Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Bell Tolls

It's a Start

I could hear it in his voice, the angst was palpable. My son called to tell me that he had just registered his son in kindergarden. He is in the midst of a book launch, otherwise happy as he could be. This brought him down. "Nothing has changed." "Same concrete block building, same drab colors, same florescent lighting, and that same authoritarian voice instructing us that we had to take this event seriously, brought it all back home." He and millions of others are beginning the process of handing their children off to the state. My grandson is about to be segregated from people not his age. He is about to enter the company of 20-30 other children and told to be quiet. He will be told to suppress his natural curiosity about his sexual identity. He will be fed horrible things at lunch. He will be introduced to the first phases of a curriculum guaranteed to dull and deaden the natural process of his acquisition of knowledge.

He is being conditioned to become a productive citizen, able to "compete" in the world's race for power and wealth. In the process he will be bullied, insulted, and graded. He will learn to compete against his fellow students. He will pass or fail.

What's the problem? We all went through it. We survived. We did OK. These arguments for the system are the best we can do. Or we can point to the failure of all previous attempts at reform. Or suggest there are no alternatives. Or, when alternatives do pop up i.e. home schooling or charter schools, we see to it that they are state certified. The issue isn't that some of us survive the system. The issue is what would we be if we grew in a truly supportive system that placed students needs first? Who might we have become? Super teachers write on this subject. Here is one you might want to consider.
One of the cruelest events in this mean season is the annual public humiliation of parents waiting, camping, suffering whatever it takes, to get their child placed in one or another magnet school. And for most of those who fail to get their child in the "better" school? They passively accept their fate as second class citizens. Tax paying citizens, paying for schools their children can't attend. An argument against the value of magnet schools was posted by a teacher in the NYT recently.

The more fundamental questions that are rarely asked or discussed would challenge the entire enterprise. Coming out of WW2 scholars questioned the role of public education in the formulation of mind sets that could create such horrors.
We might ask the same of our current reality. We could begin questioning a system of world organization that has half of the occupants of the planet living in poverty. I believe that it is just such an awareness that motivates most parents to try to secure an edge for their children in what they perceive of as a cruel world.

Times are tough and getting tougher for college students. As the protests begin it is evident that students have accepted the efficacy of their educational institutions. It is more access that they are demanding. Not alternatives.

When students struck Columbia U. in 1968, I and others offered an alternative in the form of what became the University of the Street. A qualified success it did however lead to the establishment of The Open University in America. A short term version of the same process, the matching of students and teachers and letting them run is taking place now. By the time persons reach their majority they can and do create alternatives. It is with the children that we are so frightened. What if we are wrong? Will this decrease their chances to get into Yale? How will they be socialized?

I inhaled Ivan Illich. This radical (ultimately defrocked) priest authored Deschooling Society in 1974. His ideas are summarized here.

He called for "convivial education". A system very similar to the processes of an open university available to everyone. Young and older. His ideas continue to be discussed. An excerpt from the above; "The importance of convivial institutions is recognized in the sustaining of community - but social capital, because it is also linked to economic advancement, can be easily co-opted in the service of non-convivial activities (as the involvement of the World Bank in promoting the notion may suggest)".

He is also criticized for not being more specific about how we might implement alternatives.

Imagine. A group of say 10 parents decides to pull up to 20 students from the system. These same parents advertise for a pair of "teachers" who are going to become the primary guides in this newly formed learning community. In today's employment environment it should be easy to find qualified and willing candidates. The parents raise 100K. The parents acquire access to space throughout their community. They pool their resources: computers, books, AV equipment, tools, work sites for situational learning, food, vehicles, Parents are asked to participate to the extent they are comfortable. One fear the parents are going to have is that couldn't agree on what the knowledge base for their children might look like. They must come up with a set of objectives that governs them all. They must seize control of this process. They must take responsibility. There is no way around it. When they assemble their working document then they contract with the guides. The group meets regularly. They fine tune. They grow. Now imagine thousands of similar groups. They have 6 months to get organized before they hand over their kids.

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