Education and Coercion

This morning, in a brief conversation with a teacher at BFS I learned an interesting fact. Many of the people who come to us as interns, have a common delusion. It seems to be common to feel that “free” school means that I am free to impose whatever agenda I might have onto students (art, music, farming, composting, etc.) who, because they are in an interesting environment, should be open to such agendas. What the interns quickly learn, or are disappointed by, is that the students may not have any interest in what they are offering at all. Or at least, not now.

What may be truer, is that high schoolers are more interested in Lady Gaga, then they are in sustainable farming. After all, they are still teenagers living in the modern world, yes?

This is what I have to offer: if a prospective intern wishes to come into an environment that they are “completely” open and willing to see what is there. Willing to follow what is indicated by the atmosphere, rather than imposing ones’ own ego onto it. To let the process unfold and determine what the next step will be, rather than preconceiving it.

In 1978, I was given an opportunity to work with children under the late Margaret “Peggy” Flinch. This was a voluntary position at a retreat and lasted about 2-3 years. She was an early advocate of alternative education, a founder of one of the first Montessori schools in America, and founder of The Blue Rock School in Nyack, NY. She passed away last year at the age of 103.

Peggy was a very stern task master. Not with the children, but with us. What I quickly learned was that I was still a child myself, although a proud 23 year old. I was helped by the older members of the staff, but what became apparent to me was that my ego stood out like a sore thumb. The children tore it from me in short shrift. It was a shock for me, but in hindsight, may have been one of the most useful experiences of my life. I needed to learn to be in service to them, rather than they being enamored of me. It hastened my transition from teenager to adult. It is this willingness to have ones’ inner world exposed and shaken, that I offer to any person willing and wanting to teach in a Democratic Free school.

An article out of Huffington Post Education came across my desk this morning. It speaks about “student disengagement.” Rather than just looking at drop out rates, the article asks that we look at how disinterested students have become in the whole process, simply because the system shows no interest in them. You can read the article by Elliot Washor here. My comment is what follows:

Observe this: It is considered impressive when a few thousand people show up for a rally that questions the banking fiasco on Wall Street and the destructiv­e consequenc­es it is having on the entire population across the board VERSUS 1 million people showing up to celebrate the Giants victory in the Super Bowl. Something that is truly important, like revolution­izing education, and looking at how students will truly impact the future of our nation falls on deaf ears. And why not? Our nations leaders are from a privileged class and cannot integrate another vision into their outlook. And look at the GOP front runners. Do they represent anything to aspire toward in any cultural capacity?

Only a grassroots movement, like the Democratic Free School movement, or un-schooli­ng or a host of other student driven alternativ­es will we see any promising results. The public education arena has always been a factory. Now it is one where the equipment is rusty and failing, the proprietor­s are sleeping and the building is about to collapse.

Though I support Obama on many of his policies, education is one of the main areas where I differ from him in every possible way. He is still from that “Harvard class”, where he too has been indoctrinated to look down on the rest of us as inferiors in every way if we fail to achieve their standard. This is how the upper class is educated in this society. Anyone who does not engage in the rat race is considered off the charts. A failure. And this school system is not really interested in a future for this country.

We need to take an active role in just observing what our children are doing, rather that imposing a set of values that have largely been a failure for us. I remember having a girlfriend early on, who had twin daughters. The thing that made me run from the relationship, was the harassing way in which she spoke to them. When I asked her about it, she said coldly “you have your way, I have mine!” She may have been right in the fact that it was not my place to intervene, but the crushing of a child’s spirit and self esteem, is a crime I witness daily. I have no wish to participate in such an occurrence.

As my comment to the article states, I have no high expectations of our political leaders to make any effective change. The change will have to come from grassroots efforts. As these disenfranchised students move into the world and start to occupy positions of importance, will they see the need for a different approach? Will they recognize the deep injustice they have had to suffer through, possibly unknowingly? Or  is it possible that they will finally revolt, as I have, and come to a new understanding that will make way for an avalanche of change within the corroding system. For that, I have no response. We will simply have to plod along with our revolution of the spirit.

The difficult child is the child who is unhappy. He is at war with himself; and in consequence, he is at war with the world. —A. S. Neill – Summerhill


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