Homer Lane (1875-1925) was Superintendent of the Little Commonwealth, a co-educational community in Dorset run for children and young people ranging from a few months to 19 years. Those over 13 years old were there because they were categorize as delinquent. An American by birth, he had early experience as an educator at the George Junior Republic. At the Little Commonwealth from 1913 to 1918 (at Evershot, Dorset) he pioneered what later we came to know as ‘group therapy’ and ‘shared responsibility’. His educational approach involved ‘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’ (Wills 1964: 20). Unfortunately, his work in Dorset came to a rather abrupt end after two of the young female ‘citizens’ claimed that Lane ‘had immoral relations with them’ (Wills 1964: 163). As well as having an interest in offenders and expressive forms of education, Lane also worked as a psychotherapist (this also brought him into legal trouble).
The Little Commonwealth is a co-educational community inhabited by children ranging in age from a few months to nineteen years, those more than thirteen years of age having been committed for a term of years for crime, as to a reformatory - in fact, the Little Commonwealth has recently been certified as a reformatory. The younger children are those who would in any case be subject to institutional care in asylums or orphanages. At the present moment the population of the Commonwealth is five adults, four of whom are women, forty-two boys and girls of fourteen to nineteen years of age, and nine younger children. This population is distributed among three ‘families,’ grouped by congeniality; each person is free to choose his own place of residence. Boys and girls live in the same families, sharing equally the responsibility for family maintenance and government, as well as the responsibility for the welfare of the younger children. The chief point of difference between the Commonwealth and other reformatories and schools is that in the Commonwealth there are no rules and regulations except those made by the boys and girls themselves. All those who are fourteen years of age and over are citizens, having joint responsibility for the regulation of their lives by the laws and judicial machinery organized and developed by themselves. The adult element studiously avoid any assumption of authority in the community, except in connection with their respective departmental duties as teachers or as supervisors of labour within the economic scheme. The citizens are paid wages in Commonwealth currency for their work in the various departments, and provide their own food, clothing, and recreations to whatever degree of comfort and elegance their earning capacity will permit. The wage paid corresponds to that of the outside world in similar employments The citizens are occupied chiefly with earning a living, to a regrettable exclusion of any considerable time for formal school-work. This, of course, does not apply to the children under fourteen, who have no work to do other than that chosen by themselves after the school-work is finished.
The improvident citizen, the slacker, if he is unable to pay his own expenses, must be supported from the public treasury, the funds of which are raised by taxation. If a discontented citizen causes any damage, fails to pay for his board, or runs away, the expense of misdemeanour is borne by the taxpayers. If the citizens’ court imposes any penalty upon an erring citizen which interferes with his employment, the community must provide him with necessities.
Thus it may be seen that in the Commonwealth there is a direct relationship between prosperity and morality. What better field could there be for the cultivation and growth of a code that is based upon the spontaneous virtues of adolescent human nature? And those virtues have certainly been in evidence during the whole of our four years of existence. The moral standards of the citizen group, as measured by its attitude toward the individual delinquent, have always been wholesome and clear and definite. This is as true of those offences that do not cause any expense to the taxpayer as of those that do. Hence our belief that in spite of the very prominent place in the organization of the Commonwealth occupied by the scheme of economics, the morality of the community is not exclusively of the £ s. d. type. That is, while honesty is the best policy in the Commonwealth as elsewhere, honesty is not entirely a matter of policy. During the first year, while the original group of citizens were assuming their new responsibilities, there were frequent sudden changes in the attitude of the group toward the individual wrongdoer. At times severe penalties were imposed upon him, and then quite suddenly the type of penalties would undergo a marked change. Such punishments as close bounds, fines and other forms of deprivation would almost disappear, the wrongdoer being merely expected to make restitution so far as was possible to the community or individual for any injuries he might have done to property. Each change had causes which are obscure and difficult of diagnosis, but of the highest possible importance in a study of the moral growth of the children.
Perhaps the most interesting period in the short history of the Commonwealth is that of the first few months after a group of about fifteen so-called criminal boys and girls had been collected and the experiment in self-government begun. These boys and girls had no idea of social order. Their conception of material values was most vague. Born and reared in city slums, surrounded on every side by the authority of parents, police and school officials, the victims of an especially narrow and restricted environment, their faculty of self-restraint was almost wholly undeveloped except when in close proximity to some restraining authority. Their idea of social relationships was limited to the primitive form of co-operation for self-protection - against authority. Separately they were passive, subdued and apathetic. Combined or as a group they were aggressive, fearless and anti-social.
It was necessary to employ extraordinary methods to free them from their misconceptions of society and social order. They had a very keen legal sense of right and wrong, but it could not be called a moral code. We said to them, ‘You may do as you please,’ but they did not believe it. In the presence of us adults they had no initiative, were self-repressed and passive. By themselves they were spontaneous, original, active and resourceful, but usually in a destructive direction. The acknowledged leader was the boy who had the best command of unconventional language, who was most daring in destructive activities, and who assumed the most defiant attitude towards adults. On the whole they were unusually obedient to a direct command or request; but it was the obedience of weakness, not of strength. Their ideals were anti-social. Now the conventional method of altering children’s ideals is to suppress their undesirable activities, and by means of some form of primitive treatment to impress our ideals upon them. But the logical method is to dissipate the child’s ideal by encouragement of his activities, until he himself discovers its advantages. The latter method was employed in the Commonwealth. I joined the group in its disturbing activities, became one of the gang, and by so doing speedily spoiled the fun. As the recognized authority in the community, my sanction and encouragement of midnight pillow-fights, larder raids and hooliganism did away with the element of danger involved, and it ceased to be fun. Now we were ready to organize in another direction, and did so. The citizens began to take interest in the more serious occupations at hand. The ideal of the group had altered. They helped with the work, and began to caution the more obstreperous about their conduct. Gradually they arrived at the point where the need for formal rules and laws was felt. They instituted not only a form of parliamentary procedure, under which rules were enacted, but also a judicial procedure by which violations of rules were dealt with. It is in the citizens’ court that one may get into closer touch with the spirit of the Commonwealth than in any other community function, and it is here that I look for the true spiritual expressions of our boys and girls. Now I will readily admit that in the greater community one does not, as a rule, search in the courts for manifestations of the spiritual life of a people, but that is because courts are legal institutions rather than the mouthpiece of a public code of morality as in the Commonwealth. All the citizens of the Commonwealth attend courts, and the highest judicial authority is the referendum. Disputed points as between the citizen judge and an offender are decided by public opinion by means of the roll-call. Each citizen must express an opinion.
This piece has been reproduced here on the understanding that it is not subject to any copyright restrictions, and that it is, and will remain, in the public domain.
First published: April 2001