By Julia Engel
Author Robb Johnson has broken the mold of traditionalism as both a teacher and a writer theorizing on ethical teaching. Or has he? In The People’s Republic of Neverland: The Child Versus the State, Johnson queries the many-layered issues surrounding state-controlled education systems: the role neoliberalism has played in this over the last 40 years, the senselessness of standardized testing, and the narrowly constructed European idea of “school” imperialistically imposed on much of the world, to name a few. Though Johnson is British and has built his campaign for localized education from across the pond, the central themes he presents to readers speak to the more ubiquitous problem of mass education. Johnson’s arguments of misguided “reform” at the hands of the ruling class run parallel to our own brand of American corruption, in particular as the ramifications of the Common Core era have come to the forefront. Neverland uses anecdotes, poems, and personal accounts to illustrate a historical record of how the ruling elite have usurped our ideas of “reform” and education. And this isn’t an issue contained in our schools alone: It permeates our supplemental education systems, like those provided through grant-funded NGOs with strict guidelines and protocol to deliver “measurable outcomes.” Johnson’s book weaves in a bounty of snarky quips alongside well-researched arguments on the corruption that has plagued Great Britain’s schools. He quickly warns that “‘Reform’ always freighted political intent, and this book does too, so if you lack the capacity to be angered that over four million children in the fifth or sixth richest nation state on the planet officially live in poverty and are unable to accept that this is clearly the consequence of government of the privileged, by the privileged, for the privileged—then this book isn’t for you.” The type of system Johnson describes is like one big input-output equation: a raw material (or student) is put into the funnel machine (the education system), a certain value is added to that raw material (the “knowledge” a teacher imparts), and then boom—the raw material pops out the other end a finished, educated, ready-for-society product. One of the most notable successes of Neverland is Johnson’s ability to remind us that this is not how education should work. Instead, he urges us to encourage a child’s innate ability to learn, imagine, and play, providing them with tools to grow and prosper. Children, Johnson explains, are the world’s “Essential Anarchists”—and the attempt to control this anarchy by the state is a fascist and dystopian one. I have to side with Johnson in that it is essential to celebrate this anarchy if we expect our children to develop as free-thinking, curious-minded individuals—which is ultimately what will create a more advanced society.
Robb Johnson has worked as a classroom teacher by day and a songwriter by night since 1980. As a songwriter, he has received widespread critical acclaim: “one of this country’s most important songwriters (no argument!)” (fROOTS), “An English original”(the Guardian), “one of our best singer-songwriters ever” (Mike Harding), and his songs are covered by many singers. “Gentle Men”, Robb’s family history of World War One is a particular career highlight. In 2016, PM Press in the US released “A Reasonable History of Impossible Demands”, a 5 CD career-retrospective. In 2018 Robb released “Ordinary Giants”, a 3 CD song suite based on his father’s life and times – the 1930s, the fight against fascism, the creation of the post-war Welfare State and the reaction of Neo-liberalism.