M y husband Phil and I were both educated in the public school system. He came from a very impoverished family and decided at a young age that getting himself into a good college was going to be the key for him to get out of that difficult life. My family was solidly working class and I was raised to believe that going to college was going to ensure that I wouldn’t have to rely on someone else (i.e., my husband) to keep me financially stable.
We both did, in fact, go to good colleges. Phil graduated from prestigious Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute as a computer major and I went to Clark University and Boston College for my BA and MA, respectively, in psychology. Our lives are comfortable and we are financially stable – everything we had hoped to accomplish.
When we started our family we explored sending our kids to private school – Montessori schooling seemed particularly attractive, as it seemed more individualized – but we were reluctant to send our children to private schools when we valued publicly-funded, accessible to all schools. After all, we benefited form public education, right? Thus, we made a conscious decision to support our public schools as much as possible, via the fundraisers and donations requests and by volunteering in the classroom regularly.
The more time I spent with my kids in the classroom and at home during homework time the more I realized that the way kids are taught in public schools is not at all the way any one actually learns anything. The busy work, the teaching to the test, the need for everyone to progress at the same pace and in the same way all thwart the true learning process. We became just as frustrated as our children and in the end decided to homeschool them.
Most of our friends and family have been very supportive of our decision – and even if they don’t think this choice is right for them, they believe that we ultimately should have the ability to make this decision. There were some dissenters, however, and one of the most vehement one was someone who could not understand why I would not continue to support the public school system. To him, choosing my children over “all” children was socially and morally selfish. Why not fix the problems from within rather than remove ourselves from it?
In Herbert Kohl’s keynote address from the 7th annual AERO conference, he states that choosing alternative education, be it charter schools, private schools or homeschooling, does society a disservice. He looks at public education as a means toward social justice. It’s a challenging thought – particularly since it was a belief Phil and I held for most of our lives.
So, how do we help our society’s more vulnerable children while avoiding the numerous negatives that currently embody the public school system?
Perhaps community learning centers are a solution. These would be similar to “free” or democratic schools. My proposal, however, doesn’t limit the learning opportunities to students up to age 18. Imagine a learning center where:
- All ages are present, since we never stop learning.
- The knowledge and experience of older citizens can be shared with the knowledge and experience of youth.
- Study groups and other collaborative learning groups are formed based on the participants’ interests and abilities.
- People can explore an interest as deeply as they wish or move on as the interest grows or is satisfied.
- “Teachers” are facilitators, becoming mentors or guides based upon their personal knowledge & skills.
- True community can be created, since the community uses the space collectively. The children are no longer artificially removed from the rest of their community. Neighbors will actually know neighbors!
- Self-reliance skills, be it growing/raising/preserving food or do-it-yourself projects, can be rediscovered – reducing the waste & dependence upon manufactured products and even manufactured food our society has become accustomed.
Is it possible to change the way we think about what education is all about? Is it possible to change the priorities that our highly commercialized society tells us we should value – the ability to buy lots of “necessary” stuff. Can those of us who value the principles of unschooling believe that these principles can be present within a publicly funded education system? Is the current system ripe for radical change in what education really means or is it “too big to fail”, not realizing that it already is failing?
What do you think?
Photo by Russell Lee. Cutting the pies and cakes at the barbeque dinner, Pie Town, New Mexico Fair. Oct 1940.