Does a Learner-Directed Education Support a Democratic Society?

Discipline-the-Child-230x300A 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?

My response was that conventional standardized instructional schooling, as designed by people like Horace Mann in the early 19th century based on the model perfected by Prussia, was designed to be the proverbial “melting pot” that would remove the foreign-ness from people and turn them into like-thinking Americans. That said, schools were run by experienced or “principal” teachers and were focused on this civil mission.

But as they say, “the business of America is business”. So this institution of mandatory standardized taxpayer funded public schooling, as a powerful normative tool to manage the development of the bulk of the young people in our country, was essentially taken over by the business community in the early 20th century.

Ignoring the wisdom and efforts of progressive educators like Maria Montessori and John Dewey to chart a more humanistic education course intended to spur human development and prepare our young people to be active citizens in a democratic country, business efficiency and training workers for American industry trumped this more progressive vision for state funded schools.

I would argue that our public school systems today are still run on that business model and are focused on training compliant individual workers and consumers, rather than active citizens who understand how to participate effectively in the democratic process.

Given that world view, it is democratic-free schools that represent a model closer to the legacy of Montessori and particularly Dewey. DF schools give young people the opportunity to enter into meaningful collaboration with each other to manage their school and use the tools of democratic process to do so. The result are more engaged and capable young people that aren’t waiting to be told what to do to get their own individual grades and their own individual blessing to enter the workforce.

Whether the curriculum of a school is totally student-directed (or as they say “free”) or follows more prescribed academic or holistic bodies of knowledge, young people would still be best served by playing a real role, along with their teachers in running their schools. In today’s world of increasing educational standardization, regimentation and top-down control of schools, neither teachers or students have much say in educational governance, and basically follow orders from above. Orders mostly originating from the corporate foundations that are the tail that wags the public education dog, and has done so for nearly a century.

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