Monday, December 31, 2007

Democracy vs. the School Culture

"What is known as "free education" is the least free of all, for it is a state-owned institution; it is socialized education...and cannot be separated from political control." -- Frank Chodorov, Why Free Schools Are Not Free

Several years ago, a group of US teachers traveled to what was then the USSR to exchange information and ideas with their Russian counterparts. What the Soviet teachers most wanted from their guests was guidance on setting up and running democratic schools. Their questions were based on the assumption that a country like the US, so committed to the idea of democracy, surely must involve children in decision-making from their earliest years.

The irony is enough to make us wince, because in this country, students are rarely invited to become active participants in their own education. Schooling is about doing things to children, not working with them. An array of punishments and rewards is used to enforce compliance with an agenda that students rarely have any opportunity to influence.*

There is no democracy in the schools. The students are powerless. When (local superintendent) Forcella talks about a “moral culture” in the schools, isn’t he really talking about rules that the employees make for the students on which the students have no say? And when he talks about an “ethical culture,” isn’t he just putting high sounding terms on his own idea of control over the students. He is not about to give them the opportunity to influence their own social and educational environment? According to Armand Fusco, Ed D., the true culture of the schools is corruption and deceit. Will Forcella discuss that? Never.

The irony of those Soviet teachers is not lost. Today’s American public schools are dictatorial. They use coercion (punishments and rewards) to train students to be blindly obedient to adults and to become compliant predictable cogs in the nation’s economic wheel – not to be self-directing members of a democratic society.

Do we wonder why voter turnout is low? Look no further than the schools, where voting is virtually unknown. (Sure, there are sometimes "elections," but the "offices" are mere popularity contests, not meaningful positions) In fact, making decisions about anything is virtually unknown. The policies and rules come from above; not from the consensus of the governed. Public school is authoritarian, not just over the students, but also over the teachers, the parents, and, as much as possible, the entire community. Its goal is to subsume the individual. When Forcella says, of the teachers, “The group is better than any one,” he’s pushing Marxism. That's the opposite of democracy and, as such, it cannot be a training ground for self-determination, self-discipline and especially self-education.

What is the result of the total absence of democracy in the schools? The students learn to be apathetic and disengaged; resigned to their powerlessness, their lack of control over what they are doing. If any of them express joy at being in school, it is only to please their parents. They are doing time -- counting the minutes, or days, until it’s over. Alfie Kohn, author and lecturer writes, “They are compelled to follow someone else’s rules, study someone else’s curriculum, and submit continually to someone else’s evaluation. The mystery, really, is not that so many students are indifferent about what they are forced to do, but that any of them are not.”

Is there such a thing as a “Democratic School”? Yes. The first one opened in Massachusetts in 1968, the Sudbury Valley Democratic School. It is still going with a long waiting list, while many others have been cloned, two of which are in CT. How do they work? They are run – and I mean totally directed – by the students and staff -- all with equal say in executive decisions on hiring, salaries, tuition, programs, everything. The students also decide their own individual paths of study, or not study. There are no “requirements” other than normal civility. The staff is “on call” for the students. The students are not “on call” at all. Coercion is unknown.

Is such democracy compatible with schooling? By the Sudbury model, the answer is a convincing Yes. Last I heard, every graduate (except one) has been accepted at their college of first choice, and college recruiters are lined up at the gate. What is the benefit of democratic schooling? From the writings of grads, it seems to be that mutual respect and the deep trust in the children to determine their own paths of education has stood those children in good stead in the world beyond, while providing them with an abiding confidence in their knowledge of how to live and, of course, learn.

The Sudbury model is the only one I know of that is not Hell.

*from an article, Choices for Children, by Alfie Kohn, 1993

Ned Vare is an architectural designer, artist and author, a former private school teacher, rancher, businessman, elected official.


Crimson Wife said...

While I believe that Sudbury schools work very well for a certain type of student, I'm not convinced that the average student has enough self-motivation to properly educate himself/herself in one. It's a neurological fact that the area of the brain responsible for long-term planning and anticipating consequences of one's actions is the last part to mature (typically around age 19 or 20). That's why teenagers so often make poor decisions.

There are certain topics studied in school that are boring or hard in the short term but useful in the long run. Children because of their immaturity have difficulty seeing past the near-term unpleasantness to the long term benefits. This is where adult guidance is required.

It's just like diet. While parents certainly should take their children's likes and dislikes into account when planning meals, one cannot leave the diet completely up to the children's whims. Few (if any) children are going to voluntarily choose tofu and broccoli over pizza and ice cream. That's where the adult needs to step in and say "you may not like it, but it's good for you."

Ned Vare said...

I disagree totally.

1. All "types" of students attend Sudbury schools. Can you define "properly educate"? I doubt it.

2. I don't believe your "neurological fact." Adults make just as many mistakes in planning, only ours have much worse consequences.

3. I trust teenagers' decisions in their education
more than adults.'

4. Public schools do not consider long or short term benefits for students. They consider the convenience and benefits for their own employees...only.

5. And yet, with adult "guidance," public schools everywhere are failing even by their own low standards.

Thanks for your comment.

Josh Brickman said...

I'm sending my son to do a test week at SVS in a couple of weeks. He is going to be 14. My wife is totally convinced this is the right thing for him but I'm so worried since his conventional school study habits are poor. I'm worried that he will go to SVS for four or five years and be no better educated then an 8th grader. I did fine at traditional education why would it be any worse for him? Plus my wife keeps shoving all these positive studies, books and videos in front of me, I'm looking for a objective scientific study that compares "traditional" education against this model. The hard thin g for me to believe is, if this model is so great, why is it so few children go through it? Its much cheaper then traditional education as its not money? What is the objection that politicians have to it?