pt. 1: school

When I was in school, I was miserable. I was a social disaster with an aversion to authority, a refined hatred of assigned work, and an amazing set of interlocking fears and deficiencies. Math was impossible. I could never learn cursive or understand why learning cursive was necessary. P.E. was institutionally sanctioned torture. The disciplinary system, full of arbitrary and arbitrarily enforced rules, was a cruel joke. The social scene seemed driven more or less entirely by the refined exercise of cruelty. (It's a cliche that "kids can be cruel". The truth is that most children master the art of inflicting pain far in advance of other social skills.)

By the 7th grade I'd already spent hundreds of hours in the school counselor's office, detention hall, and the Special Ed room. I spent most of each day at a desk between a metal filing cabinet and the wall, reading paperback fiction and ignoring my homework, banned from every class except Joan Brogie's eighth period English. I made life hell for my parents at home, and steadily defied the school system's every measure or expectation. At the end of the year I wound up in a mental hospital in Omaha, surrounded by kids whose damage - suicide attempts and rapes, beatings and abandonments - made mine seem glaringly trivial. Two weeks later, I went home with a refined sense of my family's relative sanity and an awareness of the undertow represented by the mental health system. I was scared, and certain I had escaped something much worse. I repeated a year and played the game of highschool just well enough to graduate. I ranked second from the bottom of my class.

It seems obvious that my perspective between the ages of 6 and 14 was skewed. With few exceptions, most of my teachers were dedicated and deeply concerned. What's more, so were the administration I despised and the coaches I hated so intensely through the years of phys-ed humiliation. By the time I graduated, I was mostly aware of this - and sometimes it was enough to overcome the things I hated about the system - but my overwhelming feeling on graduating was simple relief at being, finally, done with the bullshit.

If you had asked me at any point during my college years, I probably would have said that mine was a cautionary tale. I was a stupid kid, unaware of how good I had it, and lucky that my brief institutionalization was a wake-up call rather than a prelude to worse things. By the standards of state institutions, my stay in a cushy private facility was two weeks in the lap of luxury, and I was never medicated enough to do much damage. Still, I felt like I had glimpsed the abyss - and that feeling has never gone away.

Like a lot of American kids who suffer through a public education, I escaped through the simple expedient of waiting long enough, and eventually found a more satisfying environment in college. At which point I washed my hands of the entire affair. The basic rules about high school, I figured after the fact, were don't take anything too seriously, do your best to survive, and then get the hell out of Dodge. It's taken a long time for me to start asking serious questions about why school sucked so much; in part because it no longer seemed like my problem, and in part because I had no reason to expect serious answers.

A couple of things have changed that equation for me.

The first is the one really important philosophical idea I managed to take away from the thousand-plus pages of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged - something she termed the sanction of the victim. The notion, basically, that bad ideologies and moral codes demand the sanction of those they harm most. For Rand, the signature example of this seemed to be the guilt that a wealthy industrialist would be made to feel for his success. In the Randian universe, of course, industrial wealth was never accumulated at a disturbingly high human cost - that kind of talk is for weak, life-hating collectivist freeloaders.

Fortunately, Atlas Shrugged contains a more sympathetic case. Hank Rearden and Dagny Taggart, two of our wealthy industrialist heroes, embark on a sexual relationship despite Hank's marriage. Hank proceeds to feel deeply conflicted and guilt-ridden, because he has internalized a moral code that tells him the best thing he has ever experienced is intrinsically wrong. Dagny bawls him out at some length.

It's easy enough to question Rand's vision of things. But I think this principle - that the victims of ideology should never internalize or give their sanction to the values that condemn them - is one of the most important ideas I've ever come across. It seems to apply almost universally to the human condition.

Though reading has planted some important seeds, the biggest influence on my thinking about education has been more concrete. Early this year, I spent two months involved in the day-to-day workings and community life of a school in Christchurch, New Zealand.

Tamariki School differs drastically and deliberately from the average school of most industrial nations. It is small, even by the standards of the Nebraska public schools I attended - Around 60 pupils and eight or nine paid adults. It employs no grouping of students by age or advancement, and no grading system. The bulk of its rules are voted in place by students, and seem to exist mostly as a body of oral tradition. Classes and activities are voluntary. Though there are two large buildings and several classrooms, the immediate impression of the place isn't much like a school, or even a playground. It's a lot more like a large, scruffy back yard.

Like any working institution or community, Tamariki has its significant flaws and internal conflicts. During my time there, however, I nearly always felt that its basic ideas were good in a way that the ones behind my schooling hadn't been. They made sense, once you experienced the school firsthand. The experience served to clarify the real values that drive educational practice. More than that, it gave me concrete grounds for questioning the school as I knew it. If Tamariki worked, then school as I knew it wasn't just unpleasant or regrettably imperfect, it was flatly unnecessary.

Because we lived in the back yards and spare bedrooms of the people who run Tamariki and whose children attend the school (there's a lot of overlap), being in New Zealand felt like an extended conversation about education, schools, and their larger social context. By the time I returned to the States in early June, I was sold. It didn't hurt that the people we had been spending time with were, by and large, not really selling anything. They had the simple, and sometimes weary, confidence of long experience - not the fervor of true believers or the desperate evangelical need of the not-quite-convinced. And there was a surprising depth to their experience; the sort of subtlety that comes from spending a lot of time where ideas come up hard against reality.

After leaving New Zealand, I took an extra flight and spent a week in Pittsburgh, PA with my friend Eric. Eric and I have a friendship that in many particulars resembles an eight year long argument, so I wondered how soon we would get into it over education. It didn't take long.

"That", said Eric, "sounds like hippie bullshit."

The discussion that followed must have covered a lot of ground - at least it should have, since it lasted better than an hour and occasionally (like any good friendly discourse) bordered on a shouting match. The upshot is that I lost.