Monday, May 23, 2011

What Are Some Alternatives?

It seems to me that every time a dissident criticizes the status quo, the establishment demands that the dissident either have ready-made alternatives all figured out or keep quiet.

Wrong! It is not necessary to have an alternative. It is far easier to see where the system has gone wrong than it is to figure out how to make things right. Additionally, one needs to see that the system is wrong in order to have a reason to find alternatives.

And, even then, too often, the "alternatives" they find will only make things worse. Listen to the pathetic cries for more government money. Very early on in the study of sound economics one discovers that this "alternative" is no better than the "alternative" of more drugs to relieve drug withdrawal symptoms. It seems to work a little bit for a little while, but, in the end, one is back where one started, only worse.

Throwing more money into government schools might keep the system plodding along until present fat-cat bureaucrats start collecting their super-sized pensions and leave it all in the hands of future fat-cats, who then beg for more money.

So, what is a parent to do? Every parent is anxious for a child to do well in school, graduate from college, and have a lucrative career (maybe as a school bureaucrat). Many parents now realize that public schools do not cut it, and some also understand that the real purpose of education is to teach the student (actually help the student to learn) how to think, how to self-teach and how to question not just authority, but everything. What is available to these parents, who work long hours just to get by after the tax-man makes off with so much?

There are alternatives out there!

Homeschooling is good, and many states actually allow it! I realize that I am ignoring the money aspect and other problems attendant with relocation, but a family can relocate to where homeschooling is given wide latitude, or even where government is likely to overlook a family. Resources and networking can be found on the internet (1).

There is no reason families cannot cooperate. How would it have been if my little friends and I were homeschooled on my street? My mother had been a teacher before she had me, and was very good in literature, reading, writing, and grammar. She could have taught all of us. We could have had an hour (yes! A whole hour!) playbreak and then trooped three houses up to where the woman was a math whiz. She taught calculus at the community college. That would take care of the "three Rs." Later, when my father came home from work, it would have been my favorite subject: science!

Another woman on the street had been a home economics major and understood cooking and nutrition. There were at least two small businesspeople, a doctor, and a dentist on our street. There would have been days when each child would have gone, alone, as John Taylor Gatto sent his students, to observe and help out at these endeavors. This would have honed our skills, taught us what the work-a-day world was like, and helped us articulate questions, understand answers, take the initiative, and think

Guided hikes through the adjacent forest could have taught about the indigenous fauna and flora. And there were factories and museums to walk through and even apprentice at.

There were also at least two houses being built on our street while I was growing up. When I was seven or eight, one of them was next to ours. I stood and watched as the men worked. One day a worker said, "How would you like to pound nails?" I was beside myself! "Sure! I'd love to!"

So, he gave me an old piece of wood, some used nails and a hammer. This went on fine until he found out I was a girl. Because I wore no top, and because to my mother the sun rose and set over short hair, he apparently thought I was a boy.

Oh well. All good things come to an end, I guess. Of course, later the hair changed because to me, the sun rises and sets not just over long hair, but also the digging in of heels. (My heels dug further than hers did.) And, oh yes, the top business changed too, on which we agreed.

But, that was a learning experience! Not just about being on the receiving end of bigotry, but also how to hold a hammer and pound without hurting my thumb. Important lessons!

Most of my real growing was done during summer break.

This is how it was on our street. It was a middle-class neighborhood, where most mothers were full-time housewives and mothers (which is hard work and I went the career-woman route because I never wanted to work that hard), and children could run and play as they wished and come up with their own ideas. Additional advantages were hilly country where we could jump on a sled and go a mile downhill (and walk back up, teaching a hard lesson in time preferences), and a forest beginning at the town limits only about a block away. A nearby stone quarry used as a gun range taught us that guns are not dangerous.

I know that today there are dozens of laws on the books that we would have broken had they been on the books then and had the neighbors decided to take the bull by the horns and actually educate their kids!

But what of alternatives today? Today's kids are unique individuals just as we were. It is downright criminal to cram them into huge one-size-fits-all, rule-ridden schools. So, what can a parent do?

As I say, a good place to begin is the Internet.

One alternative is homeschooling (or "un-schooling"). Gregory and Martine Millman documented their personal experience (2). Education must be personal, they say. There must be a relationship between persons, and between the student and learning. In a large class, there was no personal relationship between student and teacher. Rather, courses are taught in anticipation of a standardized test (if they are lucky, as Steven Greenhut pointed out) rather than to develop the student (3). The student learns to follow rules, memorize, and pass tests, but not to think

Another take-home point the Millmans make is flexibility (4). There has to be time and location flexibility. When the family moved, they found (they probably already knew) that they – and, therefore, you – simply cannot stick to a ready-made schedule. Stuff happens! And, when trips are taken, the whole operation needs to go too, allowing for educational opportunities en route.

Another alternative is the small private school. These vary. They need to, since students vary. If homeschooling is not a viable option, then parents can select a private school that is best for their individual child. Conversely, the school can be selective about the kind of student it accepts.

Some schools are totally permissive. Take Summerhill, for example (5). Students there ranged in age from five to sixteen. They came from all over. Lesson attendance was not required. So the question is, did they learn how to think independently? This was not the emphasis, but self-confidence and originality were encouraged (6) and these are important too. While there were no exams, there was teaching to prepare students for college entrance exams. Best of all, conformity was seen for the stupidity it is.

I guess I would say that independent thought was encouraged at Summerhill, even if it was not the main goal. The main goal in life, according to Neill, is to find happiness (7). I think he misses the point, but I guess that is better than the goal of being a "good citizen."

Would I send a child to Summerhill? Maybe on a trial basis I would, and then observe for improvement in the propensity for independent thought, the desire to learn, and the ability to learn independently.

Another example of a small, private school is the Academy of Basic Education in Milwaukee, Wisc. (8) It is now known as Brookfield Academy ( ). The Academy is more structured than Summerhill, but there is still a lot of freedom. Learning how to learn is the first order of business there, and I agree with its importance. The emphasis is on the individual and I believe this is key. In fact it is so key that when I chose colleges to apply to for myself, emphasis on the individual rather than the group was so obviously important that even at seventeen I knew that. Some college catalogues said "Students will conform..." and I read no further. Such catalogues hit the trash can with a resounding "clang."

The Academy helps the student be all that he can be and, unlike the Army, that was real. At the Academy, however, classes are grouped (very small groups) by ability rather than by age, probably for efficiency, but one-on-one looms big. Students are responsible to learn on their own with the teacher as coach.

Composition is stressed, and students recite their compositions to the class. This "structures the mind" and combats shyness. "Structuring the mind" implies to me a process of thought, and learning to think is what education is all about.

Would I send a child to the Brookfield Academy? Yes, I think so.

Yet another example is the Sudbury Valley School (9). The natural curiosity of the individual is the starting point. Students range in age from four to nineteen (10), but responsibility for oneself and one's education is expected from the start (11). Openness and transparency are key. Of course, individualism is bound to follow as individuals are responsible to pull their own weight.

Of course there are failures. But failure is a superb teacher. Also, the one who has never failed is the one who has never tried. People must be allowed to try. I certainly agree with that. The biggest problem with our economic system nowadays is that this obsession with safety and all the rules and regulations to "protect" us only keep us from trying.

One passage stated that Sudbury Valley fosters "good citizenship." Before writing the school off, one must read on to find out what is meant by that. It was made clear that it goes back to the ideas of the Founders rather than defining good citizenship as conformity and obedience to officials who are considered better than we peons are. Rights are inherent and accrue to the individual, and this includes "minors" (12).

The booklet goes on to contrast this with the rights students enjoy in public schools, which are none at all (13). If they at Sudbury thought this was bad in 1986, they should have fast-forwarded 25 years! I am not sure the perverse term "zero tolerance" was even coined yet in 1986!

But, as we have already learned, the whole idea behind government schools is to train people to believe that there no absolute rights (or any absolute truths for that matter), and that any rights they may have are actually privileges extended to them by society (read government officials, who are believed to be better.) Freedom of thought, while not overtly forbidden, is actually forbidden through lack of acknowledgement that it is even possible.

And, contrasted with Sudbury where, like Summerhill, everybody gets a vote, government schools are a top-down hierarchy with students (and often parents too) at the bottom (14).

Would I send a child to Sudbury Valley School? Yes, I think so, but not at the age of four. Students must assume self-responsibility and self-direction as soon as they arrive at the school. I would probably teach that to a young child at home before enrolling him or her at Sudbury, and by then he would be past the age of four. But, once ready, I would send him (15).

Another innovative but old school was the Lancaster system, which began in London, England, in the early nineteenth century (16). Joseph Lancaster was a Quaker who felt the sting of discrimination. This motivated him to educate poor youth so they could pull themselves out of poverty. He had so many students that he had to devise a way to educate all of them on a shoestring. Thus the Lancaster System was born.

Lancaster wrote a manual called "The Lancasterian System of Education" (17) in which the method was outlined. In a nutshell, he had the brightest students teaching classes of less knowledgeable students. Students did most of the work, and were paid. Tuition was low.

The school lasted only a few years before the establishment destroyed it. The status quo establishment could not tolerate the idea of poor people making good.

The Lancasterian idea also spread to America, but the establishment here also destroyed it in a unique American way, through the Trojan Horse of subsidy, which of course turns into management and then takeover.

Had I lived in poverty in 1800 London, would I have sent my child to Lancaster? (Reason Magazine states that he taught girls too.) Strict discipline and unquestioning obedience were expected, but I guess when you have hundreds of children being taught by older children and few adults present, strict discipline is needed. Conventional wisdom has it that this was par for the course in those days anyway. They did learn the basics, they did go on to succeed, and the school did threaten the establishment enough to get the fat-cats off their oversized duffs. In the absence of anything better, yes. I would have sent my child to Lancaster in a heartbeat.

This made me think back to Gatto's Weapons of Mass Instruction. He quotes William James (18). James says that it is habit that maintains the status quo. It is habit that keeps people in their ruts, so it is habit that keeps the poor in menial jobs and keeps them from rising. So, it is also habit that causes the establishment to keep the lower classes "in their place."

Habit is a wonderful tool. I use it to schedule meals, housework, and other mundane tasks so that I can think about more important things. But habit can also be an enemy when it rules the person rather than the other way around.

There are many alternatives to public schooling and almost all of them are better, if only people would take control of their habits.

(1) Some sources are: , and

(2) Gregory Millman and Martine Millman, Home Schooling, A Family's Journey, The Penguin Group, New York, 2008.

(3) Ibid. P. 93-95.

(4) Ibid. P. P. 57, 58.

(5) A.S.Neill, Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Child Rearing, Hart Publishing Co., New York, 1960

(6) Ibid. P. 6.

(7) Ibid. P. 24.

(8) The Freeman, magazine of the Foundation for Economic Education, October, 1966.

(9) " 'And Now for Something Completely Different ...' An Introduction to Sudbury Valley School" The Sudbury Valley School Press, Framingham (Mass.), pamphlet, 1986. Also see Gatto, John Taylor The Underground History of American Education, The Oxford Village Press, New York, 2003, P. 57, 58.

(10) "And Now for Something Completely Different" P. 1.

(11) Ibid. P. 4.

(12) Ibid. P. 9.

(13) Ibid. P. 10.

(14) Ibid. P. 11.

(15) There are many Sudbury-type schools around the world. For a list, see

(16) Reason Magazine, March 1987 P. 40-43. See also Gatto, Underground History, P. 20, 21.

(17) Partly shown at

(18) Gatto, Weapons, P. 173.

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