I used to beat square pegs into round holes for a living. I called it “teaching.” There was some of that, of course. Kids are curious and they like to learn. And there was some of the other stuff, too. You know, the sit-down-and-shut-the-fuck-up stuff. The certified, state-stamped stuff. We called it “curriculum.” It was the stuff you had to sell. Curriculum means “racecourse” in Latin. Is it any wonder we were always rushing through things? The surest way to make a fascinating and beautiful thing into a heaping pile of bullshit is to certify it as curriculum. No one likes to be force-fed, that’s why it’s called “force” feeding.
Authentic learning can’t take place under coercion. Oh, I’ll grant one can certainly acquire knowledge, crucial knowledge in fact, when faced with threats. But leaving aside the guy-has-a-gun-pointed-at-you emergency scenarios, I think freedom and learning have to go together. Education by fiat, or force of law, is counter-productive. I think society would be a whole lot better off if we scrapped compulsory school attendance. If we made our schools voluntary, like visiting a national park. Thinking on that, a national park makes a hell of a schoolyard.
I’m serious. And it’s not because of bad teachers, or their evil unions, or incompetent and overpaid administrators, or feckless and thieving politicians, although, like in all things, these certainly exist. It’s because the system is based on three things. The first is factory work, hence the work-friendly schedule. The second is farming, which gives us the summer holiday. The third I’ve mentioned, and that’s compulsion. You HAVE to go to school.
I contend those three things are fatal. They are systemic flaws. The first two are easy enough to deal with, they are just outmoded. Society has changed, obviously, and the schemes by which teachers and students can be organized and scheduled has failed to adapt. So many more possibilities exist and any and all should be tried. The ones that work will stick, and then, in turn, evolve and adapt as new ideas arrive.
The third is the stickler. Hordes of uneducated youth roaming the streets conjures up The Walking Dead and makes you want to stock up on ammo. But teaching is a moral task, and that’s incompatible with force. It’s like requiring someone to be cheerful. They don’t HAVE to be if they don’t want to. I’d prefer it, but it is not my call. If students came to school because they chose to then the whole experience would be improved. I know it sounds nuts, but if you think on it, you’ll see that’s what all this fuss is about vouchers and school choice. People don’t like one-size-fits-all these days. They like a custom fit, and who can blame them? I’d get all my clothes tailored if I could afford it. This off-the-rack shit doesn’t always work.
People are much like ants. We are a social organism. We require each other to survive. We have, moreover, the capacity to self-organize and we will do so, it’s our nature. I don’t see a free school as chaos, rather I think of it as a catalyst for something new. And by “free” school I mean it in every sense. No cost, or price rather, that is no money needed to connect with schooling. Free choice in what to study and learn, and where and when to learn it. This kind of thing is well past politics. Regardless of your political stripe you have an “opinion” about education and schooling. A free school could give a shit. This is a meta-political concept, it moves past the labels and the talking points and the rhetoric and focuses instead on the needs of the individual.
The Latin verb educare means “to bring forth.” That is, encourage what is already there to grow, to nurture what is latent. It doesn’t mean “shove a bunch of crap down your throat.”
Think on it.
5 thoughts on “Free”
You sound like you’ve slipped and tumbled headfirst into the deep end of the libertarian pool. Who makes that choice? The kids? If you let kids make that choice, you wind up with empty schools, because one kid says they don’t want to come and then others do the same. There is a reason we don’t let 10 year olds vote and let 8 year olds drive. That is because we have recognized since forever that young brains aren’t equipped to make rational decisions. Parents? An educated citizenry serves societal needs, not just individual needs. That education may be too rote and standardized for some, but that is what you get from scrimping on resources necessary to achieve a goal in pursuit of some ideology – you get bridges falling down, inadequate veteran services and schools that are equipped to pursue the minimum. In other words, schools equipped to barely serve the needs of society are ill equipped to serve the needs of the individual. And what are society’s needs? For one, it frees up adult time so as to contribute to the work force. I know a lot of parents don’t because they are raising younger kids, or because they don’t have to, but let’s not sugar-coat it, the benefits are not all for the kiddies.
But what is a “free” school? What does that even mean? Do teachers get paid? Do taxes pay for it, and if so, isn’t that the way it is now? How does letting kids learn when and how they want help society? What if someone didn’t want to learn to read? You can bet they still would insist on their “right” to drive, whether they could read enough to pass a written exam or read a street sign. I’m thinking that the system, for all its flaws, lack of funding and oversight that changes year by year is probably still a pretty great system. And you know what makes it great? Teachers like some of those I know and have known, who were dedicated, who worked with kids to meet THEIR needs while fulfilling society’s educational goals. My dad spent a career teaching 8th grade English. Not the gifted students, the basic ones. The ones who didn’t want to read. The ones who didn’t particularly want to be there. He always said that the smart kids were easy – you tell them what to do and they did it. And you know what – for years, ex-students came by the house in the summer, or years later, and thanked him.
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I don’t think it’s that nutty of an idea. I think “society” sets the competencies or standards it wants. The Army wants certain skills and they have tests and etc to find out who has what they want. So do the universities. And the corporations, i.e. the employers. If families want their kids to do those things they’ll get them prepped for it. They’ll demand their local schools have the programs their kids need. I’m a public school man all the way–taxes, taxes, taxes. From everybody and for everybody, including immigrants and prisoners. (Especially prisoners!) Schools should be fucking temples. Fewer F-35s and more schools, man. And I think that people are perverse, that is they will more readily do something if they aren’t required to do it. I’d like to see more openness and flexibility in the system. I’d like to see more emphasis on uniqueness and individuality and less on conforming to the norm. We need creative, adaptable people for the challenges of the 21st century. Cranking out more drones won’t cut it. I am honestly not trying to be wacky here. I really do believe that coercion is a moral cancer that robs schools of their authenticity and effectiveness. It reduces education to warehousing. I think we are living in an age that is different than the one we grew up in and that institutions need to evolve. The things that worked in one generation aren’t necessarily going to work in another.
And, like your dad, I taught basic skills for much of my career. He’s right–the kids in geometry or chemistry were easy. Teaching remedial programs, support classes, dropout prevention, credit recovery, and working with kids in the probation system are much tougher. And, like him, I was blessed with many who came back to me and thanked me. “Sorry I was a dick in your class” is a refrain I’ve heard for a long time! It’s a great feeling to have helped people you never thought were listening. I was very lucky and got to do a lot of things in my career and work with a great variety of students as well as with many superb teachers. My notions are not based on any sort of regret or anguish or bitterness about my own experiences. I’ve been cogitating on the problems of the education system for decades. These days I’m letting my brain “jump the rails” as much as possible and seeing what I can come up with. Just wait, I’ve got way more shit to spew!! (And thanks for always reading and responding, you always look carefully, think clearly, and write beautifully. I appreciate it.)
I don’t think I disagree with you at all from your response, I just wasn’t sure of where you were going with your post. Isn’t warehousing the product of the “you do more and here’s less money to do it with” attitude that we have applied to our schools for decades? Seems that way to me. In Missouri where I grew up, taxes that paid for schools were voted on by the public, but almost no other taxes were. Your house might get re-assessed (just like CA pre-Prop 13) and you had no say, your income, sales or car tax might get upped and you had no say, but schools? Was it any wonder that school taxes almost always got defeated? Crazy system. CA has a lot of kids, and that means a lot of money to support public schools, and probably there should be some pain shared when there is pain to be shared. But really, at what point do you sacrifice your future to save a couple bucks?
Yes, ‘warehousing’ is the result of ‘do more with less.’ Schools are an absurd political football. We want them, and we want the best, but we refuse to pay for it. Typical voter and politician short-sightedness. I’m saddened by this state of affairs, but don’t want to lapse into complete cynicism and despair so I instead seek to re-imagine the problem. Now that the plutocrats are firmly entrenched and have Their Boy at the helm, I feel that the typical liberal solutions (regardless of my feelings about them) have had their day and will not re-surface for some time, if ever again. So, where to now? I’m skeptical of the political system to solve the issue of good schools for everyone. Something new, I think, has to emerge. I don’t know what that will be, or how it will come about, or even if it will be good. But I think the Information Age has and will have the same impacts on the status quo that The Bomb and The Pill had on the Baby Boomers.