciplinarian traditions of Home Office Schools, Lane’s influence is clearly to be seen. In these cases the debt to Lane is recognised and acknowledged; in some it is present, as it were, at second-hand. But no one who knows the best of these schools can fail to see Lane’s influence in them.

Lane’s greatest gifts, it cannot too much be emphasised, were his quick intuitive understanding of what was going on in another person’s mind, and his capacity to arouse in others warm feelings of admiration and affection. His old friend and patron, Dr. Claude Jones, attributed this latter gift to the fact that all the things his boys enjoyed doing Lane could do better. But as he proved equally attractive to educated, cultured and sophisticated adults, there was evidently more in it than that.

Most of his success was due to these twin gifts, and they contributed largely to his downfall, the unorthodox, and indeed sometimes bizarre methods he employed upon occasion arose from them, and much harm has been done by people without these gifts trying to give universal application to techniques which had only a particular application. They are nonetheless interesting and amusing.

Lord Sandwich tells the story of the boys who were helping Lane to build a brick wall. Lane himself was doing the most difficult part, at the corner. The boys soon became discouraged, saying that they would never be able to lay a straight course. Lane then surreptitiously spoilt his own work and presently brought the boys to see how badly he was getting on. When they saw that even his work was not perfect, they felt that perhaps they need not give up after all, and in time became quite competent bricklayers.

In the same vein is the story told in Lane’s words about the boy who had been sent to him by the teacher because he could not do his arithmetic. Lane put on his most formal and forbidding manner, blustered at the boy about what a fool he must be to be unable to do such a simple sum, and started doing it himself, aloud. In the process he made such stupid errors that even the boy could see them, and eventually Lane, having apparently got himself into an inextricable mess, used some obvious excuse to leave the room - and the problem - which the boy then solved.

1. See J. H. Simpson: An Adventure in Education (London, Sidgwick and Jackson, 1917), and J. H. Simpson: Sane Schooling (London, Faber and Faber, 1936)

2. W. H. Auden and Louis MacNeice: Letters from Ireland, Chapter xii.

This article appeared in Anarchy in May 1964 and the Editor’s permission to reprint is gratefully acknowledged.
David Wills spent many years working with maladjusted children and adolescents, and described his experiences in a series of vivid and valuable books, “The Hawkspur Experiment” (1941), “The Barns Experiment” (1945), “Throw Away Thy Rod” (1960), and “Common Sense About Young Offenders” (1962).

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