[Note: Bryan volunteers at Clearwater one day a week, and he is the parent of a Clearwater student. I've interspersed photos of Clearwater students and scenes into his post. --Shawna]
(This is cross-posted from my blog Speculum Criticum Traditionis, where I address a lot of philosophical issues. This explains the name-dropping of philosophers here, and why I explain Sudbury education a little more in depth—my original audience did not necessarily have the familiarity.)
So in my day job, I'm a teacher. I work with students, grades k-5, at an after-school program. Sometimes this is more or less glorified daycare. Sometimes it is homework club, or basketball coaching, or any of a dozen or so improvised activities, mainly initiated by the kids I work with. I've worked in the schools, first as an AmeriCorps volunteer, then as a district employee, then at the after-school program, for ten years, and I have a fair idea, not especially nuanced but I think realistic and informed, of some of the realities in an elementary or middle school in my city. I've broken up fights between students as big as or bigger than me, administered tests, tried to help struggling kids catch up, and seen more than one go from non-reader to reader. I've seen things that would make you cringe, and "successes" by some standards that could bring a tear to your eye. Most of the time I find the work exciting, sometimes exhausting, always deeply rewarding. It is certainly the happiest I've ever been at a job.
I do have occasion to talk philosophy to the kids I work with. I stumped a number of them (and myself) with Heidegger's question "What is a Thing?" (the rule was, they couldn't use the word "thing" in the definition), and walked one or two through Cartesian doubt up to the cogito. One time I had four or five laughing a bit too loud at the back of the bus over the Euthyphro, which at least one thought was the funniest thing he'd ever heard. But for the most part, I don't really try out the canonical stuff on them; it's musty and smells of footnotes, and the last thing most kids want after school is more school.
We do, though, talk a fair amount about education itself, and its relationship with freedom, and power. Because I am constantly taking mental notes on how to be a better teacher, I pay a lot of attention to when I hear kids complain or enthuse about something they are doing in school. I listen to their accounts of what makes a teacher "nice" or "mean," fair or unfair; what makes something interesting or engaging for them, or bores them to tears. I get a lot of practical, hands-on tips from these conversations (I once had a ten-year-old boy confide to me, in real big-brother, lemme-tell-you-'bout-us-kids fashion, that "It's okay to be a little mean"); but what I want to focus on here is the more general impression I get of their impression of school. Not all kids are articulate or reflective enough to intentionally paint a picture of this, but every one of them knows very well that they aren't in school because they choose to be. They regard it the way most adults regard work: a necessary evil, the lesser-of-two perhaps, and often the devil they know. They each sense on some level that they are being made to do things, which they would never, ever decide to do themselves. What is heartbreaking to me is the way they internalize the notion that this is somehow a good thing.
Let me be clear; we aren't talking about the them's-the-breaks of life, or the tough-luck unfairness of circumstance, or rolling with the punches and playing the hand that's dealt you. No one likes to have to adjust their life to the realities imposed upon them by happenstance, but ten-year-old children know very well the difference between happenstance and a decision, and they know the difference between a considered decision and an arbitrary one.
Whenever a new activity is announced in my class, the first question I get is always "Is it mandatory?" This is quite striking considering that the answer is almost always "no." The things kids have to do in my class in the course of a year can probably be numbered on the fingers of one hand. Their reaction thus indicates to me that they are so beset by "things to do" [read: things adults want them to do] that at the first sign of another one, they brace themselves.
And yet. Though they know very well the feeling of being put upon, the kids I work with have all more or less accepted that this is for their own good; or at the very least, that it's Just The Way Things Are.
I also volunteer one day a week at The Clearwater School. Clearwater is a Sudbury school; it's run using an "alternative" model of education, based on (and named for) the Sudbury Valley School in Massachusetts. It's a radically student-centered mode of education in which children never. ever. take. classes. unless. they. want. to. There are no grades, and no age divisions (the five-year-olds and the fifteen-year-olds aren't kept rigorously separated or together); above all there are no rules that haven't actually been agreed upon by those who live by them.
These absences (no classes, no grade levels, no transcripts) are the things that stand out in people's minds when Sudbury education is explained to them, but the actual content of the model tends to pass them by. Sudbury education is radically participatory, radically democratic, and radically organic. Far from being little lord-of-the-flies centers where mere anarchy is loosed, Sudbury schools are communities that are run by the students, for the students. There are plenty of rules, but they are neither arbitrarily imposed from on high, nor artificially "decided on," as I've seen far too often in a traditional classroom, by a sham one-time meeting at the beginning of the school year when kids are manipulated into automatically mouthing and "agreeing to" the same rules they've lived with last year and the year before and the year before that. Above all, every student and teacher can vote on every issue affecting the school. This includes buying a new computer, refurbishing the music room, changing the rules about who can go off campus when, or hiring and firing of staff (teachers are re-elected to their posts every year).
The first day I volunteered there, I played a game of four square. I was never a big sports player in my own school days, and now that I'm at least a little more coordinated (and a little less invested in looking cool), I can finally enjoy this staple of the American playground. On the day in question, it took me a while to register that there was something different about the game. I couldn't put my finger on it. I was getting out with about the same frequency; I was playing no better or worse than usual. What was it?
Finally it dawned on me. It had nothing to do with how I was playing; it was that playing was all I was doing. I wasn't the ref.
At the public school where I work, if a dispute breaks out between kids over who is out, the immediate next step is to call my name. Whether or not I'm playing the game, whether or not I even saw the play, whether or not I know the kids involved, it's my job to make the call, as if by virtue of how tall I am. Have an argument? Where's the grown-up? But at this Sudbury school, though there had been a dozen or so close calls and disputes, not one kid had looked at me to resolve anything. Not even when one kid stormed off in anger did anyone so much as look at me as anything but another player. I should add that I knew all these kids already; they weren't unsure about me as a newcomer; it simply had never occurred to them that the adult in the group was the default decision-maker.
No kid asks if they can go to the bathroom. No kid raises their hand before they get a drink of water. The notion that they ought to "wait till the bell" before eating the lunch they brought would be met with incomprehension. Bell? You mean, like Pavlov's dogs?
When adults hear about Sudbury schools, their initial question is likely to be "how do they learn anything?" In fact, it is not difficult to learn the rudiments of any educational competence. It takes approximately 100 hours for a motivated student to learn how to read, for instance; the real issue is waiting patiently for that motivation. (In fact, Sudbury Valley School maintains that in over 30 years no student there has failed to learn to read). What the question really reveals is a fear that the motivation will never arise; that left to themselves, children won't want to learn anything. It'll be too easy to just float. It doesn't matter that this is a surreally counterfactual fear. We've accustomed ourselves to not trust our kids. And they have met our expectations.
When kids first hear about Sudbury, their first reaction tends to be "Whoah." But it's not an unambiguously enthusiastic "whoah." Almost without exception, the public school kids I have talked to about Sudbury education have said, "that sounds really hard." And they're right.
At the school where I volunteer, there have been (among other things) music classes, French classes, cooking classes; kids pursuing Aikido, computer programming, film-making; writing and producing a play; caring for livestock. And yes, reading. Some learning to read; plenty of just plain reading. There are also lots of games. Computer games, board games, team sports, weird improvised invented mash-ups of basketball and softball and soccer, strung-together make-believe role-playing games that are really just long conversations.
What all these activities have in common is that they were all initiated by some student. At some point a child or a teenager approached a staff member and said, "I want to learn French" or "Will you teach me to play drums?" or "We should put on a play."
When the kids I work with say "That sounds really hard," this is what they are talking about. Every step of their education is up to them. It is hard. It is also, in my experience, indisputably more rewarding. Because everything a student formally learns is something they have decided to learn, what they internalize is far more than a degree of mastery over a "subject." They have learned that they can explore and that their exploration has real meaning and concrete results.
And the teachers? Aside from no-brainers like keeping kids safe (a task made markedly simpler by the Sudbury model's real high expectations of student responsibility), the teachers are there to pay attention to kids, to cultivate real relationships with them, a close real attention attuned to the actual interests of each one; to really be open to every request, and to make it happen when it's asked for. This might seem to multiply beyond control what a teacher needs to attend to--instead of teaching 5th grade math to 30 kids, I'm supposed to notice that he's interested in geology, she's into origami, they're asking about the civil rights movement, and that kid off at the other side of the playground is doing acrobatics? But in fact, working as a Sudbury teacher is far easier than teaching in a mainstream school. Aside from the absence of meaningless paperwork, every teaching encounter is fresh because it arises out of the actual relationship one has with the child. And, I ought also to mention, the lack of age distinctions means that children wind up teaching each other.
In contemporary mainstream American culture this model is so deeply counter to the widespread assumptions of our age, that it is not uncommon for people to refuse to consider a Sudbury school a school at all. I would submit that this critique might be better made of the enormous, and financially teetering, holding pens that our taxes fund primarily to free parents to work (so as to pay taxes), and to accustom children to surveillance and boredom.
Boredom. Ah, yes. Kids go through a lot of boredom at Sudbury schools-- particularly students who have come from a more structured school environment. It is constantly mentioned in the literature. The responsibility for one's own education is really just a subset of being responsible for one's life. There are big stretches of time when kids ask themselves what they feel like doing and come up blank. Of course this happens in a public school too, but there the boredom is rarely given much chance to last very long because the bell is always about to ring or the next subject is about to be taught. In fact, the very thing that cuts off boredom also cuts off interest--because you can't invest enough time to really get involved in anything when you've got to cover seven subjects in one day.
At an after-school program like mine, though, kids can get bored. The difference here is otherwise. I hear between two and ten complaints of boredom a week, I'd guess. I hear none at a Sudbury school. Kids get bored, to be sure--but not one of them assumes it is anyone's job but theirs to decide what to do about it.
I know that the picture I have painted could be disputed: too romantic, too Rousseauian, too naive. An excuse for lazy adults to do permissive teaching and spare-the-rod. Spare me. I'm a Platonist, but I'm an empiricist too, and I speak from experience. The kids I work with at the after-school program aren't miserable. They haven't had their love of life stamped out of them, or their creativity. This isn't because I've imported as many Sudbury-esque features into my class as I can adapt, but because the kids come from families who love them to go to a school run by teachers who care, and because, well, they're kids. But little by little I see them accommodating themselves to a world whose guiding axiom--despite the loving parents, despite the caring teachers--is that they do not matter. This axiom is not foisted upon parents or teachers by evil men in a smoke-filled room; it's a function of the model of education as mass-production we've come to accept.
This long post on education is not an interloper or guest on my mostly-philosophy blog. I acknowledged an interest in contentious issues, and I know of little more likely to rile people than strong opinions about how to raise kids. But I'm not really trying to bait anyone here. My interest is philosophical. Philosophy has been about pedagogy from the very beginning, ever since Socrates got his famous double charge of not honoring the gods of the city and of corrupting the youth. From Plato's doctrine of anamnesis to Heidegger's remark that real teaching is letting-learn, education is the very essence of what philosophers do. Dewey remarked that "Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself." The examined life, I would add. And given the contrast between sitting in rows for six hours a day, and roaming around exploring the world however your fancy strikes you, I can't help but reflect further that, as Alphonso Lingis writes, the unlived life is not worth examining.