But Fidgety Phil / He Won’t Sit Still

From Instability to Hyperactivity, 1890s – 1990s

Maria Teresa Brancaccio

Reviewed by Mira de Vries

Myth and legend envelop the origins of many of our current social institutions. One of those is compulsory schooling, seen today as the implementation of children’s rights to an education and equal opportunity. In fact, that education for all might encourage lower class children to aspire to stations in life beyond their predestined status, was precisely the position of those who opposed the inauguration of compulsory schooling. As psychiatry is a tool for social control of the individual, so compulsory schooling was intended from the onset as a tool for social control of the masses by the ruling classes. It was to reform rebellious peasants and instill a sense of national identity in rural populations. Furthermore, state schools were thought to provide an environment superior to the homes of lower class children.

So states Maria Teresa Brancaccio in her dissertation for attaining the title of PhD at the University of Amsterdam. She posits that from the very beginning of compulsory schooling, it was wedded to medicine and psychiatry. It was an effort to instill hygiene in the lower classes, which were a growing source of worry to the more well-to-do in urban populations. The evidence she presents is collected from the study of early compulsory schooling systems in three European states, France, England, and Italy (Brancaccio’s birthplace). As after WWII the source of psychiatric fashion shifted to the US, so does the focus of her dissertation towards its end. “The questions that this study sets out to answer are: how medical and psychological interpretative frameworks of child problematic behavior gained currency in society, why at a certain moment, one set of interpretations prevails over another one, and what the consequences of their ascendancy are,” she writes.

Parents by no means welcomed compulsory schooling, the first form of direct public intervention in their authority over their children. Furthermore, in those days, literacy was devoid of economic utility. Enforcement was difficult, and parents required not a little persuasion to recognize the primacy of primary school over the family.

Schools, of course, existed already before compulsory education. Children of the privileged classes were likely to be educated anyway, frequently by private tutors. For the less privileged classes there were schools organized by communities or religious institutions. Often parents sent their children there sporadically, as a favor to the teacher, or in between high seasons on the farm. There was likely to be one teacher per school, who had one class, composed of children of a wide range of ages, abilities, and previous education. Each pupil would be accorded a few minutes of individual attention by the teacher every day, and the rest of the time was free to work or play with minimal supervision.

Compulsory education meant that there were suddenly sometimes more than a hundred pupils per teacher, so individual attention became untenable. Instead, in keeping with contemporary notions of industrial efficiency, pupils were simultaneously subjected to several consecutive hours of enforced immobility while being obliged to focus attention to the same material, which was often irrelevant to their lives. Corporal punishment was not shunned. Though formerly at home or in the work place, whether farm or factory, children were also disciplined, the task became much more difficult in the school, which depended on the strict maintenance of order.

Naturally, not all pupils could be whipped into line. To be able to purge schools of unruly pupils who challenged the social order, an auxiliary school system was established, patterned after schools already in existence for blind and deaf children. Criteria had to be established for identifying the “defective” children to be diverted to the auxiliary system. Doctors, who were on hand anyway to advise about matters of hygiene such as ventilation, lighting, and cleanliness of schoolrooms, were designated as the proper experts in identifying defective children. Psychiatrists were already in those early days of compulsory schooling campaigning for mass screening of the school population. This paralleled psychiatric campaigns to purge the adult population of its social deviants, which led to massive increases in asylum populations, and as we all know, the atrocities of the Third Reich.

However, contrary to today, in the early years of compulsory schooling, teachers, who themselves came from social backgrounds not much higher than those of their pupils, by no means embraced the medical model. They considered the taming of unruly children precisely their mission, and accused psychiatrists of not understanding the social factors contributing to unruliness. Also not on the psychiatrists’ side were school system authorities who feared high costs, and parents who objected to the stigmatization of their children. This opened up opportunities for (less expensive) psychologists to conquer ground in the field of education and introduce their ideas.

So psychiatrists, who were dependent on teachers’ referrals for their livelihoods, had to invest in massive propaganda to persuade teachers to see unruliness as a pathological problem. By the first decades of the 20th century, medicine was firmly embedded in most school systems. In Birmingham (England), the number of children deflected to special education classes increased from 100 to 600 within a few years after a physician was appointed to the post of school inspector. After WWII influence from the mental hygiene movement in the US helped inflate these figures even more throughout Europe. The author does not fail to point out the role of the pharmaceutical industry and the DSM in the inflation of numbers of children subjected to psychiatric diagnosis and treatment.

No publisher is listed in Brancaccio’s book. The inclusion of Dutch texts (as is customary for dissertations in the Netherlands), the double spacing, and the absence of an index, suggest that it was self-published. Her work greatly deserves a more professional publication, and to be distributed to libraries across the world.

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