In Defense of An Idea

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It seems that everywhere I go these days, I am always steering the conversation toward democratic education. Other than spiritual questions that cover the purpose of existence, and why I am on this planet, the process of the Free School approach is number one on my mind. Apparently, it is also number one off the edge of my tongue.

This of course puts me frequently into the position of having to defend my beliefs. I must preface to say that my opinions are not just born of a stubborn attitude, although that is absolutely true of me, and my critics have a fair point of accusing me of being so. But I have watched the children play in the Free School environment now for almost a decade. I have watched some of my own fears and beliefs melt away in face of recognizing that something mysterious takes place when children are allowed to be themselves, and act from an organic place. I have seen miracles. Children who, if having remained in a standard public school environment, would be depressed, angry, and of no good use to anyone, transform into empathetic caring school leaders.

I have heard through the grapevine that this is even true of children, who for whatever reason, had to be moved from a democratic free school, usually because of some behavioral issue that BFS was not equipped to handle, or an impatient parent who wanted to see a specific result in their child. A common scenario that occurs is that one parent feels strongly in favor of democratic education for their child, while the other spouse does not. Eventually one of them wins out.

In one instance, a child who had been a constant challenge for the staff, with tantrums, sugar issues, was moved out of the school (much to my own fears for his welfare,) became an empathetic leader helping children in his new surroundings who had similar problems to him. Leaving the democratic environment actually showed that he had been absorbing what was going on around him the previous years, and immediately put it to work for him and his new friends.

What I find in having to defend my feelings on these issues, is the lack of understanding on my part as to why people continue to defend the methods of public education. Even in the face of what seems to be failure on a grand scale.

Pedro Noguera, an advocate for public education, spoke at The Democratic Education Symposium sponsored by our school 2 years ago at Medger Evers College. He feels strongly that public education needs to remain accessible for all. I agree. But I think what is being offered as “education” these days needs to be looked at and restructured. Yes it needs to be free for all. But if we were to have a banquet in which EVERYONE was invited, but the food was absolutely terrible and would make almost anyone who ate it sick, would that be considered a good deal? Mr Noguera’s  points need to be put in perspective though. He is speaking on behalf of a large underclass in America. A class that is growing in the face of economic changes in the world and an economic divide that grows ever wider.

Research never suggests that poor children are incapable of learning or that poverty itself should be regarded as a learning disability. Rather, research suggests that poor children encounter obstacles that often adversely affect their development and learning outcomes.

To ignore this reality and make bold assertions that all children can achieve while doing nothing to address the outside-of-school challenges they face is neither fair nor a sound basis for developing public policy. – Pedro Noguera

If you follow up and read some of Mr. Noguera’s ideas on how to change public education, you will understand that there is a place for some alternative thinking. I usually advocate for the tearing down of the current curriculums which support heavy emphasis on reading and math, and then test, test, test. Noguera points out that poverty remains an obstacle to hundreds of thousands of children as the current conditions prevail.

But why I argue on behalf of democratic learning is because of something far more subtle. Watching the social interactions of children is an incredibly mystical event. Learning is going on all the time. From the democratic meetings in which everyone is required to participate to the ability to call a mediation on one’s own behalf. To spend the day engaged in what is particularly interesting to oneself, or work as a group to figure out how to spend the day, even if that means playing around all day. Learning is happening at so many levels, that it is hard to tally it up in one breath.

What I have observed is that when children are taken from the school too soon, they soon realize that there is a quality of self-determination that has been removed from their life. A sense of purpose and confidence in becoming interested in just who I am, and discovering the reason for me to be on this planet. Public education, in its’ current form crushes that. There is no space for self discovery. It is “run with the pack or get cast out.” I have personal experience with this attitude as it was prevalent even in my day. This is why I have become so vocal on behalf of Free Schools in my middle age.

It is not always possible to articulate every thought when having a discussion in the park on a sunny day. Conversations tend to be complicated events. Everyone is waiting to express their point of view. There is very little listening going on and most times we leave the table unsatisfied. Blogs are a wonderful invention. It allows one to ponder what did not get said in that conversation, and then express one’s feelings in a reasonable forum. It is not that I wish to dismiss the point of view of the other, but rather to deepen the picture that I wish to draw. Expand the view a bit. It is not simply an argument between yes and no, but rather an attention that needs to be paid to subtleties. There are things that cannot be measured by grades or test scores. This can only be seen in the growing humanity of individuals who come out of the free school environment. Many times, the results cannot be seen until years after graduation, when the adult is becoming fully formed.

We have a world crisis in our environment. We have a world crisis in the economy. Corporations are threatening every aspect of our existence from pollution of our water, our food chain, destruction of our forests and a garbage problem that is a direct result of massive consumerism. We have massive upheaval, war, economic inequality, housing issues, and a need for a reevaluation of how we occupy the planet. We must see that education lies dead center of the very SAME crisis. And taking that into consideration, there is no defending any of the current policies. They need to be seen as destructive as an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico or a the melting of the ice caps. The continuation of the policies of testing, lack of play, demonizing of kids as criminals, overload of homework, longer school days and just the plain, all out destruction of childhood as a disaster that threatens our immediate futures.

Happy is he who still loves something he loved in the nursery:  He has not been broken in two by time; he is not two men, but one, and he has saved not only his soul but his life.  —G.K. Chesterton

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One Comment on “In Defense of An Idea”

  1. Rebecca says:

    Having discovered a growing interest in the meaning of alternative education through student’s development in the BFS and your ideas (though sometimes smugly put), I’ve also wondered about the reasons as to why so many people seem so unwilling to change the current educational system. My questions are however more directed towards the Swiss and French educational systems, those being the two I know best and am therefore apt to actually judge justly.

    The explanation I’ve come up with to this day is that society needs conformity. To a slightly extreme extent, if you will. And my perception of this kind of conformity induces a loss of identity through the education we receive (as per the song I am sharing here with you). I got lucky (and happen to also have a stubborn and contrary streak in me) and met some teachers who actually encouraged free thinking within the system. But I’ll admit that my critical thinking comes from the impact a few scarce teachers had on me and mainly the extracurricular conversations I had with them about education, method and critical thought. But it also came to me “later in life” than it seems to have for the students of the BFS.

    And poverty is indeed not the same issue at all in Geneva when it comes to education. The issue here with public education is the progressive deletion of courses that may yet have space for free thought by the students. As a simple example of French philosophy towards education, a seminar about pedagogy was given a few years back by an ex-military who was promoting the military method in public education.

    Poverty in the US has me thinking about some small research I did for a paper about racism in Cuba between 1959 and 1989… The most interesting point that was made in the various articles I read was the foundations of the stereotype of the “bad afro-cuban”, which can probably be broadened (to an extent and with some differences) to the “bad black person in a white-directed society”. The stereotype of the afro-cuban is based on the fear of rebellion based on rancour (1886 had the slaves finally free and joining the revolutionary party and dying for it without receiving any additional rights other than freedom and less than a minimum wage to survive), on the fear of the black bruja who will cast a spell of vengeance (lynching was common in the early 20th c.) and other elements that I won’t detail here (I know, I’m too roundabout to get to the point. But I like to be. It makes people impatient which can sometimes be entertaining for me.). This foundation of the stereotype maintained a very low position in Cuban society. Those who rose to a better class separated themselves as much as possible from the rest. The stereotype brought on poverty. And this poverty brought on violence and the fight for survival. And this fight only gave validation to the idea of the white man seeing the black man as a primate, unable to evolve to the level of the superior beings that the white man is supposed to be. Which of course brought on the stereotype that the afro-cuban is of course always a criminal and that all bad people in Cuban society are dark-skinned.

    I’m saying all this because a person’s way of thinking of himself (or herself) often (unfortunately) mirror’s society’s perception of him (or her). A child growing up in poverty will have that much less chance of having the same epiphany about free thought as me. Simply because I grew up in an environment that enabled me to come to this conclusion by its perception of my potential through my social position and to an extent my financial possibilities.

    The last thing that I’ll add is that each time I talk to someone about education, about my professional goals, my desire to separate myself from the university system (that I think still babies me too much), I learn something new. To the extent that in the upcoming camp I’m doing, we’re going to work on the whole structure of the camp on the first day with the kids. This is a first for me. And I’ll keep you up to date with the events though that won’t be before August.


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