Back To School Labor Day Special

“Large-scale education was never about teaching kids or creating scholars. It was invented to churn out adults who worked well within the system.” This is a direct quote from today’s post on Seth Godin’s Blog titled “Back to (the wrong) School.

Rather than a straight up repost I suggest you follow the link to this very good article. I have shared it on Facebook today, and it seems to be making the rounds. It seems that as Labor Day heralds the end of summer, we all automatically begin to feel the urge to go back to school. This is true whether you are 8 or 80. September has this aura of new beginnings. And growing up in America, this has always been coupled with the building anticipation of returning to school.

In hindsight, it always began with buying new clothes. The clothes were tied to the image we wanted to present to our peers. The anticipation was built on social desires and needs. Returning to school meant a return to a larger social environment. The fact that that basic need was going to be made secondary by the institution of learning was a thought we would hide in the back of our minds. It was more important  how we were going to look to the opposite sex. As a boy, I had girls on my mind. Mainly the ones I had not yet met.

So now with a young son, the question arises at this juncture in the year “So Noah, what grade will you be in this year?” At this point I always let Noah handle it alone while I sit back and wait for the subsequent questions about his school and what sort of education is that?

And the basic question then is “What is a free school?”, “Is that something new?”, “If they have total freedom and no tests, how are they learning anything?”

Given that these type of questions come up often, I will again try to give as clear an answer as I can muster. I will also layout a simple plan of action for those who are truly curious and are not just asking to make conversation.

Is this what public education was intended for?

What is a Free School?

I can think of a dozen people who are way more qualified to answer this question. There are many “free” schools around the country. The one I know the best is the one my son attends and his parents helped to found. Our school is now 8 years old. The simplest answer I can give is lifted directly from the BFS website. “Brooklyn Free School is dedicated to the belief that all students must be free to develop naturally as human beings in a non-coercive educational environment and empowered to make decisions affecting their everyday lives and that of their community.”

One thing I should add here is that the school is not “free” in the monetary sense. But many of the schools operate on a sliding scale model so that it is affordable to all economic situations.

To further answer the question, you have the opportunity via the internet to get more information instantly. There is a website for almost everything and the oldest Free School in the world has one. Summerhill, located in England, has been around for almost a 100 years. Indeed it was reading a book in my first year of art school by the founder of Summerhill that put the germ of the idea into my head. There are also many schools around this country. The two that I know personally are The Village Free School in Portland and our sister school in Albany named simply, The Free School, which recently celebrated its’ 40th anniversary.

Beyond the web there are many books out there that deal with how free schools operate. I recommend Chris Mercoligiano, who was an advisor and director in Albany for many years. Jerry Mintz, founder of AERO, wrote a nice little book about the school he ran in Vermont for 15 years called “No Homework and Recess All Day” which you can order on the AERO website. It is a very readable book, and Jerry could use the fans. There are many other books to be had there as well. Admittedly, I do not read a lot of books on the subject. I pretty much avoid the “preaching to the choir” and venture into other topics like history and science. But every so often, I make it my business to get the views of some of my fellow activists in this area. If you look at the links bar at the side of this blog, you will see many other sites you can look into, including IDEA, an organization working to bring some of the free school ideas into the public school environment.

The component that is unique in a free school and VERY different from any education model we know of, is the democratic meeting. Every Wednesday, the entire student body gather in the gym for an all-school meeting. Everyone who is a member of the community is required to attend. This includes all students from 5 to 19, all advisors(teachers), the school director, guidance counselors as well as interns and parent volunteers. The meeting is used to flush out school policy, agenda items that are brought by the students and any news pertinent to the community.  It is a forum in which students, regardless of age, are empowered to take charge of the processes that impact their daily life at the school. At the beginning of each meeting, a student is elected to be chairperson while another is selected to co-chair. This is all done by a nomination and vote. I have seen extremely shy students, suddenly speak up with real authority in their voice. And it is in this specific laboratory that I feel some real values are transmitted. The main one being that everyone is equal, and every voice is important.

Real Time Observation

You can observe a lot by just watching. —Yogi Berra

Of course, I do understand that this flies in the face of convention. Why would we trust children to manage their own affairs? Outside of arguing a position, my next suggestion would be to actually visit a school. Whenever I have a chance, I like to spend some time with the students at BFS. I may be unique in that I like being around children. Especially teenagers. I have an acute memory of what it was like to be one, and I like the energy of youth. Maybe I use it like a drug, but it is also this feeling of returning some shred of understanding I may have acquired from existing these past few decades. And given the fact that I am also an outsider, lends credibility to my being allowed to hang out with them.

Another factor is that I was educated in the same conventional setting as everyone else. Despite my reactions to it, I still exhibit many of the symptoms of institutionalized learning. There were expectations to read by a certain age, at a designated level, and this determined my level of capability. Even though I was very much an artist early on, it was still hammered into me that this was of no practical use in the world, and I would do well by shoving these impulses aside and buckle down to something a little more serious and acceptable. Even though I have overcome many of these long dead messages in my brain, the mechanical need to express them came up early on. in the founding of BFS. They manifest as mistrust. A lack of confidence in the process.

Fortunately, I have since been cured of these impulses, but I am confronted constantly by the appearance of them in others. And rather than trying to bash down these opposing opinions with a hammer, I am in search of trying to find ways of introducing this radical form of learning by bringing out the idea that we do not even know what education is. The truth is there for us to see. Seth’s Blog so clearly states:

If you do a job where someone tells you exactly what to do, they will find someone cheaper than you to do it. And yet our schools are churning out kids who are stuck looking for jobs where the boss tells them exactly what to do.

If this is true, and I believe it is, in the extreme, then we need to look at the reality. That is, that the road public education has been preparing us for, for generations, no longer exists. The future that educators have painted for decades has been washed away with the force that Hurricane Irene has washed away highways and towns in Vermont. WE NO LONGER KNOW WHAT THE FUTURE HOLDS SO WHAT ARE WE PREPARING OUR CHILDREN FOR? THE PRECIPICE?

Clearly we are living through a crisis as well as a golden opportunity to do something right for a change. Again, Seth’s Blog:

As we get ready for the 93rd year of universal public education, here’s the question every parent and taxpayer needs to wrestle with: Are we going to applaud, push or even permit our schools (including most of the private ones) to continue the safe but ultimately doomed strategy of churning out predictable, testable and mediocre factory-workers?

As long as we embrace (or even accept) standardized testing, fear of science, little attempt at teaching leadership and most of all, the bureaucratic imperative to turn education into a factory itself, we’re in big trouble.

The answer to this requires bravery. To cast off the known for the unknown is a huge risk. In spiritual practice this is known as dying to oneself. Our society is in the throws of decay. The dollar is plummeting to the point of worthlessness. Education is failing generations of our future leaders. Armies are growing while the work force shrinks. We Americans produce nothing, but eagerly purchase the plastic crap made by the Chinese. As a country, I think we are lost. But individually, we have many possibilities. We are a creative and energetic nation. But I am speaking more about the human race. All nations. We have resources at our disposal, that we have become blind to. There are those that may believe I am being extreme. “There goes Bruce on his left-wing soap box!”

I believe democratic education is one of the key solutions to our many social problems. I believe this, because I have seen a quality of hopefulness that emerges in many of the students (and parents) that commit to this process. People who are willing to face down the illusions that we all have been fed on. Confront them, and allow the benefits to pass to our children. Our children are the architects of the future. We do not have to submit to “Brave New World.” We have the chance to break free of it. It is not easy. But when the roads have been washed away, then where are we going?

The plan of action suggested is watch, learn, be curious. Participate, donate, and send your vote of confidence whenever you can. In whatever form is possible for you. Do away with the old illusions. The grading, testing, tracking, compartmentalizing. The punishing, disempowering and psychological torture need to cease and desist. That is what we can begin to do now. And other than that, Dance, Dance, Dance.

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One Comment on “Back To School Labor Day Special”

  1. apope says:

    Thanks for this, Bruce. As always, lots of food for thought here at The Free School Apparent!


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