Educator Profile - SUSAN ISAACS 1885–1948

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SUSAN ISAACS 1885–1948

The ultimate basis for the sensible practice of the trained educator…provides a settled framework of control and routine, and definite help along social paths yet with ample personal freedoms. …This, too, is the corrective for the idea that the child will never learn unless he is scolded or smacked, no less than for the notion that he need not learn, but need only bring out the good in him. (Susan Isaacs 1933, p.421)

Susan Isaacs brought psychoanalytic ideas to progressive education in Britain; also, she contributed to psychoanalytic theory with her work on ‘unconscious phantasy’ life which was rooted in her understanding of children. She was brought up in Bolton in Lancashire, an energetic, blunt-speaking northerner. Her father, a journalist, was a Methodist lay preacher and opposed to a career for his daughter (his ninth child)—especially opposed to educating her when she announced she had become an agnostic. However she managed to find employment tutoring, and then as a governess abroad. She eventually got to Manchester University and did brilliantly going on to further study of psychology at Cambridge in 1912, where she may well have first developed her interest in Freud.

During the First World War she began to attend courses at the training arm of the Brunswick Square Clinic, which provided treatment for returning shell-shock victims, and also offered the first training programmes in psychotherapy and psychoanalysis in Britain. There she met James Glover who, after the war, influenced her to go to Otto Rank in Berlin for some psychoanalysis.

The Brunswick Square Clinic closed in 1924, and Susan Isaacs joined the British Psychoanalytical Society, beginning a new analysis with J.C.Flügel. In 1924 she responded to an advertisement in the New Statesman for a graduate to run a school along unconventional lines. This advertisement was placed by Geoffrey Pike, a maverick inventor during the war effort, and his wife Margaret, a pioneer founder of the International Planned Parenthood Federation.

Geoffrey Pike was himself unhappy at school, and wanted to provide his own children with a different experience. He had the use of a house outside Cambridge, and appointed Susan Isaacs to run the Malting House School.

Because of the concern for a new social order after the First World War, the ‘new education’ movement had come together in 1920 as the New Education Fellowship. The Malting House School contributed to this progressive education movement. The schools in this movement often had founders whose aim was to improve on their own educational experiences. Usually the basis was a freedom for children in their learning.

The New Education Fellowship published New Era until the 1940s; and spawned a number of parallel experiments including the Elmhirst’s Dartington Hall (1925), Dora Russell’s Beacon Hill School (1927) and A.S.Neill’s Summerhill (1927). These were heavily influenced by Froebel in Germany and Dewey in the United States. Susan Isaacs experiment in teaching lasted two and a half years, and is reported in two books: The Intellectual Growth in Young Children (London: Routledge, 1930); and Social Development in Young Children (London: Routledge, 1933).

Isaacs educational work at the Malting House School finished in 1927. Pike’s business had begun to fail then, and Isaacs may have left partly because of the increasing pinch in the resources. There was also some disagreement with Pike over the importance of words and language in the life of the young child, which contributed to her leaving. The school closed soon after. At that time Flügel was then professor of psychology at University College, London (UCL). In 1927, on the basis of her work at the Malting House School he appointed her to teach child development at UCL. Flügel also had contacts with Sir Percy Nunn, an early associate of the British Psychoanalytical Society and professor at the Institute of Education in London. In 1932, Nunn appointed Isaacs to start up a department of Child Development at the Institute of Education.

Susan Isaacs started from the position that the intellectual development of the child was intimately connected with emotional development, and she disagreed somewhat with Piaget. Though she brought psychoanalytic ideas to the educational setting, she was not the first to do so. In Britain, Homer Lane established the Little Commonwealth (1913–17) where he offered psychoanalytic treatment to individual adolescent delinquents, mixed boys and girls; at the same time he attempted to understand those political processes advocated by Dewey, as group processes in psychoanalytic terms.6 On the Continent, Freud’s daughter, Anna who had been a teacher, developed a pedagogic form of psychoanalysis for children. And with others in Vienna, Hermine Hug-Hellmuth,7 August Aichorn8 and Sigmund Bernfeld, applied the theory of instinctual development to education. They stressed the importance of sublimation in childhood, and its role in learning.

Anna Freud’s lectures for teachers, in 1930, summarized this research. The key factor, they decided, was the super-ego. The super-ego inhibits the child’s libido and requires it to be turned to the task of intellectual learning and the acquisition of skills. The role of education is a process by which the repressed instincts could learn to be channelled into socially acceptable activities. The latter is called sublimation.

Isaacs, like others in progressive education in Britain, started with the view that freedom in the classroom will dispel learning inhibition or distortions of character development. She established a culture of freedom and encouraged play as a method of expressing the instinctual life, and of discovery about mastering the world and developing sublimated skills. Because psychoanalysis expounds the theory that neurosis is caused by repression, it was used in arguments to support permissive approaches in progressive schools. However Isaacs soon modified her approach. Simply to provide freedom of expression resulted in extreme rivalry and aggression between children, once liberated. Although education is the sublimation of instincts, freed instincts could also inhibit the natural development of sublimation in learning and self-expression. If instinctual wishes become too powerful then children seem to be overcome and then inhibited, restricted in their formation and use of symbols and words and severely incapacitated in learning. Thus she differed from the way psychoanalysis was used in Vienna to support the super-ego of the child. She turned to Melanie Klein’s ideas to understand this.

As soon as Melanie Klein moved to London and joined the British Psychoanalytical Society, in 1926, Isaacs took an increasing interest in the form of child analysis which Klein developed which was somewhat different from Anna Freud’s. Klein had pioneered a method for young children in 1918 in Budapest with Sandor Ferenczi and subsequently in Berlin with Karl Abraham. Klein’s method10 gained access to the unconscious life of young children—as young as two years and nine months—by using the child’s natural form of self-expression, play. Klein displayed aspects of the super-ego, not known to the Vienna group. She noticed that very young children demonstrated in their play a torturing concern about their own aggression.

So, children don’t necessarily play more freely just from encouragement—though many do. Too much freedom can lead to the worrying freedom of aggressive urges. The super-ego appeared to be active within the earliest years of life, and in those early forms it is particularly harsh. Klein showed that guilt arising from a harsh super-ego, leads to the child becoming very fearful and then retaliatory against others. Aggression could feed on itself. And the intensity of such a cycle of guilt, fear and retaliation could lead to severe inhibition in learning.11
Klein and Isaacs agreed that a regime of tolerance can go some way to mitigating the harshness of the super-ego strictures within. However too much tolerance leads to the child feeling guilt (a comment Klein made after visiting the Malting House School soon after her move to London). Isaacs found the need for a balance between freedom of expression and the curtailment of it.

Under Klein’s influence, Isaacs showed that the role of play was not just about mastery of the world and learning sublimated skills. It was also an actual expression of those agonized fantasies which can hold up development. The central role of fantasy, not just in play, but as an expression of the child’s difficulties in learning led to her sophisticated view of intellectual development and social relations. The emphasis on free play turned the attention from biological instincts to the expressive capacities. This was the field of research in which Isaacs made her most significant contribution to psychoanalysis and gave her greatest support for Melanie Klein.

Klein pursued a line of practice and thinking relatively independent from Freud and from classical psychoanalysis as it had developed in Vienna. This dispute was quite vituperative, but was significantly heightened when, in 1938, Freud and his family fled as refugees to London. Particularly after Freud’s death in 1939, those loyal to Klein and those loyal to Anna Freud began to form separate organized groups, which culminated in the so-called ‘controversial discussion’, in 1943–44, centring around 18 months of formal meetings of the Society to discuss Klein’s innovations.

During this time, Isaacs served as Klein’s most trusted lieutenant. She took the lead as the defender of Klein’s ideas, and with her sharp mind bore the brunt of the debate. She gave the paper that started off the formal discussions, ‘The Nature and Function of Phantasy’ (Isaacs 1948)—and this has remained a classic founding text of Kleinian psychoanalysis in which she asserted that fantasy is ‘the primary content of unconscious mental processes’.14 In the debates, Isaacs’ much more subtle style out-manoeuvred the arguments of Anna Freud and her group on many occasions. She did not convert the Viennese analysts, but she established the rigour of Kleinian psychoanalytic thinking.

The blending of psychoanalysis with education is one of the most important developments in education in the twentieth century. At UCL, and then at the Institute of Education in London, Isaacs taught and researched the importance of early emotional development for the intellectual and social life of the young child. She was very active in writing short pieces (sometimes under the name ‘Ursula Wise’) on child development and education for young children for popular magazines. As a psychologist turned educationalist, Isaacs contributed the most up-to-date ideas on child development to teachers; and during the 1930s, she was chair of the Education Section of the British Psychological Society. During the Second World War years, while she was evacuated from London with her Department to Cambridge, she headed a group of Cambridge psychologists who produced the ‘Cambridge Evacuation Survey’ of evacuated children and families. The emphasis of this work was on the child’s point of view.

Isaacs’ educational work derived its inspiration from psychoanalysis and the particular notions of repression, sublimation, the importance of play, and the evolving idea of unconscious phantasy; her classic paper on the last of these has become, in turn, her lasting contribution to psychoanalysis.
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