Deschooling

I love so many of the ideas in this week’s essay, especially, “To deschool means to abolish the power of one person to oblige another person to attend a meeting.” Ha! I should print that out and put it on my office door.

I think about school a lot, not only because my wife and I refer to Virginia Tech as “school,” as in, “when are you going to school?” or “how long will you be at school?” but also because I’ve spent most of my life in school, and though each institution was vastly different from one another (I attended a Seventh-day Adventist elementary school from grades 1-8, with no more than thirty students at one time in the entire building, and then shipped off to boarding school at 14, then three different colleges in undergrad, then a year off, then to grad school, then teaching for five years as an adjunct at two different schools, then back to grad school, then to VT) each of these schools had a number of similarities: learning took place indoors, in desks or before computers, among people who were basically the same age. I completed or gave assignments, these assignments were assessed, I received a grade. As an undergraduate English major at UNC, I experienced what I felt like was a vast amount of freedom in part because I had come from a deeply conservative environment and now had all sorts of decisions to make about my education (i.e., free electives), which meant I got to take classes in philosophy and Taoism and astronomy and Japanese Literature and anthropology. I do feel like the actual learning I did–the stuff that made me want to become a person who studies and produces writing–came less from school than my own experience in the world (growing up in a nice, loving fundamentalist family in the middle of nowhere, where I longed to be a part of a world that my church said would lead me astray; surviving the rigidities of a Christian boarding school by making friends who, in small ways, expressed subversiveness of all types; and discovering that I loved to read books and write poetry and stories). Sure, my Milton classes and creative writing workshops and Southern Lit courses all blew my mind open and provided the vocabularies and ideas I’d need to begin “doing my own stuff,” but it was more about living in the world, meeting people, having experiences. This is all serving as a very long introduction to what I really want to talk about, which is the fact that yesterday, my son missed recess at his school because he forgot to sign something called a “lunch sheet.” I don’t know what a lunch sheet is and I’m sure it plays some essential role in the bureaucratic network of papers that helps his teachers maintain the illusion that they are in control, but I found it distressing, not only because it was a nice day outside and I know how much my son loves recess, but because the punishment was basically more school. I am often distressed when I think about my son in school, in part because I don’t understand what it is he does there, except study for things that he’ll regurgitate for an SOL and then forget next year. I do know that he arrives at 9 am and stays until 3:30 and that he eats lunch and maybe has music or art and gets to go outside if it’s not raining or below a certain temperature. I don’t know what he does other than that, when his teacher tells us in conferences that he’s a nice boy who talks and raises his hand too much. But I do wonder what it would be like if his school didn’t have a building. What if his school was the town where he lived? The wilderness that surrounds it? What if he was doing as much teaching as he is learning? What if one day he spent with teenagers, another with toddlers, another with senior citizens? What if he actually learned how the town in which he lives operates? What if he were encouraged to be curious about everything? What if he learned how to start a fire, manage a stock portfolio, grow a garden, rebuild a small engine, build his own bicycle or robot? What if he learned how to write and produce a physical book of his own? What if his community supported him to do all these things? If the knowledge of how our world works and how we can be better and more active sharers of that knowledge was central to his experience of “school”? What would my brain/self/body look like if I had been given such an opportunity? What would anyone’s?

That’s why I love this paragraph so much:

“If the goals of learning were no longer dominated by schools and schoolteachers, the market for learners would be much more various and the definition of ‘educational artifacts’ would be less restrictive. There could be tool shops, libraries, laboratories, and gaming rooms. Photo labs and offset presses would allow neighborhood newspapers to flourish. Some storefront learning centers could contain viewing booths for closed-circuit television, others could feature office equipment for use and for repair. The jukebox or the record player would be commonplace, with some specializing in classical music, others in international folk tunes, others in jazz. Film clubs would compete with each other and with commercial television. Museum outlets could be networks for circulating exhibits of works of art, both old and new, originals and reproductions, perhaps administered by the various metropolitan museums.”

It sounds like a utopia, but it also doesn’t sound impossible.

But it’s hard enough trying to revise the curriculum for general education here at VT. I can’t imagine dismantling our public educational system so that it creates something other than the buildings our children go to every day, to learn how to sit quietly and cram stuff into their heads that the flames of actual, lived experience will no doubt burn away.

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