Many of my huge Baby-Boom generation born starting in 1946 into a burgeoning middle class after World War II were beginning to come of age in a relatively prosperous America. We had better access to education, and through the growing electronic media of radio and television, access to a popular culture that included championing the expression of sexuality and other forms of human liberation. Facilitated by the development of a reliable birth control pill in 1960, elements of American culture were moving away from traditional values and social strictures towards more permissive and informalized attitudes. Rock-and-roll music, emerging in the 1950s borrowing from black R&B roots and becoming mainstream in the 60s was a huge cultural aphrodisiac, urging its listeners to “rock”, its thinly-veiled code word for sexual activity.
A lot of progressive people still struggle with concept of young people directing their own learning, whether in one of those rare democratic-free schools like Sudbury Valley or by a flavor of homeschooling that is known as “unschooling” or “life learning”. They feel that for our society to truly progress we need to ensure that our young people, all our young people whether privileged or not, learn a standard body of knowledge that will allow them to be get good jobs and participate fully in our democratic society. They ask good questions like, “What is the societal purpose of education?” and “Does personal achievement outweigh social progress?” There is an underlying concern that a learner-directed education, in a democratic-free school or by unschooling or life learning, focuses only on the individual and not that individual’s participation and contribution to a larger community.
Here’s an excerpt I got recently from a thoughtful comment from a teacher Adam on my piece “What is a Democratic Free School?”…]
To me, the ideals of democratic-free schools are all expressed in terms of the individual development of the children, rather than the benefit to society more broadly. How do such schools support social progress?
At the end of each previous school year, I was jubilant to have survived another “tour of duty” and be liberated, at least for the summer, from society’s schooling requirement imposed on my developmental path. Finally finishing my senior year, there was a measure of that usual relief, along with a sense that somehow the ball was now finally in my court. What to do next was no longer mandated, but up to me. As I walked that big impersonal marble hallway of Pioneer High School for my last time as a student, the nihilism (an ideology that I had learned in my Modern Russian History Class was very different than anarchism) of Alice Cooper’s hit song, “School’s Out”, resonated with every fibre of my being…
Well we got no choice
All the girls and boys
Makin all that noise
Cuz they found new toys
Well we can’t salute ya
Can’t find a flag
If that don’t suit ya
That’s a drag
School’s out for summer
School’s out forever
School’s been blown to pieces
No more pencils
No more books
No more teacher’s dirty looks
Well we got no class
And we got no principles
And we got no innocence
We can’t even think of a word that rhymes
Out for summer
Out till fall
We might not go back at all
School’s out forever
School’s out for summer
School’s out with fever
School’s out completely
And the time will come when you see
we’re all one, and life flows on
within you and without you.
As much as formal standardized education tries to turn it into a science, life, and the continuing human development which in my opinion is one of life’s most compelling narratives, is really more of an artistic endeavor. It is at its best the creation of a compelling narrative based on the uniqueness of a person’s soul and the life’s context that soul is unfolding and evolving in. It is not so much about following a procedure developed and “perfected” by others, or emulating another’s life successfully lived. It is more like a mural, ballad, novel, television series or other story told, reflecting the unique voice of the artist and their unique playing of the hand they are dealt.
According to Wikipedia, “science” is…
A systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe.
Whereas “art” is defined as…
A diverse range of human activities and the products of those activities.
Modern society has been all about science and its organization of knowledge in the form of technology, industrial practice and social engineering. We identify experts who develop the best practice and then we create an institution to share that expertly designed practice with others. If the governing bodies of a society think a best practice is particularly compelling and effective, we may attempt to apply it universally, even possibly mandating that everyone follow it for their own good, or at least for the common good.
For many of us the rules of engagement at work are changing, from the traditional approach of being told what to do by “bosses”, to a new more egalitarian approach where a team of colleagues and peers collectively decide what to do. Those traditional “bosses” are being replaced by “managers” who are more facilitative than directive, conveying to us the basic business strategy from the company’s leadership team, making sure we have the time and resources to implement that strategy, and being available to assist when we need their assistance. From all my own experience plus hearsay from other “knowledge workers”, I understand that this has become standard practice in most of the work done in business operations today.
Yet given that new reality, our education system, which increasingly promotes itself as the means for developing our young people into new workers for our businesses, is still operating in the traditional model with teachers and principals as “bosses” and very little if any egalitarian process. This is a disconnect that in my opinion is leading to our young people being increasingly debilitated by their school experience rather than developing the skills to become contributing members of our contemporary business enterprises.
I recently read Michele McNeil’s piece in Education Week, “Rifts Deepen Over Direction of Ed. Policy in U.S.”, and was heartened by what I read. The piece begins with this overview…
In statehouses and cities across the country, battles are raging over the direction of education policy—from the standards that will shape what students learn to how test results will be used to judge a teacher’s performance.
Students and teachers, in passive resistance, are refusing to take and give standardized tests. Protesters have marched to the White House over what they see as the privatization of the nation’s schools. Professional and citizen lobbyists are packing hearings in state capitols to argue that the federal government is trying to dictate curricula through the use of common standards.
New advocacy groups, meanwhile, are taking their fight city to city by pouring record sums of money into school board races.
Not since the battles over school desegregation has the debate about public education been so intense and polarized, observers say, for rarely before has an institution that historically is slow to change been forced to deal with so much change at once.
I take heart in reading this because it appears that there may finally be emerging a profound challenge to the governance model of public education, an institution designed nearly 200 years ago to be governed in a highly centralized structure by a small powerful elite at the top of its hierarchy of control. Parents, teachers and (heaven forbid) students have never really been part of the governance structure of our public school system. Could there be some danger now that this situation could finally begin to change?
My friend, Peter DeWitt, is a public elementary school principal in upstate New York. He is a thoughtful and caring person, and I think probably represents the best of his public school principal profession, and I think any of my teacher friends would be happy to have such a leader for their school. He writes a daily blog for Education Week magazine online, and his pieces generally wrestle with trying to be a humanistic educational leader within a bureaucratic system of standardization, high-stakes testing, and other mandates and strictures from above.
In his recent blog piece, “Why Would Anyone Want to Be a School Leader?”, Peter writes…
School leadership is hard…especially now. There are point scales to contend with, evaluations based on test scores, and budget cuts that result in the lay-offs of teachers and administrative colleagues. Some leaders who have been in the position for a few years have seen cuts to programs, and have a constant need to find creativity in a very uncreative time… On top of that leaders have students living in extreme poverty, an increase in the students with social-emotional issues, and in some cases are expected to take on the role of parents to students…and their parents…