Category Archives: Education

Controlling the Pace of Your Own Education

We need to rethink the conventional wisdom in our society that after age four, kids need to be in school, continuously (except for perhaps summertime) from kindergarten for at least seventeen years until they graduate from college. I think it is leaving too many of our young adults dazed and confused coming out the other end rather than feeling prepared and inspired to join the greater adult community. They’ve spent too much time endlessly preparing and practicing to lead a “real life”, with little chance to experience living a “real life” where things they do have meaning beyond themselves. They’ve been too long under other people’s direction to have a sense of confidence in their own ability to chart their own course.

One of the biggest problems with our standardized OSFA (one size fits all) education system is that a group of people (state educational policy makers) who have never met you control and dictate to you your learning process, including what you learn, who you learn it from, where you learn it, how you learn it, and when you learn it. Your education, and more broadly your development as a human being, tends to become something that other people are trying to do to you, rather than something you own yourself.

In this piece I want to focus on the pace of formal education, the “when” you learn it aspect of this high-stakes standardization and the toll I believe it continues to take on our youth and young adults, as it did on me growing up.

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Visioning Many Educational Paths

Angelajean and I founded our Daily KOS “Educational Alternatives” group because we both believe that our youth (and their families) would be much better served in their development if they had a wide range of educational options. Currently there are very few such options available to most young people, particularly those from families without the economic means to have sufficient discretionary income to spend on private schools. I wanted to restate the group’s goal, to hopefully recruit more bloggers and diarists among us who share this vision to contribute their written pieces to our group.

Here is the group’s “mission statement” as posted in the profile…

To best serve the development of all our young people, we need to move away from our one-size-fits-all education system (based on the 19th Century industrial model) to a new approach that encourages and facilitates many profoundly different educational paths, including learning within and outside of schools.

We are grateful for all the people who have contributed pieces to the group and others who have contributed comments to some very lively, thoughtful and provocative discussions. We are also grateful for our silent readers, though as always, I would encourage you to use your voice and comment to add the energy of your posted words to the mix.

From where I sit, we currently have two well-represented sub-groups within our group. One is contributors who are advocates for homeschooling and unschooling, that is education outside of a formal “school” environment. The other is contributors who are advocates for education within the conventional public school environment, though a more progressive version on that schooling than the current paradigm of high-stakes testing and external control of teachers.

But there are other educational “flavors” that are mostly not represented in our group discussions. These include (advocates for) charter schools, holistic schools (like Montessori, Waldorf and others), democratic-free schools (like Sudbury Valley), Critical Pedagogy, online education, learning centers (catering to homeschoolers) and even elite private schools (or at least their possibly unique curriculum). These are, or at least could be, vital components of a “many paths” education system that I feel would much better serve our young people’s development.

Now occasionally I, Angelajean, or another contributor has posted a piece on one of these flavors, but I would like to call out to others reading this piece who are advocates for these educational options to step forward and contribute as well. This would lead to a broader conversation about a range of educational paths that fall between “life learning” on one end and formal instruction in classrooms on the other. Though I tend to favor the former, I also think that a robust education during one’s childhood and youth, depending on the developmental goals you might be pursuing (and your economic means and other resources) might include several of these options at different points in your development. To me the bottom line is that the learner pursues their education instead of being pursued by it.

So in an effort to call on more contributors to spark that wider discussion, I would like to briefly summarize what I see as the significant educational flavors that I’m aware of and some key issues for discussion with each. The first two are already much discussed in our “Ed Alt” group…

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Unschooled by my Electronic Greek Chorus

I have already highlighted in several previous pieces the important if not critical role popular music – mostly heard on the radio or played on a stereo – has played in my life. It’s like I’ve lived my life to a soundtrack or with a Greek chorus accompanying and commenting on and informing my life’s context, trials, tribulations and triumphs. Looking back at particularly the first three decades of my life, I can think of no significant developmental moment that does not have a song (or several) associated with and helping facilitate it, a song that I heard frequently at the time with a lyric, a melody line, or a rhythmic gestalt that captured or informed the moment and somehow facilitated my developmental journey. Though I have not read or heard people talking much about this, I suspect that many within my generation of Baby-Boomer peers and the younger Gen-Xers and Millennials have been similarly impacted, but perhaps by a different set of songs.

Looking back, I am finally grasping that the extent to which these songs have played a key role in my life is as significant as any other thread in my developmental or educational experience. Particularly because I had no real connection with any religion or religious values, I think these songs have given me (or at least suggested) an ethical framework to live by which has been invaluable to me at many key crossroads. They have also given me an insight into the broader cultural context that has shaped my own life and others around me.

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The American Three-Tiered Education System

Three School TiersAccording to former public school teacher turned radical unschooler John Taylor Gatto, we have developed a de facto three-tiered education system in the United States as follows…

Tier One – The elite private schools for the kids of our economic elite (the so called “One Percent”), where they have the opportunity to develop skills of leadership, entrepreneurship, and creative outside-the-box thinking and develop the necessary connections to people in power to become the next generation of corporate and political leaders.

Tier Two – The “good” public schools (and comparable religious and secular private schools) that train the kids of middle-class families to become part of the what Gatto calls the “professional proletariat” – the doctors, lawyers, scientists, engineers, and other “knowledge workers” – that staff the corporate enterprises financed, launched and led by the kids from the tier one schools.

Tier Three – The “bad” or “failed” public schools for the economically disadvantage communities, which according to Gatto and other radical education activists are designed to “fail” and maintain an underclass of “them” to anchor the hierarchical pyramid of a country that continues to be comfortable with being economically stratified. These schools basically warehouse the kids of the poorest among us who, if they can find jobs at all, are hopefully grateful to take the service and other menial jobs along with filling the ranks of our large volunteer military.

To be perfectly and uncomfortably honest, my own continuing analysis of American society is moving me towards agreeing with Gatto on the above. This is not a matter of just failing to apply the needed money and effort to “fix” the “bad” schools, but more of an underlying problem, endemic when any elite conceives of a new societal institution as a tool for normalizing their privilege and control. I am concerned that our public school system, as originally envisioned by Horace Mann and other reformers suffers from this endemic problem and may be unredeemable unless completely transformed. Transformed to the extent that the states are no longer controlling the public education process, and schools are created and run by teachers, parents get to decide whether to send their kids to school, and young people are in charge of directing their own education.

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From Feminism to Unschooling

Wendy Priesnitz
Just got through reading Wendy Priesnitz piece, “Unschooling as a feminist act” that was republished in the Alternative Education Resource Organization (AERO) Education Revolution magazine. Wendy is a fellow comrade in the large circle of activists for education alternatives where AERO functions as part of the connective tissue among us. Within that larger group, Wendy and I share a focus as unschooling (what she refers to as “life learning”) activists. So I was intrigued by the title of her piece given the fact that I consider myself both a feminist and unschooling activist.

My take on Wendy’s thinking here, is that she sees a connection between feminism and unschooling because both challenge our society’s remaining patriarchal traditions and values that see men (particularly adult men) in the superior position to women and children in societal hierarchies of control, where “father knows best”.

Certainly our state-run public school systems in the U.S. can be viewed as hierarchical organizations with students (young people of both genders) under the authority and control of teachers (mostly adult women) who are then subject to a controlling hierarchy of authority above them. A controlling hierarchy that becomes more male-dominated, the higher you work your way up the levels of that hierarchy to the state legislators, ed secretaries and boards at the top of the pyramid. This is not unlike our society’s political, economic and religious institutions which continue to be male-dominated (though trending in a more egalitarian direction).

Writes Wendy in her piece…

It had never occurred to me that unschooling and feminism were mutually exclusive. In fact, I am quite certain that it, in all its label-defying glory, is the ultimate feminist act, for a variety of reasons on which I’ll elaborate in this article.

In my reading of her article I would summarize those reasons as follows…

1. Our male-dominated society devalues the child-rearing function including mostly relegating it to mothers and not paying the female-dominated childcare and teaching professions comparably to more male-dominated professions

2. Feminism took a great step forward empowering women to work outside the home, but if women are to be fully empowered, they should equally be empowered to choose to focus their lives within the home raising children

3. As empowered mothers, women should not play second fiddle to the conventional wisdom of mostly male societal experts who claim to know better than those mothers what is best for their children

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Horace Mann & Compulsory Schooling

I have continued to ponder why school for kids continues to be compulsory (with the requisite coercion) while most everything else we do in America (except perhaps pay taxes) is by our own choice and direction. In trying to get a handle on the answer to a fundamental societal question like that, I tend to start with looking at our history and the flow of events that have led us to our present situation.

Being a kid who grew up in the 1960s, I can’t help but recall The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show and its Peabody’s Improbable History segment featuring the dog historian Mr. Peabody. I imagine erudite canine saying to his “boy” Sherman, “Let’s set the Wayback machine to Massachusetts in the year 1830 when Horace Mann led the effort to launch the U.S. public school system!” Lacking access to a “Wayback” machine to see for myself, I have to rely on the books I’ve read on the seminal events of this period in American history and particularly the words and deeds of Mann, the most famous champion of this effort.

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Compulsory Schooling – The Hammer of Educational Equality

Other than paying taxes and attending school when you are young, a human being pretty much decides for themselves how they are going to make a living and lead their life. I understand the taxes part, that’s the “ante” we pay to participate in a larger community that is not just about us but about the common welfare. But why is it so sacrosanct that kids must go to and be in school all day under penalty of law?

So in trying to resolve these sorts of questions I tend to look back at U.S. history to try and start to divine some answers. Compulsory schooling was a new idea in the 1830s when Horace Mann and his fellow Massachusetts educational reformers set up the first compulsory state “common” schools in Massachusetts. From what I’ve read, Mann and his comrades were inspired by the universal compulsory education that had recently been set up in the European state of Prussia. Throughout the 19th century, Prussia was on the leading edge of state-directed K-12 education along with developing the modern state university system that was later mimicked in the U.S. and the rest of Europe.

I think it is important here to come to grips with the reality that huge endeavors like implementing universal mandatory public education for all young people are motivated and justified by the logic of building the state. Helping individual young people with their development is really not part of that calculus. Prussia in the early 19th century was a totalitarian militaristic state rather than a democratic republic. The goal of the elite that controlled the Prussian state was to leverage state directed educational and industrial development to build the country into an unrivaled military-industrial power. A power that would be ready to fight and win the next war, and never lose another war like they did to Napoleon’s French army in 1806. Giving every young person in the country a state-directed “free” education was all about that goal.

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Unschooling in the Art of Religion

It is my continuing effort to promote the concept of “unschooling”, the process of learning from real life, outside any formal learning environment, and without a teacher. It is a mostly unsung method of human development that often gets short shrift compared to more formal modes and venues for education. We conventionally think of education and learning as an activity focused on our younger years, but at our bests we humans continue to be natural and voracious learners throughout our lives. We are beginning to acknowledge that human propensity with the concept of “lifelong learning”.

As I have said before, becoming familiar with the concept of unschooling reading works by John Holt, Pat Farenga, Matt Hern and John Taylor Gatto, I have been taking a long look back at the road I’ve traveled and the key developmental experiences that have contributed the most to who I am today. Though I went to school (K-12 & college, some 20 years worth!), my school experience contributes relatively little to who I really am today, and the wisdom and skill set that I bring to my life’s activities. What is more significant, in retrospect, are the major themes of my own self-directed learning done outside of school.

Case in point is my interest in religion, and my informal pursuit of understanding about the topic, its history, its contemporary practice, and the underlying reasons it is an important part of so many people’s lives. I’ve always been an atheist but I’ve also become fascinated by religion. Go figure! But having the opportunity for over twenty years to participate in Unitarian-Universalism, which is generally framed as a religion (albeit a non-dogmatic one), I became very interested in learning about the nature of the religious process and the role it has played in human society. Add to that my fascination with history, where religion seems to have played a much larger role than the more conventional study of history, particularly in schools, would lead you to see.

Wikipedia says…

Religion is a collection of cultural systems, belief systems, and worldviews that establishes symbols that relate humanity to spirituality and, sometimes, to moral values. Many religions have narratives, symbols, traditions and sacred histories that are intended to give meaning to life or to explain the origin of life or the universe. They tend to derive morality, ethics, religious laws or a preferred lifestyle from their ideas about the cosmos and human nature.

Unlike many people I’ve met, I’ve had little or no religious instruction in my life, and never really set foot in a “house of worship” until I was 13 (other than attending a couple weddings). Neither of my parents were ever involved in any sort of religious practice, though we had family friends who were. My mom always said she believed in god (not sure whether the capital “G” would be appropriate here), but she also firmly believed that religion was the scourge of the Earth!

My dad was a university English professor, who actually wrote his dissertation on John Henry Newman, an influential Anglican theologian in the early 19th century. But beyond that, I don’t recall him ever talking about god, believing in god, or religion. My dad might well have been an atheist, but both my parents could definitely be described as humanists, based on the definition from Wikipedia…

Humanism is an approach in study, philosophy, world view or practice that focuses on human values and concerns, attaching prime importance to human rather than divine or supernatural matters.

Some people, especially some folks on the religious right, would describe humanism, or particularly “secular humanism”, as a religion (I recall Jerry Falwell making that argument more than once!) I generally would not, but I see their point, since for example, many people who hold essentially humanist values and view the world from a secular framework participate in Unitarian-Universalism based on those values.

So what follows is a long narrative (over 7000 words) of my own exploration of religion – its ideas, practice, and the reaching for a deeper metaphysical meaning of life. In putting together this piece, I struggled to try and break it up into smaller free-standing segments. But I think it speaks more to that natural human drive to learn and develop, when it is not diminished by a focus on formal schooling. So in my case I have spent thousands of hours participating in activities that have broadened my understanding of religion and its practice, but never gone to divinity school or even taken a formal “class” on religion.

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Guest Blog by Emma Rosloff: My Experience with Unschooling (Abbreviated)

Emma Age 20This is the first time I’ve published a piece by a “guest” blogger, which in this case happens to be my daughter Emma! She published her piece initially on the Daily KOS progressive political blog site (click here to link to it), and got a large number of views, recommends and comments, plus a “Community Spotlight” acknowledgement. I’ve posted it below in its entirety, along with some follow-up replies she made to comments she received…

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Saturday Night Home School Fever

Confessing my own bias as a big supporter of unschooling, I read Dennis Danziger’s piece, “Home School Fever”, in the April 24 edition of the Huffington Post, and it seemed to push more buttons in me than I even knew I had! I recall that classic Saturday Night Live “Weekend Edition” bit where Jane Curtin and Dan Aykroyd do a “Point-Counterpoint”, and after Curtin dresses down Aykroyd in every possible way he grits his teeth and responds, “Jane, you ignorant slut!” Not sure if Danziger is playing the Curtin or the Aykroyd part in this encounter, but grrrr!

I know the Post has a wonderful contributor, Peter Gray, who is an eloquent homeschool/unschool advocate (and just had that great interview with unschooler Kate Fridkis published in Psychology Today). So if the Post is trying to provide “both sides” of the homeschooling issue, they sure picked an uniformed, unthoughtful spokesperson for conventional public “schooling”. My initial reaction is that it rises to the level of hate speech, but that may be my buttons talking.

So I’m trying to parse his bilious words while re-initializing this previously unrevealed array of triggers in my psyche that he so expertly managed to activate with a mere 514 word rant. Certainly for sheer “button per word” efficiency, Danziger must be up there with the best of show. (Take a deep breath Coop… exhale… once more… okay?… yes… good… let’s proceed.)

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