Education Should be More Than Money and Good Grades for Some

There were no public schools or attendance laws when America was founded: learning by doing, apprenticeship, and a bit of conventional schooling from itinerant teachers were the norms, as The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin and other texts of the time attest.

Decades later Horace Mann, in the context of increased immigration to the US and the exploitation of children by commercial industries, was able to muster support for his vision of a national compulsory education system for children, the Common School, largely on the basis it would teach children a common morality based on the Bible. Mann’s vision of moral education clashed with the moral education provided by Catholic schools, and as parochial and other private schools increased in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the moral education vision of public education decreased and was replaced with a political vision of education: the public school as provider of citizenship education to all children. Progressive educator and philosopher John Dewey’s work (Democracy and Education) clearly represents this vision of public education and influenced public attitudes about the purpose of school and citizenship throughout the 20th century.

As one teacher writes, “Dewey reminds us that a democratic education, opened to all cultures and dedicated to dialogue across ideologies and faiths, is the only way to prepare future citizens for their social and political responsibilities.”

As Americans questioned the moral bearings of their schools and government institutions in the 1960s and 1970s, these institutions further eroded their moral authority by using their authoritarian powers to quell student and civil dissent. People were searching for more authentic, democratic ways to live and learn together then, and the alternative school movement had its brief heyday during this period.

Today, our vision of education is to mold children into workers for the needs of business. This utilitarian vision of education makes a mockery of citizenship and turns public servants into handmaidens for industry.

Education is no longer about morals, citizenship, or personal, self-directed learning: it’s about competing in a race for jobs that unfairly favors the graduates of wealthy schools.

The rat race for children begins as anxious parents put pressure on schools to make their children surpass their classmates academically so they’ll get the better classes, schools, and jobs. The schools willingly support this as they compete for prestige and money by increasing the desirability of their degrees, which gives them social permission to put more pressure on students to achieve high grades. In his essay, The Fourth R: The Rat Race, John Holt notes, “the real job of a student at any ambitious institution is, by his performance, to enhance the reputation of that institution.”

There are excellent alternatives to this situation we've created, though you’d never guess that from the nonstop hectoring parents and schools give children about the value of school. In the early 1960s, the philosopher Paul Goodman concisely described another way to conceive public education:

“To sum up: all should be educated and at the public expense, but the idea that most should be educated in something like schools is a delusion and often a cruel hoax. Our present way is wasteful of wealth and human resources and destructive of young spirit. The better way is to expand social needs that are also opportunities for education appropriate to different dispositions.”

John Holt knew Goodman’s work, and they became correspondents. During the 1960s and 1970s, John Holt was developing his own vision of education based on his experiences teaching children rather than on any school of educational theory or technique. John describes learning as happening all the time in our lives, and contrasts it with how our ability and desire to learn on our own is often thwarted by conventional schooling (for example: How Children Learn or Instead of Education). John wrote in many articles and books about ways that school and society can be better aligned to help children learn. This quote is taken from GWS 25:

“The ideal would be a society in which knowledge was widely available and freely shared, and in which children were everywhere safe and welcome. Such a society would have many resources for the free exchange of knowledge and skills—materials and activity centers, something like our libraries but many more of them, and much larger and with many things in them besides books.”

How can this ideal be achieved? Holt felt it would and should happen consciously and deliberately at a personal level, by grassroots action rather than government fiat. As our civil discourse and treatment of children gets coarser today, it is more important than ever for us to focus on our local connections and nurture them and to pay less attention to the so-called “national conversation” that floods our newsfeeds.

In an unpublished manuscript from 1971, John Holt reflected on the quelling of the revolutions of the sixties and the deep value of nurturing personal, local connections, which make society better overall.

“We have an immense amount of bad political karma to work off. We carry on our shoulders the heavy burden of countless past mistakes and crimes. To suppose that all of this can be swept away and undone, whether by electing some initial Good Guy for President, or having a Revolution, seems to me just silly. What I do hope and work for is that we may be able to slow down the rapid rate at which things are getting worse. Perhaps bring about a point at which they are not getting worse at all and gradually start making them better. Indeed, there are many places in society in which, if even on a small scale, things are getting better now.

“Another enormously important variable and one that every revolutionary society must deal with is how they feel about each other, how much they like, respect, understand, and trust one another. Anything and everything that we can do to increase the amount of happiness, satisfaction, self-respect, sense of worth, trust, joy, etc., that a particular person or group of people feels and to reduce the disappointment, envy, despair, alienation, rage, and hatred, makes society that much better.”

John’s vision of a learning society is unique because it isn’t about making existing schools better; he claimed that his real work was to figure out ways to integrate children back into adult society so they could live and learn more cohesively with others. John emphasized that homeschooling should be about engaging children in our communities to help them learn, not isolating children at home or in school.

John Dewey’s philosophy about education was too rigid to me, since his followers insisted that school is the best and wisest place for children to learn. Some Dewey supporters have told me that homeschooling and alternative schools are regressive, selfish responses to helping people become educated citizens.

But as I read some of Dewey’s work I realize he actually had a vision of the ideal society and the role of conventional schooling that is much more akin to Holt’s: No Schools At All. This is the title of a speech Dewey gave in 1933 at Teacher’s College, Columbia University, wherein he describes his educational Utopia.

Though Dewey is not outright calling for Self-Directed Education for children (“Children … are gathered together in association with older and more mature people who direct their activity”) he does make points that many alternative and homeschoolers will find interesting. For instance:

• Parenthood is required for those who work with the young “except in exceptional cases.” Single people serve as apprentices and, “older children, since there are no arbitrary divisions into classes, take part in directing the activities of those still younger.”

• Learning by Association: The painting studios of Italy serve as his model here, “learning by watching, listening, and then taking part in the simpler forms of the action—a minor part, until as they develop they accept more and more responsibility for cooperating.”

• Emphasis on Personal Development: Utopians do not use the words lessons, pupils, or teachers in Utopian assemblies (their word for school) since learning is a lifelong activity. “The notion that there was some special end which the young should try to attain was completely foreign to their thoughts.”

• The Inevitability of Learning: “The whole concept of acquiring and storing away things had been displaced by the concept of creating attitudes by shaping desires and developing needs that are significant in the process of living.”

• Relation to Economic Ideas. “The Utopians believed that the pattern which exists in economic society in our time affected the general habits of thought; that because personal acquisition and private possession were such dominant ideals in all fields, even if unconsciously so, they had taken possession of the minds of educators the the extent that the idea of personal acquisition and possession controlled the whole educational system.”

• Attainments versus Capacities. “In setting creation, productivity, over against acquiring, they said that there was no genuine production without enjoyment. They imagined that the ethics of education in the older period had been that enjoyment in education always had to be something deferred; that the motto of the schools, at least, was that man never is, but always is to be, blest; while the only education that really could discover and elicit power was one which brought these powers for immediate use and enjoyment.”

The similarities to Holt’s vision of how children learn and how we can move towards a society that nurtures a more integrated view of people, community, and learning are striking to me.

But what’s more striking to me is how Dewey’s proponents have doubled down on school as it is over the years and call that progress. For Dewey, making progress means a willingness to change our conceptions of schooling as our times change. We can’t get somewhere new unless we blaze a path there first. Were he alive, would Dewey embrace the models of living and learning that homeschoolers, unschoolers, and alternative schoolers have advocated and pioneered over the years?