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Free School or No School?
By Gea D’Marea Bassett

When I explore alternative schools, such as a holistic school, a Montessori or a Waldorf school, a school that doesn’t grade or a democratic and integrated free school like Sudbury Valley, it seems like the boundaries between them and homeschooling start to disappear. I have, after all, come across schools that use very similar learning methods as those used by unschoolers and homeschoolers. So what makes homeschooling better?

Free School or Unschool?

Last week I visited a very liberal classroom. In this school, the day is set up to be similar to a normal day outside the classroom where learning experiences happen as a result of interaction with the environment. Book learning is intertwined with experiential learning. The lesson might be cooking. While the children are physically taking part in the cooking process, they are also learning math (measuring ingredients and figuring out how many ounces are in a cup), logic (following the correct order of the recipe) and spelling/reading (reading and following recipes). A typical day at the school starts with circle time on the couches where reading and announcements (by the teacher and students) take place. Then comes journal time, snack time, free (play) time, a Spanish or cooking class, lunchtime, math time and more free time. Even during math time the kids do not neatly line up in rows of desks – there are no rows of desks at this school. And the ratio of teacher to child is 2:18 – an amazingly good ratio considering that the average public school ratio here in Washington State is 1:19 and it may be even higher in other places!

This school was, I do believe, one of the best out there. So why do I still feel like the kids are missing out on something? A few things come to mind. The first thing that I noticed was the structure that required the management of so many kids. Despite the fantastic-in-comparison-to-public-schools teacher to student ratio, the students didn’t – couldn’t possibly – get as much one-on-one time as they needed or would have liked. I found myself feeling cut short because I felt like I was cutting the kids short. As soon as I started to get involved with helping a child learn, as soon as we both engaged in what we were doing, it was time to move on. After all, there were seventeen other children who needed attention too.

In some ways, this lack of attention makes kids try to figure things out for themselves…but if the kids need to figure out so many things for themselves, then why do we place so much value on teachers and schools to begin with?

The other problem with the school schedule is that, no matter how casual or child-respecting the schedule is, it is still structured by someone other than the child. I felt sorry for the kids. There is no time or place to be an individual in the school – there are only times and places for the group. Although the school was a comfortable place – there were lots of toys and couches – the kids still had to follow the schedule of the school (which exists in order to manage so many kids.)

What if a child wanted to take a nap? What if she wanted to be alone? What if she wanted to call her parents? What if she wanted her parents to hold her and read her a book? What if she wanted to feel the comfort of being at home? What if he just wanted to be left alone for a couple of hours to play a game or read some books of his choice? What if he didn’t want to be constantly watched and surveyed and monitored? Well, too bad. Sorry. In even the most holistic school there is often no special time or place for the individual child. Even holistic free schools have schedules and rules that all the kids have to obey – even if sometimes the kids create or participate in creating the rules. Even in the most democratic school, such as Sudbury Valley, the children still have to be democratic! They are still expected to take part in the daily meetings that run the school and they still have to spend their entire day in or around a building full of other students who are in the same predicament. The children are free only to the extent of the school philosophy and the school walls: Although they are attending so-called “free schools,” children still have to follow the “free-rules.” Even in the freest school, attendance is expected and is usually compulsory.

Although the freedom to learn and grow is certainly more present in liberal schools than in traditional schools, there are still many limits to the learning and experiences that can happen in school. Schools limit learning and development because they are not capable of providing individual children with all of the attention they need and deserve. Schools limit learning and development because they force their predetermined structure, values and ideas on children before children have a chance to develop their own sense of self and their own ideas. Schools manage children and schools stage learning.

Most liberal educators would consider a school to be a good one if it simulated a natural environment; a good liberal school is a place where children can feel safe and can understand how what they are learning applies to real life experiences – experiences they encounter when they exit the school and go out into the larger world. But if schools are trying to teach children how to feel safe, why aren’t the kids allowed to be in the comfort of their own homes and with their own families? If schools are trying to teach children how to live outside of school, why is there school to begin with? Do we really need the school “middleman”? Doesn’t first-hand, in-context learning make more sense?

The purpose of education, according to Ron Miller in his book What Are Schools For? Holistic education in American culture (Holistic Education Press, 1997) is not to impose the values of the adult world onto children but to help them to grow toward their own personal potential. If we agree with this statement, then we must allow children to deeply explore themselves, to feel comfortable and safe and to have the time and space to develop and to engage in the world. Forcing our ideas, our philosophies and our style on our children, even with the best intentions, can hinder their unique development. Even those of us who know this tend occasionally to forget that even the best school we can find is merely one model, one perspective, one philosophy, one way to learn, one way to carry out the day. There are many other ways and many other perspectives that will be left out when one way of learning is chosen.

Even the best school we can find will impose the values of the adult world onto the children who attend it. Therefore, it is not education, per se, that schools do best. (As life learners, we know that we can get our hands on learning every step of the way.) Rather, the primary purposes of schools are to provide daycare and to coach children to become used to being guided by external power structures. Even the best alternative and liberal schools are really just daycares and power structures that teach children to obey hierarchies, to follow certain rules, schedules and philosophies. Schools – no matter what their style – enforce a certain structure and expect children to obey and go along with the structure that has been established.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that kids should be ignored, unguided and unassisted. I am not saying that children should be left in the dark to fend for themselves. There is a very large difference between what John Holt called “natural authority” and having to unquestionably swallow and accept the power structure of an institution. Authority in and of itself is not a bad thing. Rather, it is the kind of authority that is being used that may be a bad thing. Natural authority, such as when a parent prevents a child from touching the burner of a hot stove or when a parent tells a child (who asks) how to pronounce a word correctly, is good authority. Manipulative authority, on the other hand, such as when a teacher tells a child to sit down for circle time because it is circle time, is not-so-good authority. The former is obviously right and in the best interest of the individual child, the latter is merely unquestioned and for the sole purpose of management.

School as a Power Structure

The issue of socialization comes up a lot when people don’t have much experience with the notion of learning outside of traditional institutions. But it also comes up in liberal circles and relates to the possible conflict between community/society interests versus individual/family interests. In liberal circles, the question of socialization is usually asked in this context: How will a child who is not regularly in school learn the values of the community and how will a child who is not regularly in school learn how to compromise and accept the status quo? This question is not really about whether or not the child will learn how to talk to or relate to other people, but rather is based on the concern (or fear) that the unschooled child may not be willing to compromise her values when her values are different from the prevailing trend.

When we break down the reasons that make us feel like school might be better than no school, we find that the reasons for going to school are rather contradictory to a liberal and explorative education. That is, the reasons for going to school are actually the opposite of liberating. In fact, the reason for going to school is to learn to fit in and obey the very same power structure that mainstream society (and public schooling) operates under.

African American educator and researcher Lisa Delpit discusses the difference between what she calls the “culture of power” and the “silenced dialogue.” In her book Other People’s Children: Cultural conflicts in the classroom (The New Press, 1995) she writes that there are two main cultures in society: those in power (the culture of power) and those not in power (the silenced dialogue).

A big fear regarding homeschooling and what children “should” know is based on the worry that home-educated kids will not be able to “make it” in society – that is, they won’t figure out how to be a part of the culture of power and instead they will be a part of the silenced dialogue. Delpit believes that there are codes and rules one must follow to participate in the culture of power, and that learning these codes and rules should happen in schools.

It is here that Delpit acknowledges that schools are transmitters of culture and “good” schools train individuals to work well in society. This fact may be understatedly obvious, but it is important. When we break down the ultimate purpose of schools to be the transmitters of culture, and when we explore how schools transmit this culture, it becomes clear that we are dealing with a very invisible, yet very powerful and active structure. Even the most liberal schools are perpetuating a system that takes power out of the hands of the individual and family and transfers the power into the hands of an entity – an institution – and the culture of power. By using this system as the sole means for learning and education, we are surrendering our inherent ability to be the leaders of our own learning, education and future.

According to Delpit, if the silenced culture wants to be heard, it must fuse into and become part of the culture of power. However, the problem with doing this is that if we only concern ourselves with adding to the culture of power, we will actually never be able to fully disassemble it and reshape it. By adding to the system that we are skeptical of, we are, in fact, making it larger and more powerful, not changing it into something truly liberal and equal. Until we can see the true purpose and power structures behind school, and disassemble the power structures that are at its core, there will be no such thing as truly liberating schooling. Until then, even the “best” liberal and alternative chools will be – ever so disguised – perpetuating the very same system that the public schools operate on.

What makes homeschooling better?

As life learning parents, we don’t spread ourselves thin by having to divide our time and instruction among a classroom of kids. We don’t need to spend an entire day, week or year scheduling subjects, organizing grades, managing a classroom of children and dealing with the emotions of twenty different kids.

And as for life learning kids? They don’t get cut short. They have the opportunity to learn much faster than their institutionalized peers because they get more one-on-one interaction and love, and far more learning experiences. The lessons I described at the beginning of this article, which happened at the liberal school I visited, are lessons that happen all of the time with life learners. Unschooling, unlike schooling, offers a lot for both parents and children. For example, as a parent, you can be washing dishes and talking to your daughter about how to spell a word; you can be pulling weeds in the garden and talking to her about what veggies are, what and how you grow them, how to clean and cook them; you can be reading a book to your daughter and simultaneously be referring to something that happened earlier in the day which corresponds to what you are reading in the book; etc. With life learning there are constant “personalized” opportunities that work out simultaneously (like quality multi-tasking) in a reciprocal way for both the parent and child. This kind of learning situation can and does meet everyone’s needs simultaneously because it is about meeting the needs of two or three people at a time, not a classroom of twenty-some people. You can’t meet the needs of everyone in a classroom, but you can meet the needs of a family that works together.

In her book Caring: A feminine approach to ethics and moral education (University of California Press, 1986) Nel Noddings talks about the one-caring (who I consider to be the parent) and the cared-for (who I consider to be the child). Learning and development occur best when the one-caring has a displacement of motivation and is striving to be fully present with and truly meet the unique needs of the cared-for and when the cared-for is open to receive the one-caring. This kind of relationship cannot be established by staging, by force or by pre-determined models. To fully embrace this idea of one-caring and cared-for, there needs to be an intimate understanding of each person involved and the time and space to embrace such a genuine and deep relationship. I do believe that, aside from the unlimited learning possibilities, this is the very real and very important difference between the best liberal school and homeschooling: the loving, personal and close relationships within the life learning family.

The home and family, when they are stable and compassionate sanctuaries, offer children and adults the most freedom to develop the individual and self within. The home and family have the ability to offer unlimited resources and individualized attention and to provide a safe place outside the box where actions to affect the larger society can be created.

Geraldine and Gus Lyn-Piluso, professors at Goddard College and Seneca College, in an essay in Deschooling Our Lives (New Society Publishers, 1996) discuss how committed individual families can begin to change the status quo and facilitate social change toward individual and social liberty: If the family is a powerful force, they say, then a more communal and egalitarian childrearing arrangement can act as a powerfully subversive force. It can challenge those institutions organized along lines of command and obedience – institutions which propagate the self-serving notion that egalitarian social organization is impractical, if not preposterous.

Gea D’Marea Bassett lives in Washington State with her partner Doug and son Zizi. When she wrote this article in 2007, she was working on her MA in Partnership Education at Goddard College, integrating the design principles of permaculture in her backyard, and getting into as many gardening, traveling, and life-learning experiences with her family as possible. Thanks to her mom Denise and grandma Danic’a, she has the values of life-learning streaming through her veins and is passionate about social reconstruction, individual liberation, and re-connecting with natural wisdom.

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