This book once caused a lot of fuss. In fact, it caused outrage. If it was still in print today then it would still get many folks worked up but arguably it remains as relevant as ever for young people today.
One thing is for sure, you won’t find it in the school library.
The Little Red Schoolbook (Den lille røde bog fur skoleelever) was written in 1969 by Danish teachers Bo Dan Andersen, Søren Hansen and the psychologist Jesper Jensen.
It was aimed to educate readers aged 12 and upward about democracy, sex and drugs in frank, simple and sometimes explicit language.
It first appeared in the 1970s and was banned by the UK authorities. Copies were confiscated and the publisher was prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act.
What upset the establishment the most was the no-nonsense attitude to sex. This seems like a storm in a teacup now as children can step into the web and access all manner of ‘taboos’. But beyond that the book was seen as encouraging children’s activism and promoting an uprising of dissent.
The authors told pupils how they could lodge complaints against teachers who mistreated them, who to contact in such cases, and even provided a model letter. They wanted an end corporal punishment and its excessive use against working-class children and pupils with learning difficulties. Who would argue against that now?
So at the heart of this controversial book was giving children a voice. It proclaimed that children’s natural inquisitiveness and desire to learn were in danger of being suffocated by dull, authoritarian teaching methods. For example,
“Instead of helping you to develop as an individual, schools have to teach you the things our economic system needs you to know. They have to teach you to obey authority rather than question things, just as the exam system encourages you to conform, not to be an individual.”
A sizeable chunk of the book was dedicated to explaining to pupils how the education system worked, and how they could go about changing it.
The Little Red Schoolbook said that if children were dissatisfied with their teachers then they should go on strike. The footage below shows children reading extracts from the book out loud in class and staging sit-ins in the playground.
The book caused a real stir and sensation outside of Denmark but in Denmark itself, “there was some initial concern, but the final printed version passed with relatively little remark.”
As Sophie Heywood and Helle Strandgaard Jensen (2018) note, “The English-speaking world, led by the British, helped to create an international publishing scandal around the LRSB. This was, in no small measure, thanks to the work of the formidable teacher-turned-media morality campaigner Mary Whitehouse.”
Why is The Little Red Schoolbook still so hidden away at a time when it is needed more than ever?