Tuesday, July 19

Here is part two of an essay about education. Please read yesterday's bit first.

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pt. 2: hippie bullshit

Other places like Tamariki School are few and far between, but they do exist. Most see themselves as free or democratic schools, though, like Tamariki, they may view small-scale democracy as more of a means than an end. Most draw inspiration from A. S. Neill, who founded a school called Summerhill in England in the early 1920s, and wrote extensively on his methods.

Neill was heavily influenced by Freudian psychoanalysis. I try not to hold this against him, because his basic contention was that freedom works. Not that freedom is a nice ideal, or that freedom is a desirable goal, but that freedom works.

Places like Tamariki demonstrate that radical ideas are not always pragmatic disasters. And lest there be any confusion, these are radical ideas. There isn't much to be gained by trying to disguise them. They demand, if you take them seriously, a different understanding of what schools should be and do. If you take Summerhill and its spiritual descendants as models, then the existing systems aren't broken. They're the wrong systems, operating from the wrong premises, working towards the wrong goals.

Free schools (the terminology I'll generally use, because it seems more inclusive, and because it analogizes well to free speech and free software) vary widely in their culture and institutions, but they have much in common. Among the identifiable elements:

  • A belief in the value of play.
  • A form of simple, participatory democracy.
  • Mediation for disputes between children, as well children and teachers.
  • A belief that the processes of both democracy and mediation are more important than their proximate outcomes. That is to say, that it's more important for children to attempt to solve their own problems than for the system as a whole to function smoothly.
  • Optional instruction in academic subjects.
  • Teaching which is very specific to individual students.
  • Relatively high rates of parental involvement. (Applicable at least to schools whose students live at home.)
  • Free speech.
  • An emphasis on emotional health and relationships.

It's important what free schools actually are, and it would be doing most of them a disservice to depict them as a pure opposition to the existing order. Still, it could be helpful to define them negatively, in terms of what's missing in comparison to mainstream institutions:

  • No grades.
  • Little or no standardized testing.
  • No age-based segregation.
  • No dress code or uniforms.
  • No homework.
  • No mandatory classes, even in reading or arithmetic.
  • No mandatory athletics.
  • Few rules, beyond those dictated by laws or safety concerns, which are not subject to a vote by students.
  • Few sanctions on language.

If you accept that these differences aren't just knee-jerk reactions against the norm, then it's easy enough to see that they arise from a different set of premises - about children and learning, maybe even about human nature. If free schools function well despite serious societal opposition and constant underfunding, then some questions are in order.

Why segregate children by age?

Why keep children in classrooms and desks? Why make them stand in line?

Why work so hard to prevent play within the context of schools?

Why require teachers to distance themselves from students and cut short interactions outside of lessons?

Why punish children for using the language of their parents, their older siblings, and their culture at large? Does saying "fuck" actually render a person somehow less valuable? Contrariwise, do prohibitions on language actually do anything but lend a special power to supposed obscenities and encourage their use?

The most prohibited word in the schools I attended was "why". Does it benefit anyone to punish students who directly question their educational institutions? Shouldn't that kind of inquiry be encouraged?

Why make organized sports mandatory? Given space and free reign, won't most children run themselves into exhaustion anyway? Does physical education actually serve its stated purposes? What about the significant minority of kids who experience PE as a series of degrading and humiliating episodes? Are they benefiting physically? Are they likely to grow up with a healthy understanding of their bodies?

I seldom cheated in school, but I never felt the slightest guilt for letting others cheat off of my work. I didn't cheat because I just didn't care - answers I didn't know I usually left blank or filled with nonsense. It didn't bother me if other people copied my answers because, hey, they seemed to appreciate it - and contrary to official propaganda, I couldn't discern any way that someone else getting a better grade was damaging me. Or them, for that matter. So was I wrong? Would anyone cheat or plagiarize without grades, adult approval, and rank at stake? Would cheating even have any meaning separable from the idea of petty dishonesty?

If children almost universally respond better to individualized attention, what purpose does an increased standardization of teaching (in methods, content, and testing) really serve? My best teachers were the ones whose style was idiosyncratic and individual, the product of a personal craft - where does a mania for uniformity leave them? Where does it leave their students?

Why assign homework? Why grade the results? Why devote so much effort to theoretically objective measures of achievement? Is it more important to nurture children in their growth, or to satisfy a bureaucracy that demands quantified return-on-investment? If the former, isn't it possible that the latter is actually getting in the way?

If there are better ways to deal with "disciplinary problems", why not use them? The gravest sin in any elementary school is stooling for the guards. Might that say something about the institutions themselves?

Does rewarding and punishing children for their adherence to arbitrary rules really encourage personal responsibility? What about dignity? Does it prepare people to live in a free society, or to live as free individuals? If the answer is that schools aren't actually meant to prepare students for freedom, then why the hell not?