Tag Archives: schooling

Reincorporating Hunter-Gatherer Wisdom in our Society

Stroller and SlingIn my previous piece, “Traditional Wisdom of Child Development”, I looked at how contemporary social scientists are rediscovering some of the wisdom of traditional hunter-gatherer societies, which were for most of our time on this planet the predominant human organizing principle and are arguably a more natural form of human community that the high-technology society that most of us humans live in today.

I got a handful of thoughtful comments on my piece, but I’d like to highlight one that I think was posing issues that really continue the discussion.  Amy Costello Wilfong wrote…

It’s not that I disagree with what you’re saying… but the immersion-type parenting you’re talking about is, quite literally, impossible for many people in modern American society. Two (or more!) incomes have become necessary to cover even basic expenses for families in many places, and I just don’t see that changing anytime soon. So the question then becomes, how can we accomplish raising children in an “immersive” fashion when we are forced to spend the vast majority of our time away from them? And how can and should teachers respect these basic principles of child development in the face of ever-increasing scrutiny, judgement, and standardization?

I think this is a well crafted “problem statement” for a key challenge we face as a society.  We (or at least our predecessors) have built a society where though we are free citizens and not slaves or indentured servants, many of us have to work so many hours to earn a living wage (if we can at all) that it constitutes a de facto indentureship.  Add to that that the massive scale of our society with the disenfranchisement and alienation it breeds, combined with perpetuation of ancient patriarchal “us and them” values, creates a subculture among us that is predatory toward out groups (“them”) particularly poor people, minorities, women and young people.  The latter in particular making it problematic for parents to let the “village raise the child”, sequestering kids instead in “schools”, institutions that paradoxically isolate kids from the dangerous real world while trying to prepare them for it.

So given the problem statement, what is the solution, or at least a path forward towards a solution?

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Traditional Human Wisdom of Child Development

For the first 200,000 years of the human species we were all hunter-gatherers, nomadic tribes of people scattered about the Earth living in sync with the natural ecology of our bountiful planet.  It is only in the past 10,000 years, with our development of agriculture and herding, that we developed what we like to call “civilization”, which according to Wikipedia is…

A sometimes controversial term that has been used in several related ways. Primarily, the term has been used to refer to the material and instrumental side of human cultures that are complex in terms of technology, science, and division of labor. Such civilizations are generally hierarchical and urbanized. In a classical context, people were called “civilized” to set them apart from barbarians, savages, and primitive peoples while in a modern-day context, “civilized peoples” have been contrasted with indigenous peoples or tribal societies.

Though hunter-gatherer societies (the “indigenous peoples” and “tribal societies” of the above definition) still exist in parts of the world today, the overwhelming majority of we humans live in more complex “civilized” societies, where we generally consider ourselves to have progressed and to be better off than our “primitive” kin.  That judgement of being better off has come into some question in the past 100 years with our legacy of devastating world wars, genocides, environmental degradation, and a continuing unequal distribution of resources leading to many of us having way more than we need and many of the rest of us having too little.

Others who have researched what life is really like in hunter-gatherer societies (based on archeology and studying those societies that still exist today) have made some surprising and perhaps uncomfortable observations.  These include that people generally spend less time working and are happier than in civilized societies.  It begs the question, what is the whole point of civilization?

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Fundamentally Opposed to Mandatory Standardized Education

So I was in the mood for a rant today… You’ve been warned…

Based on all my life’s experience, all the principles I hold dear, and all my study of human history and development, I am fundamentally opposed to having a standardized education imposed on young people by the government. It is the most effective tool of the totalitarian state, and all the more pernicious when wielded by the highest levels of government in a democratic society. I fear that it will continue to erode the underpinnings of the democratic principles the United States was founded on, continuing to teach each successive generation that the powers that be know best and you better get used to that if you want to succeed in life.

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An Abundance of Genius

John Taylor Gatto was a teacher for nearly 30 years, including working with disadvantaged youth in urban New York City public schools. He was named New York City Teacher of the Year in 1989, 1990, and 1991, and New York State Teacher of the Year in 1991. That was the same year he wrote a letter announcing his retirement, titled “I Quit, I Think”, published in the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal. In the letter he wrote that he no longer wished to “hurt kids to make a living”. He has since gone to a second career as a writer, speaker and advocate for unschooling, and I have read several of his books and heard him speak twice.

Maybe from years of being a talented teacher and trying to shock his students out of their classroom stupor, he has developed a rhetoric that is studiously and calculatedly provocative, including this statement…

I’ve come to believe that genius is an exceedingly common human quality, probably natural to most of us… I began to wonder, reluctantly, whether it was possible that being in school itself was what was dumbing them down. Was it possible I had been hired not to enlarge children’s power, but to diminish it? That seemed crazy on the face of it, but slowly I began to realize that the bells and the confinement, the crazy sequences, the age-segregation, the lack of privacy, the constant surveillance, and all the rest of national curriculum of schooling were designed exactly as if someone had set out to prevent children from learning how to think and act, to coax them into addiction and dependent behavior.

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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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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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Just Another Unschooling Story – No Big Deal

Made my day to get notification from a friend on Facebook that this piece appeared in this week’s Psychology Today magazine, giving credence to the life path for young people known as “unschooling”. It particularly resonated with me because our own kids are peers of the piece’s subject, Kate Fridkis – our son Eric is 26 and our daughter Emma is 22. One of the things it spoke to for me, was how kids who are not in school (while certainly not a privilege available to every kid) can more organically transition from youth to adulthood, including finding meaningful work to do with their lives. My daughter Emma was so inspired by the piece she posted a long comment on the Psychology Today blog and then I suggested she post it on DKos as her first diary. (Go chicgeek!)

The Psychology Today piece is, “Meet Kate Fridkis, Who Skipped K-12 and Is Neither Weird nor Homeless” by Peter Gray, who seems to have become a top-flight spokesperson (along with my friend Pat Farenga) for this “life path” for young people that does not involve routinely going to school. Here’s Gray’s short bio sketch on Fridkis, with the kicker in the last statement…

Kate Fridkis is 26 years old, is happily married, lives in New York City, has a master’s degree in religion from Columbia University, is a part-time chazzan (cantor) at a synagogue (a job she’s held since age 15), and is a full-time writer. Her articles have appeared in the New York Times, the Huffington Post, and Salon. She’s working on getting her first novel published. She writes funny and insightful essays about body image on her popular blog, Eat the Damn Cake. And recently she has become a fellow blogger here at Psychology Today… Oh, and she also skipped all of school from kindergarten through twelfth grade.

You can read the piece to get her whole story which seems remarkably unremarkable other than the fact that the only school she went to was college. But what struck me from the piece was an insight that unschooling may well make it easier for young people to transition from youth to adulthood in a much more gradual and natural manner, and at a pace and tempo that they have much more control of than someone who is “schooled”.

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