Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Corrupting the youth

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 Cartestian doubt up to the
cogito. One time I had a 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. My vote counted, but it was a vote, not a veto or an executive order.

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. (The 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 genuinely high trust in 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 comes 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. No, 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 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.


  1. The Sudbury program sounds awesome. I'm sure my kids would love it.

    Since my concern for childhood education is a byproduct of my parenting and not a career choice I'm happy to hear that teachers (most I would hope) reflect so deeply on the topic.

    I'm reading this at an opportune time as spring break is this week and after today I will be spending the rest of the week at home with my two kids. We're having unseasonably snowy weather so I'm anticipating a lot of time in the house. I wanted to make it memorable so I've decided to take a page from my own past and introduce my children to role playing games. Since they're only 7 and 5 I can't just dust off the math/mythology books I used to use. I've bought Faery's Tale and have been spending the last couple days of work preparing to play. I'm really quite impressed with it. While role playing games are always very participatory and free wheeling this game seems exceptionally so. My job as moderator will be to draw the kids into creating their own story. The kids have all decided on their character types (Henry is a Pooka that can assume animal form so he's been practicing being a chicken today) and we're all very excited to play...

    I guess I just wanted to make the brief point, in agreement with the spirit of the Sudbury School, that I never really learn unless I'm playing. Now many of the topics of learning are things that by good fortune I find fun. I don't know if this is just luck or if it is the byproduct of playing a lot and looking for ever more interesting games. Like I said, I've not spent my career thinking about this, but I can say that for me, and so far for my kids, the discipline of the classroom has given me much less than I have gained by playing games.

  2. dy0genes~~ I wd say that learning how to play is indeed an essential part of learning how to learn. If you know what it's like to have fun in a lot of different modes, you are more likely to be able to tap into whatever the appropriate mode is for the matter at hand.

  3. Thank you for this great post. I don't know how I missed it, since I know I've checked the blog in the last two weeks. But, by chance I happened to read it just after reading this entry by Peter Gray at Psychology Today. I was reading that because we're in the early stages of trying to start a public charter school here in Baltimore, and struggling to define our vision. Much to chew on here, as ever.

  4. (or, given the dates of your comments, is it possible the date on the original post is not when it actually appeared?)

  5. Hi Richard,

    Thanks very much for the link to Peter Gray's articles-- I commend him to anyone who wants to think seriously about education today. One day it will seem surreal to our descendants that we nearly universally accepted the routine incarceration of children for six to eight hours a day, five days a week, nine months of the year (and some places are moving to year-round school). I will be posting further on this; as you might be able to tell, it's something I am passionate about. Good luck with your charter school.

    You are right, the post dates are usually the day I started the post, not the day it went up. Sometimes I remember to adjust that if the discrepancy is large, and sometimes I don't.

  6. I would've learned a LOT more in a Sudbury school than a regular school - mostly because up until at least grade 6 in regular school, I learned just about nothing at all. I already knew reading, basic math and the like, didn't need school instruction, but had to sit around and wait through the classes anyway. It wasn't until a college class on international development, where someone said education was important because literacy was important, that I even realized most people learned to read in school. (Observing other people was not my strong suit.)

    And so... boredom? Yes. Oh, the boredom. School was year after endless year of going through the motions, "learning" things I already knew, obeying the rules by rote. Why did I go to school? Because I was required to, and for no other reason whatsoever. School was jail. And I don't say this as any particular knock on the schools I attended - they were relatively progressive and sympathetic as public schools go.

    So I'm rather sympathetic to the Sudbury school idea. I wonder though, has the model been tried with kids of different socioeconomic backgrounds? I could imagine it going very wrong in the kind of classroom that has a metal detector.

  7. A Sudbury school, like any community, has limits. One can be expelled from a Sudbury school for violence, for instance. Even in my very tame public school, I wouldn't dream of suddenly turning my classroom into a full-blown Sudbury-style setting. This reflects at least as much on me as on anyone else, but I'm sure I couldn't deal with the chaos that would erupt, nor could the kids. It's not unlike coming out of Plato's cave-- the freedom is downright crazy-making at first. In the literature I have read about the somewhat more structured Summerhill school, founded by A.S. Neill, plenty of kids are said to have run amok when they first get there. Windows get broken, etc etc. Eventually, though, this gets old, and the kids really do decide on their own to belong. And that's the real difference-- kids deciding to opt in themselves.

    To your question about different socio-economic classes, my guess is that most parents who make Sudbury available as a choice are educated liberal middle- or upper-class. Most research I've done on this has turned up results about race, not class, but I'm sure discussion of class is out there. My suspicion is that, like all schooling, Sudbury self-directed learning works best supported by a household in which literacy, learning, curiosity, and a kind of autodidacticism are taken for granted. Indeed, one of the most grievous sins of our public schooling is its insidious way of absolving the family from responsibility regarding education. Even in the upper-middle-class community where I work, parents who are often themselves university faculty still have adopted the assumption that it’s the school’s (or the after-school program’s!) job to instill competency X (as though installing a new module or component) in their child—-above all, to "get their homework done," which anyone who read last decade’s news should understand is about the most useless thing outside of Washington D.C. My mini- rant aside, this professionalization of education is just one of the trends I believe would be turned inside-out by a genuine de-schooling revolution. But it would mean way more, not less, responsibility all the way around, for kids, teachers, families. "And who has time for that?" Which is why it’s unlikely to happen in my lifetime.

    I do think that the Sudbury model has limits, like all approaches. But in my experience, most people who say this mean, "well, it might work for a lot of kids, but it wouldn’t work for mine, because s/he’s not self-motivated." (Even kids mouth this of themselves). In fact, I do think self-motivation can be hard, or take time, to awaken in some of us, not least because internalized self-images, some of which may run along class (or cultural) lines, but I have come to conclude that the model "works" for a far wider range of kids than most apparently sympathetic skeptics want to allow. What’s really different is the expectations we have for what "works" looks like.

    You would've thrived, you suspect, in a Sudbury school because you could read before you even got to school. Other kids start much more slowly, and it can be an agonizing time for parents of a seven- or eight-year-old who hasn’t yet learned to read or even shown interest in learning. (Math and writing are other nail-biting occasions but reading tends to be the biggest one). It does require some faith. Also, some parents make a judgment-call, and try to jump-start the process with some intensive teaching outside of the Sudbury context. I don’t argue that this is a priori wrong (some would disagree with me). But even this interference, when made against the default background of Sudbury-style respect for a student’s autonomy and responsibility, is far more engaged and engaging for parents and children than is the factory-model that public schools inevitably slip into, despite the best efforts of very good teachers.